April 18, 2015 • By Dennis Beaver
“I was unfairly fired from my job and had an initial consultation scheduled with an attorney to explore a wrongful termination lawsuit. Maggie, the secretary, took down all my personal information and said they do not provide free consultations, require a cash payment of $250, and will charge if I am a no-show without re-scheduling or canceling in advance.
“Well, I didn’t really want to give them cash, so upon arriving, offered a check but Maggie said that I should go to a bank, obtain the money and return. As we live in rural Fresno County, I did not have the time, and never went back.
“I just got their bill for $250! Can lawyers really charge for missing an appointment? Isn’t that like a job interview, to see if you can get along?
“My mom reads your column and tells me that you stand up for what’s right, tell it like it is, and to follow your advice. Can the lawyer really get away with that? Thanks. Peter from Selma.”
“Free consultation ads confuse the public”
We ran Peter’s question by friends of this column, Professor Rose Safarian, of San Joaquin College of Law and the husband and wife legal team, Leigh Chandler & Aaron Shechet based in Los Angeles.
All three are uniquely able to comment on our reader’s question, as Safarian teaches professional responsibility and both Chandler and Shechet serve as arbitrators for the Los Angeles and Santa Monica Bar Associations in attorney-client fee disputes.
“The public is used to seeing the words ‘Free Consultation With an Attorney,’ leading to a great deal of confusion,” Shechet points out.
“Generally, personal injury, social security or workers compensation lawyers do not charge for a consultation as they are paid when a case is resolved and on a percentage basis of the recovery,” Shechet explains, adding:
“As a good personal injury case can be highly profitable for an attorney, it simply makes good business sense to invest an hour in the hopes of being hired.”
Do not expect advice or the performance of legal services
“For the lawyer,” Chandler observes, “this first meeting with the person who might become your client must answer three questions:
- What is the problem?
- Is this the type of case that we handle?
- Can we work together?
“It would be wrong to expect specific advice about your case, or for the lawyer to pick up the phone and begin doing actual legal work for you at this stage.
“If it’s an auto accident case, if you ask the attorney, ‘What kind of a settlement can I expect to get?’ picture yourself in a doctor’s office with a tummy ache, asking, ‘So, doctor, tell me, do I have stomach cancer?’ Would you trust the answer?
“Finally, that first meeting must establish if the client can pay for the needed legal services,” Chandler concludes.
There is no requirement of providing a free consultation
Picking up on that last point — can the client afford to pay the lawyer —Safarian points out that “Nothing in the Rules of Professional Responsibility require lawyers to provide a free consultation, and there is one very good reason many do charge for that first meeting:
“If a person cannot afford or is unwilling to pay for that consultation, it’s a red flag. A lawyer earns a living by providing legal advice and time spent with a client or for the client’s benefit.
“For many people, it is difficult to understand that the only thing a lawyer ‘sells’ are those two intangibles — time and advice. It’s that time which earns the money to pay office overhead and put food on the lawyer’s table.”
This column has occasionally heard from readers who complain, “We were just talking about my legal rights and then I get this bill! Just for talking?”
Can they legally charge Peter?
He knew the requirement of bringing cash, office time was reserved, and they clearly were willing to wait for him to return with the money.
Chandler, Shechet and Safarian all agree that if this went to attorney fee arbitration, or small claims court, “I didn’t really have the time,” would impress no one.
So, why didn’t he comply? I had a hunch and phoned Peter, learning that he had just turned 18 and was starting out adult life the wrong way.
“So, why didn’t you bring cash?” His answer proved my hunch correct.
- “If the lawyer told me I had no case, I would be out that money. But if they took my check, I could always stop payment.”
“Peter, I want you to go back there. Apologize, pay Maggie, and begin adult life honestly, not being sued or suing an employer. Tell mom that’s my advice.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.