Letter to the Editor

A new view to that ‘initial consultation’

By L. Steven Emmert, Virginia Lawyers Weekly – December 17, 2007

I’m writing to those of you who offer free initial consultations to prospective clients in order to determine whether you can help them. I want to persuade you to stop.

It certainly is not my intention to ask you to stop seeing prospective clients. I do, however, want to suggest that you stop doing it for free, when there is a better way.

For years, I offered this simple courtesy to those who wished to hire me; I’m confident that a great many of you do, too. In those instances in which I found that I couldn’t help such a person, they always expressed gratitude when I told them, “you don’t owe me anything.” The goodwill thus generated often led to business down the road, when the client later had a problem I could help with.

So why would anyone want to do away with a source of goodwill, and conceivably limit the availability of free legal services? Because there is a better way to do it, preserving both advantages.

Early in 2004, I began advising those persons who wanted to consult me, as follows: “If my initial review convinces me that I can’t help you, then you are not going to get a bill from me. I just can’t stomach the thought of telling someone, ‘There’s nothing I can do for you; now pay me $X for looking into it.’ Instead, I will ask, in that event, that you give me a check payable to a charity I will name.” I always ensure that the amount I request is less than what my hourly rate would call for, so the prospect will clearly save money by taking this route.

This arrangement has several advantages. Since the client is writing the check directly to the charity, he gets the tax deduction. I get the same amount I would have received under my previous consultation policy—zero—but some of the charities I care about are now benefiting from sources that might not otherwise engage in giving. From the client’s standpoint, he paid for 30 minutes, and got an hour’s worth of advice.

After test-driving this policy, I can report the following results: I have raised many thousands of dollars for local charities. None of the potential clients has balked at the requirement; 100 percent of them have given me a charitable check, and most of them have told me they thought it was a wonderful policy. Many gave me double the amount I suggested. I am no wealthier because of the policy, but I do take a certain immodest satisfaction in what it has achieved.

Many of you will be unable to adopt this policy; you’re in the public sector, or are in-house corporate counsel, or this policy may not fit the kinds of clients you represent. And you’ll have to use some discretion, of course; you won’t ask for a check when you’re consulted by a young mother of two who’s just lost her husband in an accident. But for most of us, this simple change can be a tool with which we can do some good in the community, even if it’s on a small individual scale.

According to the Virginia State Bar, we comprise well over 20,000 active members. If just 15 percent of you adopt this policy, and if you inspire an average of $1,000 per year in contribution checks (far less than my experience shows is possible), we can generate an additional $3 million or more annually in new charitable contributions.

The selection of charities is up to you. You can specify local organizations, to ensure that the donation is spent close to home; or national organizations that may be particularly meaningful to you. In the past, I have given the clients a choice between the local children’s hospital, the local SPCA chapter, or the Red Cross. More recently, I have raised thousands for a local organization that uses horseback riding as therapy for physically and emotionally handicapped kids.

One fringe benefit of this policy is that it can help to address a problem that affects each of us—the low esteem in which we are held by the public. As for you, this won’t make you richer, unless you measure your wealth in smiles of gratitude and admiration. You’ll get plenty of those.

L. Steven Emmert
Virginia Beach