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As a lawyer, should you ever represent family members?
"Hey, listen, you're a lawyer, right? See, I have this issue with my landlord ..." Or it's an issue with a boss. Or a co-worker. Or a neighbor. Or the police ...
It's bad enough when these questions come from complete strangers at cocktail parties, but at least you can walk away because you'll never see those people again. It's a different story when the innocuous request for just a little help comes from a family member. Before you start representing Aunt Sally, take these considerations to heart:
You don't want to take on problems that aren't in your field of expertise. If you're a construction attorney who spends his day revising contracts, what can you do about Aunt Bertha's slip-and-fall? Probably not that much: You'd essentially be a law student looking things up, which wastes both your time and Aunt Bertha's. Both of you would be better served if she would just hire a personal injury lawyer.
If you do end up representing Aunt Bertha, make sure -- even through a written scope of services agreement -- that she knows you're not her lawyer for all purposes.
Throughout the representation, you must be able to be honest with the client. That's not just precatory, that's ABA Model Rule 1.7. If the "client" in this case is Dear Old Dad, a person you couldn't say no to even to decline representation, then maybe he's not the client for you. After all, you may have to report to him that his prospects for getting money back from that failed investment are slim to none. He doesn't want to hear it, and you don't want to disappoint him, but it's the truth. If you can't be honest to an arm's-length degree, then you should decline representation.
It's good advice that you should never go into business with family members. If the business goes south and everyone gets mad at everyone else, then strangers can just walk away from each other. But you've got to see your family every Thanksgiving. Consider that if Aunt Bertha loses her slip-and-fall case, she might blame you -- and so will everyone else on her side of the family. Be prepared for the possibility that you'll get the stink-eye for several years. If you can't handle that, then don't take the case.
A final note: You can accidentally enter an attorney-client relationship just by providing Cousin Sal with a little bit of advice about his traffic ticket. Civilians often assume that legal advice is like auto repair advice -- that it can be doled out freely at a backyard barbecue. The best policy is to politely explain that you can discuss the problem in your office at an appropriate time. If that makes Cousin Sal think twice, then so much the better.
Editor's Note, September 15, 2015: This post was first published in September 2014. It has since been updated.
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