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People are cheap, they like free things, and paradoxically, this can be a great way to get into their pocketbooks. How can you turn a giveaway into a payday? For many lawyers, it's via the free consult, where attorneys meet with potential clients, answering basic questions and providing simple advice.
But, when your product is your legal expertise, does it make sense to give it away? Like so many things, the answer is "it depends."
Free or Fee?
The main advantage of the free consultation is traffic -- it gets people through the door. In particular, clients who may not be sure if they need or want a lawyer are more likely to meet with one if there is no upfront cost. Plus, the free consult allows you to demonstrate your skill and expertise; it's as much a sales pitch as a service.
The cons? For one, you're giving away your work. Your time and your brainpower is what you're selling. Even if "the first one's free," a client may not come back -- many use the free consult as a way to lawyer shop, looking for the best or cheapest fit.
How Will They, Eventually, Pay?
Whether a lawyer should charge a fee for the consultation will often depend on what type of client the consultee may become. For cases that will result in a contingency fee, a free consult is almost always necessary. It allows the attorney to determine the basic facts of a case and whether representation would be worthwhile.
The same goes for flat-fee services, such as simple wills, incorporations, etc. These a la carte services often don't justify charging for a consultation, since the discrete work the client wants hasn't yet been performed.
Save the fees for clients who would normally be paying by the hour. Since it's your time the client will be paying for, this is the most appropriate time to charge for a consultation.
Don't Give it Away to Just Anyone
If you can, be selective in how and to whom you give your time away. When scheduling a free consult, take some basic information down before committing; this can help you weed out clients who aren't serious. Limit the consult to twenty minutes. That's often enough to provide basic information and let the client know how you can help them.