Avoid the Problem of Unintended Representation

By Cynthia Sharp, The Sharper Lawyer

Attorney client relationships are still by and large developed in the traditional manner – in person and in an attorney’s office. However, prospective client relationships and the accompanying obligations set forth in Indiana Rule of Professional Conduct 1.18 also may now arise via e-mail, websites and other electronic means. An attorney’s duty to a prospective client includes maintaining confidentiality, avoiding conflicts and pursuing the case.

In recognition of the potential that an attorney/client relationship may be formed without an in person meeting, the ABA House of Delegates amended Model Rule of Professional Conduct (MRPC) 1.18 (a) in August of 2012 to provide:  “A person who consults with a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client.”

Comment 2 outlines the factors to consider in determining whether a communication (electronic, oral, written, in person or otherwise) constitutes a consultation and gives rise to ethical duties:

  • Whether the lawyer encouraged or solicited inquiries about a proposed representation (as opposed to just posting general information on the website);
  • Whether the person encountered any warnings or cautionary statements that were intended to limit, condition, waive or disclaim the lawyer’s obligations;
  • Whether those warnings or cautionary statements were clear and reasonably understandable
  • Whether the lawyer acted or communicated in a manner that was contrary to the warnings or cautionary statements

Attorney websites inviting inquiries from potential clients need to have a disclaimer posted adjacent to the inquiry form; otherwise, the problem of unintended representation may arise. As a matter of curiosity, I randomly reviewed websites of 5 Indiana law firms and found 4 of them to be deficient in this regard. (Don’t despair – it seems that the majority of smaller firms nationwide haven’t yet posted protective language.) Take a look at your inquiry form and if it does not have a disclaimer, feel free to use the following language:

Sample Disclaimer for Inquiry Forms on Websites:

“The use of the Internet or this form for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be sent through this form.”

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Cynthia Sharp (cindy@thesharperlawyer.com) is Director of Attorney Development at The Sharper Lawyer located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  As a professional CLE instructor and attorney business coach, Cindy has established a national presence as an author and speaker on topics of ethics in the context of practice management, social media and technology – lecturing extensively to law firms, bar associations and other legal organizations.

Ms. Sharp’s Indianapolis and Merrillville seminar, Strategies for Taking Charge of Your Law Practice, has been completed however, you can still view the Video Replay or the Online/On Demand Seminar by Clicking Here.

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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