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How do you know if your lawyer has a conflict of interest?

There’s something daunting about the idea of hiring a lawyer. The law can sometimes read like a foreign language, riddled with traps and pitfalls. You may have a lot riding on the matter. You might need to defend yourself from criminal charges, uphold your rights in a custody battle or make sure you’re treated fairly by the terms of a business deal.

Most people don’t deal with these issues every day, and your choice of lawyer matters. That’s why you want to make sure you find someone who will represent your interests with all due skill and diligence. And that’s why it can be brutally disappointing when your lawyer fails to give your concerns their full and undivided attention.

Conflicts of interest aren’t always easy to identify

It seems like common sense that your lawyer shouldn’t represent your side of a divorce or business contract if she’s also representing the other side, but conflicts are rarely so direct. There are numerous ways legal conflicts can arise. The California State Bar says that lawyers may enter a conflict of interest if they:

  • Work with anyone whose interests might run counter to those of a current client. This applies whether those clients are involved in the same matter or separate matters. For example, a firm that’s supporting a tenant’s claim against his landlord wouldn’t want to represent the landlord in a separate case.
  • Take a new client whose interests might run counter to that of a former client. The attorney’s need to uphold the former client’s privacy could impact the resolution of the newer case.
  • Take a case in which he or she has a personal stake. If the attorney is married to someone on a company’s board of directors, that attorney may not be able to fight against that company as hard as if he or she had no personal connection.
  • Represent multiple clients in the same case, even if they’re on the same side. There are exceptions to this, but the State Bar says lawyers need to get written consent from their clients if they want to settle aggregate claims. Otherwise, how do the clients know they’ve had their individual interests represented?

These are just some examples. Conflicts of interest may arise in other ways, as well. They may even crop up due to unforeseen circumstances. But when that happens, lawyers need to adjust.

Conflicts of interest may be grounds for legal malpractice

Your legal concerns demand and deserve your lawyer’s undivided attention. If your lawyer’s divided loyalties impact your case, you may have cause to seek compensation through a legal malpractice claim.