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On Triage and Semantics

[This fragment has been hanging around for weeks in ScribeFire. It has nothing to do with Norm Pattis’s Triage post, except that the title of Norm’s post reminded me of this one. It has much to do with “I need a lawyer just to. . .” and this comment on magic words.]

Quoth Greenfield:

[Lawyers] offer free consultations, which clients interpret as a free hour of a lawyer’s time to provide free legal advice which they can then take away and use. I get many inquiries from people asking if I give free consultations. There’s only one reason for them to ask. I don’t. But they expect lawyers to do so, and will be happy to enjoy a free consultation when they need answers from a lawyer. This is because we teach them to expect free consultations.

Lawyers should be willing to give free advice to those who can’t afford to pay for it. But why give legal advice to someone who isn’t willing to pay for it? There are lots of good reasons not to. Giving our services away for free to people who can afford them devalues them (would you give a person a gift that had no value to him?). Every minute we spend helping one person is a minute not spent helping another (or doing whatever else is important to us). The more people pay for legal services, the happier they are with those services. And so forth.

The puzzle, for the lawyer who wants to provide legal advice to some of those who can’t afford it (in my view, we have a duty to do so) but doesn’t want to spend his days giving free counsel to those who think they’re entitled to it, is distinguishing the people who can’t afford to pay for advice from those who just don’t want to.

Ideally, the lawyer will be able to make the distinction based on the client’s telephone call and, even better, on the first few words the client says.


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