Should lawyers give free advice to attract clients?

Should lawyers give free advice to attract clients?

free-adviceAre lawyers getting it right giving free advice to prospective clients to impress them with their lawyering skills?

I made friends with an entrepreneur recently who had looked into trade marking her business name. She has not yet proceeded with any of the firms she contacted. So I was curious to find out who she had approached and how much my competitors were charging. But none of this information turned out to be particularly surprising or interesting. What was noteworthy though was just how much free advice lawyers are giving.

She had found the firms online, yet rarely did the firms ask how she had come to contact them. One firm had even given her an hour’s free meeting and specific advice and guidance, which was then followed up with some valuable free searches.

Trade mark searches and opinions are possibly one of the most skilled aspect of trade mark registration work, and the one most likely to lead to negligence claims if a firm gets it wrong. I would not offer our valuable time and expertise giving a free search. There are plenty of online tools available which could be provided instead of a manual free search. An opinion on what is or is not registrable, is part of the lawyer’s skill. Personally, I’ve learnt from experience that it’s best not to comment about the nature of the mark someone wants to register until they are on board as a client. There is plenty of help I can offer once they are a client, if there is a problem with the mark they have chosen – for example, if it is descriptive of the product or service. What good is served by my alerting them to this possible problem? It would just drag me into giving more and more free advice, and the client is unlikely to be pleased either, because of people’s tendency to blame the messenger.

As it happens my friend has decided not to trade mark her name because she doesn’t want to go to the expense of registering a trade mark while she is unsure whether her business concept will succeed. If it comes to it she is willing to rebrand, as and if the business proves viable. Therefore, all these firms have completely wasted their time in giving her so much free advice! What’s more, I imagine as I am now good friends and a potential collaborator she’s likely to turn to us eventually when she’s ready to register a trade mark. Even if not, she may have long forgotten which firms gave her so much free advice by the time she is ready to proceed with the work.

From the book Influence – The psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini it’s clear that the giving of free advice could be a great sales technique. People tend to feel duty bound to reciprocate, and so may be manipulated into becoming a client by the gift of free advice. But as all lawyers seem to be using this approach is it really a good idea to give away so much for free – especially when the amount of work at stake is of such low value?

When you are prominent in the search engines you get all sorts of people approaching you. There will be some excellent potential clients, and there will also be a few people who have no intention of buying a legal service. They are just looking for free advice. So, it’s important to have a sales process that protects your time, while progressing the enquiries in a way that might convert prospects into clients. The fact that so many law firms seem not to really know what they are doing makes me think they need advice about how to convert clients without giving away the family silver, so to speak.

The freemium model works online, and I echo Mike Masnick in The Grand Unified Theory On The Economics Of Free that in advocating the giving of something for free “we’re never suggesting people just give away content and then hope and pray that some secondary market will grant them money. Giving stuff away for free needs to be part of a complete business model that recognises the economic realities.”

In my view, lawyers need to adapt their approach, and realise that the way they may chase work worth thousands of pounds may not be at all appropriate for capturing work from online enquiries. In any event, it would be interesting to know what in house lawyers think about lawyers giving free advice. Does it sway them to use a lawyer? Are they more likely to be impressed by the lawyer’s ability to do the job?

Whether online enquiries are for small pieces of work like trade mark registration, or are potentially for greater work, lawyers should beware of giving free advice in order to attract the work because it simply devalues legal work. It also encourages people who ring lots of firms to pick their brains to continue to do so. The more you give for free, the more it will be expected that all firms should offer free advice as standard. Ultimately it results in a drop in the prices that lawyers can charge.

In my view, lawyers are letting themselves be taken advantage of. It just doesn’t pay to give up valuable fee earner time trying to convert enquiries by giving free advice. They don’t need to show off their legal knowledge to attract the client, and there are plenty of sound reasons not to give free advice, such as the fact that you don’t have a complete view of the prospective client’s situation, and your insurers would probably not want you to go round giving free advice which could turn out to have been misleading had you known the client’s full circumstances.

If I know the location of a treasure trove that information could be worth millions to you. It may only take me a few minutes to give you the information and it may be very easy for me to give it. But the information has a value. It is worth far more than the time it takes to give it. Would I be clever to just give it away?

 

6 thoughts on “Should lawyers give free advice to attract clients?

  1. Richard Parnham

    I am currently looking for a law firm to advise me on a specific matter, so this issue is pertinent to me.

    As the owner of a (very) small business, I wouldn’t expect to offer my own services for free – so I wouldn’t expect it of any law firm I used either.

    However, what I would appreciate is a free initial consultation with a law firm, so I can explain my issue, and try to establish how much the legal firm will charge me for advising on it.

    Right now, I am gravitating to firms to offer exactly the legal service I am looking for – but also offer a free 30 minute “scoping” consultation to help determine likely fees.

    I think that’s the most I can reasonably ask for – but the least I would expect from any service provider, law firm included. After all, I didn’t expect my builder to charge me for providing a quote to renovate my flat, or my mechanic to charge for assessing my car when I needed it repaired.

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  2. Shireen Smith

    We offer free meetings because it’s important to let prospective clients assess whether we are the right firm for them and also for us to see whether they are the right client for us. I like to learn more about the client’s business plans, and their legal requirements, and understand their priorities and attitude to risk. There are many issues the client needs to understand too about using a law firm, so there is plenty to talk about. There is no need to focus the discussion on advising on the details of their legal requirements.

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  3. Richard Parnham

    That’s very useful point to know, thanks. In that case, please allow me to make a follow-up point.

    Very few of the law firm website I have hunted through mention charge out rates or free consultations up front. Which means, as a punter, the only way I’m going to find this information out is to telephone the firm – and then, potentially, have an embarrassing conversation along the lines of: “I’m sorry, I can’t afford that.” Or “Why are you 50 per cent more expensive than the firm I spoke to about five minutes ago?” And who, really, likes having those conversations?

    So, if a firm does offer a free – or fixed price – initial consultation, then it really should shout it from the rafters. Because that’s a very, very strong selling point – especially for new clients like me, who tend to be buying (at least partly) on price.

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  4. Jesús Marín

    I am not very keen on the idea of providing legal advising out of an already stablished professional engagement with the client. As you wisely write, information has a value. It might be cases where the practitioner will solve the problem by the sole appliance of a single section in the law, but even in this situations the value needs to be measured accordingly to the client’s satisfaction related to the resolution of the controversy, notwithstanding the task’s difficulty for the lawyer.
    So my opinion sticks to the traditional way of doing business in legal proffesions. The best quality feedback for the legal firm should come from clients to clients, following a somehow natural stream, with the undeniable help of the firm’s social media presence: the role of community managers has
    proven to be of a paramount importance nowadays.

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  5. TM

    Good article and interesting points

    I was once pushed on this point by a junior at a large company rtying to get a free search, on the basis that we “offered free TM advice”.

    My answer was that “we are selling a good service, and can give you advice on what that service is, and how to obtain best most appropriate results, different ways of approaching the issues, etc. but you wouldn’t expect free shoes from a cobbler. Although you will get good advice on the best shoes to buy, and the leather, and soles, and laces and so on.”

    She wasn’t happy but I think I’d repeat the line and it sort of agrees with your first comment above. At the end of the day you can give your time away for free in a sales pitch (e.g. the merits of getting things for free), but I think lawyers must always be aware that they have a product to sell as well as their time.

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  6. Boyd Butler

    Shireen, the point made about a paid for initial consultation was very interesting.
    I recently ran a series of pay-per-call adverts (where the law firm only pays for the calls rather than the space) and this was for a £97 1 Hour Review of your divorce case…a sort of second opinion that one could buy. It was pretty effective, profitable and something that I hope to repeat again. It was a definite offer with a call to action and I know that people like that. They want to be led.

    As for freemium model. You can give stuff away that is general advice in multiple formats which does not take up personal time. The reward is usually data capture, followed by an automated marketing sequence. This reduces costs to less than £2 per prospect but more importantly gives low time-cost free stuff, that is valuable to the prospect and keeps them warm until they are ready to buy.

    Most law firms are still not using multi-media to deliver information and they are not using multi-step marketing sequences which make the freemium model work.

    The other aspect of the initial consultation which is often overlooked is the “cliffhanger”. This is where you elicit certain information which reveals holes in legal cover and after 30 minutes you offer the report as is…or they engage you. This is highly effective in personal family law. But there is no reason it could not be effective for trademark law.

    Backsourcing, where the client does some of the work, (as in the Epoq services) can also be an effective way to make the freemium model work.

    Ultimately there are many ways to leverage expertise however no-one has more than 24 hours in a day so that’s where the danger lies…too much personal time being invested without return.

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