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Initial consultations - satisfaction or your money back? Should lawyers provide free consultations to prospective clients? Discounts to new clients? Refunds of a consult fee to clients who ask for one? ISBA lawyers offer their opinions.

How can you not gather around the virtual water cooler when one of your fellow ISBA members posts to one of ISBA's electronic discussion groups under the header "Annoying client question of the day?"

"OK," wrote Amy Breyer, "so a woman comes to my office for an hour consultation a few weeks ago. She seemed satisfied enough when she left." But the client developed a case of buyer's remorse regarding Breyer's advice. "She calls me back ... and demands 'I'm not happy! You didn't tell me anything I didn't already know and I want my money back!'" After going round and around with the unhappy client, Breyer said, "Finally, in order to get her off the phone, I agreed to refund half the consultation price."

But Breyer wasn't happy about her decision, feeling as if she'd been subjected to extortion. Asking for other lawyers' views, she wrote, "I am disinclined to agree to refund money again, if it ever comes up." But, she wondered, what do other lawyers who charge for consultations do under similar circumstances? And was she actually legally obligated to follow through and send out the refund as she'd agreed?

A happy client tells four, an unhappy client tells 10

ISBA colleagues were quick to respond, providing sympathy, information, advice, and encouragement.

Members generally agreed with Westmont attorney Joseph R. Fortunato's counsel. "Take your medicine and live up to your deal to refund half of the consultation fee." Skokie lawyer Marshall Richter, though likewise sympathetic, said, "Chalk it up to the cost of doing business. Any time spent responding to an ARDC or other inquiry will cost you more than a refund." And oak Park attorney Paul J. Prybylo cautioned, "In marketing, remember that one happy client tells four others while an unhappy client tells 10 [or more]."

But Huntley attorney TJ Thurston provided a contrary view: "I don't think you owe her a dime. She got an hour of your time and paid you for it.... I don't think the ARDC would even bother with this situation and, even if they did, you'd have a good response."

Fortunato today amplifies his earlier opinion that Breyer's feelings of having been held up were valid. "If [the client files a complaint against you], remember that it is a violation of ethics to offer consideration to a client or former client who has initiated a complaint with the ARDC to induce or attempt to induce the withdrawal of the complaint and don't offer her the balance of the fee to make it 'go away.'" Additionally, he said, "we tell people up front when they make appointments that we charge for consultation time.... I have been known to waive the fee but not often."

Others, including Michael A. Fleming from Peoria and Laura Urbik-Kern from Elmhurst, advised that their practice is to offer a discounted consultation fee to new clients but make the basis for future fees clear if they are retained. Advised Kern, "I only refund if (a) the client is clearly struggling financially or (b) I could not help them and the consult lasted less than 15 minutes." She added "We get paid by our time. Clients don't get that part."

Free consults, unless the client signs on

Still others, including Chicago lawyer Jeffrey Liss, and Morris attorney Eric Frobish, said that they may not charge for an initial consultation, but if the client ends up retaining them, they charge the consultation time to the client at the full agreed rate. Said Frobish, "I spend the last few minutes of every consultation explaining this to the prospective clients in detail, along with providing a copy of our fee agreement and going over that with them, with a fee deposit specifically added to the agreement."

Frobish, like others commenting on the thread, noted that his typical consultation lasts anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. Agreeing that this is a significant amount of time to spend, he commented that he treats the advice he gives in the consultation "as if I were going to be representing them for sure."

He thinks that practice pays off. "I ... find that we tend to get retained in the majority of these cases." His theory is that "1) people appreciate the more thorough consultation as opposed to the typical 15 minutes they might get in a 'free' consult; 2) they tend to feel more 'invested' with you as their potential attorney after spending that much time and going into that level of detail; and 3) it gives both me and the potential client the chance to get a better feel for one another before either of us decides to commit to the other."

Of course, he recognized, some prospective clients are clearly just shopping around or looking for free legal advice. In those cases, he restricts both his time and his advice to a minimum.

Breyer says she ended up grudgingly sending the client the refund but that she also amended her client intake form. Now, she says, the form provides that after the first half hour of a consultation no refunds will be given. Providing an additional tip of her own, Breyer notes that she requires clients to tender payment of her consultation fee before the beginning of the consultation.

To read Breyer's initial post and other members' responses, visit http://www. isba.org/Discussions/. Log in to ISBA's family law discussion group and navigate to the posts for December 2006. Look for the thread entitled "Annoying client question of the day" dated December 15, 2006.

Helen W. Gunnarsson is an attorney and writer in Highland Park. She can be reached at <gunnarssonhg@comcast.net>.
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Title Annotation:Illinois State Bar Association
Author:Gunnarsson, Helen W.
Publication:Illinois Bar Journal
Date:Aug 1, 2007
Words:941
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