Giving Legal Advice to Non-Clients—How Far is Too Far?
by Heather Coleman
hether you are a newly licensed attorney or a seasoned professional, there is one thing you have in common with your peers—being asked for legal advice.
Legal advice is your work product; it is how you’ve built your career and how you’ve made a living. Frequently, attorneys are asked for legal advice from all walks of life and via all forms of communication—whether it be a face-to-face conversation with an acquaintance, an email from a stranger, or a phone call from a potential client. Many, however, feel reluctant to continually give out free legal advice, and for good reason. Giving legal advice to someone other than your client not only takes away time, resources, and dedication to your current client base, but it also carries with it a grave risk of liability. Though you are trying to help, you are also putting yourself at risk of discipline. Before responding to a cry for help, think about the pros and cons of offering free advice, as well as the resources you can safely send to your friend or a stranger in need.
The Liability Factor
When dealing with unrepresented persons or prospective clients, all attorneys must abide by the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. If you fail to do so and give out legal advice without being aware of the parameters imposed by the rules, you put yourself at risk of legal liability, malpractice suits, and disciplinary action.
A client you meet for two minutes on the curb is still a client, whether they pay you or not, and all the ethics rules apply. If you don’t take the time to learn about their case, how can you be competent as required by Rule 1.1? How do you know that their case isn’t in conflict with your current client, as forbidden by Rule 1.7, or in conflict with the lingering duties you owe a former client (Rule 1.9). If you are thinking of giving legal advice to anyone other than a paying client, it is a good idea to be familiar with these rules and to stay within their boundaries.
Though you may feel it’s cold and hard, strict adherence to Rule 1.8 is a safe way to protect yourself. Rule 1.18 governs duties to prospective clients and permits you or your paralegal to talk to prospective clients, get very basic information sufficient to learn their identity, the kind of legal work they require, and to do a conflicts check, and therefore reduce the possibility of later having to drop out of another client’s case.
Providing negligent legal advice to a client can result in major liability, malpractice, or disciplinary action. This is true also in respect to non-clients if they have reasonably relied on the information given. Rather than put yourself at risk, make it clear to the non-client that though you are unable to offer them legal advice, you can refer them to legal resources intended to help those who cannot afford representation.
The Money Factor
Attorneys make a living by providing legal advice and legal representation. That being said, it would be difficult to spend a significant amount of time providing this advice for free. Though you may feel bad by declining to give out free legal advice, it is unrealistic for one to expect another to provide their services for free. Continually taking in telephone calls or responding to emails from those seeking help will begin to add up, and you will see the hours spent on this as a missed opportunity to devote your time and resources to your already existing client base.
What to Do?
Chances are, though you would be happy to give out free legal advice to those who need it the most, the risks of continually doing so outweigh the benefits. However, rather than completely shutting down those who are asking for advice, steer them in another direction—toward legal resources intended for those who may not be able to afford traditional representation.
In Colorado, there are many resources available to indigent clients in need. Be sure that the individual seeking help is aware of the difference between "legal advice" and "legal information." There are many organizations that will provide free legal advice and representation, and there are resources, such as legal websites, that merely offer legal information. For more generalized legal questions, it is best to steer a non-client in the direction of a legal website. For more personalized legal matters, steer a non-client to a legal services organization, such as Colorado Legal Services, Metro Volunteer Lawyers, or legal clinics presented by local law schools or bar associations. D
Heather Coleman is a third-year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law with plans to focus on family law. She is currently interning at the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.