Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent American Bar Association (ABA) Formal Ethics Opinion 492, which addresses the obligations of lawyers to prospective clients, including confidentiality, and conflicts of interest, including potential disqualifying conflicts after the lawyer obtains “significantly harmful” information. The link to ABA Formal Opinion 492 is here: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/professional_responsibility/aba-formal-opinion-492.pdf
The ABA issued Formal Ethics Opinion 492 on June 9, 2020. The opinion addresses a lawyer’s obligations to prospective client and discusses who is a “prospective client”, the obligation to protect confidential information, disqualifying conflicts because of the acquisition of “significantly harmful” information, and limiting information during an initial consultation and avoiding the imputation of conflicts to the firm.
“A prospective client is a person who consults a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship. Model Rule 1.18 governs whether the consultation limits the lawyer or the lawyer’s firm from accepting a new client whose interests are materially adverse to the prospective client in a matter that is the same or substantially related to the subject of the consultation, even when no client-lawyer relationship results from the consultation. Under Model Rule 1.18 a lawyer is prohibited from accepting a new matter if the lawyer received information from the prospective client that could be significantly harmful to the prior prospective client in the new matter.
“Model Rule 1.18(b) imposes a duty of confidentiality with respect to information learned during a consultation, even when no client-lawyer relationship ensues. It provides: Even when no client-lawyer relationship ensues, a lawyer who has learned information from a prospective client shall not use or reveal that information, except as Rule 1.9 would permit with respect to information of a former client.”
“Whether information learned by the lawyer could be significantly harmful is a fact-based inquiry depending on a variety of circumstances including the length of the consultation and the nature of the topics discussed. The inquiry does not require the prior prospective client to reveal confidential information. Further, even if the lawyer learned information that could be significantly harmful to the prior prospective client in the new matter, the lawyer’s firm can accept the new matter if the lawyer is screened from the new matter or the prospective client provides informed consent, as set forth in Model Rule 1.18(d)(1) and (2).”
The opinion concludes that a lawyer who receives information from a prospective client that could be “significantly harmful” and then represents a client in the same or a substantially related matter where that client’s interests are materially adverse to those of the prospective client would violate Model Rule 1.18(c) unless the conflict is waived by the prospective client.
Bottom line: This opinion provides detailed information to assist lawyers in analyzing ethics issues that may arise related to prospective clients when the lawyer obtains “significantly harmful” information and provides guidance on how to identify and address those issues and comply with the lawyer’s ethical obligations.
Stay safe and 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.
2999 Alt. 19, Suite A
Palm Harbor, Florida
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670