Shortly after opening the doors of my brand new practice, I received a call from an unknown number on my cell phone. No surprise there: Online marketing ‘experts’ had been slamming my phone number non-stop since I began listing it online.
But this was no spammer: It was just a guy with a few simple questions about how retirement accounts are divided during divorce. He was not (yet) a client. And he was asking questions about substantive law. What would you do?
I’ve received differing opinions on these types of scenarios. Most lawyers face them, once they’ve put up their online profiles. Some are aghast at the thought of providing any free answers. Most tell the caller that they cannot help them or provide any advice unless they come into their office.
Me? I was bored. So I answered his questions with “the general rule, which is all I can tell you without reviewing your case, is … and there are exceptions.” It was basically free advice with a cover-your-butt caveat since I didn’t have all of the pertinent information in front of me.
The caller thanked me for the plain-spoken advice and then asked if he could come in and hire me that same day. Apparently, he had talked to a handful of other lawyers first, and all of them were either rude and dismissive, or, in his words, “pushed the salesman stuff.”
So again: How do you handle free-advice seekers? More often than not, the call is coming from someone who has no intention of hiring you, but in some cases, the way you handle a free-advice seeker could land you a new client.
Option 1: No free rides
This is the option that most lawyers seem to choose. They refuse to answer any questions over the phone about law, no matter how general the inquiry. And, in a way, it makes sense: No one should work for free, and a person likely won’t pay you if you give them the answers up front (especially for basic legal issues that can be handled in a DIY manner).
Then again, how do you demonstrate authority to potential clients if you refuse to answer even basic questions?
Of course, if you’ve been practicing for twenty years, have a full book of clients and a great referral base, and your reviews and reputation are stellar, you may not need to worry about new potential clients and their phone calls (along with the inevitable free riders). But if you’ve just opened your practice, it may be a different story.
Option 2: Keep it general
On the other hand, answering a few questions about what the law is generally will take, maybe, a few minutes of your time. It’s a great way to show that you know what you’re talking about.
If the caller asks about an obscure issue, you can always promise to follow up after getting their contact information. (This is also a great segue into getting them to meet with you for an in-person consultation.)
The danger, which many attorneys will warn you about, is getting sued over handing out general advice. Even if you are only speaking to a caller about a general rule, a paranoid soul could envision a scenario where the caller goes by that general rule only to find later that their case was an exception.
If they sue, or file a bar complaint, it won’t be easy to prove that you gave them proper disclaimers about your answers being for informational use only—not for legal advice. To avoid this situation, you could send a follow-up letter, reiterating the general rule and the disclaimer, but that’s a lot of work for every phone call that comes in.
Option 3: Schedule phone or in-person consultations
This might be a good compromise between the two options above for handling free advice seekers. Ask the client to gather the requisite information (perhaps send them a checklist based on their request) in advance. Explain that there are general rules and lots of exceptions to those rules, so you don’t want to give them the wrong answer, and that a consultation with all of the information available is the best route to take.
A short explanation as to why you can’t simply answer questions over the phone might be enough to persuade wary consumers, fearful of sales tactics, to come in for a consultation (especially if you offer free consultations). Keep in mind that when choosing a lawyer to hire, 64% of consumers surveyed for the 2017 Legal Trends Report said that offering free consultations made a key difference in their decision.
And if none of that works—they’re probably the free advice seekers that most lawyers despise. It may help, in the long run, to give them a few general answers, but with such a low chance of a return on your invested time, you might consider whether handing out freebies is worth it.