It’s a common situation. A person is in need of legal representation for one reason or another, and because of restricted funds, reaches out to a family member who is also an attorney. The family member, be it a brother, sister, aunt, uncle, parent or child, wants to help but knows that it is a bad idea to represent you. Why?
First, a lawyer must zealously represent their client. In order to do that, she must feel that she has all of the facts to the best of her knowledge. People in tough situations are often embarrassed or afraid to let the truth spill out. However, when it is a family member, those details are even less forthcoming. Think about it, who wants to tell their sibling all of the inner secrets of the marriage that is now falling apart? It may be a nasty situation but most people hold back some of the dirty laundry. This puts an attorney at a disadvantage when she tries to represent her client. How can she apply the law to the client’s set of facts when she doesn’t have the correct set of facts?
Secondly, lawyers are generally very candid people. We deal with things of a factual nature and we like to plan for “worst case scenarios”. We are very good at strategy and we normally do not mind confrontation if it’s necessary to help our client. Arguing with a family member who is now a “client” can cause some serious long lasting problems. Imagine this: Bob and Sally have decided to divorce. At first they seem to be in agreement and they are getting along for the sake of the children. However, Bob, has met someone at the office and wants to move the divorce a bit faster. To save time, he seeks out his brother, Gary, for his part of the divorce. Sally has her own attorney. Bob’s brother does not know Sally. She never spent time with the family. He feels safe in representing Bob, however, representing family in general is not something he does. However, he agrees to do this to speed things along and help his brother save some money. As the divorce case continues, it becomes apparent that Bob has held back some critical information and it becomes evident why he wanted to use his brother for the divorce. Bob is trying to shield his finances from his wife unlawfully to keep from paying the correct child support. You can see where this situation is leading, right? Gary tries to explain the law to Bob. Bob refuses to listen. Gary knows this will cause a major problem down the road for Bob. Disagreements begin to put a strain on their familial relationship.
After a lawyer is involved in the case, it is difficult to find another lawyer to step in and take over the case without paying them to basically start from scratch. This is because they need to spend time to get their head around all of the facts. That takes time. You see, the other attorney (the brother in our example) knew the situation from the start. It’s not as simple as reading the documents and having a few conversations. It takes a bit of time to understand what has taken place – or what has NOT taken place – so that an attorney can represent a client knowing that she will do her best and not put her client in a bad situation. The “catch-up” ends up costing our more than actually hiring an attorney from the initiation of the case.
In many cases, a lawyer cannot simply step off of a case. Legally speaking, once an attorney has become the “attorney of record” some courts will not allow the lawyer to end representation without a very good cause. This puts both attorney and the client in an uncomfortable situation, knowing that both would like the relationship to end.
In other cases, representation by family can be an outright conflict of interest. It’s in the less obvious cases where we see family relationships suffer or friendships fail as a result. Got a family member that’s a photographer? Give them your business. Got someone in the family who does catering? That’s a great thing to share. Got an auto mechanic friend? Give him the work and help him make some money. Better to leave the lawyers to people you do not know and get a referral from your family member – and save your relationship!