What’s Better, In-Person or Remote Consultations?

August 2, 2020 update:

Since this post was originally published the world has changed. The Covid-19 crisis has changed the legal marketing and client intake paradigm.

In today’s reality, it’s axiomatic that attorneys need to become skilled at doing remote consultations and selling over the phone and on video platforms like Zoom. In the original post below, I refer to “phone” meetings, which in today’s world could mean either phone or any video chat platform. I plan to write a post on some of the ideas and remote intake best practices that we are hearing from lawyers in the LawLytics community across the US and Canada, and we will to go into greater details at one of our weekly customers-only mastermind webinars.

In the meantime, I recommend reading my post about communication best practices about physically closed law firms that are open for business. My post about technology we use to work remotely as well as others in our Covid-19 series (which is written to help attorneys recognize and adapt to new practice realities) may be worth checking out as well.

Original post from August 27, 2015 starts here:

When I started practicing law in the late 1990’s it was axiomatic that potential new client meeting should happen face to face. The lawyer-client relationship is highly personal, and the conventional wisdom at the time was that, in order to properly screen the case, establish rapport and sell the PNC on your firm, it should be done in person. And if you weren’t willing to meet with a potential client, it was unlikely that the client would retain you.

Putting aside edge cases which have always been the exception to the above assertion, such as when a potential client is out of the area but has a local matter and conducting a phone meeting is more convenient for the potential client, does the conventional wisdom of “in-person meetings are better” still hold true today? In this post, I will explore the issue. My conclusion, based on my own experiences and based on speaking with hundreds of lawyers with practices ranging from M&A to criminal defense specifically about this topic is that it depends on your practice and your style, but that in consumer-facing areas of practice such as bankruptcy and criminal defense, in-person is no longer a clear choice.

Finding Your Law Firm’s Consultation Style Is Key

So what type of consultation is optimal for your law firm? Let’s start with the idea that there is no cut and dry rule, and that finding your sweet spot takes experimenting, soul-searching, and probably a whole lot of trial and error.

The Case For Remote Consultations

As an attorney, your time is valuable. When somebody comes to your office, especially for a free consultation, it is difficult to spend less than an hour. So much needs to happen. You need to establish rapport. You need to get their story, which will usually contain a host of opinions and unneeded information to get to the nuggets that matter. The PNC probably wants water or coffee. You need to provide them a quiet and comfortable place to meet to make a good impression.

What I’m getting at is that the in-person attorney consultation is vastly more expensive and time consuming than the telephone or online equivalent. Now this expense may be good or bad depending on what kind of return it produces.

Let’s say that you have a high-volume DUI defense practice. If you’re doing your marketing well and are in a jurisdiction that supports it, you’re probably getting at least 25-50 requests for appointments per month. If you’re truly excelling at your marketing, you may be getting many multiples of that number. Let’s say that you’re firm has 200 PNCs to screen in an average month. You’re a small law firm. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have 200 extra hours to devote to conducting interviews this month (not just you, but all attorneys in your office who can field PNC meetings)?
  • Does my staff have an additional 200 hours to deal with the logistics of these meetings? This includes greeting PNCs, scheduling meetings, following up with the inevitable 10-50% of the PNCS who fail to show up for the meetings.
  • Am I willing to meet with potential clients on weekends and evenings?
  • What is my rate of success in these meetings?

Now, ask yourself these questions about refusing to take in-person meetings, but making yourself or an attorney in your firm available over the phone for consultations.

  • Will doing only phone consultations allow me to meet with more people?
  • Will doing only phone consultations affect the number of PNCs who FTAs at consultations compared with in-person meetings?
  • What is my rate of success in these meetings?

When I challenge our LawLytics attorneys to ask themselves these questions and conduct A/B tests using both methods of consultations, the answers that attorneys come up with, and the conclusions they draw from them often surprise them. Here are some of the conclusions:

  • Phone consultations result in a much lower no-show rate. Turns out, it is more important to most modern potential clients to be able to speak with a lawyer sooner than to meet with the lawyer in person. Guess what? Those no-shows at your in-person-only office probably retained an attorney that they could speak with quickly, if not immediately. This is because we live in a world where we expect answers to be available to us immediately. There is so much information thrown at us, and so much power at our fingertips, that we really don’t want to wait.
  • Phone consultations actually create as strong of a bond as in person. It’s counterintuitive. People used to think that the phone was impersonal. You could see the person on the other end. In person, you could “see the whites of their eyes and shake their hand.” Now people are used to quick texts. The phone takes sufficient effort to create intimacy and foster trust. There is simply no need or desire for the younger generation to meet in person in most cases.
  • In person meetings can foster suspicion. I’ve heard several attorneys who have concluded this after testing and studying the effects of both methods. If you have the time to meet with a person who hasn’t yet agreed to hire you, in your office, then you must not be very busy. If you are not very busy, you must not be very good. That’s what your PNCs may think. Turns out, many PNCs, especially of the younger generation would rather get you on a brief 10 minute leash while you are speeding to court talking to them over a lousy cell phone connection. It means you are important in their minds. The less time you have for them, as long as you make a great impression during that time, the more they want you. I’m not saying this is the world I want to inhabit, but it is observable nonetheless.
  • Limiting to phone consultations results in lower-maintenance clients. Attorneys have reported having a different type of client that signs up over the phone versus in person. Those who don’t require an in person meeting tend to be more flexible, and more trusting of the attorney. And, significantly more respectful of the attorney’s time.

How can attorneys set themselves up for success in remote free consultations?

Fifteen years ago the tools to create a meaningful personal relationship with clients wasn’t in common enough use to be effective. Today, everybody who can afford to hire a private attorney has the means to establish the relationship remotely. Here are some things that make a big difference that you should do if you want to experiment with remote consultations:

  1. Have a responsive website. The clients who are cool with doing remote consultations overwhelmingly use their mobile devices to surf the web and hire lawyers. Make sure that your law firm’s website is 100% responsive AND doesn’t overcomplicate the communication process with unnecessary design elements. They should be able to touch your number and dial instantly. There should be nothing frustrating about experiencing your website in the palm of their hand.
  2. Educate your potential clients on your website. Give them enough information that they can get to know you AND answer most of their questions before they contact you. Your website should have them pre-sold before the consultation happens. You can do this by answering every single question that they might have on your website. I don’t want to hear the tired excuse of “the information is already available to them elsewhere on the web, so I don’t need to provide it.” If you think that way, guess what, your competitors are giving that information away, so don’t waste too many brain cells wondering why they have the clients and you don’t. Think about it, your PNCs want answers. The information is not fungible. Even if they hear the same answers elsewhere, they want to hear them from you. They also need to get to know your personality. You can give them a sense of who you are by blogging, and by creating online videos for your website. If you aren’t blogging regularly, don’t bother with the videos yet. Blogging is much more important.
  3. Give clear instructions about the consultation. On your website, educate your PNCs about what is going to happen during the consultation. What do they need to have in front of them. What questions should they expect to answer. What should they read to prep for it? How much time will be allotted? You need to set the ground rules, and if the rules are in writing  (on the screen of your website) they are more real.
  4. Set time limits. You are giving a free initial consultation, and you are not a clearinghouse for free information and phone advice. Be stingy with the advice that you give over the phone. If you’ve already given answers to most conceivable questions that your PNCs could have on your website, the consultation is a time for you to create rapport, assess the PNC for fit with your firm, and give the PNC an opportunity to get to know you a little bit. When there is a ticking clock, your time is respected and they are actually more likely to pay for more of it down the road.
  5. Have the ability to close the deal immediately. Your potential clients want instant gratification. If they are ready to sign up with you immediately, you should have the ability to immediately send them your retainer agreement, and, if applicable, accept payment electronically. You should anticipate all of the places you might conduct PNC meetings. In your car. At your office. At home. From a coffee shop. From the beach. Modern technology allows you to send contracts with a couple of clicks or taps from virtually anywhere. Make sure that you get set up with a good online signing service such as Echosign, Docusign, and a number of others.

The Case For In-Person Consultations

I’m not going to spend as much time on reasons why attorneys should do in-person consultations. This is because it’s really still the norm, and most of the reasons are known to most lawyers. However, in the interest of not leaving this blog post completely unbalanced, let’s take a quick look.

Not all personalities and areas of practice lend themselves to effective use of remote consultations. If you are much better in person than over the phone, don’t try to be something that you are not. If you have a terrible phone voice, it’s probably not for you. If you find yourself much less misunderstood in person than over the phone, maybe not the right move to go remote.

Here are the practice areas that I think lend themselves least to phone consultations:

  1. Anything involving elder law or old people in general. They may not want to come to you, but a lot of them don’t hear well over the phone and you’re setting yourself (and them) up for frustration if you try. If they can’t come to you, if they are worth it, go to them.
  2. Divorce cases involving children. Too emotional. Too much E&O exposure.
  3. Wrongful death cases.
  4. Corporate clients.

I have never met one of the business attorneys we use for LawLytics matters. He lives in Montana. He helped me with the acquisition of my first legal technology company 5 years ago. We never met, and we never missed a beat. But if we lived close enough, I would definitely want to have some of our conversations in person.

If you have an impressive looking firm, your office could be a selling point. Some PNCs are worth impressing with the trappings of success. Your glass conference room on the 24th floor overlooking the city should not sit vacant while you talk on your phone.

If there is more than one decision maker that must be involved in hiring the firm, the phone is probably not going to work.

Should You Give It A Try?

Are you thinking about giving phone-only consultations a try in your practice? While it’s not for everybody, if you do take the leap, make sure that you give it a fair test. That means collecting a significant sample size. If the first couple of people you talk with immediately retain you over the phone, don’t take that as proof that it will continue to work. On the other hand, if the first couple don’t retain you, don’t give up at that point if you really want to know.

The great thing is, if you sense that the potential new client might be good, but does need to meet in person, you can always suggest that during your phone conversation.

About The Author

Attorney Dan Jaffe previously built successful small law practices in WA and AZ. He currently serves as the CEO of LawLytics.

Other posts by Dan.