If you got caught up in some alleged wrongdoing by your employer, you may have been relieved when they offered to provide you with the services of one of their attorneys at no charge to you. Now that you’re stuck with a criminal record, you’re questioning the advice you received and wondering if they weren’t more interested in protecting those higher up in the company than in providing you with a strong defense.
Are attorneys allowed to represent a client while being paid by someone else? Is that considered legal malpractice?
Understanding conflict of interest
It’s not malpractice simply for an attorney to be paid by someone other than their client. It’s not especially uncommon for a family member or friend to help pay the legal bills for someone who can’t afford them. However, there must be full disclosure of who is paying the attorney. If you want to know who is paying them, “Don’t worry about it” isn’t a satisfactory (or appropriate) answer. You have a right to know.
The primary concern is a potential conflict of interest. Under American Bar Association (ABA) rules, an attorney “shall not accept compensation for representing a client from one other than the client unless:
- They have the client’s informed consent.
- There’s no interference in the attorney-client relationship or in the attorney’s judgment and independence.
- Attorney-client confidentiality is maintained.
The Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA) has the same kind of rules regarding conflict of interest. Under the Rules of Professional Conduct, it’s considered a conflict of interest if “the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client” or there’s a “significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the attorney’s responsibilities to another client….”
Can an attorney represent multiple clients when only one is paying them?
Another common example where you need to be careful is when two or more people are charged in the same case and one person (or their parents) offers to pay for everyone’s defense. It’s crucial to ensure that the attorney is representing your or your loved one’s interests and they aren’t being made a scapegoat for the offense.
If you believe that you suffered harm because of a conflict of interest by an attorney, it’s wise to find out more about the rules of conduct as they pertain to your case.