UTAH STATE BAR ETHICS ADVISORY OPINION COMMITTEE
Opinion No. 12-01
Issued January 10, 2012
1. Three related questions are before the Committee. The attorney states that she separately represented a woman and a man (the “wife” and “husband,” respectively), both prior to their marriage. She subsequently represented both parties after they were married. The parties subsequently went to trial seeking a divorce (the “divorce”). The first question is whether representation of the wife, prior to the marriage of the parties, in litigation (the “separate action”) constitutes a conflict which would preclude the attorney from representing the husband on appeal in the divorce? Second, does the fact that the attorney testified at the divorce trial as a percipient witness, preclude her from representing the husband on appeal. Third, does representation of the wife in litigation involving both husband and wife against a third party during the course of their marriage (the “joint litigation”), wherein, notwithstanding the attorney’s vigorous but unsuccessful advocacy of the wife’s position, the wife was dismissed from the case, preclude the attorney from representing the husband on appeal in the divorce, particularly where the attorney now believes the trial court was correct in dismissing the wife from the joint litigation?
2. Because it does not appear to “involve” a “substantially related matter,” representation of the wife in the separate action prior to the marriage would not necessarily preclude the lawyer from representing the husband on appeal in the divorce. The mere fact of the wife’s dismissal or that the lawyer agreed or disagreed with the court’s decision dismissing her from the joint litigation involving both parties is not a determinative factor to this opinion. The fact that the lawyer testified during the divorce proceedings as a percipient witness, is likewise most likely not a relevant factor, subject to the caveats set forth in the Analysis
below. Where, however, the lawyer represented both the husband and wife against a third party in the joint litigation during the course of the marriage, the joint litigation and the divorce appear to be “substantially related” because they “involve the same transaction or legal dispute.” It would therefore be a violation of the duty of loyalty and independence under the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct for the lawyer to undertake representation of the husband on appeal in the divorce without the informed written consent of the wife.
3. Prior to the marriage of the parties involved, the attorney represented the wife in the joint litigation. The issues before court in no way involved the future husband. Subsequently the parties married. During the course of their marriage, the attorney represented both husband and wife against a third party in the joint litigation. The wife’s standing to sue was at issue in the joint litigation and in spite of the lawyer’s vigorous advocacy of her position, the court dismissed her from the litigation. The lawyer disagreed with this ruling at the time, but later came to accept the court’s decision as a correct one.
4. The couple then initiated divorce proceedings. The attorney recognized that there would be an obvious conflict and thus declined to represent either party at trial. As a result of the long standing attorney-client relationship with the husband, the attorney was called and did testify as a percipient witness regarding the husband’s procurement of certain property rights and other matters which were apparently not a violation of confidentiality or otherwise privileged under the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct. According to the attorney, she did not assume a position advocating on behalf of either party in the trial court and testified only as to non-contested issues. She represents that on appeal she would not be placed in a position of advocating her own credibility as a witness at the trial. However, representation of the husband on appeal of the divorce would perhaps, although not necessarily, require the attorney to argue that at least one of the positions, specifically in the joint litigation matter, previously advocated by the lawyer on behalf of the wife in that litigation, was incorrect.