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Everybody likes things that are free. Free things often make us happy.

Sometimes free things are valuable to us – sometimes they are junk. Sometimes they actually cost us money and aren’t really free at all.

Free initial consultations offered by lawyers fall into all three categories. Two of the three are spending money on stupid shit. Why? Sometimes spending money on stupid shit comes in the form of receiving something we think is free but really is not free. Take for example the “free initial consultation.” You see nearly every lawyer offer a free initial consultation. Some lawyers actually provide free initial consultations that provide value to their potential client. However, many times what is described as a free initial consultation only provides value to the lawyer.

Let me provide two concrete examples.

First, the contingent fee initial consultation in an injury case. That consultation is not free. Not under any measure. The lawyer uses the initial consultation to evaluate whether the case is one that want to take on an initial basis – intake control and nothing more. If the lawyer decides to take the case on an initial basis at the end of the initial meeting, the client signs a contract entitling the lawyer to a fee even if the client later determines that lawyer is not a lawyer who can provide the services they seek. At the same time the contract signed by the client allows the lawyer to fire the client at any point in the lawyer’s opinion the lawyer’s evaluation of the claim or the likelihood of collection is insufficient to proceed. Some of those contracts go so far as to require the client the pay a fee in the event that a lawyer recommends a settlement and the client rejects the settlement. Is the initial consultation in that case really “free?” Absolutely not. Rather the client has spent money on stupid shit that only provides value to the lawyer.

Second, “free” initial consultations in non-injury cases of really any nature. What do clients actually learn in those consultations? In many cases, not any value whatsoever. Lawyers often use those consultations to evaluate whether the client can afford the lawyer, or whether the fee to be obtained by the lawyer if the lawyer takes the case is significant enough to justify working with a particular client. Again, intake control protecting the lawyer but no real value for the client. Once again time, which is money, spent on stupid shit.

What can a client do? Ask questions. Will the lawyer look at documents and make a recommendation or provide a fee estimate at the end of the consultation? If not – expect to spend money on stupid shit. Will the lawyer evaluate alternatives to using the lawyer that are truly helpful for the client at the initial consultation? Will the lawyer provide fee estimates or flat fee quotes for work to be completed after the initial consultation or at some point shortly after the initial consultation before the client decides the retain the lawyer? If not, you’re probably spending money on stupid shit. Ask clients who have worked with the lawyer in the past what they have experienced. Look at reviews on Facebook, Avvo or the lawyer’s website.

The testimonials we see all too often about how much money a lawyer got for a client are misleading at best. No person receives a significant settlement unless they have suffered real and significant injuries. Testimonials hand selected by a lawyer are of little or no value. They are justifications for the purchase of stupid shit.

Think again about immigrants and the use of lawyers. They are afraid to use lawyers. They understand that nothing of value is free in business and without a clear understanding of what they will receive, they do not hire lawyers. The same thing is true with many other people who many need to consume legal services.

What is the solution? Ask what will happen at the initial consultation. Seek flat fees or not to exceed fees for the actual evaluation of your case. Seek estimates of cost for projects and understand what can lead cost estimates to vary. Use your instinct or “gut” feeling – ask yourself “am I spending money on stupid shit” even if the initial consultation is “free.”

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