Should You Chat Live with Clients Online?

Recently I litigated a family law case where I represented the husband and another attorney (let’s call him Bob) represented the wife. On Bob’s law blog, he installed an instant chat feature where clients (or non-clients) can simply chat with him, an assistant at the firm or an associate right over the website. The clients don’t have to call and they can get in touch with an attorney right away. It sounds like a good idea in principle.

About a week into the litigation, my client told me that he actually looked into hiring his wife’s attorney and even spoke with their firm through the instant chat feature. Are we starting to see the problem here? By the time that the husband spoke with Attorney Bob through his law blog, Attorney Bob already was retained by the wife. Attorney Bob or his associate did a full intake right over the online system. That created a conflict and as soon as I heard this, I asked Attorney Bob to recuse himself from the case. He lost a client.

I’ve been contacted by several companies that will install these instant chat features on my site. I have declined them so far. Are they all bad or the concept inherently bad? Well, no. Like all new technology, you run into trouble when you don’t use it correctly and/or ethically. Bob’s law blog chat feature would be perfectly fine and would conform to ethical rules if before an intake, Bob trained his staff on proper conflict check protocols. That was not done in this case and it wasn’t the fault of the medium. I suspect that this would have been the case even if someone called the office. Does that mean telephones are bad? No.

The takeaway here is that we as lawyers need to embrace technology, but don’t buy new technology just because it’s shiny. Learn to use it ethically, and make sure you can actually train your staff to use it.

Gabriel is a divorce lawyer in Massachusetts.  Follow him on Twitter @GabrielCheong.