While the notion of lawyers wearing wigs to court has no place in modern American jurisprudence, there is always a danger of a lawyer wearing too many hats.  A lawyer, however experienced and competent, may find themselves in legal trouble for assuming too many roles as advocate and counselor, resulting in financial detriment to their clients.   This pitfall is at the center of recent litigation pending in Federal Court, District of New Jersey, in the matter of Krivulka v. Lerner and Lowenstein Sandler.[1]

Decedent Joseph Krivulka worked in the pharmaceutical field, amassing substantial wealth as an industry executive, businessman, and investor.  According to the pleadings from the litigation, attorney Michael Lerner, a partner at Lowenstein Sandler, handled numerous matters for Krivulka and his businesses.   Lerner’s representation over time included serving as his personal counsel, serving as counsel to Krivulka’s companies, and serving as a fiduciary in financial matters.  Lerner also was a partner in Krivulka’s business entities.   Further, he was personally engaged by Krivulka and his wife Angela to provide estate planning services.

Krivulka died of cancer in 2018, and Lerner probated Krivulka’s Last Will and Testament in the State of New Jersey.  Allegedly, Lerner took this step without the advice and authorization from Angela Krivulka, Joseph’s widow.  At the time of Joseph’s death, Angela was a resident of the State of Arizona, where she and Joseph had resided the last few years of his life as Joseph sought cancer treatment.  Lerner allegedly eschewed the option of probating Joseph’s will in Arizona, choosing instead to keep the matter close to home.

Angela, individually and on behalf of her husband’s estate, contends that Lerner and Lowenstein Sandler acted improperly, self-interestedly, and with a conflict of interest in opting to probate Joseph’s will in New Jersey rather than Arizona.  The lawsuit alleges that while this choice of forum was very lucrative for Lerner and Lowenstein Sandler, it was disastrous for Angela and the estate, nearly doubling the tax hit for Angela on the approximately $170 million estate.  Angela claims that she was not consulted by Lerner prior to his moving the matter to probate, and that her former counsel proceeded in probate with a clear conflict of interest and an impermissible self-interest.

The case was dismissed for lack of diversity jurisdiction by order and decision of the Hon. Claire C. Cecchi, U.S.D.J. dated July 29, 2021.  While Angela claims to be an Arizona domiciliary, her late husband had sufficient contacts with New Jersey at the time of his death so as to be a New Jersey domiciliary, destroying diversity jurisdiction so long as the estate was a party to the claim.  

New Jersey, however, has not yet seen the last of this case, as Angela intends to file an Amended Complaint solely in her capacity as an individual.

Irrespective of the ultimate outcome of the case, the lesson garnered from the Krivulka litigation is clear.  It is possible for a lawyer to wear too many hats and assume too many roles. A lawyer’s varying concurrent roles, such as advocacy for an individual, representation of that individual’s business, position as a partner in business, role as an estate planner, role as a fiduciary, and service as probate attorney may well create a conflict of interest which inures to the detriment of a client, the client’s estate, and the client’s beneficiaries.   Clients should be mindful of potential conflicts of interest when their lawyers serve multiple functions, but ultimately, it is the professional’s responsibility to avoid impermissible conflicts of interest.

Contact Our Hackensack Legal Malpractice Attorney 

If you’ve suffered harm due to your lawyer’s actions, you may be entitled to file a New Jersey legal malpractice claim. However, succeeding in a New Jersey legal malpractice claim can be difficult without the assistance of an experienced Hackensack legal malpractice attorney. At Rosenblatt Law, our experienced attorneys will conduct a thorough investigation of your situation and determine whether your attorney’s actions or inactions constitute legal malpractice. We’ll then advise you on the best course of action based on your unique circumstances and work diligently to achieve a successful outcome in your New Jersey legal malpractice case. If you believe you have been harmed by your attorney, please contact our office today to schedule a consultation.

[1] Civil Action 2:20-cv-09724.