No doubt you’ve been put in the following position (probably several times a year): You’re at a party or family event, and a friend or relative approaches you with a simple legal question. They preface the question by telling you that it’s a minor situation so it won’t take you long to answer. Since it’s someone who trusts you and someone close to you, you don’t think twice about giving legal advice. In fact, you’re happy to do the favor and it feels good knowing you’re able to help them out. Not to mention, you really can respond quickly to their inquiry and save them some money in the process.
Providing legal advice like this can be very tempting for family members and close friends, but it could actually be quite damaging to you professionally. While your intentions are noble (we all want to help those closest to us), your actions might be harmful to you, your law firm and even to the person to whom you’re providing advice. Remember that, as an attorney, when you give legal advice, it can come back to haunt you. Even given casually, your legal opinion may be less thought-out than usual and not backed by the research you would typically conduct if a paying client requested it.
Furthermore, by providing informal, free legal advice like this to friends and relatives, you might be creating a conflict of interest for yourself by giving advice to a person who has not been through a “conflicts of interest” check first. Do you really want to put yourself in that potentially disastrous position? There are much better ways that you can help friends and family without putting yourself into harm’s way.
Paragon Underwriters reminds you that when asked a legal question by a friend, it may appear that you are merely giving advice to someone close to you, but you have to be aware when a relationship becomes a lawyer-client relationship. The minute this relationship is formed, lawyers are bound by the rules of their professional responsibility. The relationship begins when there is a mutual understanding that the client is going to confide in the lawyer and the lawyer is going to listen. The relationship may commence even if there is nothing in writing and even if no money has changed hands. Although there must be a mutual understanding that the client has engaged the lawyer and the lawyer has accepted representation, it is the lawyer’s responsibility to make it clear to the potential client when this has occurred, and when it has not. Defining the relationship with those seeking advice from the beginning can avoid confusion and ethical issues down the road. Providing casual legal advice to a family or friend can result in major legal liability, malpractice, or disciplinary action as the non-clients may have reasonably relied on the information given. Rather than put yourself at risk, make it clear to the non-client that though you are unable to offer them legal advice, you can refer them to legal resources intended to help those who maybe cannot afford representation.
Communication is key in these interactions. If a conversation is turning into professional work, it is the lawyer’s responsibility to either put a stop to it or make it clear that further discussion should take place in a more formal setting. Similarly, when the lawyer has no intention of representing a potential client, the lawyer has the responsibility to communicate that no lawyer-client relationship exists. It is also important to remember that if a family member or friend has a lawyer, you should resist the urge to give a “second opinion”. The fact is the other lawyer has spent a lot more time on the case than you and is familiar with a lot of facts that the person you’re speaking with may not have disclosed. Consider that before telling someone that you would handle a situation differently than that person’s lawyer.