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The Singapore Law Gazette

What to Do When Your Loved Ones Ask for Free Legal Advice

Since entering practice, I have encountered many situations where my loved ones ask for legal advice with the expectation that I would advise them (for free) on account of my personal relationship with them. Sometimes, I am caught between a rock and a hard place. I am not at liberty to advise them substantively for various reasons, yet I run the risk of offending them if they perceive that I am refusing to help. As a junior lawyer, these are my strategies for managing these situations.

1. Assume That Everyone Has Unrealistic Expectations

As a starting point, I always assume that my loved ones have unrealistic expectations of what I as a lawyer will be able to do for them, and that their great expectations will lead to great disappointment. I think we have legal dramas like Suits to thank for presenting various inaccuracies as facts, such as:

  1. Lawyers are experts on every area of law and would concurrently handle every type of case imaginable;
  2. Lawyers will participate in and condone unethical, arm twisting or even criminal behaviours if it furthers their own or their client’s objectives; and
  3. Lawyers can resolve all of their clients’ problems in the blink of an eye.

My strategy for bringing these lofty expectations down to earth is to talk about what my job is really like. The idea is to give my family and friends a general understanding of my practice areas, the rules of ethics and beliefs that lawyers must abide by, and the time and effort it takes to resolve a case. When they have this context at the back of their minds, the gap between expectations and reality is reduced, and I find that people are much more understanding when I am not able to give them the answers they expect.

2. Explain Why You are Not Able to Give Them an Answer

When I am not able to give someone a substantive response to a specific question, I would explain the reason(s) why I am not able to do so, so that they do not assume the worst about my motives. Depending on the nature of their question, I might offer one or more of the following explanations:

  1. I have no experience in that area of law;
  2. I am not a qualified lawyer in that jurisdiction; and/or
  3. The issues are complex and I cannot give them the answers they are looking for offhand.

3. Give Them Your Work Email and Ask Them to Write to Your Firm for a Fee Estimate

I have had some difficult experiences where people stubbornly continued to press me for an answer, despite my explanations that I cannot give them substantive legal advice for free. This has only ever happened with people who are strangers to me and were referred to me by my family or friends.

Initially, I had thought that perhaps a stranger does not have the background context that my family and friends would have. I was concerned that if this person does not understand why I cannot give them an answer and feels personally offended by my refusal to answer their questions, they will complain about me to my family or friends, and we might all “lose face”. Unfortunately, my endeavours to help them to understand by giving further and more detailed explanations of my reasons almost always backfired – the more I explained myself, the more they pressured me for an answer.

After one of these particularly frustrating conversations, I realised that the caller’s insistence on pressing me for an answer has nothing to do with misunderstanding me or being personally offended, no matter how upset they seem. If I have already explained myself, the caller would already be well aware that they are probably not going to get a substantive answer from me. When I repeat the explanations, I am entertaining that person with my time and attention, which gives them the hope that they might persuade me to give an answer, and the opportunity to press me for it. At this point, they are just fishing for free legal advice. It costs them nothing to try their luck for as long as they have my attention, because they are not paying for my time.

My senior’s advice, which I have found to be very helpful, is to excuse yourself from the conversation by saying you have other engagements to attend to, give them your corporate email address, and ask them to write to the firm if they would like a fee estimate. This helps to direct their mind on the next steps they need to take in respect of conflicts clearance, engaging the firm to act, and considering the cost of obtaining the advice.

4. Assist Them With Easy Queries

In my experience, the majority of requests for “legal advice” that I get from family and friends turn out to be basic questions of law. They are usually questions that would be easy for us lawyers to research, if we do not already know the answer. For example, they might ask how their assets will be distributed if they do not make a will, whether their employer is required to pay them overtime, or what is the fine for parking on the double yellow lines, etc.

When we become lawyers, I think it is reasonable for our loved ones to expect (or hope) that their access to the law will improve in some way. That is not to say we will move mountains and fix all their problems, but a spirit of helpfulness and availability for little things like this would go a long way in showing that we love them. If I were in their shoes and I had a lawyer in the family who would not answer any questions at all, I would feel that this person does not love me enough to care.

Further, and especially in respect of the elderly or people with limited education, the fact that they do not know their basic legal rights is an access to justice issue. As lawyers, we can do our part in a small way to improve access to justice in some small measure.

5. Give Them Guidance Through Reality Testing

Where we cannot or will not comment substantively on the merits of our loved one’s case, I have found that we can nonetheless give them some guidance by reality testing their propositions. In other words, we can help them to assess for themselves if their proposed course of action is the best one in the circumstances.

For example, the hypothetical Aunty Lily might be adamant that she wants to sue her hair stylist for a $500 refund after what she perceives to be a horrendous haircut, until you explain to her the steps she would have to take to bring the matter before the Small Claims Tribunal and to enforce the court order, all without any guarantee of success. There might be aspects of this process that cause her to feel the pinch, such as using up precious days out of her 14 days of annual leave to attend mediation and/or the court hearing. Once she appreciates that litigation is not worth the pain and the effort, Aunty Lily’s tone is likely to change. She might be prepared to consider negotiating a settlement with the hair stylist, or to cut her losses and move on.

Alternatively, perhaps a different touch may be in order. Perhaps a genuine compliment that she looks good in this hairstyle might persuade Aunty Lily that her haircut is ultimately not as horrendous as she thought it was.

The author is grateful to Mr Tristan Teo for his comments and suggestions in the course of preparing this article.

Member, Young Lawyers Committee