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That’s the trick…quickly ascertaining and differentiating between the ‘potential clients’ from the junk, no?
An inexperienced, no staff, ‘true solo’ over at the Linkedin Solo Attorney Practitioner’s Forum raised this question and there was a great discussion full of wonderful tips from lawyers of varying experience levels and practice areas about the art of handling potential new client calls. Here are some thoughts I culled from the discussion and my many, many years of practical experience…
Personally my preferred method of handling initial telephone calls from potential clients when my legal assistant is working is for her to take the call and then schedule the potential client for a 15-minute Mini-Consultation at a set date/time in the future with me. I hate playing phone tag and constant interruptions are hugely damaging to my ability to get substantive legal work completed. The Mini-Consultation is free of charge.
What if you have no staff and the person answering that first phone call is YOU?
I’d suggest thinking about these initial calls as 2 parts sales and 1 part ethics.
I’m selling 3-4 potential services…1) an initial, in-office, paid consultation; 2) a present full/typical legal representation; 3) a future full/typical legal representation; or, 4) goodwill and possible future referrals.
One poster in the forum referred to these sorts of consultations as “20 minute advertisements.” You don’t get a much more captive audience than the person who has made the effort to find you and call you and now you’re having very personal conversation with this person. I think that’s a great thought to have in mind when these sorts of people give you a ring. I could envision a strong sales/attorney whose role is only to take these initial sales calls and conduct initial sales meetings.
Of course some callers are just trying to pump you for free legal advise or are just price shopping. If it smells like this type of caller, very quickly mention “I charge X per hour and need a Y retainer…would you like to hire me?” Also, ask where the caller got your telephone number. If it’s a strong referral from your best friend you likely want to give more latitude versus the person who did a random Web search.
There is a segment of lawyers however who decline to discuss a potential case with a potential client except in-office, for a fee. The mind-set here being your time is valuable and also a good point made that I agree with is that often the initial legal advice given is the most valuable legal advice. In other words much of the initial advice where often very large, macro-level decisions are made is often the most critical lawyering done with a potential client and thus you should be compensated for such valuable advice.
And I suppose eventually that’s where all lawyers would like to be…getting compensated for the maximum possible % of their time. In my opinion the ideal to shoot for is a practice that both runs itself and that sells itself primarily through marketing to current/former clients and referral sources.
As for the 1 part ethics, well the question is how would this initial caller be classified and might this initial caller possibly hurt you?
In Illinois our rule 1.18 of the Rules of Professional Conduct likely would define these callers as “Prospective Clients.” Your duty to these Prospective Clients is very similar to your duty to former clients which is basically the potential conflict of interest scenarios and you’re not allowed to represent another person or interests opposed to a prospective/former client.
This sort of initial, brief telephone conference shouldn’t give rise to an attorney-client privilege generally although the use of a non-engagement letter following these brief conversations or meetings would be recommended. If not these innocuous phone calls could move towards legal malpractice scenarios.
What camp are you in when it comes to these telephone inquires?