Bar Rules

Formal Advisory Opinion No. 03-2

Ethics & Discipline / Advisory Opinions / Formal Advisory Opinions / Formal Advisory Opinion No. 03-2

STATE BAR OF GEORGIA
ISSUED BY THE FORMAL ADVISORY OPINION BOARD
PURSUANT TO RULE 4-403 ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2003
FORMAL ADVISORY OPINION NO. 03-2


QUESTION PRESENTED:

    Does the obligation of confidentiality described in Rule 1.6, Confidentiality of Information, apply as between two jointly represented clients?

SUMMARY ANSWER:

    The obligation of confidentiality described in Rule 1.6, Confidentiality of Information, applies as between two jointly represented clients.  An attorney must honor one client's request that information be kept confidential from the other jointly represented client.  Honoring the client's request will, in most circumstances, require the attorney to withdraw from the joint representation.

OPINION:

    Unlike the attorney-client privilege, jointly represented clients do not lose the protection of confidentiality described in Rule 1.6, Confidentiality of Information, as to each other by entering into the joint representation.  See, e.g., D.C. Bar Legal Ethics Committee, Opinion No. 296 (2000) and Committee on Professional Ethics, New York State Bar Association, Opinion No. 555 (1984).  Nor do jointly represented clients impliedly consent to a sharing of confidences with each other since client consent to the disclosure of confidential information under Rule 1.6 requires consultation.  Id.  Consultation, as defined in the Rules, requires "the communication of information reasonably sufficient to permit the client to appreciate the significance of the matter in question."   Terminology, Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct.

     When one client in a joint representation requests that some information relevant to the representation be kept confidential from the other client, the attorney must honor the request and then determine if continuing with the representation while honoring the request will:  a) be inconsistent with the lawyer's obligations to keep the other client informed under Rule 1.4, Communication; b) materially and adversely affect the representation of the other client under Rule 1.7, Conflict of Interest: General Rule; or c) both.

     The lawyer has discretion to continue with the representation while not revealing the confidential information to the other client only to the extent that he or she can do so consistent with these rules.  If maintaining the confidence will constitute a violation of Rule 1.4 or Rule 1.7, as it most often will, the lawyer should maintain the confidence and discontinue the representation.

    Consent to conflicting representations, of course, is often permitted under Rule 1.7.  Consent to continued joint representation in these circumstances, however, ordinarily would not be available either because it would be impossible to conduct the consultation required for such consent without disclosing the confidential information in question or because consent is not permitted under Rule 1.7 in that the continued joint representation would "involve circumstances rendering it reasonably unlikely that the lawyer will be able to provide adequate representation to one or more of the affected clients."  Rule 1.7(c)(3).

    Whether or not the attorney, after withdrawing from the representation of the other client, can continue with the representation of the client who insisted upon confidentiality is governed by Rule 1.9: Conflict of Interest: Former Clients and by whether or not the consultation required for the consent of the now former client can be conducted without disclosure of the confidential information in question.

    The potential problems that confidentiality can create between jointly represented clients make it especially important that clients understand the requirements of a joint representation prior to entering into one.  When an attorney is considering a joint representation, consultation and consent of the clients is required prior to the representation "if there is a significant risk that the lawyer's . . . duties to [either of the jointly represented clients] . . . will materially and adversely affect the representation of [the other] client." Rule 1.7.  Whether or not consultation and consent is required, however, a prudent attorney will always discuss with clients wishing to be jointly represented the need for sharing confidences between them, obtain their consent to such sharing, and inform them of the consequences of either client's nevertheless insisting on confidentiality as to the other client and, in effect, revoking the consent.  If it appears to the attorney that either client is uncomfortable with the required sharing of confidential information that joint representation requires, the attorney should reconsider whether joint representation is appropriate in the circumstances.  If a putative jointly represented client indicates a need for confidentiality from another putative jointly represented client, then it is very likely that joint representation is inappropriate and the putative clients need individual representation by separate attorneys.

    The above guidelines, derived from the requirements of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct and consistent with the primary advisory opinions from other jurisdictions, are general in nature.  There is no doubt that their application in some specific contexts will create additional specific concerns seemingly unaddressed in the general ethical requirements.  We are, however, without authority to depart from the Rules of Professional Conduct that are intended to be generally applicable to the profession.  For example, there is no doubt that the application of these requirements to the joint representation of spouses in estate planning will sometimes place attorneys in the awkward position of having to withdraw from a joint representation of spouses because of a request by one spouse to keep relevant information confidential from the other and, by withdrawing, not only ending trusted lawyer-client relationships but also essentially notifying the other client that an issue of confidentiality has arisen.  See, e.g., Florida State Bar Opinion 95-4 (1997) ("The attorney may not reveal confidential information to the wife when the husband tells the attorney that he wishes to provide for a beneficiary that is unknown to the wife.  The attorney must withdraw from the representation of both husband and wife because of the conflict presented when the attorney must maintain the husband's separate confidences regarding the joint representation.")  A large number of highly varied recommendations have been made about how to deal with these specific concerns in this specific practice setting.  See, e.g., Pearce, Family Values and Legal Ethics: Competing Approaches to Conflicts in Representing Spouses, 62Fordham L. Rev. 1253 (1994); and, Collett, And The Two Shall Become As One . . . Until The Lawyers Are Done, 7 Notre Dame J. L. Ethics & Public Policy 101 (1993) for discussion of these recommendations.  Which recommendations are followed, we believe, is best left to the practical wisdom of the good lawyers practicing in this field so long as the general ethical requirements of the Rules of Conduct as described in this Opinion are met. 

    The second publication of this opinion appeared in the August 2003 issue of the Georgia Bar Journal, which was mailed to the members of the State Bar of Georgia on August 7, 2003.  The opinion was filed with the Supreme Court of Georgia on August 21, 2003.  No review was requested within the 20-day review period, and the Supreme Court of Georgia has not ordered review on its own motion.  In accordance with Rule 4-403(d), this opinion is binding only on the State Bar of Georgia and the person who requested the opinion, and not on the Supreme Court of Georgia, which shall treat the opinion as persuasive authority only.



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