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2009 Formal Ethics Opinion 9

October 23, 2009

Computer-Based Conflict Systems

Opinion describes reasonable procedures for a computer-based conflicts checking system.


Inquiry:

For the past several years Law Firm has maintained information with regard to current and former representations in electronic form on its computer network and used software tools in order to query such data to determine whether prospective engagements would involve a conflict of interest. Law Firm has learned that its current software provider will no longer provide support for the conflict checking system. A new software provider will convert the data to a new, fully supported program for a certain dollar amount per year of data converted. With each additional year that the software provider is required to retrieve the data, the expense of the conversion goes up exponentially. For what period of time is Law Firm required to convert the data necessary for conflict checking purposes?


Opinion:


After termination of a client-lawyer relationship, a lawyer has continuing duties with respect to confidentiality and conflicts of interest. See Rule 1.6; Rule 1.9, cmt. [1]. These duties continue indefinitely, even after a client's death. See RPC 209. For example, in RPC 209, the Ethics Committee determined that, although six years is a reasonable amount of time for maintaining a closed client file, a law firm must indefinitely maintain a record of all destroyed client files. Similarly, the American Bar Association has opined that a lawyer should preserve, "perhaps for an extended time," an index or identification of destroyed client files. ABA Comm. on Ethics and Prof'l Responsibility, Informal Op. 1384 (1977).


Despite the indefinite duration of the duties with respect to confidentiality and conflicts, the requirements for complying with these duties must be reasonable. See Rule 0.2, Preamble: Scope. The Ethics Committee has previously adopted the standard of "reasonable care" in addressing a lawyer's duty to maintain client confidences. See RPC 133, RPC 215. Likewise, comment [3] to Rule 1.7 specifically provides that a law firm should adopt "reasonable procedures" in order to determine whether a conflict of interest exists.


Every law firm must make its own determination as to what conflict checking procedures are reasonable, taking into account such variables as the size of the law firm, the type of practice, the cost of maintaining conflict checking records over a period of time, and the risk of failing to discover an existing conflict of interest. Regardless of the amount of time that conflict checking information is maintained, lawyers have a duty to avoid any known conflicts and to address conflicts made known to them by opposing or third parties.


As a minimum standard for what constitutes reasonable care, the law firm must convert conflict checking data for at least the last six years to the new program. RPC 209. The law firm does not need to convert conflict checking data that is maintained in some other format by the law firm, i.e., index card filing system, so long as the firm has some means of searching the data for conflicts. The law firm should check with its malpractice carrier to determine whether the carrier has different requirements.


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