- Apprentice Lawyer
The lockdown has been a wake up call for young independent practitioners like me who struggle to get fees due to them from their ever so “well-wishing” friend turned clients who have a voracious appetite to ride the free work bandwagon.
Having recently marketed myself as an independent practitioner since the lockdown, seeking work wherever available and not having a “daddy in robes” to make this seamless transition from learner to lawyer, charging acquaintances has been my hardest task, despite a generous “friends n family” discount.
This piece is a bit of venting, and a cautionary nudge to those who wish to practice as advocates some day.
The hardest task after getting a client, who will probably be a family contact or acquaintance, is to bring up the elephant in the room - the fees.
I recently worked for a friend on her startup by providing her legal advice on the terms of her partnership. I did more than just cleverly drop a clause or two and add a few important punctuations where they ought to have been. In return, I demanded a paltry sum as fees, considering our long-standing acquaintance. Not to my surprise, it was dismissed with a giggle, as if my demand was truly something unbelievable. Since I was prepared for this, once her product was launched and shared with me to buy and support the new venture, I humbly asked to be indulged with samples of the product being launched.
Surprisingly, however, this time my feeble attempt at being compensated in some form was met with sharp criticism of how the venture was not a charity, and how I ought to support small businesses. In that moment, I wish I could have mustered up the courage to give a firm retort and remind my dear friend about the legal advice which helped her launch this product line in the first place. Did she conveniently just waive off my fees with that calculated giggle?
Another instance relates to a friend who runs a successful sports equipment business. When asked to provide some equipment for me to lose the extra pounds gained while burning midnight oil through the years, he nonchalantly asked me to pay for the product at MRP and order through Amazon, conveniently forgetting 3 years of free legal representation in a criminal case against him as well as countless free consultations, notices etc that went unpaid and unthanked. This free service was extended not just to him, but also to his family on the presumption of friendship. While I would willingly pay for his product and buy it at whatever price he deems it fit to sell, his presumptuousness didn’t think it fit to even offer a fee for my continued services.
Since all this happened during a financially debilitating lockdown, the last straw for me was a referral client from a friend, who was advised of a possible consumer deceit by a large corporation which would’ve entitled him to a handsome refund. After offering up my advice and future course of action, my demand for fees was met with bewilderment. Since this client has met me previously on a couple of social occasions, he assumed I wouldn’t charge for my services, in view of our new “friendship”.
What irks me isn’t the scrooge blood that runs in all my friend turned clients, but the blatant disregard for professionalism and the entitlement to free services based on a misconceived, and self-servingly convenient notion of friendship.
Just a few months ago, a colleague of mine wrote a piece on the hardship faced by independent lawyers who aren’t being paid on time by their clients and this trickling down to affect juniors, staff and the very survival of the practise. My piece continues in the same vein, as many of us suffer through indignation, and in some cases, guilt in demanding legal fees. These friend turned clients believe there is no cost to our services, forgetting years of toil coupled with the missed opportunity of working at a high paying firm. I fear this notion is here to stay until an attitudinal shift is made within ourselves to declare that our services are not available for free, not even to our extended family and friends. No wonder we are in a race to become “Senior” advocates, so we can “command” an advanced fee rather than reel in our unfulfilled demands.
I used to believe in our noble tale of the honoraria pocket at the back of our gowns and the exalted status given to us by society. But to my dismay, even we can be outfoxed by the calculated overtures of such clients who will unflinchingly get their work done for free and leave your pocket as light as it came stitched.
The author is an advocate practising in Delhi.