Wednesday, July 16, 2008
The Legal Ethics Committee of the District of Columbia Bar has recently issued an opinion that discusses the ethical implications of lawyers who engage in lobbying activities. The committee concludes as follows:
Most of the conflict rules apply to lawyer-lobbyists engaged in lobbying. Lawyer-lobbyists in the District of Columbia who hold themselves out as lawyers may not advance opposing positions in the same lobbying matter even with consents from all of their lobbying clients. Moreover, the lawyer-lobbyist must also ensure that she is not placing herself in a position where she might have to pull her punches on behalf of one client so as to protect the interests of another. Such conflicts can be waived with informed consent from the affected clients, provided that the lawyer reasonably believes that he or she can provide competent and diligent representation. Absent special circumstances, all of these restrictions also apply to other lobbyists in the same law firm, even if those other lobbyists are not themselves lawyers.
Lawyer-lobbyists are not, however, generally subject to Rule 1.7(b)(1) in the conduct of lobbying activities. This rule is confined to “matter[s] involv[ing] a specific party or parties,” a phrase that excludes lobbying, rulemaking and other matters of general government policy. As a result, Rule 1.7(b)(1) does not prohibit a lawyer-lobbyist from advancing a position in a lobbying matter that may be opposed in that same lobbying matter by another client of the lawyer-lobbyist (or of the lawyer-lobbyist’s law firm) where the other client is unrepresented in the lobbying matter or is represented by a different lobbyist who is not associated with the lawyer-lobbyist’s firm.
Finally, Rule 5.7 provides guidance for lawyers and law firms who wish to establish a law-related lobbying practice that is not governed by the conflicts provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct. To do so, however, the lobbying client must receive clear notice that the services are not legal services and that the usual protections accompanying a client-lawyer relationship do not apply.
Of course, opinions of the ethics committee do not constitute binding precedent in the District of Columbia. However, an attorney who in good faith follows the articulated advice could assert reliance to show an intent to comply with ethical obligations. (Mike Frisch)