Part One: The Mess of Free Legal Consultations – And How to Clean It Up.

family law consultations

Part One: Set your goals

In Lexis-Nexis’ recently published “quick tips” for attorney consultations, attorneys are reminded that clients are humans.  Divorce attorneys providing consultations must gather a great deal of information in a short time from an emotional client. Lexis warns, treating people like fact patterns is common, and should be avoided. While this is good advice, it’s just the start. Family law consultations are a mess – every lawyer treats them differently, and very few attorneys are intentional in their approach.

Messy consultations cause liability and miss opportunity. What to do? Use a consultation to screen for the right clients, earn hourly fees, and market yourself. How to do it? We’ll give you three steps.

Family law consultations should meet your goals. Define them in advance. Are you trying to be profitable? Productive? Business building? Are you trying to minimize liability? Would you believe it is possible to meet all those goals at once?

Profit: time spent in consultation should be directly or indirectly profitable. Direct profit is charging the client for your time. Your charge should be stated in advance to the client, and preferably, fixed – this allows the client to choose you in respect of your fees, and it stops them from worrying as the clock is ticking. You should charge the client enough to cover your hourly overhead, and not too much to price you out of the competition. Indirect profit means your time is leveraged into either engaging the client, or making an impression so favorable that the client refers future business. Indirect profit is hard to measure and predict.

Productivity: use your time to gather enough data to decide whether you’d like to take on the client, and to provide value to the client.  But…mostly, to decide whether to take the client. Pre-determine which cases you want and don’t want, so that you can easily determine whether a client checks your boxes. Think of it like a Tinder date. You may meet the person you’ll marry. Or, you may know right away that it’s not a match, and if this is the case, instead of dashing from the table, you’ll try to make a polite exit and leave a good impression. This is what family law consultations should be all about.

Business-building: consultations are an opportunity to market yourself. Every impression should be cohesive, from your website and intake process, to greeting and later, following up. The client should get a consistent message about who you are, what type of cases you handle, and why you’re worth it. What is the core message you want to send to the client? Put it into three words. Build those words into a brand. Use every contact with the client to build your brand.  

Minimize liability: love or hate consultations, they have to happen. As an ongoing part of your practice, then, consultations also create ongoing risks. There’s an entire profession dedicated to risk management, but what lawyers can take is this: think of what can go wrong in advance of it going wrong, and put into place safeguards to mitigate those risks. What goes wrong beyond the initial conflict check? Think of ten consultations that ended up going sideways, causing you stress, or costing you money. What did they have in common? What can you do in advance to avoid that? As one example, have prior clients felt unclear about whether you took their case? Prepare a form/email template in advance that (a) you can complete in 60 seconds and (b) identifies in one sentence whether you’re taking their case, or if not, what you suggest they do next.

Before the next consultation comes in, spend a couple of hours rethinking your process. Set goals for your time. Then, create systems for reaching those goals. If you get overwhelmed, start with one goal. Just one thing you want the consultation to achieve, and then a couple of steps to get it. Lawyers are natural business analysts, actually. In finding ways to treat your clients like humans, as Lexis suggests, you may even find yourself enjoying consultations much more.

Erika Englund is a former divorce attorney with over five thousand hours of negotiation experience. Currently, she is the Chief of Strategy for SupportPay, the only platform designed to help parents manage child support payments and expenses between each other. Erika Englund is also divorced, happily (most of the time – she’s not perfect) co-parenting two young children in Northern California. 
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