In the last issue, Shireen Smith of Azrights Solicitors explained why she thinks that giving free legal advice to attract clients is a bad idea. She thinks that lawyers who do this are letting themselves be taken advantage of and that they should not give away their “treasure trove” for free. However, Shireen is an IP lawyer and perhaps there are different considerations in other areas of law.
I emailed around 30 of the firms who have at one time or another told me that they are willing to give free initial legal advice by email or phone (I have them listed on my site). I would not claim that this was a scientific survey, and I have to say that most people did not respond at all, but the answers I did receive are very interesting. Here are the questions I asked:
1. Could you estimate the number of requests for initial free legal advice that you receive in a month?
2. Do you always answer these?
3. What proportion of the ones that you answer lead, in due course, to the person becoming a client?
4. Overall, do you consider that the free initial legal advice is part of your pro bono work or part of the process of gaining clients? Could you give a proportion in each case, eg 60% pro bono, 40% gaining clients?
From Matthew Dugdale, Dugdale Solicitors
1. About 20 per month. The vast majority of the queries I get are for employment or landlord and tenant.
4. 20% pro bono, 80% gaining clients.
From Anne Morris, Davidson Morris Solicitors (immigration)
1. We receive on average 4 requests via our “Contact Us” section per day and 15 telephone calls.
2. We have a policy that all calls are put through to a fee earner straight away and we immediately telephone or if received over the weekend, call first thing on Monday morning. Any caller who we feel we cannot assist we refer on to firms that offer legal aid.
4. 100% gaining clients. We have always promoted that the initial consultation is free and no obligation and found this to be a great way of securing clients.
Comment: If somebody calls, they should be immediately put through as you have no idea who is at the end of phone and it could be a new major client.
From Sandra Garlick, De Marco Solicitors (employment and business)
4. 50% pro bono, 50% gaining clients.
Comment: We find that offering a free 30 minute consultation without obligation means that we are providing access to legal services. In some instances, we are unable to assist but those people go away happy that they have not wasted money and refer us to others. Many local firms charge for considering initial papers and advice. We consider this to be unfair and have built our reputation on the offering of free initial advice. This applies to companies and individuals.
From Martin Hammond, Hammond Trotter (driving law)
2. Yes, without fail.
3. We sign up around 20 clients each month. This probably seems very low to most firms but it works well for us.
4. 100% part of the process. We do help everyone for free where possible and if it is not we hope they will become our clients.
Comment: Other “motoring lawyers” often charge a small fee for giving the early legal advice and then a large fee for the full case. We made a conscious choice to be there to help people with free legal advice over the telephone if that it is possible (it is 60% of the time). From the remaining 40% who need extra help, that is the part where we would hope to get a client.
From Richard Devereux, Devereux & Co (divorce and family matters)
1. We offer all new clients a free initial interview: this is primarily for divorce and family work. My colleague and I do about 15 a month between us. Directly over the internet we receive about another 8 a month.
2. Yes, even if only to say we can’t help.
3. Probably a quarter of the internet ones become clients. A much higher proportion of the ones we see face to face become clients.
4. Probably 30% pro bono and 70% hoping to attract instructions.
Comment: I am comfortable with what we do. My heart was in legal aid for many years but that then become unviable. I am happy to give relatively short periods of time to people who are floundering even if nothing tangible comes from it.
It does seem to me that the type of work done in the firm has a big influence on whether it is worth giving free legal advice. For topics with a high commercial value, it would not seem to be a very good idea to give away a valuable commodity (as Shireen Smith pointed out in the last issue).
However, for many types of personal legal problem, including immigration, employment, small business, landlord and tenant, divorce and driving law problems, an initial consultation (quite possibly by phone or email) can build the potential client’s confidence in the firm and can lead to new business in at least a proportion of the cases. A firm base in the local community may also make the giving of free legal advice worthwhile since it is more likely to increase the firm’s reputation locally rather than being lost in a national (or international) cloud.
Firms prepared to give some free initial legal advice are ones with an altruistic streak who are willing to “risk” that some of the work they are doing has a significant pro bono element and may not bring any financial benefit. The people who receive the free initial legal advice may not realise it but they are in fact receiving a genuine free gift.
Delia Venables is joint Editor of the Newsletter.