Above the Law: The Practice of Doing Free Work


Brian Tannenbaum:

The one question to ask yourself when debating doing free work is:

Why is this client coming to me?

If the answer is that they know you, then you have to think about what they would do if they didn’t know you. They would hire another lawyer. That lawyer would charge them money. That lawyer wouldn’t feel bad. I’m not saying that all of these clients are looking to take advantage of you, but the ease of these types of clients coming to you should not mean that you give away your time and expertise. These are the potential clients that you sit down with and ask, “Why are you coming to me?,” and, “What would you do if you didn’t know me?” At that point, you can address the need to be paid — something — for your time. It’s not about this client, it’s about the other — paying — clients. This is time you can never get back.

This doesn’t just apply to the legal profession, but I keep finding myself being distracted and frustrated by acquaintances—not even close friends—who send me Facebook messages asking a “quick legal question.” And every time this happens, it’s pretty clear that these people assume I have a level of knowledge that I just don’t have–that MOST lawyers don’t have. None of us knows ALL the law, and every time someone asks us a question, we have to do a significant amount of research in order to answer it effectively. For me, that’s time I could be spending writing posts for paying clients or drafting motions for my internship.

It’s hard not to be insulted when people ask for free legal help, and this may not be fair, but the more that I know someone, the less angry I am to receive messages. I guess it’s just different when a best friend asks for some help as opposed to when someone I haven’t spoken to since high school does it. (And yes, that actually happened to me.)

Look, I spent a lot of time and got into a LOT of debt to become a lawyer. If you didn’t contribute to that in some way (including emotional support), then I don’t owe you free legal advice OR legal research. Cause research takes a long time to do thoroughly, and like I said above, that’s time I could be working for paying clients. And if I’m not working for another client, that’s time you’re taking away from whomever I’m spending time with, especially on a weekend.

Before you ask me or one of your other lawyer friends for free advice, think about how you would feel if someone asked you to do a bunch of work for them for free. Be considerate and remember that I’m struggling to pay off student loans, and try to realize that it’s a little rude of you to assume that I’m going to use my training and specialized skills for nothing in return just because we are friends/went to high school/share similar interests.

If that offends you or you think I’m being greedy, then starting thinking of it this way: The next time you ask me for free legal advice, you’re going to get what you pay for.

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