The second you got that diploma from your law school, I’m willing to bet that you had some version of the following conversation:
Aunt Tilly: “So I was wondering if you could do something for me…”
You: “Sure, Aunt Tilly! Anything for you.”
Aunt Tilly: “Well, I’ve got this neighbor who wants to cut down the trees that sit on the property line between our houses and I need you to send him a letter telling him he can’t cut down my trees.”
You: “Um…. I haven’t even taken the bar exam yet.”
Never mind that Aunt Tilly is visiting from Tennessee and that you are planning to practice law in Florida. Never mind all of the Professional Responsibility training that they beat into you during law school. It may be a family law, wills, contracts or criminal law question instead of property law. Once you become the lawyer in the family, you become the instant expert on all things legal in every jurisdiction. Just ask Aunt Tilly.
The only member of my family who understands the awkwardness of the position this puts me in is my sister, Beth, who is a pediatrician. Once she graduated from med school, every member of our family expected her to call in prescriptions for everything from antibiotics to chemotherapy drugs for everyone from infants to geriatrics. She can’t attend a wedding or a funeral without someone asking her to, “Look at this and tell me what it is.” She is the doctor in the family. She looks at me with a knowing smile when, inevitably, someone at the same wedding or funeral asks me to look at grandma’s will or mediate their dispute with their landlord.
When I was at Big Law it was fairly easy to explain to my cousins/neighbors/friends that I had to run everything past my boss, and that he was likely to say no to me providing pro bono services to them. Now that I’m a solo, I don’t have that easy excuse. I have to be honest and just say, “I’m sorry but I can’t help you.”
Putting aside the ethical reasons why you have to say, “No!” to your Aunt Tilly, there are good business reasons to say no more often than not.
For one thing, if you expect people to pay you for your services, you can’t just give them away all the time. You devalue your services when you do.
More importantly, you are paying to provide those services. Your professional liability coverage costs the same - and coverage applies the same – whether or not the work you did was for a fee. It costs you something to set up a file for the client, to print out documents, to make phone calls, to do… well, everything. Not to mention the time it takes away from paying work. And let’s be honest – if you agree to do a little work for free, it always ends up taking way more time, effort and resources than you think it will.
For example, I agreed to help a friend deal with a student loan issue for her daughter, who is in grad school. That was more than six months ago, and Sallie Mae is now calling me every single day, multiple times a day. What started out as me making a couple of phone calls quickly turned into a complicated mess of a case. But I took the case, and it’s my responsibility now. Live and learn!
One more reason to say no: you can’t fix everything for everybody. If I had a dime for every time an entrepreneur asked me to work for free on their start-up on the promise that, once their business takes off, they will be paying me twice what I normally charge, I could retire. I get at least one call a week from someone who wants to start a nonprofit asking if I can give them pro bono services. Sadly, if the people starting a nonprofit cannot afford to pay a lawyer to do all of the work required to set up the nonprofit, they probably cannot afford to start a nonprofit anyway.
So I’ve learned, with difficulty, to say no. If you, like me, have trouble saying no to family, friends, or people who really need, but cannot afford, your services, take my advice and set some rules for yourself for if and when you will give a discount.
My rules for flat-out giving away my services are pretty straightforward:
- You are a member of my immediate family, you live in my jurisdiction, and you need work that falls within my areas of practice;
- You are a child for whom the court has named me guardian ad litem as part of my volunteer work for Legal Aid; or
- You are the recipient of a business grant or loan from the Grown Ass Woman Brigade, a charity I helped found, that comes with business and legal services as part of the bundle.
My rules for discounting my services are also straightforward:
- You were referred by the National Entrepreneur Center or SCORE, two business development organizations that I work with and that often refer clients to me;
- You were referred by a business legal plan or other service with whom I have contracted; or
- You are a good referral source, a very close friend or a family member.
I cap my discount at 10% of my fees unless I have a contractual obligation to give a greater discount. Even if I give my services away, I still charge my clients for the costs of providing the services. Never go out of pocket for any client, even if it’s your mom.
One last piece of advice: if you are giving your services away, always have the client sign an engagement agreement with a detailed scope of work. Limit what you are willing to do, for how long you are willing to do it, etc. Otherwise, the scope of your representation will inevitably “creep” as your pro bono client starts expecting more and more from you – and expecting it for free.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.