Few cases are more contentious than those that involve love, marriage, and a bitter divorce. Add in a father-in-law that provided legal counsel to the son-in-law and you can get one such case.
In this case the son-in-law sought legal counsel from his attorney father-in-law for the creation of additional business entities. The marriage broke-down and during the divorce the son-in-law sued the father-in-law, stating the father-in-law provided privileged information gathered when he provided legal representation to the son-in-law during earlier business deals to help his daughter build a stronger case against him during the divorce.
In addition to a really dramatic example of what can go wrong when families mix business and legal matters, the case also provides an opportunity to discuss a couple of different potential legal issues. First, conflict of interest. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct guide the actions of attorneys and generally require attorneys to step down if a conflict of interest arises after representation has begun, as was the situation in this case. However, if the son-in-law could establish that the father-in-law was aware of the deteriorating marriage and continued to provide representation without informing the son-in-law, he could have still had a case.
Unfortunately this next issue makes it very difficult for the son-in-law to move forward. In order for a legal malpractice claim to succeed, the client must establish not only that the attorney breached their duty but also that the breach resulted in injury such as the loss of funds. In this case, the court found the son-in-law failed to make any connection between the father-in-law’s alleged acts and an actual loss of funds suffered. Based on these reasons, the court tossed out the son-in-law’s claim.
The key lesson: the need for evidence to support that the counsel had a financial impact. Without this element, the case is unlikely to succeed.