Applied Ethics- How to lose two clients in 30 minutes
This is a tough economy and many clients need until the last minute to come up with legal fees. No one plans on needing a criminal defense lawyer and even career criminals don’t keep a defense lawyer fund handy. Ergo, it is not uncommon for a client to retain my services the morning of their court appearance.
In Kaufman, I have often met clients the morning of an announcement at my office, signed them up as a client, and then passed their case and requested discovery. This scenario is convenient for the client since they don’t have to schedule an extra trip to my office and it gives them extra time to save money.
I have discovered one flaw in this last minute approach- it leaves little time for conflict checks. That led to my professional responsibility emergency this morning.
First, some background. I had two potential clients who were going to retain my services this morning for a court appearance at 9AM. By retain, I mean come in and make their first payment and sign a contract so I could start their case.
I met Client A yesterday for a brief consultation, and another I discussed the case with Client B via phone last week. They both dutifully appeared this morning in my office about 15 minutes apart and became (briefly) clients of Guest Law Firm PC.
I told each to meet me in the courtroom. I arrived in court and was reading the State’s file on Client A when I realized I had just signed up two co defendants. Not only that, but the classic MPRE red flag two-people-in-the-same-car possession co defendants.
What’s the rule on conflict in Texas?
Rule 1.06 Conflict of Interest: General Rule
(a) A lawyer shall not represent opposing parties to the same litigation.
(b) In other situations and except to the extent permitted by paragraph (c), a lawyer shall not represent a person if the representation of that person:
(1) involves a substantially related matter in which that person’s interests are materially and directly adverse to the interests of another client of the lawyer or the lawyer’s firm; or
I quickly explained the situation to my soon to be ex clients and told them I would refund any payment and forever keep our conversations private. If they wanted a referral I would be glad to assist, but I could not take either case. 1.06 does allow representation of conflicted parties if the parties are made aware and consent. I didn’t go that route, but here is the rule.
(c) A lawyer may represent a client in the circumstances described in (b) if:
(1) the lawyer reasonably believes the representation of each client will not be materially affected; and
(2) each affected or potentially affected client consents to such representation after full disclosure of the existence, nature, implications, and possible adverse consequences of the common representation and the advantages involved, if any.
(e) If a lawyer has accepted representation in violation of this Rule, or if multiple representation properly accepted becomes improper under this Rule, the lawyer shall promptly withdraw from one or more representations to the extent necessary for any remaining representation not to be in violation of these Rules.
Dropping two cases in one docket was bound to generate some debate among the lawyers present. One attorney advised I could keep one client and add a disclaimer to the contract. I dissented. I felt keeping either case was improper, even with consent of the parties.
I believe that having discussed the case with both parties I would have an unfair advantage should this case go to trial and/or should one party implicate the other. I believe this met the definition of “materially affected” in (2). In a co defendant possession case the classic defense is- “The drugs belong to X, not me.” There is simply no way to disclaim/notify your way out of that scenario. It’s a conflict, withdraw and move on.
A prosecutor in the courtroom agreed with my decision and stated that “You can always get two more clients, but if you lose your ticket (law license) you won’t get anymore clients.” That’s a great line, I’m going to borrow that.
I have no doubt that some defense lawyers would stay on as counsel in a similar situation. Why? Ignorance of the ethical rules, knowledge that the odds of enforcement are low, and the economic reality that losing two fees at once really sucks in this economy.