Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss lawyer ethics and positional conflicts. Although this may not be common in a typical lawyer’s practice, all lawyers should be aware of the potential ethical issues which may arise from taking opposing legal positions on behalf of 2 or more clients.
ABA Formal Opinion 93-377
ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility Formal Opinion 93-377- Positional Conflicts (issued in 1993) reviewed ethical issues when a lawyer represents one client in a matter in which the client’s interests regarding a substantive legal issue are directly adverse to a position the lawyer (or law firm) is advocating on behalf of another client on the same or similar issue. Formal Opinion 93-377 is attached.
The opinion states that “…(a)rguing a position on behalf of one client that is adverse to a position that the lawyer, or her firm, is arguing on behalf of another current client raises a number of concerns. For example, if both cases are being argued in the same court, will the impact of the lawyer’s advocacy be diluted in the eyes of the judge(s)? Will the first decision rendered be persuasive (or even binding) precedent with respect to the other case, thus impairing the lawyer’s effectiveness–and, if so, can the lawyer (or firm) avoid favoring one client over the other in the ‘race’ to be first? And will one or the other of the clients become concerned that the law firm it has employed may have divided loyalties?”
The opinion also reviewed the 1993 Model Rule 1.7 Conflict of Interest: General Rule as it existed before the ABA Ethics 2000 Commission recommended revisions to the Model Rules. The opinion refers to paragraph (9) of the Comment to Rule 1.7 which stated as follows:
“A lawyer may represent parties having antagonistic positions on a legal question that has arisen in different cases, unless representation of either client would be adversely affected. Thus, it is ordinarily not improper to assert such positions in cases pending in different trial courts, but it may be improper to do so in cases pending at the same time in an appellate court.”
The opinion noted that representing two clients in different trial courts while advocating opposing sides of the same issue could also be a conflict of interest under Rule 1.7 just as if both matters were pending in the same appeals court. A decision in a trial court could influence the outcome of a second matter in another trial court, and a decision in an appeals court could have an adverse effect on a matter pending in a trial court matter.
With regard to matters pending in the same jurisdiction, the opinion stated:
“The Committee is therefore of the opinion that if the two matters are being litigated in the same jurisdiction, and there is a substantial risk that the law firm’s representation of one client will create a legal precedent, even if not binding, which is likely materially to undercut the legal position being urged on behalf of the other client, the lawyer should either refuse to accept the second representation or (if otherwise permissible) withdraw from the first, unless both clients consent after full disclosure of the potential ramifications of the lawyer continuing to handle both matters.” (footnote omitted).
If the matters are not being litigated in the same jurisdiction, the opinion provides several questions a lawyer should consider, including the relative importance of the positional conflict issue and the likelihood that it may affect the outcome of one or both of the cases, the extent to which a decision in one case might influence the decision in the other and the extent to which the lawyer ‘s independent professional judgment may be affected if he or she changes advocacy or tactics in one case to minimize any adverse effects on the client in the other case.
The ABA Ethics 2000 Commission deleted paragraph (9) to the comments to Rule 1.7, and replaced it with current paragraph (24) which states:
“Ordinarily a lawyer may take inconsistent legal positions in different tribunals at different times on behalf of different clients. The mere fact that advocating a legal position on behalf of one client might create precedent adverse to the interests of a client represented by the lawyer in an unrelated matter does not create a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest exists, however, if there is a significant risk that a lawyer’s action on behalf of one client will materially limit the lawyer’s effectiveness in representing another client in a different case…Factors relevant in determining whether the clients need to be advised of the risk include: where the cases are pending, whether the issue is substantive or procedural, the temporal relationship between the matters, the significance of the issue to the immediate and long-term interests of the clients involved and the clients’ reasonable expectations in retaining the lawyer. If there is significant risk of material limitation, then absent informed consent of the affected clients, the lawyer must refuse one of the representations or withdraw from one or both matters.”
The Restatement of the Law Governing Lawyers also considered this issue and, in comment f §128 (2000), states that a lawyer “ordinarily may take inconsistent legal positions in different courts at different times”; however, “a conflict is presented when there is a substantial risk that a lawyer’s action in (one matter) will materially and adversely affect another client in (a second matter).”
Florida Bar Rules
The Florida Bar has not issued an ethics opinion addressing positional conflicts; however, the Comment to Florida Bar Rule 4-1.7 is identical to the 1993 paragraph 9 of the Comment to Model Rule 1.7 and states as follows:
Conflicts in litigation
A lawyer may represent parties having antagonistic positions on a legal question that has arisen in different cases, unless representation of either client would be adversely affected. Thus, it is ordinarily not improper to assert such positions in cases pending in different trial courts, but it may be improper to do so in cases pending at the same time in an appellate court.
State Bar Rules and Ethics Opinions
Some state ethics opinions have considered this issue.
Oregon Ethics Opinion 2007-177 (2007) states that a lawyer may not represent a client in a matter requiring the lawyer to contend for something that he or she must contend against on behalf of another client in another matter if the outcome of one matter is highly likely to affect the outcome of the other. The ethics opinion is here: https://www.osbar.org/_docs/ethics/2007-177.pdf
Maine Ethics Opinion 155 (1997) – Arguing Different Sides of Same Legal Issue in Unrelated Cases addresses that state’s conflicts of interest rules in its analysis. The ethics opinion is here: https://www.mebaroverseers.org/attorney_services/opinion.html?id=89688
“…Although we conclude that an “issue conflict” standing alone is not a conflict within the meaning of Bar Rule 3.4(b), we note that counsel has an obligation to both clients under Rule 3.6(a)(1) to employ “reasonable care and skill” and to “employ the lawyer’s best judgment” in the representation of her clients. In light of this rule, an attorney must be mindful of the possibility that contemporaneously arguing opposite sides of the same issue before the same judge or panel of judges could impair her effectiveness on behalf of both clients, thereby arguably violating Rule 3.6(a)(1). It is not possible to define all the circumstances in which this rule might be implicated, since it will depend on the particular facts and circumstances.”
The Maine Rules of Professional Conduct were revised in 2009 and that state’s version Comment to Rule 1.7 is now similar to ABA paragraph 24.
District of Columbia Ethics Opinion 265 (1996) states: “When a lawyer is asked to represent an entity that takes positions on matters of law in a subject area in which the lawyer practices regularly on behalf of other clients, the lawyer may not, without the informed consent of all affected parties, accept simultaneous representation of both clients where such representation creates a substantial risk that representation of one client will adversely affect the representation of the other.” The ethics opinion is here: https://www.dcbar.org/bar-resources/legal-ethics/opinions/opinion265.cfm
Bottom line: If the lawyer is considering taking a position for one client which is directly adverse to a position the lawyer (or law firm) is taking for another client on the same or similar issue, the lawyer must consider the potential conflict of interest and act accordingly.
Be careful out there.
Disclaimer: this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.
Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150
Clearwater, Florida 33761
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670