Live Lawyer Chat Not An Ethical Issue

Law firms are like most every other business in increasingly looking to social media and other online methods to create business. But law firms are also bound by ethical rules (seriously) that don’t apply to other businesses. So before law firms can boldly go into platforms that didn’t exist just a few years ago, they often look for approval just to be safe. The North Carolina State Bar Association recently issued an opinion that permits law firms to use live chat services to reach out to potential clients. According to the opinion, a firm proposed to offer a service on its Web site where potential clients could engage in a live chat with someone alternately described as a “staff member” or “operator.” The staff member or operator would obtain contact information from the prospect as well as facts about the potential case. The firm would receive a transcript of the chat and then follow up accordingly. The North Carolina Bar determined that the process did not violate the ethical rule prohibiting lawyers from soliciting business via real time communication. The key was that the prospective client chose to initiate the chat, and had the ability to turn it off at any moment. That alleviated the concerns that lie behind the rule. But while the opinion permitted the practice, it had some cautionary advice as well. For example, the firm needs to make sure that the prospects understand they are not talking to a lawyer. While describing the firm’s representative as an “operator” probably sends that message, “firm staff member” may not. The opinion also cautions the firm to avoid creating a lawyer client relationship in the initial chat. It also notes that by engaging in an extended chat, the firm could be stumbling into a conflict with an existing firm client. And that’s never a good thing.