Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Free legal advice

One of the things you encounter when you start your own law practice is the caller looking for free advice. This happened yesterday, and I probably get a call like this once or twice a week.

Someone calls up with what sounds like a simple question. Yesterday's was: "Hi. I got a ticket in Pennsylvania, and I have a New York drivers license. Will the ticket affect me in NY?"

I started with a simple disclaimer -- "Since you haven't hired me as your lawyer, and since I don't know all the details of the situation, you shouldn't rely on my answer, but ..."

And then I gave the simple answer -- "New York State, in general, does not recognize out of state tickets. It should have no effect on your license."

Then I closed with another variation of the disclaimer.

But the simple questions are often not so simple. The caller wasn't satisfied with my answer - even though I think it was pretty clear. So he asked me a follow-up question which really was the same question.

My response: "Would you like to hire me as your lawyer?"

Caller: "Um."

Me: "Would you like to hire me for a simple consultation?"

Caller: "How much is that?"

Me: "$100 for a half-hour."

Caller: "I'll call back".

I think somewhere in the call I mentioned that he should check with the DMV, as they're the official source for how NY deals with out-of-state tickets.

A variation of this is when someone calls up and asks about a speeding ticket case. I quote them my price for handling it, and then they ask what they should do if they go themselves.

At that point I offer to have them come to my office for a half-hour consultation. One interesting point here is that I don't know what a non-lawyer should do on a traffic ticket. I've never gone to traffic court as a non-lawyer. I have handled my own tickets, but (knock on wood) I haven't had any in quite a long time, and even when I did, I was a lawyer. Not even sure I did it right then.

My general impression is that in some courts you'll do fine by yourself, and in other courts you'll do much better with a lawyer.

I like to have a little fun with these calls sometimes. Yesterday I had another caller who had a speeding ticket somewhere, and asked if she could handle it herself. Noting that this is politically incorrect, I said that my impression was that many cops will give a good deal to young women with large breasts.

Caller: "Well, I am young ..."

I didn't realize how funny that was until just now. She didn't hire me, so I guess ...

So far I probably sound mean-spirited and maybe arrogant. Probably true, but this comes back to the economics of running a law practice. My time is not free. The time I spend on a call with a person looking for free advice can, and should, be spent working on a case where someone is paying me. I'm running a business, not a free help desk.

On a related note, people should realize that a lawyer billing $200/hour does not take home $200/hour. That $200/hour goes to pay various expenses, and we have a lot of time we either can't bill for or can't collect for. I usually get paid up front, so collection is not an issue for me. My take-home pay is probably working out to somewhere around $30/hour for all the time I work. That's not terrible, of course. But it doesn't make me stinking rich either. I suspect it will go up over the next couple of years (okay, I sure hope so), but that's another thing. There's no guarantees.

As for mean-spirited and/or arrogant lawyers, the best blog out there on this is the Anonymous Lawyer Blog.

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