Monday, October 21, 2019
A new ethics opinion of the District of Columbia Bar Legal Ethics Committee
The District of Columbia Legal Ethics Committee has examined the ethical duties of partners; other managerial or supervisory lawyers and subordinate lawyers; and non-lawyer employees to take appropriate measures when they reasonably believe another lawyer in the same law firm or government agency is suffering from a significant impairment that poses a risk to clients. A related question involves the duties owed to clients and the profession when an impaired lawyer leaves a law firm or government agency, particularly when the lawyer may continue to practice law, regardless of whether clients are, or may be, terminating their relationship with the firm in order to remain clients of the departing lawyer.
This Opinion deals only with mental impairment, which may be a chronic or temporary condition arising out of or related to age, substance abuse, a physical or mental health condition or other circumstance affecting the lawyer. This Opinion supplements the guidance contained in Legal Ethics Opinion 246, with a specific focus on the issue of impaired lawyers, whose conduct may or may not trigger mandatory reporting obligations under the Rules, as discussed herein. This Opinion also relies, in part, upon ABA Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility Formal Opinion 03-429 (2003).
The impairment of a lawyer may fluctuate over time, regardless of its cause. However, if a lawyer’s periods of impairment are on-going or have a likelihood of recurrence, then partners, or other lawyers with managerial or supervisory authority may have to conclude that the lawyer’s ability to represent clients is materially impaired.
A range of ethics rules are implicated, including those setting forth the duties owed by lawyers to clients and the profession, and those addressing issues of supervising lawyers and non-lawyer employees. At the outset, and as discussed within this opinion, the Committee recognizes that there are tensions between ethical duties that arise under the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct (the “Rules”) and requirements or prohibitions that may exist under the substantive law, specifically with respect to employee privacy and other rights. Lawyers and law firms must be cognizant of the legal landscape in which these difficult issues occur.3
Mental impairment may lead to an inability to competently represent a client as required by Rule 1.1, to complete tasks in a diligent and zealous manner as required by Rule 1.3, and to communicate with clients about their representation as required by Rule 1.4.
Rule 5.1 requires partners or other lawyers with managerial or supervisory authority to make reasonable efforts to ensure that all lawyers and those under their supervision comply with the applicable Rules and to ensure that their law firm or government agency has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that all lawyers in the firm or agency conform to the Rules. These provisions require managerial or supervisory lawyers who reasonably believe or know that a lawyer is impaired to closely supervise the conduct of the impaired lawyer because of the risk of violations of the Rules and resulting harm to clients. Rule 5.2 may also apply to subordinate lawyers if they know of and ratify the conduct of the impaired lawyer.
Rule 8.3 requires a lawyer, regardless of managerial or supervisory authority, to report an impaired lawyer to the appropriate professional authorities including, but not limited to, the District of Columbia Office of Disciplinary Counsel,4 if the impaired lawyer has committed a violation of the Rules that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to practice law, unless such disclosure would be prohibited under the duty of confidentiality owed to clients under Rule 1.6 or other law. See Footnote 3. Further, if the firm or government agency removes the impaired lawyer from a matter, it may have an obligation under Rule 1.4 to discuss with the client the change in staffing on the matter. The duty to discuss removal of government lawyers from a matter may be different because of government policies or regulations.
If the impaired lawyer resigns, is removed or otherwise leaves the law firm, the firm may have additional disclosure obligations under Rule 1.4 to clients who are considering whether to remain with the firm or to transfer their representation to the departing lawyer. However, the firm should be cautious to limit any disclosures to necessary information permissible to disclose under applicable law. The obligation to report misconduct under Rule 8.3 is not eliminated if the impaired lawyer leaves the firm.
Beyond the ethical obligations embodied in the D.C. Rules, a fundamental purpose of identifying and addressing lawyer impairment is to encourage individuals who are suffering from mental impairment to seek and obtain assistance and treatment. This purpose should not be forgotten as lawyers, firms and agencies seek to comply with the ethical mandates discussed herein.