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Define the Attorney Client Relationship

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The attorney-client relationship is a formally recognized legal relationship that enjoys special protection under the law. An attorney, along with a doctor, spouse and priest, are one of the few people who cannot be obligated to testify or reveal information when that information would incriminate another. An attorney also has certain special obligations to a client, and an attorney's failure to fulfill those obligations can result in penalties including monetary fines, a malpractice verdict, and/or loss of the attorney's license to practice law.

When Is an Attorney-Client Relationship Formed?

An attorney-client relationship is formed when a client has reason to believe that the attorney is representing the client's legal interests. This "reason" can be express or implied. An attorney-client relationship can obviously be formed when a client pays a retainer and/or signs a contract with an attorney that the attorney will represent them.

An attorney-client relationship can also be formed under more informal circumstances. If a client comes into an attorney's office and reveals privileged or confidential information about his or her case, an attorney-client relationship may be formed. If an attorney makes a phone call on a client's behalf, an attorney-client relationship may be formed. If a person asks for legal advice at a dinner party and the attorney gives that advice, an attorney-client relationship may be formed.

The key question in determining whether an attorney-client relationship exists is whether the client reasonably believes the attorney is representing his interests and/or providing him with legal guidance. The client need not pay the attorney any fees, the attorney need not spend extensive time with the client, and the client need not formally employ the attorney. If the client comes to the attorney for legal advice, manifests that desire for representation, and believes he is getting legal advice from the attorney, an attorney-client relationship exists.

Implications of an Attorney-Client Relationship

There are a number of implications associated with forming an attorney-client relationship. First, attorneys owe a fiduciary duty to their clients. This means they must act with the utmost responsibility and care and not compromise their client's interests. If an attorney does not behave in a reasonably responsible and prudent manner towards his clients, and/or the attorney's behavior falls short of the behavior one would expect from a reasonably competent attorney, the client can sue the attorney for malpractice.

An attorney also cannot represent another client if there is a conflict of interest with an existing or former client. This means that once an attorney-client relationship has been formed, the attorney must turn down any work that would conflict with his duty to be a 100% advocate for his existing client. The attorney also cannot take a case that is substantially the same as a case he worked on for a former client, even if he is no longer representing that former client.

Finally, an attorney-client relationship is a privileged relationship. Almost anything a client tells an attorney in confidence cannot be repeated. There are a few limited exceptions to this rule, such as if the client tells the attorney of his intent to do impending harm and the attorney reasonably believes the client will carry out these harmful actions. However, outside of the limited exceptions, a client can tell an attorney anything, even the location of a buried body, and the attorney is under an obligation to keep that information confidential. This privilege exists unless there is a third party present when the client speaks to the attorney, or unless the client waives the attorney-client privilege.

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