If You Have to Ask . . .


“If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” I’ve never really accepted that. I considered it a snotty, pretentious response to a legitimate price inquiry. I figured that even someone with all the money in the world would be a fool not to ask how much something was before deciding whether to buy it. But now I realize that not only is it true, but it’s also a truism.

I get a lot of calls from people whose first question is, “How much do you charge for a ________ case?”; I find that these folks almost invariably can’t afford to hire me. I’ve tried several different approaches for dealing with these calls. Generally I’ll begin with “I’m sorry, I don’t discuss fees over the telephone.” Setting an appropriate fee in a criminal case is not a science but an art. A lawyer can’t properly practice this art over the telephone. I have a policy of not quoting fees over the telephone because I can’t get all of the information I need, much of which is intangible, without a face-to-face meeting. I like for money to be the last thing we discuss.

At first, after describing my policy I would suggest that we make an appointment to meet to discuss a) whether they wanted to hire me; b) whether I wanted to take the case; and, only then, c) what it would cost. After about the hundredth time that a potential client no-showed for one of these meetings, I realized that the folks whose first question concerned cost weren’t turning up. I was wasting my time.

So I adapted. After saying that I didn’t discuss fees over the telephone, I would add, “. . . and you really don’t want to hire a lawyer based on price” and explain that lawyers who focus on price can’t be focused on quality. This seemed, for some reason, to make no impression at all on the price-shoppers; I was wasting my breath.

Now if the first question a caller asks is “How much do you charge?” I simply explain that I don’t quote prices on the telephone. If the client then gets the idea of setting up a meeting, I’ll oblige him. I get many fewer no-shows. The price-shoppers usually can’t afford to hire me, but occasionally one of them will have the sort of case I feel compelled to take regardless of the money involved.

Lots of these callers say “I’ve talked to other lawyers, and they all charge too much.” When I hear that, I will explain that it’s unlikely that I’m cheaper than any lawyer who would quote a price over the telephone.

(That is true because I have a very low-volume practice. While many of my colleagues have dockets of fifty to a hundred active cases, I have twenty or fewer. Only by keeping a small docket can I provide each client the intensive representation that he deserves. I have plenty of time to spend on each of my cases, and time to communicate with each of my clients as much as he needs. By keeping my docket small, I am able to provide a premium service. If I cut all of my fees in half, I would have to take twice as many cases to provide my family with the things that they deserve, and all of my clients would suffer.)

Sometimes I’ll still try to help the price-shopping caller out by explaining the downside of hiring the low-bid lawyers. But it’s to no effect — those folks are asking not because they want to but because they have to. They aren’t cheap; they’re poor — usually working poor but poor nonetheless. And it really is true that those who have to ask how much I charge can’t afford me.

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0 responses to “If You Have to Ask . . .”

  1. Mark, there’s a reason good restaurants have menus outside.

    Tell the client what you believe the minimum fee would be, 95% will end the conversation if it’s more than $500-1000.

  2. How do the working poor go about getting quality/good representation if they can’t afford you?

    If they know they might not be able to afford you should they first meet with you to spill the details of the case hoping to appeal to your compassionate side before explaining their financial situation?

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