Boutique Law Firms, Small Law Firms

Episode 8: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Christina Gagnier

Once you have a lead on a potential client, the next step is to engage this individual or company in some way so that they decide to go with you and your firm for their legal matters. In some cases, you get a “slam dunk”, where they chat with you for a few minutes and it is a go. Other client engagements take a little more finessing, but at the end of the day, both you and the client are comfortable moving forward.

With others, the challenge is figuring out who is trying to get a freebie and just walk away with some free services and advice…

A Long Conversation Versus An Unbilled Hour

Having a successful legal practice means building relationships. When companies come to you with complex issues, it may take a long conversation for them to explain to you what it is they do and what unique issues they may be facing. This gives you the chance to ask the right questions and get an accurate depiction of what may be involved at taking on the matter at hand.

At other times, potential clients come in with a list of discrete legal questions, wanting particular advice on the spot. This is the “my uncle problem,” where everyone seems to have an “uncle” who practices law and your directions during a consult become their roadmap to getting their legal work done for free. Even if this “uncle” practices an area of the law that has nothing to do with the matter at hand, this is the “client who will never be a client,” which means you never get paid.

Trying To Get That Free Lunch (Literally)

Another sign of the client relationship that never will be is when the client expects you to make some grand gesture when they have not proven any commitment to moving forward. We enjoy meeting potential clients for a coffee or treating our existing clients to a meal when they are in town or we are in their neighborhood. It is another thing when it’s clear the potential client wants to go to a lunch so that they can get a free one.

This is when the adage “there is no such thing as a free lunch” begins to apply to you: you end up footing the bill and never getting that business in the door. Make sure that you are just as discerning in making these kind of decisions as you would be making any other decision that is part of your firm’s marketing and relationship building strategy.

Pay Before Product

A big challenge that is faced especially by attorneys who are brand new to practice and going out on their own is the desire to prove they can do the work requested by the client. If you end up drafting a memorandum on the matter for the potential client, you may prove that you can do the work, but you also may have written yourself out of being paid.

Just like with many other professions, you should not be expected to do work for free. Your time and expertise are of value, and they should respect you and your need to make a living just like you should respect theirs.

Redundant meetings that do not lead to next steps, tens of emails that lend themselves to no conclusion, and a hesitancy to commit to signing a retainer agreement are telltale signs that the client relationship will never be. Finding good clients is fostering any healthy relationship: both you and the client have to bring something to the table for it to succeed.


Christina Gagnier leads the Intellectual Property, Internet & Technology practice at Gagnier Margossian LLP, with a specialization in social media, copyright and information privacy. She is also at the helm of REALPOLITECH, a digital public relations consultancy that provides a broad range of services, including crisis communications. She serves on the Board of Directors of Without My Consent, combating issues like revenge porn. If you ever need to find her, start with Twitter at @gagnier or email her at gagnier@gamallp.com.

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