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