4 Essential Lessons in Establishing Trust as a Lawyer

A trustworthy lawyer? That’s an oxymoron, some would say. Lawyers are often stereotyped with unflattering adjectives or traits. A Princeton University study says that the public acknowledges that lawyering is an envied profession, but most people don’t like lawyers. “They earn respect but not trust,” the study notes.

This popular perception, however, can’t be a justification to not attempt to become trustworthy. Likewise, it does not mean that gaining a client’s trust is impossible. It should even serve as the impetus to build more credibility and establish better connections with current and prospective clients. 

Featured below are stories that impart lessons on what lawyers should and should not be doing to establish trustworthiness. 

Do what’s right, resist the temptation to do otherwise

In Ohio, a 37-year-old attorney was convicted after getting charged for a fourth-degree felony, the unauthorized use of a client’s property. This conviction resulted in an order for suspension from the Ohio Supreme Court.

The lawyer’s foray into deception and theft started in 2010 as he encountered a county jail detainee who was arrested for illegally growing marijuana in her basement. The woman needed a lawyer, but she had no cash to pay for one. The lawyer agreed to represent the woman after she said she was willing to sell a piece of land she owned.

The lawyer sold the land after advising the women to transfer its ownership to him. His bill for representing the woman stood at $9,000, but he netted $127,767 after selling the woman’s property. He kept all of the property sale’s proceeds to himself and did not inform his client that it was already sold.

The woman complained after learning the facts, but the lawyer argued that he was entitled to all of the land’s value since the client supposedly agreed to give the land as a “flat fee” for his legal services. The client eventually recovered the amount from the deceitful lawyer after six years. The lawyer was convicted for his actions and ordered to be under a five-year community control. He was still fortunate enough that the Ohio Supreme Court only gave him an indefinite suspension instead of a disbarment.

It is bad enough to overcharge a client. It is even more repugnant to deceive and steal from them. Lawyers have the advantage of knowing a lot about laws, giving them ample opportunities to take advantage of people. To become someone trustworthy, it is never a good idea to be associated even with the littlest instances of deception.

To avoid getting tempted to commit deception and theft, be transparent with the client. Put important details in writing, especially those that pertain to the terms of the payment. It is inevitable to be under peculiar situations especially when dealing with clients under tricky circumstances. 

To the Ohio lawyer, cheating a client who clearly violated laws may have been a venial act. The consequences he had to face afterwards do not appear to agree, though. Again, he was lucky he was not disbarred, but his suspension will forever tarnish his trustworthiness.

Lamson Dugan & Murray LLP’s Cathy Trent-Vilim’s takeaways for this case can be summed up as follows: Never steal, think long and hard before accepting a client, avoid overcharging, and never ignore a client. She also aptly advises that, “if a Counsel for Discipline comes knocking, answer the door … Ignoring disciplinary proceedings will not make them go away. It will only increase the severity of any sanctions.”

Ascertain that clients understand what they are signing, never mislead

In Singapore, an attorney & investment service provider’s law career ended after getting disbarred because of a complaint that he allegedly misled a client on a S$250,000 (~$186,000) investment.

Singapore’s Court of Three Judges handed the disbarment after they were convinced that lawyer Malcolm Tan Chun Chuen made misleading statements to his client. The court believed the client’s claim that Chuen would take responsibility in supervising his S$250,000 investment. 

The court learned that Chuen asked the client to sign letters of engagement bearing the letterhead of the law firm Keystone Law Corp, the company the lawyer was part of. The letters clearly indicated that Chuen would oversee the investments under Keystone, but the client was to issue a check to a different company, Bluesky Group.

Later on, the client learned that the S$250,000 check he issued was for an investment to Bluesky Group, a management consultancy that was actually owned by Chuen, and that Keystone was not involved in the handling of the investment.

“This is a case where the dishonesty violates the trust and confidence inherent in the solicitor-client relationship,” said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon of the Court of Three Judges.

The client’s money was not lost, but it went to some purpose that was not what the client expected. The client did not pursue charges after getting back his money. However, Chuen faced disciplinary action from the Law Society for the misrepresentation.

Unlike public officials, lawyers are not required to divest their business interests when they become part of the bar. They are not barred from owning businesses or becoming shareholders in corporations. Occasionally, they stumble upon opportunities to promote or take in new clients for their businesses.

There is nothing wrong in promoting other businesses provided that everything is laid out transparently. Misrepresentations or misleading statements and paperwork are patently unethical that they merit disbarment. They may not always lead to a criminal charge, but the possibility is always there.

In the case of the Singapore lawyer, the Court of Three Judges said that the case was to be referred to the Attorney-General “to look into criminal consequences.”

Always be professional, avoid making excuses

Lawyers are not immune to personal problems. In the course of providing legal services to clients, they encounter issues that may hamper their services. In the Philippines, a lawyer was disbarred for violating a number of rules of the Code of Professional Responsibility while he claimed to have been overwhelmed by personal issues.

The lawyer agreed to provide legal services to a property owner who sought to evict illegal settlers from her land. The client was generous and trusting enough to “lend” the lawyer PhP 100,000 (~$2,000) as “cash advance,” because the lawyer said his wife was hospitalized. This amount was to be charged to his appearance and other fees.

The client, however, learned that the lawyer reneged on his responsibilities. He failed to file any complaint. He also did not provide updates on the status of the case. It became virtually impossible to contact him.

It was only after the client confronted the lawyer that the latter filed a complaint for ejectment. The court, however, dismissed the case, saying that it did not have jurisdiction over it. Disgruntled and frustrated, the client sought to recover the cash advance she gave to the lawyer. The lawyer promised to return the money but failed to do so.

A formal complaint was filed, which led to the lawyer’s disbarment.

“The acts and omissions of the respondent constitute malpractice, gross negligence and gross misconduct in his office as attorney. His incompetence and appalling indifference to his duty to his client, the courts and society render him unfit to continue discharging the trust reposed in him as a member of the Bar,” the Philippine Supreme Court said.

Personal issues can happen to anyone. However, these should never be used as excuses for incompetence, inaction, and client neglect. Lawyers should veer away from the mindset of taking advantage of unfortunate events to excuse failures or the lack of action.

Professionalism is a must for someone to be trustworthy. As a Florida A&M College of Law paper noted, “these trends (lack of professionalism) are a source of discomfort to all segments of the legal profession as they threaten not only the preeminent and prominent

position held by lawyers; but also threaten to sever the ‘significant

grant’ of public trust given to lawyers.”

Belated honesty is dishonesty, avoid ever getting involved in situations of desperate defense

A New Jersey lawyer was disbarred for the misappropriation of his clients’ money. He admitted to have misappropriated the funds of four clients, totalling around $13,000. Defending himself from disbarment, the lawyer invoked mitigating factors.

The lawyer claimed that he had a modest income of $25,000 annually and had to support a wife who had diabetes and his two daughters who studied at private schools. Additionally, he claimed that no client had ever complained about his services and none of his actions constituted fraudulent misrepresentations and intentional deception.

Essentially, the lawyer consciously violated his code of professional conduct and used money that was not his without permission from the owners. He only came clean when the clients complained.

The court ultimately decided to hand the lawyer his disbarment, even while admitting that the “Wilson rule” was rather harsh and inflexible.

“The essence of Wilson is that the relative moral quality of the act, measured by these many circumstances that may surround both it and the attorney’s state of mind, are irrelevant: it is the mere act of taking your client’s money knowing that you have no authority to do so that requires disbarment,” the court ruled.

Honesty should be present from the start for one to be considered honest. Mitigating factors may be useful in presenting a defense, but they do not guarantee evasion from the worst possible consequences.

To be trustworthy, a lawyer has to have the traits that make someone worth trusting right from the start. Trustworthy attorneys do not have to reach a point when they have to use mitigating factors after admitting wrongdoing because they were caught doing something anomalous.

The takeaway

It takes time for lawyers to build trustworthiness and only a split moment to make everything crumble. Establishing trust is even doubly hard given the popular stereotypes the public have about lawyers. To make sure that an officer of the law enjoys a sense of trust, it is essential to show professionalism, scruples, a sense of responsibility, and transparency at all times.

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