Why attorneys should charge (something) for initial consultations

Everyone wants something for free. But why should an attorney charge for the initial consultation? How might this actually benefit the client?

1. Your attorney isn’t listening to what you’re saying

During the initial consultation, clients and attorneys have divergent interests. Clients are focused on one question: what are my chances of success and what am I going to get? Attorneys are focused entirely somewhere else: is this a client that I want to represent and are they going to actually pay me? If the client pays even a nominal consultation fee ($100), the attorney’s focus shifts. They take the client more seriously. If the client is willing to pay something the attorney is less focused on the prospective client’s ability to pay in the future.

As a client, you want to do whatever you can do to get the attorney focused on the merits of your case, instead of whether or not the attorney is comfortable taking your case. Paying something as little as $100 can gain this shift in focus and actually get the attorney listening to what you’re saying.

2. Duties to prospective clients

Most people think that if they go into an attorney’s office and get an initial consultation, and don’t hire that attorney, the attorney is only “out” an hour of his time. That’s not so. An attorney owes a duty to prospective clients. When you go in for a “free” initial consultation and tell an attorney about your case, after you leave, the attorney has a bunch of continuing duties. You go on a list and the attorney cannot represent people against you in this case, and possibly in future cases. The attorney may lose future business because he cannot represent someone against you in the future. The attorney has a continuing duty of confidentiality. Any notes and records he made during the initial consultation need to be maintained. The point is—there is an opportunity cost. The attorney may have to decline future representation of another person just because he talked to you for an hour.

3. Malpractice

Although any nominal fee charged for an initial consultation wouldn’t possibly cover damages in a malpractice action, clients need to recognize that every time an attorney has an initial consultation with a prospective client—he leaves himself vulnerable to screwing up and being sued for it. Attorneys shouldn’t expose themselves to potential liability and get nothing.

4. The first hour (of consultation) is the most important

Many times a client goes into an initial consultation and within an hour they learn everything they need to. The statute of limitations bars their claim. The attorney tells them they can resolve the issue via self-help with a form at the government center. They have no legal claim. Different attorneys will give you different numbers, but something like a quarter of all initial consultations answer everything the client needs to know.

5. You don’t expect your doctor to do it

For some reason clients expect lawyers to give them something for free, but when is the last time you got a second opinion from a doctor and asked them not to charge you unless you choose them as your new doctor? They would look at you like you are a crazy person. Other professionals charge you for their time whether or not you continue to use them.

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