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What is a Conflict of Interest for Lawyers?


If you talk to a lawyer and have a consultation about taking your case, there are a few reasons they might turn the case down. One is that it could be a potential conflict of interest. That could leave you wondering exactly what that means.

The idea of a conflict of interest is that every client deserves to have ethical representation when they work with an attorney. You expect that you’re going to be represented without bias.

A conflict of interest could prevent that. A conflict of interest is a possible conflict between an attorney’s professional duties and the private interests they may have. There could also be a conflict between an attorney’s duty to one client and another.

The American Bar Association’s Model Rules for Professional Conduct outline the guidelines attorneys must follow to prevent a conflict of interest.

In daily life, there’s the potential for conflicts of interest to occur all the time, but they don’t necessarily violate laws or regulations.

For attorneys, not avoiding conflicts of interest can lead them to be disciplined by their state bar. Conflicts of interest are also one of the main reasons clients sue for legal malpractice.

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Common Scenarios Involving a Conflict of Interest

Some examples that we most commonly see concerning legal conflicts of interest include:

  • Representing clients simultaneously that have different interests—one particular example of this scenario would be if an attorney is representing both sides in a divorce. Another situation could include an attorney representing both sides in the case of a civil claim.
  • Personal conflicts of interest—attorneys, before taking any case, should make sure there aren’t current or previous personal issues they’ve had with the client. This could include a friendship. Group member affiliations can also affect this scenario.
  • Current and former clients—as attorneys grow their practices, this conflict of interest gets harder to avoid. You shouldn’t take on a new client who has interests that go against the interest of your previous clients. Of course, there are a lot of gray areas as far as what time frame indicates a former client, so it’s something attorneys will have to use their judgment on. For example, maybe an attorney worked with a client but hasn’t had anything open on file with them for several years, so they might be able to take on the new client.
  • Third-party conflicts—attorneys need to be able to represent clients without any effect on their judgment by third parties.

Depending on the state, an attorney could represent a client despite a conflict of interest.

If the lawyer believes they can provide competent representation to everyone affected, and the representation isn’t illegal, they may be able to accept someone as a client.

Attorneys might be able to make exceptions to conflict of interest guidelines if they aren’t representing two clients against one another in the same law and if each client who’s affected provides informed consent in writing.

Exceptions have to be decided case-by-case.

Also, a law firm might be able to represent a client even if one of the attorneys in the firm has a conflict of interest. The firm has to make sure nothing related to the matter is discussed with the attorney with the conflict.

Legal Malpractice

If someone believes their attorney has represented them with a conflict of interest, they might sue them for legal malpractice.

Legal malpractice occurs when an attorney inappropriately handles a case because of negligence or the intent to harm, leading to client damages.

In most cases, attorneys choose their strategies in good faith, and it’s reasonable. Even if you don’t get the outcome you were hoping for, that doesn’t mean you have a case of malpractice.

With malpractice, you have to show that had your attorney not been negligent or acted wrongly, your underlying case would have otherwise been successful.

If the financial loss would have happened regardless of mistakes made by your attorney, it’s not malpractice.

All of this underscores the importance of working with an experienced attorney and going to your initial consultation prepared.

An experienced attorney will know when to pass on your case, and they can also let you know why.

Often people will get offended, but attorneys will usually have a very good reason for not taking a case, and it can protect you in the long run. A conflict of interest is just one possible cause for not taking your case.