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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    July 28, 2016

    Ethics
    Lawyer’s Conflicts Might Not Be Imputed to All Firm Members

    In certain circumstances, a firm can represent an entity despite a firm member’s personal conflict of interest with the client.

    Dean R. Dietrich

    Question

    I am in a personal dispute with a large company over a product that I purchased from the company. At the same time, my firm represents the large company although I do not do any of the company’s legal work. Do I have to worry about conflicts of interests if I continue to challenge the company about this product?

    Answer

    Most likely, there is not a conflict of interest that is imputed from you to all other members of your law firm and that would prevent another lawyer in the firm from representing this large company. An exception to the imputation requirement found in SCR 20:1.10 would allow your law firm to continue to represent the company even though you have a personal dispute with the company.

    Dean R. DietrichDean R. Dietrich, Marquette 1977, of Ruder Ware, Wausau, is chair of the State Bar Professional Ethics Committee.

    The analysis starts with a review of the conflict rule, SCR 20:1.7. Under that rule, a lawyer may not represent a client if the lawyer’s representation is materially limited by the lawyer’s personal interest. In this case, your personal controversy with the company may materially limit your ability to represent the company and thereby result in a conflict of interest on your part.

    In typical circumstances, this conflict of interest is imputed to all other members of the law firm under the requirements of SCR 20:1.10(a) of the Wisconsin Rules. Within the context of that rule, any conflict that one member of the law firm has is applied to all lawyers in the law firm, whether an owner or an employee of the firm. There is an exception, however, to this imputation of an individual lawyer’s personal conflict of interest to other members of the firm. SCR 20:1.10(a)(1) provides as follows:

    “While lawyers are associated in a firm, none of them shall knowingly represent a client when any one of them practicing alone would be prohibited from doing so by SCR 20:1.7 or SCR 20:1.9 unless:

    (1) the prohibition is based on a personal interest of the prohibited lawyer and does not present a significant risk of materially limiting the representation of the client by the remaining lawyers in the firm; …”

    Under SCR 20:1.7, a lawyer may not represent a client if the lawyer’s representation is materially limited by the lawyer’s personal interest.

    This language is not an automatic exception to the imputation-of-conflicts rule in a blanket sense but rather applies in instances in which the conflict of interest is very personal to one lawyer and is not the result of a conflict situation that could be applied in general terms to many attorneys within the law firm.

    Based on this language, the law firm could continue to represent the large company. The conflict of interest that you have identified is very personal to your interests and does not affect any other lawyer in the firm and does not rise to a level that would make the conflict of interest generally applicable to all lawyers in the firm.




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