The Importance of Trust in an Attorney/Client RelationshipBy Mark B. Baer, Esq.
Mar. 9, 2010 11:43a
I have always recognized the importance of rapport, good faith and mutual respect between a client and his/her attorney. However, it was only very recently that I came to realize just how important they are, and how significantly the psychological aspect of the attorney-client relationship may impact the ultimate outcome of a case. This realization only came to me after I had seen the
unfortunate results that an otherwise well-qualified family law attorney obtained in handling a case for a close family member of mine.
I had referred my family member to an attorney who is a certified family law specialist, and who is listed as one of the 2009 Southern California Super Lawyers. I had been impressed by this attorney at a prior time, while she was representing a spouse in a divorce against a client of mine. Although the details of my family member's situation were well within the scope of my own practice, because of our family tie, I felt it would be unwise to represent him myself.
My family member's case was challenging because, although he had always stayed at home as the primary custodial parent of their three and one-half year old daughter, he was facing criminal domestic violence charges, and a domestic violence restraining order in civil court. His wife had taken over custody temporarily, based on the charges. He insisted no violence had ever occurred, despite his wife's allegations. Based on my knowledge of both of them, I believed she had fabricated her story, in the hope of having my family member be declared unfit as a parent, so that she could take primary custody and eventually move, with their daughter, to Oregon.
My family member retained the attorney I recommended, and paid her a $15,000 non-refundable retainer. A few days later, she duly represented him in family law court with regard to the domestic violence retaining order. Because of the possibility that the City Attorney would be filing criminal charges as well on the domestic violence charge, my family member was advised by his attorney not to testify in family court, since the pending criminal matter signified that his statements could be used against him should he face criminal charges, and his only recourse would have been to plead the Fifth Amendment.
Although his attorney's recommendation was technically accurate, he had to forego the opportunity to testify on his own behalf. It would have been much more in my family member's interests to obtain a continuance, since the hearing to determine whether to pursue the criminal matter was set for only a week away. A week’s continuance of the restraining order hearing would have afforded my family member the possibility of returning to court and testify in the
likely event the criminal charges were dropped. The fact that his attorney did not present him with this opportunity suggested that, for some reason, she might have a different agenda than to serve my family member's good faith interests.
In any event, at court, my family member's wife offered to dismiss the restraining order as it pertained to their daughter. On the other hand, she insisted that my family member's time with their daughter be severely limited, including just three hours of monitored visitation every other day, for an indefinite period of time. Despite the severity of the limited visitation, his attorney opined that this was a "very good" offer, and demanded that he accept it. In fact, she went so far as to threaten to resign on the spot (while keeping the non-refundable $15,000 retainer), and leave him alone in court to finish representing himself in the hearing that day. Under duress, my family member agreed to the proposal. He then fired his attorney, and retained new counsel the next day.
I was shocked to learn of this result. My family member told me that he felt as though his attorney was representing his wife and not him. Both the manner in which the case was handled and the terms of the settlement caused me to believe that my family member was indeed justified in feeling that way. This was a situation in which the mutual trust and respect between attorney and client had been seriously compromised.
I am convinced that my family member's attorney treated him poorly, and failed to properly represent him, because she believed the allegations that he was a wife beater. With this bias, she treated him as if he were in fact, a criminal and likely to be violent toward his wife and daughter in the future. Pressing him to accept the very limited custody arrangement was her way of advocating for them, over and above her own client, my family member.
Ironically, the criminal charges were indeed found to be fabricated only a week later, and the matter was dropped at the hearing in the City Attorney's Office. This thoroughly exonerated my family member from any culpability for the violence he'd been charged with. Nevertheless, he'd had to pay the price for his own attorney's bias. Had she believed in and respected him, she might have advocated for him more diligently in the family law situation.
In any event, the damage had been done. If my family member is able to have custody of his daughter restored to him the next time around, it will be far more costly than if his original attorney had believed him and represented him accordingly.