Who Decides? Client or Lawyer?

We all know that "a lawyer shall abide by a client's decision whether to settle a matter." But what happens when lawyer and client disagree on strategy? What if the defense lawyer believes that a summary judgment motion would likely be successful, but the client prefers to have his day in court? Model Rule 1.2(a) discusses the allocation of authority between a client and an attorney.

Under the Model Rule, lawyers must "abide by a client's decisions concerning the objectives of the representation." Lawyers are only required to "consult with the client as to the means by which [the objections of the representation] are to be pursued." Clients, then, have the "ultimate authority to determine the purposes to be served by the representation," limited only by the law and a lawyer's professional obligations. See, Com. [1].

When there's disagreement between lawyer and client about how to conduct the representation, Comment [1] can be instructive:

Clients normally defer to the special knowledge and skill of their lawyer with respect to the means to be used to accomplish their objectives, particularly with respect to technical, legal and tactical matters. Conversely, lawyers usually defer to the client regarding such questions as the expense to be incurred and concern for third persons who might be adversely affected.

Often, a frank discussion of the situation (mandated by Rule 1.4) is sufficient to reach a mutually acceptable resolution of the disagreement. If that doesn't work , and there's still fundamental disagreement on how to proceed, the lawyer may withdraw from the representation under Rule 1.16(b)(4). Conversely, the client may resolve the disagreement by discharging the lawyer. See Rule 1.16(a)(3).

Different states view these situations somewhat differently, so when confronted with a client disagreement, it's important to consult the rules and decisional authorities of your state. Because conflicts between lawyer and client can be emotional -- in addition to being complicated -- you should consider seeking impartial and dispassionate counsel. You can obtain advice of ethics counsel through Berkley’s Risk Management Program, or your state or local bar association's ethics hotline.