What to Expect from an Initial Consultation
There seems to be a significant difference between what lawyers have been taught to provide and what potential clients expect to get from an initial consultation. I blame those TV commercials that suggest lawyers can and will solve all your problems in one meeting. No lawyer can do that and if any lawyer tells you otherwise, call someone else.
An initial consultation serves three basic purposes: 1) for the lawyer to determine whether he or she can represent the potential client, 2) for the lawyer and potential client to determine whether they want to work together, and 3) for the lawyer to explain how the representation will proceed if the potential client decides to retain the lawyer.
A lawyer cannot represent every person who calls. Lawyers are required to follow a whole host of ethical rules, most of which aren’t particularly obvious. In fact, we have to pass an entirely separate exam on the ethical rules in order to be licensed. For example, we are prohibited from representing someone when the relationship would create a conflict of interest with a current or even a former client. Lawyers use the initial consultation to learn more information about the potential client in order to make sure the relationship wouldn’t create a conflict of interest.
A lawyer doesn’t have to represent every person who calls. Because a lawyer and client work closely together for what could be years, the initial consultation presents an opportunity for both to decide whether they want to work together. Personality conflicts should not be ignored, especially if they arise during this first meeting. Lawyers are expensive and heaven knows you don’t want to be shelling out thousands of dollars to someone you can’t stand.
Lawyers are not required to provide legal advice during a consultation. People often believe they can have all their legal questions answered at this first meeting, at little or no cost. Unfortunately, lawyers are not supposed to give legal advice until after they have been retained, which usually requires a signed fee agreement and payment. This protects the lawyer from having to decline future clients because of a conflict of interest they weren’t compensated for, and it protects the potential client from being misinformed about a situation the lawyer hasn’t had a chance to thoroughly research and analyze.
Lawyers are permitted to provide the potential client with information about the legal process. For example, a lawyer can describe the process of incorporating a startup and the fees involved, but should not discuss whether a company should elect to be an LLC or a corporation until the representation officially begins.
So go easy on us lawyers when we suddenly stop the conversation and insist on a signed fee agreement. We’re just trying not to break our rules.