By ED POLL, Special to Lawyers Weekly
Most law firms, whether large or small, begin a new client engagement with a consulting process: a stated period of time, such as an hour, that potential clients spend with an attorney to discuss their matter and explore whether to establish a client relationship.
This consulting process is essentially a business-development effort, targeted to converting prospects into clients. It is marketing in its purest and most immediate sense – at the end of the hour, the lawyer either does or does not have a new client.
This can be termed the conversion process, and there is no real standard for conversion rates. It largely depends on the nature of the matter and the experience of the lawyer; presumably, the more experienced the lawyer doing the consulting, the higher is the “conversion” ratio.
One important factor that impacts the conversion process is whether to charge a prospective client a fee for the initial consultation. The wisdom of charging in this situation has long been debated, and it comes down to three fundamental choices:
- Free initial consultation.
- Paid initial consultation at the lawyer’s regular rate, exclusive of any subsequent engagement.
- Paid initial consultation at the lawyer’s regular rate, with the payment applied to the total bill if the consultation results in an engagement.
There is no one right answer. Obviously, a potential client would find it attractive to get something (the consultation) for nothing. The lawyer would counter about the value of a free consultation, “You get what you pay for,” and clients may well be inclined to agree.
Too many persons have gone to “free” consultations on timeshares or investment products, only to find out that they ended up paying far more in the long run.
The issue is not that much different from the ongoing debate about ancillary charges. Some lawyers charge their clients for “opening” a file on each matter; others charge for photocopying the file before giving it to the client when requested.
On balance, these are legitimate charges to clients if specified in the retainer agreement. The fact that the client owns his own file does not prohibit the lawyer from contracting to copy it at the client’s expense.
Of course, if your competitors do not make such charges, or if your client resents being “nickel and dimed” for them, it’s your call to charge or not.
Whether you can charge for the initial consultation ultimately becomes a question of the client’s trust in you, their confidence in you … and how long it takes to generate those feelings in the client toward you.
Given the need to attract clients in today’s economic conditions, alternative three (a charge that can be applied toward the total fee) might be the most practical approach.
Ultimately the issues involved are trust and value. Lawyers help people’s lives improve. Our objective should be to provide and account for our services in such a way that clients understand and accept the value as well as the cost of what we do.
When that happens, fees are not an issue and lawyers do not have to apologize for what they charge.
Editor’s note: Poll is the principal of LawBiz Management, a national law firm practice-management consultancy based in Venice, Calif. For more information, visit www.lawbiz.com.