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Constraints on private "practice" while employed elsewhere


CndnViking

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CndnViking
  • Applicant

This seems like it's probably a pretty basic question, but as an incoming law student I had the thought come up and I'm hoping to hear from someone who knows.

Basically what I'm wondering is how joining a firm, or going in-house with a company, affects your ability to act as a lawyer outside of your employer's purview.

So for example, say a lawyer worked for a firm in their real estate law division, but then a low-income family member was looking for help fighting a fine or negotiating a contract to buy a car. Would that lawyer be able to help out, acting as a private practitioner? (Obviously not claiming to represent their firm, using firm resources, etc.) or would being with the firm create an exclusivity situation where they can't do anything in a legal setting without the firm's involvement?

Again, sorry if it's a dumb question, I just don't want to wait a couple years to find out the answer. 😆

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Byzantine
  • Law Student

My guess is that if you're employed by a firm/company you wouldn't be able to act outside for a fee. If we're talking about doing pro bono work the answer may be different. My understanding is that each firm would have its own pro bono policy as there can be issues with conflicts and what kind of pro bono work a firm wants you doing. 

Also, acting for family members is dicey. There are ethical issues as to whether you are competent to represent them due to the relationship. You would also need to be competent to represent them as to the subject matter (for example, as a real estate lawyer you may know nothing about a bylaw ticket). Your insurance may also prohibit you from acting for family members. 

I'm a law student so hopefully someone else with more experience can jump in. 

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It depends on your contract, but I imagine virtually every firm requires you to bring your legal work under the firm umbrella. You may be allowed to do work cheaply or for friends, but not on your own.

Helping to fight a fine or negotiating a contract may not be legal work, depending on what you do, particularly the second. But they could be, and when you're in the situation, it can sometimes get hard to draw the line.

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Diplock
  • Lawyer

@CndnViking Some of what you're asking about wouldn't necessarily qualify as "legal work" at all. Save in the extreme most cautious way - perhaps urged in some bar exam question somewhere but not applicable to professional life generally - no one would reasonably define helping a family member read a contract or negotiate a loan as "legal work." But if you're talking about showing up in a professional context and saying "I'm a lawyer acting on behalf of X" you've definitely crossed that line. And it doesn't really matter whether you're being paid or not. That's not the issue. It's simply acting in that capacity.

Once you've crossed that line, see the replies you've received above. If there were ever any trouble about what you were doing acting as a lawyer, it would definitely blow back on your firm and your employer. It doesn't matter how clear you try to make it - they're still the ones who are paying for your insurance. There's simply no way to separate the two. Now that said, some employers will have pro bono programs etc. as described. But you'll have to navigate whatever policies are in place. You can't realistically say "this is just my job, what I do on my own time is my business." Practically speaking, that just isn't true.

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CndnViking
  • Applicant
2 hours ago, Diplock said:

It doesn't matter how clear you try to make it - they're still the ones who are paying for your insurance. 

Aaaah, there's what I was missing.

I had heard some talk that you couldn't act outside the firm, but my only experience with a single employer being able to dictate how you ply the skills of your trade was in things like entertainment where someone might have an exclusivity deal with a record label, movie studio, etc. so I was trying to figure out what the law equivalent of that was, or if I'd just been mislead. 

I wasn't aware of the insurance aspect, which makes sense. Thanks for clearing that up.

Edited by CndnViking
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It's not only the insurance, though. If you got a law society complaint about legal work you did outside the firm's umbrella which resulted in you spending time defending it, or even getting your license suspended, the firm would care about it. You owe most of your obligations to your individual clients and the regulator, but how you fulfil those obligations can come back to affect your employer in many ways, since your employment and your license are closely linked.

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LMP
  • Articling Student

Beyond even everything said above, it'd just be such a hassle. Litigation is never a one and done type process and I wouldn't relish having to squeeze an outside file into my day. 

 

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CndnViking
  • Applicant
17 minutes ago, Jaggers said:

It's not only the insurance, though. If you got a law society complaint about legal work you did outside the firm's umbrella which resulted in you spending time defending it, or even getting your license suspended, the firm would care about it. You owe most of your obligations to your individual clients and the regulator, but how you fulfil those obligations can come back to affect your employer in many ways, since your employment and your license are closely linked.

I guess my layman's intuition there is that there's a difference there, in that employers are already able to terminated employees who publicly reflect badly on them, or lose licenses they need to do their jobs, without that coming with the power to constrain their private time activities. Ex. my friend drives for a living. If he gets a DUI and has his license suspended, he'd lose that job, but as long as he drives lawfully, his employers have nothing to say about it.

Thus the question was really confirming that/how that distinguishes itself for the legal profession in such a way that they're able to straight up constrain you from acting, rather than simply reacting if you do so inappropriately.

Edited by CndnViking
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Diplock
  • Lawyer
4 minutes ago, CndnViking said:

I guess my layman's intuition there is that an employer (in any field) is already kind of protected in that way by being able to terminate an employee who screws up and finds themselves either reflecting badly on their employer or unable to do the job. Like, if you drive for a living but you get your license suspended because of how you drive in your free time, you're losing that job, right? Or even the people who get let go cause they're caught at nazi rallies and the like. 

So I would have thought that, for example, had a lawyer plied their skills outside of the firm in service of someone they knew but done so competantly and raised no issues, that an employer wouldn't necessarily have grounds for concern, and had they screwed up and wound up in a disciplinary situation they could simply terminate said lawyer.

I won't fault you excessively for asking, but the framework of experience you are trying to bring to these things is just inadequate for the issues you are raising. Essentially, what you're saying is "if you aren't doing anything wrong, you shouldn't have to worry about getting sued or having anyone complain about your professional conduct, right?" Not only is that obviously untrue of lawyers, it's untrue of probably any highly skilled professional doing work that matters significantly to others. Surgeons get sued for malpractice all the time simply because someone died. The point isn't whether they win or lose - the point is simply that getting sued at all is a massive headache.

I could continue further examples, but I'd only be driving a nail with a sledgehammer. There are professional realities here your experience just can't approach adequately. Which is fine. The major takeaway is just to realize and appreciate that.

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CndnViking
  • Applicant
1 hour ago, Diplock said:

Essentially, what you're saying is "if you aren't doing anything wrong, you shouldn't have to worry about getting sued or having anyone complain about your professional conduct, right?"

I didn't say that at all. In fact the reason for their concern was never in question, it was the difference between normal (reactive) recourses vs preemptive ones.

Like I said, if my job requires driving and my drivers license gets suspended, or I get arrested on criminal charges, or whatever, all sorts of employers can already terminate me (because I'm unable to do the job, and for reflecting badly on them, respectively) so concerns that you may face disciplinary actions or reflect poorly on the firm already appear to be covered by those entirely typical precedents, without the need of prior constraints on behavior - hence my wondering if it's true that such constraints exist, and explaining why it seems odd.

Or to put it another way, the question isn't "why is this a problem?" but "why are the responses to this problem so much more restrictive in law than in other professions?", and the insruance angle seems to answer that.

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Mountebank
  • Lawyer

If you want to help out a friend pro bono or at a reduced rate, a lot of firms wouldn't take issue with you doing that under the firm umbrella as long as there are no ethical issues and it won't take up an unreasonable amount of your time/firm resources. There would be no need to be acting as a self-employed lawyer. And as has already been stated, some of what you're referring to may not even amount to acting for the person or giving legal advice at all.

But, if you were also wondering about moonlighting and making money at it, I think most firms would take serious issue with that. The point of hiring you is so that you'll service and build a practice within the firm. If you're spending some of your time moonlighting for yourself, your employer is going to question how you have the time to do that, your priorities in business, and the wisdom of keeping you on salary.

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CndnViking
  • Applicant
12 minutes ago, Mountebank said:

But, if you were also wondering about moonlighting and making money at it, I think most firms would take serious issue with that. 

No, that's definitely not what I'm talking about.

To give some context, growing up very low-income I'm just used to seeing a lot of people without access to legal services get screwed around because they don't know any better, and I guess I'm just thinking of how much it would suck to see those kind of situation and to know that I had the skills to help, and not be "allowed to."

The stuff about a lot of it likely not qualifying as legal work is probably more appropriate to the types of situations I'm thinking about. Thanks.

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CleanHands
  • Lawyer
27 minutes ago, CndnViking said:

To give some context, growing up very low-income I'm just used to seeing a lot of people without access to legal services get screwed around because they don't know any better, and I guess I'm just thinking of how much it would suck to see those kind of situation and to know that I had the skills to help, and not be "allowed to."

Or you could just get a job helping those people.

I know we've been over this, you don't want to hear from me, and I'm wasting my time responding to you. But since this thread will exist for posterity, every other applicant who reads it should know that this is only a problem because you're choosing to make it one.

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CndnViking
  • Applicant
12 minutes ago, CleanHands said:

Or you could just get a job helping those people.

I know we've been over this, you don't want to hear from me, and I'm wasting my time responding to you. But since this thread will exist for posterity, every other applicant who reads it should know that this is only a problem because you're choosing to make it one.

We've had that conversation. And far too many others.

Like I've said, learn to be a touch less of a virulent asshole, and maybe that'll be different, but as long as your only mode of conversation is condescension and insults, you're right, I don't wanna hear it. 

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Diplock
  • Lawyer
24 minutes ago, CndnViking said:

No, that's definitely not what I'm talking about.

To give some context, growing up very low-income I'm just used to seeing a lot of people without access to legal services get screwed around because they don't know any better, and I guess I'm just thinking of how much it would suck to see those kind of situation and to know that I had the skills to help, and not be "allowed to."

The stuff about a lot of it likely not qualifying as legal work is probably more appropriate to the types of situations I'm thinking about. Thanks.

Here's the thing. Not to sell the question short, but you really can't have it both ways in a system designed explicitly - and for reasons I've outlined above - to prevent you from doing that. In very simple terms, you can't represent someone as a lawyer without assuming the personal, professional, and insurance-related obligations that come with that. And when you are employed by a firm, those obligations relate back to your employer. I don't mean to be simplistic about this, again, but this isn't only true of lawyers. A doctor can't walk around a poor neighbourhood providing medical care and then say "but I'm not really being a doctor right now." Neither can a lawyer. That isn't to say a doctor cannot help poor people in an appropriately professional way. But they absolutely cannot do so in a way that ducks around the professional obligations associated with acting as someone's doctor. It's all or nothing. There's no halfway point.

If you get into law school and volunteer at a clinic or something you'll learn where the line is because clinics walk this line. Providing "legal information" isn't the same thing as acting as a lawyer. But you'll be really unsatisfied - as many student are - with how little that implies. You sure as hell can't interact with anyone else on the person's behalf and say "I'm helping this person as a professional." It's extremely limiting.

I'm aware there is context to your question. I'm ignoring that. You're trying to cut the baby in half in a way that many have tried in the past and the answers you'll receive are dry for exactly that reason. You're not the first person to ask. You're not the thousandth person to ask. It is what it is. Do what you want with the information.

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Renerik
  • Law Student
15 minutes ago, CleanHands said:

Or you could just get a job helping those people.

Since we're derailing threads as of late, here's a great quote from a "big law girlie" I overheard regarding working for public interest:
"I don't want to end up like them though, I still have needs."

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Yogurt Baron

Viking, man, you may or may not believe it, but I wish you well. And for context, since you couldn't possibly know this, some of the people here who you perceive as giving you a hard time are actually the people here who are in some ways most similar to you and most think you're worth trying to help. (I did say "some".)

But you've gone in less than a week from "I want to help people, but I may be stuck getting a job where I make money" to "oh, hey, guys, can I help people on the side while I am making money?", and you haven't even written the LSAT yet.  We have seen this movie before. I was here on this board doing the "look, I'm smarter and better than everyone, and I'm special, okay, so don't give me the same advice you've given ten thousand people exactly like me, because I'm better than those people and also you" dance probably when you were still in diapers. This is not anyone here's first rodeo except for you.

Lots of us here are happy to offer advice and kindness. But if you keep coming back to every piece of advice you get with pissy dissections as if you were talking to an LSAT question in sentient form, eventually people are going to lose patience.

Edited by Yogurt Baron
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OP, listen to Diplock. At its heart your question is trying to frame the efforts you want to make in such a way as to have people shrug and say “oh, well, you’re just trying to help so even a little is better than nothing and we won’t look too closely”.
 

There just isn’t any room for that kind of “off the books” legal advice. Once you’re acting as a lawyer for some one you have to provide a level of service equal to any other client. Doesn’t matter if it’s paid or not. The surgeon comparison is apt. 
 

It isn’t just the insurance, by the way. There’s ethical obligations as well that will bind you as a licensed professional. No reason for you to know this now, but there’s a bit more to a profession versus a job and that’s a big part of it. 

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CndnViking
  • Applicant
1 minute ago, Yogurt Baron said:

Viking, man, you may or may not believe it, but I wish you well. And for context, since you couldn't possibly know this, some of the people here who you perceive as giving you a hard time are actually the people here who are in some ways most similar to you and most think you're worth trying to help. (I did say "some".)

Oh, I'm aware. In fact I said as much to CleanHands explicitly during our first interaction where I tried TWICE to politely talk him down from being a gigantic asshole and into a civil conversation. I have the utmost respect for the work he apparently does, and it's the kind of work I'd love to do. If he could find a way to dial down the condescending shithead factor a bit, he's exactly the type of person I'd love to pick the brain of for advice, opinions, etc. - unfortunately, having some similarities to some people doesn't mean they also aren't assholes, and that doesn't make dealing with them exhausting.

4 minutes ago, Yogurt Baron said:

But you've gone in less than a week from "I want to help people, but I may be stuck getting a job where I make money" to "oh, hey, guys, can I help people on the side while I am making money?"

That miscaracterizes BOTH statements in a way that, frankly, makes it hard to believe you mean well whatsoever. 

Obviously everyone needs to make money. That's part of life. That doesn't mean I'm lookin to get into big law making huge money (which I've been pretty clear is not my objective) but I also am not so stupid as to believe that if you work for less money these sorts of controls don't exist, so yeah I'm still curious how they work. 

Had my first statement said "I want to work for free" or my second specified I was only asking about big law, then sure you'd be right it would look hypocritical, but I didn't say either of those things.

7 minutes ago, Yogurt Baron said:

Lots of us here are happy to offer advice and kindness. But if you keep coming back to every piece of advice you get with pissy dissections as if you were talking to an LSAT question in sentient form, eventually people are going to lose patience.

You do see how it comes across a bit dissingenuous to both claim kindness and good intension and repeatedly distort my points, don't you?

Not only have I not responded that way to everything, there isn't even ONE THREAD that I've responded only in that way. I've responded that way when it was what was warranted, or in kind to people being assholes. No more, no less. Hell, look at my first response to Diplock, or even the subsequent ones clarifying my question before the fucking Troll Brigade rolled up to remind me how inferior and stupid I am.

So please, if you genuinely mean well, stop with all the distorting and straw manning what I say in order to make it into something it's not. I've tried to be patient with the first few instances, but it's getting tiresome.

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Also, I do appreciate when people try to make sense of the underlying rationale for rules. But if something is a rule, it doesn't really matter if the rule seems silly or unreasonable. It's still a rule.

And as others noted, exclusivity is in some associate contracts. So when it is, it's a rule. The underlying rationales -- insurance, professional regulations, competing business interests -- are interesting, but largely irrelevant to whether you have to follow the rule or not.  

Edited by realpseudonym
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CleanHands
  • Lawyer
21 minutes ago, realpseudonym said:

And as others noted, exclusivity is in some associate contracts. So when it is, it's a rule. The underlying rationales -- insurance, professional regulations, competing business interests -- are interesting, but largely irrelevant to whether you have to follow the rule or not.  

This reminds me of when someone here posted that they intend to work full-time during law school and use that as an explanation to employers for poor grades, and they ostensibly wanted to check whether that would be cool. When people answered that no, that totally wouldn't fly, the OP wanted to argue that that's stupid and that in their current field grades are supposedly regarded as meaningless. lol

Edited by CleanHands
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CndnViking
  • Applicant
7 minutes ago, realpseudonym said:

Also, I do appreciate when people try to make sense of the underlying rationale for rules. But if something is a rule, it doesn't really matter if the rule seems silly or unreasonable. It's still a rule.

And as others noted, exclusivity is in some associate contracts. So when it is, it's a rule. The underlying rationales -- insurance, professional regulations, competing business interests -- are interesting, but largely irrelevant to whether you have to follow the rule or not.  

Totally. And I haven't disputed that. 

My initial comment was basically "Is this a thing?" People agreed it is, and a couple presented rationales, and I responded as a matter of discussion. It's not like I think I'm going to talk these rules out of existence or anything like that. Just curious.

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Yogurt Baron
14 minutes ago, CndnViking said:

Not only have I not responded that way to everything, there isn't even ONE THREAD that I've responded only in that way.

This very post is the absolute epitome of the responding-to-everything-like-it's-an-LSAT-question phenomenon I'm describing. Maybe you disagree that that's what you're doing, but that's how I feel about what you're doing. Look. Don't think of us as a bunch of lawyers. (Especially me. I am not a lawyer. I am the board mascot.) Think of us as a bunch of new acquaintances you're having a beer with. If you said something to a buddy at a bar about your future career goals and your buddy said, "Whoa, I know a bunch of people who've said the same stuff, and it's ended badly for them," would you say he was strawmanning you? Would you even use the word "strawman" in that circumstance? Like, we're just people. And you're asking us questions and we're trying to help. And some of us are being less gentle than others, sure - because sometimes when somebody's smart and has a load of potential but needs a reality check, sometimes tough love is what gets through. 

Look. You are not stupid. You are obviously not stupid. What you are, to my mind, is someone trying to navigate an environment that's completely new to them, and trying to project confidence that they are, in fact, smart and capable and competent enough to thrive in the environment. You're ignorant about certain particulars, as anyone would be at this stage, and you're trying to bluster through to prove you're not stupid, and that's so fucking relatable.

ETA: Okay, you're correct that you have not gone "well, actually you're being Illogical" on everything. That was hyperbolic on my part. Sorry. But you're going that way anytime anyone gives you any pushback, and you're not the only one for whom it's tiresome.

Edited by Yogurt Baron
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CndnViking
  • Applicant
3 minutes ago, Yogurt Baron said:

This very post is the absolute epitome of the responding-to-everything-like-it's-an-LSAT-question phenomenon I'm describing.

Dude. Look literally one comment up. Or to the other example I already gave.

On the contrary, your opening line is the epitome of the distorted, exaggerating, response I asked politely to cut out.

I apologize if you get that impression from a handful of comments, but a) it's far from "everything", b) for every time you think I'm responding too critically or whatever there's bullshit like the comment that just came in that literally just exists to insult and belittle me, so yeah, maybe my patience has worn a bit thin, and I have less than normal tolerance for being misrepresented or picked at. Sorry, but also... I don't think that's unfair.

Edited by CndnViking
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