How to Make the First Meeting with an Attorney Productive

The initial conference with an attorney can be somewhat unproductive because neither side knows whether an attorney/client relationship will result.  Whether the parties can agree to form an attorney/client relationship depends on a number of factors.  How well do the parties communicate with one another?  Is the problem or the service the prospective client wishes the attorney to undertake within the skill set and experience of the attorney?  Can the parties agree on the financial terms of the relationship? Does the attorney have a conflict of interest which would prevent him or her from accepting the engagement?  Sitting in the conference room with the prospective client, the attorney often is not in a position to determine whether a conflict may exist until he or she has adequate information of the case or the legal services involved.  In particular, the identity of one or more parties    who may have an adverse interest must be ascertained before the attorney is able to make a conflicts check, which routinely takes place after the meeting is concluded.

     In recent years, many people have come to look for, or expect, the first meeting with an attorney to be a “free consultation”.  If the attorney cannot accept the person as a client, most attorneys would not bill the person for the time spent. But will the first meeting be billable if the client wishes to think about his experience with the attorney before committing to engage him? The attorney should make it clear at the outset if he or she intends to charge for the time spent in the first meeting and the time spent preparing for it.

     Many times, the prospective client expects the attorney to offer an assessment of the matter, even if only preliminary.  The prospective client can assist in this prior to the first meeting by organizing the facts involved in the case and by gathering documents and written papers which may relate to the matter. Copies of documents filed in court, i.e., summons and complaint, or issued by a court, i.e., court orders, are the kind of documents which the prospective client should make available at the first meeting or before.  If the case is a business dispute or a controversy involving land and or buildings, the attorney should request that the prospective client deliver the documents which may have to be considered in advance of the first meeting so that the attorney can evaluate them and at the initial meeting give his or her first impressions. The better informed the attorney is about the nature of the task or the dispute facing the prospective client, the better he or she is in the position to offer first impressions about the legal options or remedies available, and provide an estimate of the range of fees and costs which may accrue.  To be sure, there are cases where a layperson may not wish to reveal sensitive documents or information relating to trade secrets, sales or financial data, or documents containing accusations of sexual harassment, until an attorney client relationship is established.  My experience has been that those cases are in the minority.

     In a word, both sides will benefit from the preparations which each make prior to the initial meeting.   When sufficient information is exchanged or made available prior to the first meeting, the chances are better that the expectations of both parties are met.