When you work with an attorney, that attorney is supposed to be your advocate. Your ally. It’s not just good business for your attorney to represent your interests; it’s the law. And there are consequences when your attorney simply turns his or her back on you and your interests.
As was recently highlighted by the legal malpractice suit filed against one California attorney, lawyers can be held liable for failing to represent their clients’ interests.
Your attorney can’t simply walk out on you
In the aforementioned malpractice case, the lawyer appeared to grow weary of her client’s desire to secure a larger divorce settlement. The lawyer encouraged her client to settle for $800,000 and quit when her client refused. Instead, the client insisted on a settlement closer to the $1.5 million she felt she deserved.
But attorneys can’t simply walk out on their clients. As a result of her actions, the attorney now faces a legal malpractice suit for $300,000. That’s the difference between the $1.2 million her client eventually secured from the divorce settlement and the $1.5 million she felt she deserved based on the value of the marital estate.
The client is the boss
Generally, the California State Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct demand that lawyers work toward their clients’ stated objectives. This point is clarified in Rule 1.2, which makes at least three points relevant to the California malpractice case:
- Attorneys need to respect their clients’ decisions as to their objectives
- Attorneys should take reasonable efforts to consult with their clients about how to achieve those objectives
- Attorneys need to listen to their clients when they decide whether to settle a matter
Several comments further clarify the rule, pointing out that it does, in fact, mean the client has the ultimate say in defining the purpose of the legal representation. And they also clarify that an attorney’s freedom to choose certain tactics does not give that attorney any right to impair the client’s claim or rights.
There are still times an attorney can walk away
While the divorce attorney’s conduct appears to have run afoul of Rule 1.2, there are still times an attorney can draw a close to his or her representation of a client. These are noted in Rule 1.16 and include:
- The client dismisses the attorney
- The attorney knows the client is acting without probable cause in order to harm or harass someone
- The attorney’s physical or mental condition makes it impossible to represent the client
- The client wants the attorney to violate the law or Rules of Professional Conduct
- The client insists upon arguing a point that isn’t made in good faith and that the law doesn’t recognize
- The client’s conduct makes it “unreasonably difficult” for the lawyer to represent him or her
- The client fails to pay or breaches another material term of his or her agreement with the attorney
However, even in these situations, Rule 1.16 says that lawyers should not end their representation until they’ve taken certain steps. These include refunding any funds, releasing the client’s materials and giving the client enough notice to find another lawyer. Generally, this means giving a client far more notice than storming out in the middle of discussions.
The rules exist to protect the client
The Rules of Professional Conduct exist to protect the consumer—the client. They establish what people should expect from legal representation, and they help you understand when your attorney has failed to meet the standard.
An attorney’s failures to uphold these standards may be grounds for a legal malpractice suit, but such suits involve more than just fault. They require proof that your attorney has failed you, proof that the failure led to real damages and proof that you would have secured a better result if not for your attorney’s failures.