Today, when responses are instantaneous and people expect instant gratification, the need to please is compelling. Take for instance the time when a client sent me an email message, followed by a phone call, all within ten minutes looking for an answer to a “pressing matter”. I understood the need for an instant answer, but the question was not one that I could answer without properly considering various options. Moreover, I was concerned that my answer would record a transaction that would reveal the immigrant intent of the client and could prove problematic later.
In another instance, I received an email from a very good friend who wanted me to discuss legal options for one of his employees. While I certainly didn’t want to upset my “friend”, I couldn’t risk providing options that did not consider the employee’s true legal needs, or circumstances. Not to mention conflicts of interest.
Over the years, I have learned to employ the pause, think, rewind exercise at least two to three times before I decide whether to respond. This is especially true when I field questions posed on LinkedIn. The site is famous for linking like minded professionals, but it is also an instant messaging tool that is widely misused to seek legal advice. I believe it is best not to answer a question instantly. Taking the time to reflect on the possible outcomes is an important part of effective representation.
Clients remind me that they can get “free legal help” on websites, where a panel of attorneys offer off-the-cuff solutions for any number of legal questions. Clearly, clients have a choice, but it is important to realize that the advice is not always based on altruism. In the immigration law context, most of these FREE sites appear to be unregulated, free-for-all exhibitions of one-upmanship. When one Attorney says something is possible, I immediately see another say, of course and it can be done in half the time and at a quarter of the cost! So, what gives?
I do realize that it makes one feel good to provide free help and advice. It is good to help others, right? Yes, but consider the possibilities. For instance, giving out free advise may inadvertently subject yourself and the Firm to conflicts of interest. How many of us want to put ourselves in that position? And, then there is the issue of professional responsibility. Most online sites have loosely worded disclaimers, but these are hardly sufficient to protect you if your “client” acts on your FREE advice and ends up suffering both legally and financially. What is meant as a favor, if relied upon to the detriment of the casual inquirer, may have significant legal liability, lead to malpractice claims and sometimes, even disciplinary action.
At the same time, practitioners must beware of the pitfalls of offering scant researched advice that could potentially backfire. When in doubt, check your state’s rules of professional responsibility. Communicate and let the prospective client know that you cannot respond unless a formal arrangement is agreed upon. If you wish to decline representation, please do so politely, but firmly. Resist the urge to kibitz online. It will save a ton of bother and hopefully over time, the respect and admiration of your fellow practitioners.