Your cell phone rings, and you look down to see who is calling. MOM. You pick up and she asks how you are doing. She then continues to ask you about work, what you ate that day, and the next time you will be coming home. Then, she quickly changes the topic and states, “Oh by the way, it seems like your [insert relative here] is in a bit of legal trouble. They want to know if you could look at a contract or something.” Ah, there it is.
It may be a month into practice, a year, maybe even 5 years, but the day will come when an old family member or friend asks for five minutes of your time for a small legal problem. You may roll your eyes, massage your forehead, or pull your hair. Why? Because, as we know, there is no such thing as a “small legal problem.” The “small legal problem” will likely involve hours of research, lots of phone calls, and maybe even drafting some kind of correspondence. Sometimes, the “small legal problem” will involve responding to counsel, filing a lawsuit, or going to court. However you choose to help with the small legal problem, here are some rules to guide you as a young attorney facing this situation for the first time.
Rule 1: Tell your boss. Wait, but this is a personal family and friend matter, and I am going to work on it on my own time. It does not matter. The number one reason is that it is just good practice to let your firm know that you are doing outside legal work at any time. The second reason is that there may be conflicts of interests. Your cousin wants to stick it to that apartment complex at their college town for not letting them sublease. The partner on the other side of the floor represents that management company. The third reason is that it is easier if your firm sets the boundaries of what you can and cannot do. They may let you use the letterhead to respond to that demand letter without compensation. However, if you need a legal assistant’s help with filing a complaint for a relative, you may need to complete a conflicts check, collect some kind of fee for the expenses, and make sure that the firm’s insurance covers what you are doing. The fourth reason is that your partner, mentor, and coworkers will always want to help you. Multiple legal minds are always better than one.
Rule 2: Manage your new pro bono client’s expectations. It’s harder to set expectations with family and friends, but it must be done. You have to let them know that this legal issue is not your practice area, but you will reach out to an old law school classmate so they can find the right lawyer. You can help them write that demand letter for free but expenses will need to be paid if that lawsuit needs to be filed. You may only be available to talk about their case in the evenings or on the weekends.
Rule 3: Always help. Almost all law students go to law school because they want to help in some way. These are your family and friends who have known and likely helped you get to where you are today. Even if it is not in your area of law, you are likely the one with the resources to help them. You are the one with the network of attorneys that you can call. You are the one that knows what is considered reasonable attorney’s fees, the legal procedures, and why your brother should just pay for that speeding ticket. So, always help.
Sometimes, your family or friend runs into a somewhat embarrassing legal problem, usually criminal, that you may not want to share with others. We are attorneys and we have seen and heard it all.