When Must a Lawyer Plotting a Lateral Move Obtain a Client’s Informed Consent? | Legal Ethics in Motion
by Anibal Manzano
1. Conflict of Interest and Informed Consent
To avoid a conflict of interest, a lawyer needs to be informed client consent to engage in substantive job negotiations with a law firm that is adverse to the client. Likewise, hiring firms must avoid serious job talks with opposing counsel unless its own client consents. See North Carolina State Bar Ethics Comm., Formal Op. 20163, 1/27/17.
North Carolina Rule of Professional Conduct 1.7 forbids a lawyer from representing a client if the lawyer’s own interests may materially limit the client’s representation unless the lawyer reasonably believes he or she can provide competent and diligent representation and the client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing. N.C. Rules of Prof’l Conduct, Rule 1.7(b)(2) (2003). This type of conflict may arise when a lawyer has discussions about possible employment with a client’s opponent or a law firm representing the opponent. N.C. Rules of Prof’l Conduct, Rule 1.7, cmt. 10.
2. Substantive Discussion or Negotiation
While the exact point at which a lawyer’s own interest may materially limit his representation of a client may vary, the ethics committee advised substantive discussions and negotiations materially limit the lawyer’s representation of a client. Similarly, The Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers advises that once the discussion of employment has become concrete and the interest is mutual, the lawyer must promptly inform the client. Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers: A Lawyer’s Personal Interest Affecting the Representation of a Client, § 125, cmt. d. (2000).
The ethics committee relied on the ABA definition of “substantive discussion”, which “entails a communication between the job-seeking lawyer and the hiring law firm about the job-seeking lawyer’s skills, experience, and the ability to bring clients to the firm; and the terms of association.” ABA Formal Ethics Op. 96-400 (1996). To find a “substantive discussion,” the ethics committee opined that there must be a discussion or negotiation that is substantive. See North Carolina State Bar Ethics Comm., Formal Op. 20163, 1/27/17.
The committee further provided examples as to what constitutes a “discussion” and what is “substantive.” “Sending a resume blind to a potential employer is not a ‘discussion.” Id. “Speaking generally with a colleague at a social event about employment opportunities is not ‘substantive.’” Id.
To read the full opinion, click here.