Lawyers who bill by the hour are understandably reluctant to work for free. In particular, lawyers tend to shy away from having client meetings and then not billing them for it. Too often lawyers wait until the client has expressed anger or threatened to end the representation before finally agreeing to have a free meeting. There is a better approach to deciding when lawyers should voluntarily have free meetings with clients.
Specifically, free meetings are appropriate when the primary purpose of the meeting involves reviewing the status of the relationship or the status of a project or matter. When the meeting is from the lawyer’s perspective about “how are we doing?” or “how did we do?” the law firm should consider offering to have the meeting for free. Here are a few examples;
- The representation proceeded in a way substantially different than what the law firm or client expected. This could be because the costs and duration were unusually long, a court ruled in an unexpected way, or the opposing party raised unexpected issues or used unorthodox tactics. A free meeting can be a good way to take stock and reaffirm the representation.
- The matter ended in a favorable way. Transactional lawyers sometimes stage closing dinners to mark the end of the deal. Other lawyers can learn from this practice. Lawyers don’t have to pay for a formal meal, but do mark the favorable result with the client.
- The law firm discovers something about the client that is not directly related to the subject matter of the representation. For example, a firm that is retained to handle litigation discovers that their client is using incompatible computer systems or that there are substantial problems with the quality and competence of certain employees or departments.
The meeting can take the form of a formal review of a case or matter or a more casual get together over an adult beverage. The venue doesn’t matter as much as the opportunity to talk to a client and receive honest and detailed feedback. The feedback is often worth more than the sum total of the billable hours, especially when there is a potential for repeat business.
In my role as a consultant to law firms, I have seen that individual lawyers can be slow to advocate on behalf of staging a free meeting. The lawyers representing the client may feel that a free meeting would be useful, but as individuals they don’t want to be the one who suggests such a meeting. Perhaps they are motivated by a desire to meet a monthly billable hourly goal. To avoid this dynamic, it can be useful for the fee agreement to include a free meeting as part of the representation. This takes the decision out of the hands of the lawyers working on the case.
If a firm decides to have a free meeting, treat it as professionally as you would a paid meeting. Your client should be advised that the meeting is free, but the meeting itself shouldn’t feel as if the lawyers treated it as a second-rate affair.
Sometimes more is less. Free meetings are a good example. They can be a good way to cement client relationships that help grow a law practice.