U.S. Eighth Circuit - The FindLaw 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

8th Circuit Clarifies What Forms Lawyer-Client Relationship

What conduct forms a lawyer-client relationship? From the topic of conversation, to the type of assistance the attorney is providing, what exactly triggers an attorney-client relationship can get tricky. Last week, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals clarified the issue.

The court’s decision specifically fleshed out what interactions do and do not result in a lawyer-client relationship.

Shannon Williams was prosecuted for his involvement in a marijuana conspiracy. A co-conspirator of his, Richard Conway, wanted to cooperate with the government and began associating with attorney Terry Haddock. Haddock and Conway helped the government locate and prosecute Williams.

In the process of helping Conway (and, in turn, the government), Haddock had interactions with Williams. Haddock would feed any information he learned from Williams to the government.

And that's what the appeal centers on: Did the interactions between Haddock and Williams form an attorney-client relationship?

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals didn't think so.

On appeal, Williams raised an "outrageous government conduct" defense, claiming the government acted outrageously by "hijacking" his attorney-client relationship with Haddock and "making defense counsel an agent of the prosecution," thus violating his Due Process rights.

To raise an outrageous government conduct defense, there needs to be an attorney-client relationship -- but Haddock and Williams didn't have one, the court ruled.

The court determined that Williams and Haddock didn't have a lawyer-client relationship for several reasons:

  • They had general, non-confidential conversations. Williams had conversations with Haddock regarding the sentencing disparities for different types of cocaine. The court ruled that a mix of social exchanges and discussions regarding general legal issues do not suffice to form an attorney-client relationship.
  • They did not honestly believe there was a relationship. Statements made by Haddock and Williams suggested that Williams didn't genuinely consider Haddock to be his attorney.
  • Williams had separate representation. Williams was already represented by other counsel.

Unless your lawyer is Saul Goodman from "Breaking Bad," the Williams decision also serves as a good reminder that you don't form a lawyer-client relationship by asking a lawyer to do illegal things for you.

In this case, Williams asked Haddock to:

  1. Smuggle a cell phone and other contraband into the detention center for him in violation of detention center's policy and in furtherance of the marijuana conspiracy;
  2. Launder money for him;
  3. Receive money from various members of the marijuana conspiracy for the purpose of laundering; and
  4. Transport money for him in furtherance of the marijuana conspiracy.

As the court aptly summed it up: "None of those activities "pertains to matters within [Haddock's] professional competence" as an attorney, as opposed to a criminal enabler."

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