April 28, 2005
1 Issue: A former client of an attorney moved the trial court to set aside the former client’s previous guilty plea on the basis that the attorney’s prior advice on accepting the prosecution’s plea offer had “confused” him. May the attorney testify concerning the previous discussions with the former client to prevent a possible fraud upon the court or to protect the attorney’s good name and reputation?
2 Opinion: Absent a court order requiring the attorney’s testimony, and notwithstanding a subpoena served on the attorney by the prosecution, the attorney may not divulge any attorney-client information, either to the prosecution or in open court.
3 Facts: The client hired the attorney (the “reviewing attorney”) for the limited purpose of reviewing and advising about a plea offer made by the prosecution to the client in a matter where the client had been charged with a first-degree felony. The client had retained another attorney to represent him at trial (“trial attorney”) for the purpose of entering a guilty plea. The client subsequently moved to set aside the plea of guilty, asserting that he had become “confused” in his discussions with the reviewing attorney, and that the confusion resulted in an improvident entry of a plea of guilty.
4 The prosecution subpoenaed the reviewing attorney to testify regarding the issue of the scope and substance of the attorney’s representation. The reviewing attorney desires to testify, believing that the client may commit a fraud upon the court by misrepresenting their relationship and the advice given. The attorney also wishes to defend and maintain her good name and reputation if the matter is to be heard in open court. The former client has refused to waive his attorney-client privilege, indicating he intends to assert the privilege fully to bar the attorney’s testimony.
5 May the attorney testify regarding matters within the scope or substance of the attorney’s representation? May the attorney discuss the nature of anticipated testimony out of court with the prosecutor?
6 Analysis: The reviewing attorney’s inquiry presents two issues. The first relates to the subject of testimony in a judicial setting and involves the attorney-client privilege under Rule 504(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. 1 The question of what an attorney may testify to, or be compelled to testify to, in obedience to a court order is established by an exception to the privilege, either as stated in the evidentiary rules or by judicial precedent. When a former client objects in a judicial proceeding to disclosure of privileged material or information, the decision regarding what the attorney may reveal is one for the court.
7 The second issue relates to the attorney’s ethical requirement of client confidentiality pursuant to the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, which is a separate and independent obligation. The attorney’s obligation of client confidentiality pursuant to Utah Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6 and loyalty to a former client pursuant to Rule 1.9 must be considered by the attorney in the determination of whether any disclosures may be made to the prosecution during trial preparation. Although there are some similarities between the two principles, they are not the same and should not be confused. 2
Issued April 28, 2005
1 Issue: What is the ethical responsibility of an attorney serving as defense counsel in a criminal case, when expressly requested by the court at a sentencing hearing for information obtained from or about the defendant regarding the defendant’s prior convictions?
2 Opinion: An attorney may only answer such a query with the client’s informed consent. Otherwise, the attorney must respectfully decline to answer the court’s request in a manner that will not be misleading to the court. The attorney may respond by asserting the client’s right to remain silent, and the attorney’s ethical responsibilities or a by giving a similar explanation that does not disclose client confidences. 1
3 Facts: An attorney represents a defendant in a criminal case. At a sentencing hearing, the court requests information from the attorney regarding the defendant’s prior convictions. The attorney has obtained such information during the course of the representation from conducting an independent investigation or from a confidential communication with the client. After consultation, the client does not consent to the disclosure.
4 Applicable Rules:
Rule 1.6—Confidentiality of Information
(a) A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to representation of a client except as stated in paragraph (b), unless the client consents after consultation.
(b) A lawyer may reveal such information to the extent that the lawyer believes necessary . . . . (4) To comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law. 2
5 Rule 3.3—Candor Toward the Tribunal
(c) A lawyer shall not knowingly:
(1) Make a false statement of material fact or law to a tribunal;
(2) Fail to disclose a material fact to a tribunal when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client. 3
6 Rule 8.4—Misconduct
It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to . . . (c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation; (d) engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration or justice . . . . 4
7 The issue touches on a fundamental aspect of the attorney-client relationship, namely, confidentiality. A fundamental principle in the client-lawyer relationship is that the lawyer maintain confidentiality of all information relating to the representation. The client is thereby encouraged to communicate fully and frankly with the lawyer even as to embarrassing or legally damaging subject matter. 5 The confidentiality rule applies not merely to matters communicated in confidence by the client but also to all information relating to the representation, whatever its source. 6
8 Information given to an attorney by a client, including the client’s name, address and telephone number, is confidential, and the attorney is prohibited from disclosing such information under Rule 1.6 unless the client consents after consultation. 7 Information provided by an accused to his attorney in an initial telephone conference is confidential, even as against a request for such information by law enforcement authorities seeking to apprehend the accused client. 8 A disclosure of information harmful to the client would be utterly inconsistent with the relationship of trust and confidence protected by Rule 1.6. Thus, Rule 1.6 9 precludes disclosure by the lawyer, whether voluntary or in response to an inquiry from the court, absent informed consent from the client. (more…)
September 30, 2005
HISTORY: On May 6, 2005, the Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee issued Utah Ethics Advisory Op. No. 05-03, 2005 WL 4748681 (Utah St. Bar). The Requestors of the Opinion filed a Petition for Review with the Board of Bar Commissioners pursuant § III(e)(1) of the Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee Rules of Procedure and § VI(a)(1) of the Utah State Bar Rules Governing the Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee. At a meeting of the Board of Bar Commissioners of the Utah State Bar on July 13, 2005, the Commission reviewed the conclusions and analysis of the majority view and the minority view of Opinion No. 05-03, and voted to issue a revised opinion, set forth below as Opinion No. 05-03. The initial Opinion No. 05-03 as originally issued by the Committee is appended in its entirety for historical reference only and should not be cited or used for purposes other than background.
1. Issue: May a lawyer who serves as a domestic relations mediator, following a successful mediation, draft the settlement agreement and necessary court pleadings to obtain a divorce for the parties?
2. Opinion: When a lawyer-mediator, after a successful mediation, drafts the settlement agreement, complaint and other pleadings to implement the settlement and obtain a divorce for the parties, the lawyer-mediator is engaged in the practice of law and attempting to represent opposing parties in litigation. A lawyer may not represent both parties following a mediation to obtain a divorce for the parties.
3. Analysis: The issue considered here was the subject of a prior opinion issued by the Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee in 1992. We have been asked to revisit this issue again because of the expansion and apparent success of divorce mediators in resolving domestic relations matters for pro se litigants for whom the cost of retaining legal counsel may be a serious financial burden. 1
4. Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion 116 considered the following issue: “Under what circumstances may an attorney represent both parties in a divorce?”2 The answer given in Opinion 116 was “never,” based on the clear ethical mandates of Rules 1.7(a) and 1.7(b) of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct.3 These rules establish a duty of undivided loyalty of counsel to a client.4 Opinion 116 concluded that our rules preclude concurrent representation of clients with directly adverse interests in the matter. Opinion 116 included a lengthy discussion of policy arguments favoring dual representation and policy arguments opposing dual representation in divorce proceedings and concluded that: “The concurrent representation of both parties in a divorce is an ethically unacceptable practice.”5
5. In the 12 years since Opinion 116 was issued, the applicable rules and the arguments bearing upon dual representation in divorce proceedings have not materially changed. The arguably successful and beneficial development of alternative dispute resolution and mediation in the interim does not change our conclusion here. Since the Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee has no policy-making authority, the fact that parties to all lawsuits, including divorces, are increasingly turning to alternative dispute resolution with reportedly positive results to the public and Bar alike cannot alter the clear mandate of our Rules. Whatever the social, financial or other impacts of the alternative dispute resolution trend, and even assuming its worth and inevitability, the ethical rules we are charged to uphold have no “public policy” exceptions that would permit the Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee to rewrite the rules to achieve a result some may believe is beneficial, even if that revision is a carefully reasoned, narrowly crafted exception.6 (more…)
Issued September 8, 2005
1 Issue: What are the responsibilities of an attorney to a person the attorney has interviewed as a prospective client after it has been determined that the attorney will not undertake the representation?
2 Opinion: In most circumstances, the obligation of confidentiality attaches when a prospective client consults with the attorney in contemplation of retaining the attorney, even if that attorney is not ultimately retained and never advises the client. The provisions of Rules 1.6 and 1.9 regarding former clients outline the attorney’s responsibilities and the circumstances when such an attorney may breach confidentiality.1 Absent consent, the attorney may not undertake representation of another party in the same or substantially factually related matter if the attorney acquired relevant confidential information from the prospective client. An attorney may avoid disqualification by strictly limiting the information acquired during the initial consultation or by explicit agreement and waiver prior to the initial consultation. Under the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct in effect on the date of issuance of this Opinion, if the attorney is disqualified, the entire firm of that attorney is also disqualified.
3 Facts: We consider three sequential questions:
(a) A prospective client meets with an attorney in anticipation of retaining counsel and discusses certain facts with that attorney. The client does not retain the attorney. What, if anything, may the attorney say about the consultation?
(b) Thereafter, the prospective client retains other counsel who files court papers in the matter. The original attorney notices that certain facts pled in the court papers are inconsistent with the facts the prospective client originally reported to that attorney. May the initial attorney reveal this discrepancy?
(c) After the prospective client retains other counsel, an opposing party seeks to retain the attorney who did the initial interview with the prospective client. May the attorney or others in the attorney’s firm represent an opposing party in the matter?
4 Analysis: These questions require a multi-step analysis. First, we must determine if, due to the initial interview, an attorney-client relationship existed such that the obligation of confidentiality attached. Second, if such an attorney-client relationship with obligations of confidentiality did develop, we must consider whether there are exceptions to confidentiality that would permit counsel to breach confidentiality or reveal information about such a former prospective client. Third we discuss whether an attorney-client relationship may attach for some purposes (e.g., obligation of confidentiality) and not for others (e.g., conflicts of interest). We outline when the interview of a prospective client will prevent the attorney (and the attorney’s firm) from representing another party in the same or a substantially related matter.
Formation of Attorney-Client Relationship for Obligation of Confidentiality
5 Previously, we considered a case regarding an attorney holding a telephone conference with a potential client who was a fugitive from justice. The police asked the attorney to disclose the whereabouts of the client. The attorney refused. The Committee concluded:
[An] attorney/client relationship is established when a party seeks and receives the advice of an attorney in matters pertinent to the lawyer’s profession. An attorney/client relationship can arise from brief informal conversations, in person or by telephone, even though no fee is ever discussed or charged and no contract of employment is signed. 2 (more…)