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July 14, 2014 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Lawyers: how do you decline helping out your friends?

Lawyers: part of being a lawyer is friends asking you for help on problems they or their family members / friends have. Another part of being a lawyer is being so swamped with the work you already have that you can't really help someone out, especially if the issues involved are more fraught than they may appear. I mean, I genuinely want to help, but there's not enough hours in the day for what's already on my plate. Do you regularly decline helping out your friends? And if so, HOW do you navigate that without making anyone upset at you? I'm looking for tact, etc. And should I be feeling this pang of guilt, or is that dumb?
posted by naju to Work & Money (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I usually decline. I kinda muddle my way through it. I say this is my job and I have to get paid. If your working for a Firm, tell them you can't without the Firm's permission.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:36 AM on July 14 [4 favorites]


I have a couple of lawyer friends whose legal advice is "you need to obtain a lawyer for that, one who specializes in X" or "no lawyer is going to take that, but you're welcome to try if you really must".

The implication is that they ethically cannot do work without a work agreement, and I think for liability reasons this is essentially true anyway. And if you are actually the appropriate type of lawyer to engage, you tell them that your "friends and family rate" is $X and you will be available to work on it in 7-10 weeks.

You just gotta stand firm.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:37 AM on July 14 [3 favorites]


I'm not a lawyer but in my area of work, when friends ask for freebies, I usually say "Hmmm...that's not my area of expertise. What you really want is a lawyer who specializes in (blank). I can send you a few names if you like." I've also said, "I've made it a policy not to work for friends or family--it just makes things too complicated. When we see each other, it reminds us of work which is no fun--but I can send you a few names if you like."
posted by biscuits at 11:42 AM on July 14 [4 favorites]


Chances are they're asking because they think it's simple and won't take much of your time. So if you can make it clear to them, with specific reasons, why that's not the case, they'll be less likely to be offended if you decline to help.
posted by Dragonness at 11:43 AM on July 14 [2 favorites]


I no longer practice but I still get asked. The joy of corporate securities issuance is that your relatives and friends never have a problem within your area of expertise. I have also said "I'm sorry but my employer has made it clear that it is a breach of ethics for me to represent anyone without running a conflict check and doing it on firm time. But you are likely to be able to find someone helpful on the SF Bar website."
posted by janey47 at 11:46 AM on July 14 [5 favorites]


I do my best not to give anything that could be construed as legal advice to anyone that isn't actually my client. My primary go-to excuses are (1) specialty, (2) jurisdiction, (3) licensure, and (4) conflicts. For close friends and family I work pretty hard to get them a good referral.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:53 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]


I'm not a lawyer. I do have a few friends with some legal training who I usually ping for legal advice when I need it; none of these friends, however, are actually lawyers.

I'd think the following would be both acceptable and tactful. I think you should make recommendations for appropriate attorneys whenever possible, that way the person is less likely to see it as a blow-off. Some of these have already been mentioned:

* Why not the truth? "Gee, I'm really swamped right now with 23 cases, and I don't think I could devote the necessary time and energy to take your case."
* Working for friends or family would create a conflict of interest.
* I can't take your case without the Firm's permission. (That, though, may invite "well could you get permission?")
* That's not my area of practice/expertise.
posted by tckma at 11:54 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]


If your working for a Firm, tell them you can't without the Firm's permission.

Which has the advantage of being true, at any responsible firm.
posted by eugenen at 11:57 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]


i have lots of lawyer friends and their approach tends to be a similar disclaimer from what i've seen on askme, which is "i am not your lawyer and this is not legal advice" followed up by what has been suggested above: "that's not my area of legal expertise but i might be able to recommend someone if you are serious about obtaining and paying for legal services." one friend even goes so far as to declare "this is my advice to you as a friend, nothing more." i appreciate the clarity. from their directness i've learned if there are legal issues i am curious about the only thing i feel that's ok to ask of them is "given this (brief) description of my situation, do you think i need a lawyer, and if so what type?"
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 12:30 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


Sometimes people get real quiet if you point out that, unless there is a formal attorney-client relationship established by a signed retainer agreement and fee, whatever they tell you about the matter would not be protected by attorney-client privilege. Indeed, their sharing the details with you could be considered as a waiver of privilege, and could seriously compromise their future ability to control release of sensitive information. This is true and important.
posted by Corvid at 12:40 PM on July 14 [6 favorites]


I'm not a lawyer, but a friend of mine will sometimes tell people something along the lines of 'I recommend such-and-such lawyer to people who need a lawyer specializing in X, but to my friends I recommend so-and-so who is really the very best person for X.'
posted by yohko at 12:45 PM on July 14


1. If you work for a firm or a reasonably large company, it's probably prohibited pursuant to the firm's liability insurance; tell them this.

2. If you work elsewhere or are self employed, anything outside your niche area can be nixxed on that basis.

3. So, you're a self-employed landlord-tenant lawyer and have friends with lease issues, now what? Well, in that case, either (a) you don't have time to handle it; tell them this; or (b) you do. In the case of 3(b) they can pay your "friends and family" rate, which is discounted from your "really annoying client/project rate" (which is inflated from your regular rate).

Most of the time, what people want to hear when they ask your professional advice is "yes, this is a thing for xyz type of lawyer" or "no, you'd be wasting your time and money."

Don't feel guilty. If you decline to help them, it's because either you're contractually prohibited from helping them or you cannot ethically handle the case because it is beyond your area of expertise or your time availability.
posted by melissasaurus at 12:51 PM on July 14 [4 favorites]


part of being a lawyer is friends asking you for help on problems they or their family members

The way to help them is to refer them to a lawyer whom they can hire. You can't work for friends for free without an engagement letter any more than you can hit up your doctor friends for a prescription or your contractor friend to paint your house for free.

I rarely get hit up for advice, probably because most individuals don't have a need in my practice area. So, I refer them to an attorney I know who can help them. If they push me for an answer or advice on the spot, I explain that I can't give them advice at a party anymore than a doctor could diagnose them. I think people understand doctor analogies because almost everyone has dealt with a doctor but much fewer have ever needed to hire a lawyer.

It also helps cool things down if you explain how much you cost and that lawyers don't work for free. So I might say, "Joe Blow handles those sorts of matter very well. His rate was $X/hour the last time I sent him a case." You need to ferret out non-serious people at the outset because it's not fair to Joe Blow to send him a referral and then your friend balks at Joe's rate.

unless there is a formal attorney-client relationship established by a signed retainer agreement and fee, whatever they tell you about the matter would not be protected by attorney-client privilege.

In the states I am familiar with (such as mine), the privilege attaches if the consultation was in anticipation of engagement, so the privilege very well could attach if the friend was consulting with the intent of hiring.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:00 PM on July 14


Do you regularly decline helping out your friends?

Yes, but few of my friends need help in the area I specialize in, so it's easy for me to do with a clean conscience.

HOW do you navigate that without making anyone upset at you?

A phrase I like is "my malpractice insurance doesn't cover that." It deflects the issue on to a third party and makes it a little more clear that pushing any further is asking for you to not only work for free but also to either take on significant financial risk or to pay money out of pocket to broaden your malpractice coverage. It's also true.

should I be feeling this pang of guilt, or is that dumb?

Your friends are asking you to do work for free, work that you are only in a position to do because you spent years attending law school (and possibly going into significant debt) to do so. They are also asking you to take on personal and professional risks, possibly substantial ones. Do not feel guilty for declining to be taken advantage of.

Sometimes people get real quiet if you point out that, unless there is a formal attorney-client relationship established by a signed retainer agreement and fee, whatever they tell you about the matter would not be protected by attorney-client privilege. Indeed, their sharing the details with you could be considered as a waiver of privilege, and could seriously compromise their future ability to control release of sensitive information. This is true and important.

Except it's not true (in every US jurisdiction I'm familiar with), and it's very important that it isn't. ABA Model Rule 1.18:
(a) A person who consults with a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client.

(b) Even when no client-lawyer relationship ensues, a lawyer who has learned information from a prospective client shall not use or reveal that information, except as Rule 1.9 would permit with respect to information of a former client.
There is no requirement for a signed retainer agreement (many attorneys do not use retainers at all) or that a fee be paid before an attorney-client relationship is created (how do you think it works in pro bono cases?) or before the attorney-client privilege kicks in. Frankly, if you are an attorney you should know better.
posted by jedicus at 1:07 PM on July 14 [8 favorites]


A lot of the time people just want you to talk them through the process -- "Okay, you had a car accident, your insurance company will probably do X Y and Z, and their lawyers will take care of suing the other guys. If they do A or B, you probably need to get your own lawyer, but you're with a reputable insurer, it'll be fine." or "You're being deposed? Okay, so they'll do this and that, and you'll do this and that, and it'll be fine." A lot of the time when people say, "Do you mind if I ask you a question?" they actually want your meta-professional expertise -- your knowledge of how the system works, rather than your professional advice. I'm always happy to help with this, because you don't actually have to give a legal opinion, and people are so relieved to have someone they trust explain to them what the process will be like.

When people ask me if I can handle something, I either tell them my friends-and-family rate (I'm a solo practitioner so I don't have the law firm excuse, which is a great excuse and you should use it), or I tell them "I don't handle that, but I can definitely refer you to someone who does." Referrals are a good way to build your network, and both your friend-client and the lawyer you refer them to will have warm fuzzy feelings about your helpfulness. You can also ask older attorneys, "Someone asked me for a referral to someone who does X, do you know someone who's good?" On occasion it's taken me a little time to track someone down for a particularly arcane issue, but other lawyers remember referrals, or that you asked for their guidance and counsel in identifying a talented colleague for a referral, and it does build goodwill. I've never regretted the time it's taken me to track down a referral for a friend or acquaintance who's looking for a lawyer, even when I've had to find them someone in a different city or even state. People move, firms and companies have many locations, lots of these people will be in a position to do you a favor later on, it comes back to you in surprising ways!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:10 PM on July 14 [13 favorites]


Not a lawyer, but an effective tactic is to graciously provide an unlimited amount of something that's easy for you to do and that they can't get much of without running out of things to request or moving on to their own professional. For example, I make websites, and I'm happy to provide an unlimited amount of feedback to people close to me and make an unlimited amount of inquiries to others about freelancing. I'm helping but they can't get that help without someone else besides me doing all the work. As a lawyer, feedback is kind of your main job, so don't do that, but things like giving referrals or feedback on their description of their initial consultations they're having would have a similar effect.
posted by michaelh at 2:24 PM on July 14


I asked a lawyer friend recently about something procedural -- the meta-advice as mentioned above -- and his response was "Anyone who's in this situation needs a lawyer, and I recommend {Name of Other Lawyer} very highly." Other Lawyer did indeed turn out to be just the person needed. I didn't feel blown off or anything. If you know someone else you can refer them to, that's a great way to handle this situation. If you're comfortable giving out the sort of procedural walkthrough PLUS the referral, that is as much as any friend could ask for.
posted by KathrynT at 3:12 PM on July 14 [2 favorites]


I'm not a lawyer, I do IT/project management work for a law firm. Family and friends ask me about computer problems all the time. (I'd bet that people have computer problems more than they have legal problems.)

Aside from my parents and GF, everyone else gets the same response: "Hmm, that sounds like something I'd really need to dig into and I'm sorry I don't have the time for that right now, would you like a recommendation?"
posted by Brian Puccio at 3:14 PM on July 14


I say it would be malpractice for me to give them advice since it is without fall outside my area of expertise.

It also helps that it's true. I have made half hearted attempts to answer simple questions and quickly realized even giving general guidance had a 50/50 of being totally wrong. Probably higher. If it's a tenants rights thing I might send them a link to the relevant housing authority and tell them to start there, but that's pretty much as far I feel comfortable going.

One thing I have done is reach out to other lawyers to get referrals for friends and I'm happy to do that. I actually think this is by far the most valuable thing I can do for a friend needing legal advice.
posted by whoaali at 4:38 PM on July 14


Here are a couple of true points I've made to people, worded to be easily understood by the layperson:

1. "I could lose my job."

In my case, I work for the court system itself, not a client. (I'm not a judicial clerk.) In order to take on this job, I was required to sign an agreement saying I can't represent anyone. Even people close to me. Even for free. So my situation is particularly clear-cut. But you can adapt this to your circumstances ... insofar as applicable, of course.

Everyone understands the concept of "I could lose my job." No one wants to put you in a position where you have to even worry about that.

If I really have to underscore the point, I could explain that even if I believe I'm not overstepping my bounds, I need to make sure I don't say anything that anyone might view as inappropriate. And the easiest way for me to do this is to have a bright-line rule not to give out any kind of legal advice or legal analysis when I'm not on the job.

2. "If I were in your position, all I'd do would be to go on the internet and start Googling for help."

In other words, I'm in no special position that's superior to my friend's position. It could be Googling for an attorney to contact, or Googling to find out what the law in my state says about this. Of course, I only say this if it's true. By mentioning that you yourself would just "Google" the answer (which everyone these days understands to mean "the most basic form of research for someone who doesn't know anything"), you quickly convey that even though you yourself are a legal professional, you don't have professional expertise about this specific question.
posted by John Cohen at 6:45 PM on July 14


Referrals to well regarded attorneys can be extremely helpful. If you're inclined to go a step further you could coach your friends/family on how to talk to a lawyer - how to frame questions, problems and goals, list facts etc. etc. A good friend helped me with this aspect of lawyering-up and it made a huge difference by way of cost and outcome. Knowing how to use an attorney's time wisely and efficiently is a very useful, empowering life skill and one you could teach without doing actual legal work.
posted by space_cookie at 7:18 AM on July 15


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