Rules Clarified for Lawyers Seeking Business when Presenting Legal Seminars
Lawyers presenting legal seminars to prospective clients can make promotional brochures and information available, but cannot personally distribute material or discuss individualized legal matters one-on-one with potential clients after the session, according to an advisory opinion of the Ohio Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Conduct.
The board, formerly the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline, issued Advisory Opinion 2015-2 last week regarding questions about conducting legal seminars and the solicitation of clients, which is governed by Prof.Cond.R. 7.3(a).
The board was presented with three questions:
- May a lawyer present a legal seminar to prospective clients and provide brochures and folders with firm information at the entrance or exit of the seminar?
- May a lawyer stay after a seminar to answer follow-up questions of attendees or meet with attendees who sign up to meet with a lawyer in advance of the seminar?
- May a lawyer, during the course of presenting at a firm-sponsored seminar, make an offer of services to attendees, all of whom are employees of the existing organizational client of the firm? Does a “prior professional relationship” exist in that situation?
Prof.Cond.R. 7.3 governs a lawyer’s direct contact with prospective clients and prohibits in-person, live telephone or real-time electronic solicitation of clients, unless the contacted person is a lawyer, family member, close personal friend, or has a prior professional relationship with the lawyer. The board said the rationale for the rule is to prevent the “potential for abuse” of prospective clients who are trying to evaluate all the information and alternatives when a lawyer is present and insisting upon being retained immediately.
The question about distributing brochures to prospective clients was previously addressed in prior advisory opinions Opinion 2013-2 and Opinion 2007-5, but not in the context of legal seminars. Examining past opinions and practices of other states, the board concluded that lawyers presenting seminars can leave information where attendees have the option to stop or simply walk away. A lawyer may provide brochures at the entrance or exit, as long as the lawyer or anyone representing the lawyer does not personally distribute information at the seminar.
Additionally, “If an attendee approaches the presenting lawyer with a personalized legal question, then the lawyer should advise that person to contact the office and make an appointment or seek legal counsel of his or her choice,” the board said.
The board, however, noted two exceptions. The opinion does not apply to lawyers conducting seminars for other lawyers, since there is not a serious potential of abuse. Lawyers can also answer personal legal questions if the seminar is provided as part of a pro bono legal services presentation conducted by law school legal clinics, bar associations, legal aid organizations, or similar groups.
The “prior professional relationship” standard allows a lawyer to make an in-person solicitation to clients with whom the lawyer has worked with in the past. It does not apply to the employees of a business that is represented by the lawyer. Prof.Cond.R. 1.13 governs situations when lawyers represent an organization as a client. A lawyer may represent the organization and individual employees of the organization, but those employees must be informed of the arrangement and the potential conflicts that could arise. The board said the prior professional relationship exists only with the organization – not the employees of the organization – so when the employees attend a legal seminar, there is no prior professional relationship that allows for in-person solicitation. Therefore, the lawyer must provide information in the same manner required for any prospective client who is not a relative, close friend, lawyer, or who has a prior professional relationship.
Advisory Opinions of the Board of Professional Conduct are informal, nonbinding opinions in response to prospective or hypothetical questions regarding the application of the Supreme Court Rules for the Government of the Bar of Ohio, the Supreme Court Rules for the Government of the Judiciary, the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct, the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct, and the Attorney’s Oath of Office.
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