Free Consultations No More?

New York criminal-defense lawyer Scott Greenfield writes that he feels taken advantage of by people who use his free consultations to get free legal advice; he’s begun charging for consultations.

Rarely having a problem with people meeting with me on pretexts, I hadn’t seriously considered charging for consultations, but right up until Scott’s last paragraph, I was thinking, “that’s a good idea. Maybe I ought to do the same. Hmm. How much should I charge? Let’s see. . .”

So I was somewhat surprised to read that I will disagree with Scott. Since Scott says I’ll disagree with him, though, I must; I just have to try to figure out why.

Is it because I’m a young man and Scott is ancient (though still spry)? No — while true, that hasn’t been any impediment to our reaching agreement before.

Is it because “that’s how a criminal-defense lawyer gets his business? No — I don’t follow anyone else’s business model and don’t think any model is best for everyone. For example, most criminal-defense lawyers compete on the basis of price. That’s fine for them, but it’s not the way I work. I’d rather be hired despite being more expensive than my colleagues than because I’m cheaper than them. Along those lines, charging for a consultation might well be a valuable market differentiator.

Why else? Because I need more business? No, I really don’t. I’ve got all the cases I need; I’d rather winnow out the few clients that don’t appreciate the value of my time. Requiring a consultation fee to even talk to me might help do that.

The only good reason that I can think of for me not to start charging for every consultation is that I like to help people, even incrementally; I’ve always seen the free consultation as a public service, recompense to the world for the good fortune I’ve always had.

But making a fellow human being’s life easier for an hour has a price. If I spent an hour talking to a someone who was pretending to be thinking about hiring me (again, that’s not a problem I often experience), that’s an hour I’ve lost forever; I can’t spend it with my family or working on my clients’ cases. Scott feels that people are taking advantage of him by getting his advice on false pretenses; rightfully, he resents it.

Scott’s post comes at an interesting time. Early this morning (12:20 a.m.) I got a call from someone in California. Now, I’ve historically answered the phone at whatever hour because, in Texas, unlike many other places, there is often something a lawyer can do for the person calling early in the morning. I’ve helped a lot of folks at three a.m. But when the call comes from a 310 phone number in the middle of the night, chances are that there’s not a damn thing I can do to help until the next business day anyway, so I’ll let the call roll over to my answering service. This morning, though, the phone kept ringing and the answering service didn’t pick up. So, rather than have the kids awakened by the ringing phone, I blearily answered it. Some guy wanted to know how to find out whether someone was in federal custody. “Call me tomorrow during business hours,” I suggested.

I resented the call, so I’m in the process of adjusting my phone system so that it doesn’t ring at home in the middle of the night. When, for whatever reason, you start resenting what you’re doing, it’s time to change what you’re doing. Good for you, Scott.

0 responses to “Free Consultations No More?”

  1. My reason was because you are a nicer, more helpful person than I am. We’ve been through this before.

    “ancient (though still spry)?” Sheesh.

  2. I wonder what you and Scott Greenfield mean by “consultation”. For me, a consultation is listening to a potential client’s problems, and then advising him whether those problems are legal in nature, and whether it’s within my professional competence and available time to take him on as a client. Sometimes this requires legal thought and legal analysis, and sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately, I get a lot of referrals from criminal attorneys, and they are both (a) poor, and (b) unfamiliar with the civil system and the concept of retainers. (Not that there aren’t rich criminal law clients; they just haven’t been calling me lately.) I have had a “consultation” that lasted two hours before the prospect told me he had another attorney to interview and would get back with me if he wanted to hire me. But that was my fault, and I learned from that experience.

    If I were to give more legal advice during a consultation, I might get a few more clients, but I doubt it, based on experience. What I have now is more time to help paying clients.

  3. Who can blame Scott and Mark for no longer giving out free consulations? Time is money…and finite…and a resource that current paying clients rightly demand for themselves. Wasn’t it Lincoln who said “a lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade?” So why wouldn’t value be attached to an attorney’s time and advice whether in a consulation with a potential new client or while presenting oral argument to the U.S. Supreme Court? They didn’t call him “Honest Abe” for nothing, and he didn’t get elected twice to the highest office in the land under the most trying of circumstances by being a fool.

    While I presently allow free consulations, when my business grows and my caseload supports it, I’ll certainly start charging a nominal fee for them.

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