Conflict of Interest Involving a Legal Assistant
Opinion rules that a lawyer who employs a paralegal is not disqualified from representing a party whose interests are adverse to that of a party represented by a lawyer for whom the paralegal previously worked.
Attorney A had two full-time staff members: a receptionist/secretary and a paralegal/secretary ("Paralegal"). Paralegal's normal duties included working on personal injury actions and real estate matters. On occasion, Paralegal helped with domestic actions. While Paralegal was employed by Attorney A, Attorney A represented Client A in a domestic matter. Paralegal denies working on the case on a regular basis while she was employed by Attorney A. Paralegal also denies having any knowledge of the specific facts of the case. Attorney A contends that Paralegal was substantially involved in assisting in the representation of Client A and was privy to confidential information regarding Client A. It is clear that Paralegal had some exposure to the case while employed by Attorney A.
After the employment of Paralegal was terminated by Attorney A, Paralegal went to work for Attorney B in another law firm. Attorney B represents Client B in the same domestic action in which Attorney A represents Client A.
Attorney A has requested that Attorney B withdraw from the representation of Client B because of Paralegal's prior involvement in the action. Should Attorney B withdraw from the representation of Client B?
No, Attorney B may continue to represent Client B in the case and may continue to employ Paralegal. The imputed disqualification rules contained in Rule 5.11 of the Rules of Professional Conduct do not apply to nonlawyers. However, Attorney B must take extreme care to ensure that Paralegal is totally screened from participation in the case even if Paralegal's involvement in the case while employed by Attorney A was negligible. See RPC 74. This requirement is consistent with a lawyer's duty, pursuant to Rule 3.3(b), to make reasonable efforts to ensure that the conduct of a nonlawyer over whom the lawyer has direct supervisory authority is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer including the obligation to avoid conflicts of interest and to preserve the confidentiality of client information.