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Different Members of the Family May Have Different Legal Interests

  From time to time we will publish recent local cases or legislative bills:

In re Botimer, 166 Wash.2d 759, 214 P.3d 133 (2009).

Background:  Attorney disciplinary violations arose out of the relationship between Botimer and his clients:  a high school friend and the friend’s mother. Botimer filed their tax returns, advised them regarding various family business pursuits, and negotiated a dispute over interests in one of the family businesses. The family was not advised there was a potential conflict of interest in representing multiple members of the family in these business deals, or the fact that their interests might better be represented by separate counsel.


Holding:  After discontent developed between the mother and the attorney, it all unraveled and the Washington Supreme Court upheld the six-month suspension of Botimer for three violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct.            


Instead of simply withdrawing representation, Botimer made two critical mistakes: (1) he sent a letter to the IRS detailing omissions and mis-statements Botimer believed the mother fraudulently gave to him to include on tax returns he prepared for her; and (2) Botimer assisted the high school friend’s litigation counsel and provided the mother’s tax returns and his substantiating documents and work product.  Not good choices. 


The Washington Supreme Court admonished Botimer for not obtaining his clients’ informed consent to represent all of them. An attorney may represent a family, but should make each member aware of the problems that could arise in the future because of the joint representation. 


Note for attorneys:  If you represent a family, you must explain the potential conflicts that may arise and obtain their informed consent to the joint representation and if things start to sour, the best choice of action is to withdraw from representation of all family members and not to reveal client confidences unless compelled to do so under a court order.


Note for those looking for attorneys:  Carefully weigh the cost savings of only one attorney against the possible problems joint representation may cause. 


For more on this case, see The Ethical Quandry.