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RPC 246

April 4, 1997

Duty of Confidentiality Owed to Prospective Client

 

Opinion rules that, under certain circumstances, a lawyer may not represent a party whose interests are opposed to the interests of a prospective client if confidential information of the prospective client must be used in the representation.

 

Inquiry:

 

In 1993, Attorney A represented Mr. and Ms. X on personal injury claims arising out of an automobile accident. In September 1996, Mr. X was seriously injured, as were three passengers in his automobile, in a single car accident. Mr. X contends that the accident was caused by the driver of another automobile who forced him off the road and then left the scene of the accident. While Mr. X was in the hospital, Ms. X went to Attorney A to retain him to represent Mr. X on his claim for injuries arising out of the accident. Attorney A interviewed Ms. X, discussed the facts of the case with her, and obtained confidential information from her concerning the cause of the accident. Attorney A kept a photocopy of the accident report Ms. X brought to him. At the end of the interview, Attorney stated that he believed Mr. X would be considered the party at fault and he did not want to represent Mr. X.

 

Attorney A now represents the three passengers in Mr. X's automobile on their liability claims against Mr. X for injuries arising out of the accident. Neither Mr. X nor Ms. X consents to the representation of the passengers on their claims against Mr. X. May Attorney A proceed with the representation of the passengers without the consent of Mr. X or Ms. X?

 

Opinion:

 

No, Attorney A may not continue his representation of the passengers if he obtained confidential information from Ms. X that he intends to use to the advantage of the passengers in their action against Mr. X.

 

Although the duties of professional responsibility flowing from the attorney-client relationship do not generally attach until after a lawyer has agreed to represent a client, "there are some duties, such as that of confidentiality under Rule 4, that may attach when the lawyer agrees to consider whether a client-lawyer relationship may be established." Rules of Professional Conduct, Section .02, Scope, comment [3]. When Ms. X met with Attorney A to retain him in the new matter, she did so in the context of her prior professional relationship with Attorney A. In this situation, it is reasonable to conclude that Ms. X believed that her communications with Attorney A would be treated as confidential. Therefore, the duty of confidentiality attached to her communications although Attorney A did not ultimately agree to the representation. Rule 4(b)(3) prohibits the use of confidential information of a client for the advantage of a third person unless the client consents. If Ms. X does not consent to the use of the information obtained from her, Attorney A has a conflict of interest and is disqualified from the representation of the passengers. Rule 5.1(c).

 

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