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Rule 1.10 Imputation of Conflicts of Interest: General Rule

(a) While lawyers are associated in a firm, none of them shall knowingly represent a client when any one of them practicing alone would be prohibited from doing so by Rules 1.7 or 1.9, unless the prohibition is based on a personal interest of the prohibited lawyer, including a prohibition under Rule 6.6, and the prohibition does not present a significant risk of materially limiting the representation of the client by the remaining lawyers in the firm.

(b) When a lawyer has terminated an association with a firm, the firm is not prohibited from thereafter representing a person with interests materially adverse to those of a client represented by the formerly associated lawyer and not currently represented by the firm, unless:

(1) the matter is the same or substantially related to that in which the formerly associated lawyer represented the client; and

(2) any lawyer remaining in the firm has information protected by Rules 1.6 and 1.9(c) that is material to the matter.

(c) When a lawyer becomes associated with a firm, no lawyer associated in the firm shall knowingly represent a person in a matter in which that lawyer is disqualified under Rule 1.9 unless:

(1) the personally disqualified lawyer is timely screened from any participation in the matter; and

(2) written notice is promptly given to any affected former client to enable it to ascertain compliance with the provisions of this Rule.

(d) A disqualification prescribed by this rule may be waived by the affected client under the conditions stated in Rule 1.7.

(e) The disqualification of lawyers associated in a firm with former or current government lawyers is governed by Rule 1.11.


Definition of "Firm"

[1] For purposes of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the term "firm" denotes lawyers in a law partnership, professional corporation, sole proprietorship or other association authorized to practice law; or lawyers employed in a legal services organization or the legal department of a corporation or other organization. See Rule 1.0(d). Whether two or more lawyers constitute a firm within this definition can depend on the specific facts. See
Rule 1.0, Comments [2] - [4].

Principles of Imputed Disqualification

[2] The rule of imputed disqualification stated in paragraph (a) gives effect to the principle of loyalty to the client as it applies to lawyers who practice in a law firm. Such situations can be considered from the premise that a firm of lawyers is essentially one lawyer for purposes of the rules governing loyalty to the client, or from the premise that each lawyer is vicariously bound by the obligation of loyalty owed by each lawyer with whom the lawyer is associated. Paragraph (a) operates only among the lawyers currently associated in a firm. When a lawyer moves from one firm to another, the situation is governed by Rules 1.9(b) and 1.10(b).

[3] The rule in paragraph (a) does not prohibit representation where neither questions of client loyalty nor protection of confidential information are presented. Where one lawyer in a firm could not effectively represent a given client because of strong political beliefs, for example, but that lawyer will do no work on the case and the personal beliefs of the lawyer will not materially limit the representation by others in the firm, the firm should not be disqualified. On the other hand, if an opposing party in a case were owned by a lawyer in the law firm, and others in the firm would be materially limited in pursuing the matter because of loyalty to that lawyer, the personal disqualification of the lawyer would be imputed to all others in the firm.

[4] The rule in paragraph (a) also does not prohibit representation by others in the law firm where the person prohibited from involvement in a matter is a nonlawyer, such as a paralegal or legal secretary. Nor does paragraph (a) prohibit representation if the lawyer is prohibited from acting because of events before the person became a lawyer, for example, work that the person did while a law student. Such persons, however, ordinarily must be screened from any personal participation in the matter to avoid communication to others in the firm of confidential information that both the nonlawyers and the firm have a legal duty to protect. See
Rules 1.0(l) and 5.3.

[5] Rule 1.10(b) operates to permit a law firm, under certain circumstances, to represent a person with interests directly adverse to those of a client represented by a lawyer who formerly was associated with the firm. The Rule applies regardless of when the formerly associated lawyer represented the client. However, the law firm may not represent a person with interests adverse to those of a present client of the firm, which would violate Rule 1.7. Moreover, the firm may not represent the person where the matter is the same or substantially related to that in which the formerly associated lawyer represented the client and any other lawyer currently in the firm has material information protected by Rules 1.6 and 1.9(c).

[6] Where the conditions of paragraph (c) are met, imputation is removed, and consent to the new representation is not required. Lawyers should be aware, however, that courts may impose more stringent obligations in ruling upon motions to disqualify a lawyer from pending litigation.

[7] Requirements for screening procedures are stated in Rule 1.0(l). Paragraph (c)(2) does not prohibit the screened lawyer from receiving a salary or partnership share established by prior independent agreement, nor does it specifically prohibit the receipt of a part of the fee from the screened matter. However, Rule 8.4(c) prohibits the screened lawyer from participating in the fee if such participation was impliedly or explicitly offered as an inducement to the lawyer to become associated with the firm.

[8] Notice, including a description of the screened lawyer's prior representation and of the screening procedures employed, generally should be given as soon as practicable after the need for screening becomes apparent.

[9] Rule 1.10(d) removes imputation with the informed consent of the affected client under the conditions stated in Rule 1.7. The conditions stated in Rule 1.7 require the lawyer to determine that the representation is not prohibited by Rule 1.7(b) and that each affected client has given informed consent to the representation, confirmed in writing. In some cases, the risk may be so severe that the conflict may not be cured by client consent. For a discussion of the effectiveness of client waivers of conflicts that might arise in the future, see Rule 1.7, Comment [22]. For a definition of informed consent, see Rule 1.0(f).

[10] Where a lawyer has joined a private firm after having represented the government, imputation is governed by Rule 1.11 (b) and (c), not this Rule. Under Rule 1.11(d), where a lawyer represents the government after having served clients in private practice, nongovernmental employment or in another government agency, former-client conflicts are not imputed to government lawyers associated with the individually disqualified lawyer.

[11] Where a lawyer is prohibited from engaging in certain transactions under Rule 1.8, paragraph (j) of that Rule, and not this Rule, determines whether that prohibition also applies to other lawyers associated in a firm with the personally prohibited lawyer.

History Note: Statutory Authority G.S. 84-23

Adopted by the Supreme Court: July 24, 1997

Amendments Approved by the Supreme Court: March 1, 2003

Ethics Opinion Notes

CPR 96. When different attorneys in the same firm are employed to represent conflicting interests in related cases (estate in wrongful death case and criminal defendant in homicide case), both must withdraw.

CPR 158. An attorney whose partner represented the wife in domestic litigation which resulted in parties holding real property as co-tenants cannot subsequently represent the husband in a partition proceeding.

CPR 274. Attorneys who merely share office space are not automatically disqualified.

RPC 45. Opinion rules that attorney whose partner represented the adverse party prior to joining the firm is not disqualified unless the partner acquired confidential information material to the current dispute.

RPC 49. Opinion rules that attorneys that own stock in a real estate company may refer clients to the company if such would be in the client's best interest and there is full disclosure, and that such attorneys may not close transactions brokered by the real estate firm.

RPC 55. Opinion rules that a member of the Attorney General's staff may prosecute appeals of adverse Medicaid decisions against the Department of Human Resources, which is represented by another member of the Attorney General's staff.

RPC 65. Opinion rules that the Public Defender's office should be considered as a single law firm and that staff attorneys may not represent codefendants with conflicting interests unless both consent and can be adequately represented.

RPC 73. Opinion clarifies two lines of authority in prior ethics opinions. Where an attorney serves on a governing body, such as a county commission, the attorney is disqualified from representing criminal defendants where a member of the sheriff's department is a prosecuting witness. The attorney's partners are not disqualified.

Where an attorney advises a governing body, such as a county board of commissioners, but is not a commissioner herself, and in that capacity represents the sheriff's department relative to criminal matters, the attorney may not represent criminal defendants if a member of the sheriff's department will be a prosecuting witness. In this situation the attorney's partners would also be disqualified from representing the criminal defendants.

RPC 248. Opinion rules that a lawyer who owns stock in a mortgage brokerage corporation may not act as the settlement agent for a loan brokered by the corporation. Nor may the other lawyers in the firm certify title or act as settlement agent for the closing.

99 Formal Ethics Opinion 3. Opinion rules that lawyers in different field offices of Legal Services of North Carolina may represent clients with materially adverse interests provided confidential client information is not shared by the lawyers with the different field offices.

2005 Formal Ethics Opinion 1. Opinion rules that a lawyer may not appear before a judge who is a family member without consent from all parties and, although consent is not required, the other members of the firm must disclose the relationship before appearing before the judge.

2008 Formal Ethics Opinion 11. Opinion rules that a lawyer may serve as the trustee in a foreclosure proceeding while simultaneously representing the beneficiary of the deed of trust on unrelated matters and that the other lawyers in the firm may also continue to represent the beneficiary on unrelated matters.

2010 Formal Ethics Opinion 12. Opinion rules that a hiring law firm may ask an incoming law school graduate to provide sufficient information as to his prior legal experience so that the hiring law firm can identify potential conflicts of interest.

2012 Formal Ethics Opinion 4. Opinion rules that a lawyer who represented an organization while employed with another firm must be screened from participation in any matter, or any matter substantially related thereto, in which she previously represented the organization, and from any matter against the organization if she acquired confidential information of the organization that is relevant to the matter and which has not become generally known.

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