One of the first questions we often hear when a prospective client calls us is, “Do you have a free consultation?” It's a fair question and an important one. Some potential clients assume that they will be paying a fee for their initial visit with an attorney, but others think they should not begin to pay until they have actually hired an attorney. On the other side of the room, some attorneys believe in charging for every conference with a client or potential client, while other attorneys want to encourage people to come see them, so they provide free initial conferences. Some attorneys choose a middle ground and charge a reduced fee for the initial meeting. Many of them believe charging even a small fee will weed out the non-serious potential clients who are looking for feedback, ideas or affirmation that they are right, without having incurred any cost for the information or support. For potential clients who have trouble understanding why they should be charged for the initial time they visit with an attorney, here are some explanations some attorneys use.
For the attorneys who charge by the hour, time is money. They keep their business open by charging for the time they spend working in some fashion on the client's problems. Real information is provided in real time to the client. For the attorney, the service provided is essentially the same type of service they will be providing once they are hired: listen, ask questions, determine needs or goals, gather information, analyze, strategize and create plans.
Other professionals routinely charge for their time and services at an initial assessment. This includes doctors, mechanics and electricians (just to name a few). The time and skills of the professionals are being applied to the problems at hand.
For the attorneys who practice what is called value pricing, or use flat fees, they focus on the valuable information, forms and other paperwork they may provide the client. They also add value by listening and counseling with the client. Here is an example on the higher end of service and a corresponding higher fee: There is an attorney in Calgary, Canada who has developed an excellent product for the initial conference. He spends as long as the client wants, usually 2 to 3 hours, records the session and provides a copy of the recording, and produces a customized approach to the client's issues. Other attorneys provide a less robust experience, but nevertheless provide excellent value to the client just by doing the same things some attorneys do as they charge by the hour.
In addition, when an attorney meets with a prospective client, the attorney becomes immediately disqualified from representing the spouse. That can result in a loss of income for the attorney.
Another consideration is that the attorney is unable to work on other clients' business when they are attending an initial meeting with a potential new client. That means less income for the attorney and no progress on the other client's issues. Even if it only delays the work, the delay can become a problem for the client and then the attorney. Most clients prefer not to be put on the back burner. They want their matter resolved NOW!
Although we are often told that other Fort Worth or Tarrant County divorce and family law attorneys provide a free initial consultation, we choose not to do so. If the client prefers a free initial meeting, then we encourage them to visit one of the free ones. There's no hard feelings on our end. For a beneficial attorney-client relationship to exist, there must be good chemistry and at least some shared values. If there is disagreement between attorney and client on the fee issue from the outset, then the relationship is not going to work out. It is best for the client to find an attorney whose approach to the case is as consistent as possible with the client's approach.
In addition, busier attorneys will charge for the consultation. To not charge for the consultation would subject the attorneys to spending a lot of uncompensated time with the new client. Again, that prevents the attorney from being able to do significant work on other cases.
Conclusion: The fact that an attorney chooses to charge for all initial consultations does not mean that a client is “wrong” for wanting a free consultation. The attorney isn't “wrong” either. There are other attorneys who will provide a free initial consult. The solution is to match up the clients who want a free interview with the attorneys who want to provide them. The way to do that is for the potential client to raise the issue when the initial consultation is being set up. Just speak up and discuss the issue up front.