Attorneys owe their clients a fiduciary duty. That is, lawyers must always act in a way that considers the best interests of their clients. When an attorney fails to perform their fiduciary duty, it could rise to the level of legal malpractice. One of the more common ways a breach of fiduciary duty occurs is when a lawyer mishandles a client’s funds.
Safekeeping property is an ethical obligation
It’s the professional responsibility of attorneys to ensure the safekeeping of their clients’ property. When it comes to client funds, safekeeping duties include:
- Providing notice to the client when relevant funds are made available
- Maintaining accurate and complete records
- Providing an accounting of the funds upon request
- Providing prompt payment or delivery of funds
For some attorneys, especially those operating on a shoestring budget, the temptation to comingle client funds with a law firm’s accounts can be overwhelming. The attorney may intend to pay the funds back as soon as possible. However, it’s the action, not the intention, that matters. The ethical lines are clear. Comingling for any reason is a violation of the rules of professional responsibility.
Mishandling of funds is not allowed
Comingling is one example of how client funds can be mishandled. Other examples include:
- Stealing funds
- Failing to keep funds in a separate account
- Using client funds pay for something other than their intended purpose
If you have suspicions about how your attorney is handling your funds, you should demand a full accounting. If your attorney can’t provide an accounting or seems to be avoiding the issue, you should adopt a more skeptical look. A skilled legal professional can help determine your options, including possible claims of malpractice.