Thursday, September 10, 2015
A New York ethics opinion issued July 27, 2015 is a useful reminder of the possibility -- indeed probability -- that law firms well known for specializing in elder law or estate planning may be approached by successive generations of family members, thus creating potential issues of confidentiality (and more).
In the matter under consideration, involving a small law firm that practiced "primarily in the fields of estate planning and administration, trusts and elder law," two of the lawyers had a long relationship with a "father," including representation of the father in a contested adult guardianship case.
Later, a different lawyer in the firm met with a "son" of the father to discuss personal estate planning following a "public seminar" hosted by the firm. That lawyer did not conduct a "conflict check" before a first meeting, one on-one, with the son. (One can see how a law firm might be tempted to skip or delay a step in conflict-checking when organizing these kinds of business-generating efforts, a potential not directly addressed in the New York opinion. Would disclaimers or warnings about "client relationships" not forming immediately remedy potential problems -- or perhaps make them even more complicated?)
The law firm, upon discovering the potential for concerns, made the decision not to go forward with representation of the son, and then asked the New York State Bar Association's Committee on Professional Ethics for guidance on whether rules either "required" or "permitted" the law firm to disclose to the father the son's request for representation, or whether the firm was prohibited from further representation of the father.
For the New York ethics committee's interesting analysis, see New York Ethics Opinion 1067. For a contrasting "multi-generational" representation problem involving a husband's undisclosed "heir," see A. v. B., decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1999, a case that is a good springboard for discussion of professional responsibilities for attorneys in the course on Wills, Trust & Estates (as I discovered in the Dukeminer/Sitkoff textbook).