Everyone Is A Lawyer

We lawyers think of ourselves as special. Overcoming all the obstacles that stood between us and a license to practice makes us feel that way. That’s why it’s common for lawyers to get rather upset about the idea that there are people out there doing lawyer stuff without a card that says “holder may do lawyer stuff.”

But laypersons (your potential clients) don’t see lawyers, or the law, the way you do. And that’s probably costing you clients.

One example of these different perspectives is reflected by Unauthorized Practice of Law statutes. Of course, you’ll never hear a lawyer say that UPLs are a matter of protecting turf or fees. Heavens, no. They are all about protecting the public.

But laypersons don’t see it that way, because, really, everybody’s a lawyer, even if they don’t know it. In the broad sense, non-lawyers give legal advice every day, all day. In fact, most people regularly do something at work that comes close to what could rationally be compared to lawyering.

There’s a law for that

I used to work in hazardous waste management in Silicon Valley. When I wasn’t emptying a chemistry lab of its contents while trying to avoid blowing myself up, I was at my desk pondering the delightful tomes created courtesy of DOT, OSHA, and EPA. Rather dry, but important, because my job was to say to my clients customers, “the law says you need to do X, Y, and Z with this dangerous stuff.”

Your auto mechanic schools you on your car’s warranty. Your tax preparer is a tax code geek. The guy building your new garage ensures you don’t violate the law regarding permits. And everybody seems to know how to avoid getting arrested. Or not. Think of your own examples—it’s kind of fun.

Some professions, like accounting, real estate, and insurance are in many ways law jobs. So if you read a typical UPL statute, those types of jobs are specifically exempted. Those professions vigorously defend their exceptions (translation: they lobby legislators).

And criminal prosecutions for UPL are rare. Google it; it’s not an impressively long list, and the people on it are largely disbarred ex-lawyers who kept practicing, or people who were in fact telling people they were lawyers when they weren’t. Why are there so few prosecutions? Read the UPL for your state, then imagine you are a district attorney facing re-election next year. Is this where you’d spend your time?

So the lawyer thinks of the law as the realm of lawyers. But the layperson doesn’t. The layperson thinks of lawyers as the people you have to pay a lot of money if you have a particular problem, like your spouse wants a divorce, or you’ve been charged with a serious crime, or you are bankrupt. (And of course lots of people with these problems can’t afford a lawyer; some wind up representing themselves, often to disastrous effect.) But most legal issues don’t have, to a layperson, that “you must get a lawyer” vibe.

Drop the “Esquire” and back away

What does this all mean to you? First, it means that potential clients see you as a necessary evil, not as a savior. They need you to fix a problem for them, just as they need a roofer to fix a leaky roof. And you should probably keep all this in mind when you market yourself. When you talk to a potential client, listen to the words coming out of your mouth and consider them from that person’s perspective. Ask friends who are non-lawyers to google some lawyer websites and give you their impressions. Ask them how yours might stand out from the crowd. I strongly suspect that they may advise you to drop the “esquire, attorney, and counselor-at-law” language and get rid of those photos of law books, gavels, and courthouses. That’s your view of the law, not theirs.

(image: alphabet, lawyer from Shutterstock)


  1. Avatar Ricardo Barrera says:

    Remember the line from the 1965 film, Cat Ballou – ” They’re trying to drive him off his ranch! They put manure in his well, they made him talk to lawyers…”

  2. Avatar John Smith says:

    Sorry if this isn’t the right place to post this, but I wanted to point out that for a while now on every post I get this vertical “share” bar that cuts right into the text I am trying to view. There’s no obvious way to remove it, and it obscures the text you are trying to read, even as you scroll downwards.
    I am an avid Lawyerist reader.

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