• Free Lunch

Asking Your Lawyer for Free Services

by Noel Bagwell
for Executive Legal Professionals, PLLC

May 22, 2015

Legalis muneris sumptus libero stultum petere.

— Anonymous

Nothing attracts consumers like the word “Free.” “Free” attracts consumers like cow patties attract flies. Of course, “free” can be a good thing. Hell, Chris Anderson has written a whole book about using “free” to make a lot of money, but even he sells the

[unabridged version of his] book. While the best things in life may be free, many of the most valuable things in life–legal services, for example–are not, nor should they be.

You are reading this article, I presume, because you want to know what reasons a lawyer might give for telling you not to ever ask your attorney for free legal services. You might have heard some attorneys offer pro bono legal services. You might have been told pro bono means “free” in Latin. Pro bono is a Latin adjective “denoting work undertaken for the public good without charge, especially legal work for a client with a low income.” (Google)  Some lawyers choose to donate their services to worthy causes, and that is charitable; but it should never be expected or required. Forced charity is not charity; it is the redistribution of wealth. Such socialist practices are never undertaken for the public good.

Perhaps, unlike me, you don’t have an aversion to the Marxist redistribution of wealth. For such persons, I hope one or more of the following reasons you should never ask your lawyer for free legal services will be persuasive.

1. There Is No such Thing As A Free Lunch.

“The reality of life on our planet is that productive resources are limited, while the human desire for goods and services is virtually unlimited.” (Gwartney, Common Sense Economics: What Everyone Should Know About Wealth and Prosperity, p. 9) Your lawyer can only provide a limited quantity of legal resources. Providing legal services to you might mean being unavailable to provide legal services to another potential client. “Because we cannot have as much of everything as we would like, we are forced to choose among alternatives. There is no free lunch. Doing one thing makes us sacrifice the opportunity to do something else we value. This is why economists refer to all costs as opportunity costs.” Id.

2. “Free” Warps Our Perception of Value.

“The choices of both consumers and producers involve costs. For consumers, the cost of a good, as reflected in its price, helps us compare our desire for a product against our desire for alternative products that we could purchase instead. If we do not consider the costs, we will probably end up using our income to purchase the wrong things–goods that we do not value as much as other things we might have bought.” Id. In the context of receiving “free” legal services, if consumers do not have to consider the costs, they will consume goods they may value less than someone else would value them.

To illustrate this point, consider the following example. An attorney, April, offers her legal services to the general public. Two potential clients, Sayiid and Francis, approach April to request legal services. April only has time to provide legal services to one client. Francis asks for some services to be performed for free, whereas Sayiid agrees to pay April’s quoted rates for all services to be performed. Even if April agrees to provide her services to Francis (some of which will be provided at no charge), this will be unfortunate, because Sayiid will have lost out on services he values more than Francis values them; April will be paid less; and Francis will have received services the true value of which she she does comprehend or appreciate.

3. “Free” To You Is Not Free To Me.

“Producers face costs too–the costs of the resources they use to make a product or provide a service.” Id. One may say, All it costs a lawyer to provide legal services to me is their time, skill, and effort. To him an attorney must reply, Even if there are no other costs you have not overlooked, my time, skill, and effort are all I have to sell. “High production costs signal that the resources have other highly valued uses, as judged by buyers and sellers.” Id. The opportunity costs of providing “free” legal services are high, because many prospective clients highly value attorneys’ services.

This is why, in our example above, April would not be likely to choose to provide legal services to Francis over Sayiid. April should prefer to have Sayiid as a client, because it is more profitable and because, by agreeing to pay April’s quoted rates for all services to be performed, Sayiid has communicated he values April’s services more highly than does Francis. The value created is greater when April and Sayiid to do business together than it would be if April and Francis were to do business together.

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Finally, the cost of practicing law is extraordinarily high. Among these the high costs are the absurdly high cost of law school; professional privilege taxes; licensing fees; the three years spent in law school (during which one cannot really work to earn a living); and the expensive tools (e.g., LexisNexis, WestLaw, costly books of statutes and case law, etc.) lawyers use to do their jobs. Like all businesses, law firms must shift some or all of these costs to their clients, in the form of prices for valuable services, in order to earn a living. Expecting free legal services robs a lawyer not only of potential income, but essentially communicates that you expect him to incur both an unreimbursed actual cost and an opportunity cost to provide you with legal services. Such expectations are patently unreasonable.

4. Demanding “Free” Legal Services Is Tacky.

If none of the preceding economic arguments are persuasive, let me provide a more commonplace reason you should never ask your lawyer for free legal services. Quite simply, asking for free things is tacky. Asking for a discount, negotiating, and generally haggling may be acceptable; demanding or even requesting free service, however, is unprofessional and rude.

By asking for free legal services, you are telling your lawyer, “I want something from you that I value at $0.00, but which I should understand costs you far more than $0.00.” In other words, please give me a gift at your expense. Note, asking your lawyer for free legal services also communicates to him or her that you do not value his or her services as much as he or she does. Even if this is true, saying so is rude and insulting.

Alternatives To Asking for Free Legal Services

Inclusive Flat Fees. While asking for, expecting, or demanding free legal services is never appropriate, you should ask your attorney for a flat fee or a recurring flat fee that includes all the services you want them to perform for you. Sometimes, especially when dealing with litigation, a flat fee will not be practical. Often, however, flat fees provide clients with a better value than fees billed to the client at an hourly rate.

Trades. Maybe you have something the attorney values as much as you value their legal services. If you want to make a trade, it’s a good idea to agree on the value for the attorney’s services and of the thing you would like to trade, and then make the trade. Be careful how you structure such deals, though. If your attorney wants to charge you $3,000.00, and you have, say, a tractor worth $3,000.00 the attorney is willing to accept in trade, the best thing to do is to sell the attorney the tractor for $3,000.00, and simultaneously pay your attorney a flat fee of $3,000.00 for his services. This way, the attorney has paid you and you have paid the attorney. You have services. The attorney has a tractor. Everyone is happy.

Financing. Some attorneys will be willing to take a deposit and payments over time. A fast nickel may be worth more than a slow dime, but I’ll take a slow dollar over a fast nickel every time. Ask your attorney about whether they are willing to allow you to pay your legal bill over time, and then make your payments regularly and on-time.

Most lawyers I know are reasonable people who are just trying to make a living like everyone else. You should not be intimidated by them. Feel free to negotiate and haggle with your attorney. Some will be more open to that than others, but none of them will appreciate a client who asks them for free legal services. This is a professional boundary you should never, ever cross.


Citations

Gwartney, James, Richard Stroup, Dwight Lee, and Tawni Ferrarini. “Twelve Key Elements of Economics.” Common Sense Economics: What Everyone Should Know About Wealth and Prosperity. Rev. Ed., 1st ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 2010. 9-11. Print.


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