I’ve had it happen more than once: A consumer came in to see me after being ripped off. Not just by buying a defective car but also by paying an attorney for an initial consultation. In my field (Lemon Law) and several others, the only attorneys who charge money for initial consultations are the ones who don’t know what they are doing.

One client came in to my office the first time with a pile of paperwork six inches thick. When she had asked what to bring to her initial consultation, I told her “Bring everything.” I go through so many documents on a daily basis that I can sort through them faster than the clients can. Repair orders, leases, receipts, purchase agreements and so on. I see them when I close my eyes.

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As I sifted through her papers I noticed a lawyer’s letterhead. It was a retainer agreement. Had she already retained an attorney to handle this case?

No, she had hired the attorney for an initial consultation. She paid the attorney $1,000 to review her paperwork. I was stunned. The attorney had reviewed her papers and then told her she had no case. But he kept the $1,000. I did not recognize the attorney’s name so I looked him up. Based on his license number with the state bar I could tell he had been out of law school for only a couple of years. According to his website, he handled all manner of legal cases but made no mention of lemon law. Why had she gone to him? He was a friend of a friend.

From my review of her paperwork it was painfully obvious she had a great case. I asked her what the other attorney had told her about why her case wasn’t worth pursuing. She told me that he had just said he spent a few hours looking through the papers and there was “nothing there.” He had advised her to sell her car and move on.

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This is not the only time I have heard of this but it was the most egregious. The lemon law in Michigan – and most other states – allows for a successful litigant to recover their attorney fees and court costs from the Defendant. So every attorney I know in this field – and I know many – will consult with a potential client for free. And, this is true in many other fields of law as well, including the ones which are routinely done on a contingency basis. Auto negligence, personal injury and so on.

And yet, there are some attorneys out there who still get potential clients to pay just for the honor of sitting in an office and getting bad advice. I have even recently gotten comments from attorneys in response to my pieces here who tell me that they always charge for initial consultations. Some of them do what the attorney in the first paragraph did – practice outside their area of knowledge and make money by telling clients they have no case or to go speak to someone else. Um. Thanks?

With the internet, this should no longer happen. All a potential client has to do is look at several websites for attorneys to discover that many do not charge for initial consultations. When you see an attorney who does not state that openly on their website, keep looking. If EVERY attorney you find charges for an initial consultation, then you must be in a legal field where that is the norm.

And there are some fields of law where there is no easy way to recover your attorney’s fees and attorneys in those fields might not offer too much free legal advice. Criminal law, divorce, business contract law and so on. But many attorneys will still consult with you for a bit to see if you have a case and to give you some idea of what they can do for you and what it will cost. Strangely, I have people offer me money from time to time as the first thing they say to me: “Whatever you charge for an initial consultation, I’ll pay it.” I guess it’s a mindset. But I always tell them it’s not necessary.

But to charge you money to tell you that you have no case? Money out the window for my client above. I eventually got her car bought back by the manufacturer and I got my attorney fees and court costs paid. The $1,000 she gave the prior attorney? Gone for good. And no, you can’t sue the attorney to get the money back. Not surprisingly, the laws don’t work that way.

Follow me on Twitter: @stevelehto

Hear my podcast on iTunes: Lehto’s Law

Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation.

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