The Florida Bar

April 13, 2010

An attorney may not solicit prospective clients through Internet chat rooms, defined as real time communications between computer users. Lawyers may respond to specific questions posed to them in chat rooms. Lawyers should be cautious not to inadvertently form attorney-client relationships with computer users.

RPC: 4-7.4(a)
Opinions: Illinois 96-10, Michigan RI-276, Philadelphia 98-6, Utah 97-10, Virginia A-0110, West Virginia 98-03

As use of the Internet becomes more and more a part of the practice of law, questions arise as to whether attorneys may ethically participate in chat rooms. As used in this opinion, the term "chat room" refers to a real time communication between computer users. A foremost concern in attorney participation in chat rooms is whether such activity constitutes impermissible solicitation. Rule 4-7.4(a) provides:

Several other states have considered the issue of whether attorney participation in chat rooms constitutes impermissible solicitation. For example, in Michigan Opinion RI-276, it was concluded that while e-mail communications were akin to direct mail communications:

Similarly, the West Virginia Lawyer Disciplinary Board stated in Opinion 98-03: The Utah State Bar's Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee has likewise concluded that an attorney's use of a chat room for advertising and solicitation are considered to be in person communications for the purposes of its Rule 7.3(a) and, thus, restricted by that rule. Utah Ethics Opinion 97-10. The Virginia State Bar Advertising Committee's Lawyer Advertising Opinion A-0110 is in accord with this reasoning.

Other states have also recognized the dangers inherent in attorney participation in chat rooms. For example, the Philadelphia Bar Association, in Opinion 98-6, acknowledged that attorneys could not engage in any activity that would be improper solicitation. The Committee further stated, "In the opinion of the Committee, conversation interactions with persons on the Internet do not constitute improper solicitation, but in any one particular case the interaction may evolve in such a way that it could be characterized as such." The Illinois State Bar Association, in Ethics Opinion 96-10, has also stated:

After considering the above opinions, the Standing Committee finds the reasoning of the opinions from Michigan, West Virginia, Utah and Virginia to be persuasive. The Standing Committee, therefore, finds that an attorney's participation in a chat room in order to solicit professional employment is prohibited by Rule 4-7.4(a).

This opinion should not be interpreted as suggesting that a lawyer cannot respond to specific requests for information about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services in a chat room that were initiated by a prospective client and not at the prompting of the lawyer. A lawyer may also respond to the posting of a general question such as “Does anyone know a lawyer who handles X type of matter?” Only a lawyer’s unsolicited offers to provide legal services or information about the lawyer’s services are prohibited by Rule 4-7.4(a).

The Committee believes that the most likely type of question to which a lawyer will want to respond is one involving a specific legal issue, such as “I just received a speeding ticket - what should I do?” or “I have heard that I can avoid probate if I have a trust - is that true?” The Committee cautions lawyers that they may inadvertently form a lawyer-client relationship with a person by responding to specific legal inquiries, which will require that a lawyer comply with all Rules of Professional Conduct, including rules regarding conflicts of interest, confidentiality, competence, diligence, and avoiding engaging in the unlicensed practice of law. See, e.g., Florida Ethics Opinion 00-4. Although interpretation of these rules is outside the scope of the Committee’s authority, the Committee feels obligated to point out that lawyers who engage in discussions in chat rooms may have other ethical obligations, regardless of whether the lawyer’s communications are permissible under the lawyer advertising rules.

Of course, any communication by a lawyer, regardless whether the lawyer is responding to a posting of another person, is subject to Rule 4-8.4(c), which prohibits conduct involving dishonesty or misrepresentation. Additionally, this opinion should not be construed so broadly as to prohibit a Florida attorney from participating in chat rooms when it is completely unrelated to seeking professional employment, such as when the chat concerns the attorney's personal interests or hobbies. Nor should this opinion be construed as limiting an attorney's ability to send e-mail to prospective clients in accordance with Rule 4-7.6(c). Other communications about a lawyer's services over the Internet remain subject to the requirements of the rules regulating attorney advertising.

[Revised: 08-29-2011]