Married Lawyers in Different Firms
Opinion rules that when married lawyers are employed in different firms and those firms represent adverse parties, neither firm is disqualified.
Firm One employs Lawyer A as an associate. Lawyer A is married to Lawyer B who is a partner in firm Two. Lawyer A was formerly an associate in Firm Two. Both Firm One and Firm Two have more than one office. However, Lawyer A and Lawyer B practice in offices of their respective firms in the same city, where they reside.
Where Firm One and Firm Two represent adverse or potentially adverse interests in a matter, but neither Lawyer A nor Lawyer B participates actively in the matter, is either firm disqualified from that representation? What inquiry must be made, if any, if the facts do not make the potential involvement of the other spouse's firm immediately apparent? Is client disclosure and consent required for accepting representation? Is it necessary for the firm to insulate or "build a Chinese Wall around" the spouse attorney where actual or potential adverse representation is apparent?
Where Firm One and Firm Two represent adverse or potentially adverse interests in a matter, may either Lawyer A or Lawyer B participate in the representation? If so, what disclosure or client consent is required? Does it matter whether the fact of adverse representation is revealed only after substantial involvement or attention to the matter by either or both firms?
Rule 5.9 of the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits a lawyer who is related to another lawyer as parent, child, sibling, or spouse from representing a client in a representation adverse to a person whom the lawyer knows is represented by the spouse or other relative unless the client consents after full disclosure concerning the relationship. The Rule specifically provides that it does not disqualify other lawyers in the firm. Thus, Firm One and Firm Two may represent adverse or potentially adverse interests. The Rule does not appear to require client disclosure and consent where the spouse partner or associate is not actively involved in the representation. Nor is there necessarily any need for any special inquiry if the spouse partner or associate is not involved in the case. Nor does there appear to be any reason to "build a Chinese Wall around" the spouse attorney simply because a firm in which his spouse is a partner or associate is actively involved in representing an adverse or potentially adverse interest. Should the spouse attorney acquire any "confidential information" within the meaning of Rule 4, he or she is required to observe the confidential nature of that information, even in communicating with his or her spouse.
Rule 5.9 implicitly permits one spouse to participate in matters even though his or her spouse is a partner or associate in a firm representing an adverse interest where the other spouse does not appear to be participating actively. However, client disclosure and consent may be required if there is any reason to believe that the spouse lawyer's own interest may be involved. (See Rule 5.1(b)). This will depend on the circumstances in view of the case, the size of the firms, effect upon the income of the two spouses, and other relevant matters. For example, since Lawyer B is a partner in Firm Two and presumably received income based upon a percentage of Firm Two's profits, Lawyer A's personal interest under Rule 5.1(b) could be involved, as a result of the effect on family income, in a case in which Firm Two, but not necessarily Lawyer B, represents an adverse party. Consideration of the type of fee, the amount of money involved, the financial relationship between firm income and Lawyer B's income, and other matters may be relevant here. Under any circumstances, the representation by either firm, or even by either of the spouses, may be undertaken if the client consents after full disclosure of the relationship and possible consequences or effects on the representation, if any, in view of the firm and the particular lawyer involved. See Rule 5.9; see Rule 5.1. Whenever either spouse is involved in representation in a matter in which the other spouse's firm also represents one of the parties, great care should be taken to ensure that no problems are created as a result of the relationship and the representation, such as may happen even by a message left at the attorney's home by the client. See ABA Formal Opinion 340 (September 3, 1975).