Among the topics addressed by the mandatory Rules of Professional Conduct are requirements relating to the client-lawyer relationship, advocacy in adversary proceedings, dealings with persons other than clients, operation of law firms and associations, and maintaining the integrity of the profession.
Hallmark features of legal ethics include honesty, respect of client confidences, candor in dealings with tribunals, professional independence, and avoidance of conflicts of interest.
The liability issues relating to the violation of fiduciary duties owed by lawyers to clients are separate and distinct from the liability issues based on professional negligence/legal malpractice. Rather than involving issues of negligence in failing to comply with an accepted standard of practice or an established legal principle, the violation of fiduciary duties relate to issues such as lawyers’ fundamental honestyand fair-dealing with clients, and typically result inexposure to awards of punitive damages, which are intended to punish and deter such wrongdoing in the future, as well as awards of attorney fees and costs and expenses of litigation.
It is well-established under Georgia lawthat lawyers occupy a position of the highest trust and confidence, and are required to exercise the utmost good faith and loyalty to their clients. Specifics include the fiduciary duties of lawyers to abide by clients’ decisions; to in no way promote their own interest to the detriment of clients’ interest; to disclose all material facts which would properly be of concern to clients; to not exercise any proprietary interest over client’s rights or prerogatives; to not contractually
take advantage of clients or seek to impose penalties based on the exercise of clients’ decision-making authority; to timely provide written accountings and make refunds of monies clearly owed to clients; and to not willfully abandon any legal matter undertaken on behalf of clients.
In the context of the regulatory system governing the practice of law, unethical conduct can result in harsh disciplinary and licensure sanctions, including disbarment and lengthy suspensions from the ability to practice law.
Although there is no official prohibition against clients both by filing a grievance with the Office of the General Counsel of the State Bar of Georgia and seeking the imposition of disciplinary and licensure sanctions, and filing filing of a lawsuit in the courts seeking the recovery of monetary awards, it is often advisable to make an election to proceed with only one of these courses of action.
On the other hand, most non-clients will be limited to seeking disciplinary and licensure sanctions.