Attorneys often give away their services. It’s okay to say this out loud. When we are admitted to practice we swear to assist the legal system by providing services to those in need who do not have the means to pay. This part of the oath is found right next to “We will abstain from all offensive personality” (unless we graduated from Wisconsin or Marquette and are simply mocking our less fortunate colleagues who have to take the bar exam).
Pro bono service is an essential component of being granted the privilege to practice law. What I learned the hard way is that I need to be the one deciding when I give away my services, not the client.
Many of us are drawn to the challenges of the legal profession because we like to help people. That desire to help can mean we jump in too quickly and deeply, or are taken advantage of. When this happens I don’t blame clients, because I was the one who made a bad decision or failed to make a good one.
Some of these bad decisions can be attributed to youth or circumstance. For example, when my college roommates each bought me a pitcher of beer during finals week as a retainer for future legal services, I should have recognized that they would actually expect me to pay up (degenerate cheapskates!). And when I visit family around the holidays, I should anticipate that despite being a business lawyer I will inevitably be pulled aside by a relative whispering something like, “Um, Kevin, I have this friend. …What do you know about search-and-seizure laws?”
But the mistakes I really regret concern when I predict that the client will be difficult, including when it comes time to pay the bill; or when a client expresses good intentions and pays an initial advance but never gets around to paying anything else, and before long I have invested substantially more resources for free.
Another regret is when I let an interesting legal issue overcome my good sense after the client urges me to work on a contingency-fee basis. I also kick myself when I accept an appropriate pro bono or contingency-fee matter and get sucked in when the client treats the fee arrangement as feudal servitude with me filling the role of full-time, serf counsel.
I feel rewarded when helping someone by performing pro bono services, if I determine in advance the parameters of my representation (in writing). Furthermore, I don’t mind taking some chances on interesting legal issues, often with the potential of professional satisfaction or a monetary payoff.
However, I also don’t lament the times I say no – well, except that time a brewery offered me a contingency fee of one-third of the 10,000 cases of beer to be recovered in a replevin action. That certainly would have been a better fee than I received from any of my skinflint college roommates.
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