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What is an Attorney Conflict of Interest?

Conflicts of interest can occur in a number of real-life situations. While these may be ethical dilemmas, acting one way or another will not likely lead to any kind of formal punishment. For example, if a business executive is her son's direct manager, there will likely be a conflict of interest when she has to conduct a performance review of her son's work. This might create a problem for the company and lead to policy changes, but it wouldn't necessarily violate any laws.

In the legal field, however, one of the legal duties every lawyer must observe is to avoid conflicts of interest when it comes to their clients. In fact, if a lawyer represents a client knowing that there's a conflict of interest, they can be disciplined by the state bar and sued by the client for legal malpractice.

Read on to find out more about attorney conflicts of interest, including the different ways they can arise and when an attorney may still be able to represent a particular client in spite of an apparent conflict of interest.

Types of Attorney Conflicts of Interest

There are a variety of conflicts of interest that can prevent a lawyer from taking on a particular case. The conflict may occur between the prospective client and one of the attorney's current or former clients. There can also be concerns if a client's interests are in conflict with the lawyer's professional or personal relationships. For example, if the client is looking to sue a particular business that happens to be owned by the lawyer's brother-in-law, there's a clear conflict of interest for the attorney. It's also possible for there to be an issue if the potential client's interests are at odds with the attorney's own interests.

A conflict of interest can also occur at the law firm level. For example, even if an attorney working at a law firm didn't personally work on a particular matter (because someone else at the firm handled it), if the attorney leaves the firm, he or she could still have a conflict of interest related to that matter based on the firm's work.

While an attorney may be able to easily identify a conflict, sometimes they're not always easy to spot. Because of this, it's the attorney's responsibility to perform regular conflict checks when taking on a new client.

Attorney Conflicts of Interest: Exceptions

There are times when an attorney may be able to represent a client despite an apparent conflict of interest, although the rules on this can vary by state. For example, a lawyer may be able to accept an individual as their client if:

  • The lawyer believes they can provide "competent and diligent" representation to all affected clients;
  • The representation isn't illegal in any way;
  • The lawyer isn't representing two clients against each other in the same lawsuit; and
  • Each affected client provides informed consent in writing.

Basically, exceptions can occur on a case-by-case basis and will depend on whether the lawyer legitimately believes that they can provide the best representation possible to their client(s).

It's also important to note that a law firm may be able to represent a client even though a single attorney had a conflict of interest, if a "firewall" can be successfully put around the attorney with the conflict. This essentially means that the matter would not be discussed with or around the attorney with the conflict, and that attorney wouldn't have access to any documents or information related to the case.

More Questions About Attorney Conflicts of Interest? Speak to a Professional Today

After reading this article, you may have specific questions about attorney conflicts of interest. If so, it's a good idea to get in touch with a skilled attorney near you. An attorney can not only answer any questions you may have about the scope of an attorney's obligations to their client, they can also answer other questions you may have about the law.

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