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The Jewish Ethicist - Costly Advice

The Jewish Ethicist - Costly Advice

Professionals are entitled to recompense for their advice.


Q.Recently I went to a public lecture by a known lawyer. At the end of the lecture he gave out his e-mail and offered to answer questions. When I sent him a draft contract I want to sign, he sent me back his comments plus a hefty bill. Do I have to pay?

A. There is a stereotype that people are wary of asking lawyers even casual legal questions, such as at a cocktail party, fearful they might get a bill the next day. Perhaps lawyers themselves are grateful for this wariness, so that they can enjoy themselves at cocktail parties without feeling they are on a "busman's holiday".

While charging for cocktail-party banter may be a bit excessive, when a lawyer or any professional is approached for actual professional advice, they are allowed to assume that they will be paid for their services according to the going rate. When you take your car to the garage you may expect an estimate, but if for some reason you don't get one, you don't expect them to fix your car free. Likewise, if you ask specific advice from a lawyer, medical professional, public relations representative or any other person who gets paid for his or her advice, it is proper for them to specify that they are working for pay and to state what the rate is. But even if they don't do so, they have a right to be paid for their work.

This principle is illustrated in a few examples in the Talmud. In one place, we learn that if a person does uninvited field work in someone else's field, and it can be shown that the owner routinely hires this kind of work and so the efforts of the "interloper" (usually this is due to an honest mistake) saved him money, then the worker must be paid even though he was not hired. (1).

In another case, a person invited an acquaintance to dwell in his house for a period of time. The "guest" was surprised when the "host" demanded rental payment, but the court upheld the claim of the host; a person who offers to put someone up for an extended period of time is assumed to be doing so on a commercial basis. (2)

The authoritative Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles) sums the law as follows: "Any person who does an action or favor for his fellow, [the beneficiary] cannot claim, you did it as a favor since I didn't ask you. Rather, he must give him his pay." (3)

In your case you actually did ask the lawyer to do the work for you, so certainly he is entitled to pay.

It seems that you were misled by this lawyer's offer for people to write him with questions. Most likely the intention was general questions relating directly to the topic of the lecture, not substantive legal advice like reviewing a draft contract. Another possibility is that the lecture was given free with the explicit intention of drumming up business, and the call for questions was no more than an offer of services for pay.

Given the potential for misunderstanding, and the general obligation for a proper meeting of the minds in any commercial deal, it would have been proper for the lawyer to advise you of his fee schedule before undertaking the work. However, now that the work is done he has to take responsibility for it like regular professional work, and you have to pay for it according to the same standard.

In general, if you have work that is typically done through a paid professional, it is inappropriate to try and find someone who will do it free, unless you are particularly needy and are asking a person to do the work pro bono because of your special situation. I frequently get letters from professionals complaining that friends, neighbors and even strangers are constantly pressuring them to give free advice. Most of these people are already struggling to succeed and are not in any position to be giving distributing their services free of charge.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 101a. (2) Jerusalem Talmud Bava Metzia chapter 5 mishna 8 halacha 1. (3) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 264:4. See also Ran commentary on Ketubot 107b.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

August 30, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Feigele, September 13, 2008 7:45 PM

Caveat Emptor!

This is the world we live in today! Caveat Emptor! Everyone (or almost everyone) should be aware today that there is no free lunch. Both parties in this case were deceiving. One didn’t warn the people about its fees and the other one took advantage of the situation. In our eyes, they are both cunning people, and someone has to pay for it. I’m sure the lawyer didn’t expect people to send him contracts to look over for free when giving his email address. His invitation was a business card and everyone knows what that means. Like they say, work and pleasure don’t mix! My husband is an architect and everywhere we go, there is always someone asking for advices. He will always offer his opinion, but would never send a bill. There are certain circumstances when you have to discuss fees. If someone invites somebody to stay in their house, they should make a point of discussing for how long and bring up the possibility of a charge if staying longer than the anticipated period. You cannot expect someone to do free work as you cannot expect someone to pay if not notified of a charge for services.

(5) ruth housman, September 3, 2008 5:25 PM

drawing the line

This is an interesting question and I am sure so many people have encountered the dilemma of professional advice that is solicited in an "unprofessional environment" meaning among friends, or quite outside the office. I was offended when an architect who was a dear friend of a friend, came to visit, enjoyed our poolside celebrations, and gave us some off the cuff advice about renovations we were were considering. He charged for his advice and we paid, but I felt this was wrong, that this had not been set up as a business engagement, and that this was preparatory to our maybe or maybe not hiring him, but it was in friendship. There is a line. I do think those professionals who feel they need to be paid should be totally up front about this, even when the occasion appears to be outside "regular business contractual arrangements". I am a therapist. I consider that what I do in life is therapy all the time, and I don't go around charging for my professional advice among friends or others who seek me out in a non professional environment. Certainly if I feel what's coming at me requires a lot of professional study, diagnosis and a treatment stratagem, including perhaps medications. I will say this, up front. Usually it's about mental illness in general ways and I have no trouble giving information. Yes, it's a boundary we do often cross, in all of our lives. I believe in giving and I do not charge for what I do for love, not generally. We all certainly need to earn a living. It's a fine line sometimes and we need to know our boundaries and to expect others to respect them.

(4) ez, September 3, 2008 1:28 AM


BEWARE, nina, you may receive a bill shortly, for asking questions. In fact, after reading this, i may send you a bill.

(3) Shimon Yaakov, September 2, 2008 2:58 PM

Don't mix professional and personal

Thanks for your article. I work as a psychotherapist. If I meet people socially, I am often reluctant to mention this, because they inevitably want to tell me their troubles! I have learned through bitter experience that being clear is the best bet: I never chat to people informally about their or other people's problems, but I say what I charge and ask them to ring me in working hours. This approach has avoided the sort of mis-communication that has happened here, which often ends up with bad feelings all round.

(2) Anonymous, September 1, 2008 6:11 AM

not sure

i thought the jewish ethicist was right in his interpretation because, taking nina's examples one at a time: it is not USUAL for someone to come mow your lawn unless a mutual agreement is in place. with respect to an invitation followed by a bill like the lawyer did in the original situation, altho he may have been a bit ambiguous (and maybe even intentionally which would certainly be less than noble), the person seeking services should be mensch enough to realize that if he got something for free that would normally be billed he is guilty of being less than forthright himself, no? the other situations which nina brings up seem to have more to do with how each of us behaves in all aspects of our lives rather than acknowledging each other's needs. in other words, paying some of the groceries could be the "tip", while the circumstances may or may not warrant some money going toward rent or utilities. even though in a particular situation services or companionship can be given just for the sake of kindness, we have to assume otherwise and offer to pay for the sake of our own sense of what would be right.

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