Should lawyers charge a fee for an initial meeting with a potential client?
According to a recent Canadian Lawyer magazine survey on legal fees, lawyers are almost evenly split on the issue, with 44 per cent of respondents offering initial consultations for free.
Sullivan has experience on both sides of the divide. Soon after his call to the bar, he joined the Law Society of Ontario’s referral service. Members of the service commit to 30 minutes of free advice over the phone.
In more recent years, he has settled on a reduced rate from his regular, hourly rate for an initial in-person consultation lasting approximately an hour. While there’s no question that fewer people are interested in parting with their cash for a consultation, Sullivan says there’s no comparison between the conversion rates for the two methods.
“I’ve found charging to be a more successful approach than what I was doing before,” Sullivan says. “In the years since I started it, almost all my consultations turn into files. With free consultations, very few did.”
He says offering services for free sends the wrong message to potential clients about the value of his advice.
“There’s the old saying that you get what you pay for, and I think there’s a natural inclination for clients to question the quality of the legal advice they receive when they’re not paying for it,” Sullivan says. “Half an hour by phone is also not long enough to understand the circumstances of the client. They then call the next person on the list and there’s no continuity of advice.”
Reduced rate is beneficial for both parties
A reduced rate works well for both parties, he says, by allowing lawyers and prospective clients to invest in the meeting while also sizing each other up. That way, each can figure out whether the relationship can work long-term before making a larger commitment.
“There’s no obligation to retain me, but it provides me with an opportunity to understand the legal terrain the client is on and give a better view of what could or might happen, the processes involved and the risks,” Sullivan says. “At the same time, they can get a sense of whether I’m being clear and forthright in my advice and if I’m answering their questions.”
If the claim falls outside his areas of practice, after a meeting he may refer clients to another lawyer who can help. Sullivan says he’s also not afraid to tell individuals in a consultation that their circumstances either do not warrant a legal case at all or that they might be better off continuing alone in a venue such as the Small Claims Court.
“I think it’s a good investment to spend several dollars to discover that you have nothing to worry about or that you have a $2,500 lawsuit that could cost you $8,000 in lawyer time,” Sullivan says. “In those cases, I’ll give them a primer on court procedure and some resources about how to pursue a small claim.”
He asks clients to meet him at his office and to bring some of the relevant documents with them to maximize the value of the consultation.
“That way, I can see what the other side will be saying,” he says.
Sullivan also presents potential clients with a form letter explaining that the meeting is a consultation only and does not constitute independent legal advice. He also ends each consultation by giving potential clients a sense of what a full retainer could cost them and warn them of any limitation issues.
“I give them the unvarnished truth for an hour and everything they need to know for the next steps,” Sullivan says.