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When Can a Lawyer NOT Represent a Client?


A lawyer may be disqualified from representing a client in a variety of situations. If the situation exists before an attorney-client relationship is formed, the lawyer may be (and often is) prohibited from representing the potential client. If the situation arises after an attorney-client relationship is formed, the lawyer may (and usually must) resign as counsel.

Common grounds for disqualification of lawyers include:

  • Lack of the necessary skills or experience to represent the client.
  • The existence of a non-waiveable or non-resolvable conflict of interest
  • Breach of a fiduciary duty to a client
  • Possession of confidential information about an opposing party (or contract counterparty, in certain circumstances)
  • Engaging in prohibited communications with a represented party (other than the lawyer’s own client)
  • Lacking the authority to act on behalf of a client that is a legal entity


The CRPC does not disqualify a lawyer from representing a client if only the “appearance of impropriety” or “appearance of a conflict” exists, provided no actual conflict of interest exists. As a matter of practice, lawyers (and everyone else, really) would be smart to avoid acting in ways that appear improper; however, the ethics rules in the CRPC do not mandate withdrawal/recusal or a decision not to represent a client on the basis of “how it looks” alone.

However, California judges do have to recuse themselves from hearing cases where doing so would create appearance of impropriety. This is because judges are governed by the California Code of Judicial Ethics, as opposed to the CRPC, and the judicial rules hold judges to the higher, appearance-based standard.

Sometimes, it can be difficult for people without legal training to decide whether an actual conflict of interest exists, or whether the situation merely involves an “appearance of impropriety.” For this reason, it’s important that you obtain an individual evaluation of your situation, and your legal rights, by an experienced lawyer if you think a conflict of interest may have negatively impacted your case, or the lawyer who handled it.


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.

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