The Accidental Client

Mixing Cocktails with Legal Advice: Don’t

By | Apr.19.16 | Daily Dispatch, Ethics, Law Practice, Professionalism

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!

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

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4 Responses to “Mixing Cocktails with Legal Advice: Don’t”

  1. Jackl
    19 April 2016 at 9:00 am #

    How about the ever popular “you know, I’m not a [insert area of practice] lawyer so I THINK the answer to your question is [whatever] but the law is sometimes very complicated and you need to check with a lawyer who does [area of practice]. I assume that’s enough to defeat an accidental lawyer claim. I even do the same for the so called “free consultations” (refer to a “shrink wrap” type license link at which is contained in my email appointment confirmations) and on forum answers.

    I don’t think alcohol is the real problem here. It’s the failure to emphasize to the social acquaintance or prospective client that the law and its application to sometimes complicated fact patterns like the questioners is often very complicated and you really need to confirm my off the cuff uninformed response with an attorney who regularly practices in that area of law.

  2. LouiseM
    19 April 2016 at 2:25 pm #

    This was a good article.
    It certainly made me think a little deeper about “barbeque” advice.
    I am a law student however my “day job” is finance, and earlier on in my career I found myself enthusiastically answering all things finance related for friends and family, and then being disappointed when they took the actual deal to the bank.
    The reason?
    Because by giving so much free advice they didn’t think I was professional enough.
    Great for a free chat but not to do business with.
    So I stopped the free advice and got more work.
    Ironic isn’t it?

  3. Chris
    20 April 2016 at 6:57 pm #

    It’s hard, isn’t it. On the one hand, most lawyers (young or old) genuinely want to help people out as best as they can.

    But, unfortunately, many of us know just enough to be dangerous in some areas, and so the nuance of giving out general advice can land us in real trouble.

    I guess it’s a matter of finding the delicate balance between being helpful enough to keep the relationship alive, but not so helpful that we’re actually engaged as a lawyer without the necessary checks and balances in place.

    Good article.