When and How is a Lawyer the Client’s “Agent”?
THE ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP IS AN AGENCY RELATIONSHIP
The attorney-client relationship is an agency relationship, which means that the relationship is governed by agency law. Agency is a branch of law that governs relationships that arise when one person (known as the principal) hires another person (the agent) to act on the principal’s behalf.
By law, an agent has the power to perform certain acts on behalf of the principal–and when acting within those powers, the agent’s acts are legally binding on the principal.
WHAT IS A LAWYER’S AGENCY AUTHORITY?
Lawyers are agents for the client to the extent of the lawyer’s representation of the client. Basically, this means that when it comes to the issues the client hired the lawyer to handle, the lawyer can act as the client’s agent.
For example, if the settlor or trustee of a trust hires a lawyer to amend the trust, the lawyer can write the trust amendment and arrange for it to be signed. (But note: the amendment still needs to be signed by someone with proper authority and capacity. The lawyer generally cannot sign the amendment!)
Unless the engagement agreement or retainer agreement between the attorney and the client says otherwise, lawyers usually have the legal authority to act as the client’s agent to:
- Accept or receive money
- Discharge (waive or release) claims
- Act on the client’s behalf in legal proceedings (including taking actions that bind the client legally) – but only on procedural matters
- The lawyer does not have the authority to take actions that impact a client’s substantive rights (for example, agreeing to a settlement) without the client’s approval!
HOW ARE LAWYERS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER KINDS OF AGENTS?
For the most part, general rules of agency law apply to the attorney-client relationship. However, some special rules that apply to the attorney-client relationship too, because the relationship between a lawyer and a client is different from other types of agent-principal relationships.
- Lawyers must act as “officers of the court” – and must fulfill certain duties to the court, and to justice itself, in addition to their duties to the client.
- For example, lawyers cannot lie to the court, even if doing so might seem to be “in the client’s best interests” because it would help the client win
- Lawyers must keep professional distance and independence from both the client and the relevant subject matter (such as the client’s claim)
- For example, a lawyer cannot help a client create a fraudulent trust amendment, because a lawyer must maintain independent judgment about illegal conduct, and can’t help a client commit an illegal act.
There are other differences, too. It’s not possible to discuss them all in an article like this one, but if you have specific questions, or think a lawyer may have violated his or her agency authority, please feel free to contact us directly.
AM I LEGALLY BOUND BY MY LAWYER’S ACTIONS?
If a lawyer acts within the scope of his or her authority (i.e., “is doing what the client hired the lawyer to do”), the client usually is legally bound by the lawyer’s acts.*
The attorney’s right to act as an agent ends when the attorney-client relationship ends. For this reason, it’s important to make it clear, in writing, when an attorney quits (or is fired), or when the attorney-client relationship ends for some other reason. However, it’s worth noting that two agency duties continue even after the end of the attorney-client relationship: the duty of loyalty and the duty of confidentiality. Your lawyer cannot violate these duties even after the attorney-client relationship ends–and a lawyer who does so may have committed actionable malpractice.
*Blanton v. Womancare, Inc. (1985) 38 C3d 396, 403, 212 CR 151, 155
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.