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How to Avoid Accidental Lawyer-Client Relationships

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on December 24, 2015 12:15 PM

Now that the holidays are upon us, no doubt family and friends have taken this opportunity to descend upon you like a cloud of locusts looking to mooch legal advice. It's inevitable.

A casual comment about the nature of law is one thing, but then actually giving advice is entirely another. Doing the latter will almost certainly implicate the attorney-client relationship (ACR).

Suggestions to Avoid and Accidental Attorney-Client Relationship

  • Stick to What you Know: You graduated, you passed the bar, and now you're working at a PI firm. Suddenly, Aunt Susie is asking you about suing her broker because she thinks he cheated her. Remember -- you're a Personal Injury attorney. Giving actual legal advice without knowing what you're talking about just opens you up to more potential problems. If you're going to be sued for malpractice, at least let it be for your area of focus.
  • Stick to your Jurisdiction: Resist the temptation to give legal advice to those outside of your jurisdiction. The laws can differ wildly, as can the ethics. California is a community property state and New Jersey is not. If you didn't know that, you could have gotten yourself in trouble.
  • "I'm a Lawyer, Just Not Yours": This statement will certainly make you no friends. But this is a precaution that is probably very reasonable. If you make it painfully clear to the moocher/would-be-client that although you're a lawyer, you're not theirs, it will force them to think very clearly about how they wish to proceed with you. In that way, you can argue for an understanding that no ACR began until you presented the client with a letter, and she signed it.
  • Follow-up in Writing: If there is any question that your friend or family member will run off and rely on your casual advice, try and do some damage control and follow-up in writing. It should point out that the advice you gave did not form an ACR, and that it was merely a general comment on the nature of the legal issue. From the start, you characterize your "advice" as not actual legal-advice -- because it wasn't. Advise the family member that she should go seek legal counsel ASAP in her jurisdiction. Although this sounds over the top, it at least covers you.
  • Avoid Advice Entirely -- Unless: You could just avoid talking shop with your family and friends entirely. Non-lawyers have no idea just how precarious the relationship can be between a lawyer and potential client. Unless your family and friends actually want to sit down and form a mutually recognized attorney-client relationship, maybe it's best this holiday season to talk less and enjoy your time with them not as clients, but as family.

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