Helping your mom or brother with legal advice can be rewarding. But what if you get questions from your second cousin, a former classmate at your 15-year reunion or that neighbor you just met at a barbecue? You may be besieged by requests for free consultations that, taken together, can become an annoying distraction, or worse.
How much free help you dole out depends in part on your temperament. Some are flattered and enjoy sharing expertise, while others consider such requests an intrusion. Help yourself by setting boundaries. When a request goes over the line, citing a personal policy can make your polite refusal seem less like a slight. Encourage the person seeking your help to call you during business hours. If someone really wants help for a complex problem, they can always hire you.
Protect yourself — and them
Say an acquaintance asks for advice on a legal issue at a party. You offer a few thoughts and quickly forget about it, only to discover a few weeks or months later that your acquaintance acted on the advice and now feels burned. In exchange for what you thought was a casual kindness, you now face anger and possibly even formal claims from someone claiming to be your “client.”
While turning people down flat may feel rude, you might offer advice on the best places they can go for information — thus offering tangible help without suggesting specific actions. Regardless of what you say, protect yourself by explicitly stating up front that you’re only offering a general opinion and that they should get formal guidance before taking any action.
Keep it confidential
Just because the request came informally and you didn’t solicit it doesn’t mean you should feel free to share personal revelations with other friends or family. Maintaining professional standards in every interaction can help you avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
While you may never prevent people from seeking free advice based on your expertise, having a few simple rules in place could help you manage their expectations. And maybe then you can get more enjoyment out of social gatherings.
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Source for attorneys: http://www.americanbar.org/content/newsletter/publications/gp_solo_magazine_home/gp_solo_magazine_index/solo_lawyer_ethics_attorney_client_relationship.html; for accountants: http://www.journalofaccountancy.com/issues/2013/jan/tax-advice-20126598.html
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