Readers’ comments and feedback on this series of “Whoops—Legal Practice Malpractice Prevention” articles are welcomed and appreciated. References in the articles to “safest courses to proceed,” “safest course,” or “best practices” are not intended to suggest that the Colorado Rules require such actions. Often, best practices and safest courses involve more than just complying with the Rules. In practice, compliance with the Rules can and should avoid a finding of discipline in response to a grievance or a finding of liability in response to a malpractice claim. However, because most claims and grievances are meritless, effective risk management in the modern law practice involves much more. Hence, best practices and safer courses of action do more; they help prevent and more quickly defeat meritless claims and grievances. Other than billing, there is virtually nothing that attorneys dread more than addressing potential conflicts of interest. After all, resolving conflicts issues requires and attorney to focus on why not to take on a new representation rather than how to get the business in the door. However, unidentified or unresolved conflict issues cost lawyers more—in both clients and money—than most attorrneys realize.
Legal publications are replete with articles about motions to disqualify, disciplinary cases, and legal malpractice claims based on an unidentified or unresolved conflict of interest. Even when successfully defended, conflict-based allegations cost lawyers time and money. When lawyers lose, the risks are serious. The attorney could be disqualified from representing the client, face discipline for violating the Rules of Professional Conduct, receive an unfavorable jury verdict, or be forced to pay punitive damages based on a finding of disloyalty. The Office of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge (PDJ) takes conflicts of interest violations very seriously.
In addition, judges and juries may well disregard defenses to claims (such as the protections of independent professional judgment or “trial tactics”) based on a breach of the lawyer’s fundamental fiduciary duty of loyalty to the client. Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced world, the path of least resistance when a new client walks in the door is to get started on the case without performing even a rudimentary conflicts check. When it comes to conflicts, however, haste really does make waste.
Rule 1: Identify Conflicts Before Representation
Conflicts do not get better with time and cannot simply be undone. Once a conflict-laden representation begins, one cannot simply give back the confidences and secrets and forget it ever happened. When the attorney–client relationship attaches under a cloud of a potential or actual conflict of interest, there is no going back to the way things were before. For this reason, the attorney must identify and resolve conflicts of interest before the attorney–client relationship begins. It is one of those areas where an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound (if not a ton) of cure.
Rule 2: Grant No Exceptions
With conflicts, systems aimed at 100% compliance are critical. Inevitably, it is that one representation that escaped the system that creates the most problems. Typically, the reasons for operating outside the conflicts process for one representation (the client is too important, the case is too complicated, the attorney is too rushed) are the same reasons the conflict analysis was so important for that representation. Hence, the single most important part of conflicts analysis is compliance without exception.
The challenge, then, is to address conflicts as painlessly as possible. The easier and faster the system is, the more likely it will be that every lawyer will “run conflicts” on every representation.
One last point on the “no exceptions” rule bears emphasis. Every new representation—even if it does not involve a new client—should be screened for conflicts. Conflicts screening should be done each time a new party becomes involved as a plaintiff, defendant, lender, buyer, or seller. Also note that, although computers make conflicts screening much easier, they are no substitute in the final conflicts analysis for involving lawyers in the process. Effective conflicts procedures involve both.
Spotting Actual and Potential Conflicts
Attorneys in Colorado must comply with Rules 1.7 and 1.8 of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct, which govern conflicts. There are two kinds of conflicts: actual conflicts and potential conflicts. The distinctions between each are worth noting.
An actual conflict means that the conflict cannot be waived by disclosure or consent; the attorney simply cannot accept the representation. One type of actual conflict is direct adversity, which occurs when the needs of one client are directly adverse to the needs of another client. For example, a law firm cannot represent both a plaintiff and a defendant in the same lawsuit (although it has been tried). Effective conflicts systems identify direct adversity conflicts and make it impossible to open a matter when they arise.
A potential conflict means that there is some issue that must be addressed before a lawyer can accept the representation. Typically, the issue is some form of consent or waiver from either the new client, another client, or a former client.
There are two types of potential conflicts: successive representations and multiple representations. Although they are different, the waiver is largely the same—full disclosure and consent. In both situations, the attorney must provide full disclosure to all of their clients and obtain their written consent before taking on the representation.
Successive representation. Successive representation conflict rules involve potential conflicts between a current (or prospective) client and a former client. Under the conflict rules, a lawyer cannot represent a new client in a matter substantially related to the representation of a former client without the former client’s consent after full disclosure.
Although there are many cases defining “substantially related,” the essence is whether the lawyer learned (or could have learned) confidential information from the old client that could be used in the new representation for the new client. If the answer is no—the lawyer did not and could not have learned confidences and secrets that could now be used—then the lawyer should be able to accept the new representation. If the answer is yes (and lawyers should assume the answer is yes when in doubt), then the lawyer should provide full disclosure to the former client and acquire his or her consent in writing before taking on the new representation.
Multiple representation. Multiple representation conflict rules involve potential conflicts arising out of the representation of more than one client. Many lawyers overcomplicate the analysis; it is actually pretty straightforward. If there is more than one client, then the multiple representation rules should be applied.
In most situations, the potential conflict is easy to spot—there is more than one client listed on the new matter form, so the rules have to be applied. However, sometimes the conflict is not so apparent. These situations can arise out of probate litigation (representing the executor, estate, and heirs); securities litigation (representing both the corporation and the directors/officers); domestic litigation (representing the parents and the children); and bankruptcies (representing multiple creditors).
Whenever there is more than one client, the lawyer should ask (1) Are there things I might do differently if I represented only one of the clients? and (2) Could changes down the road create adversity between the clients? If the answer to both questions is no, then there may be no conflict. Depending on the circumstances, the attorney may be able to accept the representation without further investigation. If the answer to either question is yes, then there is a potential conflict that requires a more thorough analysis. This analysis involves determining whether the lawyer can adequately represent the interests of all of the clients. If the answer to this question is no, then there is an actual conflict.
A simple way to establish whether there is an actual conflict is to determine if the clients’ interests are linked in any way. In a contested divorce proceeding, for example, no lawyer could advance one spouse’s interests without impacting the interests of the other spouse. Therefore, the representation of a wife and husband in a contested divorce proceeding is not permissible with or without consent.
Conflicts do not have to be complicated. They just require practice discipline and proper analysis. Before the representation begins, get the names and run the conflicts. Adopt the mantra “Just Do It!”
 See People v. Layton, No. 13PDJ036 (PDJ Sept. 25, 2013) (suspending an attorney in part due to violation of Colo. RPC 1.8(e), which prohibits an attorney from providing financial assistance to a client involved in pending litigation).