ABA Issues Opinion Addressing Conflicts Arising out of Relationships with Opposing Counsel

By David Hricik, Mercer Law School

The ABA issues formal ethics opinions that often influence how state and federal judges decide motions to disqualify, as well, of course, as matters of discipline. 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.”(For patent practitioners, the USPTO has adopted the 2003 version of the ABA Model Rules, but not its comments, but has stated that the commentary and opinions construing the ABA Model Rules are informative.)

The opinion examined that principle in a broader array of personal relationships. The summary of the opinion states:

Model Rule 1.7(a)(2) prohibits a lawyer from representing a client without informed consent if there is a significant risk that the representation of the client will be materially limited by a personal interest of the lawyer. 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.

Given the close-knit nature of the patent bar in some places, the opinion may spur the need for disclosure and in some instances consent.

About David

Professor of Law, Mercer University School of Law. Formerly Of Counsel, Taylor English Duma, LLP and in 2012-13, judicial clerk to Chief Judge Rader.

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