Every lawyer at some point in their career has likely been asked to perform legal work for friends or family members. Most of the time, friends or relatives just have a quick legal question that does not require too much time or effort. Other times, family and friends may have a full-blown legal matter for which they need to retain counsel, and these matters can often get heated. Although it is easy to let tensions rise when representing family and friends, lawyers should try their best not to get too emotional since this could cloud their judgment and negatively impact a representation.
The first time I ever represented a close family friend was early in my career when I was working for a midsized regional firm. A close family friend and his children, who were also friends with my family, owned a company that was being sued in an emergent matter that needed to be decided on an expedited basis. The outcome of this matter could have had a substantial impact on this family’s business, and I knew the pressure was on to get the best result possible for my client.
I worked extremely hard for my family friends and put in numerous hours during nights and weekends to crank out solid work product on an expedited basis. Within a few weeks of accepting this matter, we needed to go to court for an order to show cause hearing, and my client wanted to appear at the hearing to see that everyone was going well in court. When I met the client in court, I could tell that this family friend was weary from this matter, and it was tough to see him seem tired by all of the legal hurdles he needed to face.
I was extremely animated in court and was not as amicable as usual with my adversary because of the tension that my client was facing because of this lawsuit. This could have made it harder to reach a resolution with my adversary since it is usually best to have a solid relationship with an adversary so that deals can be struck to avoid parts of the litigation process. In the end, I was able to obtain a very favorable result for my client, but after some reflection, it was obvious that I let emotions related to representing a close family friend get to me during the representation.
At another time in my legal career, I had to represent some of my relatives who were being threatened with a (no pun intended) relatively meritless lawsuit. There was a release that clearly precluded the claimant from pursuing the claim, but the claimant’s lawyer made all kinds of threats against my relatives, likely in order to use aggression to shake us down for some quick money. As negotiations got more heated, the other lawyer started threatening me by saying that he would subpoena various family members and make their lives miserable if we did not settle his client’s claim.
It was difficult not to get too passionate about this situation. The lawyer was threatening people who were very near and dear to me, and the thought of my relatives being faced with the stress of litigation did not sit well with me. To some extent, the passion helped me out in the representation. I was able to channel some of the anger of this annoyance in communications with my adversary, and this likely helped me resolve the matter at minimal cost to my relatives. But my judgment was definitely clouded by the passion of representing family, and this could have negatively impacted the services I rendered.
Lawyers are usually able to provide the best legal services possible when they are objective and are governed by reason and not by emotion. In many situations, lawyers need to be the voice of reason while clients are the ones who make decisions out of passion and emotions. Lawyers need to be able to objectively size up the merits of a case and whether claims and defenses will succeed in court. In addition, lawyers need to be able to accurately evaluate the value of a case when it is time to settle a matter. When lawyers act emotionally, there may not be a core of reason guiding a representation and ensuring that strategies are based on what objectively is positive for a representation and not what is governed by emotion. In certain situations, representing family may even be unethical since the representation might be materially limited by the circumstances of the case.
All told, friends and family members often turn to lawyers they know in order to handle their legal work since they naturally trust a lawyer who is close to them than other attorneys. Lawyers should not let emotions get the best of them during such representations to ensure their friends and relatives get the best representation possible.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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