Putting the Client’s Best Interests First

I was browsing through the comments on a web forum today and saw a thread of people complaining about their lawyers (in another state) “selling them out” to get a legal fee. It got me to thinking about the importance of lawyer integrity in the counseling and advising of clients.

Based on my own 24 years of experience as a lawyer here in NC, I think that there are many, many lawyers who care about their clients and do not hesitate to put their clients’ best interests ahead of their own, and then there are a few lawyers who seem more interested in getting the fee paid. The first group is clearly behaving in the way that professional ethics require. The second group may not be consistently behaving in an ethical fashion.

Many lawyers, and I daresay almost all lawyers, are very dedicated to their clients. Many of us went to law school because we wanted to help people and be of service to our communities. Many lawyers were very idealistic when they started law school and they have remained idealistic as they have gained experience practicing law. I know many lawyers who would never dream of putting their own interests ahead of their client’s best interests. It just would not happen. As a potential client, your job is to find those lawyers.

As an injured worker who is looking for a lawyer, your task is really twofold — first, you have to identify the lawyers who are competent to handle the matter for you. Here in NC, you can safely assume that anyone who is certified as a “specialist” in workers’ compensation is in fact competent.

Secondly, you have to look at that list of competent lawyers and determine who will always keep your best interests as their guiding star when they are handling your case and giving you advice about settlements and other options.

Fortunately, the certified specialists in NC workers’ comp law are lawyers who will in fact keep your best interests at heart throughout the case. I know almost all of those lawyers and I know that each and every one of them is very serious about his or her obligations to each client.

Another way to assess this issue is to go on Martindale.com and look for the “V” in the individual lawyer rating. The presence of the “V” means that their colleagues overwhelmingly find them to be ethical lawyers.

My personal philosophy is that the client’s best interests must always come first. It is a matter of personal and professional integrity. Without lawyer integrity, our legal system simply will not work for anyone. It is imperative that a lawyer always put the client’s best interests first.

I suspect that if a lawyer just once puts his own interests ahead of the client’s interests, then the next time he is tempted to do that it will be even easier than it was the first time. Lawyers who have been disbarred for stealing client funds or other misconduct have been known to comment that the more times they did the bad deed, the less guilty they felt about it each time. After the third or fourth time, the lawyer’s personal integrity on this point may be so compromised that he will not think twice before putting his own interests ahead of the client’s best interests. It is human nature, apparently. And lawyers are certainly human, but we still hold each other to high standards of ethical conduct.

So, to avoid being trapped on this slippery slope of diminishing professional integrity, a lawyer must always put his client’s best interests first. It is our ethical obligation as attorneys to do just that, each and every time. Fortunately, if you simply don’t entertain the possibility of doing otherwise, it will be an easy rule to follow. And our clients will always get the benefit of our very best professional service. That is the way it is supposed to work.  And at our law firm, that is the way we do it.

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