As a client, you trust your lawyer to act in your best interests, represent you fairly, and maintain confidentiality. However, lawyers, like any professional, are human and can face conflicts of interest. A conflict of interest occurs when a lawyer’s personal or financial interests interfere with their professional duties and obligations to their client. This can lead to serious consequences, including legal malpractice and disciplinary action. In this article, we will explore the different types of conflicts of interest that can arise in the lawyer-client relationship, the ethical rules governing lawyers’ conduct, and what you can do to protect yourself as a client.
Understanding Conflicts of Interest
What is a Conflict of Interest?
A conflict of interest occurs when a lawyer has personal or financial interests that could interfere with their ability to represent their client objectively, competently, and diligently. For example, if a lawyer represents a client in a case where the lawyer’s spouse is the opposing party or represents both the buyer and seller in a real estate transaction, conflicts of interest may arise.
Types of Conflicts of Interest
There are two main types of conflicts of interest that can arise in the lawyer-client relationship:
- Actual conflicts of interest: These are conflicts of interest that are real, meaning that the lawyer’s personal or financial interests actually conflict with their professional obligations to the client. For example, if a lawyer has a financial interest in a company that is adverse to their client in a lawsuit, that would be an actual conflict of interest.
- Potential conflicts of interest: These are conflicts of interest that could arise in the future based on the lawyer’s personal or financial interests. For example, if a lawyer has a close personal relationship with a potential witness in a case they are handling, that could be a potential conflict of interest.
Consequences of Conflicts of Interest
Conflicts of interest can have serious consequences for both the lawyer and the client. Some of the potential consequences include:
- Legal malpractice: If a lawyer’s conflicts of interest lead to a breach of their professional duties and harm to their client, the client may be able to sue the lawyer for legal malpractice.
- Disciplinary action: Lawyers who violate ethical rules governing conflicts of interest can face disciplinary action by the state bar, including suspension or disbarment.
- Loss of trust: Conflicts of interest can erode the trust between a lawyer and their client, making it difficult to work together effectively.
Ethical Rules Governing Conflicts of Interest
ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct
The American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct provide guidance for lawyers on how to avoid conflicts of interest. Rule 1.7 of the Model Rules prohibits a lawyer from representing a client if the representation would be directly adverse to another client, or if there is a significant risk that the lawyer’s representation of the client would be materially limited by the lawyer’s own interests or by the lawyer’s duties to another client, a former client, or a third person.
State Rules of Professional Conduct
Each state has its own rules of professional conduct governing conflicts of interest. In many cases, these rules are based on the ABA Model Rules but may differ in some details. It is important to consult the rules in your state if you have concerns about a potential conflict of interest.
Protecting Yourself as a Client
As a client, it is important to ask your lawyer questions about any potential conflicts of interest. Some questions to ask include:
- Are you representing anyone else in this matter?
- Have you represented any parties adverse to me in the past?
- Do you have any financial interests that could conflict with my interests in this matter?
Get a Written Agreement
It is also important to get a written agreement from your lawyer that outlines their duties and responsibilities to you as their client. This agreement should specifically address any potential conflicts of interest and how they will be managed.
Seek a Second Opinion
If you have concerns about a potential conflict of interest, you may want to seek a second opinion from another lawyer. This can help you better understand the situation and determine whether you should continue working with your current lawyer.
File a Complaint
If you believe your lawyer has violated ethical rules governing conflicts of interest, you can file a complaint with your state’s bar association. They will investigate your complaint and take appropriate action if necessary.
Conflicts of Interest with Lawyers: Conflicts of interest can be a serious problem for both lawyers and their clients. As a client, it is important to be aware of the risks and consequences of conflicts of interest and to take steps to protect yourself. By asking questions, getting a written agreement, seeking a second opinion, and filing a complaint if necessary, you can help ensure that your lawyer is acting in your best interests.
What is a conflict of interest with a lawyer?
A conflict of interest occurs when a lawyer’s personal or financial interests interfere with their professional duties and obligations to their client.
What are the consequences of conflicts of interest for a lawyer?
Consequences of conflicts of interest can include legal malpractice, disciplinary action, and loss of trust between the lawyer and the client.
What can a client do to protect themselves from conflicts of interest?
Clients can protect themselves by asking questions, getting a written agreement, seeking a second opinion, and filing a complaint if necessary.
What are the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct?
The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct provide guidance for lawyers on how to avoid conflicts of interest.
What should I do if I suspect my lawyer has a conflict of interest?
If you suspect your lawyer has a conflict of interest, you should ask questions, get a written agreement, seek a second opinion, and file a complaint if necessary.
American Bar Association. (2016). Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/professional_responsibility/2016.authcheckdam.pdf
Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Conflict of Interest. Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/conflict_of_interest
FindLaw. (2021). Conflicts of Interest: What They Are and How to Avoid Them. Retrieved from https://www.findlaw.com/smallbusiness/business-operations/business-operations-articles/conflicts-of-interest-what-they-are-and-how-to-avoid-them.html
Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/code_of_ethics
State Bar of California. (n.d.). Rules of Professional Conduct. Retrieved from https://www.calbar.ca.gov/Attorneys/Conduct-Discipline/Rules/Rules-of-Professional-Conduct
State Bar of Texas. (n.d.). Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. Retrieved from https://www.texasbar.com/Content/NavigationMenu/ForThePublic/ProblemswithanAttorney/TexasDisciplinaryRulesofProfessionalConduct.pdf