Wednesday, September 5, 2012

There Is No Such Things As Free Legal Advice

My husband is an attorney.

Attorneys are often stereotyped as high-priced scam artists.  And this is true of many but, like all stereotypes, this is not true of all.  In fact, I know dozens of lawyers and I find them to be the most intelligent, empathic, and compassionate people I know.  And I'm a teacher!

I know people hate attorneys but really, my husband is one of the top 1% who don't give attorneys a bad name. It is true that, in your opinion, he might charge too much "by the hour" but he is also the most incredibly generous person I know.  He chose to go into the field of law both because he loves it and because it financially sets him up to give like a crazy person.  And that is what he does.  He GIVES like a crazy person to our church, to non-profits, to micro-loan centers, to family and friends.  And he gives more than his money--he gives his time.  Ask him to help and he will.  Ask him to serve on a board and he will.  He is generous with his time and money.

When I see what a generous man I have, I get really irritated at the people who take advantage of his career by wanting something for nothing.  By feeling entitled to free advice because some other attorneys out there are real scum-bags.

Let me tell you a truth.  There is no such thing as free legal advice.

Remember in high school economics how you learned about OPPORTUNITY COST (also known as "there is no such thing as a free lunch")?  Basically if you have $20 and you spend it on a meal and movie, it actually costs you more than the meal and movie. If you spend $20 on dinner and a movie it costs you whatever else you could have gotten (like 3 pairs of Target shoes on sale or 20 boxes of Hot Tamales).  The same is true here.  When you ask my husband for free legal advice, it costs him something.

It Costs His Ethical Integrity

Expecting an attorney to give you legal advice without engaging him as your legal representative is asking him to go against his professional, ethical duty.  It is unethical for him to give you legal advice without giving him an opportunity to research your question and issue and to formulate and educated answer.  The law is grey, not black and white, so there is no easy answer to your question.  If you don't want to pay him for sound legal advice, don't ask him.

When you take him to lunch to "pick his brain" (also known as "I'd rather buy you a $10 meal than pay you what you are worth but I want the same services because I'm cheap like that.") it is unethical for him to give you an answer.  If he gives you a bad answer, he is liable for malpractice.  Malpractice is expensive and a reputation ruiner.

If you wouldn't expect your oncologist friend to diagnose you with cancer over one lunch conversation without paying for a doctor visit and physical, then please, don't expect my husband to solve your legal woes for free.

Your need for a free answer is not worth him losing his ethical integrity.  That's a high cost for "free" legal work.

It Costs His Family

Do we live in a nice house and take vacations and have great cars.  You betcha.  Do we have loans on the house and cars and the legal education?  You betcha.

See, my family, much like your family likes to eat, have health care/dental/vision insurance, wear clothes, etc.  We don't get these items for free because my husband is an attorney.  We have to buy them.  Which means, he needs to make money to pay for them.  Weird, I know.

When you expect free legal advice and you don't pay my spouse, it affects our whole family.  The phrase in the legal world is "you eat what you kill."  Well, when he doesn't get paid for his work, we don't eat.  There is no salary to fall back on here folks.

Obviously when you look at us we aren't starving but that doesn't mean that some months aren't tight because believe it or not, even people who engage Matt to be their attorney don't pay their bill.  And that costs us.

I have this friend who does my hair and you know what?  She charges me full price.  Seriously, no friend discount at all.  And I'm cool with that because I want her to A. Do a good job and B. Eat.  She has to make a living.  I'm obligated to pay her for her services.  I'm happy to pay her for her work.

The same goes for attorneys.

It Costs His Family Double

The truth is Matt is an incredible person.  He goes on those "free legal advice" lunches more than I like.  He does a lot of pro bono work for family and friends.  He can't do it during working hours so he does it during family hours.  So when he goes on a "free advice lunch," his wife and kids lose out on his time.  And when he is researching your issue at 8:00 pm, his wife and kids don't get his attention.

Like many jobs Matt's comes home with him.  This is especially true of "free" work.  His dedication to "free" work costs him time with his kids and family.  So your "free legal advice" costs us not only his pay check, but his attention.  Tell me again why you are more entitled to his time than his family is?  I keep getting confused on that part.

It Costs Giving

As I said before, my man gives and gives and gives.  But if he is doing free work for people who choose not to pay him, it keeps him from being able to give his time and money to the charities and organizations that mean most to him.  The less money he brings in, the less money he donates to World Visions, E3 Ministries, etc.  The more time he spends doing "free" legal work, the less time he has for serving non-profit companies, like Solid Rock Outdoor Ministries.

See, this guy, he wants to give the best of him.  Pay him for his time so he can pay it forward.  Because he WILL pay it forward.

It Costs His Partners

At his firm, partners profit share.  Matt keeps X% of what he brings in and the rest goes into a firm "kitty" to cover things like overhead, salaried employees, etc.  When a partner doesn't bring in his fair share, other partners have to "cover" it.  So your "free legal advice" doesn't just cost Matt, it costs his business partners.

The Bottom Line

You wouldn't expect an electrician do work without paying him.  You wouldn't expect a doctor to diagnose you without paying for an appointment.  You pay the person who cuts your hair, trims your lawn, tunes up your car, cleans your house, watches your kids, rings up your groceries ... Just because attorneys are stereotyped as rip-off artists does NOT mean you are entitled to "free" legal advice.

Your free advice isn't free and regardless of what you personally feel about attorneys, you are not entitled to anything.

What I think is if your legal question or problem isn't worth paying for, it probably isn't worth asking about. 

Oh, and I totally recognize how this goes for sooooo many other jobs: doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, pastors, mechanics, stay-at-home moms (no, we are not your free child care source) ...  People deserved to be compensated for their labor.  End of story.

Thanks, Shell!


  1. Good post, Reagan. I appreciate you and Matt's willingness to draw a line so as not to get taken advantage of. Every point your bring is a good reminder of what it costs Matt and your family. Plus, it's always good to know where that line is, as well, for friends and acquaintances who aren't sure! I do wonder if it gets fuzzy sometimes when someone asks for vague advice or something seemingly simple. For example, if you were to ask me as your photographer friend how I get the depth of field in my pictures, I'd say sure! Just open up your aperture and adjust your shutter speed and ISO to allow the right amount of light (or some version of a perhaps more complicated explanation. Ha!). I honestly wouldn't mind that. However, asking me as a guest to your wedding if I wouldn't mind just bringing my camera would be a completely different thing. I'm just genuinely curious if there are fuzzy lines like that and how you figure out what situations to say no to and which to just offer friendly advice about something you're knowledgable about. Does that make sense? I ask your thoughts because I'm not completely clear sometimes where those lines are for myself and my own business. Anyway, good post. (And thanks for your message earlier, as well!)

  2. P.S. I realize there is much more weight to the advice given by an attorney vs that of a photographer! So the comparison may not be fair, but I'm genuinely curious! :)

  3. This is a great post. So many people (including me!) know nothing about this.

    This might explain why I always felt awkward when I was a kid asking my hairdresser aunt to cut my hair for free.

    1. Although the lines are much blurrier when it comes to family ...

  4. I think this happens in any profession. Teachers talk to parents about behavior strategies or home school options without being compensated. They share lesson plans and let people use the worksheets they spent money on or hours writing without being compensated. My FIL is a fire chief and I'm forever calling him for safety tips and questions. My brother is a marketing director for a national company and is always happy to help people out with offering advice concerning graphic design or to do small projects for them. My SIL is an interior designer and gets a lot of questions about decor, how-to, floor plans, etc and will go help people paint their rooms or hunt down items for them. A friend who is an anesthesiologist is happy to answer medical questions - so is another friend who is a nurse.

    Anyhow, I think when it comes to family or close friends it is fair game to ask for a small amount of help if it's in their area of expertise, especially if it would cause financial strain on them to have to pay full price to hire someone. Granted, it's not fair to abuse that but I think everyone has their talent and both my husband and I are happy to share ours if we can and appreciate it when others are willing to give in the same manner.

    1. Yes, I agree this is a problem with many jobs. For friends and family, Matt is happy to help and I am happy to have him help. But to the guy he played basketball with six years ago and hasn't talked to since who want "free advice" on real estate taxes ... hire an attorney!

    2. Good call. Khale got a call late at night recently from a high school classmate who has been in and out of jail multiple times for various reasons asking for "legal advice." Needless to say, he didn't call him back. :)

  5. BRAVO! I'll say it again BRAVO! Unfortunately the world is full of people who think they are "entitled" and you will always have those looking for free handouts. I hope someone slaps me if I ever fall into that vat of self-centeredness!

    Mindy @ New Equus - A New Creation

  6. One of my bils is a doctor and he's always getting asked medical questions at the oddest times. I had to laugh at not being anyone's free childcare as stay at home homes- so many think that b/c we don't have anything else to do, why wouldn't we help. *yeah, right*


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