Since I’m on holidays (again) the time gives me a chance to reflect and think about some of the broader things involved in being a lawyer. Often I report and explain the work which has happened during the past day or week; when no work is happening, I get to think a bit about how I came to be practising this most surprising (and rewarding) vocation of law.
Sometimes when I’m introduced to someone they ask what it is that I ‘do’. (I don’t really like the question: it often seems that it alters the attitude that follows. Am I really a different person, now I am a lawyer, than when I was receiving unemployment benefits some years ago? No. But I digress). After the initial question of what I ‘do’ is out of the way, people often then tell a story about an experience they’ve had with the law, and then ask my advice.
Well, there are a few problems with that.
First, I’m not getting paid! 🙂 It’s okay, you know that doesn’t really bother me and I’m a big believer in pro bono legal work. Actually I enjoy talking about the law; especially if it helps the person understand the legal system better. So money isn’t the problem.
It still usually isn’t appropriate to give actual legal advice in a social context. The advice can be misunderstood, it isn’t being recorded, and it usually isn’t confidential. In short, it’s a bad idea to give advice outside of work.
What I can and do do, though, is explain the broad areas of law and how they relate. This helps the person find a lawyer who will be able to assist in resolving their problem, as opposed to one who may perhaps be not really qualified in the area.
Some of the major areas of law are property, wills and estates, family, civil litigation, and crime. Within these there are further divisions: a for example, a criminal lawyer may practise in victims of crime assistance, or may work in defence of those accused of crime. There are times when this can cause a conflict of interest (more on that another time).
So this is the reason you might get a fairly blank look from your lawyer when you ask, during the drafting of documents for the sale of your house, whether your cousin who has just been charged with flying a kite to the annoyance of another person is likely to get a criminal record! The lawyer will most likely refer you to another practitioner in the same firm who specialises in that area. (There are still sole practitioners who more or less ‘cover the field’, but they are becoming less common.)
I think it’s helpful to know a bit about all the areas, which is why I’m presently running a few civil litigation files alongside my main work in criminal law. But I’ll never be a property law specialist, I’ll leave that to those who enjoy reading the fine print in mortgage documents (thanks John Grisham in The Street Lawyer for the quote)
In summary, if you need a lawyer, make sure you get the right one. Just because Dennis Denuto has a framed law degree on his wall, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s qualified!
For the vision splendid-
The Outback Lawyer