When Does an Attorney-Client Relationship Exist?

by Melanie Fischer on February 22, 2016

Mature couple talking to financial planner at home

“When does an attorney-client relationship exist?” This question might at first seem simple and basic. But, actually, it can be quite complicated to answer. An attorney-client relationship can form slowly or quickly, and formally or informally. Essentially, an attorney-client relationship can develop as soon as a person believes the relationship exists – even if the attorney has no intention of representing the person and no desire to become that person’s legal counsel.

An attorney-client relationship can form when any of the following occurs:

  • A formal letter of engagement or contract for legal services is signed by the attorney and client
  • A client pays a retainer or makes a payment to an attorney in exchange for legal services
  • A person asks an attorney for legal advice and the attorney provides it (even if no payment has been made and no contract for legal services has been signed)

Does Someone Believe You are Their Attorney?
It’s entirely possible that during a casual conversation with an acquaintance about a legal matter, you inadvertently provided that person with legal advice. If that person followed your advice and ultimately decides to rely on you for future advice and legal guidance, you might have an attorney-client relationship without even realizing it. It is important to understand the significance of this type of situation because when an attorney-client relationship exists, you have a responsibility to your “client.”

How to Prevent an Unwanted Attorney-Client Relationship?
It is not uncommon for an attorney to field legal-related questions from friends, relatives, and even strangers. Depending on the specific situation, a person might want you to answer legal questions – especially if the query is related to the field of law in which you are known to have experience. It’s important to remember that having a discussion with another person about a legal matter can lead to the development of an unwelcome attorney-client relationship. To prevent such relationships from developing, employ the following tactics:

  • Avoid answering specific legal questions asked by non-clients
  • Do not talk about legal matters during casual conversations with anyone (no matter how well you know them)
  • When someone asks you a legal question, suggest that the person seek the advice of an attorney rather than answering the question yourself

Err on the Side of Caution
No attorney wants to receive a phone call from a person who has gotten into legal trouble because he or she followed your unintentional legal advice. Because an attorney-client relationship can develop quickly and without a signature on a contract, it’s essential that you be on guard at all times.

Some attorneys have a standard speech that they give anyone asking for answers to legal questions, such as:

  • “I am sorry but I never answer legal questions from anyone who is not my client”
  • “I would like to answer your questions – please schedule a time to meet with me in my office”
  • “My law firm is currently accepting new clients – let’s talk about your legal situation tomorrow, during normal business hours”

It’s always beneficial for you and your clients to be on the same page. Thus, you should make sure you both understand the extent of the attorney-client relationship that exists between you. And always refrain from answering legal questions and providing legal advice to people whom you have no intention of ever representing.



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