How To Respond To Questions About The Law From Friends And Family Members

How To Respond To Questions About The Law From Friends And Family MembersThis week we welcome back guest writer Tiffany Lo to talk about how to respond to family and friend questions about the law when you’re a law student.

It is a rite of passage for law students. At a family gathering, over a messaging app, or just out of the blue, a friend or family member asks you: [insert legal question here]? This can be a very general question: “what does divorce mean for property division?” or something much more specific: “how do I deal with my landlord who is trying to evict me because they want to sell the house?” “how do I contest a traffic ticket for failure to stop at a red light?” “how do sue someone in small claims court for not paying me for a job?” I have gotten a range of questions related to landlord-tenant laws, traffic violations, personal injury claims, family law, and business law, and have heard similar stories from fellow law students.

Perhaps you’ve studied the exact topic in a class, come across the issue while working at your summer job, or have knowledge based on your past academic research and work experiences. But more likely, you do not know the general area, let alone the relevant laws. You are probably hesitant to give information and advice, worried that it might turn out to be incorrect and lead someone down a wrong path. Moreover, since you are not yet a licensed attorney, you don’t want to be engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.

Law students are all different, with varying obligations, interests, and bandwidth. Each person would handle a situation like this differently. This blog post is not meant to provide a one-size-fits-all approaches, but suggests three approaches you can consider when responding to such a question.

1. Agree to Help

You may want to be as helpful as possible, and are willing to devote the time and energy needed to educate yourself on the topic. After all, attorneys are allowed to, and sometimes do, take on matters in a completely different area from their normal practice, as long as they take all the steps to ensure they can act competently and diligently, and thus ethically. With the disclaimer that you are not a licensed lawyer, you may be comfortable with sharing the pertinent information and giving your lay opinion about the best course of action.

If you decide on this approach, be prepared for the necessary work and research, so as not to harm the questioner’s interests. You may have to read a lot of background materials and secondary sources to get up to the speed on the landscape of the practice area, for example family law. As each state has different substantive laws and procedures, you need to be clear on the correct jurisdiction. Then, you will have to dig in the specific question, looking up the applicable statutes, regulations, and cases. After understanding the law, including any grey areas, you would apply it to the facts at hand. It may take a long and iterative process to arrive a sophisticated answer that you are confident in. And when you deliver that answer, describe all the steps you took and emphasize once again that you are not a lawyer.

2. Politely Decline

It would be just as reasonable to stay away from all such questions and requests. Instead, you can encourage your friends and family to consult a legal professional who has ample experience.

Learning how to draw boundaries is important in life, including in this context. Practicing early how to turn down such requests can help you in the future, if the same situation arises when you are a practicing lawyer. Your friends and family may be asking because they trust you, but you are wary that you are not the best person to answer, or you don’t have the capacity to take on more work, or you would rather have a more neutral person opine on the issue. But in refusing to help, you need to be artful in expressing your concerns, all the while trying to avoid hurting any feelings in the process.

If you would rather create a divide between your work and personal life, try coming up with a short speech in which you explain the reasons for your personal rule not to counsel people close to you on the law. You can also offer to help find someone experienced through referrals or your connections, as discussed below.

3. Ask around for a Referral

On my law school listservs, I often see questions asking whether anyone in the community knows a lawyer who specializes in a specific legal practice in a specific state. This can be a great way to get a referral for an attorney who is good and trustworthy, just from word-of-mouth advertising. In other words, make use of your law school connections! Relatedly, you may have knowledge of low-cost or pro bono legal assistance programs in your law school’s area or other cities that you’ve lived or worked in. Those are great resources for your curious friends and family members.

Getting legal questions when you don’t feel equipped to handle them can create a very awkward situation. Unless you feel ready for the research required to answer even deceptively simple questions, it may be imprudent to make promises about helping. This of course depends on the complexity of the question, who is asking, and the time and resources they have or lack.

Next time you find yourself on the receiving end of a legal question, you may not have a lot of time to think of your response. So start now, consider your options, and figure out how you would react.


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About Tiffany Gee Ching Lo

Tiffany Gee Ching Lo is a student at Stanford Law School. She spent her 1L year at the New York University School of Law, where she was involved with Alternative Breaks, Women of Color Collective, and Law Revue, and worked as research assistant. Tiffany received her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, graduating magna cum laude with double majors in Political Science and Rhetoric. Tiffany developed an interest in the law from a young age, and have worked in law firms and courthouses in Hong Kong–where she grew up, around the San Francisco Bay Area, and in New York. In her spare time, Tiffany enjoys painting, playing the piano and cello, trying out new recipes, and watching late night talk shows.

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