Do Consultation Fees Create An Attorney Client Relationship?

On August 25, 2015 the North Dakota Supreme Court decided that a consultation fee alone does not form an attorney-client relationship; it is merely a factor that may indicate its creation. Alone, the fee creates only a potential client relationship with an attorney. Without this distinction, the attorney in Kuntz v. Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of North Dakota would have been in violation of North Dakota Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.7 (Conflict of Interest) and Rule 1.9 (Duties to Former Client).

This case arose from a client, the father in a child custody matter, claiming his attorney violated her ethical duties. The client retained the attorney and later learned that approximately one year prior to commencing representation, the attorney had consulted with the child’s maternal grandfather, who had paid the attorney a $100 fee for the consultation. There was no further contact between the maternal grandfather and the attorney. The client felt there was a conflict of interest as the attorney had previously met with a family member of the opposing party for a consultation with respect to custody arrangements for the same child.

The attorney advised the court that she always charges a $100 fee for initial consultations, and in each meeting she makes clear to the potential clients that the consultation does not form an attorney-client relationship. Her notes from the meeting with the grandfather showed no exchange of legal advice or collection of confidential information, supporting the attorney’s assertion that she met her responsibilities under North Dakota Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.18 (Duties to Potential Client).

After reviewing the case de novo on the record and noting that violations must be established by clear and convincing evidence, the North Dakota Supreme Court found only a potential client relationship between the attorney and the grandfather despite the fee. As a result, Kuntz had not violated any conflict of interest rules. The court held that the “existence of a lawyer-client relationship depends on the particular circumstances of the case, including the conduct of the parties, the circumstances of the consultation, the nature of information exchanged, and any agreements between the parties.”

To read the full opinion, click here.

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