At the WSBA Ethics Line, we take calls all the time. Have you ever needed to hash out a sticky conflicts situation? Ever felt unsettled by your client’s behavior or unsure how to handle something confidentially? If so, you’re not alone.
Here are three common questions we receive as well as a few tips we offer to tackle delicate ethical dilemmas.
1: “What if I can’t get a hold of my client and a deadline is looming?”
A lawyer may not take action without authorization from their client. A lawyer should make all reasonable efforts to locate their client, but if they’re having trouble doing so, we advise that they document all their efforts to give notice and contact the client by mail, phone, and email. Find out more on this subject by reading WSBA’s paper “What To Do When You Can’t Find Your Client.”
Similarly, you might have trouble contacting opposing counsel. Check out my earlier blog post “When Opposing Counsel Goes Dark—Can You Communicate Directly With the Adverse Party?” to learn more on this topic.
2: “I’m planning on leaving my firm. Can I tell my clients before I tell the firm?”
The short answer: Probably not.
In most cases, a lawyer should notify their firm of a departure before their clients, thereby avoiding allegations of breach of fiduciary duty, dishonesty or deceit. It is professional misconduct to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.
Clients are entitled to timely notice that a lawyer will be departing the firm, which is best handled in writing. Refer to our frequently asked questions paper, “What are my ethical duties when I leave a firm?” to learn more.
3: “I think my client might try to harm someone. What should I do?”
A lawyer’s duty of confidentiality to a client is a hallmark of an attorney’s ethical duties, but that duty is not absolute. A lawyer “shall reveal information relating to the representation of a client to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily injury,” according to RPC 1.6 (b)(1). In addition, the rule states an attorney “may reveal information to prevent the client from committing a crime and in several other situations.” Some things to consider are the specificity and immediacy of the client’s plans. A call to the local county designated mental health crisis line can also help attorneys talk this out.
Ethics Help is Phone Call Away
Attorneys run into ethical issues, and we can help. The WSBA Ethics Line is a completely confidential resource for you. Any Bar member can call and get assistance regarding their own future conduct. See APR 19(e).
The Ethics Line is: 206-727-8284 or toll-free at 800-954-WSBA (9722). It’s staffed by WSBA attorneys who are well-versed with the RPC’s and advisory opinions. If you need help, call the line and leave a voicemail with your name, license number, a brief message (including the RPC you think is involved), and your phone number. You will get a call back within one or two business days.
Additionally, the answers to many ethical questions are posted in the WSBA Ethics FAQ.
If you have concerns about the unethical conduct of another legal professional, contact the Office of Disciplinary Counsel at 206-727-8207.