Ethics and Lawyers

Author: Attorney Christopher A. Meyer

We’ve all heard the lawyer jokes about ethics and whether they really have any. In fact, there are strict ethical standards that lawyers must follow that are quite specific about what lawyers can and cannot do. If you have watched any crime shows, you may at least have some passing knowledge of some aspects of legal ethics, but here are a few of the ethical constraints that we, as personal injury lawyers, must follow.

  • A lawyer must keep information given to him about a personal injury case or any case in total confidence. This is part of the “attorney client privilege”; it means under most circumstances, if you tell a lawyer something that is relevant to your case, your attorney cannot reveal it or be required to reveal it. The purpose of this rule is to allow a lawyer and a client to have a frank, open discussion about the facts of their personal injury case or other personal matters that might affect it, and allows the lawyer to give complete legal advice after being told all the facts and information that a client thinks the attorney needs to know. There are some exceptions to the rule, however. First, the privilege only applies when there is an expectation of privacy. If you tell a lawyer deep secrets about an automobile accident at a cocktail party where others can overhear you, the privilege may not apply. Similarly if you tell an attorney something that was in yesterday’s newspaper, there’s normally no expectation of privacy. The privilege usually applies after a person has become a client, or when having a conversation about becoming a client (even if a contract of employment has not been signed yet).
  • A lawyer is required to explain his legal fees in detail before you enter into a contract. To avoid any misunderstanding, this is normally done in writing although that’s not absolutely required. There are no real limits on how much a lawyer can charge, although exorbitant fees are unethical. The fees and any associated expenses must be fully explained to the potential client who can then make an informed decision about whether or not to hire the lawyer. Here at the Allen & Allen Firm, we always have our clients sign a written contract which is carefully reviewed with the client.
  • A lawyer cannot knowingly make a false statement of law or fact to others when representing a client. Although a lawyer can “characterize” facts on his client’s behalf, the lawyer is not allowed to state a fact the lawyer knows is false. In other words, a lawyer is not permitted to lie for a client in court.
  • A lawyer representing a client is not allowed to communicate directly with the person on the opposite side if that person is represented by a lawyer. All conversation and communications between a lawyer for one side and the other side must be done through or with the express consent of the lawyer for the other side. In personal injury cases, this means your lawyer can’t talk with the other person if they are represented by a lawyer (usually hired by the insurance company), but only with that person’s lawyer.
  • A lawyer is forbidden from representing two clients who have conflicting interests. This seemingly simple rule is not easily applied in particular cases, and may be waived in some instances with the written consent of all involved parties, but in general a lawyer is supposed to represent a client zealously and he cannot do that if there are conflicting issues.
  • If a lawyer makes a serious mistake that causes the client harm, he is required to tell the client and to make it right. There are many deadlines in personal injury trial work, for example, and sometimes the failure to meet one of them means that the client will have lost a case that might have been won. If this happens, and few of us are perfect, our ethical obligation is to call the client in, explain the situation, suggest the client seek legal advice, and make it right.

Personal injury lawyers are sometimes asked by a client for a loan to help the client stay financially afloat until their case settles. Ethically, a personal injury lawyer is forbidden to do that, except in very limited areas dealing with the advancing expenses of the case. An attorney can recommend lending agencies who make loans to personal injury victims, but the lawyer or law firm cannot make loans directly no matter how desperate the client is or how meritorious their case is.

Most attorneys realize their reputation and their credibility with judges, other attorneys, their clients, and the public depends on being scrupulously honest and accurate. Once lost, a good reputation as an ethical attorney is very difficult to regain. But these ethical rules are more than just good practice; the violation of these rules can result in an attorney having his law license suspended or revoked.

I’ve described above just a few of the very complicated ethical rules that personal injury lawyers are expected to follow. If you have any questions, please write us and we will be more than happy to explain the very complicated rules of ethics that we have to follow.