RTL’s Real Truth About Lawyers # 3: “Why should a lawyer charge me just to answer a simple question? I mean, how do I know if he can help me yet, right…?”
When Is Advice ‘Legal’ Advice…? When You Have to Ask a Lawyer…
A lot of folks that approach me about legal matters begin with a very simple statement. “I don’t know if this requires a lawyer’s input, but just let me know if and when you have to put in real time and work and then charge me for it.” A word to the wise: Lawyers really hate that. And they hate it because legal advice just doesn’t work that way. You see, the truth is, if you need an attorney’s input on ANY matter, it’s a legal opinion, even if it’s only to eliminate the real need for legal action. Whether or not an issue is a legal issue… is a legal issue! And not realizing that is why a lot of people alienate attorneys before they even hire them. And that’s simply the real truth about lawyers.
“But I’m not asking for legal advice; I’m just asking as a ‘friend'”
One of the biggest pet peeves in the world for attorneys is being asked ‘as a friend’ for legal advice. If you need to ask a ‘lawyer’ friend for the answer, it’s legal advice. If a lawyer is your ‘friend’ it makes him more likely than not to be more trustworthy than a complete stranger. That’s already an advantage. Don’t make it a disadvantage by abusing the situation in the name of ‘friendship’. Asking a ‘lawyer you know’ for a free legal opinion actually commits two wrongs. The first is it fails to treat a friend respectfully; the second is it fails to treat a professional respectfully. Having a lawyer for a friend doesn’t justify asking someone to give away valuable advice in the name of ‘friendship’. And if it doesn’t seem so to you, you may need to reevaluate how you treat your ‘friends’.
“I’m glad I ran into you; there’s something I need to ask you.”
Lawyers get their clients from social contact and such inquiries often come from people who wouldn’t even think twice about, let alone consider, asking some other type of professional the same kind of question. Would you ask a plumber at a cocktail party if he’d mind checking out the problem toilet upstairs since he’s ‘already here’ and ‘free’ and simply offer to pay him to fix it if it needs fixing? Well, that IS professional advice and you can’t spin it in a way to justify it being just free ‘friendly’ advice. Don’t lose a chance at valuable legal counsel by virtue of one badly handled social encounter.
A Lawyer’s ‘Time” Is Valuable Independent of Perceived ‘Present’ Effort
Attorneys go to great expense and effort to get where they are professionally. Just because a lawyer can answer a question ‘off the cuff’ doesn’t mean it’s an easy question. And if it appears that way, it’s because the person asking doesn’t realize the real effort and sacrifice that goes into being a good attorney. Even if you have a lower than average opinion of attorneys, asking that same person to give you advice you value (why else would you ask?) for free just might be the biggest social blunder you can make. If you value advice, treat it as if it’s valuable. You don’t want to alienate the person who can help you the most simply because you failed to respect his professional standing with a flat-footed question in a social setting hoping to get the answer for free.
“But I’m not asking for ‘legal advice’; I just want an answer to one simple question.”
First of all, it’s NEVER that simple, and if it were, you wouldn’t need someone with a law degree to answer it. If a lawyer seems reluctant to offer an answer to a ‘quick and simple’ legal question, it’s usually because he’s knowledgeable enough to know there’s no such thing. More times than not a lawyer who seems curt and stand-offish is not simply being a ‘typically unfriendly’ lawyer. He’s probably one who’s had his share of folks trying to pick his brain for free in inappropriate social settings.
If You Do Offer to Pay, Don’t Be Surprised to Be Called on It
Lawyers are typically smart people, and smart people know when an offer is illusory. I’ve often had people say “I’d like to ask you a legal question and I’m willing to pay for it” who are shocked when I respond “Got a twenty?” They are the same people who get offended when they find out I’m not joking. But if legal advice isn’t even worth a twenty, why are you asking; and, more importantly, why are you asking me? Lawyers don’t like when people ‘offer to pay’ only to launch into an implicit request for free advice. If you offer to pay for advice, don’t make it an empty offer. If you really want to handle business that way, you may want to do it with cash in hand to avoid appearing cagey, but don’t be surprised when a lawyer takes you up on the payment.
“OK, so how do I ask a lawyer for advice to avoid alienating a good lawyer?”
A better approach in all the above circumstances would simply be to ask what that attorney focuses on in their practice and whether they’d be interested in the type case you have. Then you can exchange contact info to set up a time to better look into matters with an emphasis on being willing and able to pay for the advice. And if it’s not advice you’re willing to pay for from an educated professional, then chances are it’s not really all that important to you. And what that means is that you probably shouldn’t be wasting your and your lawyer contact’s time.
“Sorry; can’t make it… Tomorrow?”
Don’t offer to set up a meeting with any attorney only to never do so, or even worse, to back out at the last minute once you do set one up. Of course the worst thing you can do is simply never call to cancel and never show, but it still happens a lot. Asking a lawyer to make an appointment you don’t keep is a good way to exclude good lawyers. Good lawyers don’t appreciate their time being wasted any more than you or anyone else does. And if you set up an appointment you do not keep, don’t be surprised if a lawyer declines to pay you much heed in the future and/or bills you for the time you wasted in the unlikely event he’s hired.
“So, is there ever good “free” legal advice?”
Not really… Ever heard the phrase ‘no free lunch’? It applies to good legal advice as well. But the only apparent exception is a contingency injury case, which isn’t so much an exception as a special case. If an injury case is worthy of real consideration, an attorney will ALWAYS handle such a matter by a percentage of the recovery. Such cases require good evaluation before proceeding, so they still involve “effort”; just not the kind paid for on the front end by the client. Such legal help is not “free”, but it would be paid for by eventual proceeds, not out of the pocket of the client. But even in that circumstance, it’s simply unprofessional to corner a lawyer in a social setting to ‘tell a story’ for fifteen minutes expecting anything less than an ‘It depends; we’d have to look into matters more deeply’ answer which is why a purely social encounter is not an appropriate venue to delve into complex legal discussions. If an attorney handles such matters, it’s still prudent to respect his time by having those conversations in a more professional setting.
What This Ultimately Means to You and Your Case – When in Doubt, Just Ask
Different attorneys handle things in different ways, but none who are worth their salt ever appreciates being treated disrespectfully. Making assumptions about how ‘all lawyers act and think’ is a big reason why lawyers can be ‘less than cordial’ when cornered for free legal advice at inappropriate settings and times. It’s always best to simply ask how they wish to handle their business before ever getting into a legal conversation. Attorneys really appreciate people that respect them professionally; in great part, because it is so extremely rare. Usually asking how best to proceed is enough to let a lawyer know you take them as seriously as you want them to take your case. And that’s the real truth about lawyers.