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Seminars for Potential Clients

I recently received a notice from an organization to which I belong that a lawyer would be making a presentation to the group on an issue that was of personal interest to members of the organization. This type of presentation is a common way for people to get legal information and for lawyers to make contact with potential clients. It also raises questions under Illinois Rule of Professional Responsibility 7.3(a), which states (in part): “A lawyer shall not by in-person, live telephone or real-time electronic contact solicit professional employment from a prospective client when a significant motive for the lawyer’s doing so is the lawyer’s pecuniary gain. . .”.

Comment 1 to the Rule states that the reason for the prohibition is that “[t]here is a potential for abuse inherent in direct in-person, live telephone or real-time electronic contact by a lawyer with a prospective client known to need legal services. These forms of contact between a lawyer and a prospective client subject the layperson to the private importuning of the trained advocate in a direct interpersonal encounter. The prospective client, who may already feel overwhelmed by the circumstances giving rise to the need for legal services, may find it difficult fully to evaluate all available alternatives with reasoned judgment and appropriate self-interest in the face of the lawyer’s presence and insistence upon being retained immediately. The situation is fraught with the possibility of undue influence, intimidation, and overreaching.”

So what are the guidelines a lawyer should follow? On August 7, 2015, the Board of Professional Conduct of The Supreme Court of Ohio issued a non-binding opinion (2015-2) covering the direct in-person solicitation of prospective clients at seminars. The opinion reviewed and analyzed previous Ohio opinions as well as opinions from other states, which (like Illinois) have adopted the ABA Model Rules. The opinion set out some straightforward guidelines lawyers should follow.

With respect to client seminars, the opinion states a general rule that “[a] lawyer may present an informational legal seminar to prospective clients.” The opinion then addresses the issue of handouts: “The lawyer also may place law firm brochures and information near the exit of the seminar, provided the lawyer does not personally distribute the materials to attendees.” Firm brochures may be placed near the exit of the seminar room or in a booth so long as the attendee has the option to take or not take the material. Also, any such material must comply with the advertising requirements of the Rules.

On the issue of personal contact with a potential client, the Opinion states that: “[a] lawyer may not remain after a seminar to discuss personalized legal needs of attendees, even if attendees sign up to meet with the lawyer in advance of the seminar. Instead, if attendees wish to meet with the lawyer, the attendees should be directed to call the law office and schedule an appointment to meet with the lawyer, or be instructed to contact a lawyer of their choice.” The lawyer may accept employment resulting from the seminar, but the client must initiate the contact.

The Opinion clearly addresses both the language of the Rule and the rational for the Rule set out in Comment 1. The benefit of allowing attorneys to personally dispense legal information to the public and become known to potential clients is maintained. However, concerns for client manipulation and abuse are mitigated by the requirement that any direct attorney/client contact be delayed for a period of time after conclusion of the seminar and that the initial contact must be made by the potential client. All in all, a reasonable balance.