Separating the Personal from the Professional

While everyone is happy to have a lawyer in the family, it’s not always the easiest task to deal with a client who is part of the family.  Everyone seems to have a legal questoin that needs answering or a quandary that needs solving.  I have had a respite from this in the last few years although I have had friends inquiring about immigration procedures, etc.  Having had to go through some of the INS proceedings myself, I speak from personal experience and have always summed up my advice with the admonition to try to do things on their own for as long as they are not required representation.  Legal costs can be a heavy burden and are totally unnecessary in some instances, particularly where one is merely switching from one legal status or another.  But that’s another blogpost and I’m not predisposed to dispense free legal advice here.  So back to what I was writing about..

When I married Alan, I didn’t know that there were a lot of legal issues involving inheritances on both sides.  In the last six years, I have gotten a better picture of what happened, what cases are currently in which courts, and I have only given advice when asked.  I find that being a stranger marrying into the family, it was prudent to stand back and just wait for the advice to be sought.  I didn’t want any good intentions to be misconstrued as vested interest in something which, if it benefits me at all, will do so only tangentially.

I had tried to refer one case to a friend in Manila who, for one reason or the other, failed to deliver on the promised assessment, and I can’t blame my in-laws for then withdrawing from any further consultation so to speak.  Alan and I would have occasion to speak with my mother-in-law and I would speak out when she asked my opinion, but it became a thorn in what was already a brewing gap between Alan and my then sister-in-law.  (I say “then” because she has effectively disowned the family — Alan and my mother-in-law, and has stated in very clear terms she never treated me as part of the family.)

Even when I saw a reconciliation between siblings who had not spoken for over 20 years, and I met cousins, aunts and nephews and nieces on my mother-in-law’s side I had never met until recently, I stood back.  Alan would consult me actively — but I spoke to him only, avoiding giving any unsolicited advice to my mother-in-law and her sister who is here in New York, too.

I had my opinion about how things should be done, but unless I was asked, I did not venture giving my two cents’ worth.  Again, I do not want to be overly interested in a matter which I am a third party to.  An uncle involved in the matter is a lawyer, too.  The other day, I was talking to him on the phone on a matter regarding the settlement of some arrears of the estate.  He was trying to relay to me his frustration about how the response time was so slow and he had not heard anything from the two siblings here in New York.  I explained to him that much as I would want to aggressively pursue the matter with my mother-in-law, I can only give suggestions but I cannot take control.  I told him he knows I’m a third party here, and I take my mother-in-law’s lead.

It would be different of course if my mother-in-law was a stranger who was just a client.  Then I can put my foot down and give my advice without fear of being judged to be interested in the proceeds.  I spoke with my mother-in-law’s sister and struck some sensitivities which now has put me in an awkward position.  My mother-in-law wanted me to explain the situation to her although I would have preferred not to have had to do that.  The long and short of it is, the messenger got shot in the process.

So how do you separate the personal from the professional when you’re dispensing professional advice to a family member?  It’s a thin line that you have to tread cautiously — much as I would want to just stand back, I cannot avoid answering the query.  And in the same light, much as I would want to give good advice, I have to spell it out even if it’s not what they want to hear.  One of the hazards of the profession, I guess.


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