“Oh, you’re a lawyer? Let me ask you something real quick…” Have you ever heard these simple words at a party or other casual situation? I’ve been a licensed attorney for about ten months and I get it all the time. The questions can be harmless, easy questions, or they can be complex legal matters. Either way, they pose dangerous ethical pitfalls. Say the wrong thing and you could open yourself up to professional reprimand or even a malpractice suit down the line. We’ve told you before about how to avoid the largest malpractice issues. But turning somebody away who wants your advice can be plain awkward. With these tips you can avoid most of the social awkwardness and hopefully all of the potential liability.
Use those Business Cards
When a legal question comes up in casual conversation, it’s a great time to pull out your versatile business cards. Explain to the person that any advice you give them, based on only a few facts, is worthless. In fact, the advice could be worse than worthless, it could be harmful. When you explain it that way and tell the person to drop you an e-mail with more information, it makes sense. A quick answer won’t help them, so why should they want one?
Defer to Your Own Inexperience
The problem with a casual legal question is that like state bar examiners, lay people believe lawyers know about all areas of the law. This is, of course, inaccurate. For example, I know almost nothing about civil law. If it doesn’t involve the crimes code, I’m pretty much in the dark. This is a terrific excuse. If you explain to someone that you don’t practice personal injury, they shouldn’t want your advice on what to do after their car crash. The best advice you can give them is to go talk to a personal injury lawyer. By making it clear that they’ll be doing themselves more harm than good, you’ll convince them that pressing you for an answer is fruitless.
Bring them in for a Meeting
Sometimes casual questions come up that you can and should answer. You may have met a potential client. Nonetheless, your spouse’s office Christmas party still isn’t the time to discuss the intimate details of the case. Let the person know that you want to discuss their issue more thoroughly in the privacy of your office. In this situation a short answer may be appropriate, but make it clear that they need to come in and sit down to really figure out their legal issue.
Clarity is Key
No matter how you handle these casual legal questions, one thing must be clear: you are not that person’s attorney. Evan Loeffler explained the exact situation you don’t want to find yourself in. Loeffler did not make it clear to someone that he was not their attorney. Several months later, a court contacted him because the man was claiming Loeffler represented him. It’s better to be clear about the existence of an attorney—client relationship (or lack thereof) than risk ramifications down the road.