HBO’s Hit Show Succession Succeeds at Showing Lawyers Behaving Badly
In Season 3 of Succession, the HBO drama centering around a media mogul’s descendants wrestling to grasp the reins to steer his empire, we are shown multiple examples of lawyers behaving badly. We know that hapless Cousin Greg (played by Nicholas Braun) has information that could shatter the veneer of the family-owned conglomerate Waystar Royco. During Season 2, while relegated to the drudgery of reviewing documents in a windowless room, Greg discovers a number of company secrets. Rather than shredding the evidence as instructed, he chooses to copy and save a few juicy (and damning) tidbits for himself as ammunition/leverage to keep in his back pocket. These tidbits later become the basis for a press conference given by series protagonist Kendall Roy, where he castigates his father and calls for new leadership at the company. Later, in Season 3, Greg becomes paranoid, having now realized that his interests might not be aligned with those of the other members of the Roy family, and he begins to consider if he should retain his own counsel.
In Episode 2 of Season 3, Greg is relaxing at his apartment with a first-year law student who is part of Kendall’s legal team. He asks himself, if Kendall wants to pay for his lawyer, should he take him up on the offer? Before he even has time to consider it, there’s a knock on his door. At the door is a lawyer from Waystar “just checking in to say hi.” Greg asks, “am I paying for this?” The lawyer responds that Gerri sent him; his fees are paid by Waystar. Greg, clearly confused, does not understand whether he was sent by Logan or the company.
“I’m your lawyer,” the Waystar attorney responds: “so I’ll tell Gerri. . . that I represent you.” Greg then wonders aloud: “He’s saying he’s my lawyer… so do you think he’s probably my lawyer? He couldn’t, like, arrest or subpoena me?” When the law student helpfully suggests that she can text her professor for advice, Greg asks the lawyer: “So do you choose me or I choose you?” The lawyer responds that he’s been sent over by Logan Roy and representation is Greg’s choice. The visit confuses Greg, who’s unclear as to who exactly authorized the visit, and in what capacity the lawyer is there. He ends up sending the lawyer away, asking for time to consider.
The next night, Greg connects with his grandfather, Ewan Roy, and asks him for advice. He notes that while both Logan and Kendall are offering him a lawyer, he would like independent legal advice. “If everyone’s showing up to battle in armor, I feel kind of exposed in my loin cloth.”
Ewan offers to set Greg up with his own attorney. However, later, in the office of Ewan’s attorney, Greg starts to wonder whether the lawyer with whom he’s speaking has the relevant experience to assist him with the complicated legal issues he has become a part of. Ewan tells him that this lawyer is here to help get his estate in order, and that everything is fine. And yet, the lawyer seems more focused on his own pet theories on how to disrupt capitalism instead of actually protecting Greg’s interests. The attorney gives Greg zero assurance that he won’t get fired or go to jail.
Both Waystar’s attorney and Ewan’s attorney appear to be in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 5.4 (c) states that “a lawyer shall not permit a person who recommends, employs, or pays the lawyer to render legal services for another to direct or regulate the lawyer's professional judgment in rendering such legal services.” Waystar paying their attorney to “help” Greg clearly has only the company’s best interests at heart, and Ewan’s attorney is paid by Ewan and appears to be directed to further Ewan’s interests, not those of his grandson.
A note to Rule 5 of the Rules of Professional Conduct acknowledges that lawyers are frequently asked to represent a client under circumstances in which a third person such as a co-client (such as a corporation sued along with one or more of its employees), relative or friend will compensate the lawyer, in whole or in part. Because third-party payers frequently have interests that differ from those of the client, including interests in minimizing the amount spent on the representation and in learning how the representation is progressing, lawyers are prohibited from accepting or continuing such representations unless the lawyer determines that there will be no interference with the lawyer's independent professional judgment and there is informed consent from the client. Clearly in this episode, both attorneys’ judgment is clouded by furthering the interests of the party paying their bills, and neither has attempted to provide Greg with a clear explanation of the potential conflicts of interest, or obtained informed consent of same.
The confusion the attorneys both created is also a violation of Rules 1.6 concerning confidentiality and 1.7 regarding conflict of interest. Under Rule 1.7(a), a conflict of interest exists if there is significant risk that the lawyer's representation of the client will be materially limited by the lawyer's own interest in the fee arrangement or by the lawyer's responsibilities to the third-party payer (for example, when the third-party payer is a co-client). Under Rule 1.7(b), the lawyer may accept or continue the representation with the informed consent of each affected client, unless the conflict is nonconsentable under that paragraph. Under Rule 1.7(b), the informed consent must be confirmed in writing.
Rule 1.8 is also implicated here. This rule prohibits lawyers from accepting compensation for representing a client from one other than the client unless:
(1) the client gives informed consent;
(2) there is no interference with the lawyer's independence of professional judgment or with the client-lawyer relationship; and
(3) information relating to representation of a client is protected as required by Rule 1.6.
While still providing juicy entertainment and a glimpse into the excessive luxury the entire Roy family enjoys, Series 3 of Succession unfortunately also portrays lawyers in a way that indicates the writers don’t realize that attorneys must abide by a code of professional conduct.