The Ethical Duties of Lawyers

Among the highest responsibility a lawyer has is his or her obligation to the client.  A number of strict rules and common sense guidelines define those responsibilities:

  • Competence
  • Follow client’s decisions
  • Diligence
  • Communication
  • Confidentiality
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Safeguarding client’s property

Competence.  This requires the lawyer’s ability to analyze legal issues; research and study changing laws and legal trends; and otherwise represent the client effectively and professionally.

Follow client’s decisions.  A lawyer should advise a client of possible actions to be taken in a case and possible options available in a transaction and then act according to the client’s choice of action–even if the lawyer might have picked a different route.  One of the few exceptions is where a client asks for a lawyer’s help in doing something illegal, such a lying in court or in a legal document.  In those cases, the lawyer is required to inform the client of the legal effect of any planned wrongdoing and refuse to assist with it.

Diligence.  Every lawyer must act carefully and in a timely manner in handling a client’s legal matter or problem.  Unnecessary delays can often damage the situation.  If, because of overwork or any other reasons, a lawyer is unable to spend the required time and energy on the matter or problem, the lawyer should refuse from the beginning to undertake the work.

Communication.  A lawyer must be able to communicate effectively with a client.  When a client asks for an explanation, the lawyer must provide it within a reasonable time.  A lawyer must inform the client about changes in a case caused by time and circumstances.

Confidentiality.  With few exceptions, a lawyer may generally not tell anyone else what a client reveals about a matter or problem.  The reason for this strict rule is to enable the client to discuss case details openly and honestly with a lawyer, even if those details reveal embarrassing or damaging information about the client.  The rule called the “Attorney/Client Privilege” helps protect confidential information from being disclosed to others.

Conflicts of Interest.  A lawyer must be loyal to his or her client. This means that a lawyer cannot represent two clients who are on opposite sides in the same dispute or transaction unless both clients give permission after being fully informed.  Ordinarily, there can be no representation of a client whose interests would conflict with a lawyer’s own interests.  For example, a lawyer may not be involved in writing a Will for a client who leaves the lawyer money or property in that Will.

Safeguarding client’s property.  If a lawyer holds a client’s money or property, the lawyer must keep it safe and separate from the lawyer’s own funds and belongings.  When the client asks for the property, the lawyer must return it promptly and in good condition. The lawyer must also keep careful records of money received for a client and, if asked, report that amount promptly and accurately.

Adapted from: The American Bar Association, Family Legal Guide (1994), pages 17-18.