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Rule 1.9 Duties to Former Clients

(a) A lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter shall not thereafter represent another person in the same or a substantially related matter in which that person's interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client unless the former client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.

(b) A lawyer shall not knowingly represent a person in the same or a substantially related matter in which a firm with which the lawyer formerly was associated had previously represented a client

(1) whose interests are materially adverse to that person; and

(2) about whom the lawyer had acquired information protected by Rules 1.6 and 1.9(c) that is material to the matter;

unless the former client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.

(c) A lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter or whose present or former firm has formerly represented a client in a matter shall not thereafter:

(1) use information relating to the representation to the disadvantage of the former client except as these Rules would permit or require with respect to a client, or when the information is contained in the public record, was disclosed at a public hearing, or was otherwise publicly disseminated; or

(2) reveal information relating to the representation except as these Rules would permit or require with respect to a client. A lawyer may disclose information otherwise covered by Rule 1.6 that is contained in the public record, was disclosed at a public hearing, or was otherwise publicly disseminated unless the information would likely be embarrassing or detrimental to the client if disclosed.


[1] After termination of a client-lawyer relationship, a lawyer has certain continuing duties with respect to confidentiality and conflicts of interest and thus may not represent another client except in conformity with this Rule. Under this Rule, for example, a lawyer could not properly seek to rescind on behalf of a new client a contract drafted on behalf of the former client. So also a lawyer who has prosecuted an accused person could not properly represent the accused in a subsequent civil action against the government concerning the same transaction. Nor could a lawyer who has represented multiple clients in a matter represent one or more of the clients in the same or a substantially related matter after a dispute arose among the clients in that matter, unless all affected clients give informed consent or the continued representation of the client(s) is not materially adverse to the interests of the former clients. See Comment [9]. Current and former government lawyers must comply with this Rule to the extent required by Rule 1.11.

[2] The scope of a "matter" for purposes of this Rule depends on the facts of a particular situation or transaction. The lawyer's involvement in a matter can also be a question of degree. When a lawyer has been directly involved in a specific transaction, subsequent representation of other clients with materially adverse interests in that transaction clearly is prohibited. The underlying question is whether the lawyer was so involved in the matter that the subsequent representation can be justly regarded as a changing of sides in the matter in question.

[3] Matters are "substantially related" for purposes of this Rule if they involve the same transaction or legal dispute or if there otherwise is a substantial risk that information as would normally have been obtained in the prior representation would materially advance the client's position in the subsequent matter. For example, a lawyer who has represented a businessperson and learned extensive private financial information about that person may not then represent that person's spouse in seeking a divorce. Similarly, a lawyer who has previously represented a client in securing environmental permits to build a shopping center would be precluded from representing neighbors seeking to oppose rezoning of the property on the basis of environmental considerations; however, the lawyer would not be precluded, on the grounds of substantial relationship, from defending a tenant of the completed shopping center in resisting eviction for nonpayment of rent. Information that has been disclosed to the public or to other parties adverse to the former client ordinarily will not be disqualifying. Information acquired in a prior representation may have been rendered obsolete by the passage of time, a circumstance that may be relevant in determining whether two representations are substantially related. In the case of an organizational client, general knowledge of the client's policies and practices ordinarily will not preclude a subsequent representation; on the other hand, knowledge of specific facts gained in a prior representation that are relevant to the matter in question ordinarily will preclude such a representation. A former client is not required to reveal the information learned by the lawyer to establish a substantial risk that the lawyer has information to use in the subsequent matter. A conclusion about the possession of such information may be based on the nature of the services the lawyer provided the former client and information that would in ordinary practice be learned by a lawyer providing such services.

Lawyers Moving Between Firms

[4] When lawyers have been associated within a firm but then end their association, the question of whether a lawyer should undertake representation is more complicated. There are several competing considerations. First, the client previously represented by the former firm must be reasonably assured that the principle of loyalty to the client is not compromised. Second, the rule should not be so broadly cast as to preclude other persons from having reasonable choice of legal counsel. Third, the rule should not unreasonably hamper lawyers from forming new associations and taking on new clients after having left a previous association. In this connection, it should be recognized that today many lawyers practice in firms, that many lawyers to some degree limit their practice to one field or another, and that many move from one association to another several times in their careers. If the concept of imputation were applied with unqualified rigor, the result would be radical curtailment of the opportunity of lawyers to move from one practice setting to another and of the opportunity of clients to change counsel.

[5] Paragraph (b) operates to disqualify the lawyer only when the lawyer involved has actual knowledge of information protected by Rules 1.6 and 1.9(c). Thus, if a lawyer while with one firm acquired no knowledge or information relating to a particular client of the firm, and that lawyer later joined another firm, neither the lawyer individually nor the second firm is disqualified from representing another client in the same or a related matter even though the interests of the two clients conflict. See Rule 1.10(b) for the restrictions on a firm once a lawyer has terminated association with the firm.

[6] Application of paragraph (b) depends on a situation's particular facts, aided by inferences, deductions or working presumptions that reasonably may be made about the way in which lawyers work together. A lawyer may have general access to files of all clients of a law firm and may regularly participate in discussions of their affairs; it should be inferred that such a lawyer in fact is privy to all information about all the firm's clients. In contrast, another lawyer may have access to the files of only a limited number of clients and participate in discussions of the affairs of no other clients; in the absence of information to the contrary, it should be inferred that such a lawyer in fact is privy to information about the clients actually served but not those of other clients. In such an inquiry, the burden of proof should rest upon the firm whose disqualification is sought.

[7] Independent of the question of disqualification of a firm, a lawyer changing professional association has a continuing duty to preserve confidentiality of information about a client formerly represented. See Rules 1.6 and 1.9(c).

[8] The Rules of Professional Conduct are rules of reason and should be applied with a commonsense approach. Rule 0.2, Scope, cmt. [1]. To reveal is to make public something that was secret or hidden. See Reveal, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed. 1998). A lawyer cannot reveal that which has already been revealed via public disclosure. Accordingly, the prohibition on a lawyer revealing information pursuant to Rule 1.9(c)(2) does not extend to information that has been made public because public information by its nature is no longer capable of being revealed.

[9] Whether information is likely to be embarrassing or detrimental to a client if disclosed must be determined by the lawyer prior to the disclosure under Rule 1.9(c)(2). A lawyer should elevate a client’s desire for his or her lawyer to not publicly discuss his or her case over the lawyer’s desire to publicly speak about the case after the representation has ended. When it is unclear whether a lawyer’s disclosure pursuant to Rule 1.9(c)(2) would be embarrassing or detrimental to the client, a lawyer should consult with the client about the potential disclosure and the resulting impact thereof.

[10] The provisions of this Rule are for the protection of former clients and can be waived if the client gives informed consent, which consent must be confirmed in writing under paragraphs (a) and (b). See Rule 1.0(f). With regard to the effectiveness of an advance waiver, see Comment [22] to Rule 1.7. With regard to disqualification of a firm with which a lawyer is or was formerly associated, see Rule 1.10.

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; November 2, 2022

Ethics Opinion Notes

CPR 140. It is improper for an attorney who formerly represented a creditor to later represent the debtor in the same action.

CPR 147. An attorney cannot defend an action brought by a former client when confidential information obtained during the prior representation would be relevant to the defense of the current action.

CPR 159. It is proper for an attorney to prepare a will for a woman and later represent her husband in a domestic action so long as the prior representation is not substantially related to the present action.

CPR 195. An attorney may not act as a private prosecutor against a former client who sought his advice concerning the domestic problems which culminated in the subject homicide.

CPR 243. An attorney may certify title to the State for purposes of condemnation and later represent the landowner against the State in a suit for damages if all consent.

CPR 273. An attorney may not represent a neighborhood group in opposition to another group he previously represented concerning the same or substantially related subject matter.

RPC 32. 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.

RPC 137. Opinion rules that a lawyer who formerly represented an estate may not subsequently defend the former personal representative against a claim brought by the estate.

RPC 144. Opinion rules that a lawyer, having undertaken to represent two clients in the same matter, may not thereafter represent one against the other in the event their interests become adverse without the consent of the other.

RPC 168. Opinion rules that a lawyer may ask her client for a waiver of objection to a possible future representation presenting a conflict of interest if certain conditions are met.

RPC 229. Opinion rules that a lawyer who jointly represented a husband and wife in the preparation and execution of estate planning documents may not prepare a codicil to the will of one spouse without the knowledge of the other spouse if the codicil will affect adversely the interests of the other spouse or each spouse agreed not to change the estate plan without informing the other spouse.

RPC 244. Opinion rules that although a lawyer asks a prospective client to sign a form stating that no client-lawyer relationship will be created by reason of a free consultation with the lawyer, the lawyer may not subsequently disclaim the creation of a client-lawyer relationship and represent the opposing party.

RPC 246. Opinion rules that, under certain circumstances, a lawyer may not represent a party whose interests are opposed to the interests of a prospective client if confidential information of the prospective client must be used in the representation.

2000 Formal Ethics Opinion 2. Opinion rules that a lawyer who represented a husband and wife in a joint Chapter 13 bankruptcy case may continue to represent one of the spouses after the other spouse disappears or becomes unresponsive, unless the attorney is aware of any fact or circumstance which would make the continued representation of the remaining spouse an actual conflict of interest with the prior representation of the other spouse.

2003 Formal Ethics Opinion 9. Opinion rules that a lawyer may participate in a settlement agreement that contains a provision limiting or prohibiting disclosure of information obtained during the representation even though the provision will effectively limit the lawyer's ability to represent future claimants.

2003 Formal Ethics Opinion 14. Opinion rules that if a current representation requires cross-examination of a former client using confidential information gained in the prior representation, then a lawyer has a disqualifying conflict of interest.

2009 Formal Ethics Opinion 8. Opinion provides guidelines for a lawyer for a party to a partition proceeding and rules that the lawyer may subsequently serve as a commissioner for the sale but not as one of the commissioners for the partitioning of the property.

2010 Formal Ethics Opinion 3. Opinion provides guidance on the cross-examination of current and former clients.

2011 Formal Ethics Opinion 2. Opinion sets forth the factors to be taken into consideration when determining whether a former client’s delay in objecting to a conflict constitutes a waiver.

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.

2012 Formal Ethics Opinion 10. Opinion rules a lawyer may not participate as a network lawyer for a company providing litigation or administrative support services for clients with a particular legal/business problem unless certain conditions are satisfied.

2015 Formal Ethics Opinion 8. Opinion rules that a lawyer who previously represented a husband and wife in several matters may not represent one spouse in a subsequent domestic action against the other spouse without the consent of the other spouse unless, after thoughtful and thorough analysis of a number of factors relevant to the prior representations, the lawyer determines that there is no substantial relationship between the prior representations and the domestic matter.

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