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.