Under ABA Formal Opinion No. 10-457, expanding upon Model Rule 7.1 dealing with false and misleading communications, it says that lawyers “must be mindful of the expectations created by the website, and must carefully manage inquiries through the website.”
It’s a very interesting opinion, but if you’d rather practice law than read it, I’ll summarize the two main takeaways and in a separate piece, layout the elements of what I think would be an ideal website disclaimer.
Without explicitly saying so, the ABA is talking about the use of disclaimers to manage the expectations created by the content of your website. People will come to your website and maybe think that they are getting legal advice, and they may make contact with you through it thinking that they are creating an attorney-client relationship.
Legal information versus legal advice
Of course we want people to understand that there is no substitute for legal advice and they shouldn’t rely to their detriment on anything they read on your website. The ABA recommends that you characterize your information as general in nature. A typical disclaimer to manage the expectations people who think they are getting legal advice from your website should be easy-to-understand by a layperson and could be phrased as follows:
“The information you obtain on this website is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult with an attorney for individual advice regarding your own situation.”
Establishing an attorney-client relationship
When it comes to managing the expectations of people who make contact with you through your website, you want to be sure that they understand that no attorney-client relationship is being established merely by making contact with you.
Also, your response to their inquiry may raise an expectation that you and the person who wrote to you are moving towards the establishment of the attorney-client relationship.
There are several reasons why this is important. First, if they think that an attorney-client relationship has been created then you have a duty to keep their information confidential. Second, it would preclude you from representing an adverse party in the case. And third, there is a greater possibility that information that they get from you will be perceived as legal advice.
You manage visitors’ expectations on this point through the use of a disclaimer. The ABA states that this disclaimer “will be effective only if reasonably understandable, properly placed, and not misleading.” One formulation of the disclaimer could be as follows:
“Contacting us does not create an attorney-client relationship. Please do not send any confidential information to us until such time as an attorney-client relationship has been established.”