October 30, 2006
Case Law Development: Disqualification of Attorneys Based on Consultations with Prospective Clients
The Supreme Court of Arkansas, interpreting its new rules of professional conduct regarding duties to prospective clients, has held that an attorney may be disqualified from representing a wife based on the husband's prior consultation with an attorney in the firm regarding possible representation in the case, even if no representation ensued. The new Arkansas rule, based on ABA Model Rule of Professional Responsibility Rule 1.18, bars an attorney from representing a client with adverse interests to those of a prospective client in a substantially related matter if the attorney "received information from the prospective client that could be significantly harmful to that person in the matter."
The trial court had used the same presumption of receipt of confidential information it applies when using a former client conflicts analysis. The Supreme Court affirned, stating that the duty an attorney owes to a prospective client under Rule 1.18(b) is "coextensive with the duty an attorney owes to a former client" and "exists regardless of how brief the initial conference may have been and regardless of the fact that no client-attorney relationship ensued."
The court noted that in this case, husband's consultation with the attorney involved the same custody proceeding as in the later representation and that he had given the attorney a copy of his journal, told her about facts that were not in the journal, and "disclosed everything he knew and his concerns about the children and his former wife." The court concluded that "a lawyer who consults with a prospective client about a change-of-custody proceeding will necessarily become privy to information that could be used to the disadvantage of that person in the same proceeding." The fact that the husband had indicated in his testimony on the disqualification that he had not disclosed harmful information was not determinative, according to the court, because "a prospective client would not know whether the information disclosed during the consultation could be significantly harmful."
Sturdivant v. Sturdivant, 2006 Ark. LEXIS 536 (October 26, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited October 30, 2006 bgf)
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