Fees and the Internet Client

Brian Tannebaum posts about legal fees, and the factors that comprise what a lawyer is lawfully entitled to charge.  As he explains,

People say to me all the time – “the economy must be great for you – people are probably getting in trouble more.” (domestic violence, DUI, theft).

Maybe, but here’s the obvious – when people don’t have money, they don’t have money. When people have no access to credit, they have no access to credit. And when people are looking to save whatever money they don’t have, they pay more attention to where they spend it.

One of the things lawyers are doing, and doing in ways that bear the stink of desperation, to counteract this situation is to try to find new sources of business.  Enter the internet.  It’s impossible to turn around without someone telling you that you’ve got to be online, have a website, blog, if you want to survive.  Other, less ethical or discerning voices, urge lawyers to spam and lie their way to success.  One way or another, many lawyers are listening to these voices as the phone rings less and the calendar has more gaps.

Having a fairly strong internet presence, I’ve got some experience with this.  Calls come in from people who search for a lawyer online.  Many of the calls aren’t particularly relevant, being from distant jurisdictions about cases that I either don’t handle or would be better handled locally.  But a few involve the sort of cases that interest me.

The calls pretty much go like this:

Caller:  My husband/boyfriend/son/father got arrested and I need a lawyer.
Me:  Can you tell me about the case.
Caller:  It’s a criminal case.
Me:  Can you give me some more information?  What court is it in, what are the charges, that sort of thing?
Caller: I really don’t know much more.
Me.  I understand, but before I can set up a meeting, I need to know whether this is the sort of case I handle.
Caller: Well, I want to know what you charge.

There’s the real point of the call.  And in case you’re wondering, this is the point of almost every call I’ve ever gotten via the internet. 

My practice is based on word of mouth referrals.  The people who are referred to me already have some understanding of who I am, what I do, how I charge.  They come because they seek my representation.  This isn’t to say that they aren’t concerned about legal fees.  Who isn’t?  But they aren’t buying a toaster and shopping around for the cheapest one out there.

Essentially every person who calls me because they found me online, regardless of source, is calling for a price.  They may later ask some of the questions that websites suggest they should ask of a lawyer, such as “have you ever done a case like this before?”  But that only comes after the primary question: How much will it cost.

Historically, I never discussed fees on the phone, or during an initial call.  It made no sense whatsoever, as I could not provide a fee without the requisite case information even if I wanted to.  It wasn’t possible.  Unfortunately, the internet has changed this. 

Imagine receiving a dozen calls a week for people desiring your services, prepared to meet with you and asking for a consultation (note the word, consultation).  That’s an awful lot of time spent meeting and greeting.  Reading their papers, thinking about what can be done, waiting for them to show when they’re late.  Listening to their mother, brother, cousin, friend who is there for support ask an additional 50 or 60 irrelevant questions, then tell you about their legal problems as long as you’re stuck in the same room with them.

And at the end, when you are finally able to give them a meaningful legal fee, the blank stare that says, “I don’t have anywhere near that much money.”  It’s not a good way to spend you time.

For lawyers prepared to accept whatever pocket change the client happens to be carrying when they arrive, and isn’t too picky about the types of cases they take on, the internet is the perfect place to build your criminal defense practice.  If not, all the hype in the world isn’t going to make that potential client have the resources to pay your fee. 

You can hear it from Tannebaum.  You can hear it from me.  It’s up to you whether you want to believe us.  We aren’t saying not to have an online presence, but we’re saying that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. 

8 thoughts on “Fees and the Internet Client

  1. John

    Hmmm my lawyer starts right off saying that his “rate” is $275 per hour.

    Then HIS questions is “How long do you want to talk?”

    Believe me this shortens up conversations pretty quickly, and you pretty much get RIGHT TO THE POINT in a hurry!!


  2. Kevin OKeefe

    Good points Scott.

    I do think if you’re going into things knowing that you get your best work by word of mouth that you make your goal of having an Internet presence to enhance your word of mouth presence. Running online ads, having a flashy website, and having online directory listings saying you do criminal law and the like is going to draw clients shopping on price.

  3. Victor Medina

    Unlike a criminal law practice, most of my new estate planning work is not crisis-driven. In fact, it’s lesson-driven (most of the time) as the children of an estate I probated realize the benefit of planning in advance and can also see the cost-benefit of paying my fees today or paying my fees (or a reasonable facsimile of me) in the future.

    That said, I speak loudly to anyone who will listen on the issue of my fees and I get fewer folks shopping on price and more on relationship. Perhaps it’s because I’ve conditioned the conversation about my law firm to be about relationship. There are plenty of folks to ignore that conversation entirely and still others that are unconvinced when it’s raised – however, for those for whom the discussion of relationship resonates, price is probably 3rd or 4th on the list of reasons to choose or not choose me as their estate planning attorney.

    On the other hand, it helps that the “market” is comprised of people with money to spend in an up or down market.

    Thankfully, making gobs of money isn’t my goal. I like shepherding families through transitions like this. It speaks to my psychology undergraduate degree, I suppose.

    I have a great deal of respect for those who practice criminal law – not just for their practice management struggles, but also for their commitment to the job they do as distinct from the people they represent.


  4. SHG

    Tread gently, Victor. You’re on double secret probation here.  No need to appease the CDLs, We beat the crap out of each other all the time, but not to much about your “shepherding families through transitions” or I’ll regret my decision.

  5. Victor Medina

    Of course I’m talking about Delta, you TWERP!

    No worries – I wasn’t pimping. What I was attempting to do was support your point that folks that get into law focused on making money will be dissatisfied in the end and misguided from the beginning. What should drive a lawyer to practice law should be the desire to practice law. For criminal lawyers, it can be the substance of why the position in law exists and the enjoyment of doing that well. For estate planning attorneys, it can, and probably should, be something different.

    I wasn’t kissing ass, so much as saying – I wouldn’t be driven by what drives you. Doesn’t mean I’m any less of a lawyer. It doesn’t mean I can’t fit into the definition of what makes a good lawyer or what qualifies as a good reason to get into the practice of law.

    I was also trying to add to the conversation about how an Internet presence can lend itself to something other than clients shopping on price.

    If I failed on both fronts, my apologies. I didn’t mean to dirty the water.


  6. SHG

    That’s better (at least the twerp part. I always appreciate an Animal House allusion).  Carry on.

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