Rules of Professional Conduct

1. Client-Lawyer Relationship

ER 1.18.     Duties to Prospective Client

(a) A person who consults with a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client.

(b) Even when no client-lawyer relationship ensues, a lawyer who has learned information from a prospective client shall not use or reveal that information, except as would be permitted by ER 1.6 or by ER 1.9 with respect to information of a former client.

(c) A lawyer subject to paragraph (b) shall not represent a client with interests materially adverse to those of a prospective client in the same or a substantially related matter if the lawyer received information from the prospective client that could be significantly harmful to that person in the matter, except as provided in paragraph (d).  If a lawyer is disqualified from representation under this paragraph, no lawyer in a firm with which that lawyer is associated may knowingly undertake or continue representation in such a matter, except as provided in paragraph (d).

(d) Representation is permissible if both the affected client and the prospective client have given informed consent, confirmed in writing, or:

(1) the disqualified lawyer is timely screened from any participation in the matter and is apportioned no part of the fee therefrom; and

(2) written notice is promptly given to the prospective client.

Comment

[1] Prospective clients, like clients, may disclose information to a lawyer, place documents or other property in the lawyer's custody, or rely on the lawyer's advice. A lawyer's consultations with a prospective client usually are limited in time and depth and leave both the prospective client and the lawyer free (and sometimes required) to proceed no further. Hence, prospective clients should receive some but not all of the protection afforded clients.

[2]  A person becomes a prospective client by consulting with a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter. Whether communications, including written, oral, or electronic communications, constitute a consultation depends on the circumstances. For example, a consultation is likely to have occurred if a lawyer, either in person or through the lawyer's advertising in any medium, 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. See also Comment [4]. In contrast, a consultation does not occur if a person provides information to a lawyer in response to advertising that merely describes the lawyer's education, experience, areas of practice, and contact information, or provides legal information of general interest. Such a person communicates information unilaterally to a lawyer, without any reasonable expectation that the lawyer is willing to discuss the possibility of forming a lawyer-client relationship, and is thus not a “prospective client.” Moreover, a person who communicates with a lawyer for the purpose of disqualifying the lawyer is not a “prospective client .”  Lawyers should employ reasonable measures to alert persons that a) they should not convey information about a legal matter unilaterally to the lawyer, and b) unilateral communications may not be kept confidential.

[3] It is often necessary for a prospective client to reveal information to the lawyer during an initial consultation prior to the decision about formation of a client-lawyer relationship.  The lawyer often must learn such information to determine whether there is a conflict of interest with an existing client and whether the matter is one that the lawyer is willing to undertake.  Paragraph (b) prohibits the lawyer from using or revealing that information, except as permitted by ER 1.6 and as permitted by ER 1.9, even if the client or lawyer decides not to proceed with the representation.  The duty exists regardless of how brief the initial conference may be.

[4] Any information obtained from a prospective client who consults the lawyer in an attempt to disqualify the lawyer or make contact for some purpose other than seeking representation is not information relating to representation and disclosure is not prohibited.

[5] In order to avoid acquiring disqualifying information from a prospective client, a lawyer considering whether or not to undertake a new matter should limit the initial consultation to only such information as reasonably appears necessary for that purpose. Where the information indicates that a conflict of interest or other reason for non-representation exists, the lawyer should so inform the prospective client or decline the representation. If the prospective client wishes to retain the lawyer, and if consent is possible under ER 1.7, then consent from all affected present or former clients must be obtained before accepting the representation.

[6] A lawyer may condition a consultation with a prospective client on the person's informed consent that no information disclosed during the consultation will prohibit the lawyer from representing a different client in the matter. See ER 1.0(e) for the definition of informed consent. If the agreement expressly so provides, the prospective client may also consent to the lawyer's subsequent use of information received from the prospective client.

[7] Even in the absence of an agreement, under paragraph (c), the lawyer is not prohibited from representing a client with interests adverse to those of the prospective client in the same or a substantially related matter unless the lawyer has received from the prospective client information that could be significantly harmful if used against the prospective client in the matter.

[8] Under paragraph (c), the prohibition in this Rule is imputed to other lawyers as provided in ER 1.10, but, under paragraph (d), imputation may be avoided if the lawyer obtains the informed consent, confirmed in writing, of both the prospective and affected clients.  In the alternative, imputation may be avoided if all disqualified lawyers are timely screened and written notice is promptly given to the prospective client.  See ER 1.0(k) (requirements for screening procedures).  Paragraph (d)(1) does not prohibit the screened lawyer from receiving a salary or partnership share established by prior independent agreement, but that lawyer may not receive compensation directly related to the matter in which the lawyer is disqualified.

[9] Notice, including a description of the screened lawyer's prior representation and of the screening procedures employed, generally should be given as soon as practicable after the need for screening becomes apparent.  When disclosure is likely to significantly injure the client, a reasonable delay may be justified.

[10] For the duty of competence of a lawyer who gives assistance on the merits of a matter to a prospective client, see ER 1.1.  For a lawyer's duties when a prospective client entrusts valuables or papers to the lawyer's care, see ER 1.15.