You get what you pay for

Lisa Henderson-Newlin, The Levison Group

“I am an ordinary man who has had the good fortune in my life — in my career — to be surrounded by extraordinary people and to experience extraordinary times,” I typically don’t tell people I’m a lawyer. It’s not because I’m ashamed of the profession, nor is it because I can’t handle a good lawyer joke or two. (I can, and most of them are hilarious). There are several reasons I don’t want to tell people what I do for a living, but the most compelling of all is the fact that I don’t want to give free legal advice.

For some reason, when people hear that I’m a lawyer, the first thing they do is ask me a question about their precarious legal position. (Okay, maybe that’s not the first thing they do. They probably gasp and wonder how the girl with the stain on her suit passed the bar. But the second thing they do is ask a question.) I’ve never known so many people to have so many pressing legal issues they’re willing to dump on a complete stranger if it means they can get something for nothing.

From divorce questions to how to avoid paying taxes on something, people seem to think that a lawyer is a free expert who is just dying to hand out legal advice, even if it’s at the local bowling league on a Saturday night. (Don’t judge. I’ve got a great arm swing and I love the fried food at the bowling alley.) Are other professions this way? Does a doctor go to a dinner only to be accosted by the waitress about her irregular heartbeat? Does a nail technician get rundown at the local grocery store to take care of an emergency chip in polish?

Why are lawyers the ones who seem to be constantly asked to give out free advice, while other professionals skate by? If I discovered the person sitting next to me at a movie theater was a hair dresser, I wouldn’t ask her if she could trim up my dead ends before the feature film began (although I would ask her if she thought I could pull off red hair. I think I could). So if it’s not acceptable to get a color treatment from the hairdresser at a movie, why is it okay to ask for legal advice at the local watering hole?

To avoid the request for legal advice, sometimes I tell people I work at a law firm, which is technically true. People usually assume I’m a receptionist or a secretary, which is fine with me, as I don’t have a clue how to answer a question about a real estate transaction. Other times, I pick a profession that I don’t think people will ask questions about, such as a dental hygienist. I figure the hardest question posed to a hygienist in a social gathering is what kind of floss to use to get those hard to reach places. As an avid flosser, I can give that answer without difficulty.

Other times, I tell people I’m a chef. I usually follow that up immediately with a recommendation to avoid the crab dip of whatever establishment we are in, followed up with “I’ve seen the kitchen and it isn’t pretty.” I don’t usually go with this option, as that usually forces me to avoid the crab dip as well to keep up the charade. Since I love crab dip, I find this tends to be more torture than it’s worth.

On rare occasions, I admit to my legal profession, but get creative with the reasons why I can’t provide an answer to their query. Sometimes I say things like “I failed that portion of the bar” or “My malpractice defense attorney has advised me not to give legal advice until my license is reinstated.” If I’m really feeling sassy I might give the excuse “Since the last free legal advice I gave landed someone in jail, I prefer to steer clear of recommendations.”

So if you see me at a social gathering and you’re told I’m a taxidermist, please go with it. It’s a lot easier to explain to someone how to stuff an elk than it is to explain how to create a tax shelter. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to call my friend who is a doctor. It’s his day off and I’ve got a mole I want him to check out.

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Lisa Henderson-Newlin is a member of the law firm McAnany Van Cleave and Phillips. Contact Under Analysis by email at comments@levisongroup.com.
© 2012 Under Analysis L.L.C.

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