This week on Bigger than Biglaw, Neena describes the increased pressure a solo practitioner has to give free legal consultations, and how it negatively affects her immigration clients, and her practice.
The fact that I earn a living by charging for legal advice does not dissuade potential clients from trying to milk every ounce of free advice from my law firm.
It seems that free legal advice, now easily searchable on the Internet has only made this more prevalent.
When I was working for a large multi-service firm, I charged for advice. Well, my firm charged for advice. There was no such thing as a free consultation.
Further, I was prepared for every consultation. I did research. One of the perks of working at a large law firm is access to top-notch free research such as Westlaw or LexisNexis. I mean, someone paid for it, I guess you can say that I paid for some of it indirectly, but I most definitely did not write the check.
When I opened my own law firm, I was hit with two harsh realities: the cost of legal research and the prevalence of requests for free consultations.
Listen, I am no stranger to loving a freebie. I often seek out discounts and deals. However, you really do get what you pay for.
My immigration practice is primarily form driven. I really do not have a compelling reason to pay a legal research company a monthly retainer for the “just in case” situation. But, I do, and that monthly deduction eats at me. I don’t necessarily need it, but, I feel better knowing that I have it.
Recently, the investment paid off. I had a case that fell into an exception of exception. The short section of regulation that applied to the fact pattern was written in the negative. Although I am well versed in this area of the law, I was triple-checking using my legal research service.
I decided, just to appease my nagging sense of self-doubt, to “Google” it.
To my shock and horror, there were online commentators espousing “truths” about the law that were blatantly incorrect. Also, there were people holding themselves out as LAWYERS giving patently incorrect advice!
I am extremely careful when I give advice online because I’m not convinced that you won’t get sued for malpractice if you are wrong, but certainly I would have been if I had relied on the Google interpretations. One lawyer, on a free advice site, provided helpful information that would have potentially barred an individual from the country.
Oops. Citizenship is probably not that important anyway. (???!!!??)
The problem with erroneous advice – even if given for free on a website – is that it really affects clients. They rely on this information to make critical decisions that, at least in my realm of practice, may mean the difference between whether they ever see their children again.
My time is a commodity. It has value. It has a price.
More sophisticated clients book consultations rather than rely solely on the Internet, Wild West of lawyering.
Here is the problem with consultations from my perspective: many of these potential clients expect them to be free.
Okay fine. I see their point of view: “What is a mere half hour of her time worth?”
A lot. Actually.
My time is money. And now that I work for myself, giving free advice is money that I am not making. A paycheck does not get magically deposited in my account every two weeks anymore. As a solo, your paycheck is a function of the amount of your own time you sell.
Secondly, I am a responsible solo attorney. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I give impeccable legal advice. Why? My law firm’s reputation is on the line every time I advise a potential client of the legal situation. You better believe that when I am asked a legal question to which I do not know, or am unfamiliar with, the answer, I research the hell out of it to make sure the advice I am giving is correct.
In addition to the cost of paying for a legal research service, I have to account for the time I spend using it to prepare for a consultation. So a free consultation actually costs much more than you think: the cost of my monthly office, the cost of my support staff, the cost of legal research, the cost of my time using the service and the cost of my time actually giving the “free consultation,” and the cost of my professional liability insurance policy if, God forbid, I am wrong.
A free consultation for you is really expensive for me.
Of course, I can give a free consultation. I generally always do when the client has been referred by a colleague. But when I give a free consultation to a client who has found me through an advertising campaign, the results are generally negative. Either I do not “put my back into it” or the client takes it for granted and begins price-shopping. Neither is good.
Charging for a consultation is not cheeky. It is not an insult. In my area of the law – immigration – it is basically a necessity.
If you don’t charge for your time, people get exactly what they pay for: Nothing.
Neena Dutta is a corporate immigration attorney with the Dutta Law Firm, a firm she founded after leaving a Biglaw associate position with a prestigious New York firm. Neena is a client in Law Firm Suites’ shared law office space in Downtown, New York and her weekly blog series, The Dutta Diaries, explores the thought process that goes into leaving a Biglaw job for the world of solo practice, and her experiences since making this career altering shift.