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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    October 12, 2018

    Soliciting Questions on Websites: Proceed with Care

    Lawyers can answer questions posed on law firm websites, but the website must clearly indicate that neither questions nor answers create an attorney/client relationship.

    Dean R. Dietrich


    I recently read an article that suggested that lawyers should invite individuals to contact them on the law firm website with questions. Is this a good practice?


    There is a difficult balance between encouraging contact from prospective clients and encouraging a situation in which a lawyer/client relationship is created when the lawyer does not want to have that relationship be created without more investigation. Inviting someone to contact you through a law firm website could create an attorney/client relationship.

    Dean R. DietrichDean R. Dietrich, Marquette 1977, of law firm of Dietrich VanderWaal Law Group SC, Wausau, is chair of the State Bar Professional Ethics Committee.

    Under SCR 20:1.18 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer owes certain duties to a prospective client. A prospective client is generally considered to be an individual who is contacting or making inquiry of a lawyer about representation. The duties of confidentiality and the duties of loyalty (avoiding conflicts) are paramount considerations when dealing with a prospective client. Using the law firm website to invite contact from an individual who needs legal services will likely create an attorney/client relationship that will place ethical duties on the lawyer, unless protective steps are taken.

    The Committee on Professional Ethics, in Wisconsin Formal Ethics Opinion EF-11-03, addressed this issue in detail and provided a lawyer with two clear warnings and a model disclaimer that would negate the creation of an attorney/client relationship. The committee pointed out that a disclaimer used by a law firm on its website must make clear 1) that there is no lawyer/client relationship being created by someone sending an email to the website or lawyer, and 2) that any email communication sent by an individual would not be considered confidential under the rules. The committee also suggested that the disclaimer be short and easily understood by a layperson. Samples of disclaimer language were included as an appendix to this formal opinion.

    Lawyers need to find a proper balance between encouraging communication from an individual who needs legal services and protecting the lawyer’s interest by not automatically creating an attorney/client relationship with anyone who sends an email to a lawyer or the law firm through the website portal.

    Inviting someone to contact you through a law firm website could create an attorney/client relationship.

    It is important to remember that the creation of an attorney/client relationship will be reviewed “from the eyes of the prospective client,” meaning that the prospective client’s expectations are what will be weighed when determining whether an attorney/client relationship exists. That is why it is important to have a very clear and understandable disclaimer on the law firm website, so any person communicating with a lawyer through the website does not expect an attorney/client relationship to be created. This is also important to ensure that the lawyer does not undertake some level of representation by reading the email and then becoming obligated to provide legal advice, even though the lawyer does not wish to represent the prospective client or perhaps has a conflict that prevents the representation of the prospective client.

    Lawyers should be careful to make sure some type of response is made to the email from a prospective client, so there is no confusion about whether an attorney/client relationship is created.

    Need Ethics Advice?

    As a State Bar member, you have access to informal guidance and help in resolving questions regarding Wisconsin’s Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys.

    Ethics Hotline: To informally discuss an ethics question, contact State Bar ethics counselors Timothy Pierce or Aviva Kaiser. They can be reached at (608) 229-2017 or (800) 254-9154, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m to 4 p.m.

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