The Dis-Associate

But Your Mother Said You Were a Lawyer …

By | Sep.10.12 | Daily Dispatch, Relationships, The Dis-Associate

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.

Sound Familiar?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Illustration ©ImageZoo.

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7 Responses to “But Your Mother Said You Were a Lawyer …”

  1. Tom Q.
    10 September 2012 at 12:10 pm #

    Excellent post. So true! Thanks for making me laugh on a monday morning.

  2. Haney A.
    10 September 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    So funny and so true. I love your blogs! You should write a book!!

  3. Alan
    14 September 2012 at 9:57 am #

    When you do work for relatives and do not charge, send them a zero balance bill. The bill otherwise should look the same as any other client bill reflect ing your time, services and what the charges would have been. It conveys that the work has value, it keeps your office practices consistent and helps deal with future requests for services. I guess I am lucky– my family still asks for help, and always offers to pay.

  4. Christoffer Eldrich
    14 September 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    I guess we all have that kind of relatives. It happens not only to lawyers but say, engineers. “My door squeaks… but your son is an engineer!” Anyway, this post is a great read!

  5. Frank Marciano
    15 September 2012 at 10:17 pm #

    I just charge tell my relatives that I have to charge them double, funny how no one bothers me anymore !!!

  6. Rosana H. Ortega
    26 September 2012 at 6:06 pm #

    I could not agree more! I practice primarily buisness and corporate law as well as labor, licensing, and estate. You would not believe what some of the relatives come to me about! Really need to emphasize #2