There are two distinct schools of thought on free consultations. In some areas of law, a fee for taking up an attorney's time is the standard. After all, our time is our most valuable asset, and if I'm spending an hour speaking with you, that is time I cannot spend working for a paying client. Simple enough, and understandable – this is a business, after all.
In family law, the argument for and against consultation fees are equally compelling. Because the nature of family law is inherently confrontational, it is common to find a person running about town receiving free consultations about their pending divorce. Why is that a problem, you wonder? For ease of this example, let's name the parties Harry and Wanda. For each attorney that Harry has consulted with and not retained, that attorney cannot be retained by Wanda, because in the course of consulting with Harry, that attorney likely learned certain information that could otherwise be detrimental to Harry, if the attorney were to accept representation of Wanda. Furthermore, this isn't just an issue of whether the attorney should accept representation, the California Rules of Professional Conduct (Rule(s) 1.6-1.7) tell us, we cannot.
To remedy “attorney shopping” to a degree, a number of family law firms charge a consultation fee. To justify this fee, you are probably told “you get our utmost dedication and focused listening to your needs!” Depending on the firm, that may be true. A consultation fee may also reveal Harry's intent – is he really looking to hire the attorney, or is he just shopping around to prevent Wanda from being able to retain this same firm.
Some firms that charge consultation fees also claim doing so protects the potential client from unscrupulous attorneys who may not charge a consultation fee, but will use scare tactics and feed on your fears to entice you to sign with them. Again, possibly true. But if you are considering paying for a consultation, be weary of these statements from consultation fee-charging firms as to the intent of “free consultation” firms, as these statements are just as inflammatory as whatever the unscrupulous attorney may be promising. While it is true those attorneys exist in our profession, I would be remiss to say it is the standard. Rather, it is the exception.
Compelling reasons for charging a consultation fee, you would agree. But still, not everyone can afford to pay it. So then, why don't all attorneys charge a consultation fee?
Why Do You Not Charge A Consultation Fee?
Personally speaking, I went into family law for two reasons. First, the facts are always different, and that makes the research fun! And just as importantly, to help people. To help people see past their anger, confusion, disgust – whatever they may be feeling as a result of the situation that landed them at my office. In doing so, my intent is to alleviate some of these emotions and help the client see the likely outcomes. You see, family law is complex and also, fairly predictable. The computer programs used by the Court to calculate child support, for example, are mechanical – the output is only as accurate as the input. The community property rules in California too, are complex, but still fairly predictable. Did you buy a house during marriage? Well, that is community property and apart from some possibly reimbursement issues, the home will be sold and an equity divided equally. Yes, this is an oversimplification, but it is the most common outcome.
The more I can assist my client see past the hurt and anger, redirect that emotion into collaborative efforts to preserve their interests, the more I can save my clients money. Yes, I said this is a business, and it is, but attorneys are charged with protecting and preserving the interests of their clients, and I cannot say I honestly do that if efficiency and collaboration are not at the heart of my practice.