57 RI Bar J., No. 2, Pg. 29. Defining the Attorney-Client Relationship.

AuthorMark S. Adelman, Esq.

Rhode Island Bar Journal

Volume 57.

57 RI Bar J., No. 2, Pg. 29.

Defining the Attorney-Client Relationship

Rhode Island Bar JournalSeptember/October 2008 Volume 57, No. 2, Pg.29 Defining the Attorney-Client RelationshipMark S. Adelman, Esq.Practices law at Partridge Snow and Hahn LLP in Providence

Scenario: It's the Saturday after July 4th and you're at a cookout with family and friends. A group of people are talking about one man's dispute with the executor of his father's estate. You've been practicing for about six months as a sole practitioner and have dabbled a little in probate matters. Since everyone knows you're a lawyer, you're quickly recruited to give advice. The casual atmosphere (or maybe the two beers you had) has loosened you up and you throw out legal terms like "probate," "rule against perpetuities" (which still confounds you), and "heirs at law." Obviously impressed, the man asks for your advice on what he should do. You make clear that you can't speak to his potential success at that moment, but note that with just a little research you probably could and that lawsuits like this occur frequently (remembering that many of your attorney friends have had similar cases). You both rejoin the party and don't speak about the issue again for the rest of the day. By Sunday you've forgotten all about it. A month later you get a call from that man asking if you've come up with anything and when you can move forward with the case. You sit staring blankly at the wall with the phone in hand wondering: "Am I his attorney?"

This hypothetical situation illustrates a very real issue for new lawyers - when does the attorney-client relationship begin?

New attorneys looking to attract prospective clients should familiarize themselves with this issue. First year practitioners, in particular, have little experience with the potential ramifications of surfacing their profession in casual conversations. This is especially pertinent as newer attorneys try to impress a prospective client in their zeal to market themselves. What follows is not only good practice, but may help avoid some pitfalls.

While the existence of an attorney-client relationship is a question of fact, opinions by the Rhode Island Supreme Court provide some guidance: see State v. Austin, 462 A.2d 259, 362 (R.I. 1983). The Supreme Court in State v. Cline, 405...

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