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Lawyer's Suspension Shows the Ethical Perils of Co-Representation

The perils of co-representation! Representing two parties at the same time usually comes up in the divorce context, where the parties are (more or less) agreeable and really just want to save money by using just one lawyer.

That sounds great and all -- except when things go south, or when your state's professional rules strictly forbid it. The Legal Profession Blog shares this tale of a Maryland lawyer suspended indefinitely for representing a married couple in a personal injury suit.

Just Don't Answer the Phone. Or the Mail.

Mr. and Mrs. Ware were injured in a single-vehicle car accident on September 21, 2009. Mrs. Ware was driving; Mr. Ware sustained significant injuries and had to be taken to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Unit. Mrs. Ware enlisted attorney Kevin Olszewski to represent both of them while Mr. Ware was in the hospital, but Mr. Ware signed a separate retainer with Olszewski on November 10.

A couple things happened. First, Olszewski found out their car was a rebuilt salvage vehicle, something that wasn't disclosed to them when they bought it. Second, Mrs. Ware only had minimum coverage, and Mr. Ware's medical bills were way bigger than that.

By 2012, Olszewski wasn't answering the Wares' phone calls, so they started a state bar complaint. Olszewski didn't respond to three different requests for information from the state bar. He eventually filed two different lawsuits: One on behalf of both Wares against the car dealership, and one on behalf of Mr. Ware against Mrs. Ware.

Uh oh.

A Client Conflict -- and How!

Yes, that was a no-no. The Maryland Court of Appeals found that representing each of the Wares against each other was a conflict of interest. This is the type of client conflict that can't be waived. The court said that Olszewski should have terminated his representation when it became clear that there was a conflict of interest. In fact, the court said, Olszewski should have known from the beginning that there would be a problem because he knew "that as a result of the automobile accident, [his clients] had competing interests."

It's tough to give up a client, especially as a solo or small practice attorney, but it's much better than the alternative. Olszewski got his license suspended indefinitely for the Wares' issue, along with a separate problem with another client related to charging an unreasonable fee and withholding funds. He'll be able to reapply for a license in six months.

One more thing: Olszewski claimed that personal problems got in the way of diligent representation. Basically, "Hey, at least I wasn't being malicious!" That didn't really impress the court, though: "[P]ersonal issues ... do not excuse an attorney's abrogation of his professional duties," the court wrote.

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