The responsibilities of a family lawyer include:
- Safeguarding the client’s property
- Being truthful (to the client, courts, and other people involved in the case)
- Maintaining confidentiality
- Communicating effectively
- Ensuring excellence
- Being diligent
- Ensuring there is no conflict of interest
- Protecting the client
- Being fair to the client in other business arrangements
- Terminating the client–attorney relationship in certain circumstances
1. Safeguarding The Client’s Property
- The attorney should deposit any retainer/fee received from the client in a “trust” account. He should not mix up these funds with the money in his/her personal or the firm’s account.
- The lawyer should withdraw money from the trust account only after a reasonable period or after it is clear that the case has progressed and the lawyer is entitled to the funds in full or part.
- In the case of itemized billings, which is the norm, the attorney should diligently and truthfully keep records of each of the tasks performed.
- If the attorney is working on a flat fee basis, then he/she is likely to receive the fee or an advance upfront. The lawyer must be careful in safeguarding this money because any disagreement or overreach can result in a dispute which may be followed by a complaint to the state’s bar association.
- If the attorney receives any movable property from or on behalf of the client (for example, jewelry, cash, or any other valuables), then he should diligently itemize the properties before depositing them in a safe.
2. Being Truthful
- The lawyer must not knowingly make an untrue statement. If he/she has unknowingly, in error, made an untruthful statement to the courts or his client, he/she must correct the statement as soon as the error is discovered.
- The attorney can advocate or promote the client’s version of the truth so long he/she believes it is ethical to do so. If the attorney feels that the client’s version is untrue, he/she should not advocate the client’s beliefs. In addition, before advocating the client’s version, the lawyer must first verify it.
- The lawyer must not sugarcoat or hide any information – he/she should objectively and candidly provide his/her opinion, and in plain English.
- The family lawyer is expected to take legally accurate positions, no matter his/her client’s interests.
3. Maintaining Confidentiality
- Clients reveal their family and divorce-related personal secrets to their family law attorney. Therefore, the client must know and feel confident that this information will remain strictly confidential and will be treated according to the client’s instructions.
- The client also hands over extra-sensitive data to the attorney – some examples: medical reports, IRS records. These are meant for the attorney and his assistants’ eyes only, and they must not be revealed.
4. Communicating Effectively
- The attorney must, without delay, communicate any significant developments in the case to the client.
- If the attorney needs the client’s consent on any matter, then he/she should communicate that matter to the client in time and obtain the client’s consent.
- Typically, a client who is caught up in a family law matter is likely to be anxious and tense about new developments. So, it becomes the attorney’s responsibility to promptly communicate any significant development to the client.
5. Ensuring Excellence
- When a lawyer graduates in family law, he/she is assumed to be competent in his/her area of expertise. However, real expertise comes from experience. So, the attorney is expected to be aware of and experienced in the law as it applies to the client’s case, state’s rules, and court processes. Plus, he/should have negotiation skills that can help the client settle the case before it goes to trial.
- The lawyer must provide excellent representation to his/her client.
6. Being Diligent
- The attorney must spend ample time studying the case in detail, and use the full extent of his/her analytical skills and experience to predict a possible outcome before giving any opinion to the client. He/she must not give a general opinion in a hurry because each case is unique and circumstances may differ from case to case.
- With artificial intelligence at their disposal, some lawyers can rely on algorithms to predict different outcomes of a case and strategize based on technology. However, a family law attorney must meticulously study the case and apply his/her human-analytical skills to the tech-generated or templated scenarios, and use his/her experience before giving an opinion or suggesting outcomes to the client.
7. Ensuring There Is No Conflict Of Interest
- The family lawyer must not accept a case that creates a conflict of interest. A conflict arises when representing one client creates a situation that is adverse to another client’s interests. For example: a family lawyer representing the wife in a divorce case while providing legal services to the husband on a business matter; or a lawyer representing the wife after developing a romantic relationship with her, etc.
- The lawyer’s office should be equipped with a filtering system that can quickly catch conflicts of interest as and when they arise.
- The lawyer must diligently perform the conflict of interest checks and balances before getting any information from the potential client. This assumes importance in a family law firm because when one firm partner creates a conflict of interest by taking on a client, another partner may stand to lose a very valuable and loyal client.
8. Protecting The Client
- The lawyer must do his best to maintain a normal relationship with the client, even if the client’s mental faculties are diminished. But if the lawyer believes that this client is likely to hurt his/her own case, then the lawyer should act to protect the client’s interest.
- If the lawyer’s client cannot act in his/her own best interest, then the lawyer should appoint a professional such as a guardian or a conservator for assets for such a client.
- In one way, lawyers also protect their clients by being objective and giving them supportive advice that can help them succeed in their divorce/custody case. Some examples: helping the client choose between at-fault and no-fault divorce, explaining the state laws governing property distribution, creating an inventory of marital and separate assets, determining alimony and child support, helping the client create a parenting plan that is fair to the other parent, and more.
9. Being Fair To The Client In Other Business Arrangements
A family lawyer should not enter into any additional business relationship with the client unless the client is asked to ensure his/her interests by obtaining consultation from another independent counsel or professional. In fact, the family lawyer must suggest to the client to take this step before entering into any business relationship with him/her. Only after this consultation, when the client feels that the terms of the business agreement are fair should he/she give consent in writing. This is necessary because lawyers possess very sensitive information about their clients, which can be misused.
10. Terminating The Client–Attorney Relationship In Certain Circumstances
- The family lawyer should withdraw from the case if it creates a conflict of interest, violates the law, or compromises ethics.
- If the lawyer is unfit to represent the client, or other reasons stop him/her from working on the case, then too he should withdraw from the case.
- If the lawyer’s circumstances are such that he/she needs to withdraw from the case, then he should withdraw if and only if his withdrawal does not impact the case negatively.