When Do Lawyers Have Conflicts of Interest?
WHAT IS A CONFLICT OF INTEREST?
In the context of an attorney-client relationship, a “conflict of interest” exists when a lawyer’s interests are in conflict, or are not aligned, with the interests of:
- The lawyer’s own client
- A different client the lawyer represents (or, in some situations, a client the lawyer represented in the past)
In some situations, a conflict of interest also may arise if the interests of certain third parties conflict with the interests of the lawyer’s current client – but we’ll leave those situations aside for the moment.
Generally speaking, conflicts of interest fall into two categories:
- Conflicts that can be waived by the client or other relevant persons or entities (or can be addressed by the lawyer, through certain behavior)
- Conflicts that cannot be waived (which often require a lawyer to decline or terminate representation)
WHY DO LAWYERS HAVE TO AVOID CONFLICTS OF INTEREST?
Conflicts of interest also might tempt a lawyer to misuse, or disclose, confidential information provided by a client, either for the lawyer’s personal gain or for that of a different client or a third party. This violates the lawyer’s duty of loyalty to the client, as well as certain duties the lawyer owes the judicial system.
Avoiding conflicts helps attorneys avoid temptation – and also avoid ending up in a situation where it looks as if the lawyer breached his or her duty to the client, even if (s)he did nothing wrong. In essence, conflict of interest rules exist to help ensure that lawyers comply with their legal duties, by preventing a lawyer from taking on (or continuing representation in) matters where the lawyer’s loyalties might be divided. When a conflict can be waived, the conflict of interest rules attempt to ensure the relevant facts are disclosed to the client (or other party waiving the conflict) properly and completely.
WHAT RULES GOVERN LAWYERS’ CONFLICTS OF INTEREST?
Conflicts of interest fall within the scope of legal ethics, and when a lawyer is licensed to practice in California, the existence and treatment of conflicts of interest are governed primarily by the California Rules of Professional Conduct (CRPC). The CRPC are legally binding rules, and can be used both in disciplinary proceedings performed by the California Bar Association and by courts–for example, to disqualify a lawyer from acting in a given case, or to invalidate a contract that a lawyer signed in violation of the conflict of interest rules.
DOES MY LAWYER HAVE TO QUIT IF A CONFLICT OF INTEREST EXISTS?
Maybe, and maybe not. If you believe your lawyer has a conflict of interest that was not disclosed in advance, you should consult a lawyer with experience in legal ethics and malpractice/professional negligence without delay, for an evaluation of your legal rights. You do not have to rely only on the judgment or opinion of the lawyer who is, or was, representing you.
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.