In this episode, Wendy Calvert discusses what it means to have a “crossover” practice as a corporate consultant, real estate lawyer, and realtor. She explains where her clients come from, how she juggles her various roles, and how access to justice can still come into play for middle-class clients.
Wendy Calvert is a real estate attorney, business development consultant and realtor in Wisconsin and Illinois.
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Voiceover: Welcome to the Lawyerist Podcast with Sam Glover and Aaron Street. Each week, Lawyerist brings you advice and interviews to help you build a more successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Now, here are Sam and Aaron.
Sam Glover: Hi, I’m Sam Glover.
Aaron Street: And I’m Aaron Street, and this is Episode 121 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today we’re talking with realtor and real estate lawyer, Wendy Calvert, about having a crossover business where she’s sometimes a lawyer, sometimes a realtor, and sometimes a business consultant.
Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Ruby Receptionists and its smart, charming receptionists who are perfect for small firms. Visit callruby.com/lawyerist to get a risk-free trial with Ruby.
Aaron Street: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Spotlight Branding, which wants you to know that having a new website design for your law firm doesn’t have to suck. Spotlight Branding prides itself on great communication, meeting deadlines, and getting results. Text the word “website” to 66866 in order to receive a free website appraisal worksheet.
Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is sponsored by FreshBooks, which is ridiculously easy to use and packed with powerful features. Try it now at freshbooks.com/lawyerist and enter Lawyerist in the “How did you hear about us?” section.
Aaron Street: I briefly mentioned last week that you and I are speaking at the Minnesota State Bar Association Convention on June 15th at the Mall of America where we will be riding the rollercoaster, so please join us.
Sam Glover: Maybe we should record our next podcast from the rollercoaster.
Aaron Street: I think we should.
Sam Glover: Yeah, totally.
Aaron Street: As like a preview.
Sam Glover: Word. Let’s do it.
Aaron Street: Okay. We should really do this.
Sam Glover: Totally.
Aaron Street: Okay. Even just like a little snippet.
Sam Glover: Yeah.
Aaron Street: Yeah, okay.
Sam Glover: Look forward to that.
Aaron Street: We should. Probably not the next episode.
Sam Glover: All right.
Aaron Street: But soon.
Sam Glover: Yeah.
Aaron Street: Yes. Thank you.
Sam Glover: Lawyerist on the rollercoaster, coming up.
Aaron Street: Yes. But I digress. At the convention we will be presenting on some of the scams and hacks that can affect legal technology and lawyers and law firms. Apropos of that topic, one of our mutually favorite podcasts, called Reply All, their Episode 97 that aired this past week was all about phishing and it was super well done and super interesting. You should all listen to Reply All at least once just ‘cuz. But specifically listen to this episode because I think it is super relevant to the attitude a lot of lawyers develop around technology security threats and how to overcome them, which is I think a lot of lawyers think either A, not me, or B, what kind of idiot would press this button, click this link, give them this thing? The episode is all about how using social manipulation that even really smart, sophisticated people can be easily duped by the sophisticated tools that hackers are currently using.
Sam Glover: Yeah, the title is “What Kind of Idiot Gets Phished?” I admit, I am totally in the “only idiots get phished” camp and after listening to this one I still think only idiots get phished, but it was really illuminating for what-
Aaron Street: I don’t think that, for the record. If any of you have been phished, I’m on your side.
Sam Glover: Hey, man. Hubris is me, and I am hubris. First of all, Reply All is great. If you’re the kind of person who, like us, probably spends too much time on the internet, these are your people, right? That’s basically who these podcasters are. They’re a lot of fun to listen to, but this episode in particular, seriously, when they show you what phishing actually is when it’s done deliberately by somebody who knows what they’re doing it’s really the kind of thing that you would fall for. It’s pretty mind-boggling to me.
Aaron Street: Yep.
Sam Glover: Including how easy it is to get around two-factor authentication without stealing your phone, which is maybe the … That was the highlight of it for me.
Aaron Street: Yeah, that part I think in some senses is kind of the scariest which is like even if you’re actually following all of our best practices that we recommend to mostly bulletproof yourself, turns out, still some loose ends.
Sam Glover: Yeah. You should listen to Episode 97 of Reply All. It’s great. We’ll put the link in the show notes. You should do all of the security things we’ve recommended in our posts and guides and things, but in the end, you just have to be aware and vigilant and not do apparently not very dumb things.
Aaron Street: Right. We’re all screwed.
Sam Glover: Yeah, we’re all kind of screwed. I mean, it … Yeah.
Aaron Street: On that note …
Sam Glover: Nothing matters. On that note, let’s listen to Wendy Calvert, who we had a great conversation. Part of it is based on her practice and part of it is based on a conversation that sparked at the last TBD Law meeting. I think you’ll like it.
Aaron Street: A Lawyerist podcast where nothing matters.
Sam Glover: Where nothing matters. Except this conversation.
Wendy Calvert: Hi. I’m Wendy Calvert. I am a real estate attorney, and a corporate consultant and a realtor. I work in Wisconsin and Illinois helping small businesses, developers, real estate investors, and even just the basic mom and pop help to grow their businesses and find properties and assist them in whatever way I can as far as managing and maintaining their properties.
Sam Glover: You listed a few things there up at the front. You’re a corporate consultant, a realtor, and a real estate attorney. Did I get it all?
Wendy Calvert: Yes.
Sam Glover: Wow.
Wendy Calvert: Yes, you did.
Sam Glover: When you say corporate consultant, do you mean mostly to real estate corporations or just broadly?
Wendy Calvert: When I say that, a lot of times my real estate developers and my investors are setting up corporations. I help them with the incorporation documents, check and see what kind of corporation they really want to set up. Everybody comes with an idea of an LLC but sometimes they want an S-corp, a C-corp, so I kind of sit down and I talk to them about their business model from end to end.
Sam Glover: Got you. It is often related to real estate, even though it isn’t just real estate stuff.
Wendy Calvert: Absolutely. A lot of people start off small and then they end up in a much bigger arena than they expected, hopefully [crosstalk].
Sam Glover: I guess maybe our listeners aren’t all aware of this and I’m only vaguely aware, but the way a lot of property gets bought and sold, my understanding is you basically go and round up investors to invest in the property more or less like you would invest in a startup and the agreement may be that you own the property for a period of time or indefinitely. There’s an investment business that is the vehicle through which you buy the property. Do I have that right?
Wendy Calvert: Absolutely.
Sam Glover: Yeah. Then that business ends up going and hiring property managing companies and all that kind of stuff and it’s not just one person owning the building necessarily.
Wendy Calvert: Exactly. There’s normally multiple parties that come to the table to put together a deal and sometimes we run them through the LLC. When we do it that way, you end up getting maybe five or six, maybe eight people involved in it, depending on who’s involved and how it’s set up.
Sam Glover: Is the goal sometimes to flip the property or to fill it up and then sell it, or is the goal to maintain it indefinitely? Is one more prevalent than the other, I guess?
Wendy Calvert: It varies. It depends on the entrepreneurial goals, the investor, what they want to do with the properties. A lot of my investors want to fix and flip. They kind of run in the area of being contractors. My other investors tend to want to hold, and that’s in the area of being landlords and in that area, and then they’ll hold them and see exactly what the rental values are. Then a lot of it depends on the market. If the market is going up or down, they may want to hold it or they may want to sell it off. It’s a part of managing their overall portfolio.
Sam Glover: Where’s the market right now?
Wendy Calvert: In Chicago, here, it’s up. In Wisconsin it’s down and bottoming out and going back up slowly but surely.
Sam Glover: I guess when it bottoms up that’s kind of a good thing, right? Because there’s nowhere to go but up as long as you’ve actually found the bottom.
Wendy Calvert: Exactly, and that’s the question. Did we really find the bottom in Wisconsin? It depends on where you are. In Illinois it’s more stable, particularly in Chicago.
Sam Glover: You’re a realtor and a real estate attorney. Which came first?
Wendy Calvert: Actually, they came at the same time. I started studying for the real estate exam. My background was in corporate law as a corporate attorney and litigator, and then transitioned over to being a realtor and a real estate attorney at the same time because it allowed me a little bit of more of an entrepreneurial feel where I can actually do what I want to do. My goal was to, if I could not close a deal, I would be involved in the actual transaction and make a little bit of money as a realtor.
Sam Glover: Oh, okay. I feel like lots of successful lawyers have their side hustle. I’ve heard tell of a bankruptcy lawyer who runs an impound lot so that when his clients are declaring bankruptcy they put their car into the bankruptcy and they drive it to his impound lot and leave him the keys so that he can make a little extra money off the trustee on that end.
Wendy Calvert: Okay. It works that way sometimes in real estate.
Sam Glover: Yeah, I suppose so.
Wendy Calvert: A lot of my clients in real estate that I start off being their real estate attorney, later on they either can’t find the broker or they didn’t trust the broker or there’s an issue with the broker. They’ll come to me and they’ll be like, “Well, you did such a great job with the closing. Can you help us sell the property?”
Sam Glover: Got you. Wait, when you say broker do you also mean realtor?
Wendy Calvert: Yes.
Sam Glover: Okay.
Wendy Calvert: I’m sorry. That’s kind of [inaudible 00: 09: 42].
Sam Glover: No, this is one of those things that I … When I was buying my first house … I’m a lawyer, my wife’s a lawyer. We felt like we knew nothing about anything during that entire process. I’m curious, what’s the difference between a … A real estate agent and a realtor, are they the same thing or are they different things?
Wendy Calvert: The realtor’s actually the national designation. Anybody can be a real estate broker. You’re not necessarily automatically a realtor. A realtor is the trademark and the formal name.
Sam Glover: Oh, okay. You said something there that I guess I should’ve known about you but I didn’t. You used to be a corporate lawyer and litigator. Was that at a small firm or at a big firm, or how did that work, and how did you end up doing your own thing?
Wendy Calvert: I started off with a corporation, so I was the corporate in-house counsel for an insurance company. We managed litigation throughout the Midwest. Then I decided I wanted to try cases, so I moved over to being captive counsel with another insurance company and I tried cases for about four or five years, and then I became an insurance and litigation consultant with LexisNexis, which is a media corporation.
Sam Glover: Yeah. Then, one day you decide, “You know, I want to go open my own firm and become a realtor”?
Wendy Calvert: Well, yes and no. My position at LexisNexis was eliminated, thankfully. My entire team was laid off. We had a major product supposed to launch. It didn’t launch, and it pretty much took out my entire team and an entire division. I was left with either go back to a law firm, go back to a corporation, or use the money that I got to just start off and do something that I really wanted to do. That was into real estate and owning my own firm.
Sam Glover: It’s just you, isn’t it?
Wendy Calvert: So far, yes.
Sam Glover: You don’t have staff.
Wendy Calvert: I have a virtual assistant.
Sam Glover: Okay. How long ago did all this happen, that you went out on your own?
Wendy Calvert: 2012. I started with a couple of partners and then some of them fell away and then got other partners and working with affiliate firms. That’s what I’ve been doing a lot of.
Sam Glover: Okay. You know, it’s interesting. Lots of law students find themselves in the position of not being able to get the job they want and so they start a firm because they don’t have any other choice, but you did it after years of actually practicing and litigating and having a lot of experience. One of the things I think about is when you … Lots of people want to know if they go right out of law school are they going to be able to start their own firm, and it’s really hard to learn how to run a business and practice law at the same time. I’m curious, you already knew quite a lot about practicing law, even if you were switching practice areas. Do you think that made it easier for you to pick up running a firm, or do you think that it didn’t really help?
Wendy Calvert: It was much easier because I had the experience being a corporate lawyer understanding how corporations worked, so that helped me a lot. Although we don’t necessarily practice what we learn, so it took me about a year to get everything perfected. I would say in the long run it was easier because I understood things and could see it in a different way than just someone launching their career as a lawyer and being an independent or just being a fellow practitioner. You do have to understand how a business works in order to do this. If not, it’s going to be extremely difficult.
Sam Glover: You mentioned a minute ago that you work in I think you said partnerships with other firms. Tell me about that.
Wendy Calvert: Yes. When I got started as a solo, the problem with being a solo is that you don’t normally have people that you can rely on in your office. I used to be in a big corporation where you could just walk over to somebody else’s office and say, “Hey, I got this issue. Let’s talk about it,” but as a solo practitioner you don’t have that. So what I did is started talking to other solo practitioners and other small firms and finding people who had different levels of expertise than I did.
If somebody knows something about … Oh, I had a client who came to me with a patent issue. I don’t know patents. I know maybe the basics, so then I had to kind of start working with other firms giving them those cases or either offering to give them half the fee if they would help train me and work with me through that particular issue with the permission of the client. Right now I work with a firm up … Or if you’re out of state. I work with a firm up in Wisconsin. I’m licensed there, but I’m inactive, so that means I’ve got to partner with another firm so if issues come up they have to do the work and I can’t be directly involved in it. The same with St. Louis.
Sam Glover: Oh, so you work down in Missouri as well.
Wendy Calvert: Yes. I have an affiliate firm that I work with down in Missouri as well.
Sam Glover: Which reminds me, I should probably mention that you came to our second meeting of TBD Law last year, which is how we met.
Wendy Calvert: Yes, yes. I hear the third one is opening up, so I’m excited.
Sam Glover: Yeah, no. We’re just taking applications for it, and so I guess hopefully everybody will excuse me if I plug it for a moment and just say go to lawyerist.com/tbdlaw if you want to know what the heck we’re talking about. If it strikes your fancy and it seems like something you’d be interested in, please apply. You have to apply, or you won’t get there. But we want you to apply if you think you’d be interested. Sorry for that digression.
Wendy Calvert: No, no. It was an ama … That helped me help focus on what I wanted to do in my practice.
Sam Glover: Well, what is-
Wendy Calvert: I had an idea, but it helped my focus.
Sam Glover: What is that? Tell us.
Wendy Calvert: Well, before I was kind of like, “Well, maybe I’ll work with the investors, maybe I’ll go out and chase some deals.” I wasn’t really focused on what my firm meant because a lot of people were saying, “Well, just be a realtor. Don’t be both.” But I am a lawyer, so I like being a lawyer. I like helping people. So I had to find a way to mix those two things together without encroaching upon what I was doing with the other one, if that makes sense.
Sam Glover: Yeah, it does. You feel like you found a good balance now.
Wendy Calvert: Yes. After talking to everybody, because we did days of just kind of going through and working on issues that were arising in our firms, how were people doing things differently. There were a lot of creative ideas in the room. I was able to take some of that back to me. As a matter of fact, I’m looking at some of our charts that I’ve pinned on my wall that I can walk past that gives me the ideas of what never to do, what works, what doesn’t work, things like that, and been able to narrow down my focus considerably.
Sam Glover: What are some of the things on your things never to do or things that don’t work list?
Wendy Calvert: I’m looking at litigation hard. I like litigation, I like the fact that I can do litigation, but I’m really counseling my clients to be more adverse to litigation or to avoid it or how to be more proactive and stay away from litigation because it’s a hard road once you get in there and it costs a lot of money and you don’t necessarily get what you want in the long run.
Sam Glover: Yeah. I think as a lawyer, too, it’s often really beneficial to say to your clients, “Look, I love litigation. I’m not counseling you to stay out of this mess because I don’t want to do it. This is me like a pig in shit, right? This is my favorite thing. I love litigation. But I don’t think you ought to do it because it’s not in your best interest.” I think that’s a little bit more persuasive than if your client starts thinking that you’re afraid of it or something.
Wendy Calvert: Exactly, exactly. Because I’m like, “I can do it. I have no problem going to court. The question is how”-
Sam Glover: You’re like, “Hold me back.”
Wendy Calvert: … How much money do you have, and how long do you really want to take to do this? Because Cook County has one of the longest dockets in the nation, so it’s not like we’re going to sue today and we’re going to get a court date tomorrow. That’s not going to happen.
Sam Glover: We need to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors, and when we come back I want to talk about your unique perspective on access to justice, because you’re not serving the poorest of the poor, but it comes up a lot in your clientele and just in the work that you do. In fact, at TBD Law you and I were both in a group that was discussing access to justice and I kept writing things down that Wendy Calvert had talked about, so I want to bring that up after the break. We’ll be back in just a moment.
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Okay, we’re back. Wendy, maybe when I mentioned access to justice people were like, “What? She does real estate,” which pretty much defines the middle class is when you start owning property, that’s when one indicator of how you get into the middle class, I think. Tell me about that. How does access to justice come up in your practice, then?
Wendy Calvert: A lot of times, and I always tell people you take your client where you find them. My clients are all over the board. I might have an investor trying to invest millions of dollars, and then I might have a mom and pop looking to just get a rental property. A lot of times I end up dealing with people in the middle class who are business owners. They’re either business owners because they choose to be business owners or because they accidentally become a business owner when they become a landlord. A lot of … Yeah.
Sam Glover: I’m involved in a landlord-tenant organization in the Twin Cities and so I know what you’re talking about, but I bet to most people the idea that somebody has accidentally become a business owner because they became a landlord is kind of a weird concept. How does that actually look when that comes up?
Wendy Calvert: Well, what happens is they get the property, they got this great idea, they get a property, they get a two-flat, three-flat, they rent it out, and then they got tenants. Then they got tenants who won’t leave, then they got tenants who won’t pay, then they got tenants who will bring in a dog. You name it, it happens. Then they’ve got to go ahead and then step up and then evict the tenant. Then you’re dealing with more of the business side of it. You’ve got to be able to allocate funds that you now were getting for payment of rent and you’ve got to sue them, you’ve got to put them out. A lot of times what I’m trying to to do if I’m working with my clients to counsel them to set up everything as a business so that the business assets and liabilities are separate from your personal assets. A lot of people, they don’t understand it.
Sam Glover: Yeah, and sometimes you can’t evict someone unless you’ve actually properly, you’re licensed and everything. In Minneapolis you’re not allowed to collect rent if you haven’t gone through the licensing process, and tenants can actually demand it back. I think that’s even part of the model landlord-tenant code. It’s not settled whether or not tenants can get the money out of the landlord in that case, but some of us certainly think that’s what it says. It’s interesting. Yeah, the idea that you are accidentally a business owner and you don’t just get to collect rent, it happens all the time, constantly, because landlords are just people who …
Wendy Calvert: Yes.
Sam Glover: I have a-
Wendy Calvert: It’s a great idea.
Sam Glover: I have a classmate who became a landlord because he decided to keep his first house and just start renting it out and that kind of thing happens all the time.
Wendy Calvert: Right. Then a lot of them, they won’t set up the business first. They set up the business after the fact. What I try to counsel my landlords to do, you want to set up your business model to keep it separate from your personal assets so that you can manage it accordingly and you can understand what it is you’re getting from this business venture and what you’re not. Then you want to keep it clean and separate for tax purposes.
Sam Glover: Landlord carries a lot of different connotations with people, but one of them is wealthy. It sounds like what you’re saying is that that’s not necessarily right. I know this to be true because I’m in this world, but landlords are often struggling just as much as their tenants are.
Wendy Calvert: Right. The thing about it is, though, there’s an opportunity there where they actually could be rich. They could be millionaires if they managed it accordingly-
Sam Glover: Or at least comfortable.
Wendy Calvert: … but if they don’t manage it as a … Yeah, exactly. If they don’t manage it as a business up front, that’s when they start losing money. I have landlords, and for some reason, who won’t do a basic background check, who won’t get their clients to sign an actual lease. Those things are important when they take the security deposit. In Cook County you have to put it in a separate account. If you commingle the money that’s in the security deposit, they don’t realize that that is the tenant’s money. That is not their money, and that distinction itself can get them in trouble.
Sam Glover: It sounds like how this plays into the access to justice idea is that you’ve got landlords coming to you who are, they have lots of assets, they almost certainly don’t qualify for legal aid, but they’re also going to have trouble paying your fee. What do you do about that, and how do you think the system is overlooking them?
Wendy Calvert: What I normally try to do is be more proactive. When I have landlords that come to me, I try to find out exactly what their business model is and how they’re setting it up. I think a lot of it goes to that. If you don’t think of it as a business up front, that’s when you’re going to have issues. Then I’ll try to work with them to make sure that the things that happen that will undermine them or cost them more money don’t happen.
Sam Glover: Are you reducing your fees as well to represent them?
Wendy Calvert: Yes. There’s a couple models. Some of my landlords are very well versed and understand the court very well so for them I might just go ahead and prepare the document for the reduced fee, and then they can go and do their own court appearances as long as they’re not a corporation. Others, I might reduce the fee if they’re a long-term client and they’ve got a lot of different properties, they’re doing this on a regular basis, I will reduce my fee. Then others, I will actually reduce my fee if they do have the opportunity to do something for free or get a reduced amount. Sometimes they just need somebody to point them in the right direction and then at that point in time I will work with them on that level as well.
You have to take people when you find them. Not everybody has a lot of money, and the understanding that I had after we talked in the group that we had is that people in the middle class may not have a lot of money, but there’s more of them. What if you as an attorney could actually reach more people? If you can reach more people and help more people, then you shouldn’t have to charge an arm and a leg to do something that’s very basic and something that people can do every day. They just need a little bit of help and pointing them in the right direction. You could actually charge them a lower fee.
Sam Glover: It sounds like you’ve expanded your billing toolbox, but you’ve also expanded your idea of what that means, right? For one landlord you might do a limited scope representation where you’re preparing documents but you’re not selling them the whole package of services, the top to bottom representation. Then in other cases, you’re almost making an investment in that person or that business where you’re doing it for a lower fee up front in hopes that if you shore up the business by making it more successful, helping them have better practices, teaching them what they need to know to get the job done and collect the rent, they might become a better client down the road. Then, in some cases, it sounds like you’re really relying on the holisticness of the system where if you put in good will and you’re willing to do good work and you rely on it coming back to you.
Wendy Calvert: Exactly, exactly. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but overall I think it works more than it doesn’t work. I mean, there are some people who are going to take advantage but I don’t really take that as such a negative because I’m doing what I like to do and I’m doing it without anyone else giving me rules or regulations. My clients appreciate it, and most of my clients, they stay with me.
Sam Glover: I guess to maybe tie that up in a bow, I can’t remember exactly how our conversation led to this, but I had written down in my notebook that many firms do access to justice in the same way that they, say, do diversity or do artificial intelligence. They want to pay lip service to those things because they look good on the firm profile or on the proposals that you’re making to clients that care about those things and they aren’t really taking the time to dig in and figure out how to really make a difference.
In some cases, for example, helping one client at a time makes a difference for that person but it doesn’t really alter the system, or only representing the poorest of the poor, not to say somebody is higher or lower priority, but if you think about your landlord clients, for example, they’re not the poorest of the poor but they’ve crawled out of legal aid eligibility only to be told, “Now here’s a giant expense that you need to undertake to move to the next level.” There’s a lot more going on, I guess, is the wrap-up.
Wendy Calvert: Exactly. There is a lot more to it. That’s why I try to stay in that area, because there is a lot of opportunities to just help people help themselves and help, not necessarily resolve it all the way, but at least put a dent in it. I don’t think with the larger firm I had the opportunity to really do that. I had the opportunity to do programs and talk to people at a higher level, but I didn’t have the opportunity to really touch people and sit down with them face to face and try to come up with a resolution that works specifically for them.
Sam Glover: Where do your clients come from? Do you get a lot of word of mouth? Do you do online advertising? Where’s the biggest source?
Wendy Calvert: The biggest source is referrals and other people I’ve worked with, other attorneys, a lot of the affiliates that I work with. Then I do subscribe to [inaudible], so I have a small [inaudible] account, so every now and then I’ll get clients through that, which is good. That supplements what I’m doing. Then a lot of networking. It’s really all about relationships and actually talking to people and meeting people where you find them.
Sam Glover: It seems like that might be especially true in real estate, where your clients have the ability to refer other clients, is my guess.
Wendy Calvert: Yes, and that happens all the time.
Sam Glover: Yeah, especially if you’ve shored up a business maybe at a discounted fee and turned somebody into a success. I bet they’re going to listen to the person that helped them get there.
Wendy Calvert: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Sam Glover: Well, Wendy, thank you so much for being with us today and talking about your practice. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Wendy Calvert: Same here. Thank you so much.
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Sam Glover: The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said during this podcast is legal advice.