As an attorney, it is extremely important that you understand the importance of your fiduciary duty towards your clients. The trust and confidence that your clients place in you is of an exceptional nature and, as such, it must be treated with the utmost respect. The relationship that exists between an attorney and his or her client is recognized as a highly privileged one that is afforded certain legal protections. Violating your fiduciary relationship is not only unethical, it could expose you to legal malpractice claims. Below we will provide a brief refresher course in some of the most important points, often described as the “Four Cs” that you should consider when assigned fiduciary duty.
As an attorney, you will have greater legal knowledge than your clients in almost all cases. One of your most important duties is to keep your client well informed about his or her legal options, including the potential benefits and drawbacks of each option. While the ultimate decisions your client makes are up to him or her, you should do everything possible to keep lines of communication open and ensure that the decisions that he or she does make are based on qualified legal advice.
For a client to put their trust in you, they need to be assured that whatever information they share with you will be kept in the strictest confidence. Respecting the confidentiality of such information is central to ensuring that attorney-client privilege is also respected and upheld. Only in very exceptional circumstances can your client’s confidentiality be violated, such as if doing so may protect his or her life.
In order to give your client the best possible advice, you need to display competence. Because your client may be making legal decisions that could have a significant impact on his or her future, he or she needs to trust that the advice you are giving is sound. Attorneys need to know what they are talking about in order for their clients to make well-informed decisions. Granted, situations may arise where you are asked for legal advice by your client in an area of the law that you are unfamiliar with. Don’t try to mask the limits of your knowledge. Instead, be honest with your client if you cannot give them competent advice. If you need to, do extra research or consult with another more qualified attorney.
It is imperative that you avoid any conflicts of interest with any of your clients. Your duty is to look out for your clients’ best interests and you simply cannot do that when any of your other interests are in conflict with his or her interests. You cannot, for example, take on two clients who are in a legal conflict with one another, such as two spouses who are getting divorced or an employer and employee who are both involved in a wrongful dismissal suit with one another.
Your fiduciary duties mean that you must always adhere to the highest ethical standards when representing your clients. Maintaining open communication, respecting your client’s confidentiality, displaying competence, and avoiding conflicts of interest are all fundamental to being the best attorney you possibly can be.