A lawyer friend of mine casually remarked to me that she ignores the question-asking e-mails that come from her website visitors.
If you've got a website, then you're getting e-mails from prospective clients. They're asking questions about everything under the sun. They particularly want free legal advice.
Do you respond? How do you respond?
The answer (addressed from a pure marketing perspective) depends on your situation.
If you're busy and never have a need for more clients, then feel free to blow it off. Ignore it. Just let it go. Yes, that's rude, but we're dealing with this from a marketing perspective only.
If you're busy now but know you'll have a need for new clients down the road, then you're going to have to deal with the e-mail. After all, you built the website to assist you in generating new business. Why would you ignore the results of your efforts?
How to respond?
I've got three different approaches:
First, I sometimes answer the question asked by the person. I don't get specific, and I try to be as helpful as possible without getting into a lengthy conversation. The fact is that these e-mails are usually reserved for people who actually need free legal advice and aren't likely to hire us. If I have the time, I like to do what I can to help. You should consider the conflict of interest rules in your jurisdiction and be very aware of what it takes to create an attorney-client relationship.
Second, I send a stock e-mail response. I use a program called TextExpander (PC users check out ActiveWords) and I send a very nice, lengthy, but automated response that explains our process and options for getting specific answers. I sometimes customize the introductory part of the e-mail based on the question. The e-mail explains why it wouldn't be helpful for me to answer the question without a thorough understanding of the facts. These e-mails go to people who might hire us down the road, but I'm not entirely clear about their circumstances. (I also use this approach for the very long, crazy e-mails some people send, although if they're really, really crazy, I may ignore them).
Finally, I forward the e-mail to our intake person. She e-mails back or calls the person and moves forward with setting up a consultation. This approach is what I use for those folks who seem most in need of—and able to purchase—our services. I want us to move forward with the relationship.
Our website generates a ton of these e-mails. We attempt to route them to one person who handles them all (by posting an information e-mail address on the site), but visitors often find our individual addresses. It's important to respond. These e-mails are often the beginning of a relationship. Ignore them at your peril.