Long, long ago (2012) I wrote an article on this topic for the Newsletter and asked firms who had said that they were willing, in principle, to give some free initial legal advice, whether they thought it was worthwhile. Broadly, most of them did. You can read this article at http://bit.ly/INL1201venables.
This year I again invited a wide range of firms, via Twitter and LinkedIn as well as by email, to give me their views on this topic. The answers people provided are very interesting but no one is now unequivocally saying that “giving free initial advice is good” and I think that there has been a marked move away from this view over the intervening years.
Here are the contributions, in no particular order.
I’m willing to give a “first opinion” to long-term clients, who need a high-level steer as to whether something is worthy of further attention or not. That’s usually a few minutes chatting or reading through the facts, and then some thoughts back from me, or just a chat about the potential implications of a new product or service.
I’m always mindful that it takes time and effort to get the full view of a situation, to be able to advise properly, and a “quick chat” is not always conducive to that. Someone trying to be brief, because they think that is appropriate if they are not paying for the advice, could cause problems (and thus potentially negligence claims), if they omit key information, perhaps because they did not realise its significance, or if the time available did not permit detailed discussion.
For long-term clients, this risk is capable of mitigation, to an extent, because of background knowledge of, and exposure to, their business, products and the like. When it comes to potential clients, of whom I have no advance knowledge, I’m more wary — both for the reasons above and also because my time and advice has a value.
Just because a problem can be solved relatively quickly does not mean that the solution has no value and, since I make a living from giving advice, giving that away for free has to be managed carefully.
In a similar vein, I’m quite lucky at the moment to be able pick and choose work, so I don’t feel like I need to make a pitch, or try to convert, every enquiry I receive. Perhaps, if I felt more pressure in that respect, I might be more tempted to do this.
As a means of exploring whether a piece of work looks interesting or enjoyable, a preliminary conversation can be worthwhile, but I can normally pick that up from a couple of lines in an email, so it does not need a discussion. I realise that these comments do not consist of a formal policy, but that sums up how I tend to approach it!
Is free legal advice good for business?
I ask the question because the essence of what we “sell” as solicitors is knowledge and expertise and a slogan which resonates with me is “Please do not confuse your Google search with my law degree”! Our “product” is actually the result of years of legal training and experience with verbal advice often the key part of an initial consultation. It is our professional knowledge in its purest, most intangible form.
Over the last 12 months or so, I have come to think that free advice at the initial point of contact is not always the best way to offer our services and while I recognise I may be championing a minority view, it is one I believe warrants debate.
I set up Roche Legal to help people with private client matters: wills, probate, trusts, lasting powers of attorney and tax planning. All of which are complicated legal topics and are the kind of weighty steps which clients want to discuss thoroughly before deciding whether to proceed.
I now believe that to make this free at the outset, sends the wrong message and reinforces the impression that physical manifestations of legal work – the will, the power of attorney, the deed – are what clients are actually “buying”, not the skills which surround their creation.
This has been a gradual change and as a result, around 6 to 8 months ago, I altered our business terms. Our standard fixed fee work remained unchanged but, for hourly work, only the first 30 minutes of the first meeting was free. This initially went well, until several incidents caused me to, for now, remove the free initial consultation altogether. The confusion, from our point of view, was difficult to understand as it was made very clear to clients only the first 30 minutes was free.
We acted entirely in accordance with the SRA handbook and in line with guidance provided by the Legal Ombudsman in relation to setting out our fees from the outset. Our terms were clear and sent well before the meeting.
Despite this, we encountered problems and one client took the view that the lengthy initial consultation and follow up meeting were both free! Patently, our attempt to find a half-way house was not working.
Ceasing, for the time being, to provide free consultations is not about squeezing profit from every possible source and we may well revert to providing free initial consultations again in the future. We provide a lot of complimentary information on our website, which has taken many hours to compile. We have various options around pricing and delivery, such as our online service for wills and lasting powers of attorney, which is less expensive than our face-to-face offering.
It is not about turning our backs on those who need help either. As a socially responsible firm, we get involved in a lot of community work and charity fundraising. Since setting up my practice some 4 years ago, we have raised well over £10,000 for various charities and given many hours of our time to individuals and to local and national charitable causes.
It is about preventing the advice we give from being devalued, and I think that if other lawyers took a similar view, it would be good for everyone. If we know that clients are fully prepared for the commercial nature of the arrangement from the outset, there can be no confusion about what is expected on both sides.
We are happy to give out a certain amount of free initial legal advice. However, it’s a very fine balancing act between general advice based on the brief information we are given and trying to ward off time-wasters who are just trying to get lots of advice without paying.
It is not an exact science and we work pretty much on a case-by-case basis. We do answer the queries apart from those who are obviously time wasters, in which case we just hit the delete button.
How many enquiries are converted to clients? It is difficult to give an exact figure but we think that at least 50 per cent are converted. It’s pretty evident when a person contacts you if they’ve been generally just shopping around and, if they are only ever interested in knowing what our fee structure is, we pretty much know that we probably won’t convert them.
Do I consider the free initial legal advice as part of our pro bono work or part of the process of gaining clients? We are a business like anything else and whilst we are happy to do some pro bono work we do consider that offering this free initial advice is just part of the process of client gaining and client retention.
Practised as a solicitor from 1968 to 2006, with the bulk of his career spent at Norton Rose. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over the years I received many informal requests for free advice, as I expect most lawyers do. These were generally informal and personal, not requests that I should act in my usual professional capacity but unremunerated. (As I was a company/commercial practitioner, this is hardly surprising.)
My experience was that people who ask informally for advice in a context which makes it clear that they won’t expect to pay for it usually seem to have a contentious problem (quite often involving their neighbours), and they also have a clear idea of what they think the answer to the problem ought to be (almost always putting them in the right).
In telling their story they tend to simplify it, perhaps feeling that asking for free advice about a simple case will be more acceptable. When pressed for greater detail, what emerges often tends to weaken the case as initially presented.
The bias may be quite unconscious, but it can feel as though one is given the facts needed to lead to the advice desired, and only reluctantly allowed to extract points that are less favourable.
I have an enduring memory of a long discussion with a couple about their treatment by the developer of a site adjoining their home; only when they got up to leave did the wife turn to her husband and remark, “Of course, there was that document you signed…”
This may be a quite different context from the one contemplated by “free initial advice”, where a non-chargeable session is used to scope out what sort of paid retainer has the prospect of providing value for a client’s money.
I have no reservations about that in principle, although I suppose it too presents risks in the case of an over-optimistic client or lawyer.
As part of my business it is essential to obtain legal advice. Free initial consultations and advice allow me to gain a flavour of the lawyer. Instinctively, by the way someone conducts themselves, you can very quickly determine their knowledge of a subject. You can see the confidence in their abilities. I am more likely to engage with someone who can demonstrate these traits. By charging a fee for initial advice, from a business perspective, law firms are automatically reducing their potential leads and ultimately revenue potential.
As a personal viewpoint, I often see lawyers who charge a fee for simple initial advice as ‘struggling’. This is on the premise that they need to charge clients or potential clients for information that is readily available in the public domain. In other words they are not making enough in billable hours and therefore clutch at every revenue generating opportunity.
Of course, there is an argument that ‘you get what you pay for’ and a lawyer who charges for otherwise ‘free advice’ could be in a league where their advice holds significant value.
In business I have found that more people will work with you if they like you as a person. People do not buy products or services they buy outcomes and the legal profession is not exempt from this.
Clients, in my opinion, are more likely to pay fees if they feel supported and can see an end goal. Free advice offers the opportunity to show a client that a lawyer cares and they can visualise the outcome. If I met with a lawyer who was balanced and offered me advice for free, helping me to see the potential end results, I would definitely purchase services from them. The free advice approach makes it a journey instead of “just” purchasing a service. A journey is always better with someone you can rely on.