PREMIUM LEGAL RESOURCES LEGAL FORMS ASK A LAWYER

ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP

The Supreme Court has long held attorneys to stringent standards of loyalty and fairness with respect to their clients. In 1850, the Supreme Court stated:

There are few of the business relations of life involving a higher trust and confidence than that of attorney and client, or, generally speaking, one more honorably and faithfully discharged; few more anxiously guarded by the law, or governed by sterner principles of morality and justice; and it is the duty of the court to administer them in a corresponding spirit, and to be watchful and industrious, to see that confidence thus reposed shall not be used to the detriment or prejudice of the rights of the party bestowing it. Stockton v. Ford, 52 U.S. (11 How.) 232 (1850).

In the same vein, the Idaho Supreme Court has stated:

The relationship of client and attorney is one of trust, binding an attorney to the utmost good faith in dealing with his client. In the discharge of that trust, an attorney must act with complete fairness, honor, honesty, loyalty, and fidelity in all his dealings with his client. An attorney is held to strict accountability for the performance and observance of those professional duties and for a breach or violation thereof, the client may hold the attorney liable or accountable. Beal v. Mars Larsen Ranch Corp., Inc., 99 Idaho 662, 667-668, 586 P.2d 1378, 1383-1384 (1978) (citation omitted).

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that an attorney's subsequent representation of a client, whose interests were materially adverse to a former client in a matter substantially related to that in which he or she represented the former client, was an impermissible conflict of interest, giving rise to breach of a fiduciary duty. Maritrans 602 A.2d at 1282. The Court reasoned that an action at law was available because the common-law fiduciary duty imposed on attorneys prohibited them from engaging in impermissible conflicts of interest. Id. at 1283 (citing Stockton v. Ford, 52 U.S. (11 How.) 232 (1850); Woods v. Nat'l Bank & Trust Co., 312 U.S. 262, 61 S.Ct. 493 (1941); T.C. Theatre Corp. v. Warner Bros. Pictures, 113 F. Supp. 265 (S.D.N.Y. 1953)).

A duty to avoid conflicts of interest may be found in the proposed Restatements of the Law Governing Lawyers Comment c to section 72 which states:

After a client-lawyer relationship ends . . . a lawyer still owes certain duties to a former client, for example, to .. . avoid certain conflicts of interest (SS 213-214). A breach of such duties may be remedied through a malpractice action in such circumstances coming within this section. Id.

It is axiomatic that an attorney cannot continue to represent a client in a lawsuit in contravention of that client's explicit instruction to the contrary. See Model R. Prof. Cond. 1.2 ('A lawyer shall abide by a client's decisions concerning the objectives of representation[.]'); Comment to Model R. Prof. Cond. 1.2 ('The client has ultimate authority to determine the purposes to be served by legal representation[.]'). See Foothills Dev. Co. v. Clark County Bd., 730 P.2d 1369, 1373 (Wash. App. 1986) (attorney must follow client's specific instructions).

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