A Dissatisfied Litigant, 1845, by Honoré Daumier (1808-1879).

Most people understand that attorneys’ ethical rules prohibit us from advising another lawyer’s client because it can so easily interfere with the attorney-client relationship.  More difficult to explain, though, is why I cannot help individuals who pursue legal action in courts of law on their own.  Hopefully, this will clear things up a bit.

These folks pursuing redress on their own are called pro se (pronounced “pro-SAY”) litigants, or sometimes pro per litigants.  Their lack of counsel has no bearing on the validity or magnitude of their claim– indeed, there are thousands of individuals who simply cannot afford a lawyer or do not qualify for assistance from Legal Aid organizations or other services.  Absent a lawyer, no attorney-client relationship exists, so I can’t interfere with it.

Still, there are two very specific reasons why I still can’t talk to you:  

  1. Unless you’re in Missouri, I’m not licensed in your state.  If you’re outside the land of Harry Truman and Mark Twain, and I comment in depth on a question surrounding your unique circumstances, then somebody might think I just became your lawyer.  And I’m not willing to risk a charge of Unauthorized Practice of Law… and the resulting loss of my Missouri license.
  2. Even if you are in Missouri, odds are that I don’t have sufficient expertise to properly advise you on the breadth of your situation.  I’m pretty much a one-trick pony– and while it’s a great trick, you need more than the trick I offer.  If I propose a specific plan or comment on a question surrounding your unique circumstances, then somebody might think I just became your lawyer.  And I’m not willing to take on that responsibility– just like your pediatrician friend from church won’t perform your coronary bypass surgery.

Now, lest someone think we lawyers are all like Henry Hill* and friends, it’s not about money.  I give knowledge to litigants– free of charge– all the time… I just do it through their lawyers.  That’s the way it has to be.

An email I received a few weeks ago illustrates the dilemma (and this precise situation is common).  The fellow asked a straightforward question about a procedural rule.  Right up my alley, for sure.  I was confident that I had enough information to reach a conclusion, but my Spidey-Sense told me that the fellow asking the question was a non-lawyer.  Most lawyers would know the answer, though many still ask, just to confirm their thinking.**

A quick Google search confirmed that my Spidey-Sense had not let me down.  The guy seemed pretty sophisticated, but he was definitely a “civilian”.  So…

I’d be happy to help– have your attorney give me a shout and we can hammer out a strategy pretty quickly.

“Nope.  I’m pro se.  I just need to know if I can do (XYZ).”***

Sorry, friend.  I can’t advise you directly.  You’ve got to have an attorney for me to be involved in guiding you.

“I didn’t ask for advice,” he said.  “I just want to know about the fact of (XYZ).  You ambulance chasers are all alike.”

See above.

* To paraphrase, “Business bad? Tough, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? Tough, pay me. Place got hit by lightning, huh? Tough, pay me.”

** Imposter syndrome kicks me in the head regularly.  As such, I contend that there’s no such thing as a stupid question.  Better to ask and be right, than not ask and be wrong.

*** Specifically calls for a conclusion of law.