Most attorneys, at some point, will be asked for advice from an existing client outside of the attorney’s main practice areas. Tax season is a prime example. What sometimes starts as helping a client can be especially fraught with risk for attorneys coloring outside the lines of their normal practice areas.
First, the attorney in question may run afoul of the American Bar Association’s Model Rule 7.1. A misrepresentation of one’s competencies and services can put an attorney in legal jeopardy should the client decide to sue later citing errors or negligence.
Where taxes are concerned, attorneys who handle complex business matters for clients might find themselves tempted to prove value and consult on seemingly simple tax matters if a client asks. In more complex legal matters such as large real estate transactions, mergers and acquisitions and other areas of legal practice, there are countless tax implications for the client. If these matters are somehow overlooked or if the attorney fails to adequately assess, advise or account for possible tax implications, that attorney may be liable to the client for damages.
For solo or new attorneys, turning away work from an existing client can be difficult. This is especially so if the matter at hand — a tax issue — is close to, but not exactly in, the attorney’s regular practice area. The best advice is to avoid the temptation.
Serving a client well might sometimes mean referring that client to another attorney more experienced in the subject at hand. Most clients will appreciate a referral when it means their tax or other questions will be handled by a more experienced attorney in that particular area of law. It demonstrates the attorney who referred them was looking out for their best interests. This can help foster an even stronger attorney-client business relationship for the referring attorney.
Additionally, attorneys who take the time to thoughtfully refer work may find the favor returned in the future. This can help foster growth in a budding new legal practice.
Two Simple Rules
Attorneys who are asked to take on matters — especially complex tax matters — outside of their normal practice areas should follow two simple rules:
- Don’t do what you don’t do. When asked to take on a legal matter where you lack experience, don’t be reluctant to admit the matter is outside of your competencies.
- Be a resource if you can’t be the source. You can demonstrate tremendous value to an existing client if you can refer them to an attorney with experience in legal matters outside of your practice areas.