If you have a broken leg, you see an orthopedist. If you have kidney problems, you see a nephrologist. If you have kidney problems and a broken leg, you see both. It’s no different with lawyers: If a client has multiple or overlapping legal issues or problems, the problems will only get worse if the client thinks one type of lawyer can handle everything. Things compound even faster if a lawyer who works one corner of the profession thinks he or she can simply take on other types of issues seamlessly and without risk to the client.
Examples abound. In a high profile case out of New Jersey, Teresa Guidice, a former star of “Real Housewives” has sued her bankruptcy lawyer for malpractice, alleging that his work in her bankruptcy case exposed her to criminal prosecution for bankruptcy fraud and landed her in federal custody. The attorney recently lost a motion to dismiss the case.
Without passing judgment in that case, for I don’t know enough about it — and when it comes to Teresa Guidice, the less I know, the better — it is worth noting that if the bankruptcy lawyer weren’t in close consultation with a criminal defense lawyer during the bankruptcy proceedings, he probably regrets that now. A criminal defense lawyer would spot issues that a BK lawyer might not as readily see, and the lawyers can collaborate to avoid working at cross-purposes, and to fully protect the client.
There are other, more common examples as well. Whenever I have a client who is not a US citizen, I refer the individual to immigration counsel for all questions about immigration/deportation matters. No less than the US Supreme Court has said I have to do this, to avoid ineffectively advising or assisting a client at risk of deportation in the event of a criminal conviction.
Or, take the example of a client who holds a professional license, such as a medical provider, or a real estate agent, or a police officer. A criminal case could have devastating consequences when the client comes before his or her licensing board for renewal or investigation. The criminal lawyer has to know the law and, in many instances, consult with a licensing/administrative lawyer to know what can and can’t be safely done in a client’s criminal case.
Sometimes clients can become suspicious, thinking one lawyer is just trying to refer out part of a case to another lawyer so that the client keeps paying and the lawyers keep earning. Or, a client can become overwhelmed at the potential expense of defending herself in every way necessary, and balk at seeking expert advice in a critical but collateral area. In these situations, the primary lawyer should not attempt to become an instant expert in another area of law, just to assuage the client or save them money. Instead, the client needs to be assisted, counseled, and caringly but clearly reminded that she puts herself in further peril by not knowing all she needs to know, from the individual best qualified to inform her. If that individual happens to be a second lawyer, there’s only one sensible option, for the primary lawyer, and the worried client. After all, you wouldn’t go to a nephrologist for a broken leg.