Why I don't give free legal advice, and why you shouldn't take it
Any attorney who is been practicing for more than 36 hours has received the inevitable phone call from someone they've never met wanting to ask a “quick question.” If you have ever called an attorney and attempted to ask a “quick question,” this article is for you. As a strict matter of policy, I do not give free legal advice. I have a written policy in my office that I do not do free consultations or answer legal questions from non-clients. I'm not the only attorney to do this. While this might seem like an insensitive policy, its designed to not only protect me, but also to protect you.
You will get bad advice
In the law, there is no such thing as a “quick question.” If an attorney gives you advice solely based upon a “quick question,” it is not based upon 100% of the information that we need to make an adequate recommendation to you. I have experienced dozens of situations in which we discovered facts well into the prosecution of the case that significantly changed the outlook for that case's resolution, both favorably and unfavorably. If I had made a snap judgment after a five-minute phone call, I would’ve taken on some really bad cases, and turned away many good ones.
I automatically dislike you
If you called asking a “quick question,” you probably just interrupted me doing something billable for another client. "Quick" is usually synonymous with “free,” so I am actually losing money by answering your question. Fair or not, this means that I've probably already made a snap judgment about you, which might be reflected in the quality of answer you receive.
I just fired myself
Your “quick question,” is actually considered to be legal representation. If I provide any advice to you whatsoever, no matter how benign, you just constructively became my client under the law. So, when the person that is trying to sue you comes into my office wanting to pay me to sue you for the issue that you called me about, my 30-second response to you will prevent me from being retained by a paying client. Your “quick question” may just cost me actual money.
You will lie to me
People instinctively seek confirming information. Your “quick question” is probably loaded with all of the information to make you look great, and will likely contain none of the “bad facts” that every decent lawyer knows riddles their cases. Because you cannot tell me everything that happened in an “quick question,” I know that you will cherry pick the facts that make you look good, and not the ones that will make you ultimately lose your case.
I will sell you
When I did free initial consultations, it was a sales routine. I got you into my nice office office. I was very nice to you. I showed you my nice conference room. I would listen to your sad story. I would empathize with you, but, at the end of the day, I would not offer any actual legal advice. When somebody would come in wanting free information, I sold them on the next step instead of helping them where they were. To me, this was dishonest and disingenuous, on top of being a complete waste of everyone’s time. Finally, I split the difference, and I decided to charge a discounted rate for initial consultations, recognizing that there may be some clients that I can do nothing for, but at least they had paid the money to seek my services, so I was going to give them the best advice that I possibly could in an initial consultation.
I already know that you will be a terrible client
It might come as a surprise to you, but attorneys hire and fire their clients in the same way that you hire and fire us. If we don’t like you, we will stop representing you or never take on your case. I, like many attorneys, actually grade my clients. My “A” clients value my time, respect my schedule, and pay my invoices on time. My “D” clients expect immediate results, call at all hours of the day, and negotiate every invoice. “D” clients don’t stick around for long. Your unwillingness to pay for a discounted initial consultation is red flag number one that you’re going to be on the bottom end of that scale.
I know that you don’t respect me
What might seem to be a simple question to you has probably taken me years to learn, often from very painful lessons. I have been cussed at by my clients, I have been yelled at by judges, and I have lost cases after spending unthinkable hours preparing for them. I have also had clients cry tears of joy in my office, I have had judges so impressed with my work that they have recommended potential clients to me, and I have also won cases that I easily could have lost. Each of these presented me a valuable lesson, and each experience is a data point that allows me to better represent my clients. When you call to ask a “quick question,” you are signaling to me that all you want is an answer and not a relationship. My best work comes from a long and ongoing relationship with my clients, many of which have paid me and met with me on a monthly basis for years on end. Not only will your "quick question" yield a dispassionate "quick answer," but it likely won't leave you any better off than before you called me.
How to be a great client
My favorite phrase to hear on the phone is "I would like to make an appointment." It gives me a chance to not completely switch gears off of what I'm working on while also committing to give you 100% of my attention at a scheduled date. Quick answers are rarely good answers, and being able to give you all of my attention will give you a much better answer than you would receive in a short phone call.
Hiring an attorney is inherently difficult. On the outside, we all look the same. Just shopping around can seem prohibitively expensive. Admittedly, there are some exceptions, such as in personal injury cases, but you’re probably not going to get a lot of real information or interaction from an attorney that offers free consultations.