Conflict of interest in attorney-client representation
When a Floridian looks for a lawyer to represent him or her in a divorce or other family law matter, there are certain things for a future client to consider. It is a good idea to interview candidates and consider experience, knowledge, reputation, cost, accessibility and communication style. There should be a comfort level with the lawyer that would make sharing personal information feel safe.
Of course, anyone who needs representation wants the lawyer to be ethical. The Florida Bar enforces the state’s rules of professional conduct and can assist members of the public in checking available attorney disciplinary records.
What are a lawyer’s conflicts of interest?
An important ethical question to consider is whether an attorney (or any other lawyer at his or her firm) has a conflict of interest that would compromise the attorney’s objectivity or loyalty as well as the ability to fully advocate for the client.
Florida’s attorney ethics rules prohibit and disqualify a lawyer (or other attorneys at the law firm) from representing a client in these situations:
- The client’s interests are directly in conflict to those of another client.
- The attorney’s duties to an existing or former client or to a third person, or the lawyer’s own personal interests will “materially [limit]” representation of the client.
- The attorney on the other side of the client’s case is a close family member of the lawyer.
- The lawyer’s representation of a new client would concern a matter in which the attorney already represented a previous client with adverse interests.
- And other similar circumstances
Other related ethical limits on lawyers include prohibitions on soliciting gifts from clients or preparing legal documents that give the lawyer or a relative any gift; entering into business transactions with a client or acquiring financial interests adverse to a client; and other similar situations.
Detailed rules may allow representation of a client when there is a conflict of interest in narrow situations. The client must give written informed consent or consent on the record at a hearing, depending on the conflict. Other requirements must also be met. Anyone considering representation despite a conflict should seek comprehensive legal advice to understand the risks of such representation and whether the ethics rules allow it.
Examples of conflicts
Here are examples of what Florida courts have said about conflict of interest in family law matters:
- Where an attorney represented a married couple in establishing their business, the business was a marital asset subject to division in divorce, so it was a conflict of interest for that lawyer to represent the husband in divorce against the wife, since he had jointly represented the couple in the business formation and the business was substantially related to the divorce.
- Lawyer defending a husband in wife’s request for an injunction against domestic abuse had a conflict of interest where that attorney’s law firm partner had met with the wife previously about divorcing the husband.
Seek legal advice about any potential conflict of interest before hiring a lawyer or that arises during representation.