Giving it away

Posted Wednesday, April 26th, 2017 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Attorney-Client Relations, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys

When I mentor newly licensed attorneys, one of the more important lessons I try to impart is that they should be clear about when and why they are doing unpaid work and insure they get paid for their remaining work. This isn’t intended to denigrate doing uncompensated work for the public good: for both ethical and professional development reasons all attorneys should donate some of their time. However the failure to create firm boundaries between compensated and uncompensated work can cause both attorneys and their clients to undervalue the attorney’s time and efforts.

An Abraham Lincoln quote that experienced lawyers often share is “a lawyer’s time and advice is his stock in trade.” Treat your time and advice as something that has no value and others will treat it as having no value. Ask most experienced attorneys and they will tell you that some of their most unpleasant clients–demanding of the attorney’s attention, yet inattentive to their own case when the attorney needs their attention; unreasonable in negotiations–are the clients who aren’t paying for their time. In the days when family court attorneys were appointed to represent indigent parents in abuse and neglect case, the no show rate for such appointed clients to meetings and court approached 50%. That may still be the case but attorneys are no longer required to accept such clients as part of their pro bono obligation.

I pride myself on being clear what parts of my work are volunteer and what parts I expect to get paid for. With few exceptions, clients who start out as paying clients are expected to stay ahead on their fees (I have an “evergreen clause” in my fee agreement that provides me this right). Yet even I, on occasion, treat my time as a free (i.e., valueless) commodity for work that isn’t pro bono. Karma has a way of reminding me that this is a mistake. A few weeks ago a colleague who I respect tremendously asked me assist his wife regarding custody issues she was having with her ex-husband. I respected this colleague so much that I volunteered to provide his wife a free consult. His wife cancelled that appointment shortly before its scheduled start time because she needed to deal with one of her own clients. From her perspective, valuing a client’s time over my time made perfect sense: since my time was “free” it was valueless. From my perspective, I felt disrespected: I gifted someone my time and she wasted it. I might note “fool me once….” but I’ve been fooled dozens of times.

I’ve written previously on why I don’t offer free consults yet most days someone will call or email asking whether I do so. I know I lose business by not offering free consults but I’m not sure I’d want much of the business I lose. Paying me $400 for an initial consult establishes two important facts for any attorney-client relationship: 1) the client’s problem is serious enough to merit paying someone $400 per hour to try to resolve; 2) the client knows my time is valuable. Cases in which little is at stake should be handled by less experienced, less expensive, attorneys. And no attorney should give away his or her time unless that is their clear intention.

One thought on Giving it away

  1. Kathleen Ferri says:

    Well said!

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