Ethical Obligations of Divorce Lawyers in Massachusetts

Clients are often looking for aggressive divorce representation and frequently ask their lawyers to do things that are not permissible under the Cannons of Ethics. If your lawyer is willing to do these things, you should get another lawyer because if that lawyer is not abiding by his/her ethical responsibilities to the court, in won’t take long for them to do something unethical to you.

FINANCIAL STATEMENTS  In Massachusetts, financial statements filed in divorce cases are required to contain the following language signed by the attorney for the party whose financial statement it is.  “I, the undersigned, attorney, am admitted to practice law in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – am admitted pro hoc vice for the purposes of this case – and am an officer of the court. As the attorney for the party on whose behalf this Financial Statement is submitted, I hereby state to the court that I have no knowledge that any of the information contained herein is false. “  If your lawyer knows about something that you have omitted from your financial statement or falsified,  and permits you to file it anyway, he/she has done something unethical which could result in being disbarred.  Most lawyers take this statement seriously. Don’t ask your lawyer to ignore it, or you will probably find your lawyer showing you the door.

OTHER DOCUMENTS FILED IN COURT  Papers filed in Court are referred to as “pleadings.” Rule 11 of the Massachusetts Rules of Domestic Relations Procedure governs the filing of pleadings and contains the following language: “The signature of an attorney to a pleading constitutes a certificate by him that he has read the pleading; that to the best of his knowledge, information, and belief there is a good ground to support it; and that it is not interposed for delay. If a pleading is not signed, or is signed with intent to defeat the purpose of this Rule, it may be stricken and the action may proceed as though the pleading had not been filed. For a willful violation of this rule an attorney may be subjected to appropriate disciplinary action. Similar action may be taken if scandalous or indecent matter is inserted.”   Note the last sentence of this section about scandalous or indecent matter.  Pleadings in most cases are public record and a violation of the prohibition against scandalous or indecent matter can result in a lawyer being disciplined or disbarred.  A lawyer can’t make things up and put them into pleadings. There has to be some basis for them.

CONTINGENT LEGAL FEES  Clients often ask their divorce lawyers if they can pay them a percentage of what they obtain for them by way of settlement. Most clients don’t realize this is unethical because the use of contingent fee agreements is acceptable for personal injury cases or other forms of litigation. However, it is expressly prohibited in Massachusetts. In  Rule 1.5 of the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct there is this language in paragraph d:

“(d) A lawyer shall not enter into an arrangement for, charge, or collect any fee in a domestic relations matter, the payment or amount of which is contingent upon the securing of a divorce or upon the amount of alimony or support, or property settlement in lieu thereof.”

TESTIMONY IN COURT  According to Rule 3.3 of the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer is not permitted, at a trial, to offer evidence that the lawyer knows to be false. Don’t ask your lawyer to coach you on how to lie. You have to tell the truth in court, and your lawyer is obligated to do something about it if he/she knows you are lying.

There is nothing wrong with asking your lawyer to aggressively represent you, but there is a difference between being aggressive and being unethical. Unethical lawyers don’t do their clients any favors and most often end up hurting their clients. Many a case has been lost because of an effective cross examination of a lying client.

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