Do Deal Lawyers Give Free Consultations?
Updated: May 17
Personal injury lawyers and divorce lawyers frequently advertise free initial consultations as a way to attract new clients. The primary goals of initial consultations are (1) for the lawyer to determine whether the project is worth taking on, and (2) for the potential client to determine whether he or she will engage the lawyer. The consultation allows the lawyer to gather some preliminary information, assess the viability of a potential legal claim, and set expectations about the process and legal fees. The potential client can evaluate whether to engage the lawyer after getting a taste of his personality, experience, and legal fees. An initial consultation really is just a get-to-know-you meeting. Rarely will the lawyer answer legal questions or provide specific legal advice during the meeting - that would be unfair to the lawyer because he hasn't had a chance to investigate all the facts or research applicable law.
Deal lawyers I know (including myself) are generally willing to provide a free initial consultation if the scope of the meeting is limited to getting to know each other and evaluating whether the lawyer can help with the project. My experience, however, is that many times potential clients ask for a free initial consultation, but come with the expectation of more.
For example, a potential client once brought a contract to our initial consultation and expected me to review and provide legal advice on the contract during our meeting for free. Another time, a potential client wanted to pick my brain for free about how to structure and finance the purchase of a multi-million dollar business. Those types of meetings are not initial consultations, they are full-blown legal consultations where the potential client expects legal analysis, guidance, and answers. Because the potential client is seeking valuable legal advice, it is only fair that he or she should pay the lawyer for the legal services provided during the meeting. In those instances, a lawyer might charge a reduced fee (for example, many times, I charge $150 per hour for the first office consultation) as fair compensation for his legal services balanced against the creation of an incentive for the potential client to engage him for further legal work at his regular rate.
If you are meeting with a deal lawyer for the first time about a project, consider the purpose of your meeting. If the meeting is to get to know the lawyer and gain confidence about whether you want to engage him for your project, the lawyer might be willing to waive his fees. If, on the other hand, the meeting is to obtain legal advice (e.g., how to structure the deal, whether a contract is reasonable, etc.), then you should expect to pay the lawyer for his services. That's only fair.