When I pointed out this morning that by Sean Hannity’s own description of his relationship to Trump fixer Michael Cohen, he was Cohen’s client, several commenters protested, including a lawyer or two. This suggests that many more were similarly confused, and it is no surprise. A disturbing number of lawyers fall into the trap of acquiring “accidental clients.” There are many ways this can happen, but the most insidious of them is this, which people like me constantly and repeatedly warn lawyers about, often to no avail.
A relative or a friend approaches you, a lawyer, at a party. He or she asks you a question about some legal issue, and you give an off-the-cuff answer. Because you are a lawyer, and because you gave advice, however vague, that individual accepts it as a free legal opinion, and also assumes that the conversation was confidential. Usually nothing happens. Sometimes, however, the friend or relation acts based on your advice. If the results turn out badly, he or she may sue for malpractice, and sometimes will win damages. In an infamous case that is still good law, an individual went to a medical malpractice specialist to engage him to sue a hospital. After describing the facts, the potential client was told, “You have no case,” and informed that the lawyer would not accept the representation. But the individual relied on that statement, and didn’t bring a suit until the statute of limitations had run. Then he learned, from another lawyer, that he did have a valid case, though one he could no longer pursue. The first lawyer was sued for malpractice, and the court found that indeed “You have no case” constituted legal advice, and the advice was relied upon, meaning that an attorney-client relationship had been formed. Continue reading