2010 Formal Ethics Opinion 12

January 21, 2011

Providing Conflicts Information to Hiring Law Firm
 

Opinion rules that a hiring law firm may ask an incoming law school graduate to provide sufficient information as to his prior legal experience so that the hiring law firm can identify potential conflicts of interest.

 

After his second year of law school, a law student worked as a summer clerk for Law Firm A in Raleigh. One of the many projects Law Firm A assigned to the law student was legal research that was part of Law Firm A’s preparation of Lawsuit X.

 

After the law student graduated from law school, Law Firm B hired the now law graduate as an associate in its Chicago office. After the law graduate left Law Firm A, but before he joined Law Firm B, Law Firm A filed Lawsuit X. After Lawsuit X was filed, lawyers in the Charlotte office of Law Firm B were retained to defend the case.

 

The law graduate was unaware that Lawsuit X had been filed, or that Law Firm B had been retained to defend it. Before the law graduate joined Law Firm B, the firm asked him to provide information about the identity of the client matters he worked on at Law Firm A so that potential conflicts could be addressed. The law graduate contacted Law Firm A, which directed him not to disclose any information about matters he had worked on or clients for whom he had worked.

 

Law Firm A learned that law graduate was associated with Law Firm B in Chicago and moved to disqualify Law Firm B from Lawsuit X. Law Firm B established a screen immediately upon learning that law graduate had worked on Lawsuit X.

 

Inquiry #1:

 

Does law graduate have a conflict of interest that is imputed to the other lawyers in Law Firm B, disqualifying those lawyers from the representation of the defendant in Lawsuit X?

 

Opinion #1:

 

No. A law firm may hire a law graduate although the law firm is representing a client in a matter on which the law graduate previously worked for the opposing party while clerking at another law firm. Conflicts of interest created by work performed as a law clerk are not imputed to other members of a law firm under Rule 1.10. See Rule 1.10, cmt. [4]. Nevertheless, the law graduate should be screened from any participation in the matter. Id. (Note that Rule 1.10(c) allows a law firm to hire a lawyer who previously worked for the opposing party while employed at another law firm so long as the lawyer is timely screened from any participation in the matter and written notice is given to any affected former client.)

 

Inquiry #2:

 

Will a Rule 1.0(1) screen of the law graduate from Lawsuit X implemented when Law Firm B learned of law graduate’s involvement in Lawsuit X be deemed “timely” and protect the lawyers of Law Firm B from disqualification?

 

Opinion #2:

 

In order to be effective, screening measures must be implemented as soon as practical after a law firm knows or reasonably should know that there is a need for screening. Rule 1.0, cmt. [10]. The purpose of screening is to assure the affected parties that confidential information known by the disqualified individual remains protected. Rule 1.0, cmt. [9]. If the screen is implemented prior to any participation by the law graduate in the matter and prior to the communication of any confidential information, the purpose for the screening procedure will have been effectuated.

 

Inquiry #3:

 

Is it improper for a law firm to ask law graduates or graduates not yet admitted to the practice of law, who have worked as law clerks, to identify client matters on which they worked as law clerks so that the hiring law firm can identify potential conflicts of interest?

 

Opinion #3:

 

No. When a new law school graduate, or any new lawyer, joins a firm, the hiring firm has an obligation to protect their clients against harm from conflicts of interest. See Rule 1.7. Comment [3] to Rule 1.7 provides that, to determine whether a conflict of interest exists, a lawyer should adopt reasonable procedures to determine in both litigation and non-litigation matters the persons and issues involved. However, the identity of the persons and issues involved in a matter are protected client information under Rule 1.6(a).

 

Rule 1.6(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer shall not reveal information acquired during the professional relationship with a client unless (1) the client gives informed consent; (2) the disclosure is impliedly authorized; or (3) one of the exceptions set out in Rule 1.6(b) applies. One of the exceptions set out in Rule 1.6(b) provides that a lawyer may reveal confidential information to comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 1.6(b)(1).

 

The ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility recently opined that lawyers moving between firms should be permitted to disclose the persons and issues involved in a matter because the prohibition of such disclosure would preclude lawyers from conforming with the conflicts rules. ABA Comm. on Ethics and Prof'l Responsibility, Formal Op. 09-455 (2009). Similarly, it is appropriate for a law firm to ask an incoming law school graduate to provide sufficient information so that the hiring law firm can identify potential conflicts of interest.

 

However, as noted in the ABA opinion, “any disclosure of conflict information should be no greater than reasonably necessary to accomplish the purpose of detecting and resolving conflicts and must not compromise the attorney-client privilege or otherwise prejudice a client or former client.” Id. In addition, a lawyer or law firm receiving conflict information may not reveal such information or use it for purposes other than detecting and resolving conflicts of interest.

 

Inquiry #4:

 

Is a law firm that a law graduate worked for permitted to disclose to a different law firm the identity of clients and matters that the law graduate worked on at the law firm so that the hiring firm can identify potential conflicts of interest?

 

Opinion #4:

 

Yes. See Opinion #3.
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