Lawyer-client relationships are fiduciary in nature, meaning that lawyers must act in the best interests of their clients. In Virginia, lawyers are governed by the Rules of Professional Conduct. These rules ensure that attorneys act ethically. All lawyers owe their clients the following duties:
Duty of Competence
Lawyers must provide competent representation. This means lawyers must have the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary to represent the client. In order to maintain competence, Virginia lawyers must take 12 hours of continuing legal education yearly. Lawyers must also stay abreast of the benefits and risks associated with the use of technology in representing a client. For example, if a lawyer maintains client files electronically, the lawyer must be aware of the risks of hacking and take reasonable and appropriate precautions.
Duty of Diligence
Lawyers must act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client. This means that attorneys must pursue the client’s case despite opposition, obstruction, or personal inconvenience to the lawyer. Lawyers should act with zeal in advocacy and may take whatever lawful and ethical measures are required to win the client’s case. Lawyers must vigorously pursue the client’s goals and must not procrastinate.
Duty of Communication
Clients must be reasonably informed about the status of their cases and lawyers must promptly comply with a client’s reasonable requests for information. Lawyers must also explain the matter to clients and inform them of facts that may significantly affect settlement or resolution of the matter. For example, lawyers must inform clients of settlement offers, and must provide all information reasonably necessary for the client to make an informed decision regarding whether to accept or reject the offer.
Duty of Confidentiality
A lawyer must not reveal any information protected by the attorney-client privilege, or any information that the client has asked the lawyer to keep secret, or that would be embarrassing or detrimental to the client. The attorney-client privilege covers all communications between the lawyer and client that involve legal advice and consultation. The purpose of the duty of confidentiality is to encourage clients to freely share information with their lawyers so that the lawyer can provide effective representation.
Duty of Loyalty
Lawyers owe their clients an undivided duty of loyalty. This means that if you are represented by a lawyer, that lawyer (or the lawyer’s law firm) may not represent any party against you without your consent. The duty of loyalty applies to former clients as well. A lawyer who has represented you in a matter may not subsequently represent another person in the same or substantially related matter against you without your consent. The duty of loyalty also requires lawyers to avoid personal conflicts of interest. For example, if a lawyer has a personal or business interest that would hinder the lawyer’s zealous advocacy for a client, the lawyer must decline the representation.
Duty of Safekeeping Property
Handling client funds is a great responsibility. Very few professions are entrusted with protecting money or property owned by another person. Lawyers who handle client funds must maintain those funds in a trust account at an approved banking institution. Lawyers must not commingle their funds with client funds, must notify clients of the receipt of funds, and must promptly pay to a client or third party the funds such person is entitled to receive. Lawyers have a duty to protect a health care provider’s medical liens and assignments, and may not distribute client settlement funds until these have been satisfied. Lawyers may not distribute funds from a trust account if ownership of the funds is under dispute. Appropriate trust account records must be maintained and the account periodically reconciled.
Duties regarding fees
A lawyer’s fees must be reasonable and must be explained to the client. Whether a fee is reasonable depends on several factors, including the time and labor required, the complexity of the case, the experience and ability of the lawyer, and whether the fee is fixed or contingent. Contingent fees are typically a percentage of the overall recovery, and are paid from the settlement or judgment. In such cases, the lawyer assumes the risk of nonpayment if there is no recovery. Many personal injury cases are based upon a contingency fee, and all contingency fee agreements must be in writing. Contingency fees are not permitted in criminal cases and are rarely appropriate in domestic relations cases.
Lawyers have demanding responsibilities and play an important role in society. Therefore, it is vital that attorneys maintain a high level of ethics. The attorneys at Allen & Allen have a history of demonstrating honesty, integrity and competence. If you’re seeking an established law firm, schedule a free consultation today.