Representation of Multiple Parties to the Closing of a Residential Real Estate Transaction
Opinion examines the circumstances in which it is acceptable for a lawyer to represent the buyer, the seller, and the lender in the closing of a residential real estate transaction.
Editor's Note: RPC 210 and RPC 211, companion opinions on representation in residential real estate closings, were adopted by the council of the State Bar on January 12, 1996. On April 12, 1996, the council withdrew the opinions following substantial negative comment from real estate practitioners who indicated that the opinions might eliminate the economic efficiencies inherent in one-lawyer residential real estate closings. A substitute opinion for RPC 210 was proposed and subsequently adopted on April 4, 1997.
This opinion clarifies the conditions under which a closing lawyer may engage in common representation of the multiple parties to the closing of a residential real estate transaction. To the extent that a prior ethics opinion is inconsistent with this opinion, the prior opinion is withdrawn.
In the usual residential real estate transaction, the contract to purchase is entered into by the buyer and seller prior to the engagement of a lawyer to close the transaction. May the closing lawyer represent both the buyer and the seller to close the transaction?
Rule 5.1(a) prohibits the representation of a client if the representation is directly adverse to the representation of another client unless there will be no adverse effect on the interests of both clients and the clients consent. At first blush, it may appear that the interests of the buyer and the seller of residential real estate are adverse. Nevertheless, after the terms of the sale are resolved, the buyer and the seller of residential real estate have a common objective: the transfer of the ownership of the property in conformity with the terms of the contract or agreement. In paragraph  of the comment to Rule 5.1, "Conflicts of Interest," it is observed that "a lawyer may not represent multiple parties to a negotiation whose interests are fundamentally antagonistic to each other, but common representation is permissible where the clients are generally aligned in interests even though there is some difference of interests among them." If the interests of the buyer and seller of residential property are generally aligned and the lawyer determines that he or she can manage the potential conflict of interest between the parties, a lawyer may represent both the buyer and the seller in closing a residential real estate transaction with the consent of the parties. Rule 5.1(a).
A lawyer may reasonably believe that the common representation of multiple parties to a residential real estate closing will not be adverse to the interests of any one client if the parties have already agreed to the basic terms of the transaction and the lawyer's role is limited to rendering an opinion on title, memorializing the transaction, and disbursing the proceeds. Before reaching this conclusion, however, the lawyer must determine whether there is any obstacle to the loyal representation of both parties. The lawyer should proceed with the common representation only if the lawyer is able to reach the following conclusions: he or she will be able to act impartially; there is little likelihood that an actual conflict will arise out of the common representation; and, should a conflict arise, the potential prejudice to the parties will be minimal. See, e.g., ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 2.2, "Intermediary."
If the closing lawyer reasonably believes that the common representation can be managed in the best interests of both the buyer and the seller, he must obtain the consent of each of the parties after full disclosure of the risks of common representation. Rule 5.1(a). Full disclosure should include an explanation of the scope of the lawyer's representation. The lawyer should advise each party of the right to separate counsel. The disclosure should also include an explanation that if a conflict develops, the lawyer must withdraw from the representation of all parties and may not continue to represent any of the clients in the transaction. Rule 2.8(b). Although it is a better practice to put such disclosures in writing, the Rules of Professional Conduct do not require written disclosures.
If common representation is appropriate, the representation of the seller may include preparing the deed, collecting the purchase price, and drafting the documents necessary to complete the transaction in accordance with the agreement between the buyer and the seller. The lawyer may charge the seller for this representation. CPR 100.
The buyer and the lender usually agree to the basic terms of the mortgage loan (amount, security, interest rate, installment, and maturity) prior to the engagement of the closing lawyer. In this situation, may the closing lawyer represent both the lender and the buyer?
Yes, if the interests of the buyer and lender are generally aligned and the lawyer determines that the potential conflict of interest can be managed. Rule 5.1(a). As stated above, before concluding that the common representation will not be adverse to the interests of any one client, the lawyer must determine three things: he or she will be able to act impartially; there is little likelihood that an actual conflict will arise out of the common representation; and, should a conflict arise, the potential prejudice to the parties will be minimal.
Although full disclosure to the lender of the risks of common representation is recommended, if the lawyer reasonably believes that the lender understands the closing lawyer's role because the lender is a knowledgeable and experienced participant in residential real estate transactions, the lawyer does not have to make a full disclosure to the lender regarding the common representation as required in opinion #1 above.
If the closing lawyer does not intend to represent all of the parties to the transaction, does the lawyer have any responsibility to the party or parties he or she does not intend to represent?
Yes. By custom, the lender and the buyer are usually represented by the same lawyer. Therefore, if the lawyer does not intend to represent both the buyer and the lender, the lawyer must give timely notice to the party that the lawyer does not intend to represent, so that this party may secure separate representation. CPR 100. If the lawyer does not give such notice, the lawyer will be deemed to represent both the buyer and the lender. CPR 100. If the lawyer represents only the buyer, the lawyer may nevertheless ethically provide title and lien priority assurances required by the lender as a condition of the loan. CPR 100. If the party that the lawyer is not representing obtains separate counsel, both lawyers should fully cooperate with each other in serving the interests of their respective clients and in closing the transaction promptly.
It is not generally assumed that the buyer's lawyer will represent the seller. Therefore, if the closing lawyer does not intend to prepare the deed or perform other legal services for the seller, the lawyer does not have to give notice to the seller. But see Cornelius v. Helms, 120 N.C. App. 172,461 S.E.2d 338 (1995), disc. rev. denied, 342 N.C. 653,467 S.E.2d 709 (1996), for related negligence issues.
May a lawyer who is representing the buyer, the lender, and the seller (or any one or more of them) provide the title insurer with an opinion on title sufficient to issue a mortgagee title insurance policy, the premium for which is normally paid by the buyer?
Yes. CPR 100.
If a lawyer is representing more than one party to a residential real estate closing, what should the lawyer do if a conflict develops between the clients before, during, or after the closing?
If a conflict or controversy relating to the transaction arises between any of the parties being represented by the closing lawyer, the lawyer must withdraw from the representation of all of the clients and is ethically barred from representing any of the clients in the transaction or any dispute arising out of the transaction. Rule 5.1(a).