Smooth or crunchy? Sean Connery or Roger Moore? Free consultations or no? These are the debates that characterize our times. Because this is a legal blog, we're going to have to save the first two for another blog (although, off the record, the answers are "crunchy" and "Roger Moore").
We're qualified to help you answer the third question, though. Many opinions abound about whether you should offer free consultations, where the potential client comes in to explain his or her problem. What should you do? Here are a few points to ponder:
This Isn't a Free Lunch.
Your first thought might be that a potential client is shopping around for free legal advice at free consultations. And that could very well be the case. After you've played your hand by saying, "Well, I think you should do this or that," the client thanks you and walks away with an hour's worth of free legal advice. You know how you sometimes walk into a store, look around, and leave? It's like that, except the potential client is wasting your money .
Prove Yourself to the Client.
OK, but assuming that the client isn't out to get your expertise for free (and this "if" sort of requires a leap of faith), a free consultation proves to the client that you know what you're doing. Think about it from the client's point of view: He has no idea how good you really are, and he's watched countless lawyer shows about how incompetent lawyers can be.
Take time at the free consultation to dangle a little bit of legal advice in front of a potential client, but not enough that the client can go out on his own (you don't have to go into detail about your strategy).
If Not Free, Maybe Apply It to the Retainer.
A good compromise is to say, "The consultation isn't free, but if you agree to hire me, I'll apply the consultation fee to the retainer," or just waive the consultation time. This gives the potential client an incentive to hire you. It doesn't even have to be in the same appointment: "Take a week, shop around, and if you want to hire me, come back."
It Depends on Your Practice.
If your practice is personal injury, then charging for a consultation is a barrier to entry because all the personal injury attorneys offer free consultations.
On the other hand, if volume isn't a concern, you can distinguish yourself by charging something for a consult. This is a type of "premium pricing" strategy, which uses price as a marketing technique to signal to the potential client, "Hey, this product is better than what everyone else is offering. That's why we're charging more for it."
What's the answer? There is no answer. Choosing to charge for a consultation is one of those things that reasonable people can disagree about. In the end, all that matters is that you think you've made the best decision for you.