During a seminar that I did last week for Vermont Law School’s South Royalton Legal Clinic, I reminded clinicians that a lawyer’s job is not to tell the client what the client wants to hear. A lawyer’s job is to provide the client with candid legal advice. I said the same thing again today in a CLE for government lawyers. Indeed, it’s a tip I’ve shared for more than decade, including in the five blogposts linked below.
Typically, I deliver the message when discussing one of my 5 Cs of legal ethics: communication. In my experience, most disciplinary complaints are not rooted in a lawyer’s failure to respond to a client’s calls or emails. Rather, they are rooted in a lawyer’s failure to communicate reasonable expectations to the client at the outset of the professional relationship. Or, stated differently, they’re rooted in a lawyer’s failure to disabuse the client of expectations that the lawyer knows are unrealistic.
While I share the guidance in the context of Rule 1.4 and the duty to communicate, nowhere in the rule or its comments is it written “a lawyer shall provide clients with candid legal advice.” As such, I’ve done a poor job communicating that my guidance is anything more than aspirational. That ends now. I post today to make clear that lawyers have a professional duty to render candid legal advice.
Rule 2.1 of the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct is entitled “Advisor.” The first line is:
- “In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.”
Comment  falls under the heading “Scope of Advice.” It makes my point better than I ever have:
- “A client is entitled to straightforward advice representing the lawyer’s honest assessment. Legal advice often involves unpleasant facts and alternatives that a client may be disinclined to confront. In presenting advice, a lawyer endeavors to sustain a client’s morale and may put advice in as acceptable a form as honesty permits. However, a lawyer should not be deterred from giving candid legal advice by the prospect that the advice will be unpalatable to the client.”
Lawyers: consider what you’d expect from your auto mechanic, doctor, dentist, financial advisor, or anyone else to whom you turn for advice. Or from your lawyer if you ever need to hire one! You’d expect candid advice. It might not be what you hoped for or wanted, but it’s the advice you’re entitled to receive. Your clients are entitled to the same.
Rendering candid legal advice is more than a tip from bar counsel. It’s a lawyer’s professional obligation.