Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss ABA Formal Opinion 479, which was published on December 15, 2017 and addresses when a lawyer may use information related to the representation of a former client which is to the actual or potential disadvantage of the former client when the information has become “generally known”. The ABA opinion is here: ABA Formal Opinion 479
ABA Model Rule 1.9(c)(1) provides that a lawyer “shall not use information relating to former client’s representation to the disadvantage of the former client except as (the Model) Rule would permit or require with respect to a [current] client, or when the information has become generally known.”
The opinion also states that the “generally-known” exception to Rule 1.9 was first included in the 1983 ABA Model Rules; however, there is no consensus regarding when information is “generally known.” New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois Bar opinions and ethics commentators agree that “generally known” means “more than publicly available or accessible. It means that the information has already received widespread publicity.”
According to the opinion, the “generally known” exception to the obligations related to former-client confidentiality is limited to the following:
(1) use of the former client information, not the disclosure or revelation of the information,
(2) use of the information only if the information has become widely recognized by the public in the relevant geographic area or widely recognized in the former client’s industry.
The opinion quotes an ethics commentator:
“[T]he phrase “generally known” means much more than publicly available or accessible. It means that the information has already received widespread publicity. For example, a lawyer working on a merger with a Fortune 500 company could not whisper a word about it during the pre-offer stages, but once the offer is made—for example, once AOL and Time Warner have announced their merger, and the Wall Street Journal has reported it on the front page, and the client has become a former client—then the lawyer may tell the world. After all, most of the world already knows. . ..[O]nly if an event gained considerable public notoriety should information about it ordinarily be considered “generally known.”
The fact that information has been discussed in court or may be accessible in public records does not necessarily make the information widely recognized (and “generally known”) under Model Rule 1.9(c) since information that is publicly available is not necessarily widely recognized and, if a search of court records or library shelves is required to find the information, it would not be widely recognized.
Bottom line: This ABA opinion provides guidance on important ethics issues related to when a lawyer is permitted to use information that is detrimental to a former client when it has become “generally known” and provides guidance. Although the opinion (and most state Bar rules) permit lawyers to use, but not disclose, “generally known” information even if it disadvantages a former client, lawyers should always carefully consider whether this would be prudent and, if the lawyer decides to do so, obtain the client’s consent in advance.
This ABA opinion is not binding and the analysis is applicable in most, if not all jurisdictions, including Florida; however, lawyers should consult the rules and ethics opinions of their jurisdiction for further guidance.
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