What They didn’t teach you at the Law School
Law School prepares you to think, write and research like a lawyer, but once you’re at the door of a law firm or a courtroom, there’s a whole new set of skills you need. The present series of articles aims to enrich a new lawyer with all these skills in order for him/her to excel.
Almost all of us have had a family member or friend approach us for help with a legal matter; either to prepare their will, handle a new property purchase, advise on a family business or even act for them in their divorce. Naturally, you want to help out.
But should you get involved?
Acting for friends and relatives is actually a risky business. The big risk is your inability to give honest, independent, objective advice; no matter how hard you try, when you’re dealing with a family member, your ability to be independent is affected. The relationship between you and a relative or friend lacks the professional distance you have with your other clients, and that can adversely affect your opinion.
If the matter is a straightforward real estate transaction and there are no emotions involved, you may be comfortable acting for your relative. But if it’s a family law concern, this makes it harder to give honest and candid advice, and you may want to decline to act.
Another concern when acting for family or friends is whether you’re sufficiently skilled in the particular practice area to provide the service requested. Also, you may feel extra pressure to help a family member or close friend succeed with their lawsuit or achieve their goal – so much so that you’re driven to take an unduly aggressive or unreasonable position with the other side, to the detriment of the person you’re supposedly helping.
Further, you may be less formal if acting for a friend or relative than you would be, if acting for a regular client. You’re likely to be more casual when it comes to documenting the file properly or sending correspondence to a client who is closely connected. And if the family member or friend isn’t a fee-paying client, there’s more of a risk that you’ll treat the file informally than if you’re offering a reduced fee to a real client.
Family members, in general, can be very demanding clients. They can be the most unreasonable clients because of their personal relationship with you. The payment of fees is another awkward matter. It’s uncomfortable enough dealing with fees with regular clients—much more so when you have a personal relationship with the individual.
If the work involves a private matter, don’t be surprised if your relationship later deteriorates. And while advocate/client confidentiality applies, your client may distrust you anyway and worry that you’ll disclose their private information to the other friends or relatives.
How to handle Requests from Family and Friends
No “one-size-fits-all” advice is appropriate for every situation—each request for legal services from a friend or family member may warrant a different response.
The best rule, however, is “don’t accept the case”. Many large firms, in fact, have policies prohibiting their lawyers from acting for friends or relatives.
If appropriate, refer the matter to another lawyer in the firm, and explore a mutual reduced billing rate among firm lawyers for clients who are family or friends. Or refer the matter to another firm. Explain to your aunt that she’ll be better represented by another lawyer. Request the other lawyer that any consideration they can offer on the fee aspect to your aunt would be much appreciated.
If you feel that you can act in the matter with the proper professionalism required and genuinely want to personally take on the case, check the policies of the law firm on this aspect. If you carry on a solo practice, ask another lawyer friend for their opinion.
If you have the firm’s approval to act, treat the person like any other client and maintain your usual practice standards and procedures:
- Formalize the relationship. Suggest your aunt to take an appointment to meet in your office to discuss the matter – don’t chat with her about her case at a family gathering.
- Do your usual conflict of interest check, and open a file.
- Discuss time frames and possible outcomes so the person has realistic expectations.
- Obtain proper instructions and maintain a written record of your work.
- Communicate your progress and results, preferably in writing.
More than likely, your friend or relative will expect a discount from you. If you do the case for a discount or pro bono, make sure your friend/relative-client knows the worth of the service he or she is receiving.
In actuality, representing friends and family can prove to be an excellent way to build up your client base. It may not be a bad idea to let them know what areas of practice you are in. You might be surprised at the results of family referrals.