Rendering a Title Opinion Upon Property In Which the Lawyer Has a Beneficial Interest
Opinion rules that the significance of an attorney's personal interest in property determines whether he or she has a conflict of interest sufficient to disqualify him or her from rendering a title opinion concerning that property.
Attorney A is a member of Law Firm ABC. Attorney A's wife, who is not an attorney, wishes to purchase 2.5 percent of the common stock of Corporation Z. Corporation Z is the general partner of a North Carolina limited partner which is engaged in development and sales of residential real estate.
CPR 254 provides that no member of a law firm may render a title opinion in a sales transaction if a member of the law firm has a beneficial interest in the selling entity.
If Attorney A's wife acquires stock in Corporation Z, will Attorney A be deemed to have acquired a "beneficial interest" in Corporation Z within the meaning of CPR 254, such that no member of Attorney A's firm may render title opinions in transactions in which Corporation Z's limited partner is the seller?
CPR 254 held that an attorney who owns a "beneficial interest" in an entity which was selling property could not certify title to the property sold. The opinion extended the disqualification to the attorney's partners and associates as well. The opinion went on to hold, however, that ownership of shares of a publicly held corporation did not constitute a beneficial interest for purposes of the disqualification rule.
CPR 254 was based on Disciplinary Rule 5-101(a) of the Code of Professional Responsibility. The Code has since been supplanted by the Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 5.1(b) now governs. Rule 5.1(b) disqualifies a lawyer from acting in the face of a personal conflict of interest when his or her representation might be materially limited, unless 1) the attorney reasonably believes the representation will not be adversely affected and 2) the client consents after full disclosure.
Although CPR 254 appears to disqualify a lawyer with any beneficial interest in the selling entity, the exception for stockholders of publicly held corporations implies that disqualification is really a function of the significance to the attorney of his or her personal interest and the affect of the transaction on that interest. If the attorney or a close relative would realize considerable personal gain from the transaction, it is likely that his judgment would, in the words of Rule 5.1(b), be materially limited. Under such circumstances, a reasonable lawyer probably would be unable to conclude that the conflict could be successfully managed and would be disqualified, regardless of whether the entity requesting the title opinion would consent. By the same token, the judgment of a lawyer whose personal interest is insignificant would probably not be materially limited. In such a case, the lawyer could reasonably believe that the conflict would not adversely affect the representation and could proceed if the client (the entity to whom the opinion is being rendered) consents.
In the facts stated, it appears that Attorney A's wife owns only a small portion of the outstanding stock of Corporation Z, although the dollar value of the stock is not stated. Moreover, it appears that Corporation Z is a partner of the selling entity, but is not itself the owner of the entity selling the land. This being the case, it appears that there is little likelihood that the investment of Attorney A's wife would sway the judgment of Attorney A. Consequently, Attorney A could reasonably believe that his representation of the selling partner would not be adversely affected by his wife's interests. If in addition, he or she actually believes that to be the case and the client consents after full disclosure, there would need be no disqualification of the lawyer or other members of the lawyer's firm. To the extent that it differs from this opinion, CPR 254 is superseded.