Is My Lawyer My Employee?
WHAT IS THE LEGAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN A LAWYER AND A CLIENT?
The attorney-client relationship is a contractual, fiduciary relationship, but the lawyer is not the client’s “employee.” Instead, the lawyer generally is an independent contractor who provides services to the client on the basis of either an express or (rarely) implied contract.
Although a lawyer agrees to perform services for the client, in a way that may seem similar to the way an employee “works” for an employer, the relationship actually is quite different. For example, the client does not have the right to tell the lawyer how or where to perform the services.
As an independent contractor, the lawyer has the right to exercise judgment with regard to the time, place, and manner in which the lawyer performs the services for the client. This doesn’t mean there are no limitations on the lawyer’s choices. The lawyer has many professional obligations, and the lawyer has to fulfill those obligations when working for the client. For example, lawyers have a fiduciary duty to the client, and must comply with ethical obligations. In fact, there are many laws, regulations, and standards that control the way a lawyer must practice law, and the way a lawyer must handle a client’s case.
DOES MY LAWYER HAVE TO DO WHAT I SAY?
Not always. As an independent contractor, a lawyer has discretion, and does not have to follow every instruction a client gives–especially where those instructions might prevent the lawyer from acting in the client’s best interests.
For example, a lawyer cannot comply with instructions that would cause the lawyer to break the law!
However, that doesn’t mean the client has “no say” in what the lawyer does. Lawyers have obligations to make certain kinds of disclosures–which means telling the client about information and events that are important to the client’s case, or to the services the lawyer is performing for the client. Lawyers also have obligations to let the client make certain kinds of decisions–for example, the decision whether or not to file a lawsuit, or to accept a settlement offer. While the lawyer can offer advice relating to these decisions, the client has the final say in how to make them. In those situations, the lawyer does have a duty to follow the client’s instructions…in essence, to “do what you say.”
IS A LAWYER EVER AN EMPLOYEE?
Sometimes – but usually not when working for an individual.
Attorneys who work as in-house counsel for a company, as government lawyers, or in similar “in-house” roles may have an employment relationship with the entity for which they work. In these cases, the lawyer usually signs an employment agreement that specifically says the lawyer agrees to be an employee. Without a written agreement that specifically says it creates an employer-employee relationship, lawyers normally work as independent contractors.
Please note: the “engagement letter” or “retainer agreement” most lawyers sign with individual clients is not an employment agreement, and normally does not create an employer-employee relationship. Instead, it is an independent contractor agreement, and affirms that the lawyer is acting as an independent contractor.
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.