Mimesis Law
21 October 2019

Want A Side of Cow With That Milk?

Mar. 10, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Not that it was hard to see coming, and some of us did a long time ago, but if it wasn’t here before, it’s here now. At Small Business Trends, there’s a listicle providing “20 Places to Get Low Cost or Free Legal Advice for Your Business.” It wasn’t hard work to put together.

This flagrant advice to small business to circumvent lawyers and get their legal advice from fortune cookies, free lawyer Q&A websites (where all the really good lawyers hang out) and sucking up those free consultation hours was more than solo lawyer evangelist Carolyn Elefant could bear.

It’s articles like this one that may make you want to reconsider those free consultations.

[Author Steven] Gillman even instructs readers on how to find firms that offer free legal advice by either calling and asking or simply Googling “lawyer free consultation” and the name of your city.

But here’s what really irks me about this article. Small Business Trends is a highly trafficked and well-respected small business blog. By providing this information, it creates an expectation that legal advice can be had for free and puts lawyers who charge for consultations on the defensive.

How could she not have seen this coming?  If one is to take a cynical perspective, this is the sort of advice that may suck up the low-paying, bread and butter work, but will produce the far better paying, more sophisticated work of litigating the massive mistakes made by small business in its infancy that comes to bite it in the butt as it matures into a profitable organization.  But nobody is that cynical, right?

The point is that lawyers have been training non-lawyers to devalue their time for years. It started with the personal injury guys, for whom a really good injury with a smidge of liability meant a huge pay day, and thus a good investment of that hour of consultation.  And in a very practical sense, it’s not as if they were giving the potential client anything they could use on their own anyway.

But that’s not the case with corporate and commercial lawyers, not to mention numerous other practice areas where their advice alone is worth the price of admission. When that price is free, what’s not to like?  Well, poverty for one thing.

It’s not that the hunger games are new to lawyers.  Some have always struggled to get by, while others have enjoyed great success. The latter usually enjoy a business model that involves client referrals, where the first-time caller isn’t window shopping, tire-kicking or looking for a free ride.  This is the client who is told by the satisfied client that he not only needs sound legal advice, but your sound legal advice.  He doesn’t ask for a free consultation, but for a retainer. He wants you.

Yet, the Internet is teaching people that this isn’t the legal paradigm any longer.  Putting aside the separate issue of how people find lawyers today, because Google, what they seek of a lawyer has changed with their reduced expectations.  Whenever a marketer tries to tell me what clients want, I interrupt by saying, “clients want guaranteed success without having to pay a fee. Me too.”

For now, the battle is over which of the lawyers passing around free bottles of his milk is going end up being the occasional cow bought.  Sure, some will, as the need for legal acumen exceeds the skillset of the free Q&A lawyer.  But many, perhaps most, will not.  This is a downward spiral of expectations, and the more you try to give it away for free, the deeper into the hole of insolvency you will go.  What’s next, free trials to make it up on appeal?

The genie is out of the bottle, and websites are teaching potential clients how to enjoy your free milk.  For many, this is a sad, but part of the necessary marketing scheme that saves you from spending your free time looking at your silent telephone. For others, myself included, if something is to be given away for free, then it’s purpose will be pro bono publico.  And I’ll be there when the Small Business Trends readers have to sue.

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