Consultation Fees: A Lawyer's and LRIS's friend!
A frequent complaint from panel attorneys to LRIS programs is that the initial consultation fee is too low and does not cover the attorney's time. We need to help our attorneys appreciate that the consultation is an attorney benefit, and the low cost will help them get clients.
Why charge a consultation fee at all?
Your LRIS program is designed to serve members of the community who have the resources to hire an attorney for their problem. Charging any consultation fee is a great tool for truly screening out those who can pay from those who can't or won't. Any client who won't pay even $20 to speak with an attorney is not likely to turn into a paying client. They're only looking for free advice. There is no question that some people can pay the consult fee and can't pay anything else. However, the consultation fee is a successful mechanism to help avoid wasting the attorneys' time with clients who can't pay. The yellow pages can't do that.
Pre-screening by the LRIS makes consultations easier
When a prospective client cold-calls an attorney, whether from the yellow pages, internet, or other reference, the attorney must spend time simply ascertaining whether that client even has an issue within the attorney's practice area. When your LRIS sends the attorney a prospective client, your LRIS has already done that first level of screening - you and the prospective client both know that the attorney practices in the field. Add to that level of screening the fact that the client is also prepared to pay an attorney for his or her time, and your LRIS has already crossed two major hurdles when compared to the cold-call scenario.
Consultations are a Brief Commitment
A typical consultation time provided by the consultation fee is about 20 minutes. In 20 minutes, most attorneys can figure out if the case is one for them or not. While some attorneys may complain that their consultations always take longer, that is a function of attorney style - their only commitment is to the 20-minute consult. If attorneys complain that they can "never" finish a consultation in 20 minutes, suggest that they begin the consultation by discussing the time limit, letting the client know what time the consultation is over, and what they will do if more time is needed (i.e., charge an additional fee, etc.). Setting parameters up front makes for a more successful consultation and happier clients.
Goodwill & Client Relations are Priceless
Many attorneys forget that the best source of referrals and business are satisfied clients – which include satisfied people who didn't retain them! Remind your attorneys that serious clients, who come to their office and are treated with respect and compassion, will return to that attorney and mention the attorney to friends and family. It's a great way to generate substantial goodwill with a minimal investment of time and effort, and get paid (even if it's a small amount) to do it! Few marketing methods pay the attorney to generate goodwill.
Too Many Consultations & Not Enough Hires? Is the Attorney on the right panel?
Attorneys who complain that they are losing money because they are doing too many consultations without being hired should be closely questioned. Are they listed in a field that they really don't practice in? Do they only take "big" cases and refuse smaller ones? Do they only practice a very small part of the field such that most referrals won't be right for them? Consultation fees are not designed to be a revenue producer for attorneys. Beware of attorneys who may be trying to list lots of practice areas just to capture the consult fee.
Embrace Your Consultation Fee
In the end, your consultation fee makes for happier clients and happier panel attorneys. Embrace it, and help your attorneys understand that it is really a valuable service for them. In turn, they will become as enthusiastic about consultations too!
Ann S. Jacobs is a shareholder in the Milwaukee law firm of Domnitz & Skemp, S.C., and member of both the Milwaukee Bar Association's LRIS Committee and ABA’s Standing Committee on LRIS.