An attorney must be loyal to his or her client. If the attorney has a personal stake in the legal matter in question, the conflict may erode that loyalty to the detriment of the client. Attorneys must vigilantly work to uncover potential conflicts of interest and to properly address them when they do arise. Examples of conflicts of interest in the legal profession include:
- Having a stake in a company a client is suing
- Representing two parties with competing interests in the same dispute
- A third party expecting privileged communication when they are paying the legal bills of the client
The conflict need not reside in an existing client relationship. A lawyer continues to owe a duty to former clients even after their legal matters have been resolved. A lawyer also need not personally represent a client to create a potential conflict. If the law firm the lawyer works for has previously represented either party, it may constitute a conflict of interest.
An attorney who knowingly represents a client while holding a conflict of interest may face disciplinary actions from the state bar and even a legal malpractice lawsuit by the client. This is why it is so important for attorneys and law firms to review every new client relationship for potential conflicts.
The importance of conflict-free trials
In a recent high-profile case in Michigan, a husband and wife charged with involuntary manslaughter were both represented by attorneys from the same law firm, a situation that could result in either or both attorneys having conflicts of interest.
A judge appointed new, independent attorneys to help the defendants better understand the potential for conflicts that could undermine their rights. The judge has also indicated she will require the defendants to sign waivers and to state, on the record, that they understand and are comfortable with any conflict that arises from the legal arrangement.
Such a situation not only creates the potential for undermining a defendant’s rights, but also creates the risk of a mistrial should a conflict emerge throughout the course of the legal proceeding. By identifying and addressing the potential conflict early, the judge is taking proactive steps to ensure a smooth and fair trial with no need for do-overs.
Protecting a fair legal system
The laws regarding attorney conflicts of interest are in place to protect the legal consumer and to ensure that the legal system is fair to all participants. Whether you are a practicing attorney or a consumer who requires legal services, identifying and addressing potential conflicts of interest today can spare you significant future trouble and expense in the future.
The litigation attorneys at Houston Harbaugh, P.C., are accomplished business trial lawyers, providing comprehensive support in litigation across a broad spectrum of matters throughout Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and other jurisdictions upon a special admission basis. Our clients are regional and national small, medium and large companies and individuals who seek well planned and aggressive, but cost effective litigation. We counsel, we budget, we have a deep bench, we act quickly when needed and we have experienced trial lawyers who know the courts and bench. We serve regularly as local counsel for some of the largest law firms in the country when they have matters in this region.
Henry M. Sneath - Practice Chair
Co-Chair of Houston Harbaugh’s Litigation Practice, and Chair of its Intellectual Property Practice, Henry Sneath is a trial attorney, mediator, arbitrator and Federal Court Approved Mediation Neutral and Special Master with extensive federal and state court trial experience in cases involving commercial disputes, breach of contract litigation, intellectual property matters, patent, trademark and copyright infringement, trade secret misappropriation, DTSA claims, cyber security and data breach prevention, mitigation and litigation, probate trusts and estates litigation, construction claims, eminent domain, professional negligence lawsuits, pharmaceutical, products liability and catastrophic injury litigation, insurance coverage, and insurance bad faith claims.
Samuel H. Simon - Practice Chair
As co-chair of Houston Harbaugh’s Litigation Group, Sam focuses his practice on commercial/business litigation. Sam regularly represents clients in the construction, manufacturing, oil and gas, and wholesale/retail/ distribution industries, as well as individuals in matters such as:
- Construction litigation
- Environmental litigation
- Breach of contract disputes
- Oil and gas litigation
- Restrictive covenants (non-compete agreements)
- Civil rights
- Collections/creditors’ rights
- Lease disputes