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The Accidental Client

Mixing Cocktails with Legal Advice: Don’t

By Mark Bassingthwaighte

I can appreciate a well-crafted cocktail. But when I am in a situation where such beverages are being served, I never get involved in a conversation about someone’s legal problems. And I strongly encourage you to do the same.

Here’s a short story that explains why.

An associate at a law firm — not a litigator in any way — attended a social function and had a few more than she should have. She got involved in a conversation with another guest about a personal injury matter. In addition to sharing some generic advice, the associate also let the guest know there was still plenty of time to deal with the matter, saying the statute of limitations in that jurisdiction was two years. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to our heroine, there was an exception to the statute in play and the actual time to file suit was six months. The guest, relying on the advice, did not obtain legal counsel until after the filing deadline had passed.

The young lawyer and her firm were eventually sued for malpractice.

The Accidental Client

We all know drinking and driving can have serious consequences — when your judgment and reflexes are impaired, accidents can happen. Mixing cocktails and legal advice is similarly problematic. It’s too easy for a casual setting, coupled with a few adult beverages, to cloud your thinking. You may then find yourself dealing with an accidental client.

Malpractice claims can easily arise out of these situations, but the risk isn’t limited to cocktail parties. Casual conversations online with extended family members or friends and gatherings with members of your church congregation or other community organizations are all situations where you should proceed with caution.

You can’t overlook the office setting, either.

Should you be concerned about passing along a little casual advice in a conversation with a corporate constituent while representing the entity itself? How about discussing issues with beneficiaries while representing the estate, trying to help a prospective client out during that first meeting when you know you are going to decline the representation? Or what about being a good Samaritan by making a few suggestions on the phone to someone who clearly has a problem but really can’t afford an attorney? How about answering a few questions from an unrepresented third party?

The answer is, of course, yes — these are all situations that can easily lead to an accidental client.

“No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”

Old sayings became old sayings because they have a ring of truth to them.

I am always surprised by what attorneys say when they have to deal with a claim brought by an accidental client. Comments like “I never intended to create an attorney-client relationship,” “There was no signed fee agreement,” and “No money was exchanged so how could this be?” are common.

Guess what: It’s not about you! Typically, it is more about how the individual you interacted with responded to the exchange. If they happened to respond as if they were receiving a little legal advice from an attorney, and that response was reasonable under the circumstances, it can start to get muddy. Worse yet, if it was reasonably foreseeable that this individual would rely or act on your casual advice — and then, in fact, did so to their detriment — you may have a serious problem on your hands.

I share this not with a desire to convince you to keep quiet and never try to help someone. By all means, be helpful. The world could use a few more good Samaritans, and a desire to help others is a good thing as long as you stay the course. I share this because I want you to be cognizant of the risk involved whenever you decide to step into those waters.

Here’s the Bottom Line

Accidental clients are for real and there is no such thing as “legal lite.” So if you are enjoying a wonderful evening at a party, cocktail in hand, and find yourself conversing with another guest who has just learned you are an attorney and wants to “pick your brain,” don’t talk about legal issues you are not well-versed in. If you feel compelled to pass along a little advice, then remember to ask questions so you understand the entire situation. Just know that you may be held to the accuracy of that advice later on, so you might want to jot down a few notes as soon as you can.

Finally, know that it’s okay to say you’re not the right person to be asking, particularly after you’ve had a few.

That said, salute!

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com/CSA-Printstock

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Mark Bassingthwaighte Mark Bassingthwaighte

Mark Bassingthwaighte is a Risk Manager with Attorney’s Liability Protection Society, Inc. (ALPS). In his tenure with the company, he has conducted over 1,000 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented numerous CLE seminars, and written extensively on risk management and technology. Mark received his J.D. from Drake University Law School. He blogs at @ALPScorp. Contact him at mbass@alpsnet.com.

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