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Accidental attorney-client relationship can risk malpractice

Most attorneys get asked for informal legal advice at one time or another. A friend, neighbor or relative has a fairly minor legal issue. They do not want to pay for an attorney, but they need legal expertise to help them out.

Nowadays, many of these requests come in the form of an email. What many attorneys do not consider when they answer these “what should I do?” emails is that they may be inadvertently creating an attorney-client relationship with the sender.

This has serious implications for how the lawyer proceeds. An attorney-client relationship creates several obligations on the attorney’s part. For example, before taking on a person’s legal matter, an attorney may have to conduct a conflict check to see if there is any conflict of interest with another client or with the attorney’s firm.

But an attorney-client relationship does not have to involve a face-to-face meeting, signed documents and a formal handshake. In California, conduct by the parties can imply the same sort of relationship. In other words, a chain of emails that involves a lawyer providing you with legal advice could mean that you have become an attorney’s client. And if the attorney does not perform the same due diligence as with other clients, he or she could commit legal malpractice, damaging your case.

Care may be necessary from both sides, but an attorney who understands his or her obligations should be especially careful that an email exchange does not turn into an attorney-client relationship, unless both sides want it to.

Source: The Recorder, “Beware Unintended Attorney-Client Relationships,” Randy Evans, Shari Klevens and Suzanne Y. Badawi, July 30, 2014