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Rules of Professional Conduct

Rule 1.18: Duties to Prospective Client

(a) A person who discusses with a lawyer 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 had discussions with a prospective client shall not use or reveal information learned in the consultation, except as permitted by Rule 1.6.
   (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 a confidence or secret from the prospective client, 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) When the lawyer has received a confidence or secret from the prospective client, representation is permissible if:
        (1) both the affected client and the prospective client have given informed consent, or
        (2) the disqualified lawyer is timely screened from any participation in the matter.


   [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 discussions 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. The principle of loyalty diminishes in importance if the sole reason for an individual lawyer’s disqualification is the lawyer’s initial consultation with a prospective new client with whom no client-lawyer relationship was ever formed, either because the lawyer detected a conflict of interest as a result of an initial consultation, or for some other reason (e.g., the prospective client decided not to retain the firm). Hence, prospective clients should receive some but not all of the protection afforded clients.
   [2] Not all persons who communicate information to a lawyer are entitled to protection under this rule. A person who communicates information unilaterally to a lawyer, without any reasonable expectation that the lawyer is willing to discuss the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship, is not a “prospective client” within the meaning of paragraph (a).
   [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 client may disclose such information as part of the process of determining whether the client wishes to form 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. Such information is generally protected by Rule 1.6, even if the client or lawyer decides not to proceed with the representation. See Rule 1.6, Comment [9]. Paragraph (b) of Rule 1.18 prohibits the lawyer from using or revealing that information, except as permitted by Rule 1.6. The duty to protect confidences and secrets exists regardless of how brief the initial conference may be. The prohibition against use or disclosure of information received from the prospective client may in turn cause the individual lawyer to be disqualified pursuant to Rule 1.7(b)(4) from representing a current or future client of the firm adverse to the prospective client because that lawyer’s inability to use or disclose information from the prospective client may adversely affect that lawyer’s professional judgment on behalf of the current or future client of the firm whose interests are adverse to the interests of the prospective client.
   [4] In order to avoid acquiring confidences and secrets from a prospective client, a lawyer considering whether or not to undertake a new matter may limit the initial interview only to information that does not constitute a confidence or secret, if the lawyer can do so and still determine whether a conflict of interest or other reason for non-representation exists. An individual lawyer of the firm who obtains information from a prospective client is permitted by Rule 1.6(a) to disclose that information to other persons in the lawyer’s firm, but any such dissemination may cause additional individual lawyers of the firm to be personally disqualified. If a firm wishes to keep open the screening option under paragraph (d)(2) which permits lawyers who are not personally disqualified to represent clients in the same or substantially related matters, the firm must limit and control dissemination of information obtained from the prospective client. Where the information from the prospective client indicates that any 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 Rule 1.7, then informed consent from all affected present or former clients must be obtained before accepting the representation.
   [5] A lawyer may condition conversations 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. For the definition of “informed consent,” see Rule 1.0(e). 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.
   [6] 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 confidences and secrets from the prospective client. ABA Model Rule 1.18 provides for personal disqualification only if the information received by the lawyer could be significantly harmful if used in the matter, but the trigger in D.C. Rule 1.18 is receipt of any confidence or secret because of the interest in more broadly protecting the prospective client and the difficulty of determining whether use of the information would be significantly harmful to the prospective client.
   [7] Under paragraph (c), the prohibition in this rule is imputed to other lawyers as provided in Rule 1.10, but, under paragraph (d)(1), imputation may be avoided if the lawyer obtains the informed consent of both the prospective and affected clients. In the alternative, imputation may be avoided under paragraph (d)(2) if all disqualified lawyers are timely screened. See Rule 1.0(l) (requirements for screening procedures). When a firm may wish to rely on paragraph (d)(2) to avoid imputed disqualification of the firm as a whole, it should take affirmative steps – as soon as an actual or potential conflict is suspected – to prevent a personally disqualified lawyer from disseminating any information about the potential client that is protected by Rule 1.6, except as necessary to investigate potential conflicts of interest, to any other person in the firm, including non-lawyer staff. Any lawyer in the firm who actually receives, directly or indirectly, protected information provided by a prospective client is disqualified. Unlike ABA Model Rule 1.18, this rule does not condition use of screening on the taking of reasonable measures by the personally disqualified lawyer to avoid exposure to more disqualifying information than was reasonably necessary to determine whether to represent the prospective client; that is because the screen protects the prospective client regardless of the amount of information received by the personally disqualified lawyer, and this standard may be difficult to apply in practice. This rule does not prohibit the screened lawyer from receiving any part of the fee, in contrast to ABA Model Rule 1.18, because the substantial administrative burden of complying with such a prohibition exceeds any marginal benefit.
   [8] This rule, unlike ABA Model Rule 1.18, does not require notice to the prospective client that lawyers in the firm who are not personally disqualified are representing a client adverse to the prospective client in the same or substantially related matters subject to the screening requirement, because the lack of such a notice requirement under the prior D.C. Rule concerning prospective clients (Rule 1.10(a)) did not prove problematic and it is not clear that the notice requirement materially advances any significant interest of the prospective client.
   [9] For the duty of competence of a lawyer who gives assistance on the merits of a matter to a prospective client, see Rule 1.1. For a lawyer’s duties when a prospective client entrusts valuables or papers to the lawyer’s care, see Rule 1.15.