Business of Law

Free and Clear


Arthur Macomber
Photo by J. Craig Sweat

At least once a week a friend or family member approaches Randy B. Birch and asks him for a little bit of legal advice.

Sometimes it’s just a quick question about a contract. Sometimes they want representation—free, of course. But the Heber City, Utah, attorney who practices with Bostwick & Price learned his lesson the hard way.

“Years ago I represented a family member in a divorce,” Birch says. “The proceedings got down and dirty,” he remembers, with details of pillow talk in testimony. Birch helped the wife ask for custody of the children as part of the divorce.

Six months later, the couple reconciled and Birch found himself sitting at the holiday dinner table across from a “guy I called every name in the book.”

After that, Birch implemented a “no friends or family” policy, opting to refer inquiries to other attorneys instead of helping out on his own.

Birch is not alone in making that decision. While relatives might think it is convenient to have a lawyer in the family, a number of solo practitioners say that they didn’t invest time and money in law school to spend their days giving Aunt Edna’s neighbor free advice. Those who have been burned by a spouse’s friend who never paid a discounted bill or a cousin who didn’t like the outcome of his case opt instead to forward the names of qualified lawyers who can help—and bill—without all the complicated emotional ties.

“Early on I was always flattered that they came to me,” Birch says. “I’ve been doing this 25 years; I am no longer flattered.”

NEGATIVE POTENTIAL

Los Angeles attorney eugene lee has other reasons for saying no to any cocktail party request for free legal advice.

“You risk ruining the relationship,” Lee explains. “If you let them pick your brain, there is always the potential for some detail that they didn’t tell you that would have changed your answer. Then, if things go south, they come back and tell you that you were wrong.”

Pittsburgh-based lawyer Doug Harhai says he considers whether such free work will lead to other (paying) business. If it seems likely to open doors, he’s more likely to help out. And Mom and Dad get a pass that siblings, in-laws and others don’t. “It is hard to have a set guideline,” he says.

If Lee decides to ignore his policy and agrees to take on a friend’s case, he invoices the friend with a zero-balance bill, showing what the work would have typically cost.

“I think that people don’t appreciate that you are working really hard and take you for granted unless you show them,” he says.

Birch does the same, showing a discounted hourly rate versus the standard hourly rate on the rare occasion when he does agree to help out a friend.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, solo practitioner Arthur B. Macomber requires friends and family to sign a contract and pay a retainer up front, as he would with any other client.

Macomber says some people do initially stiffen when he tells them his policy. “They say, ‘I thought we were friends.’ But I am able to overcome that. I explain that it is for their protection.”

If the friend does agree to those terms, he does not offer a discounted hourly rate. “It costs me the same whether they are family or not. My time is not worth any less,” Macomber adds. If they balk, he has the perfect retort:

“ ‘You might consider paying me more than my normal rate, because you know I will work harder for you than someone because you are fam­ily.’ It is hard for them to argue with that.”

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