7/22/2019

Why We Don't Give Free Consultations (And Why You Shouldn't Want Us To)

 

      Every day, our patient and caring support staff answer calls from distressed individuals in need of legal advice and guidance about a family law issue plaguing their lives.  During many of those calls, the caller is surprised to hear they must actually pay for the attorney’s time for the consultation.  It has somehow become an expectation in our society that attorneys should be willing to give their time and advice to every person requesting it at no charge in exchange for the possibility of getting paid business from them someday. 

      While free consultations are the norm in certain limited fields of law, it is not in family law.  Nor should it be.  Most New Jersey attorneys specializing in family law charge for their time when giving consultations.  Yet, those who do are frequently forced to justify it.  Here is why our firm, like many others, do not give “free consultations” – and why you should not want us to.

1.  Your meeting with us is taking approximately one hour of our attorney’s time. 

      A consultation at Ruvolo Law Group is not merely a “meet and greet."  You will have approximately one hour with one (or even two) of our attorneys.  The attorney will obtain the relevant details of your case, assess the situation from a legal standpoint based on the details you have provided, answer your various questions and help you strategize your next steps.  And yes, you do pay for the attorney’s time you are asking them to devote to you and the legal advice you are asking them to provide you.

      When you think about this, would the expectation of free services make sense with other professionals?  If you went to a doctor’s office in hopes of getting your medical condition diagnosed, would you expect the doctor to not charge you for their time and expertise?  Should that doctor be expected to donate their time and work for free because you might possibly come back for paid treatments at a later time? Of course not.  Family law attorneys should not be treated any differently.

2.  We are meeting with you to help you, not just to gain your future business. 

      Some people schedule consultations with our firm because they recognize they have an immediate legal need (such as a pending divorce or a prenuptial agreement) and they intend to immediately retain an attorney.  Some people schedule consultations because they are unhappy in their marriage but unsure if they want a divorce.  A thorough consultation with a family law attorney may bring some clarity regarding what a divorce may or may not involve from a legal and/or financial point of view.  This way, the person can be mindful of that when wrestling with the emotional decision of whether to end their marriage.  Others know they cannot afford ongoing legal representation in their matter, but they hope to gain whatever knowledge and clarity they can by meeting with a family law attorney for an hour.

      The purpose of our consultations is not to tell you where we went to school, proclaim that our firm is the best of the best (though we are really freakin’ good), promise you the world and/or to tell you exactly how much your case will cost (which is impossible for any attorney to do).  Rather, the purpose of the meeting is to: (1) gather as many relevant facts and details of your matter as we reasonably can during the allotted time based on the information you know; (2) provide you with a high level explanation of the legal issues that pertain to your situation; and (3) advise you on the next steps you should take.  This is the purpose of that hour - regardless of whether you intend to retain the firm thereafter, whether we feel you would be a good fit for us as a client or whether you can afford to ever return.  For that one hour of value you are receiving, it is appropriate to pay for that attorney’s time. 

3.  You need to have some understanding of legal fees.  

      We know of a firm that not only provides free consultations, but they deliberately do not allow the person scheduling the consultation to give the caller any information about the hourly rates of the firm’s attorneys – not even the rate of the specific attorney the caller is being scheduled to meet with.  They simply take the caller’s name and contact information, run a conflict check, emphasize that the consultation will be “free” and schedule it on an attorney’s calendar.  The attorneys are instructed to not discuss their hourly rate until the end of that consultation.  At that time, the person is also advised of the amount of the retainer they would have to pay to retain the firm.  I call this the “bait-and-switch”. 

      The method to this madness is that if an attorney first convinces the “potential client” they absolutely must retain the firm before the person knows the cost, they will feel compelled to retain once they finally discover the attorney’s fees – despite any sticker shock they may be battling.

      We have two thoughts on the bait-and-switch approach.  First, many of those “potential clients” fall off their chair (sometimes literally) after hearing the attorney’s hourly rate for the first time.  I have personally witnessed this.  Needless to say, they leave and never come back. 

      Second, the bait-and-switch approach does not respect the time and feelings of the individual who comes to the office for a consultation.  That person took time out of their busy day and possibly had to arrange time off from work and/or childcare in order to meet with the attorney.   That person just poured their heart out to someone they met for the very first time.  Nobody should be put in this position only to realize at the end of the hour that they had no understanding of an attorney’s fees nor the ability to pay for even an hour of work, much less an entire case.  Family law cases also require a mutual trust between the attorney and client.  The bait-and-switch model betrays the potential client’s trust at the outset. 

      I should add that firms practicing the “bait-and-switch” method typically give very limited “advice” during that consultation because the emphasis of their consultation model is to sell their firm and induce the person to sign a retainer agreement.

4.  If you are a paying client, you deserve to have an attorney who can properly focus on helping you.  

      In my personal experience with conducting free consultations for a limited window of time in my career, I experienced the following issues:

-  I had to provide 220 free consultations in one year.  That is at least 220 hours of time I was pulled away from my clients who needed and deserved my attention. 

- A tiny percentage (less than 10%) of those consultations retained and became clients.  Those who did were the people who were serious about retaining an attorney and understood what attorneys charge before they scheduled the consultation.  Many were personally referred to me and were already determined to work with me before they arrived.  The mass that did not retain was largely comprised of individuals who: (1) had no intention of retaining an attorney but wanted to gather as much free legal advice as they could; (2) had absolutely no ability to fund legal representation; (3) were hoping to talk me into helping them for free or a reduced cost; and/or (4) were meeting with as many family law firms as they could so those attorneys would be conflicted-out of representing their spouse.  That last one happened a lot after it was discussed in an episode of The Sopranos.  I kid you not.

- I was unnecessarily frustrated and burned out every single day because my time and attention were being taken away from my clients (sometimes twice per office day) so I could spend an hour meeting with people who had no intention and/or ability to become a client.  Other attorneys in the firm felt the same way.  Morale was poor, to say the least.

- My clients were understandably frustrated because they could not have the focused time and attention they deserved from me as their attorney. 

      Also, think about it.  If an attorney is truly exceptional at what (s)he does, that attorney will have enough clientele to sustain his/her time.  That attorney does not have the need (nor time) to give away their talent, energy and time for free.  If you expect your attorney to be focused, cost-efficient and energetic enough to pave your path towards emotional (and/or financial) freedom, that attorney’s time cannot be frivolously wasted on those who don’t pay for it.   

OUR APPROACH

      At Ruvolo Law Group, we treat consultations (or “case assessments,” as we call them) in a manner that is fair to our firm, attorneys and current paying clients while also providing a courtesy to potential clients who are serious about retaining legal representation.  We charge a flat fee for the consultation that is commensurate with the hourly rate of the attorney conducting the consultation (ranging from $275 to $350 depending on the attorney).  If the person retains the firm, the amount they paid for their first consultation gets credited back to them on their first full month’s invoice.  Thus, for people who become clients of the firm, the consultation becomes retroactively “free.”  For those who meet with us but choose not to retain (whether it be because they decided not to pursue a case at that time or ultimately chose a different firm to represent them), they appropriately paid for the hour of time and legal advice they received.  It’s a “win” for everyone.  For those interested in consulting with an attorney of our firm to act as a mediator, we require both parties to participate in a free thirty-minute consultation over the telephone.  

      If you would like to schedule a consultation with our firm to discuss your matter, please click here or call us at 973-993-9960.

 

This blog was authored by Laura Ruvolo Lipp, Esq., a co-founder and partner of Ruvolo Law Group, LLC.