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2006 Formal Ethics Opinion 14

April 20, 2007

Payment of Fee for Consultation (Revised)

 

Opinion rules that when a lawyer charges a fee for a consultation, and the lawyer accepts payment, there is a client-lawyer relationship for the purposes of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

 

Inquiry:

 

John Doe consulted Attorney A about a property line dispute with Mr. Doe's neighbor. At the request of Attorney A, Mr. Doe paid Attorney A a consultation fee of $100, which was accepted by Attorney A. Thereafter, Mr. Doe hired another lawyer to represent him in the property dispute.

 

Attorney A contends that Mr. Doe was a "prospective client," as that term is defined and addressed in Rule 1.18, Duties to Prospective Client, and that he owes Mr. Doe only the protections afforded a prospective client. Is Attorney A correct?

 

Opinion:

 

No. A client-lawyer relationship may be formed in an initial consultation although no legal fee is paid. However, a client-lawyer relationship is unequivocally established, for the purposes of the Rules of Professional Conduct, when a lawyer charges a fee for a service, regardless of how limited, and the fee is paid. The duties of loyalty and confidentiality exist with respect to the matter discussed. Rule 1.7. If the client does not retain the lawyer for further assistance, the client becomes a former client.

 

Ordinarily, a person who discusses the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client. A prospective client receives some, but not all, of the protections afforded clients and former clients. Rule 1.18. However, when a lawyer charges a fee that the heretofore prospective client pays, in exchange for the lawyer's time and/or advice, a client-lawyer relationship exists with respect to the provision of that service. If the representation proceeds no further—for example, the client does not retain the lawyer for additional assistance—the client becomes a former client. Rule 1.9.

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