Some law firms charge a fee for the initial consultation and some do not. Whether a firm does so depends on the type of legal work involved and the firm's style of practice.
No personal injury firm charges for a consultation. They take cases on a contingency, only being paid if they are successful, but being paid well in those cases.
Firms that handle larger corporate matters and divorce cases do not charge. It is understood in most cases that the client is shopping around, but if they hire the firm it will be a lengthy engagement in which the firm will earn substantial fees.
Estate planning and elder law firms are more variable. Some charge and some do not. We charge a flat fee of $500, which may be more or less than what we would charge on an hourly basis depending on the attorney handling the meeting and how long the meeting takes.
We charge for the consultation in large part because we are not salespeople. We do not see the initial meeting as an opportunity to sell further services to clients. The purpose of the initial consultation is to work with clients to understand their goals, answer their questions, and to devise a plan the comes as close as possible to meeting those goals.
In short, we are applying our legal skills and knowledge and our years of experience to advise our clients in the initial meeting. It's not just a meet-and-greet session, but a serious planning consultation. We believe our clients receive great value from these consultations, almost always worth far more to them than the $500 charge.
Finally, when clients retain us to help implement the plan we develop together, we waive the fee for the planning meeting.