You got into a legal jam with a friend or business associate, and you’re both facing criminal charges. Your friend has the resources to hire a high-priced attorney to represent both of you. Or maybe you’re the only one who was arrested and charged, but your friend feels guilty about getting you into this mess and hires an attorney to represent you.
Can an attorney represent more than one client in the same case or represent someone while being paid by someone else – or is that legal malpractice? It depends on whether there’s a conflict of interest.
What is required if an attorney is representing more than one client in a case?
According to the California State Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct, an attorney must have the informed written consent of a client “if the representation is directly adverse to another client in the same or a separate matter” or if there’s “significant risk the lawyer’s representation of the client will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to or relationships with another client” or anyone else, including the lawyer’s own interests.
However, even with informed written consent, the Rules of Professional Conduct only permit such representation if the attorney “reasonably believes” that they’ll still be able to “provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client.” Further, that representation cannot “involve the assertion of a claim by one client against another client represented by the lawyer” whether in the same case or another one.
Can your attorney be paid by someone else?
Under the Rules of Professional Conduct, an attorney can be compensated by someone other than their client (with the client’s informed written consent) as long as the person who’s paying the attorney doesn’t interfere with their decisions or in the attorney-client relationship. The attorney cannot give the person compensating them any privileged information.
These rules apply whether it’s a criminal or civil matter. Either way, it’s typically not a good idea to share an attorney (even if you’re paying for your own representation) or let someone else pay your attorney – even if you think your interests are aligned. You want an attorney solely focused on your interests.
If you have been harmed because your attorney had a conflict of interest that put you at risk, you may have a case of legal malpractice. It’s wise to learn more about options for seeking justice and compensation.