When a member of the City of Buffalo’s Corporation Counsel’s Office represents the City of Buffalo Common Council in a court proceeding, or is asked for legal advice and guidance by the Common Council or one of its members, she or he is engaging in an attorney-client relationship with the Common Council. On each such occasion, the attorney – the Corporation Counsel or the designated lawyer – owes to the client – the Common Council or its members – the same duties and responsibilities as any other attorney owes to her or his client.
In other words, Buffalo’s legislative body and the duly elected legislators have the same rights as any other client when being represented or advised by the City’s Corporation Counsel’s Office.
So it came as no surprise to this lawyer when I saw the following headline in the April 12, 2021 Buffalo News: “Council seeks an independent attorney.” It goes without saying that every client is owed an independent attorney. The issues expressed by Council President Darius G. Pridgen, University Council Member Rasheed N.C. Wyatt, and Majority Leader David A. Rivera – delays in performance of tasks, conflicts of interest between the Common Council and Mayor Byron W. Brown (who appoints the Corporation Counsel), and confidentiality of information – are legitimate and problematic. And, they bring to mind the following rights, in particular, found in the official “Statement of Client’s Rights” that every New York State lawyer, including a lawyer in a government law office, owes his or her client:
From STATEMENT OF CLIENT’S RIGHTS
– You are entitled to your lawyer’s independent professional judgment and undivided loyalty uncompromised by conflicts of interest.
– You are entitled to have your questions and concerns addressed promptly and to receive a prompt rely to your letters, telephone calls, emails, faxes, and other communications.
– You have the right to privacy in your communications with your lawyer and to have your confidential information preserved by your lawyer to the extent required by law.
– You are entitled to have your legitimate objectives respected by your attorney…
– You are entitled to be kept reasonably informed as to the status of your matter and are entitled to have your attorney promptly comply with your reasonable requests for information, including your requests for copies of papers relevant to the matter. You are entitled to sufficient information to allow you to participate meaningfully in the development of your matter and make informed decisions regarding the representation.
– You are entitled to have your attorney handle your legal matter competently and diligently, in accordance with the highest standards of the profession. If you are not satisfied with how your matter is being handled, you have the right to discharge your attorney and terminate the attorney-client relationship at any time…
[Click here for the full Statement of Client’s Rights, codified at 22 NYCRR 1210.1.]
It is true that the City of Buffalo’s Charter, when listing the duties and powers of the Corporation Counsel, states, “The corporation counsel shall prosecute and defend all actions and proceedings brought by or against the city or any of its officers, departments, commissions, board, or other agencies…” However, the Charter cannot overrule an attorney’s obligation to afford her or his client the rights and ethical behavior mandated in New York State’s “Rules of Professional Conduct.” The Charter indirectly acknowledges this reality when it also lists the following amongst the Corporation Counsel’s duties and powers: “When necessary, the corporation counsel shall have the power to designate the need for counsel outside of the law department to deal with conflicts of interest or special circumstances.”
I would argue that the City’s “top lawyer” is under the duty to “designate the need for counsel outside of the law department” whenever its client, the Common Council, expresses its belief that a conflict of interest or special circumstances exists. It is the client’s right to express such concerns, and to have those concerns respected by its attorney.
The Common Council deserves independent legal representation and advice. The existence of an independent attorney, dedicated solely to the needs and preferences of the Common Council, would not only improve its efficiency and effectiveness. It would strengthen the City’s legislative branch by reinforcing its independence from the executive branch. That would serve the best interests of the Common Council’s constituents, the residents of the City of Buffalo.
With All Due Respect,