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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Legal Ethics--It's complicated

Many lawyers believe that they can conduct a law practice ethically following their sense of what is morally "the right thing to do."  Relying on what their mother taught them and the "smell test" they think that ethical matters can be handled intuitively.  Of course, lying, cheating and stealing are obvious ethical breaches, but legal ethics has evolved into a body of law as complex as civil procedure and other courses law students take.  Some of the rules are counter-intuitive.  Not long ago I attended a marketing seminar for lawyers where the speaker, a lawyer, proudly spoke of her practice of sending small gifts as "tokens of appreciation" to persons that brought clients to her firm.  The Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit this and I had the CLE sponsor sent a message out to the attendees bringing this to their attention.  See Va. Rule 7.3(d).

Recently I took a call from a lawyer that wanted to move to disqualfy a law firm that was adverse to the caller's client and had recently hired an associate from a very large firm.  The associate's former law firm had represented the caller's client in a related matter while the associate worked there.  The associate was not even aware that the caller's client had been a client of his former law firm, had no knowledge of the matter handled by his former law firm nor any personal involvement.  I informed the caller that there was no conflict of interest and no basis to file a motion to disqualfiy the firm.  He responded, "Really?  That can't be right."  I explained that conflicts are imputed under Rule 1.10 to other lawyers associated in a law firm, but the rules are different when lawyer move between firms.

More examples can be cited but the bottom line is that lawyers have to read, understand and know the rules and they cannot "go with their gut."

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