A private meeting with the prospective client helps the attorney identify the client and assess the prospective client’s capacity and understand his or her wishes, unencumbered and uninfluenced by others. This Standard addresses three common situations confronted by the attorney: (1) the prospective client does not have an involved fiduciary; (2) an agent under a power of attorney assists a principal; and (3) a guardian or conservator assists a ward.
(1) The prospective client does not have an involved fiduciary. If the prospective client does not have a fiduciary actively assisting him or her, such as an agent under power of attorney or a guardian, the attorney should endeavor to meet with the prospective client privately before commencing the representation. The attorney should carefully explain to the prospective client and other parties involved, including family members, a future agent under power of attorney, and other parties, why a private meeting is important. (See Understanding the Four C’s of Elder Law Ethics)
If the attorney requests a private meeting with the prospective client and the prospective client expresses reservations about meeting privately, the attorney should reemphasize how important it is for the attorney to understand the prospective client’s wishes in a confidential setting. The attorney should clarify who the client is and that other persons who assist the client are not clients. If the prospective client turns down the request to meet privately and insists that one or more persons be present, the attorney should honor the prospective client’s decision unless the attorney determines that doing so could jeopardize the attorney’s ability to protect the prospective client’s interests. The attorney should consider and explain to the prospective client the potential effect that the presence of other non-clients may have on the attorney-client privilege.
(2) An agent under a power of attorney assists a principal. When an agent under POA actively assists the principal, the attorney may be asked to represent the principal, the principal and the agent jointly, or the agent only in the agent’s role as a fiduciary. Depending on the circumstances in the case, the attorney may determine whether a private meeting with the principal is warranted. If the agent opposes such a private meeting, the attorney should consider declining the representation or withdrawing from the representation. When meeting with the principal the attorney should clarify who the client is.
(3) A guardian or conservator assists a ward. If the attorney is asked to represent the guardian or conservator in a court-supervised guardianship or conservatorship for a ward, the attorney will not usually privately meet with the ward.
As part of the client identification process, the attorney should carefully assess the level of influence other involved persons have on a prospective client and whether such influence may be considered undue. The attorney should document any indication of discomfort on the part of the prospective client, the content and tenor of comments, how supportive or dominating the family members or other persons appear to be, and how consistent or inconsistent the prospective client’s stated objectives are with his or her estate planning documents or other expressions of intent. Based on the attorney’s assessment of these factors, the attorney may decide to limit or decline representation.
For example, the attorney’s vigilance should be heightened if a prospective client states, “I want to do whatever my son wants.” The attorney should be especially cautious when an asset transfer is proposed and even more cautious when the recipient of the transfer is the person requesting the transfer or when the transfer benefits one family member over others. If the attorney determines that undue influence is present, the attorney should decline representation unless the attorney determines that the prospective client will be able to, perhaps with assistance from the attorney, overcome the impact of such undue influence. Under some circumstances, the attorney may decide to take further protective action, and in some states, the attorney may be required to do so.