Clients often wonder why an attorney charges for the initial consultation, which may occur before the client has decided to proceed, or chosen the lawyer he or she wants. The reason for this was summed up by Abraham Lincoln, who said that “a lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.” During an initial consultation, I expect to spend some time with the client, and give him or her the benefit of my knowledge and experience. Lawyers don’t want to give away their “stock in trade” for the same reason that any other business expects its customers to pay for what they purchase.
Sometimes, a consultation is all that the client wants or needs. In other cases, at the end of the consultation the lawyer is able to offer the client one or more options on how to proceed, and the client can then make an informed decision about whether to proceed, and also whether this is the lawyer they want to retain.
There are some lawyers who offer free consultations, as a way to bring in additional business. I have come to believe that this doesn’t work well, in the long run, for either the attorney or the client. If the attorney spends the amount of time on free consultations that is needed to analyze the client’s situation, he might spend all day working without getting paid – not a good business model! Other attorneys might offer “free” consultations with a strict time limit: you get 15, or perhaps 30 minutes for free, and then the meter starts running. That seems a little deceptive: the free part is taken up by the introductions, and the client’s description of their circumstances. For the client to receive a real benefit, they will need to pay for the second half of the consultation.
There are some exceptions to this rule. Attorneys almost never charge for the initial consultation in a Personal Injury cases; these are cases where the fee is normally based on a percentage of what the attorney recovers for the client. In Social Security or Workers’ compensation cases, charging for a consultation would actually be illegal: the agencies that administer these benefits must approve any fees that lawyers charge.
Many lawyers also accept a limited number of cases “pro bono”, or without charging any fee. These are often referred to the lawyer by a local legal services organization, who determines the client’s eligibility based on their financial circumstances.