Is an Attorney-Client Relationship a Fiduciary Relationship?
WHAT IS AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP?
An attorney-client relationship is the term for the official legal relationship between a lawyer and a client.
It is a relationship of trust, and has special, legally-recognized characteristics. For example, attorney-client privilege arises only where an attorney-client relationship exists.
The attorney-client relationship also creates legal rights and obligations for the lawyer – for example, a lawyer has the right to act as the client’s agent and also has a fiduciary duty to the client.
WHAT IS A FIDUCIARY DUTY?
A fiduciary is a person who acts on behalf of another person (here, the client), and has a legal obligation to place that client’s interests before his or her own. This obligation is called a fiduciary duty, and a person who has this duty is called a fiduciary.
By law, a lawyer has a fiduciary relationship with his or her clients. In fact, the fiduciary relationship between lawyers and clients is the highest level of fiduciary relationship that exists under the law.*
By law, a lawyer is required to act with conscientious fidelity–which means an ongoing, conscious and deliberate faithfulness to the client’s best interests. In other words, a lawyer has a legal obligation to put the client’s interests first.
WHAT ARE A LAWYER’S FIDUCIARY OBLIGATIONS TO THE CLIENT?
The fiduciary duty creates multiple obligations; lawyers must fulfill them all. For example:
- Before agreeing to represent a client, a lawyer must investigate and determine whether the lawyer (or existing clients) have any interests that conflict with those of the potential client.
- Where potential conflicts exist, the lawyer must determine whether or not the conflicts can be waived.
- If the conflicts can be waived, the lawyer must obtain appropriate written waivers from all relevant persons or entities.
- A lawyer must disclose to the client any economic or other interests that might conflict with the client’s interests.
- If a conflict arises between the lawyer’s interests and the client’s interests, the lawyer must put the client’s interests first.
- Sometimes, this may require withdrawing from representation of one or more clients.
- The lawyer must put the client first even if doing so costs the lawyer time or money!
- The lawyer cannot cause harm to the client, either intentionally or negligently.
- Note: this is not a complete list; if you have questions about a lawyer’s fiduciary duty (or whether a lawyer may have breached it) please feel free to contact our offices (or another lawyer you trust).
It’s important to note that failure to comply with any part of the fiduciary duty to the client is a violation of the lawyer’s legal duty.
However: a fiduciary duty does not exist unless an attorney-client relationship is created. Therefore, when hiring a lawyer to represent you, it is important (for both you and the attorney) to ensure that you create an official attorney-client relationship, and to know exactly when that relationship is formed.
*(Styles v. Mumbert (2008) 164 CA4th 1163, 1167, 79 CR3d 880, 883)
Disclaimer: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AUTHOR OR ROSS LAW AND ANY PERSON. Your legal rights and experiences may vary. Never use an online article (including this one) to evaluate your legal rights or claims. Consult an experienced attorney promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, potential damages, and the various legal rights and options available to you.
You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel. Most legal claims (and defenses), as well as legal and court procedures, are complicated and fact-dependent. If you believe you have a claim against someone who injured you, a lawyer who represented you in a previous lawsuit, or any other legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your individual rights and claims.