by Brenda Speer
This post first appeared on the SOLOinCOLO blog,
an online community of Colorado solo and small firm attorneys.
Some days I cynically think that I should answer my office phone, “Free Legal Information Central.” I just had one of those calls and it provoked me to gripe about it in this blog post. Here’s how it went:
“BL Speer & Associates, how may we help you?” (Yes, I answer the phone myself.)
“Do you do trademark work?”
“Yes, we do.”
“I’m buying a business and it has a federal trademark registration. Aren’t those worth like $10,000?”
“It depends on the value of the business.”
“Do you have to renew the registration?”
“Yes, every 10 years.”
“Okay. Thanks for your help.” Click. (At least he said ‘thanks.’ That’ll help pay the bills—not.)
What is it about the legal profession that some people expect you to pay the cost of education, rent, phone bill, insurance, staff, etc., and sit around all day and give your knowledge away to them for free? Do these people walk into a restaurant, tell the server they’re really hungry and ask for a free meal? Do they call painters and ask for them to paint their house for free? Do they call doctor offices and ask for a free diagnosis and prescription? (Probably.) Where do they get the unmitigated gall to call a law firm and ask for free legal advice?
I think part of the blame and misperception can be found in advertising by lawyers who get paid on a contingency fee basis. As a result, the public mistakenly believes that all legal consultations are free of charge and lawyers never get paid unless they win your case. Sorry, Mr. John Q. Public, but there’s no contingency to be won in forming a business, drafting a contract, preparing a will, closing a real estate transaction, securing a patent, copyright or trademark registration, or doing any other type of transactional legal work for you. By the way, those contingency fee basis attorneys whom you think so selflessly and generously work for free? They don’t. They just get paid on a different basis (a percentage of your damages award and you pay for all costs) and timeline (at the end of the case). Also, they’re not going to take your case if they don’t think they can win it. They’re smart lawyers; they don’t gamble and they don’t work for free either.
During another recent call I received, the caller prefaced his remarks with the fact that he’d been in business for over 30 years. He had a new competitor spring up in town who was using the same name as his business. Could we help him with that?
I told him, yes, this matter is within our area of practice.
His next question: “Will you do the work for free?” Say what?! You just told me what a successful business person you are. I doubt that happened by you providing your services for free. Why should I do that?
I politely responded, “No. We do not provide legal advice and services for free.”
His response? None. He just hung up. I assume he tried to find some other hapless lawyer who would oblige him and work for free. I hope all the other lawyers he called also declined to do so.
The other day I got a call from someone selling a motorcycle and he explained the buyer wants a written guarantee regarding repairs done on the motorcycle. Then he asked, “Is that like a legal thing?” I responded with my usual, “We do not provide legal advice and services for free over the phone.”
“Oh. Okay. I’ll try someone else.” Click.
At the outset I knew it would be one of those calls when the first thing he said to me after I answered the phone was (literally, not even a pleasantry of ‘hello’), “Yeah, uh, I just have a quick question.” I felt like responding, “I have a quick answer,” and then just hanging up, but I refrained.
A few weeks ago a musician called and told me he just got offered a recording contract. He wanted to know if I could review it and advise him. I told him, yes, I could help with that. I’m sure you’ve figured out what he asked next. “Would you do it for free?” Again I replied, “I don’t provide legal advice for free.”
His less than courteous response? Dial tone. I know by now not to expect anything more from people who are so rude as to expect me to work for free.
Partly as a result of these experiences, I have acquired the motto: “I’d rather not work and not get paid, than work and not get paid.”
Not only do I not give out free legal advice over the phone, but also I charge for an initial consultation. Why? Because in that consultation I’m providing legal advice. That’s what I do. That’s how I earn my living. I don’t provide legal advice for free either in person or over the phone. Period.
© 2012 BL Speer & Associates