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Is It Ever a Good Idea to Provide Free Legal Work?

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

Clients gripe all the time about how expensive lawyers are, and the rise of Google means that everyone's a lawyer, which only makes matters worse ("why am I paying you $300 an hour when I can look up the statutes myself?").

There are, of course, times when lawyers can and should provide legal work for free -- and times when they shouldn't.

Pro Bono

Of course, there's pro bono. Lawyers have a long tradition of providing free legal work to members of the public who can't afford representation. Indeed, the ABA recommends that every lawyer devote at least 50 hours per year to pro bono representation.

Most BigLaw firms have pro bono departments and encourage associates to do pro bono work. Smaller firms can either start their own pro bono projects or get involved in larger ones in your jurisdiction; many cities have existing pro bono networks if your firm doesn't have the capacity to start its own.

'C'mon, it'll be really easy'

OK, the real question is about providing legal services to people who can afford it, but for whatever reason, don't want to pay. For example, a new client wants something relatively small, like a landlord who's looking for a lease agreement. You could do that for him for free, in the hope that if and when there's a substantive legal issue, you can start charging.

The problems with this arrangement, though, are clear. First, there's no guarantee that a client will come back. Second, a client who's received free legal help once is likely to want it again, perhaps on the theory that "it's just a small issue" that you can take care of "easily," so why pay you for it? Plus, is a client who's going to always dicker down to the bare-bones fee really the kind of client you want?

This is also why many lawyers counsel against providing "free" legal advice or actual work to family and friends. Advice is one thing -- often consisting of cocktail party chatter. But actual legal work is another: Once they've had a taste of it, they'll come back for more, and if you suddenly cut them off after providing free legal services for a while, they'll take offense. Better to just never start doing that in the first place.

Volunteer Hours

On the other hand, some kind of formalized volunteer work is excellent for getting you experience in a different field. It doesn't have to be a pro bono project; rather, you can hang out in a local trial court, where volunteer attorneys are often necessary for consultation when litigants represent themselves.

Your overarching goal in providing free legal services should be toward helping and giving, not attempting to get more business. Giving a client a free ride in the hope that he or she will start paying up some day just isn't the best of plans.

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