J. Patrick Sutton Cases & Issues Blog

Why I Charge for Consults

There's a new expression gaining currency since the Facebook private data scandal: "If the product is free, you are the product." Before it becomes a cliché, I want to use it for its relevance to lawyers in civil practice.

I've gained through hard work knowledge in certain narrow areas of the law over the past 10 years. I get calls from prospective clients related to those areas in which I work. If I'm not paid to render advice, then I'll end up talking to clients in order to land clients. But if I'm paid to render advice, I'm talking to clients to give the best advice I can, not to land that client. They are already my client if they're paying me, if only for a few minutes of time! For the relationship to be fruitful and worth the hourly rate I charge, I have to give disinterested, unvarnished advice. And boy do I try. Things I say all the time in consults after going over a list of all the strategy options:
"LItigation is a rich person's game. Don't be hasty."

"Litigation is inherently risky and expensive. It is an open-ended commitment of time and resources."

"Being a litigant is stressful. Don't think it will make you feel better."

"I cannot predict what a jury will do. I cannot predict what a judge will do. I cannot predict what the other side will do."

Giving such advice is adverse to my economic interest in the short run — I'm trying to steer someone away from the rush to sue. (Some lawyers are as quick to advise suit as surgeons are quick to advise cutting you open, and the advice is fraught in both instances.) However, I hope that my experience in giving unvarnished advice has been better for my clients and for me in the long run, generating long-term relationships and repeat work. Besides which, I empathize with clients' plight when it comes to legal proceedings — I myself have suffered physical illness from the stresses and strains of being involved in hostile dispute resolution proceedings (in my case, fighting a neighborhood association in multiple City Hall boards and the Austin City Council for the right to build a home of my own design on my own land).

Finally, I do believe that in the law, as I found to be true when I was a design-builder, free advice is worth exactly what you paid for it. It is important that money changes hands in an attorney-client advice setting because both sides have strong incentives to make the time valuable. I used to charge for kitchen and bath design consults where I sketched out quickie floorplans and custom cabinetry on a big vellum drawing pad. I had examples of design drawings on hand to explain how custom interiors work is communicated to tradespeople and craftspeople. I tried to make the paid consultations as valuable as possible and to sell the gospel of good design, since anyone could be a future client even if they weren't ready to do a project now. I do exactly the same thing with the law, but the gospel I preach is of peace and negotiated resolution. It's not always possible, of course -- I have a full caseload of disputes that could not get resolved by negotiation. But I didn't sell those lawsuits; my clients bought them, and in cases where I had been involved from the beginning, I hope my clients went in with their eyes wide open.

These thoughts are prompted by an email blast I saw from a legal marketing guru who touted the virtues of paid consultations, exhorting lawyers not to share their expertise for free, and for some of the reasons I list above.

Do I adhere the pay-for-services model all the time, without exception? Of course not. People come in when they're in a jam, they need a quick-take on something, or just a few minutes on something they either might learn anywhere, or else could not get anywhere else. Former clients and people referred by other clients or other lawyers call with an immediate need for which there's no time to set up a charge, or for something that I couldn't readily charge for anyway. People without means call when their house is about to be foreclosed upon. People reach out for referrals, so I have to understand what their legal problem is first. Lawyers are trained to represent not just individual paying clients, but the legal system as a whole, and sometimes, a lawyer's duty is to give advice when it simply must be given for moral and ethical imperatives.

But Yes, I do charge for consultations, and they are totally worth it. A couple-three hundred dollars of good advice can save you years of heartache and a busted bank account. Find the lawyer you need, and demand value for a paid consultation. There are so many fine lawyers in so many fields, and while we often get knocked for what we do, when you need a good one, you really need a good one.
J. Patrick Sutton Cases & Issues Blog