For Law Students to Use with Family and Friends: Why I Cannot Be Your Lawyer or Even Your "Lawyer"

As a teacher, I would like to do my students a favor. I am a law professor. Almost all of my students, earlier than they expected, run into a family member who pulls them aside to confide a tale of woe or check about a business proposition. Their relative needs pro bono help.

Here is my good turn to my students: Use the below to express your regret that you cannot be of assistance. Although the script has been written to be as agreeable as is appropriate, it is not easy to explain why a lawyer, a good one anyway, won't render service spontaneously, off-the-cuff. As a student said to me, "They will wonder why you are spending all the time and money doing this if you cannot even give them the tiniest scrap."

Hence this first line: My professor warned me, and he said you could blame him for my reply. [Offer them this blog for reference. I have experience saying "no." You will gain it. Channel your sincere self, not the snarky one, as you proceed.)

There is no such thing as giving a legal opinion without becoming responsible for it. I wish I could be your lawyer. You have supported me.

But I cannot analyze this matter [insert: "over Thanksgiving dinner;" "as we unwrap Christmas presents;" "while we are at nanna's funeral;" and so on].

I need to know the facts. That means much more than what you have told me in our casual conversation. I do not doubt you for a moment. Without reading the documents such as the lease or contract or insurance policy, however, I will not have enough of the technical details.

There may be "terms of art," for example, that are similar to ordinary words but have a specific meaning because of the industry customs or a prior judicial ruling. There likely is missing data; there usually is from any account a person gives from memory (better not to note "after enjoying a tipple"). The absence of a clause, even a comma, could have significance.

I also must research the law. While I have learned a tremendous amount, the doctrines governing many aspects of human conduct are complex. They sometimes are even contradictory.

People suppose that is because lawyers have set up a system to be deliberately confusing. But it may be a result of our democratic principles developing. A state may have passed legislation banning a type of discrimination, even as a neighboring state has done the opposite.

You would think that a simple question such as where to file your lawsuit or when the deadline is would be different and easy. It's not. In the first year of law school, the subject of jurisdiction is among the most difficult. It takes homework to figure out whether to head to the state court or the federal court across the street. The statute of limitations should always be on your mind. You are right to move along without delay.

There might even be other forums, in arbitration, before administrative agencies, in multiple states or federal districts, or possibly overseas. It's a strategic decision which would be most advantageous, and it takes effort to move a case out of one place and into another place -- the other side will fight that attempt. You actually are familiar with a version of this issue outside the law. It's in sports, the home field advantage. Until you have a relationship with a lawyer, it is "on you" to be on time. You should not dawdle.

The area of law you are concerned with is specialized. I am not an expert in [insert choices such as "trusts and estates" or "intellectual property"].

You have asked just a few questions. You have indicated you don't want to retain me formally as an attorney.

That's why I honestly ought not offer any answer. Anything I say is useful to you only if you rely on it. And if you do that, follow my advice and counsel, then I can be liable for the result even if you didn't "officially" become my client.

In sum, anything that is said at all, insofar as it is meaningful, raises risks. Risks for you, the (non)client; risks for me, the law student.

By the way, I am still a student. It violates the law for me to practice before I am licensed as a member of the bar; people get into trouble for doing this. "Practice" encompasses everything I have to say. Once I have passed the bar and the "moral character" test, the foregoing still applies; now, more so.

Once I am at a law firm, I will be required to perform a "conflicts check." That is an ethical safeguard for your benefit. It means I have to confirm with a special office inside my firm that none of the hundreds of other lawyers are representing a client on the other side of you. In general, my firm cannot accept engagements that put us on different sides of a conflict at the same time. That is called a "conflict of interest."

The public would want us to be consistent. Either you or the other party or more likely both of you would be understandably upset if we were for you and against you.

The script ends with what is not a quip. My best recommendation? Hire a lawyer.

A student of mine, who did quite well, suggested adding, "I still love you though." I regard that as an optional addendum.

If you are game for the challenge or cannot shake off your cousin, at a minimum, do not respond with any confidence based on dinner party chit chat -- obtain the relevant papers; look up the statutes, regulations, and precedent; and pause to deliberate.

For that matter, if you end up with a real client, that remains my advice. Make sure when you open, "Well, I think . . ." that you indeed have thought about what follows.