I read somewhere that if a lawyer advertises for a free consultation, it should raise red flags. I respectfully disagree. There is zero difference between a paid consultation and a free consultation. I should know, in the first five years of my practice, I flip-flopped from either policy. Starting out, when I was on my own, and I was not so busy, I advertised free consultations, and when I was very busy, I instituted a hard, “no free consultation” rule. Thus, I have experience doing both free and paid consultations. Looking back, I can say I never treated any matter differently, and I don’t think any other lawyer would either.
There is probably an even split in employment law firms in Toronto that do or do not do free consultations. I find that that the older the firm, the less likely they are to offer free consultations. I assume the older employment law firms don’t offer free consultations because they don’t have to: they are busy enough already or lack the resources to have someone answer free calls literally all day.
Keep in mind that all law firms will, in a way, offer a free consultation to some clients, just not the everyday person. If IBM called any employment law firm asking for a free quick consultation because they just fired their old employment lawyers, do you think any law firm would say no to that? Most times when sophisticated parties call for a free consultation, they just want to get a feel for the lawyer. You can be sure they don’t care they are saving a few hundred bucks when they know in any event their total legal matter will cost far more than that.
A lawyer answering free consultations is a challenging job with a low conversion rate. For every client I got with a strong case, I spent half a week on the phone with people with no case, something no lawyer could help with or someone who elected not to hire me. My phone number was essentially a hotline. When I advertised free consultations, people would call me to ask why their boss cut their lunch break short just one single day. Other times, I had to counsel people with serious mental health issues like schizophrenia. You can’t just hang up on these people. Lawyers have a duty to try and help. Still, I can see why some law firms wouldn’t put up with this. If you are going to offer free consultations, you have to speak to everybody, even with bizarre or vexatious or meritless cases, otherwise, you are being disingenuous.
Difference between paid and free consultations
The is no difference between a free consultation and a paid consultation. An experienced lawyer will go through a checklist and standard questions in every instance. Employment law is not hard. There are various intricacies and caveats, but they are easy to spot once you practise in this area long enough.
So long as the client is relatively forthcoming, and that the lawyer knows the right questions to ask, all consultations, free or otherwise, are the same. Try an experiment. Call two different experienced free consultation employment lawyers today and tell them about your case. I can almost guarantee you will get the same answer at each firm so long as you were forthcoming and open about all the facts. Now call the paid consultation employment lawyer. Get dressed up in a suit and drive downtown, park and hand over $500 for the appointment. I bet you get the same answer if you provided the exact same facts.
The author who cautioned against free consultations wrote about an anecdote in which a free consultation employment lawyer in Toronto jumped at a case at first blush, failing to catch an important detail of the client’s case, which cost the client money down the road. Respectfully, I would argue this anecdote is nothing more than an appeal to probability. Just because a lawyer is free or paid for a single consultation does not make them better or worse at missing important details. The only thing that separates a paid consultation lawyer and free consultation lawyer is their experience and time. If both lawyers are experienced the same, they should both catch the same details in the consultation. If both lawyers have the same time, they should both catch the same details in the consultation. To that end, there is a difference between a free and a paid consultation if the lawyer is more or less experienced or offers more or less time in the consultation. I can see why a free 30-minute consultation is perhaps worse than a paid 1-hour consultation. However, isn’t it disingenuous to argue that there is a difference between two consultations that are the same length?
Thinking a lawyer is not as good because she provides a free consultation is a fallacy. Studies back this up. People naturally think lawyers who charge more money are better. Stop thinking like this. You simply cannot compare two lawyers based on their price. Instead, compare actual lawyering skills to determine which lawyer to hire (I wrote about comparing employment lawyers here).
A good first consultation takes about thirty minutes on the phone. For more complicated matters, an hour is required at least. Thirty minutes is plenty of time to get the facts of a standard case and provide a rough range in terms of a conclusion. If more time is required, in my experience, the free consultation will be extended or the client will be invited to come to the office for a paid consultation. In any event, few if any clients ever sign a retainer at the conclusion of the first thirty minutes.
A good first consultation should be a discussion of the facts and also a review of the relevant documents. Clients should email the free consultation or paid consultation lawyer the relevant documents in advance such that he or she can take some time to prepare before.
In my area, employment law, a standard severance package consultation looks like this no matter the firm (I have worked at three employment law firms):
- The caller provides their intake information (five minutes).
- We ask the client a few questions about their termination (five minutes). If the termination is without cause, we ask if they have an employment contract, and then we review the contract for a termination clause and other issues (ten minutes).
- Next, we ask a few questions indicating their “Bardal” factors (five minutes).
- Moving on, we explain the law of reasonable notice (five minutes).
- After that, we advise them their range of reasonable notice based on their facts (five minutes).
- After, we ask them about any special circumstances in terms of their hire, termination, or ability to get a new comparable job (five minutes).
- Thereafter, we discuss what the next steps are in proceeding forward (five minutes).
- Lastly, we opine on the cost and the retainer agreement (five minutes). If a client wants to retain the firm, we will go into more detail on the retainer and fees and other administrative issues after the consultation.
Usually, a whole employment consultation takes about 40 minutes to an hour. Sometimes, it takes longer and the employment lawyer will provide a longer free consultation in case, and other times the lawyer will tell the client the matter is too complicated, come by the office for a paid consultation and we can sit and take as long as we need. If you are coming by our office, it is always a paid consultation.
When I used to exclusively do paid in-person consultations, many, many times the appointment only lasted the exact same time (40 minutes) as my free phone consultations. I either had to give the client a refund for twenty minutes or promise a free twenty-minute phone call follow up.
Is a free consultation a red flag?
Some people say a free consultation with a lawyer is never a good idea because the lawyer is more interested in getting a new client than giving sound advice. Respectfully, I would disagree. I have been a lawyer for a while now, and in my experience, no lawyer at any law firm is going to take a case that has no merit. Not to mention, no lawyer is going to take a case in which she can only win the client a little more money (this is especially true for contingency fee files). For a lawyer to decide to take a case, she has to decide just as the client has to decide whether it is worth it. For example, if you have a severance package, and we think it is relatively reasonable and cannot be improved upon very much, we will tell you. Likewise, if you have a valid termination clause which precludes you from getting more severance, we will tell you. The last thing we want is for a client ever to lose money. Not to mention, we don’t want to do work that will fail.
It’s not about the money. As a rule, any law firm that has been in business for even a little bit already has a full plate; we don’t need your file. We need not worry about rejecting clients because there is always another caller.
Alternatively, consider a free consultation a feeler to decide if you want to come in for a paid consultation. Most free consultation law firms provide a paid consultation in the office option.
Some law firms offer free consultations because they are just starting out (I wonder if the author of the article I read cautioning against free consultations ever offered free consultations when he was just starting out?) Other more established firms offer free consultations as a general marketing policy. It is as simple as that. Think of a free consultation as an indication of the firm’s marketing practice, not its lawyering practise. Consider that publicly holding one’s firm out as specifically not doing free consultations is in itself a form of marketing too.
Lawyers who offer free consultations either have the time or the resources to give every potential client a free consultation. It is a business choice: spend your employees’ salaries or your own time on free consultations or don’t. Just because a law firm does or does not do free consultations does not mean they are good or bad. It just means they made a business choice. Canadian Lawyer Magazine wrote about the business case for paid consultations here.
If you elect to call a free consultation lawyer, make sure your free consultation lawyer provides an in-depth review of your case for around thirty minutes to an hour and that he asks you questions you didn’t think to ask. Don’t forget, you can always extend or ask the lawyer for another free phone call. Be cautious if a lawyer jumps at your file quickly without asking enough questions. Show them your paperwork. Consider getting two opinions from two different free consultation lawyers. Then take a few days to think about moving forward with the lawyer you liked best.
Jeff is an employment lawyer in Toronto. He is the Principal of the Dutton Employment Law Group at Monkhouse Law. Jeff is a frequent lecturer on employment law and is the author of an employment law textbook and various trade journal articles.