There is an ethical code of conduct that applies to all attorneys. Every state has their own code of conduct and although there may be slight differences in the specifics of the code for each state, they all hold attorneys to a high standard of honesty and integrity. These laws are in place to protect clients and attorneys as well. This article will address five of these rules of professional conduct.
Take on Conflicts of Interest
The first rule that we will address is that of conflict of interest. A conflict of interest is a situation in which a person, in this case an attorney, has a duty to more than one person or organization involved. Therefore it would be difficult to serve the best interest of their client.
There are occasional exceptions to this rule but the client has to be aware of the conflict and would need to sign a written consent. It also needs to be reasonable to believe that the attorney can handle both cases. This is risky for the attorney because if unanticipated problems arise in a case a malpractice litigation could be the result.
There are several types of scenarios that would be considered conflict of interest. One of those would be if a client hired an attorney to represent them in a malpractice suit against a dentist. If that dentist happened to be the attorney’s dentist also or if the attorney was already representing that same dentist in another case, then that would be a conflict. Also, lawyers at the same law firm cannot represent clients that are on opposing sides of the same case. Nor can an attorney have any other business transactions with a client.
Attorneys will carefully screen potential clients to determine if there will be any potential conflicts. Some will also use a special software designed to identify potential conflicts within the law firm.
Loan Clients Money
Sometimes a case can go on for a long period of time with a client out of work and bills stacking up. Since a settlement payment is only issued at the end of a case, it may be tempting for an attorney to loan the client money. A loan of this type would be an ethical violation and is not allowed. The attorney can only make suggestions to clients to assist them in their financial struggles.
In some personal injury cases the client may still need medical treatment but all forms of payment at their disposal have been exhausted and the settlement has not yet been reached. At this point, medical providers may need an attorney lien in order to continue treatment for the patient. An attorney lien is a document that assures the medical provider that their bill will be paid as soon as a settlement is reached. This can keep a client out of collections and still able to receive the care that they need. When the case is awarded a settlement if the settlement is not sufficient to pay all of the doctor bills the patient is still responsible for the balance.
It would be unethical for a lawyer to promise a client that they will win the case. No one can know this for sure. To make a claim such as this would be misleading and give the client false hope. Even the cases that seem like a sure thing can have unforeseen testimony and evidence that will change the anticipated outcome. If an attorney were to promise that the case would be won in order to be retained by the client this would be a breach of conduct.
Because most personal injury attorneys work on a contingency basis, meaning they get paid if and when the case is won, they carefully consider the likelihood of winning any case that they take on. It would not be to their advantage to take on cases that were not likely to be won because then they would receive no compensation for their work. If the case is not a strong one, a personal injury attorney will not recommend that the client pursue the case.
Divulge Private Information
Client privilege means that an attorney is not allowed to discuss details or events of the case with anyone besides his client. Those conversations are confidential. The client can discuss those conversations with others but the lawyer cannot. This allows the client to be honest and open with their attorney concerning matters and details of the case. This foundation for honesty is critical and allows the attorney to fully understand the case and how to best help the client. This rule also prevents an attorney from being a witness against their client.
Go Against the Interest of the Client
Attorneys are in a position to be the first recipient of the settlement check at the end of a case. It is their duty to disperse that money to all debtors and return the remainder promptly to their client. If they were to take a larger percentage than agreed upon for their own portion or fail to pay outstanding medical bills for the client or delay in returning the client’s portion, it would be a violation of the ethical code of conduct. The handling of the settlement money is a serious responsibility and needs to be done quickly and efficiently.
In this article we have discussed five of the ABA’s rules of ethical conduct. Were an attorney to breach or violate any one of them they could be subject to a state bar complaint followed by discipline. This discipline could range from a suspension of their license to losing their license or even facing criminal charges. The law profession has many checks in place to ensure that the law is upheld and that the client receives fair and equitable treatment. Should you have any further questions regarding the specifics of these rules in your state your attorney will be able to address them.
About the author
Andrew Spainhower graduated from The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. While in law school, Andrew was a Dean’s Recruitment Award recipient, a Charles E. Jones Scholar recipient, and he earned the Pedrick Scholar Award for excellence in academic achievement. He also won the “CALI Excellence for the Future Award” for achieving the highest grade in a practical application clinic entitled, “The Litigation Experience”. This was the crowning achievement of Andrew’s legal education as litigation and courtroom techniques had been his focus throughout his law school experience. Andrew also served as the judicial intern for the Honorable Judge Bruce R. Cohen of the Maricopa County Superior Court. Andrew’s legal practice focuses primarily on personal injury, workers compensation, and civil litigation in St. George, Utah at McMullin Legal Group.