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Tips for Handling Free Advice Seekers

You knew it was going to happen someday. As soon as you started law school, news traveled through the gossip grapevine. Now, everyone is texting you, calling you, or conspicuously bringing up their personal legal issues up in coffee-house conversation in a not-too-hidden attempt to get some free legal advice.

Now that you've actually graduated, it's not just family and friends trying to leech advice. Total strangers are trying to get in on the free-tip bandwagon. And these people were supposed to be paying clients! You've got basically two options: you can be the guy everybody hates and tell them to get lost, or you can skillfully and artfully oblige them.

But giving legal advice gratis can be a treacherous dance. For law students, it can easily be unauthorized practice of law, an ethical and professional no-no. (Wait 'til you're licensed, kids.)

Here are some tips of your own you should always keep in mind.

Cover Yourself

Lawyers are a paranoid bunch, and it comes out in the way that they speak. Lawyers get sued for malpractice by their clients when they're actually retained; and lawyers get sued by complete strangers who claim they relied on the lawyer's advice and got hurt.

Whenever you give free legal advice, you should make it absolutely clear that the advice does not suddenly create a lawyer-client relationship and that the advice does not carry legal import. Lawyers try their best to cover themselves with email footers that disclaim the content above, but case law is slowly eroding this practice. Increasingly, the trick of saying this "this is not legal advice" is becoming less and less effective. It's especially meaningless when you're actually giving legal advice.

Generalize

Unless you're an expert in the field, you'll almost certainly be giving a general answer. A lawyer is potentially committing malpractice if he offers a legal opinion without first looking to the authorities. Fortunately, many freebie seekers tend to ask questions that are, by nature, very general. Such questions deserve equally general answers.

If someone is asking something very specific, you should encourage a lawyer-client relationship. Consider also keeping a record of the advice you gave so if they decide to get cute and sue you. You'll at least have a contemporaneous record of what it was they asked and you said.

Read People

You're a lawyer and by now you should have at least an above average skill at reading character. There should be little risk in giving some very general helpful advice -- caveats included, of course -- to someone who asks for some tips without the need to ceremoniously create a lawyer-client relationship. But if your senses tell you that someone is simply milking you for lawyer services and they're simply too cheap to pay for you, you should politely end the conversation there.

But ironically, here's a bit of free advice: be careful. Many personal relationships came to a crashing halt because someone asked for some advice and their lawyer friend made a good-faith attempt to help a friend out. Then a lawsuit soon followed. Or the lawyer refused and things still ended badly.

So when it comes to free advice, consider this last final point: you're less likely to get sued if you keep your mouth shut and get hated than if you open your mouth and get liked.

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