Lawyer Independence: From Ideal to Viable Legal Standard

57 Pages Posted: 17 Jan 2011

Date Written: December 30, 2010


When, if ever, does a lawyer have an obligation to exercise independent judgment? While the question drives at the deepest commitments of the profession, it has been left largely unexplored in our leading treatises on legal ethics and lawyering. Lawyers, scholars, and judges have waxed eloquent on the ideal of independence, and have despaired of its prospects of renewal in a competitive, market-driven profession. The courts, however, have offered limited guidance on the question of lawyer independence. Indeed, the impression that one might gain from a review of the case law and treatises is that lawyer independence - whatever its virtues - is more a lost ideal than a legal requirement.

In fact, however, Rule 2.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (adopted by nearly every state) requires that lawyers “exercise independent professional judgment” in “representing a client.” This demand raises a host of questions about the lawyer’s role. What is lawyer independence? If lawyers are “agents” who seek to carry out client objectives, how can lawyer independence be squared with the notion of the client as decisionmaker and principal? Is lawyer independence enforceable, or does the paucity of cases construing the requirement suggest that it can never be more than an aspiration? Can we frame a standard that is sufficiently precise for lawyers to understand when they may not defer to client directives?

This Article seeks to answer those questions. In so doing, it seeks to develop a viable legal standard of lawyer independence grounded in Model Rule 2.1. The Article considers the purpose of lawyer independence, when it applies and when it does not, and what it requires of counsel. It contends that the law of lawyer independence, once understood, will require attorneys to revisit core assumptions about their role and will substantially reduce the incidence of wrongdoing in corporate transactions. The Article invites states to breathe life into a rule that has lain dormant on their books for too long.

Keywords: Lawyer Independence, Corporate Transactions, Legal Ethics, Professional Responsibility

Suggested Citation

Michels, Kevin H., Lawyer Independence: From Ideal to Viable Legal Standard (December 30, 2010). Case Western Reserve Law Review, Vol. 61, No. 1, p. 85, 2010. Available at SSRN:

Kevin H. Michels (Contact Author)

The College of New Jersey ( email )

2000 Pennington Road
Ewing, NJ 08628
United States

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