Pro Bono, Small Law Firms

The Practice: Doing Free Work? Ask Yourself One Question

First, because it’s required, Happy New Year. I don’t really care whether you had a nice holiday or New Year’s Eve, neither do the others that ask you and feign concern.

Now let’s move on to more important topics, like working for free.

We all do it. We all have the friend, the family member, the downtrodden college buddy out of work or just broke, or the person we owe a favor or for whom we want to do a favor because we just “feel bad,” or worse — we think something will come of it.

This week, a stat came out that there are 21,880 legal careers available for 44,000 law school graduates. I read it on the internet, so it must be true. If it is, it looks like there will be plenty of lawyers doing free work out of necessity, boredom, or as a marketing tactic.

For this discussion, actually, for most of the discussions here, I have to put in the “I know, moron” disclaimer. I know, moron, that there is no way to handle these situations with a bright line policy. For example, moron, I understand that pro bono work that you do to help the needy is not something for which you should consider charging a fee. But whenever someone writes anything on the internet, there is some moron out there who says, “But but but, what about the situation where… see, you’re wrong, you’re just wrong wrong wrong.”

So I will say this, most (he said “most”) of the time, doing work for free is a mistake….

I understand, you have your reasons, and some of them are good. The good ones cause you do disregard the fact that you may be making a terrible decision — you owe a favor, it’s a long-term client with a small side issue, or you are doing something for someone who wants, appreciates, and cannot otherwise afford your or anyone else’s help, and you believe it’s a good relationship to develop.

The bad ones — you feel bad, you don’t think it’s going to take you that long to resolve the matter, in the end the client will be appreciative, you’ll feel good, or it’s a high profile matter and you’ll get publicity and more cases.
Probably not.

The one question to ask yourself when debating doing free work is:

Why is this client coming to me?

If the answer is that they know you, then you have to think about what they would do if they didn’t know you. They would hire another lawyer. That lawyer would charge them money. That lawyer wouldn’t feel bad. I’m not saying that all of these clients are looking to take advantage of you, but the ease of these types of clients coming to you should not mean that you give away your time and expertise. These are the potential clients that you sit down with and ask, “Why are you coming to me?,” and, “What would you do if you didn’t know me?” At that point, you can address the need to be paid — something — for your time. It’s not about this client, it’s about the other — paying — clients. This is time you can never get back.

Again, you may have reasons to do free work — you’re not doing it for the client per se, you’re doing it for the referral source, or family member of the client, or it’s a client that has done work for you or given you a lot of work. As I said before, there is no bright line rule.

But I can tell you this — there is a notion out there that as lawyers, we should all be willing to work for free (yes, I’m against mandatory pro bono), especially to those who believe they were wronged, or those that don’t think you do much more than type up the same documents or walk around in a suit and talk. Putting a value on what we do is often difficult, and too often we short change ourselves buy not taking into account that the free work we do is done with the time we have to do paid work.

As far as appreciation, don’t count on it. People don’t value things for which they don’t have to pay. There are the few who were brought up properly and understand the concept of “thank you,” or those who think about the fact that they would have had to pay thousands to another lawyer, and so while they don’t have that kind of money, they drop you a gift card to a restaurant or something similar. This, though, is not the majority. Plenty of those that you do free work for will skulk away without even a handshake when the case is over. There are those who believe they are entitled (you know, like law students) to free legal work, and they have no problem using you to make their lives better.

The funny thing is that those that often come to you seeking free representation are in professions where they couldn’t do something for you if they wanted. You did something for the A/C guy, but were shocked that when he came to your house, he left a bill. His thought is that he had to take money out of his pocket to work on your air conditioning. He may have no concept that you did the same because “you’re in court anyway.”

You do what you want, but remember that the time you spend on free work you can never get back, and while sometimes you’ll be surprised at the personal satisfaction or appreciation you receive, don’t count on it.


Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at bt@tannebaumweiss.com.

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