Because of the importance and sensitivity of the client-attorney relationship, the American Bar Association and various state regulatory agencies have strict ethical guidelines for attorneys to follow. Attorneys must maintain the highest ethical standards to avoid disciplinary action and to earn the trust of their clients. Ethical dilemmas often arise when communications with clients break down and misunderstandings result.
A client-attorney relationship can be established inadvertently and with serious consequences. If a person asks an attorney a legal question and the attorney provides information, a legal relationship may have been established. Likewise, if an individual, based on past experience or conversation with an attorney, believes a relationship exists, then a relationship may have been inadvertently established. If a person shares confidential information with an attorney, the grounds for a relationship may be established. An attorney must be careful to state clearly that no such relationship exists.
Failure to Communicate
An attorney may face ethical violations for failure to communicate with a client in numerous situations. Anytime a client’s consent is required, the attorney must notify him. The lawyer must notify and update his client regarding developments in a case. If the client asks for information, the lawyer is obliged to respond to him. If a client asks an attorney to provide a service the attorney cannot legally perform, the client must be informed. Failure to communicate properly with a client could result in a malpractice suit.
Many professionals use the Internet to promote their businesses, but the Internet poses pitfalls for an attorney. Because the Internet has no boundaries, an attorney may run afoul of restrictions in states where he does not reside. An attorney can avoid these problems and the ethical issues they cause by posting a physical address on his website and identifying the area where he can practice. Emails, too, can pose an ethical dilemma, since confidentiality may be compromised if emails are shared. If an attorney informs his client that communication by email is not secure, he can neutralize this ethical problem.
Law firms may charge different rates for different clients based on the volume of business, past relationships or the nature of the legal research required. But without a legitimate reason, charging higher rates or expanding the number of hours billed to a client may pose ethical problems. Failure to inform clients of the rationale for the rate structure may create an ethical issue. Many attorneys set a target for how many billable hours they must accrue. Since meeting or exceeding this target can determine advancement within a firm, an attorney may be tempted to pad the hours billed to a client, which is an ethical violation.
Any condition that might cause a client to question an attorney’s ability to perform his job may create an ethical dilemma. While alcohol and drug abuse are obvious ethical problems, physician-prescribed medication might also be an issue if it impairs the attorney's performance. If the attorney has a drug or alcohol issue and it affects his work, the firm should either remove him from a case or apprise the client of the situation. Otherwise the firm could be charged with covering up the problem.
Thomas Metcalf has worked as an economist, stockbroker and technology salesman. A writer since 1997, he has written a monthly column for "Life Association News," authored several books and contributed to national publications such as the History Channel's "HISTORY Magazine." Metcalf holds a master's degree in economics from Tufts University.