Most people are familiar with the concept of conflict of interest in the business world. Generally speaking, the terms refers to a situation in which there is the risk of an individual or corporation deriving personal or corporate benefit by exploiting their involvement with the interest in question. There can be multiple meanings to the term, of course.
In the context of law practice, conflict of interest is specifically related to an attorney’s duty of loyalty to his or her clients. An attorney is expected to zealously advocate for the interest of his or her clients, and this is not possible when the attorney is personally invested in some way with interests that are adverse to those of a client.
Under the New Jersey Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, attorneys are prohibited from representing a party whose interests are directly adverse to those of another client, as well as a party whose interests are in tension with another client, a former client, a third person to whom the attorney has responsibilities, or to a personal interest of the attorney. By “tension” we mean that the attorney’s ability to represent the party will be “materially limited” by the attorney’s other responsibilities.
What is meant by “directly adverse?” One example might be representing a husband and wife in child custody or property division proceedings. The more difficult issue is when an attorney’s ability to represent a party is materially limited. In such situations, there is no direct conflict, but there is some sort compromise of the attorney’s duty to objectively represent the client’s interests. This can even take the form of appearing to be a conflict, which can also cause problems.
We’ll pick back up on this topic in our next post, looking at what is expected of an attorney in dealing with conflicts of interests that come up in practice, and why it is important to seek legal assistance from a experienced legal malpractice attorney when one is harmed by an attorney’s failure to screen out conflicts of interest in taking on clients.