The ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility (the “Committee”) recently issued Formal Opinion 492 (the “Opinion”), in which the Committee offers helpful guidance on navigating the duties to prospective clients under Model Rule 1.18. Attorneys and conflict-avoidance software alike tend to focus on conflicts of interest with current and former clients, and may disregard the risks associated with prospective clients with whom an attorney-client relationship is ultimately never formed. The Opinion serves as an important reminder to attorneys that prospective clients are indeed owed certain duties – and that even a short consultation that does not lead to a retention could disqualify the lawyer – and even the lawyer’s entire firm – from undertaking a future representation of a different person or entity.
The duties described in Rule 1.18 apply to prospective clients. A prospective client is a “person who consults with a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter.” The comments clarify what does – and what does not – constitute a consultation. Comment  explains that “a consultation is likely to have occurred if a lawyer … specifically requests or invites the submission of information about a potential representation without clear and reasonably understandable warnings and cautionary statements that limit the lawyer’s obligations, and a person provides information in response.” On the other hand, a consultation has not occurred within the meaning of the Rule if a person unilaterally provides information to an attorney, such as through an unsolicited email seeking legal help.1 To be accorded prospective client status, a person must have consulted with the attorney in good faith about the possibility of forming an attorney-client relationship.2 So under the current Model Rule, Tony Soprano’s efforts to conflict out every high-powered divorce attorney in the community by disclosing information during multiple consultations would have fallen short. Tony was not consulting with the attorneys in good faith.3Continue Reading