Q&A with Phil: Quoting Fees, Charging for Initial Meetings & Having Paralegals Conduct Signing Meetings

By Philip J. Kavesh, J.D., LL.M. (Taxation), CFP®, ChFC, California State Bar Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed that I frequently get the same questions from people and I thought that it’d be helpful to share some of these questions and answers with others in our newsletter.  (If you have any questions, either as follow-up to these below or otherwise pertaining to your practice, feel free to send me an e-mail and I’d be happy to help and perhaps feature the Q&A in a future newsletter).

QUOTING FEES ON THE PHONE

Q: We receive a lot of phone calls from prospects that want to know how much we charge for a Living Trust.  How do you handle those calls?

A: Most people know that I am a big believer in seminars.  One of the main reasons that I believe so strongly in them has to deal with just this situation.  It’s really difficult, in less than a minute, to explain your fees and show the value to a prospective client of what they get from you (to support your fees).  In the prospect’s mind, they’re merely getting documents and they then expect a fee that seems reasonable for someone that simply prepares a stack of paper.  Some attorneys like to finesse their response by giving a range of fees over the phone and telling the prospective client that they can set up a meeting to discuss their particular circumstances and needs, at the conclusion of which they’ll be quoted a definite fee.  The problem with this range approach is that it often leaves that prospective client with the hope and expectation that the lowest end of the range is the fee they will pay.  Plus, it’s extremely risky to be spending hours upon hours meeting with prospects individually, who may not be qualified and motivated, to then quote fees and not have them engage you.

For years, when prospects contact us, our firm has been driving all these prospective clients to our seminars (whether they come from our website, referral sources, or any other means).  We tell them that by coming to a free seminar, not only will they find out exactly what our fees are, but they will also learn how our firm works, what services we offer, what is included for that fee and be better prepared for their initial free consultation.  We also tell them that by attending a seminar, they will qualify for a special fee discount.  This discount is the clincher that ultimately convinces most all prospective clients to attend a seminar before they make an appointment

Furthermore, from the attorney’s prospective, the seminar not only saves you time in the initial meetings but you will have pre-closed the prospects that schedule a consultation and weeded out any of those that are simply price shopping or had no intention of paying even close to your fee.  A lot of saved time and effort for all parties.

By the way, the seminar doesn’t have to be an elaborate, expensive presentation at a hotel, it can be a small, informal group talk in your office conference room.  Basically, just the same introductory presentation you would normally do at your initial meeting, plus a 15-20 minute question and answer session.  (If you would like more information regarding our seminar packages, click here.)

CHARGING FOR INITIAL CONSULTATIONS

Q: Your previous answer makes sense, but what do you do when you get resistance from a prospective client about attending the seminar?

A: If they aren’t willing to attend a couple of hours to attend a free seminar, that should raise some red flags that they’re likely not a serious candidate in the first place.  We typically operate on a 2-meeting process.  There’s the initial consultation, where we design and review the planning with them and engage them, then the signing meeting.  If a prospective client wanted to skip the seminar and come in, it would then have to go to a 3-meeting process.  So, if they’re adamant about coming straight in for an initial consultation (and potentially wasting the attorney’s time), rather than attending a seminar where they can qualify for a free initial meeting and get a fee discount, then we tell the prospective client there’s a $500 charge for the initial consultation and this will not be applied toward the fee for their work.  Most people then change their mind and come to the seminar.  The ones who choose to skip the seminar then at least pay you for your time!

PARALEGALS CONDUCTING THE SIGNING MEETING

Q: We have paralegals handle the signing meeting; however, we recently received some negative feedback from clients about this experience.  Do you have any advice about how we can improve this process?

A: We used to have paralegals handle the signing process, but we always did it very carefully by having the attorney do what I call the “front five” (intended to be the first five minutes, but often about 15-30 minutes).  What the attorney would do is take the clients in, sit them down, quickly go over a summary (or flow chart) of the estate plan and how it works (principally the Trustee order and distribution), and answer any questions they may have.  From there, the attorney would hand the clients off to the paralegal to handle the signing portion, including walking through each of the documents’ generic provisions.  The clients were informed, during the front five, that they would be signing with a paralegal and if they had any questions, were asked to save those questions until the end where the paralegal would then grab the attorney to come by their office to answer those questions (and walk the clients out).  This process of handing off the clients properly to the paralegal made the signing meeting go smoothly.

However, I will add that our firm has more recently moved away from having paralegals involved in the signing of the documents at all with the clients.  The main reason why we did this was to avoid any kind of malpractice or unauthorized practice of law issues that could come into question later on.  For example, the paralegal might answer a simple question that the paralegal, from experience, might know the answer to and feel that they’re being helpful without realizing they are giving legal advice.  There can be a lot of other potential risks that aren’t worth taking.  As we’ve administered more estates over the years, we also found that having the attorney there during the signing helps fight off potential contests based on claims of incapacity or undue influence.  Furthermore, we’ve found that the clients are happier knowing that they get the face-to-face time with the attorneys during that signing process and it’s also an opportunity for the attorneys to seek out potential referrals – – in the form of new potential clients, referrals to potential private seminars (with various groups, clubs, employers or organizations the clients are members of), and make referrals of clients to affiliated professionals, like financial advisors.

I would recommend that you check out your particular State Business & Professions Codes and State Bar ethics rules with respect to the utilization of non-attorneys to sign legal documents with your clients and, if you do have paralegals do the signings, make sure you properly train and supervise them, in order to protect yourself.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

philip-kavesh-author

Attorney Philip J. Kavesh is the principal of one of the largest estate planning firms in California – – Kavesh, Minor and Otis – – which has been in business since 1981. He is also the President of The Ultimate Estate Planner, Inc., which provides a variety of training, marketing and practice-building products and services for estate planning professionals.

If you would like more information or have a question for him, he can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 1-866-754-6477.


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