Lee Odden

Lawyers Cost Money But SEO is Free?

Lee Odden     Online Marketing, Rant, SEO

An attorney from a prominent, 200 lawyer firm calls me up (message) saying he’s been referred by two very credible sources. And they are exceptionally credible. Most of the time when this happens, it’s a law firm looking for internet marketing services. In fact, earlier in the day another local law firm called about exactly that.

Anyway, this attorney and I play phone tag and we finally connect. He wants to have me come to his office and speak with their ecommerce/technology group and talk about Google advertising. He asks if I can sit in on an informal lunch and ask me questions about search marketing. Just for an hour or so.

There’s an awkward silence.

I finally say, “The reason I’m not responding is that I’m thinking about all the times people have made this kind of request of me before and I have to ask, Why would I do this?”. The attorney’s response is something to the effect of, “The cost of time for you is low and there’s a possible reward in the form of referrals.” He also pointed out that his law firm was not a competitor.

I’m rolling my eyes as I hear this and I’m thinking, you’ve got to be kidding me. You want someone that’s been referred to you as a “top guy” to come in for free on the speculation that there might be some kind of referral?

Let’s turn this around. Let’s say I ask a few law firm clients of mine that are tops in their industry or market and ask them for a specialist attorney. They both refer me to the same person. Then I call that specialist up and say, “Hey, how would you like to come down to my agency and talk to my team about intellectual property law? It’s possible that someday our clients my need a IP legal help and if so, we might refer them to you.”

Now you and everyone else reading this post knows that in almost all cases, an attorney would want, would require, they be compensated for spending time educating a company on a particular area of their expertise.

I told the attorney at the end of our call that I would think about it and follow up Monday. He replied that I might refer someone else if it didn’t work out with me. Then I wrote this blog post, called him back and said I didn’t need until Monday, that I knew now it wasn’t going to work out and that I would be hard pressed to refer someone else because I wouldn’t want to embarrass or insult someone by making such a referral for a situation that was not willing to pay for the time and expertise.

Was I completely out of line? How would you handle this differently? I’m sure he’ll find some stooge to give the free advice. I’ve been stooged plenty of times by information suckers and SEO parasites on the phone. However, I think you have to value your time and services and just say no in situations like this.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Good For you! I would have asked him to come down for hour or so to look over some legal agreements, for free.

    100% right.

  2. Lee, you did the right thing. Very polite of you to call him back today, in fact.

  3. You are 100% right. I run into this on a daily basis.

    * Most people are willing to compensate you for your time. If you do stuff for them for free..I am sure they will pass that info along to. Great! More free non-paying work.

    * Sometime people fish for free info. Some people have no intention of hiring you. I had to cut that out. Too much wasted time and money on my end.

  4. Totally right of you. TRADING services is one thing, but mooching is another. I wouldn’t have wasted my time either.

  5. I appreciate the feedback. Yeah, I should have known better and just said no right away. The reason I didn’t was because this is a very prominent law firm and the people that referred me are people I have a lot of respect for.

  6. Avatar Joe Beaulaurier says

    The irony that this was a legal office (no strangers to billing by the hour) is thick.

  7. Avatar Peter Davis says

    Not that you should accept a request like this, but getting upset isn’t going to help you any.

  8. What a joke. Just a classic case of someone trying to get something for nothing. You did the right thing, in fact I would have told him no straight away, no need to think about it!

    Your turning the tables on him was a nice touch!

  9. I’m not upset Peter, but it seemed like something worth sharing. One thing I did not mention in my post was that the fellow I talked to was rather cocky and a bit arrogant.

  10. Good Call. Lawyers demand to be paid for their time because they think they are worth it. Why didn’t they offer to pay for your time?

    You did the right thing. You schooled them so to speak.

  11. Hey Lee,

    Did you throw out a fee that you would do it for? Or did he say right from the start that they wouldn’t be paying.

    When I get those kinds of requests I say something like, “Sure, I’d be happy to do all that. My fee is $___ for this sort of thing.”

    Then they either hang up, try to talk me down, or say, sure that works for us.k

  12. Lee, there was nothing you did that was wrong. It’s funny how people who work with the internet are expected by “traditional” workers (ie lawyers, etc.) to provide a service for free, because the internet is free.

    Also, they wouldn’t have truly valued your information, regardless of how highly you were recommended. Traditional professionals tend to value a service strictly by how much it costs, rather than what it’s really worth.

    Good for you 🙂

  13. Avatar Scott Clark says


    I did the same thing last year with a law firm. They asked me to “put together a few landing page prototypes” to present as a part of my sales pitch for SEM work.

    I told them I’d point them to a few landing pages for other law firms if they’d like, but any production work would be at my full ala-carte consulting rate until we went into a project retainer. I told them I didn’t think we were “on the same page” in terms of the value of my time. It would have been nice to get the work, but a few weeks later something much better came along anyhow.

  14. Avatar Marc Ohmann says


    The bulk of the confusion in this industry comes from the reasoning behind your statement:


  15. You should have treated this as a sales meeting, not a free give-away. Some lawyers provide a free consultation. They don’t tell you how to go out and do it yourself, rather, they tell you what they could do for you if you hire them. That’s what you should have done here. You go in, tell them what services you provde, why you do it and how much. You don’t charge potential clients at a sales meeting.

  16. In an extreme example. I have seen SEO’s who refuse to to speak to by boss (the person who will make the purchase decision) without payment in advance. (As if I were trying to weasel them out of their time versus pre-sell their service)

    I explained that we have a substantial budget and intend to hire someone but my boss is highly unlikely to work with someone who refuses to speak with them over the phone and answer a few basic questions about their business and what we can expect from them. Needless to say they didn’t get the job or will they be getting a referral from me.

  17. Dave, that is an extreme example and having initial meetings by phone or in person are considered normal costs of the sale. If someone isn’t hungry enough to meet or talk to your CEO, then they don’t deserve the business.

    However, if meeting the CEO means flying to Hawaii for a blind meeting knowing you’re competing against 5 other firms, then it’s a toss up depending how “in need” the agency is for new biz, and how good a fit the client’s project would be.

    I handle 2-5 inquiries for our services via phone on average PER DAY. I’ve been in this business for over 10 years. There have been hundreds if not over a 1000 conversations where I’ve provided information and in many cases, education about SEO to prospective clients.

    The situation I describe in the post is different because the guy expected me to provide expertise for free and be thankful for it. He was referred to me by two very reputatble people and I had to consider that as well.

    These happen every week – I just decided to blog this one because it was convenient.

  18. That’s great advice Scott!

  19. Avatar Scott Clark says

    One of my solutions is to prepare a tiny package for these people. It’s a nicely done, but not over-the-top handout with some good advice on it. One of the pieces of advice is to avoid stooges. I think it costs me $2.50 apiece to make them.

    This year, I’m going to add a page to the end of the handout with an “order form” for an information product related to different types of work (SEM/SEO/design/lead/crm.) This product will be easily provided and give information about what they need to do to succeed.

    I’ve never done this before, but it will give me both a (small) income stream as well as a place to shunt them. Eproducts are not for everyone, but they are sometimes a good answer for the ‘low end.’

    I took inspiration from a financial planner friend of mine who has the exact same problems we’re reading about here. He prepped a product and now whenever there are customers clearly intent on sucking advice – he stops them… and can give them a great tabbed binder of how-tos. I watched him work this and, while skeptical at first, am now a believer. We’ll see.

  20. Thanks for this story –
    i’m going to forward it to this kind of customers –
    but most of the time they just ask for a short meeting to get some kind of proposal – and try fishing for information during this meeting.

  21. Wow, this one hit me between the eyes. I would have taken the lunch in a minute. Here’s why, besides the potential referrals this is get together offered potential reciprication.
    As for the argument that an attorney would not do the same for you I have the opposite opinion. If I called on a top law firm in my city I could get an attorney to come for lunch for a converstion. Free lunch and spreading the firm’s goodwill with the potential for picking up a new client (or two).
    But then I read your response to a comment above and I do see your point. You are swamped with business and the thought of giving away free advice is not on your list currently. We should all be so lucky to have so many daily inquiries.
    On the balance however I still side with doing the lunch. You never know what Fortune 500 company the firm represents and after turning them down as you did you may never hear from them again.
    Thought, could you have sent a representative?

  22. Avatar Igor M. (BizMord Blog) says

    This is a funny one Lee. 🙂

    The reason why this even happens in our industry is because it’s so “new” to others. Non SEO/SEM people think that it’s just like finding that young kid to help out with their PC (“hey do something with this DOS thing and get me running”).

    They simply don’t understand that this is a business and it’s meant to make money. Furthermore, they just don’t get that SEO/SEM has it’s place in professional services field just like advertising, legal, financial and PR services.

    Lee … your response was excellent. The more these guys will hear this from others, the faster this industry will grow.

    On my blog I don’t even offer consulting and yet I get 1-2 e-mails / calls per week asking for “search/PPC” help. Unfortunately 90% are looking for quick, free, or $50 consultation.

    Not worth the time.

  23. This type of stuff makes my blood boil! I have done a fair amount of consulting and it seems everyone wants my efforts for free. I just say no!!!! Never will I give away my skills or information.

    You acted right and your logic is 100%!!!!!!!!!!!!

  24. Giving away free services is never encouraged, especially to an organization that knows all about billing for time. We’ve probably all heard a lawyer say “the only thing I can bill for is my time”.

    That being said I don’t agree that we should never educate a potential client. I spent 15 years in business to business sales of goods and services (before going completely online) and I can tell you that not all prospects understand what you are offering. Sometimes you have to educate them about the differences between you and an alternative.

    I think the amount of education you provide is directly proportional to how much you want the business.

  25. “I think the amount of education you provide is directly proportional to how much you want the business.”

    John, on my most optimistic day I could not agree with that comment. A big part of consulting is education/information. Giving a large amount of your expertise away doesn’t mean you want the business, it means your desperate for it.

    The attorney I spoke with was very clear: He wanted expertise for free.

  26. Thanks for the clarification John. What you’re suggesting makes sense and I agree.

    Something I didn’t mention in the post was that this Attorney wanted information about how companies are using competitor brands in PPC campaigns as well as mechanics about Google AdWords. This would be fairly easy to explain on the phone but he wanted to meet in person. It just wasn’t a worthwhile situation.

  27. Find it all too often, especially during a pitch, you try to outline deliverables to the client without giving away clever SEO trade secrets. They want to hear all about your deliverables in detail, but why won’t they just take the suggestions to their webmaster and fix the problem without hiring you. Many SEO fixes are quick to action, but clients don’t understand the months of research and trial and error that allowed you to learn these tricks of the trade.

    I was a full time musician prior to being an SEO consultant, and it happened there as well. “Come play my club for free, it’ll give you good exposure” and then the club takes all your earnings (not to mention bar tabs) from your fans that wouldn’t be in there if you weren’t playing. After living with this for years i’ve finally come to the conclusion, “no more freebees”.

    I think you made the right decision to not join him in this consultation!

  28. Lee,

    I’ve been working with and selling to law firms for over 8 years now. Many successful lawyers, especially from larger law firms, are used to getting what they want, when they want it. No matter how successful, many of these guys are incredibly cheap and don’t want to pay. Of course, there are plenty of lawyers who will pay top dollar when they are referred to consultants. They know your worth, just as they know their own worth. From the conversation you described, I can almost guarantee he had no intention of spending any money with you. Especially when his selling point to you was “there

  29. Thanks for the comment Mike. You hit it right on the head.

  30. Avatar kameko.rouge says

    This is embarassing. SEO consultants are a complete joke. Your skillset is definitely not worth even a fraction of a lawyer’s time. If all of those clueless businesses with their fancy, gradient-infested “Web 2.0” websites aiming to get decent page rankings and such actually knew what the majority of “seo consultants” really do, they’d be horrified at how they’ve been scammed.

    Get a real job.

  31. You should be embarrassed kameko with sweeping generalizations like that. Your logic can easily be applied to any industry but that’s often what people do who don’t bother to take the time to learn or understand the facts.

  32. Yeah, kameko, isn’t it pretty cool that we get paid more than what many lawyers do? Gotta love it. 🙂

  33. Kameko, when a SEO contract is signed the decision making is mostly done by business heads or marketing heads , who are definitely not there i their chairs for charity.. they put in money only where they get ROI. Probably they are smarter than you to choose the correct people who can actually get them their money’s worth.

  34. Avatar Scott Clark says

    Could it be that kameko is expressing angst byproducts of a PR problem from which SEM/SEO continues to suffer?

    Practicing Law has a barrier to entry, it’s called the Bar Exam. SEM has no such thing. To call yourself a SEM Expert, you only need to be able to type the words. Our industry has done itself a disservice by neglecting this. Publically-recognized standards are non-existent.

    We in the industry know that you become a *good* SEM only after years of experience and plenty of hard work – long after amateurs have given up. This skill is worthy of high billable rates, as clients will achieve much higher business performance and avoid lost opportunities.

    The trouble is when we call on clients, even with the right skills at hand, sometimes we slip and fall on the snake oil left by others.

  35. Even I am fade up of this type of situation and last night I had another one. I have put up the details on my blog ( Pay for Everything But SEO is for Free? and also referenced this post so that people have a feel that its the same situation globally 🙁

  36. I think you were completely right. This kind of situation is happening all the time


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