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Conflict in Joint Representation

Adopted: January 15, 1993

Opinion rules that a lawyer, having undertaken to represent two clients in the same matter, may not thereafter represent one against the other in the event their interests become adverse without the consent of the other.

Inquiry #1:

Attorney A drew a will. The will set up a "family trust" which will invest the corpus of the estate. The "family trustee" who invests the corpus is obligated to pay a set amount to a separate "charitable trust" established by the will. The charitable trust directs that all monies coming from the family trustee shall be disbursed for charitable uses. After ten years of charitable payments, the charitable trustee is to distribute its balance to charitable purposes and family trustee is to distribute the remaining principle and accumulated interest to testator's family. The family trustee has no discretion as to the amount of money to be distributed to the charitable trust. Attorney A currently represents the executor of the estate whose duty is to pay estate debts and to deposit all sums remaining into the family trust. Attorney A would also like to represent the charitable trust and the family trust. In the absence of any failure of the family trustee to pay the mandated amount to the charitable trust, may Attorney A represent the charitable trust, the family trust and the executor?

Opinion #1:

Yes. Based upon the facts presented, there is no disqualifying conflict of interest present among the executor, the family trust, and the charitable trust. Rule 5.1(b). Obviously, if the family trust failed to pay the required amount to the charitable trust, an unwaivable conflict of interest would develop between those entities, and Attorney A could not continue to represent both.

Inquiry #2:

If Attorney A undertakes to represent both the family trust and the charitable trust, and the family trust fails to distribute the amounts mandated to the charitable trust, may Attorney A cease to represent the family trust and represent the charitable trust in a suit to mandate distribution to the charitable trust from the family trust?

Opinion #2:

Yes, if the family trust consents. In the event that the family trust fails to distribute the required amounts to the charitable trust, there would be an irreconcilable conflict of interest between those two clients, and Attorney A would be required to withdraw from the representation of one or the other of the trusts. Rule 5.1(b). If Attorney A chooses to withdraw from representation of the family trust, the family trust then becomes Attorney A's former client. Rule 5.1(d) prohibits a lawyer from representing an interest adverse to that of a former client in the same or substantially related matter without the former client's consent. Since the matters involved are substantially related, it follows that Attorney A may not represent the charitable trust in an action adverse to the interest of her former client, the family trust, without the consent of the family trust. In determining whether to ask for such consent, Attorney A should be mindful of language contained in comment 4 of Rule 5.1, which declares that a lawyer cannot properly ask for consent when a disinterested lawyer would conclude that the client should not consent under the circumstances. In this case, the family trust should not be asked to consent if Attorney A's continuing representation of the charitable trust will require the use of confidential information of the family trust.

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