Many lawyers feel conflicted about whether to offer free consultations or to charge a fee. On the one hand, free consultations are a great way to attract potential clients by providing them with the security of deciding who to hire before having to pay fees. It’s a good way to get people into your office, which gives you the chance to stand out above your competitors. But on the other hand, time is money. If you or your staff spend too many non-billable hours talking to prospects who never convert -- or never even have the intention of converting -- then free consultations might not be working for your firm.
Is offering a free consultation worth it for every attorney? Well, that depends. Let’s go over some considerations before you make a decision for your firm.
When to offer free consultations:
Many law firms offer free consultations, but as is true of all law firm marketing strategies, there is no prototype approach that will suit everyone. However, there are some commonalities among law firms that offer free consultations and find that it works for them. If you identify with some of these scenarios, a free consultation may be a good idea:
• You’re a small or new law firms where half the battle is getting someone through your door.
• You’re a lawyer experiencing a slow period with few cases. You have some time to spare on free consultations to help grow your practice.
• You’re working in particular practice areas, like personal injury or employee rights, in which you handle contingency cases with the potential for lucrative payouts. Since all of your competing law firms in these practice areas offer free consultations, your prospective clients will expect it.
• Your competitors do not offer free consultations. Offering free consultations will help you distinguish yourself as a firm with excellent customer service, and prospects will be more likely to pick you.
When to charge for consultations:
One argument in favor of charging for an initial consultation is this: People value what they pay for. Some people will be more likely to value the consultation, and what’s more, they might even pick you because you charged for that high-quality service you provided. Here are some other reasons why charging for a consultation might make sense for your firm:
• Lawyers are bound by strict rules of professional conduct, so in some states, you may not be able to represent the opposing party of someone who’s already come to your consultation. For example, family law attorneys want to prevent people from using their free consultation as a way to create a conflict with their soon to be ex-spouse. If you want to avoid opposing parties from using the free consult to block each other from accessing the best lawyers, then it might be smart to simply charge for that first consultation.
• If a person can’t pay the minimal fee to meet with you about a serious concern in their life, then they are probably not serious about hiring a lawyer. Charging for the initial consultation can help you weed out prospects who are simply looking for free advice.
• Lawyers often tell prospective clients about alternative solutions when they determine their services aren’t needed. It’s fair to charge for that valuable information that will benefit someone.
How to do a little bit of both:
If you see value in both approaches, it’s because there is value in both approaches. Therefore, your firm might do best with a hybrid approach. Here are some options if you want to have your cake and eat it, too:
• Don’t charge a fee to referrals. Often times, referrals are more likely to retain you, so you can afford to give them a free consult. It also makes you look good if the referral knows that you’re waiving the fee for them.
• Offer a free 20 minute phone call for a “free case review”. Sometimes you can tell pretty quickly whether the prospect has a case or not. If you think they do, or even if you aren’t sure, then you can schedule an in-person appointment at either a lowered or regular hourly rate.
• Offer a free 20 minute in-person consultation, and charge either a regular or reduced fee for the rest of the time they spend in your office.
• Charge your regular hourly rate for the consult. By the end of it, if you can’t with good conscience take their money because it’s clear they don’t have a case, then you can offer them a discounted rate.
• If a prospect retains you, either at the end of the consultation or later, you can choose to waive the consult fee.
• Offer a flat fee for legal advice. This will help circumvent those notorious free advice seekers, and you’ll be getting paid for your that same time that they might have used for free if you offered free consultations.
Should lawyers offer free consultations?
In some cases, yes! Free consultations work great for firms that work on a contingency like personal injury lawyers, truck accident attorneys, and employee rights attorneys. Offering a free consultation in an area where your competitors do not (like estate planning lawyers and divorce attorneys) could also help you stand out in a crowded field.
Whether you offer free consultations or charge a fee, the way you offer consultations is part of your overall law firm SEO strategy. At Custom Legal Marketing, we create law firm SEO plans that work. That means going beyond search engine marketing and focusing on conversion optimization to make sure your market dollars are delivering new clients.
Cristina Fríes is a MA in English/Creative Writing from UC Davis (2019), and is a legal marketing strategist and content developer for CLM. Her interests include creating compelling marketing content, writing books, and traveling the world.