The Ethical Esquire
By: Maryam Hatcher, Esq.
Dear Ethical Esquire: I graduated from law school last spring and took the bar exam over the summer. I’m still waiting on my bar exam results, but I know that my family members back home are going to be asking me for legal advice over the holidays. My question is – how much should I charge them?
– Lawyer in Limbo*
Dearest Limbo: Do you believe in fate? I think that fate brought you to this advice column. Why else would you come to the Ethical Esquire seeking advice on how to appropriately bill your family members/would-be clients? Surely you did not think that I could assist you with such matters. Yet you were drawn to me by some force (perhaps fate!) because somewhere, deep down, you knew that you were in need of ethical guidance. You have come to the right place, Limbo.
First things first, you, my dearest, are no lawyer. And to be clear, that means you are not an attorney either. While you are no doubt proud – and rightly so – of your shiny new Juris Doctor degree, being a lawyer requires more than just a J.D; you have to actually pass the bar and, in some jurisdictions, be sworn in before you can hold yourself out to the world as a lawyer. Even if you are already working at a law firm or some other legal services provider, your professional communications to the outside world must include a disclaimer (which can vary in nature, so check your state’s rules!) that essentially lets the world know (a) you are most assuredly NOT licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction; and (b) you are being supervised by someone who is. In short, you have no business calling yourself a lawyer or giving legal advice. For shame!
Secondly, you mentioned that you will be offering this illicit legal advice when you are “back home.” Even assuming that between now and the holidays you become licensed to practice law in the state in which you took your exam, you are not out of the woods yet. Is home the same jurisdiction in which you took the bar exam? If not, then you may find yourself engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, which we the in the ethical world refer to as “a big no-no.” I want you to spend some time reading and re-reading ABA Model Rule 5.5 (and the ancillary rule for any state in which you plan on practicing) to fully understand the limits on giving legal advice in a jurisdiction you are not barred in. You are walking a mighty fine line, Limbo, and I would rather not see you topple over.
Limbo, I beseech you, enjoy these halcyon days of pre-lawyerdom before the enormity of your distinguished calling as an attorney consumes your life. And in doing so, remember – you are NOT a lawyer (yet), you are NOT going to spend this holiday season giving legal advice to your family members wherever the heck “back home” is, and you ARE going to learn every ABA Model Rule of Professional Responsibility by heart (or at the very least, refer to them often).
Now – go forth and be ethical!
*Disclaimer: “Lawyer in Limbo” is a fictional advice seeker. This blog is satirical in nature and, though it aims to provide helpful guidance regarding professional responsibility dilemmas, it is not intended to offer legal advice.
Next month, the Ethical Esquire will delve into the wonderful world of attorney advertising. Should be fun!