Oh, Those Dreaded Words: ‘Can I Get Your Advice on Something?’

A family enjoying dinner and conversation.
Just as I lifted the fork to my open mouth, I heard the words that every attorney dreads most: “Can I get your advice on something?”

When it comes to Thanksgiving mac and cheese, my mother is basically Marie Curie. Four cheeses, added at four different times, melted at four different temperatures until the crispy top snaps like a potato chip. I wait all year for this.

So naturally I’d been watching what I was eating all day in preparation. I scooped a cheesy pile onto my plate along with other delectable fare, made a bee-line for the couch, and settled in to stuff my face.

But, just as I lifted the fork to my open mouth, I heard the words that every attorney dreads most: “Can I get your advice on something?”

An old family friend (with the collaboration of my own mother – et tu, Mama?) had come to our family Thanksgiving with a Ziploc bag full of documents. My heart sank into my empty stomach as I realized I had stumbled into an awkward situation.

I glanced around. Relatives and friends casually strolled by as this impromptu consultation commenced. What to do?

I definitely was not at my professional best. Our Thanksgivings are large affairs (sometimes with one hundred people cycling through), and overlapping conversations make for a distracting environment. You know that loud cousin you have, the one you can hear from outside the house? Yeah. I have three of those. Also – did I mention? – I was very hungry.

I was also worried about my duty of confidentiality. My mother was obviously familiar with the details of this legal situation, and I could be pretty sure that, should I take up the matter, she would have follow-up questions. But working professionally means not gossiping with Mom.

Now, this family friend wasn’t looking for pro bono services, exactly. She just wanted some advice. But we attorneys know there’s no such thing as a distinction between formal and informal legal advice. She was either my client or she wasn’t. So, even though this was a casual social moment, I needed to take it seriously.

All my training was telling me not to get involved, but my heart was telling me to help out.

What I should have said was, “Here, take a business card, and call me on Monday. If I can’t help you, I can find someone who can.”

But what I did was start eating turkey and let her describe her problem. There was a lot of social pressure to hear her out! As it happened, the issue was categorically not within my practice area, so I was able to semi-gracefully pivot the conversation. A lucky ending to an awkward moment.

I recently told this story during an interview for a filmed CLE video called Counsel Over Cocktails, and I got to reflecting: Did I handle this the right way? What could I have done better?

Moments like these happen to all of us, and they usually catch us off guard. And because most of us got into this career to help people, we want to use our hard-won skills to help those we love most. As I said before, in this situation I probably should have asked her to call the office and take a less-casual approach. But would even that have been the best option?

I’m curious to find out how others would have handled this situation. What would you have done? Has something similar happened to you? Please leave your story in the comments.

Check out Counsel Over Cocktails if you need an ethics credit.

4 thoughts on “Oh, Those Dreaded Words: ‘Can I Get Your Advice on Something?’

  1. Vincent Humphrey

    Helping people comes with the profession, and as for Thanksgiving, it is always a good time!

  2. robertvandorn

    Good thoughts, Vincent! We want to help, and we want people to be comfortable asking us for help, but we want to be careful, too. How about this: “I’m not your lawyer, but here’s what I think about that.” Then you can go different directions from there, as you mention… (PS
    Can I have Thanksgiving at your house?!)

  3. Vincent Humphrey

    Those two words carry a TON of weight in the legal context. As for the papers, they went back in the purse and Thanksgiving kept on rolling! Thanks for asking.

  4. markpattersonlaw

    “Quick Question”. If there are two less liked words in the American lexicon for this lawyer I have yet to encounter them.

    Normally the question is not so personal, but instead something like “why all the due process for the accused, we know he is guilty, it is in all the papers.”

    I usually answer the justice system they want requires a fascist government, or some reference to the Salem witch trials. That typically ends the conversation.

    So what happened to the ziploc baggy of papers? Were you required to examine them between dinner and dessert?

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