Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Why I Leave People in the Waiting Room

Pennsylvania lawyer and Professor Neil Hendershot, in a post entitled "Left in an Attorney's Waiting Room," writes,
Would it be polite for an attorney to keep family members of an elderly client in the law firm's waiting room, and not invite them into the conference room with the client?
His answer?
Maybe not; but it might be the ethical thing to do under certain circumstances.
In my practice I sometimes have awkward moments when I explain to a client and his or her family that I need to meet with my client alone to discuss a power of attorney, estate planning, or other legal matter. Many people do not deal with lawyers frequently. Some may feel a little nervous in meeting with a lawyer for the first time. They do not know what to expect. They may prefer to have a family member with them for support.

Neil refers to an excellent brochure, published by the American Bar Association, called "Understanding the Four C's of Elder Law Ethics."

The brochure explains the importance of a lawyer meeting alone with his or her client, so that
1. it is clear whom the lawyer is representing,
2. conflicts of interest are avoided,
3. the client's confidentiality is respected, and
4. the lawyer is able to assess the client's competency.

I have acted in lawsuits involving challenges to the validity of wills. In these cases one party may allege that the testator did not have the capacity to make the will, or that someone unduly influenced the testator. In such cases, the most important evidence may be the evidence of the testator's lawyer. If other family members who may take a benefit under the will were always present, the lawyer's evidence may be of little or no benefit to those seeking to uphold the will.

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