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It’s the same old story. You are awakened by a 3:00 a.m. phone call from the county jail. On the line is a friend who has just been picked up and booked for drunk driving, participating in a barroom brawl or flying on a commercial airplane with explosive shoes. After listening to your friend explain his predicament, you respond by saying you would like to help but, unfortunately, you just can’t. You tell your incarcerated friend that, although you are in fact a lawyer, your practice area is bankruptcy, corporate mergers, civil litigation or probate and you haven’t had any real exposure to criminal law since the first year of law school. You then say good night to your dear friend who used his one permitted phone call to talk to you, hang up the telephone and go back to sleep. Every lawyer has had this or a similar experience of being asked by a friend for help with a legal problem. Often the request for free advice comes from someone the lawyer doesn’t know very well or even an individual the lawyer just met at a cocktail party. Most lawyers don’t mind being asked for free advice, however, because this is often the only reason people even bother talking to us at cocktail parties. Nonlawyers assume that if someone spends three years in law school, he or she should know the law and they expect an answer to their legal question right then and there. A lawyer admitting ignorance in a particular area of the law usually gets a verbal or facial-expression response that says: “And you call yourself a lawyer? Let me see your bar card.” Lawyers can also expect relatives to have their own set of legal issues for which they seek free counsel. This fact of lawyer life should be made known to anyone contemplating enrollment in law school. In fact, one of the reasons many parents are willing to finance their children’s legal education is that they think it is an investment that will pay for itself over the years in the form of free legal advice. By the way, unless there is a written contract stating otherwise, lawyers are under no legal obligation to repay parents for any part of their law school tuition with legal services. Even if Mom and Dad took second and third jobs so you could get your degree, they can pay your usual hourly rate like everyone else. While, admittedly, we lawyers are basically all alike, we do have varying degrees of expertise. Lawyers simply don’t claim to be experts in every area of the law — unless, of course, it is a potential paying client who is asking for advice. If such is the case, all lawyers have the same knee-jerk response to the question of “Do you know anything about [fill in the blank with anything from dog bites to international corporate mergers]?” The answer is always: “Of course, that happens to be my specialty. Sign this retainer agreement.” To assist lawyers who find themselves in situations where family, friends or strangers ask for free advice, reform is needed in our law schools. Modern law school curriculum focuses entirely too much on esoteric legal topics and not enough on the things a lawyer is likely to be asked at a New Year’s Eve party. A typical lawyer, for example, can tell you all about feudal English land law but cannot tell you about current motor vehicle law. A lawyer can expect to be asked, for instance, if it is legal to drive a car without wearing shoes. It is a less-than-satisfying response for the lawyer to say: “Well, I can’t tell you about that, but let me explain how a fee simple with remainder works on a piece of real property.” The Rodent’s recommendation is that the law school curriculum be modified to include a course in Friends and Family Law. Such a course would include a mix of matrimonial law, landlord/tenant law, criminal law, motor vehicle law and other bits and pieces of laws most likely to affect freeloading friends and acquaintances. In the meantime, lawyers must do the best they can with what they know. When it comes to friends in need of legal assistance, I, for one, always make the effort to help — even if it involves an area of the law in which I have little or no understanding. I remember during my first year of practice when a friend came to me with a problem she was having with her immigration status. Despite knowing nothing of immigration law, I agreed to help. I felt great satisfaction in assisting a friend in need. I’m sure she appreciated all my efforts — although I haven’t heard from her since she was abruptly deported from this country, never to return. The Rodent is a syndicated columnist and author of “Explaining the Inexplicable: The Rodent’s Guide to Lawyers.” His e-mail address is [email protected]

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