Free Legal Advice – The Social Talk No-No

June 11, 2019

Guest Post by Candess Zona-Mendola

Breaking the ice during social engagements has never been an issue for me. I often start a conversation by commenting on someone’s attire or giving them praise on one of their accomplishments. It puts the focus on the person of interest and takes it away from me. I love talking to people. I love networking. It is a wonderful experience for the extrovert I am. But during many conversations, the person of interest will often ask who I am and what I do. I’m a Trial Paralegal is my go-to response.

Breaking the ice during social engagements has never been an issue for me. I often start a conversation by commenting on someone’s attire or giving them praise on one of their accomplishments. It puts the focus on the person of interest and takes it away from me. I love talking to people. I love networking. It is a wonderful experience for the extrovert I am. But during many conversations, the person of interest will often ask who I am and what I do.
I’m a Trial Paralegal is my go-to response.

Then, that’s when the tango begins. Or rather, the free legal advice dance.

Oh, you work in the legal field? I have a question for you…

The conversation takes an abrupt turn to some legal issue suffered by their mother, brother, sister, friend, former roommate, or even themselves. My sister’s former spouse is verbally abusive and is trying to take away her children, how can she get sole custody all on her own without hiring a lawyer? My neighbor’s tree is growing onto my property, can I cut it without their permission? My mother is getting up there in years, can I just download a will template online? It is always a legal question involving custody, divorce, neighbor or landlord disputes, estate planning, or traffic tickets.

Oh, bless them for what they do not know. I am a paralegal. Even if I knew the answers to your legal questions, I cannot ethically answer them. Why? Because paralegals cannot give legal advice.

That is usually my first response. I’m sorry, I can’t answer that for you. Paralegals are not allowed to give legal advice. That usually works. The asker is usually satisfied with my response. I will often change the conversation back to the person or talk about what I actually do.

But that does not work every time. Lots of people want free legal advice. I get it. It is awesome to get something for free. I personally love getting those little freebie beauty samples when I buy my make-up. But I digress. This is where the conversation can turn uncomfortable, not to mention put you in an ethical pickle.

You are the paralegal. You are just as smart a lawyer, right?

The asker always starts with a statement of praise. I get that uneasy feeling in my stomach because I want to be the nice guy. I want to help. That’s why I became a paralegal. Besides, I already told them I could get in trouble for telling them. I’ve already tried my soft approach. I don’t want to be mean or rude to them, especially if I am trying to network with them.

In the past, I would respond in what I felt was self-depreciating. I would say, I don’t know anything about landlord-tenant issues. I have no experience in that field. This made me feel bad. It made me feel like I was less in some way because I was not a lawyer, and therefore, not good enough to be considered a “legal professional.” Why did I feel that way? Because (1) I just told them I was a paralegal and an important one, (2) they praised me and confirmed by credibility, and (3) I ruined it all when I told them I am not as awesome as they thought. It was a vicious circle of guilt, doubt, and shame. Despite those feelings, I always prided myself that I stuck to my guns. I did not commit an ethical violation, even if that meant shattering my credibility in the process.

I learned over the years that these party talk concerns are not just directed to paralegals, but to anyone who works in the legal profession. Imagine my surprise when my attorney was presented with the same questions as I over a dinner we had a few years ago with a group of business owners. I would love to tell you that I had the grace he did when he responded to these questions. I didn’t at the time. My heart immediately started beating fast, and I did whatever I could to not choke on my words. I hated admitting I didn’t know something. Yes, it was stupid. But we all want to save face when we are talking to other people.

It was when he responded to those questions that I learned there was a better way. I could answer those questions without crushing my credibility. And here’s how it went at the dinner:

Business Man 1: So, what do you do?

Lawyer: I am a lawyer. I litigate products liability cases.

Business Man 1: [Ignores the fact that Lawyer just said he does products liability.] I love lawyers! Hey, I got a question for you. I am going through a pretty nasty divorce right now, and I don’t like my attorney. My soon-to-be ex-wife is trying to take me for everything I got. My lawyer claims we live in a community property state, so she has a right to half of my property. But you see, I bought my house before we got married. So, since it was my property before we got married, I don’t have to give her half of it, right?

Lawyer: I’m sorry to hear about your divorce. You see, being a lawyer is like being a doctor, we all specialize in something. I specialize in products liability. Your lawyer specializes in divorce cases. Since I don’t specialize in divorces, I am not the best person to answer that question. If you don’t trust what your lawyer is telling you, you may want to seek advice from another divorce lawyer. Think of it this way, if you had heart issues, you want to see a cardiologist not a podiatrist for those issues. A podiatrist would not know the best treatment for someone with heart issues. Why? Because he works with feet, not hearts.

I was stunned and elated. He firmly refused to provide free legal advice but did so in a nice way that did not reduce his status. He flipped the conversation. He elevated his credibility instead of crushing it like I did. He maintained the respect of the asker.

I am happy to report that this response goes well in pretty much any conversation for me now. I say I can’t give legal advice and give the specialty comparison blurb all at once. That usually satisfies the asker and allows me to change the topic. I don’t feel like I have reduced my status or committed any social faux pas.

This is a good lesson for all of us. Never feel like you need to commit an unethical act of giving free legal advice because you are being too nice or want to be respected for your profession. Telling someone you cannot give legal advice is ok. In fact, it is crucial for your continued employment.

Candess is the Senior Trial Paralegal at the Lange Law Firm, PLLC and the author of new paralegal guidebook The Indispensable Paralegal: Your Guide to Getting It All Done. You can learn more about Candess here.

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