Should lawyers give free advice to attract clients?

I made friends with an entrepreneur recently who had looked into trade marking her business name. She has not yet proceeded with any of the firms she contacted. So I was curious to find out who she had approached and how much my competitors were charging. None of this turned out to be particularly surprising or interesting. What was noteworthy was just how much free advice lawyers are giving. She had found the firms online, yet rarely did they ask how she had come to contact them. One firm had even given her an hour’s free meeting and specific advice, which was then followed up with some valuable free searches.

Trade mark searches and opinions are possibly one of the most skilled aspects of trade mark registration work and the one most likely to lead to negligence claims if a firm gets it wrong. I would not offer our valuable time and expertise giving a free search. There are plenty of online tools available which could be provided instead of a manual free search. An opinion on what is or is not registrable is part of the lawyer’s skill. Personally, I’ve learnt from experience that it’s best not to comment about the nature of the mark someone wants to register until they are on board as a client. If there is a problem with the type of name they have chosen to trade mark, there is plenty of help I can offer once they are a client. For example, if the name is descriptive of the product or service what good is served by my alerting them to this possible problem? It would just drag me into giving more and more free advice and the client is unlikely to be pleased either.

As it happens my friend has decided not to trade mark her name because she doesn’t want to go to the expense of registering a trade mark while she is unsure whether her business concept will succeed. If it comes to it she is willing to rebrand, as and if the business proves viable. Therefore, all these firms have completely wasted their time in giving her so much free advice! What’s more, I imagine as I am now good friends and a potential collaborator she’s likely to turn to my firm eventually when she’s ready to register a trade mark. Even if not, she is likely to have long forgotten which firms gave her so much free advice by the time she is ready to proceed with the work.

From the book Influence – The psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini, it’s clear that giving free advice could be a great sales technique. People tend to feel duty bound to reciprocate and so may be persuaded to become a client by the gift of free advice. But as all lawyers seem to be using this approach is it really a good idea to give away so much for free – especially when the amount of work at stake is of such low value, and enquiry is not a personal referral?

When you are prominent in the search engines you get all sorts of people approaching you. There will be some excellent potential clients and there will also be a few people who have no intention of buying a legal service. They are just looking for free advice. So it’s important to have a sales process that protects your time, while progressing the enquiries in a way that might convert prospects into clients. The fact that so many law firms seem not to really know what they are doing makes me think they need advice about how to convert clients without giving away the family silver.

The freemium model works online, and I echo Mike Masnick in The Grand Unified Theory On The Economics Of Free that in advocating the giving of something for free “we’re never suggesting people just give away content and then hope and pray that some secondary market will grant them money. Giving stuff away for free needs to be part of a complete business model that recognises the economic realities.”

Whether online enquiries are for small pieces of work like trade mark registration, or are potentially for greater work, lawyers should beware of giving free advice to secure the work because it simply devalues legal work. It also encourages people who ring lots of firms to pick their brains to continue to do so. The more you give for free, the more it will be expected that all firms should offer free advice as standard. Ultimately it results in a drop in the prices that lawyers can charge.

In my view, lawyers are letting themselves be taken advantage of. To give up valuable fee earner time trying to convert enquiries by giving free advice is too high a price. Is it really necessary to show off your legal knowledge to attract the client? There are plenty of sound reasons not to give free advice, such as the fact that you don’t have a complete view of the prospect’s situation and insurers would probably not want you to be giving advice which could turn out to have been misleading had you known the full circumstances.

If I know the location of a treasure trove that information could be worth millions. It may only take me a few minutes to give you the information and it may be very easy for me to give it. But the information has a value. It is worth far more than the time it takes to give it. Would I be clever to just give it away?

Shireen Smith set up her firm Azrights to provide high quality and good value services in areas of intellectual property, IT and internet law services. Azrights is a made up name, inspired by the idea of an A to Z of rights, and is pronounced as you would say the words “As rights”. She also writes a blog.


This article first appeared in Shireen’s personal blog.