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What is an attorney's fiduciary duty to his or her clients?

Failing your fiduciary duty to a client is one of the quickest ways to lose your law license, but do you know how to actively define what that entails?

Your fiduciary duty is comprised of four basic principles that have to guide your interactions with any client. These include:

  • Competency
  • Confidentiality
  • Conflict avoidance
  • Communication

You need to understand what each of those things means in practice.

Competency

Competence means that you have to bring all of your legal know-how to each job you accept from a client. If something is outside your area of expertise, you need to defer the case to someone else so that your client receives the best service.

Confidentiality

This is essential to preserving a client's trust. You have to treat your client's secrets as if they were your own and seek to preserve the confidentiality whenever possible. In some cases, it also means helping your client understand the importance of confidentiality and how to preserve it.

Conflict avoidance

You have to be extremely careful to avoid even the appearance of conflicting interests in your work. Your client's best interests are always superior to your own. You should also avoid taking on two clients whose interests may eventually be in conflict. However, any sort of behavior that could be defined as "self-dealing," or making a profit off of your efforts on behalf of your client (other than your fee) could also be considered a breach of your duty.

Communication

Your client is the ultimate director of the show, even when his or her decision runs contrary to your advice. You can't make a decision on your client's behalf unless you have been duly authorized to do so. Otherwise, you have an obligation to give your client all the facts in order to make competent decisions about a case.

Apply the "Four Cs" to your legal practice, and you'll likely never have a serious problem with a breach of your fiduciary duty.

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