Skip to main content

Representation of Domestic Client After Representing Both Spouses in Other Matter

Adopted: January 13, 1989

Opinion rules that an attorney who represented a husband and wife in certain matters may not represent the husband against the wife in a domestic action involving alimony and equitable distribution. Opinion further rules that an attorney associated with the firm which represented the husband and wife during marriage, but who did not himself represent the husband and wife during that time, may represent the wife in an action involving equitable distribution and alimony if he did not gain any confidential information from or on behalf of the husband.

Editor's Note: This opinion was originally published as RPC 32 (Revised).

Inquiry #1:

Lawyer A is a senior partner with the Firm of A, B, and C. Husband and wife employed the services of Lawyer A over a period of approximately 15 years. Lawyer A, during the course of representing husband and wife, prepared wills for husband and wife, was the attorney for the estate of wife's mother, represented their son in connection with several traffic citations, represented the husband and wife in connection with the purchase of three parcels of real property, and advised the husband and wife as to whether they should file a joint bankruptcy petition. The husband and wife did not file a bankruptcy petition.

After the aforementioned services were rendered by Lawyer A on behalf of the husband and wife, the husband and wife separated. Therefore, the husband employed Lawyer A for the purpose of filing a complaint seeking divorce based upon one year's separation. The wife hired Lawyer D who had previously been employed with the Law Firm of A, B, and C to represent her in the domestic action. Lawyer D had never performed any legal services on behalf of husband and wife during his employment with the Firm of A, B, and C. Lawyer D filed an answer and counterclaim seeking an award of temporary and permanent alimony, sequestration of the marital residence and an equitable distribution of the marital property accumulated during the parties' marriage. Lawyer D also filed a motion requesting that Lawyer A withdraw from the case. May Lawyer A ethically continue to represent the husband after the wife contests his continued representation of the husband?

Opinion #1:

No. Lawyer A previously represented both the wife and the husband in connection with numerous matters, including preparation of wills, administration of the wife's mother's estate, purchase of three parcels of real property, and advice as to whether they should file a joint bankruptcy petition. These matters all require or involve communication concerning property, income, and matters relevant to the spouses' financial circumstances so that Lawyer A will necessarily have received confidential information relevant to the pending proceedings. Lawyer A is required by Rule 4 neither to reveal confidential information of this client, nor to use confidential information of his client to the disadvantage of that client or for the advantage of a third person. Confidential information includes not only material protected by the attorney-client privilege, but other information gained in the professional relationship which the client either requests that the lawyer not reveal or the disclosure of which could be detrimental to the client. Under these circumstances, given the wife's objection to Lawyer A's representation of the husband, Lawyer A may not continue representing the husband in the domestic action which includes a claim for alimony and a request for equitable distribution of marital property.

Inquiry #2:

May Lawyer D continue to represent the wife, in light of the fact that he was previously employed with the Firm of A, B, and C during the period of time Lawyer A rendered the legal services described above to both the husband and wife?

Opinion #2:

Yes, unless Lawyer D acquired confidential information of the husband during the period of time that he was with Law Firm A, B, and C. The inquiry states that Lawyer D never represented the husband. If Lawyer D was not aware of any confidential information communicated by the husband or by the wife on behalf of both her and the husband, he would not be prohibited from representing the wife once he is disassociated from Law Firm A, B and C. See Rule 5.1 and comment thereto.

Back to top