It generally happens right about the time you graduate from law school or receive your paralegal certificate. Suddenly, you’re getting phone calls, texts, and emails from people you’ve not heard from in years. At first, it seems flattering. Then you find out the reasoning behind all this sudden attention.
Uncle Bob has a property dispute and wants you to write a nasty letter to his neighbor. Your high school girlfriend is divorcing her loser husband and wants to know if you’ll represent her for free. Your cousin thinks he’s been scammed on the internet and wants you to sue the bitcoin company he’s been sending all his money to. When I was practicing, I generally got about 15 to 20 of these calls each year. Since I’ve stopped practicing, I still get between five to ten. The excuse is easy now — “I gave up my law license years ago.”
But what do you do if you are still a practicing legal professional? Here are some good excuses for getting out of doing casual legal work and some resources you can provide to those in need of legal services.
Although “I don’t want to” is a perfectly reasonable reply to requests for legal advice, there are a few more specific things to point to as why giving legal advice is not a good idea for either you or your friend.
Excuse #1: “My malpractice insurance doesn’t allow me to practice ‘off the books’.”
The truth is, legal advice given in even the most casual environment can create an attorney-client relationship. And guess what? Even when you give off-the-cuff legal advice to someone, you open yourself up to a malpractice suit. This is why most malpractice insurance companies warn against giving casual advice.
This is a tough excuse for many people to understand. They assure you that they would never, not in a million years, sue you for malpractice. Unfortunately, it happens and this is another great reason to avoid doing legal work as a favor for the people in your life.
Excuse #2: “I’m sorry but your case is so far outside my practice area that I’m not sure I’d be of much help.”
I used to use this one all the time. And let me tell you, it was a valid excuse. I was constantly getting calls to help with family law matters. I didn’t take a single family law class in law school, let alone ever handle a family dispute in court.
Luckily, getting out of these situations was easy. I’d just site Model Rule of Professional Conduct Rule 1.1, which says, “A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”
If that didn’t work, I’d appeal to their sense of logic vis-a-vis the medical profession: “You wouldn’t call a podiatrist if you needed quadruple bypass surgery, would you?” Everyone seemed to understand that reasoning. And then, of course, I would refer them to competent counsel who practiced family law.
Excuse #3: “I can’t do this without creating a potential conflict of interest for my firm.”
This is a good excuse to use whenever someone wants you to take on a big company. Let’s say your great aunt calls and wants you to sue the Ford Motor Company because the paint on her car is fading faster than she’d like.
The first thing you do is explain the concept of conflicts of interest. Then tell her that, like all law firms, yours would jump at the chance to represent a major company like Ford. If you represent her in a suit against Ford today, however, you may preclude your firm from ever being able to work with that client in the future. That’s a simplistic explanation, but hopefully, it will make sense to your aunt.
Then, give her some resources about the reality of suing major car companies. After she reads that material (if she even does), you can refer her to some other lawyers who may practice in that area.
Excuse #4: “My firm doesn’t allow me to moonlight.”
This is true in most instances. Firms typically want you only to bring in new matters from paying clients and refrain from moonlighting for non-paying clients. In either case, most firms are highly concerned with the aforementioned conflicts of interest and thus prohibit moonlighting outright.
In these instances, I would usually explain that doing extracurricular legal work could cost me my job. Nobody wants that. And if they do … maybe you should rethink the relationship.
What resources can you give?
I know it feels terrible to tell a loved one that you can’t help them. Unfortunately, there are just too many ways for you to jeopardize your career by giving casual advice. So, what can you do to help these folks?
Situation #1: If your friend has no money
It is especially hard to tell someone “no” when you know they don’t have money to pay for a lawyer. All is not lost, however. You can refer them to Legal Aid Resources that can help them find the legal assistance they need without the outrageous fees.
Also, if your friend anticipates that he will eventually recover a monetary judgment from a lawsuit, you can refer him to a contingency fee lawyer. These attorneys will typically take on a case with little to no upfront costs.
Situation #2: If your friend has money but doesn’t know any lawyers
This is the best-case scenario when a friend is asking for legal advice. Simply refer them to another lawyer whose work you know and trust. Just be sure to refer them to someone you’re actually familiar with. Not only can a bad referral cost you a relationship, but it might also end up with you being sued by your friend for negligent referral.
Situation #3: If your friend is the DIY type
Technically, there’s no rule against a person representing themselves in court. If your loved one decides to go this route, just be sure to communicate clear boundaries; i.e., you cannot act as their secret legal counsel on the side. Instead, refer them to one of the do-it-yourself legal aid companies out there and wish them the best.
Eventually, your friends and family will come to understand that you typically can’t handle their every legal need. In the meantime, however, these are some good strategies for getting them off your back.