Attorney ethics question
June 14, 2016 4:29 PM   Subscribe

Dear lawyers: I have an ethics question.

This may be kind of a dumb question but I'm not really sure how I might google it.

Say you (the attorney) have a friend who refers their significant other (who is not their spouse, i.e. not a legal partnership, just a boyfriend/girlfriend) to you for something, and you agree to take on the case. Can you still hang out with your friend (who is not your client) socially, or is it an ethics violation? If you cannot, at what point does the attorney/client relationship officially end, and you can start to spend time with your friend again? Assume both of you fully understand you cannot discuss anything that would violate attorney/client privilege. Would there be any conflict of interest issues? I have no idea what the issues might be here. Thanks.
posted by triggerfinger to Law & Government (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Does the significant other's legal issue involve the friend in any way?

I'm having a hard time seeing why taking the case would necessitate a cessation of spending time with the friend unless the friend was an adverse party. The attorney would have to maintain confidentiality of the s.o. And not discuss the case with the friend, but that's generally where the limitation ends.
posted by Karaage at 4:44 PM on June 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Unless there is a sexual relationship between the attorney and client, the ethical rules are mostly silent on representing friends or friends of friends. The other situations that could arise are -- as Karaage notes -- if the friend was an adverse party, mostly likely if the attorney were representing the friend's s.o. in a divorce, prenup, or adversarial will situation where the friend was the other party. (I suppose maybe landlord/tenant comes up reasonably often too?) Even so in cases like that the client can usually waive conflict concerns.

Attorneys are allowed to have friends as clients. There are a handful of special rules relating to attorneys who have family members as clients. (For example, usually attorneys can't write wills in which they're a beneficiary, but most states allow them to do so for family members, because it's a bit harsh to require your dad to hire someone outside the family just so you-the-attorney-child don't get written out of the will by writing the will!) Don't have sex with clients.

I live in a small city with a small bar; when I was practicing law, I knew probably at least 50% of my clients socially, and was frequently referred new clients by other friends, family members, or spouses of those clients. It's not really a problem. You segment off a portion of your brain where you don't talk about your work in social settings. I could never have left the house otherwise! It's too small a town.

It's a small enough bar here that occasionally judges recuse themselves from cases because they're too close of a friend of one of the attorneys involved, or less frequently one of the parties, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. (Also lawyers basically never get seated on juries around here because you always, but always, know at least one of the attorneys and/or the judge well enough that you get struck.) But if people got conflicted out of representation for being socially friendly, we would have no functioning bar because everybody knows everybody here!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:01 PM on June 14, 2016 [8 favorites]

No, there is no ethics violation - in the jurisdictions I am familiar with.

But a prudent attorney would consider not accepting the case at the outset because of the friendship. Not that it creates a "conflict of interest" but because the attorney's need to remain objective as she advises the client in the course of representation. The friendship (or the relationship) could be affected.
posted by megatherium at 5:02 PM on June 14, 2016

According to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, while sleeping with your client is an ethics violation, having a threesome with your client and another person is not an ethics violation, so long as you do not touch your client.

Yes. For realisies. Not making this up. Actual thing.
posted by Diablevert at 5:23 PM on June 14, 2016 [20 favorites]

Best answer: There are, as discussed above, situations where this sort of thing could get hinky from a conflict-of-interest point of view, but there are lots and lots of lawyers who get most of their business based on personal referrals, and wouldn't be able to have any friends if the rules were too strict.

Generally, when it comes to ethical rules, lawyers won't really go wrong as long as they are (within limits) acting in the best interests of, and according to the wishes of, their clients. Most (all?) states have a code of professional conduct that is based on the pretty standardized Model Rules of Professional Conduct. That is legalese written for legal people though, so it might be more worthwhile for you to check out this publication from the MN Lawyer's Professional Responsibility Board Professionalism Aspirations. It's a simpler version the the Rules, in that it asks the lawyer to aim for a higher standard to avoid even the appearance of shadiness. Most lawyers try to abide by them because they don't ever want to have to deal with The Board (even if they are "technically" right... *on preview, looks askance at Wisconsin*).

If this is about a real thing that you need perspective on, feel free to get in touch.
posted by sparklemotion at 5:27 PM on June 14, 2016

There's no conflict there, unless your ability to represent the client will be compromised (which it shouldn't be). This is not a hard question.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:46 PM on June 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

There are no problems, on the facts as you've presented them.

The attorney's duty of confidentiality will probably outlast their relationship though, so you'd just need to keep that in mind. Like, when they break up, and your friend wants to talk smack about the ex, you'd need to be mindful not to mention anything that you learned during your representation of the client.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:16 PM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My take would be that the friend is or is likely to be an adverse party; some ethical rules proscribe speaking with adverse parties that you know to be unrepresented.

Say the client is seeking advice related to the marriage, children, estate, family business or other matter that is the sort of thing the friend might casually discuss on a friendly basis with the attorney while hanging out. Attorney would then be privy to information from an unrepresented adverse party, and due to the duty of confidentiality owed to the client, the attorney might be prohibited from even telling friend "Hey, sure we can hang out but we absolutely cannot discuss [matter]" because that would give away the reason client sought advice from the attorney. That breach of confidentiality has the potential to harm the client's case by tipping off the adverse party before the client is ready to provide Notice/Process. So the attorney should avoid even casual contact with friend on the off-chance that friend might drop some forbidden knowledge.

The Rules of Professional Conduct for most jurisdictions are generally available on a State Bar's website.
posted by Schielisque at 4:27 AM on June 15, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I am not a lawyer and this isn't for anything specific, it's just something that popped into my head and I wanted to know if there were any guidelines or rules around this kind of thing. Though I suspected a scenario like the one I mentioned would be fine, Diablevert's link is a good illustration of how my assumptions could actually be the opposite of reality. Thanks again!
posted by triggerfinger at 5:16 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also, extra thanks to sparklemotion for the link to my specific state guidelines. It was an interesting read and made Minnesota lawyers seem SUPER polite!
posted by triggerfinger at 5:20 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

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