Though our backgrounds may vary, we all had to grow up somewhere. Whether you grew up in a city, a small town, or like me, the middle of nowhere, we all have a group of people we have known our entire lives. You know the people I’m referring to, those people who you don’t avoid in the grocery store and who you’re always happy to see at a social gathering. It’s great to have that support system, network, and who am I kidding, all the referrals.
There is, however, a downside. As soon as you get your license to practice law, you begin getting phone calls from that same group of people. The calls usually involve minor issues of family law, landlord-tenant law, traffic law, estate law, or criminal law. These calls rarely result in a case that will actually make you money, but you do not want to alienate people or risk losing their future referrals, so what do you do? Of course, you try to help them. Helping can sometimes get you into ethical trouble.
I practice in a small town of approximately 16,000 people near my hometown, which has a population of only 500. Though my firm practices primarily in the areas of personal injury and insurance law, it is common for me to get several calls a week from friends, family, and acquaintances requesting advice on a broad range of legal topics. When you live or practice in an area where you really do know half the population, being both helpful and ethical can become difficult. I have found that there are a few simple steps that I take every time someone calls that help prevent an ethical dilemma:
1. Check for conflict. Most people that call me know me, but that also means that they will know a lot of my other clients, so I always want to be sure that there is no conflict created by talking to that person.
2. Do not create an attorney-client relationship prematurely. Inform the person that you are speaking with that your conversation is just part of an initial consultation, and at the end of the conversation, be sure to inform him/her as to whether you will take the case.
3. Have the client sign a contract. If you do choose to take a case, especially if from a friend or family member, it is important to have the client sign a contract describing the scope of the representation. Having a contract that specifically defines the scope of the representation will help both you and your client know what representation can be expected.
4. Maintain your prospective client’s privileged information. Even if you think you are being contacted and asked advice as a friend, not a lawyer, do not share any information that would be considered privileged with a third party. Sometimes it is hard to draw the line between having a conversation with a friend and giving legal advice, so if you discuss anything legal in nature, it is best not to share that information with anyone else.
5. It is okay to say no. If you have any reason to think that an ethical issue may occur, say no. Your friends and family will understand why you cannot take their case, no matter whether the issue is related to ethics, time, or practice area. You can always refer them to a colleague you trust at another firm.