|Daniel Dalton is a solo practitioner in North Andover where he practices divorce and family law.
Your mother was right: you get one chance to make a good first impression. Nowhere is this advice put to better use than in the first meeting with a potential client. With your mother's wisdom in mind, I offer the following suggestions to help make the experience better for you and the would-be client. These suggestions are geared toward a divorce client, but can be applied to most types of initial consultations.
The first call. Recognize that the first-time caller has mustered great courage just to pick up the phone. If possible, take some time - five minutes at most - to speak with her. It will help to put her at ease and will show her that you're human. Remember, however, to explain that it's impossible to give advice in a brief telephone conversation. If she seems determined to bend your ear, tell her you have another call waiting. Offer to schedule an appointment. Tell her that the consultation is a two-way street: it will give you both the chance to decide if you can work together - crucial in the maelstrom of divorce. Be clear that the consultation fee - yes, there is a fee - for the one-hour meeting is payable that day.
The consultation fee. Charge for the consultation. It doesn't have to be your regular hourly fee, but charge something, perhaps one-half your hourly rate for an hour consultation. If a caller balks at a charge, she likely will be unwilling to pay at all. If your consultation is free, your time must be worthless. A free consultation attracts the person who expects something for nothing. Your knowledge and effort (remember sitting through property class?) entitle you to expect a client willing to pay for your expertise. Charge for the consultation.
The consultation. When she arrives at your office at the appointed time, don't let her wait 20 minutes leafing through an old Sports Illustrated. If you keep her waiting, at least apologize for your tardiness.
Give her an outline of what you'll be discussing, then throw it open to her. "What brings you here today?" That tired opener, will elicit all manner of response. But mainly it will give her the chance to be heard.
Don't take notes, just listen. For at least 20 minutes, resist the temptation to pick up a pen. Just listen. You're likely to hear one concern above all else: what's going to happen to me? You need to answer this question as best you can. You must also stifle any urge to be unrealistically reassuring. False hopes will follow, and she will be upset when you can't make good on your "promise."
Explain the law. Don't sell yourself. You'll gain more trust with education than with puffery. Be straightforward about fees. Explain that the retainer goes into a client account, and that it's not withdrawn until the fee is earned or the expense is incurred. Many people seem to assume that the retainer is non-refundable. Dispel this notion.
Anxiety often prevents a would-be client from absorbing much of what's discussed. Give her a ready-made folder with a memo on divorce law. Include in the folder your fee agreement, a questionnaire, a copy of Massachusetts General Laws 208:34 and anything else you think might be helpful. Some attorneys include a book on divorce law, which is inexpensive when bought in bulk. (A good book to include is Your Divorce Advisor, about $10 when bought in bulk through Simon & Schuster.)
These suggestions don't guarantee a smooth ride. But they could likely spell the difference between a happy new client and a disgruntled might-have-been. So make a good first impression. Your mother would be proud.