You can’t turn on the television without watching one of those incessant personal injury lawyer ads promising no fees unless they successfully sue the pants off someone for you. As a result, clients expect all attorneys, no matter the specialty, to offer a “free initial consultation.”
Should you do it?
Yes and no. You may for some, but not for others.
Allow me to explain. As estate-planning attorneys, our prospective clients aren’t going to generate fees amounting to one-third of a multi-million dollar settlement. Yet the client expectation regarding free initial consultations remains, and if we buck the trend, we might miss out on genuine opportunities. At the same time, we’ve all been trapped spending our valuable time with tire-kickers only interested in picking our brain with no intention of signing an engagement letter.
So how do you sift through the pyrite to consistently find real client gold?
Client Intake Process
First, let’s examine your client intake process. My guess is that you may be missing some elements that I’m about to describe. Let’s take the situation, for example, when a prospective client telephones your office and asks to speak with you, so you take the call.
“Tell me, Mr. Attorney, how much do you charge for a will?”
WARNING – when the first question indicates fee sensitivity, it’s more likely than not you have a tire-kicker on the other end of the line only interested in picking your brain.
“That depends on a number of factors,” you answer, “whether a will or trust is right for you, whether estate tax planning is needed, whether you have a blended family and so on.”
“My situation is REAL SIMPLE,” prospective client begins, “I’m in a third marriage with a blended family. Most of my assets are in annuities and individual retirement accounts, although I have a large brokerage account. I own a part of a family business, but my family considers me the ‘black sheep’ for reasons I don’t understand. When I die I want my wife to only get $1,500 a month for the rest of her life then everything should go to my kids, not my rotten step-kids, blah blah blah blah blah…”
Now you’re trapped! You might attempt to quickly end the conversation and suggest that this person schedule an appointment. Alternatively, you may have already decided that this person’s expectations and fee sensitivity are such to not meet your criteria of an A+ client. Either way, you’ve wasted 20 minutes (or more!) that you’ll never get back.
Suppose you’re wise enough not to take those calls, but instead your staff schedules an appointment. Do you send out a client organizer to be returned before the first meeting? If you have a client organizer, what information does it ask for? Do you ask for it to be completed and returned before the first meeting? What other materials do you send along with the client organizer?
A well thought out client intake process is invaluable not only to you, but adds value to your intended client experience.
Get Information Before Meeting
I believe that gathering personal data during a first meeting is a waste of everyone’s time. To that end, I also request a copy of the client’s current estate-planning documents and require that the entire package be delivered to my office at least three business days prior to that first meeting.
This accomplishes a number of goals. First, we’re not wasting time gathering information that can easily be transmitted prior to the meeting. Second, I have the opportunity to review the client’s situation before walking into the conference room, giving me helpful context to the questions she may have as well as the foundational information that I need to update her plan. Third, it shows my prospective client that I’m serious about their matters and don’t view our meeting as a casual sit-down. Fourth, the thoroughness and organization of my firm is evident from the outset. Moreover, we’re prepared to give meaningful advice at that very first meeting.
This prompts two questions: What if the client is unwilling to complete the organizer and provide her current documents? And more importantly, how do we avoid giving away all of our value - our wisdom in the form of our advice - for free before we receive a deposit and a signed engagement letter? (See “From Data to Wisdom”).
As to the former, I have a simple answer. If the client expresses discomfort in completing the organizer before she engages my firm, my staff has a scripted answer about the importance of our receiving that organizer and how it’s in the client’s best interest. This way, the client receives as much advice as possible during that first meeting rather than our wasting time collecting data. If that answer isn’t good enough, then our response is to cancel the appointment.
I’m not willing to spend my valuable time on anyone who isn’t willing to complete some simple forms that, after all, are in her best interest. I’ve decided that those types of clients aren’t a good fit for me or for my firm.
As to the latter, you should never give away your knowledge and wisdom for free. Early in my career, I made the mistake of expounding on all of the client’s issues and problems, and how I would go about solving her problems before I received a signed engagement letter. That was a mistake. Too many people are happy to take that advice and then either try to do it themselves or take that advice to another attorney to see if they can get a “better deal.”
So how do you add value without giving away the farm? It’s really quite easy. It all centers on who your meeting is focused on. It shouldn’t be focused on you - rather it should be focused on them. Your goal during that meeting isn’t to arrive at a solution anyway. Your goal should be focused on what concerns your clients, and why they’re sitting in front of you. If that meeting goes well, you’re probably on your way to an A+ client relationship.
I’ll share how I accomplish that in my next column.
Until next time.