Is Giving Free Legal Advice a Waste of Time?

Are free consultations a waste of time?
In our ongoing research, we here at FindLaw have found some trends hold steady year after year. One theme we have noticed is that legal consumers routinely identify free consultations as a top feature they look for in law firms. A second theme we’ve picked up on again and again: time-strapped attorneys wish they could allocate the resources that free consultations require more profitably. If you find yourself questioning the value of free consultations, here are five points to keep in mind:
  1. Consultations are your chance to choose: When you're developing a content strategy for your blog or crafting a series of posts to be published on social media, you're doing so with the aim of attracting a certain client demographic. That is to say, your desired audience is realistic and attainable (we hope!) but also abstract. When you're sitting across the desk from a potential client or speaking with a legal consumer by phone, that person really exists and the opportunity for the two of you to sign a representation agreement (or for you to tactfully say it isn't the right fit) is very present. If you can try to see consultations as means to providing you with freedom and choice in whom you represent, they might feel less burdensome.
  2. Meetings are an audition: The above being said; you aren't the only one who is going to do some deciding. To say that today's legal consumers are awash in easy-to-find information and options is an understatement. If a potential client doesn't like something about you, he or she doesn't need to wait even a moment before moving on to another firm (Thanks, smartphones!). If a client has connected with you, then you're as close to landing a paying customer as you will ever get during the marketing process. Remember that! (And on that note, we recently published a playbook and a blog post with pointers on getting deals into the books.)
  3. You're priming your referral network: There’s no way around it - not every consultation is going to result in you getting a new client. But don’t see it as a black-and-white situation. Benefits can be drawn from consultations even when they don’t bring in new business. For example, if a consultation doesn't result in a client for you, but does result in a client for a fellow attorney because of a referral you made within your network, then it was not without value. Far from it - that free consultation gave you a chance to generate goodwill, encourage reciprocation, and expand and enhance your practice's image. You'd probably prefer a paying client, of course, but the point is, free consultations aren't an all-or-nothing game.
  4. Keep up with the competition...or leave it in the dust: If every restaurant in town offered free dessert with each meal, would you go to one that didn't? Maybe, if you really liked the place, but probably not if you couldn't readily distinguish between the fine points of them all. That's the case in certain fields of law, like personal injury and criminal defense. People with a legal need generally view law firms as very similar to one other, so they aren't particularly motivated to seek out one specific firm. To not offer free consultations, as time-consuming as they are, would mean you'd be falling out of step with the competition. You want to be the restaurant everyone seeks out, but that just isn't the case. (On the other side of that coin, if local firms in your field do not typically offer free consultations, but your firm does, what a customer-friendly distinguishing factor that would be!)
  5. You're contributing a social good: Telling someone he or she does not have a case isn't pleasant, but it's a 'cruel to be kind' scenario. Sharing your educated, informed opinion that the legal system is not the right venue saves a person frustration and false hope. It also keeps low- or no-merit cases out of the already overworked courts. While it may sting a little to be the bearer of bad news, it's a circumstance in which you're fulfilling an element of your lawyerly duty to the justice system and to society as a whole.
Now, asking you to run your practice, make yourself available for free consultations and keep your chin up about it is a lot. Because we understand the demands placed on our attorney clients, FindLaw has developed business development instruments specifically for law firms (such as ones those that improve the intake process), fine-crafted a suite of marketing products that free up lawyers to actually practice law and amassed a body of research and scholarship that we use to help law firms stay contemporary and competitive.

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