Aug. 19 — Lawyers can't answer attendees' legal questions or hand out promotional brochures after the conclusion of a legal seminar to drum up business, the Ohio Supreme Court's ethics board made clear Aug. 7.
The opinion states that lawyers may place brochures about their firm near the exit but must not distribute them personally or through a representative.
The board also said that except in pro bono situations, lawyers can't give personalized legal advice or meet with attendees after the seminar. Instead, it said, they should suggest setting up an appointment.
These same restrictions apply when an attorney who represents a company holds a seminar attended by the client's employees, the board advised.
The inquiring lawyer asked whether certain marketing techniques at seminars comply with Rule 7.3 of the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct. That rule prohibits in-person solicitation of clients unless the person is a family member or close personal friend of the lawyer, has a prior professional relationship with the lawyer or is a lawyer herself.
The board was asked whether lawyers who present a legal seminar to potential clients may give out brochures and folders about the lawyer's firm near the entrance or exit.
Drawing on ethics opinions from Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, the board said yes—provided the materials aren't handed out by the lawyer or an agent of the lawyer.
The lawyer may refer to the availability of brochures and firm materials during the seminar and may mail or e-mail attendees information or brochures about the law if the materials comply with the rules on advertising and solicitation, the board advised.
The board also was asked whether a lawyer may stay after a seminar to answer follow-up questions from attendees, or meet with attendees who sign up before the seminar to meet with a lawyer.
After reviewing guidance from Maryland, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, the board said Rule 7.3 prohibits these practices.
If attendees approach the presenting lawyer to ask an individualized legal question, he should advise them to set up an appointment or seek legal counsel of their choice, the board said. Similarly, it added, if attendees say they would like to hire the lawyer, he should advise them to make an appointment.
“The lawyer cannot be the person to initiate contact with the prospective client following a presentation at a legal seminar,” the opinion states.
The board carved out an exception for situations in which pro bono legal services are provided along with a seminar presented by volunteer lawyers who aren't trying to drum up paying clients. The ability to combine legal information and individualized brief advice to those who can't afford a lawyer increases access to justice and does not pose the risk of abuse or overreaching, it said.
Next, the lawyer asked whether the restrictions are lifted when the seminar is attended by employees of an existing corporate client.
The board said no. The “prior professional relationship” exception in Rule 7.3(a) does not apply to employees of an organizational client, it said. Therefore, individual employees of an organizational client must be considered prospective clients under that rule.
The board noted that under Rule 1.13 on representing organizations, the organization is the lawyer's client and individual employees are not clients too unless appropriate waivers are executed after a conflicts analysis.
“A lawyer may not make an offer of legal services to attendees during a firm-sponsored seminar, even if the employer of the attendees is a client of the firm,” the opinion states.
Copyright 2015, the American Bar Association and The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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