Counsel’s Corner: What’s wrong with ‘My Cousin Vinny’?

Every time I see the movie “My Cousin Vinny” on cable I cannot resist but to watch it, even though I have seen it many times over. Although the movie is a comedy, it’s actually one of the more accurate representations of trial procedure in a film. If you haven’t seen it I recommend watching it. Most lawyers have praised the comedy’s realistic depiction of courtroom procedure and trial strategy, however, there is one very important issue that was not discussed and it is probably because it’s only implicit in the film.

The film revolves around two defendants that are facing murder charges and they are both represented by one lawyer, Cousin Vinny, who also happens to be one of the defendant’s cousin. This joint representation of clients sounds attractive to clients because it saves them money on attorney fees. However, joint representation is fraught with pit falls for clients, especially in a case where the clients’ interest differs. Most often attorneys cannot represent two or more parties with differing interests due to the loyalty they owe their clients. The point is an an attorney “cannot serve two masters.”

So why exactly is the potential for conflict of interest so grave in the movie? There are lots of reasons, but a major one is that co-defendants may be sorely tempted to point the finger at each other in exchange for a better plea bargain. Imagine in this case if Defendant “A” had claimed that it was the idea of Defendant “B” to commit the crime. That is a fine defense for Defendant “A” but it puts Defendant “B” on the hook for the crime. As their attorney it would be impossible for an attorney to be loyal to both defendants in that situation. And in the movie, the conflict would be further complicated by the attorney’s family relationship to one of the defendants.

However, this is not to say that joint representation is illegal or unethical because it is not. In fact, the practice is not that uncommon in areas that include but not limited to: tax planning, estate planning (husband and wife) and business formation (multiple founders or principals). Joint representation is also common in pre-litigation matters such as “friendly divorce” where the separating couple retains one attorney to effectuate a pre-existing arrangement. I am sure there are other situations that it would be okay to have joint representation but definitely not when interests obviously conflict as it was in the movie.

Therefore, yes, joint representation is attractive as the attorney fees and costs are shared but as with all things price should not be the single underlying factor when seeking to hire legal counsel. This should be kept in mind if you consider hiring a lawyer to represent you and someone else’s interests.

Perhaps, beside price consideration, you should ask yourself the following question: What are my goals compared to the other persons? For example, are you and your partner being sued because you and your partner did something wrong or are you being sued just because you were with your partner who did something wrong? If the latter situation is yours, be aware that the attorney must represent both you and your partner’s interest equally thereby if you’re innocent in the situation, your interest will not be fully represented by this joint attorney.

Remember that the loyalty the attorney shows to you must be equal to that of your partner, otherwise the attorney would risk breaching his fiduciary duty to your partner if he is to defend your innocence and not that of your partner.

The above is just one example of the pit fall of joint representation. Unless you and your partner have a common goal, such as to preserve community assets that will benefit you both equally, it might be worth it to hire your own attorney. This way you can be reassured that your attorney will zealously represent your interest and only your interest.

After all, the point of hiring an attorney is to put your mind at ease with the legal problem before you and the added stress of worrying about your attorney loyalty is unnecessary and counterproductive to the legal issue at hand and beats the purpose of hiring the attorney in the first place.

So while there is nothing wrong with your cousin Vinny representing you in court, it may become a problem if he represents you and your friend if you are both charged with the same crime.

As with all legal discussions, careful thought should be exercised to avoid problems down the line.

The purpose of this column is to provide general information on the law, which is subject to change. It is not legal advice. Consult a lawyer if you have a specific legal problem.

 

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Published: May 21, 2015 - Volume 14 - Issue 06