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An Answer to Your Request for a "Quick Legal Question"

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

If you've ever had a legal question, you might have asked a lawyer friend, acquaintance, or even your former lawyer for quick advice. You were likely met with a blank stare, a polite declination, or an offer to make an appointment. Have you wondered why lawyers don't give free advice? After all, they're trained to provide legal counsel, and they're supposed to be professionals who help people. So why are they so reluctant to give away their time and expertise for free?

There are a few reasons why lawyers don't give free advice to non-clients--and they are good reasons that do not necessarily spell greed, despite what you might think. First, it's sometimes a matter of liability. If a lawyer gives free advice and it turns out to be wrong, the lawyer could be sued for malpractice. (Many times, I have been asked questions that have nothing to do with my practice areas, and about which I know very little.) This is a serious risk, and it's one that most lawyers are not willing to take--nor can they afford to.

Second, giving free advice takes time. Lawyers are busy people, and they don't have time to answer every question that comes their way. If they were to start giving free advice, they would quickly be overwhelmed. Even if they do have some time--"It will only take a minute, I swear!"--they could charge paying clients for that time. If you take a half hour to tell your story and seek free advice, that is time the lawyer is not available to help their paying clients. Your free advice potentially costs them money.

A man and woman smiling in conversation

Third, giving free advice can create a later conflict of interest. If a lawyer gives free advice to a non-client and then an opposing party or relative later tries to hire the lawyer for a related matter, the lawyer may be prevented from representing anyone in the situation because of a potential ethical violation. This can create a real mess if the lawyer didn't know the parties were connected in some way. A "quick question" rarely opens itself to a proper conflict-check.

For all of these reasons and more, I hope it is understandable why lawyers don't give free advice to non-clients. If you have a legal question, you should consult with a lawyer who is familiar with your specific situation and area of the law. Take the time for an actual consultation. The lawyer will be able to run a conflict check, assess your case, and provide you with the best possible advice under a fee agreement.

Here are some additional reasons why lawyers may not give free advice:

  • They may not be qualified to give advice on the specific legal issue you have. Would you ask your dermatologist for advice about the recurring pain in your hip, or your ophthalmologist about the sore on your toe? Similarly, you would not ask your tax attorney for advice on your traffic ticket. A law degree is not a catch-all that indicates mastery of every area. This is why we attend Continuing Legal Education specific to our areas of practice.

  • They may not have the time to give you a comprehensive answer. Your question might seem simple, but the answer might be long and nuanced or even require many more questions to know the answer. Often, your quick question carries a flashing red sign that reads, "Can of Worms." Or, they may simply be trying to enjoy their off time.

  • They may be worried about giving you bad advice, which could lead to you making a mistake. Lawyers do care. They care about people's legal problems and they want to prevent further mistakes. If they are not fully versed in the area of law, or if you make it clear you are not looking to hire them, they actually are not interested in steering you down a wrong path.

  • They may be concerned about creating a conflict of interest. If you are getting the brush-off, understand that perhaps another party--your spouse, your kids, your neighbor, a police officer--already asked them about the same situation and they are afraid of creating a conflict. Or, perhaps they simply do not know you well enough to commit to you as a client in that moment. And, in most situations a lawyer is under no obligation to disclose the reason they see a potential conflict.

  • They may genuinely be offended at the request--and that's okay, too. My lawyer friends and I noticed, once we became licensed attorneys, that "old friends" came out of the woodwork to seek free advice. They hadn't spoken to us in years, but suddenly we were desirable. I did not put myself into soul-crushing debt and study around the clock for years so I could provide Mary Sue from chemistry class in 1992 with an answer to her child support questions. If, on the other hand, Mary Sue is looking for a referral to a child support attorney and thought I might know one, I am more than happy to provide one . . . from the office, during business hours.

If you need legal advice, it's best to consult with a lawyer who is familiar with your specific situation. Call and make an appointment for a consultation. Select a lawyer who practices that area of law. (This can generally be found by Googling it, or reaching to the state bar for a referral.) After sitting down with you, a lawyer will be able to assess your case and provide you with the best possible advice. My own areas of practice are clearly listed on this website.

This post was created with assistance from Bard, an AI solution from Google.

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