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Avoiding the accidental client: What lawyers need to know

If you've been a lawyer for a long time, you probably already know that just about anybody can become an accidental client. However, new attorneys often aren't familiar with this concept.

Stumbling into an accidental lawyer-client relationship probably happens more often than you realize. You need to learn how to handle yourself at family gatherings, parties and other social events if you want to avoid a malpractice charge or an ethics complaint to the state or local bar association.

Here are some tips you can use the next time a friend or relative asks for legal advice:

1. Try to avoid the whole topic.

Imagine someone starts with, "Hey, I have a question about the law. Maybe you could answer it?" You can make it a lot easier on yourself by saying something like, "I don't like to 'talk shop' outside of the office. No offense, but this is my time off." You won't be the most popular party guest, but it will keep your license safe.

2. Point out that there's no privacy.

If you can't bring yourself to flatly deny a friend or family member's request for help, try pointing out that legal matters should always be discussed in private. Without an expectation of privacy, you wouldn't be doing them any favors. Suggest they call you and set up an appointment if they need advice.

3. Decline to comment outside of your specialty or jurisdiction.

If the other person blurts out the question before you can refuse, listen carefully to see if it even involves your specialty or jurisdiction. If it doesn't, explain that you can't comment because they're asking about a criminal matter and you handle bankruptcy law or they want to know about Texas law and you practice in California. That's an easy way out of the conversation.

4. Advise them to seek legal counsel.

What if you already slipped up and made a comment that could -- however vaguely -- be construed as legal advice? Immediately point out that your comment isn't meant to be legal advice and that they should take the issue to an attorney -- privately -- right away. Follow it up with a letter stating that after the event.

If you run into a problem, don't let an ethics complaint derail your career. Seek legal counsel of your own as soon as possible.

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