Risk Update

Relationships Conflicts — New ABA Opinion on Relationship Conflicts (Intimate Relationships, Friendships, and Acquaintances)

“Brothers and sisters, I have none. But that man’s father is my father’s son,” one of my own father’s favorite riddles for me growing up came to mind as I came across: “ABA Issues Opinion Addressing Conflicts Arising out of Relationships with Opposing Counsel” —

  • “Thus, ABA Formal Opinion 494 (July 2020) (here) should be of interest. A comment to the Model Rules had explained that a ‘lawyer related to another lawyer, e.g., as parent, child, sibling or spouse, ordinarily may not represent a client in a matter where that lawyer is representing another party, unless each client gives informed consent.'”
    • “A personal interest conflict may arise out of a lawyer’s relationship with opposing counsel. Lawyers must examine the nature of the relationship to determine if it creates a Rule 1.7(a)(2) conflict and, if so, whether the lawyer reasonably believes the lawyer will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client who must then give informed consent, confirmed in writing.”
    • “To assist lawyers in applying Rule 1.7(a)(2), this opinion identifies three categories of personal relationships that might affect a lawyer’s representation of a client: (i) intimate relationships, (ii) friendships, and (iii) acquaintances.”
    • “Intimate relationships with opposing counsel involve, e.g. cohabiting, engagement to, or an exclusive intimate relationship. These relationships must be disclosed to clients, and the lawyers ordinarily may not represent opposing clients in the matter, unless each client gives informed consent confirmed in writing.”
    • “Because friendships exist in a wide variety of contexts, friendships need to be examined carefully. Close friendships with opposing counsel should be disclosed to clients, and, where required as described in this opinion, their informed consent obtained.”
    • “By contrast, some friendships and most relationships that fall into the category of acquaintances need not be disclosed, nor must clients’ informed consent be obtained. Regardless of whether disclosure is required, however, the lawyer may choose to disclose the relationship to maintain good client relations.”

Additional commentary and illustration from professional responsibility lawyer Brian Faughnan: “The ABA comes through with another quality ethics opinion” —

  • “Most importantly, it appropriately centers the analysis where it fits in the Model Rules: it is an issue involving RPC 1.7(a)(2) – material limitation conflicts arising from a lawyer’s own personal interests. The opinion stresses that ordinarily such conflicts are not imputed to others at the firm. And it lays out reasonable categories to help guide lawyers in their thinking about these issues.”
  • “It also makes the point that while, most of the time, the obligation on the lawyer is disclosure to the client and moving forward only if the client is willing to waive the conflict, there can be situations where the conflict is, itself, not waivable.”
  • “The opinion posits a relationship between two lawyers that is so close that the lawyer could never get comfortable filing a well-founded motion for sanctions against the other lawyer on behalf of a client as an example of a situation where the conflict may not even be waivable.”
    And that entire genre of thought has, over the years, been very helpful to me in talking lawyers through situations, both in their real practice, and just as an educational tool at seminars. I, like many other ethics CLE speakers, have used lots of hypotheticals to tease out ethics issues and one that has always been fun to discuss involves something like this scenario:

    • You are at lunch with opposing counsel on an appellate matter who is a close friend and former colleague. Unprompted, he says, “I bet you can’t wait to see what I’ve got in store for you in my response brief. Well, you’ll have to wait a bit because I’m going to take every day allowed for me before filing so you won’t get your hands on it until a week from tomorrow.” You know, because you just checked it before coming here, that his deadline for his brief is actually tomorrow. What do you say?
  • “This scenario usually prompts a good discussion and there is always someone in the crowd willing to say that they would tell their friend to, at least, go back and double check their math on the deadline. The problem, of course, is that doing that without first talking to your client to get approval would be extremely ethically dicey. The easiest way to drive that point home to lawyers is to ask them if, since the personal relationship with opposing counsel is so important to them, they secured informed consent from their client at the outset with respect to how the lawyer’s personal interest in their close friendship with opposing counsel could materially limit the representation.”
If you liked this post, please share it: