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Resisting the pull of family and friends

By Diane Karpman

Diane Karpman

At the beginning of the year, many lawyers are prone to demonstrate ethics enthusiasm and make New Year’s resolutions. This tendency usually has absolutely nothing to do with their MCLE compliance requirements.

Many resolve not to take clients who fall within well-recognized “red flag” categories. They will not represent a “lawyer wannabe,” because a client with a smidgen of information is certain that they know everything. They will not be the fourth or fifth lawyer in a case, ever again. They will refuse to become addicted to clients who massage their egos, who tell them that they are the only lawyer who ever understood them. They will not represent clients who, after being late for the first appointment, contact them at the 11th hour and show up with brown paper bags full of pleadings and documents. They will not represent clients who are seeking “justice,” professional victims, or waifs who want to be rescued.

My personal favorite is the “never represent friends or family members,” since they account for a disproportionate number of State Bar complaints. Lawyers have a fiduciary duty to exercise independent judgment for clients’ interests, and that duty requires the attorney to remain neutral and objective. Legal Malpractice, Mallen & Smith, (2000) Fifth Edition West Group, Ch. 14.7-generally. Independent judgment could be compromised when representing a friend or family member.

For example, your mother receives a tiny bequest, and it is so small that you offer to handle it for her. Then, suddenly one day you realize that you are not calling your mother as often as you used to, because you don’t want to be asked, again, “How is the case going?”

Also, it is inadvisable to represent your rabbi’s best friend in a State Bar proceeding. In fact, it is wise to avoid the representation of any religious leader, because those are cases that can cause you to seriously question your own salvation.

Being enlightened to the folly of your conduct does not mean you will not repeat it. It is similar to therapy. Knowing what the problem is doesn’t prevent it; it merely means that you do it with your eyes wide open. Knowledge does not translate into strength or will.

Law is a “helping profession.” People go to law school to make a difference, and if you can’t make a difference in the lives of your friends and family members, then what good are you? Lawyers become recidivists at helping their friends because of their basic humanity.

Remember that it was lawyers who demanded the right to represent the detainees (regardless of their guilt) at Guantanamo Bay. More than 400 lawyers from Los Angeles flew to Nevada to assist in carrying out the mandate of the Voter Protection Act on Nov. 2.

If lawyers will go out of their way to help total strangers, then how could they ever resist helping their friends and families?

Ethics expert Diane Karpman can be reached at 310-887-3900 or at

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