“Can’t we Just Talk Real Quick”? Why Lawyers Can’t Offer Free Services
There’s a question I see often repeated in forums, social media posts, and blogs. It’s a request for a few minutes of legal advice, just one quick question, or a tip about a legal situation.
Unfortunately, given all the rules and laws that govern lawyers’ actions, it is nearly impossible to offer these services for free. Any time you act as a lawyer after being licensed (and providing legal advice, even for free or informally will always count as “acting as a lawyer” under the rules), the law says that you automatically are warranting to the person that if they have a problem down the road that in any way involves the action you took, you will step in and take responsibility.
This is a huge deal. It means anything I do, however small, can get me involved in someone’s lawsuit. If I advise someone on their employment agreement, and they go and harass a fellow employee years later, I still may be implicated to attend court and prove that I did an adequate job explaining the harassment policy contained in the agreement. It doesn’t matter if what I did as a lawyer had real relevance to the problem. If the person gets in a legal situation later, either one of the parties may choose to involve me.
If that happens, I have insurance that, again by law, I have to inform and use (having specific lawyers’ insurance is also a rule, not a choice). I pay yearly for that insurance, and it is relatively high compared to other commercial insurance (also set costs which can’t be avoided). Regardless of my opinions on the system, these costs are fixed, as are the potential implications of any action I take as a lawyer.
This is why I always charge for my services, though I do to try to keep my fees as reasonable as possible. The reality for a lawyer is that there are fixed costs and liability risks which, if they are not addressed by charging the client, simply leave open a far wider door for problems. If a lawyer doesn’t charge the client, not only are they effectively financing that client’s legal-advice-seeking, they are also exposing themselves to an additional risk that no one can predict.
The professional rules for lawyers can make providing services difficult, but also serves an important role in ensuring a level of professionalism, quality, and consistency among lawyers. It’s a tough balance, and one that still needs a lot of work to get right!