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Do not talk with anyone but the lawyer.

An unfortunate trend in lawyer advertising is the "live chat" box on the website.

This'd be great if it connected the potential client with a lawyer or paralegal or someone who could actually understand the problem and assist the client, but it seldom is. Instead, it's a glorified answering service.

Here, for example, is what you get when you click on the live chat on one Houston criminal-defense lawyer's site:

  • The information disclosed in this conversation does not constitute or create a lawyer-client relationship. That means that nothing you say in the chat is privileged. The government can, if it chooses get all of this information. If instead you were talking to the lawyer, or to a member of the lawyer's staff (a secretary, a paralegal, an investigator) everything you said would be privileged—they could not be forced to disclose anything that you had told them.

  • We respect your privacy. This means nothing. If you are communicating with a lawyer, everything you say is legally privileged, protected from disclosure. Here, you are not communicating with the lawyer, but with some marketing service. "We respect your privacy" just means "we're going to pretend to feel bad about selling your personal information."

  • Your personal information will be supplied to the chosen business. If the chosen business is unable to provide you with the services you requested, we may provide your personal information to another business who can assist you. This is amazing. The lawyer is letting some other business entirely run the chat box on his website, and they can provide your personal information to "another business who can assist you." Another lawyer? A bail bondsman? Someone selling extended car warranties? The fact that you are in trouble with the law, coupled with your contact details, is very valuable information. It will be used to fill your mailbox with spam; it could also be used to blackmail you. Do not provide your personal information to anyone but a lawyer or someone you know to be part of a lawyer's staff.

  • Judy has entered the conversation. Okay. Who is "Judy?" Is Judy a government agent? A scammer overseas? What is Judy going to do with your information?

  • In case we get disconnected, do you mind providing your phone number and email address? This is all they really want. They want your contact information, so that they can do with it whatever they want. (Trust me, I've tested a few of these bots to see if they can provide any useful information at all to a potential client. They cannot.) Consider: You are in the most stressful situation of your life. You are scared and embarrassed. If you are thinking straight, you know to talk only to a lawyer. And these folks want to be able to call you, to text you, to email you, to provide your contact information not only to the lawyer whose page you are on, but to anyone else they choose.

I started this post intending to explain why we don't use one of these live-chat boxes unless a member of our staff—someone for whom we are accountable, and who is accountable to us, and who knows and must comply with the rules surrounding privileged information—is attending to it personally. But I hadn't seen the details of this particular chat box before, and holy cow.

What is that lawyer thinking?

The unfortunate trend of "live chat boxes" is part of the broader trend of lawyers outsourcing their reputation by hiring marketing guys. We used to have a marketing guy, but we fired him because (among other reasons) no matter how hard you try to teach a marketing guy the ethical rules that apply to you, they seem to be incapable of learning.

Only a lawyer must keep your secrets. Only we are responsible for our clients. Only we care about the rules (those of us who do care).

Talk only to a lawyer.

—MB

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