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Unsolicited Email Requests for Legal Help: What Should Lawyers Do?

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

It's happened to you before: You get an unsolicited email from someone you don't know, claiming that someone else did something to him and now he wants to sue. You're pretty sure this person got your email address from the state bar website, because you've never heard of this person before.

Opening up the email, and the inevitable attachments, you find a litany of charges and poorly constructed pleadings. What should you do now?

Option 1: Basically, Do Nothing.

The first rule of the Internet: "Don't feed the trolls." You don't know this person. You've never heard of this person and his attendant "legal" problems. The best reaction is not even to reply, or even to say, "Sorry, you've made a mistake." That only confirms to the sender that there's a live human being on the other end of that random email address he found somewhere -- and it's a virtual guarantee that you'll get even more emails.

By doing nothing, you may get a few more random emails, but at least they won't be directed specifically at you...

Option 2: Decline Representation.

...Unless they are. If the unsolicited email writer won't leave you alone, and keeps sending you self-prepared pleadings, it may be time to do something. After all, if this is a person who loves preparing documents, he may be a person who loves filing bar complaints. And even frivolous bar complaints that later turn out to be nothing at all can really ruin your day.

At this point, it may be time to prepare a letter declining representation, just in case your new friend has concluded that there's an attorney/client relationship and your failure to respond doesn't mean you're not secretly giving him legal advice (or something). You may wish to add in there that you've done nothing for the client and will do nothing further.

Option 3: Hello, Ethics Hotline?

Just to put you at ease, there is no attorney/client relationship here. Probably. The State Bar of Arizona issued an ethics opinion in 2002 regarding the confidentiality of unsolicited email communications. In Arizona, at least, there's a duty of confidentiality to prospective clients, but only where a "would-be client has consulted the law firm in good faith for the purpose of obtaining legal representation in the matter." There's no such duty where all a lawyer has done is "maintain[] an email address." (The California State Bar would tend to agree and even suggests that a disclaimer wouldn't defeat an expectation of privacy, even if there isn't an expectation of an attorney/client relationship.)

Believe it or not, though, in Arizona, maintaining a website without any disclaimers could lead a prospective client to believe that his or her communications are confidential, even if there is no attorney/client relationship. So you may want to double-check your website to make sure it says that there's no relationship created just by visiting the website. You'd be surprised how many attorney websites we see that have no disclaimers at all.

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