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Representing Parties Adverse to Former and Current Clients

Adopted: July 24, 1987

Opinion rules that a lawyer may represent clients in a medical malpractice action even though one of the potential defendants or a witness and agent for the defendant is a former client in an unrelated matter. Opinion further rules that the lawyer cannot undertake to represent the clients in the medical malpractice matter when he is currently counsel in a divorce proceeding for a potential defendant or an agent and witness for the hospital defendant.


Lawyer A is contacted concerning a possible medical malpractice action. With the consent of the prospective clients, Lawyer A consults with Lawyer B, of a different law firm, about associating in the case. Lawyers A and B sign a contract to represent the clients in the medical malpractice case.

Subsequently, Lawyer A learns through investigation of the case that X and Y may be involved in the case as agents of the hospital. X and Y may be named in the complaint as defendants or may simply be involved as non-party agents of the defendant hospital.

Lawyer A represented X in a child custody and support action. Lawyer A's last contact with X was in 1983. Lawyer A has drawn a separation agreement for Y and has filed a divorce complaint on Y's behalf. The divorce action is still pending and could be put on the calendar and resolved at any time. Y has paid lawyer A only 1/8 of the fee due to lawyer A for filing the divorce action.

If lawyer A fully disclosed to the plaintiffs in the medical malpractice matter his involvement concerning X and Y, and if the plaintiffs in the medical malpractice matter give their consent for Lawyer A to continue representing them, and if the divorce action for Y is finalized prior to any medical malpractice suit being filed, may Lawyer A ethically continue to represent the plaintiffs in the medical malpractice matter as counsel? Would it make any difference if X and Y give informed consent to Lawyer A's representation of the medical malpractice clients even if it should involve a lawsuit involving X and Y as possible defendants?

If only the hospital is sued, and X and Y are not named as party defendants in the medical malpractice action and would thereby be involved as witnesses as the agents of the hospital defendant, could Lawyer A ethically represent the plaintiffs in the medical malpractice action as counsel with Lawyer B?


Lawyer A does not currently represent X and has had no contact with X since 1983. The medical malpractice action is certainly not the same matter and does not appear in any way to be substantially related to the child custody and support action in which Lawyer A previously represented X. See Rule 5.1(d). On the facts given, it does not appear likely that any confidential information obtained in Lawyer A's prior representation of X would be violated if Lawyer A now represented the medical malpractice clients.

It appears that Lawyer A currently represents Y. So long as Lawyer A is representing Y, he cannot undertake adverse representation or representation which is likely to be directly adverse to him unless he has consent of Y and the clients in the medical malpractice case and unless he reasonably believes the other representation would not adversely affect Y's interests. Rule 5.1(a). Even if Y is only a witness and agent of the hospital in the medical malpractice matter, the inquiry suggests that Y's motives and/or actions might be in question. He would be a witness subject to cross-examination. It is difficult to see how the loyalty of the lawyer to his client and the full and frank communication which a client should feel free to give to his lawyer can be maintained if the lawyer is simultaneously representing plaintiffs against Y's principal in a malpractice action in which Y would be involved as a witness. See Rule 4 and comment thereto; Rule 5.1(b) and comment to Rule 5.1. Under these circumstances, it does not appear that Lawyer A should undertake to represent the clients in the medical malpractice matter so long as he is representing Y in Y's divorce action.

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