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The Magazine of Illinois Lawyers

March 2016Volume 104Number 3Page 54

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Attorney Fees, Family Law

From the Discussions

Should you charge a consultation fee?

artwork for articleQ. Is it better to charge for an initial client meeting or do it for free?

(From the ISBA main discussion group)

Barbara J. Bell, Libertyville. What can you do to protect yourself from potential clients who come into your office, indicate they want to hire you, and then change their mind? Do any of you charge a consultation fee?

ISBA lawyers respond

Carl Draper, Springfield. I think that happens especially to a lot of family law attorneys…. Often it is just trying to get as much free advice as possible and seeking a lawyer who will agree with them rather than offer an objective analysis.

I do a lot of employment law and there are no "free consultations." I have a set fee that is a very fair price to the client, so I get compensated for my time since appointments are rarely shorter than an hour. I try to give good advice for the amount of information provided in advance and often get retained to do further work.

Free consultations, however, are not good marketing tools. People are likely to respect you more if you respect yourself enough to not give away free time when you could instead be working on one of the files you already have open.

Michael D. Poulos, Evanston. A consultation fee can be charged, but I would advise careful documentation. On the other hand, you do not pay to take a car for a test drive.

I almost never charge a consultation fee. If the potential client has a case that makes sense, wants to hire me, and has the money, great. Otherwise I chalk it up to goodwill and "marketing." That potential client who did not hire me has been known to send a good client my way at some future date.

Eric E. Hasselberg, Peoria. Carl said it perfectly and I echo the opinion that you should never give away your expertise. Think about what it costs you an hour to keep your door open. Think about how much you have to net a year to provide for your retirement if you are self-employed (something I fear many lawyers fail to consider). People who can afford to pay should pay. My time is too valuable to give it away. We only have so many hours in a year to sell. Think of it as inventory. How many businesses give away their inventory?

One other thing: if potential clients (PCs) come in after leaving another lawyer, tell them to bring their checkbook with them. Otherwise, you are unlikely to be paid for the consultation. Remember, you can charge for a consultation without undertaking any further legal services, even if you decline to represent them.

Melissa Anne Maye, Yorkville. A rule of thumb that I have learned the hard way: Avoid taking evening and weekend appointments. If the matter is not important enough to the client to give up a half a day of work to meet with you, it will not be worth your weekend or evening. (This is a guideline, not a rule).

Edward W. Williams, Chicago. I agree with Melissa and take it a bit further. We are almost always hourly, non-contingent. A now deceased lawyer told me 25 years ago that he was willing to talk to anyone for an hour for free. I adopted that for us and it works. The skill is not to tell the PC too much about how you are going to solve their problem so that they can do it themselves.

Most of the hour is spent talking about how we are the best at what we do, our long experience in the matter at hand, and how we will go the extra mile, etc. It is all about selling yourself upfront to them. We will not do any consultation on the phone for the same principle Melissa espoused: If it is not worth your time to come to my office to discuss your case for free, it is not worth my time on the phone. Absolutely no fees or hourly rates are quoted over the phone. If they ask, I tell them there are a multitude of cheaper lawyers out there, offer to refer them to a few, and wish them luck.

Josh M. Friedman, Chicago. I can't argue with all these rules of thumb, and I spend lots of wasted time on free consultations. But my biggest matter last year followed a free weekend consultation. Just sayin'.

How do I find an out-of-state child?

artwork for articleQ. How can I find a child taken out of state by a parent?

(From the ISBA family law discussion group)

Judith A. Schening, South Elgin. I have a client who has asked if I can help locate his minor child. Mother was awarded custody and client was awarded visitation. About a year ago when the child was four, the mother left the state with the child and provided no forwarding address. He is paying child support, which is taken from his paychecks. Is there a way to determine where the money is being sent?

ISBA lawyers respond

Wes Cowell, Chicago. [I've succeeded by taking] the child support matter to a hearing and serving the state with a notice for Mom to appear to testify. When she appeared I was able to serve her with papers and question her under oath about her new address.

Kevin R. Johnson, Chicago. Another inexpensive option is to attempt a "skip trace" (the industry term) with any good private-detective agency. It cost about $100 last time I checked, and they just need as much background as possible: last known address, social security number, date of birth, driver's license number, whatever information your client has. Years ago, I used a skip trace to find a mother who was living in downstate Illinois. No name on the mailbox, not sure how she was located to that address - but it was a good address, and we were able to serve her.

Sakina Carbide, Chicago. Or you can send a request to the last known postmaster. It only costs a stamp and they always respond, usually in two weeks or less. [The request form is on the USPS website at 1.usa.gov/1PQPCSL.]