Do you charge for initial consultation in your practice? If not, you might be missing out on higher quality meetings and additional revenue. Despite this claim, most lawyers are worried that changing their fee structure will chase potential clients away from the front door. How can we, as lawyers, offer discernible value and make people actually want to pay for an initial consultation?
In this episode of The Legal Toolkit, Jared Correia discusses charging for initial consultations with Sarah Poriss, a foreclosure defense lawyer in Connecticut. Sarah explains why she charges initial consultation fees, how to offer the right legal service value in these appointments, and ways lawyers can determine their rates. Let’s face it, she says, are you looking for the type of client who pays or one who doesn’t?
- How fees improve the meeting quality: on-time, attentive, and serious clients
- The risks of charging initial consultation
- Gaining an edge on your competition
- Setting the right expectations for legal services and retainers
- Preparing for a fee discussion
- Onboarding, client intake, and follow-up
- Confidently setting a rate and making changes as needed
Sarah Poriss is a Connecticut lawyer with a practice focused on consumer finance. Her practice is the largest woman-owned foreclosure defense firm in Connecticut. Sarah was a Hartford Bar Association’s 2011 Pro Bono Award recipient. She was an original member of Connecticut’s Bench Bar Foreclosure Committee and Bench Bar Small Claims Committee. She is a member of the National Association of Consumer Advocates and is a regular speaker for local organizations and institutions including UConn Law School.
Special thanks to our sponsor Amicus Attorney.
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Advertiser: Welcome to the Legal Toolkit; bringing you the latest legal trends and business initiatives to help you manage your law firm. Here are your hosts – experienced lawyers, writers and entrepreneurs, Heidi Alexander and Jared Correia. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Jared Correia: Welcome to what promises to be another terrific episode of the Legal Toolkit, here on the Legal Talk Network. Before we get started, we’d like to thank our sponsor: Amicus Attorney, the world’s leading practice management solution for lawyers. Amicus Attorney helps manage your law firm so that you can concentrate on being a lawyer. To learn more, visit AmicusAttorney.com. If you’re a returning listener of the show, welcome back. If you’re a first time listener, hopefully you’ll become a longtime listener. If you’re Kris Kringle, note that I’ve been an exceptionally good boy this year. I’m your host, Jared Correia, and in addition to casting this pod I’m the assistant director and senior law practice advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program. LOMAP provides free and confidential law practice management consulting services to Massachusetts attorneys. For more information on LOMAP’s offerings, visit our website at MassLOMAP.org. You can buy my book, Twitter in One Hour for Lawyers from the American Bar Association on iTunes or at Amazon. If your desire is of more podcasting freshness, check out our Lunch Hour Legal Marketing show where we release monthly episodes featuring legal marketing experts. Here on the Legal Toolkit, we provide you each month with a new tool to add to your own legal toolkit so that your practices will become more and more like best practices. In this episode, we’ll address the age old question, should you charge for initial consultations. Providing an answer is our guest today, Sarah Poriss. Sarah Poriss is a Connecticut lawyer with a practice focused on consumer finance. Her practice is the largest woman-owned foreclosure defense firm in Connecticut. Sarah was a Hartford Bar Association’s 2011 Pro Bono Award recipient. She was an original member of Connecticut’s Bench Bar Foreclosure Committee and Bench Bar Small Claims Committee. She is a member of the National Association of Consumer Advocates and is a regular speaker for local organizations and institutions including UConn Law School. Sarah started out as a teacher, but after working as an assistant to a blind attorney she admired, was inspired to become a lawyer herself. She is also a former speed skater, how about that? And I bet she probably would be willing to sign autographs if you were interested. So, Sarah, thanks for taking the time to come on the show today.
Sarah Poriss: Thanks so much, Jared.
Jared Correia: Alright, we’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. Sarah was even kind enough to let me go on vacation before we did this. So let’s jump right into the show then.
Sarah Poriss: I think he’s still wearing his Mickey Mouse ears. You’re still wearing your Mickey Mouse ears
Jared Correia: Buzz Lightyear, but yes. I’m wearing them right now. So let’s jump right in by paraphrasing William Shakespeare. So, to charge, or not to charge; that is the question. So, what do you say, Sarah?
Sarah Poriss: I’m absolutely in favor of charging for consultations.
Jared Correia: Okay, good answer, that was quick. Now, you’re pro charge, clearly. So let me ask you this: What are the benefits of charging for initial consultations?
Sarah Poriss: There are a ton of benefits, a ton. A little history here is I was working for a small firm and we did mostly plaintiff work. So we just pretty much brought in everyone who we felt would have a claim we could help with to evaluate their situation. After all, we weren’t going to be charging them for services or anything. But we also started evaluating people’s claims against mortgage companies and mortgage misconduct. And the senior attorney at my old firm would come out of these meetings, sometimes two or three hours long, and he’d be exhausted. And one day he just said we’ve got to start charging for these. Because they wouldn’t be cases we would end up taking, but he was giving them so much benefit while in that meeting. So he assigned to the staff to start charging or quoting a fee – I think it might have even been as low as $50 – and we noticed immediately an improvement of the people we were meeting with. They’d be on time, they wouldn’t mess around with their cell phones during meetings, they wouldn’t drag their kids to the meeting. One woman in the middle of the meeting said, “Hang on, I’ve got to get a pen and paper, I’ve got to take notes.” And I was blown away because nobody had treated those consultations that seriously before. So discharging something changed the quality. Like I said, people were showing up on time. That alone was a big transformation at our practice. Other benefits are people value what they’re getting because they’re paying for it. You don’t have to keep it to a minimal charge; but when they’re paying, they just have more value to it. It’s like would we value milk if we could just get it all for free. Compare charging consultations like shopping for milk, we’ll get into that later. But again, the quality goes up when you charge. The proceed value on the part of the client also goes way up.
Jared Correia: Now let’s talk about the other side here. And this is, I think, still – maybe unfortunately – the opinion of most attorneys. We talked about the good stuff, so what’s the negative or what are the risks for charging for initial consultations?
Sarah Poriss: I think the risks are mostly proceeds. I think they’re just people who have not initiated a paid consultation in their practice can’t say the way the potential clients will respond when you offer them a paid consultation. So if they say that doesn’t work or they can’t do that, that’s because they never tried. So I think the risks are proceed risks. I think there’s a fear that if you try to charge people will immediately hang up on you. So the fear is that if people hang up on me they never make it in my office and if they never make it into my office then they never hire me. So I think there’s this fear that charging to get in your door is going to turn everybody off. In fact, I have people begging to come in. And even when I quote the fee, they say, “That’s it? That’s all you’re charging?” And it’s not small. So I think again the risk of trying to start charging for consultations don’t really exist. I think they need to be done in a different way than your typical free consultation. If you’re used to sitting behind your desk and interviewing the client and auditioning the client, you can’t then charge for that later. You have to offer something of value. So the risk of trying to charge people for your old style free consult is you’re not offering them enough to care enough to pay for it.
Jared Correia: That’s a great point and we’ll get into alternatives to those sort of traditional free consultations that attorneys have offered; which I think you’re right, don’t necessarily have a ton of value. So let’s talk about one common objection to charging for initial consultations I hear all the time. How do those lawyers who do charge compete with those who don’t? So how do they get potential clients to even walk through the door when another lawyer’s not even going to charge them for that same privilege?
Sarah Poriss: What kind of client are you looking for? Are you looking for a client who’s going to pay you or are you going to look for a client who isn’t going to pay you? So that’s a threshold question. And are you exactly like the other attorney? Are you that guy down the hall or across the street? If you want to give services at that level and lower the bar and give like that guy gives for free, go ahead. But to me, when you’re doing a free consultation, maybe a one hour or longer in your office, who’s getting paid me for that time, Jared, than you are? Who’s getting paid more? The guy who works at Walmart. The guy who works at Walmart who worked for an hour or hour and a half just earned more money than you did. So either you can say everybody does it but you should not be everybody. Now I’m not saying give the same thing that guy gives. I’m saying create a gallon of milk. Create something to sell. Create a package, create a product. That’s what my consultations are. People call, they tell me what their issue is. I determine that I can address those issues. I can address so many of their issues in an hour. These are the things that I’m willing to address in an hour, and so I tell them what those are. Okay, you have this problem, this is what I can offer you: I can offer you a consultation in my office – and this is the order that I say it in, so if people are listening and they want to note my script, this is important. I will tell them I offer A, B, and C. We’ll talk about A, B, and C, I’ll explain this and that to you so you can stop lying awake at night worrying about it. We’ll do this and that and we’ll walk out and you’ll have D, E and F in your hand. And I say I charge for that and this is the cost. Would you like to schedule for that? And they’re going, “Yeah,” because they think I’m going to say $5,000 or $3,000, and I don’t, I say a few hundred dollars.
Jared Correia: That’s a good way of selling.
Sarah Poriss: So if the guy across the street is doing the same thing, the client just has to choose between your gallon of milk and that guy’s gallon of milk. Do you offer skim milk for $3.99 a gallon versus his whole milk at $2.99 a gallon? So they’re looking for whole milk and you’re offering skim milk, there’s no comparison. So that’s how it works.
Jared Correia: I’m enjoying the grocery analogy, I’m getting a little thirsty.
Sarah Poriss: So I hope I answered the question, that’s my basic philosophy of it.
Jared Correia: That’s a great way to position it. Yeah, I think you’re totally right on that and I think that’s what attorneys miss is that you’re selling something still and you’re selling it in a different way than you traditionally have. And I think there’s something to be said as well for what you’re talking about. You don’t want people to be lemmings, necessarily. And just do what other lawyers have done because they’ve been doing it for forever. That’s how we get in trouble in the first place, right?
Sarah Poriss: But let’s go back to a few more benefits. The benefit is the client has now invested in you. So if you’re in family law and you know you have provided something more – for example, analyzing the way that the retirement funds or pensions can be split during a divorce. There’s a lot of value there. If someone comes in and you take the time to analyze that and give them that information, there’s no reason you shouldn’t charge for that. There is so much value in a client knowing what the risk is of divorcing based on how much pension and retirement the one spouse gets and the other one won’t. So you can charge for that. But the benefit is they’ve invested in you. So are they going to go to a different lawyer for the rest of the help or for really retain? The other benefit is if this person paid you, then you know they’re a payer. You know they value legal assistance and that they will pay for it. If you don’t charge for it and they walk in and get all this information, they get the value, you don’t, and they’ve tested you that now you’ll give out information for free. So the benefit is if someone will pay you then you know that you’re not going to let them take advantage of you going forward that you can charge for your services at every level at every step. So again, they’ve invested in you, you know about their case, you also may choose to not work with them in the future. Sometimes I’ll specifically offer someone only a one hour consultation because I just know that’s the most I’ll get or ever work with them on. I’ll help them with a tiny little thing, they’ll sign an agreement that it’s a one time only, and then we part ways. And I’ve got paid for my time at least.
Jared Correia: I’ve had attorneys tell me that that’s another advantage as well. Now if the people would listen to you, right? So we’ll take a quick break here, Sarah, and I’m thinking maybe we should start charging people to listen to this show.
Sarah Poriss: Oh no.
Jared Correia: I’m just kidding. We would never do that. When we come back, however, we’ll have more with Sarah Poriss.
Jared Correia: Amicus Attorney’s world leading practice management solution allows you to do more, bill more, and go home early. It serves as the hub to your practice and Amicus customers report that they save over eight hours and bill an extra five hours each week. Built by lawyers for lawyers, Amicus has two award winning solutions: Amicus Premium with a unique client portal, and the exciting Amicus Cloud with seamless email integration. To learn more, visit AmicusAttorney.com
Jared Correia: Welcome back, everybody. We’re talking about whether you should charge for initial consultations. Spoiler alert: Yes. And we will now continue that discussion with Sarah Poriss. So, Sarah, I think that the next question gets to the heart of lawyers’ fears respecting charging for those initial consultation. Because lawyers have a lot of problems with client interactions, especially the first time they’re interacting with a client. How does the client or potential client react when you say that you’re going to charge them?
Sarah Poriss: If you set up the discussion where you’re not hiding the ball but you’re waiting to discuss your fee until you know what you’re going to offer them and that may take a few minutes in the phone intake to determine; this person needs a divorce and these are the circumstances., this is the number of kids, this is whether or not there’s a domestic abuse situation, this is who’s been working and who hasn’t, what kind of money is there. You need some facts and then you can say this is what I offer. So one issue I think people need to be aware of when they’re having conversations with potential clients is the client will try to talk about fees really quickly really early. One is that’s just their fear. That’s their fear that just merely speaking to an attorney they’re going going to get a bill. I talked to someone I only know his name is John, we talked for about ten or fifteen minutes. I decided I can’t help him and he goes, “Are you going to bill me for this?” And I was like, “All I know is your name is John. I don’t know where you live, I didn’t take your address, so I can’t bill you.” So again, know that it’s the other person’s fear when they talk about fees. They’re afraid all of a sudden that it’s going to be bait-and-switch that they’re going to be in the door for $400 and then all of a sudden it turns to $4,000. So keep in mind, you need to control the conversation about fees, whether it’s the initial fee, the consultation fee, or your retainer fee. So people will say, “I’d like an attorney but I need to know how much it’s going to cost.” Don’t answer the question. Don’t answer the question because you don’t know how much it’s going to cost yet. So you take control. They call and say, “I need a lawyer but I need to know how much it’s going to cost first.” “Well, let’s talk first for a few minutes. Let me see if I can help you first, I might not be the right attorney for you.” If they call me and they have a criminal matter, I’m going to immediately refer them to someone else. So again, when someone asks about what the fee’s going to be, don’t bite, just wait. You have to develop a script around them. And it’s not manipulative, it’s not a game. It’s selling milk. It’s saying we sell whole milk or we sell skim milk or something else. So that I think helps an attorney who’s going to start using paid consultations address what the fear will be which is avoid the fee conversation. If someone asks you how much is your consultation and that’s the first sentence, I don’t just tell them because they’re going to go, “Oh okay, thanks bye.” But when they know what they’re going to get, I have people going, “That’s it? I’d pay that again!”
Jared Correia: That’s a great strategy. But I think the point you make about laying the groundwork is important because most attorneys don’t think that way. Their knee-jerk reaction is somebody asks me how much something costs, I better tell them. But I think your strategy is better. So I think a lot of attorneys would also say, “This is a waste of time for me. My clients unlike your clients would never pay for a free consultation.” So what’s your response to the “my client” objection?
Sarah Poriss: Well, I spend a lot of time with other solos and they hear that I do paid consultations and they say, “Well you get good people who call you.” And I’m thinking no, because they kind of do the same law I do, and it’s just how I set it up. The question is if they’re not going to pay for a consultation, how are you going to get them to pay for a real retainer? So that doesn’t make sense to me. And again, you’re teaching them that you give information for free. And I talk to a lot of solos who do some kind of free consultation and some will say yeah, it’s 20 minutes, I just decide if I can stand this person. And some people will say they bring them into their conference room and the bottom line is the attorney tries to impress the potential client by how smart they are and they fill out forms for them and they give them all these materials and their diplomas are up on the wall and their goal is to impress this person and they’re giving away an hour or hour and a half for free. And then what does that teach the client? It teaches the client that you’ll do a lot for free and they keep pushing and they keep asking. “What about this? What about that? Just one more question.” So you’ve got to decide if your law practice is a hobby that you enjoy so much that you’ll do for free or if each hour is a potential source of income for you.
Jared Correia: Alright. So let’s get down for the nitty gritty here in a little bit. So it’s great that we’re charging for consultations now. Everybody listening is going to start charging for consultations, right?
Sarah Poriss: Mhm, everybody. Yeah.
Jared Correia: So how do you set the initial consultation fee for everybody in the world, lawyers and nonlawyers? So how do you set the initial consultation fee? What are the factors that are sort of relevant to the pricing of this?
Sarah Poriss: I would limit it to an hour. Of course, you can decide what product you’re selling and what timeframe is appropriate. For some people it could be a half hour, could be an hour and a half, could be two hours depending on what you’re doing. So you’ve got to know how long these are going to take and you’ll have to discuss it. And you’re going to underquote and you’re going to over quote and you’re going to find the one that’s just right. I try to leave mine to an hour. I’m excited when they’re out the door in less than an hour. I look at my watch and go, “Yes! 50 minutes! Yes!” For some reason to me it’s like more per hour because it was just under and hour. They of course feel they got the same value as if they were there a little longer. I actually don’t use hourly billing in my practice anymore except for the paid consultation. But I would recommend setting the rate at higher than your hourly rate for several reasons. One is just to get that person in the door you’ve used your own time to do the intake process and the scheduling process and the call to confirm then get them in the door. So just to get them in the door there’s been staff resources used. Then I always offer a little follow up. Feel free to call me, feel free to email me. Sometimes there’s a question that comes up in the consult that I can’t answer or I can’t put my hands on a resource that I know I have. And I’ll say I’ll research that for you or I’ll look into it and I’ll send that to you as soon as I can. I don’t offer to do their appeal for free after a one hour consultation, I just mean if I know I need to get them the name of a really good CPA that I can’t find the card. So there’s usually a little tiny spin afterwards. If people are coming in to see you and they pay you for this initial consultation who should later hire you for real, then A, when you quote them a lower hourly rate, they’ll be impressed. But you’re going to want to keep in touch with them and follow up with them after this consultation until they do hire or retain you fully. So again, all this little bit of time can be captured with a slightly higher hourly rate.
Jared Correia: I’ve got you. So that’s good. So we’ve been teasing this a little bit so let’s actually get into it now. Let’s talk about the alternatives to the free in-office consultation, that traditional free consultation that lawyers give. I know you’ve talked about this a little bit, but what are some more of the ways that you can sort of dress this up so clients are actually happier to pay you for that.
Sarah Poriss: Well, I’ll tell you that my use of the paid consultation has really evolved in the last couple of years. First I want to point out that I always did it when I was working at a firm that we initiated paid consultations and then when I went on my own and I do mostly dispense work, so I feel it’s more appropriate to be able to charge for. And I’m not telling people that do personal injury cases that they should start charging for those intakes. There are certain areas of law that will never be appropriate or competitively you can’t charge. So I’m just saying there’s areas of practice where you know you’re giving value, you’re helping people fill out forms, you’re giving them information or an interpretation of the law they wouldn’t get nowhere else. There’s lots of areas of law where this is appropriate. I also want to point out that this is a significant portion of my monthly and yearly income. It’s excellent for cash flow. So if you determine how much time you’re giving away in consultations versus time you could capture by getting paid, you’ll start tracking it specifically – which I do with a code, the letter P, for paid consultation. You’ll see that it can be a significant portion or you can start capturing the time that you’re giving away. Because hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands per month or per year depending on what kind of firm that you’re in and what you charge and what you offer. That said, it’s sort of evolved with me. I will admit that practice management is a challenge and that my practice has really grown in the past year, and I want more people to retain me fully than to pay me one hour at a time. I realized that I was substituting the opportunity to offer potential clients to retain me fully. I was substituting it for giving them a one hour consultation. That’s a big price difference. So I had to really examine what I’m doing and what’s going on here. The enlightenment came when my business coach said don’t have a sales conversation during a legal consultation. I suppose you could say it either way. I was realizing I would have my legal consultations that I charged for and spend a little time at the end telling them when you need to retain me or if you need to retain me, these are my terms and I’d show them the full retainer agreement. So I would take that consult fee and then some would sign up right there for a retainer, maybe wait a week or so to send me the check, or take it with them and I’d follow up to see if they’re interested. So I was kind of doing both, I was mixing them. So nothing really wrong with that, that was working for a long time under some circumstances that’s perfectly appropriate. You’re giving good value in this legal consultation and then you have to have the sales conversation. The way this evolved for me is I decided that if I know, because in Connecticut we’re really lucky, most case information is available online. I just need a first and last name, I look up their case, I see where it is, I see what’s going on, and I know – and I work in foreclosure defense – if their case is in a particular place. I’d like to think they need me and they’ll recognize they need me. So what I’ve done is I now have three options. If I decide which one to offer before we call back the person to schedule, I’ll either schedule a 15 minute phone conversation with me, and that’s if I just don’t have enough information to know what I’m going to do with this person. It sounds like something I can help with, but they’ve said something and I just have a few more questions. So a 15 minute free phone consultation and we schedule that. Another option is what I call a sales conversation. Someone’s about to lose their house, I know I can help. I have my admins schedule, most people will come in and meet with me for up to half an hour. I don’t really tell them that’s how short it’s going to be, but my agenda is less legal consultation. I give them very little substantive information, and instead I just say you know where you are, I know where you are, here’s my agreement; I know what I can do for you. And I really talk to them about strategy, but I don’t explain the law to them, I just say this is what I’d do if you retained me, and we talked about that. And then I still have the paid consultation for approximately one hour if it’s someone who fits a certain profile as well. So I really started using these other methods where I’m giving away less substantive information for free and I draw the line and charge for it when what they require is a substantive legal consultation.
Jared Correia: That’s great, I think this is all fantastic advice for lawyers, and you’ve clearly thought a lot about this. So everybody go hard for paid consultations, but not so hard that you’re only doing paid consultations. I think that’s probably the lesson here, right?
Sarah Poriss: You know, it’s hard for me to admit that I kind of was putting a lot of my eggs in one basket there. It was the tough realization that I was substituting these one hour things for giving people the opportunity to retain me fully and really start working with me sooner. So that was hard to not see the forest for the trees for a while. But it’s all a learning experience and there’s definite trial and error in this entire process.
Jared Correia: And you’re now the master.
Sarah Poriss: You do become a master at it!
Jared Correia: You’re the master of paid consultations.
Sarah Poriss: Well it is something you need to master. The first few times you quote your rate, you’re going to stumble over it. You’re going to, I did. And I had been doing it, and I went solo and I was stumbling over it when I actually had to start quoting the fees. I knew people would pay, and it was still hard for me. And then after three or four stumbling over it, I just said you’ve got to stop stumbling over, just quote a number and stick to the number that came out of your mouth. You can always charge less than when the person walks in the door if you’ve said a crazy number, but just don’t sound like you have no confidence. You have to sound confident and say, “This is what we’re going to do, this is what we’ll accomplish and it’s going to cost $400.” And if you go, “This is $400 an hour! You could always charge them less!” But don’t undersell yourself. Just stick to it. “Yep, it’s $400. I take cash, check and money order.” Give them payment methods, that’s another good tip for being successful. Type it out and tape it to the wall above your phone with your little script. I charge $400 for the consultation, I take cash, check or money order for the fee. Would you like to get that scheduled? Whatever your little script is, until it’s ingrained in you, write it down. Don’t be shy about it because you need to come across as confident or they’re going to be like, “Well, she doesn’t seem so sure about what she’s going to give me for $400,” so just put it out there.
Jared Correia: I’m impressed, sincerely. We’ve spent half hour on paid consultations. People told me it couldn’t be done, but here we are. Now for all of you listening, we’ve reached the end of another episode of the Legal Toolkit. But don’t worry, we’ll be back next month. And if you’re feeling nostalgic, you can check out all of our shows any time you want on LegalTalkNetwork.com. So thank you, Sarah Poriss for taking the time to come by our virtual studio today to chat with us about the efficacy of charging for consultations. Sarah, can you tell our listeners where they might be able to find out more about you?
Sarah Poriss: Sure. I’d like to think you could Google Hartford foreclosure lawyer and I’d come up number one, but my website is SarahPoriss.com.
Jared Correia: Thanks, Sarah. Again, we really appreciate it. And thanks to all of you out there for continuing to listen to my inane blather against the backdrop of the wisdom of our regular guests. Talk to you next time.
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