The Benefits Of Being Generous With Your Time

Yesterday, a pizza. A few weeks ago, a bouquet of flowers. A few months ago, a pound of yerba mate with a calabash gourd and a bombilla. And a bunch of thank you notes.

As a lawyer, I like to think that my work solves people’s problems or at least makes things a little better, but the pizza, bouquet, and yerba mate were all gifts I received from people whose problems I did not solve.

There’s a nice take-out-only pizza and hoagies around here, and one day a few months ago the owner asked me, you’re a lawyer, right? I am. Can I call you tomorrow? Sure.

The owner of the pizza place had some landlord–tenant issue arising from a prior place he leased. I told him it wasn’t my field, that I didn’t have any documents in front of me, that I couldn’t advise him specifically on his situation, but I could give him some general background on landlord-tenant law, I could explain how a landlord–tenant lawsuit is filed, served, and heard in small claims court, and I could refer him to someone I knew who was both competent and cost-efficient.

That was it. The whole process took about 30 minutes.

Since then, he’s offered me extra food every time I’ve stopped by. No charge. Take a drink. I put some extra fries in there. He was offended the first couple times I tried to politely decline, so now I just say thank you.

The bouquet? I told them they were likely going to lose the case, but nonetheless referred them to someone who might be able to help.

The person who sent me the yerba mate never even ended up calling the lawyer to whom I referred them.

I’ve written before about how I don’t charge a consultation fee because the fee would do me more harm than good. But there’s more to it as well: being a decent human being is also good marketing. I’ve heard that Jim Beasley, Sr., used to say “do the right thing and the money will take care of itself.”

Almost a year ago when I was discussing marketing for new lawyers, I quoted a lawyer with thirty years experience:

In 1980, a client found a lawyer by reputation and word of mouth. Martindale Hubbell was a daily tool, and lawyer certification was still a pilot program. Lawyers promoted themselves by public service, getting quoted in the paper, writing articles, and volunteering in organizations. In 2011, clients still find lawyers by reputation and word of mouth. But Martindale Hubbell is now part of LexisNexis. State and national certification programs abound, and lawyer advertising is everywhere. But lawyers still like to be quoted.

Read that line again: “clients still find lawyers by reputation and word of mouth.” For people to recommend you, they have to know you.

Sure, advertising is everywhere. SEO is all the rage. I don’t have the multi-million-dollar advertising budget some lawyers apparently have, but I think I do all right on the internet. Google “best philadelphia lawyer” and you will see a picture of me on the first page.

Yet, as far as I can tell, not one client has ever found me through that search. It hasn’t even earned me a free pizza.

“Clients still find lawyers by reputation and word of mouth,” and lawyers build that reputation by “public service, getting quoted in the paper, writing articles, and volunteering in organizations,” and they build it by being generous with their time, even to people who will never pay them a dime.

There are some caveats, of course. Lawyers should be mindful of not giving out legal advice to individuals they do not represent.  Young lawyers at big law firms will always have trouble marketing themselves, and “be generous with your time” is no exception, not least because many big firms aren’t supportive of their associates using time except for billing, because the associates are the profit center.

But these issues should be seen as obstacles to overcome, not excuses to throw a cold shoulder to anyone who isn’t going to write you a check. Do the right thing and the money will take care of itself.

  • Guest

    Your comments were a pleasure to read. It’s easy to forget how grateful people are for guidance that stops short of representation. It’s nice to help people, even if we don’t immediately see tangible benefits to our careers, and remembering this fact makes me feel a little better about my chosen profession.

  • Jordan

    Last month I got a full home cooked Jamaican dinner. It was so good I could have cried.

    Great article about the freedom of being a real lawyer and word of mouth “marketing.” To quote Braveheart: “just be yourselves.”

  • Dear Max: I totally agree. Through my years in practice I have received many gifts from very grateful people I have help just because I like to help. Your communication on this to other lawyers is very valuable. This attitude helps many people, helps the lawyer doing it, but it also helps our profession overall.

  • You’re right, and this is great. I’m going to share it on FB, LinkedIn and Twitter.

  • John Day

    “Do the right thing and the money will take care of itself.” Oddly enough, my mentor said the same thing. And it is true. I have now been practicing law for over 30 years, and it is odd how a small favor that I did for someone 25 years ago, a favor I long forgot, comes back in some way. Although one cannot ignore marketing in this day and time, simple acts of kindness go a long way in developing a positive reputation.

  • I am so pleased to read articles like this. I have made it a policy to offer free consults, and to extend myself wherever possible. Legal issues, even minor ones such as this landlord/tenant matter, are often frightening and overwhelming to people, and the system is so arcane and cryptic that we are often seen as holding the keys to some sort of magic realm. It only costs me a few minutes to relieve someone’s anxiety, so why not help?

  • Guest

    I agree to an extent but there are some people who will take advantage, and soon that free hour of work you did will turn into 20 free hours, and then 30.

    • You do have to draw a line somewhere. But I think starting with assuming the best works better, even if you have some losses now and then.