But Your Mother Said You Were a Lawyer …
No one takes their baby to a gynecologist for a routine checkup. No one goes to a cardiologist for an ankle sprain, or to a dentist when they have chest pains. So why, I ask, do distant relatives call me to draft prenuptial agreements when: (1) Who are you? (2) I had no idea you were even engaged, and (3) I am a litigator, not an estate planner.
The problem with being a lawyer is having a family. Not your immediate family, of course, but the family that you only see at bar mitzvahs and weddings. The family that doesn’t have your cell phone number. The family that never seems to have a job. You see, eventually, that part of the family will find out you are a lawyer. (We have a lawyer in the family!) And, once they’ve discovered you, that family will remind you that they bought you a toy in 1984, and then follow up with a request to draft multiple wills, trusts, help them with a speeding ticket, formulate a defense to the murder charge … whatever. “After all, we’re family!” No need to pay.
A relatively unknown aunt called me three months after I passed the bar. I had never spoken with this woman on the phone. She told me she was engaged and needed a prenup. I told her I thought she was already married. She laughed. I was serious. (Then who was Uncle Mike?) I told her I had never prepared a prenup. She told me she would give me a six-pack of Bud Light. Although it sounded like a sweetheart of a deal, I “regretfully” declined. She called my mother and complained about me.
Unlike doctors, lawyers are bound by rules about advertising. Depending on what state you live in, you often can’t “specialize” in an area of the law—or at least you can’t advertise a specialty, per se. Additionally, we don’t have separate titles like “cardiologist” or “dentist” or “podiatrist.” Instead, we as lawyers are all viewed as, well, “lawyers.” To the average aunt, we should be able to handle any legal problem for a box of wine.
Sometimes family members do have real problems, of course. However, most of my family is looking for free advice on issues in which I have no training, experience or interest. Therefore, I’ve learned three easy ways to handle such requests:
- Listen. Try to figure out if they have a real legal issue or if they, like the Nigerian princes, are simply looking for small up-front funds to release an estate worth millions into your hands.
- Set your ground rules early. Immediately tell the relative that the issue presented is COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY outside your scope of work and that you cannot competently help. I always tell my aunts that they are essentially asking a dentist to perform heart surgery.
- Be careful when you refer. Only refer your relatives to a competent attorney if you truly believe they have a legitimate legal issue. Most family members still expect a discount on fees from referred attorneys … even if they haven’t spoken to you in 24 years.
I may not know what I’m talking about, but I think you understand.
William Melater is a young associate attorney working at a firm focused on commercial litigation and transactional work. A self-described legal hunter and gatherer, Bill has accumulated a plethora of legal certificates and diplomas—all of which have been appropriately framed and hung behind his desk. Bill has a distaste for emails, suspenders, fake tans, paralegals who cry, sea urchins and attorneys who repeat the phrase “this is my bottom-line offer.” When irked, Bill blogs about his experiences at Attorney at Work.