Monday, February 8, 2010

The Free Rider Problem

Recently, my less-than-computer-savvy mother somehow downloaded a nasty piece of malware to her PC. This bugger is what is often referred to as a "rootkit". Without wasting too much time with the details, it's essentially software that's so malicious that even experienced systems administrators often times don't bother trying to remove it. Instead, they just back up all necessary data and reformat the hard drive and reinstall the operating system.

This sort of malware usually disguises itself as a benign program (a trojan) and then when installed proceeds to wreck havoc. If not properly removed, it will usually install all sorts of annoying programs, compromise the security of the system, and cause the OS to operate slowly. If it's improperly removed, the symptoms may not be evident for a while, but the infection will eventually begin to pose problems once again. Essentially, it's a "gift" that keeps on giving.

I think this is a pretty good analogy for law school. It seemed like a good idea at one point. It was probably a dumb idea to go through with it, but the administrators did everything they could to dupe you into attending just like the virus' programmers are able to snooker unwary users into downloading their software. Now that you've loaded yourself up with the debt and wasted three years, it is virtually impossible to put this menace behind you. Sadly, however, there's no option for reformatting and reinstalling in the real world.

Moreover, law school is definitely the "gift" that keeps on giving. First, you get to spend three miserable years learning from some pseudo-intellectual professors (i.e. people who have the same worthless degree you have) about theoretical concepts only tangentially related to the practice of law. Then you leave school realizing you owe more in student loans than some people do on their houses. Then you have to spend even more money learning how to take an exam that's required of you before you even have the ability to practice. After that, you learn that even with a degree/license, there are few (and mostly low paying) jobs for attorneys. Then you learn that non-legal employers aren't exactly thrilled about hiring people with your "advanced" credentials.

This isn't an exhaustive list of the miserable revelations many law graduates are sadly forced to discover. Some of you may think, can it possibly get any worse? Well, if you've experienced (or are yet to experience) all of the above, let me assure that the curse of law school isn't done doling out its punishment quite yet.

No, as if unemployment, a life time of debt, and losing every shred of dignity you once held isn't enough, almost all law graduates have to deal with another nuisance: The Free Rider Problem.

The Free Rider Problem is manifested in every moocher who comes out the wood work as soon as it is revealed that you're now a licensed attorney (and often times even beforehand). It's kind of like when people get hit up by friends and relatives after they win the lottery. The only difference is that as a law school graduate, you just won Beelzebub's lottery and all you have to share is ignorance.

Maybe if you're a 1L and someone solicits your advice for the first time, it feels kind of good. You feel proud that people look to you as an authority. Well, guess what? You're not an authority. Chances are the average legal secretary could offer better advice than you can, and she isn't going to have to explain to the bar why she once engaged in the unauthorized practice of law if she ends up giving advice to the wrong person.

Things don't really change once you're an attorney. The only thing that may change is that you can get your licensed yanked or face a malpractice suit for letting the moochers push you around.

Just because the stakes are higher, doesn't mean that the parasites will leave you alone (even if you politely explain your professional obligations). No, in fact, once you're a full fledged attorney, it's open season.

I can't tell you the number of times people have just assumed I'm their personal legal question and answer database. I guess this must be what it's like to be an attractive female who has to endure the unrelenting and untoward advances made by the dregs of the male gender.

People have asked me how to file a complaint with the state's consumer fraud division. (I was actually asked this by a paralegal - "You'd know better than I would, my friend.") I have been hit up for advice on changing one's name, analyzing a child custody agreement (that I hadn't even seen), and getting dual citizenship. People have asked me to write their wills and sue their landlords. One person even thought I could give her a lecture on how HIPAA works while another wanted me to write a threatening letter on her behalf.

This sort of thing must be particularly annoying to practicing attorneys. Unless they can parlay this free advice into getting retained as a paid attorney, talking about work probably isn't what they want to do during their free time. (Maybe I should try to become friends with an executive at Sallie Mae and try to convince him to write off some of that debt 'cause buds help each other out.)

In my case, however, I don't even know what the heck most of these people are talking about. Okay, maybe I usually understand the theory behind some of the dilemmas they're having, but I certainly don't have the practical knowledge to help them out even if I were so inclined.

Personally, I think it would be funny if I could get away with just doling out a bunch of bad advice. "Sure, Ralph, getting into a street fight with your friend sounds like a great idea. You can guys can definitely disclaim liability for any injuries that result"; "I, Esq. Never, certify that Mr. and Mrs. Smith hereby devise all of their assets to the Workers World Party and give custody of their children to Big Bird."

The state bar or the court that decides the malpractice suit against me may not be quite as amused.

Some of you may be thinking, "Wait, Esq. Never, you dummy, why don't get off your duff and try to learn some of this law and procedure, so you can't actually do something productive instead of sitting around complaining."

First, of all, do I come over to your blog and heckle you? (Well, usually, I don't.) Secondly, here's my three part response. 1) I really don't want to be an attorney. 2) Setting up a solo operation and learning the ropes isn't an easy feat. 3) Most of the people who are looking for advice are looking for free advice - hence the "Free Rider Problem". As soon as I mention a fee agreement, they'd make a run for it like an ABA president runs from an honest debate on the problems with her organization. (Hey, maybe, this is a good tip for ridding yourself of free loaders.)

Of course, don't feel bad, fellow barristers. I recently read an advice column about a garbage man who kept getting hit up by friends to help dump their over-sized refuse for free. He just worked for the garbage company; he didn't even own the truck!

Well, if garbage men don't have to do pro-bono trash collection, I don't see why we need to give away advice for free. Particularly, when most of recent law school grads don't have any advice to give away in the first place.


  1. I just say "sorry, but that's not the kind of work I do so I have no idea what the answer is."

  2. I've decided not to renew my attorney license. Why put any more money into an already bloated industry?

  3. I asked my dentist friend if he can do my fillings for me, on the house. He said he doesn't take friends as patients. Oh well.

  4. I haven't gotten paid a dime from the two clients I've worked with. I only took the cases because I needed the resume builder. I also wanted to tell my high school classmates at our ten year reunion that I worked as a "criminal defense attorney".

  5. I *never* give advice for free. I've pointed people to resources where applicable, but if I don't have any general information off the top of my head and don't know the answer, the easiest way to make the freeloaders go away is to say "I could find out, but I can't do it for free."

  6. I am an experienced lawyer, and this is what I do: First, I say, "I don't know anything about that". That is usually true, as I am deliberately ignorant of family law and I did one closing (my own) in my whole life. Also, I have learned that nobody listens to free legal advice. This is something any experienced practitioner could tell you, and I could back this up with many sad tales. So don't give it. Also, I let my notary public registration lapse, as I got tired of people asking me to fraudulently notarize things. Don't ever do that, by the way, even for your family. I am happy to refer people to good lawyers who can help them.

  7. To address your early anology: at least with a computer virus, you don't piss away three years of your life and income. Worst case scenario, you need to toss the computer and lose some files. You can go out and get another PC or decent laptop for $500. Not so with law school. Hence, it is the dumber choice.

    Just tell the mooches you don't the area of law, and that researching costs you money. Then, you will see them run for the hills - just like you indicated in the post.


  9. Hi Esq. Never - Here are some responses that I have heard:
    1) Refer to Internet
    "I don't work in that area, so what you would find in a Google search would probably be more up-to-date than any information that I have. You might want to especially search using terms X and Y."
    2) "I'm sorry, but our insurance requires that all of our legal work comes in though our firm's formal intake policy - it's also the policy of our firm - so doing any legal work on the side could get me fired. They also make us take a minimum retainer. I'd be happy to set that up for you, though if you want to go the retainer route." (Increase size of "minimum retainer" as appropriate).
    3) In response to "how come you don't know this? I thought all lawyers would know this?" "Well, all doctors share the same basic knowlegde, but in this analogy I am a podiatrist and you are asking me a question about neurology or cardiology. Your foot doctor should not be operating on your brain or your heart. Not really the best way to go. I could refer you to someone if you like, but they will probably charge."

  10. I always say "You should really ask Mr. (cough) Green." I hate free advice. However, if someone comes into my office with a problem I know the answer to, and it would be a horrible waste for them to drop money on a lawyer, I usually give em 15 minutes and tell them flat out as succinctly as possible. TAKE THAT BAR HAHA PRO BONO.

    Anyways good blog, I'm adding you to my blogroll for sure.

  11. I just refuse to even deal with someone if they're not going to pay me. My extended family doesn't live anyplace I'm licensed to practice & I tell in-laws I can't work w/them due to conflicts of interest. I really don't have friends, per se & my acquaintances are either lawyers or creative types who are annoyed about being harassed for freebies.

    I also mention that none of my clients paid me & I brought in collection agencies. Finally, the hassle you get in the entertainment business is 100 times worse so be glad no one's trying to pressure you to make them a superstar.


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