The Lawyer and His Secretary as Witnesses
Opinion rules that a lawyer may represent grantees of deeds he drafted even though his secretary may be called as a witness. [See Rule 3.7 of the Revised Rules for additional guidance.]
Editor's Note: See Rule 3.7 of the Revised Rules for additional guidance.
Over a 10-year period, Attorney A drafted eight deeds under the provisions of which X, a widow, conveyed to Y and Z, husband and wife and unrelated neighbors, various tracts or parcels of land. Six of the eight instruments were notarized by a secretary employed by Attorney A's firm. On two of the six occasions, Attorney A went with his secretary, the notary, to the home of the grantor to explain the instruments.
In each instance, the grantees, or one of the grantees, initially came to Attorney A to have him draft the deed. The grantee paid Attorney A for drafting each of the deeds. Attorney A never represented the grantor in any other legal matter and did not purport to represent the grantor with regard to these deeds except that he did undertake to go over some of the provisions of two of the deeds.
The grantor is now deceased. Three of her grandchildren have instituted a suit seeking to set aside all eight deeds on the grounds of lack of mental capacity on the part of the grantor and undue influence exerted upon the grantor by the grantees. Approximately 50 witnesses have been interviewed and will testify to facts tending to refute the allegations made by the plaintiffs. Y and Z desire that Attorney A represent them with regard plaintiff's suit. Attorney A has explained to Y and Z that he would not be able to accept employment on their behalf and then voluntarily testify on their behalf as a witness. Attorney A believes that there are many other witnesses who can ably and better testify on behalf of Y and Z to the issues of the grantor's mental capacity and to refute the undue influence allegations. Attorney A has also explained to Y and Z that it is his opinion that his secretary, who notarized six of these instruments, could testify if he represented Y and Z. Attorney A recognizes some possibility that he might be called as a witness by plaintiffs, but he believes this possibility to be very unlikely.
May Attorney A ethically accept employment by Y and Z to defend them and represent their interests in the proceeding to set aside the deeds on the grounds of the grantor's alleged lack of mental capacity and alleged undue influence exerted upon the grantor by the grantees, given the fact that Attorney A drafted the deeds, was present when two of them were executed, and that a secretary from his firm notarized six of the deeds and would probably need to be called as a witness by Y and Z as to the condition of the grantor at the time of execution of those six deeds? Could Attorney A, if he undertook this employment on behalf of Y and Z, ethically represent them and call a secretary from his law firm as a witness on behalf of Y and Z and permit her to testify as to the mental capacity of the grantor and also permit her to testify that Attorney A was present and explained the content of the instruments to the grantor on two occasions? Would it be proper for Attorney A to accept the employment by Y and Z if the secretary (notary) employed by his firm was not called as a witness by his clients, but with the knowledge that he would probably be called as a witness on behalf of plaintiffs?
Yes. Attorney A may ethically represent Y and Z in the proceeding instituted by the grantor's grandchildren to set aside the eight deeds in question, under the anticipated circumstances. While Rule 5.2 prohibits a lawyer from accepting employment in most instances if he knows or if it is obvious that either he or another lawyer in his firm ought to be called as a witness for either side, neither Rule 5.2 nor any other Rule speaks to prohibiting representation when an employee in the firm will probably be called as a witness. The comment indicates that the underlying justification for Rule 5.2 relates to the conflict between the dual roles of advocate and witness, a conflict which does not exist for this secretary since she does not appear and participate as advocate. The prohibition on accepting employment only applies if the lawyer "knows or it is obvious that he or a lawyer in his firm ought to be called as a witness...." Rule 5.2(a). In this instance, it appears highly unlikely that Attorney A would be called as a witness since there are numerous other witnesses who can testify to the issues of mental capacity and undue influence, or lack thereof, on behalf of Y and Z. In addition, Attorney A believes that it is highly unlikely that plaintiffs would call him as a witness, a belief which appears to be reasonable under the circumstances. Of course, if Attorney A accepts the employment and it subsequently develops that he will or should be called as a witness on either side, he would then have to govern his conduct by Rule 5.2(b) or (c).