Legal Ethics

Ask the Ethics Experts


"Ask the Ethics Experts" is a periodically occurring column of the Legal Ethics Program in Washington Lawyer, the official magazine of the D.C. Bar.

January 2018
Fifteen years ago, John Smith, a close friend from law school, and I each established solo practices. We decided that it would be financially advantageous for each of us to rent office space together and to share office expenses, but we were always meticulously careful to maintain our practices as clearly separate entities.

Sadly, John unexpectedly passed away last week. I know that he left behind a number of active cases, but I know little more than that. May I, with the assistance of his secretary, review his files, advise his clients about John’s passing, and urge them to act expeditiously to secure new counsel? Some clients may be seriously damaged if someone doesn’t take action to protect them — and if not me, then who?
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December 2017
I am launching my own law firm and considering setting up a virtual office. But even if I settle on physical office space, I plan to utilize mobile platforms and technological solutions. I have noticed that apps for lawyers are everywhere — seemingly offering the opportunity to create a “phone office” that does everything: reminds, scans, retrieves client files, creates electronic signatures and invoices, provides research, and even orders food to be delivered to my car. Many apps have both free and paid versions of the same or very similar products. Keeping my overhead down seems like a good business decision, but is it an ethical one?
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November 2017
I am a newly admitted D.C. lawyer. Given my current employment situation, I will not be able to provide any pro bono legal services this year. May I write a check in lieu of representing clients to fulfill my ethical obligation?
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October 2017
I represent an LLC whose majority owner is a young chef in the midst of launching a fleet of food trucks after opening a popular restaurant on 14th Street in the District of Columbia. In the course of representing the company, I speak alternately with her and her partner in the business. Her partner’s nephew, who drives one of the trucks, just placed a panicked phone call to me in which he reported sideswiping a utility pole after smoking marijuana. The nephew said that damage to the truck is negligible, but he wants me to come and take a look. What are the possible ethical ramifications of my discussions with the nephew?
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September 2017
As a lawyer admitted to practice in both Virginia and Pennsylvania, I found myself with a growing number of clients and cases in the District of Columbia and, as such, I sought admission through waiver and was just sworn in as a member of the D.C. Bar. How can I fulfill my continuing legal education requirements for Virginia, Pennsylvania, and now, D.C. 
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August 2017
I am a D.C. Bar member who lives and works in the District of Columbia. My mother-in-law called me in tears asking for my legal help dealing with a collections matter. I am not licensed to practice law in her home state. Am I ethically permitted to email the collection agency to resolve the dispute on her behalf?
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July 2017
I currently represent a client who was distraught to discover that the lawyer who represented her in her divorce five years ago currently represents her ex-husband in a dispute with his business partner. She thinks that the lawyer's representation of her adversary is disloyal, and I have to agree that it creates at least the appearance of impropriety. Has the lawyer violated any ethical duties by representing my client's ex-husband?
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June 2017
Two years ago, I took on a very thorny civil rights matter on a contingency basis and, after putting in over 1,500 hours on the case, Client fired me for no apparent reason . . . and less than a month before trial. I am confident that Client's successor counsel, who has no substantive experience in civil rights cases, is going to lose at trial, leaving me with absolutely nothing for all my work. Was Client permitted to fire me on the eve of trial after I put in so many hours on her case, and is there anything that I can do to recover at least some compensation for all my work?
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May 2017
I am one of four partners in a law firm that also employs two associates. One of the partners will be retiring this year, and another partner has significant health issues that have recently taken a turn for the worse. The remaining partner and I agree that dissolution of the firm is an option we would like to consider. What are the ethical implications of dissolving a law firm?
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April 2017
I have been seeking an in-house legal position for over a year and finally received an offer from a company that seems like a perfect fit in every way. I spent the weekend reviewing the company's proposed employment agreement, and there is one clause that disturbs me: After leaving the company, I may not perform legal work for any competitors for one year. My friends tell me that this is a standard non-compete term and that I should not worry about it. I raised the issue (gently) with the general counsel, who assured me the company never enforces such contractual terms. Can I sign this agreement without running afoul of the ethics rules?
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March 2017
I am a D.C. lawyer in deep financial trouble particularly with respect to my solo practice, where my negative cash flow may soon force me to close my practice and declare bankruptcy. However, in a large contingency matter I have been handling, Defendant has just made a substantial settlement offer that, if Client accepts, will generate a considerable fee and solve all my financial problems. I think that it is an absolutely terrific offer, and I intend to recommend that Client accept it. Does this present any ethical issues? 
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February 2017
I am a junior associate at a large D.C. law firm, I have been looking for a new position for some time and I finally received what appears to be a tentative offer, provided that I can clear conflicts at New Firm. I currently represent a client in a matter where New Firm is opposing counsel. Does this mean that my new position is doomed? I am fairly certain that my current client will not provide informed consent to permit the move.
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January 2017
Whenever I faced a potential conflict of interest, I've always sought my client's consent to continue the representation, but now I'm wondering: Am I ethically required to receive such consent in writing?
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December 2016
A former client posted a false and highly inflammatory assessment of my legal services on a popular online review site. May I ethically defend myself by publicly responding to the post?
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November 2016
I am a high-profile Washington lawyer widely known for my former representation of a candidate for public office. May I now write an op-ed piece providing analysis of why my previous client is unqualified to serve that office without violating the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct?
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October 2016
I am an attorney who previously worked in a nonlegal capacity as a water quality expert at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where my main focus was providing scientific expertise to assist the rule-making process. Now that I am in private practice, a client has asked me to review the applicability of a regulation to his proposed manufacturing site. The regulation is one on which I previously advised while at the EPA. Since I was not providing legal advice while I was at EPA, am I correct that Rule 1.11 (Successive Government and Private or Other Employment) simply does not apply to me and that, as such, I do not have a conflict in undertaking to represent my current client?
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September 2016
I have been retained by the Owner of an upscale restaurant in the District to represent him with respect to possible employment action by a transgender Employee. While no action has yet been filed, Owner has heard "through the grapevine" that Employee has already retained counsel and intends to bring a test case involving the bathroom arrangements at Restaurant. Owner has also heard that Employee has made several statements to her fellow wait staff that would be of great benefit to my client in defending against these claims. 

Since I do not know that Employee is represented by counsel, may I contact her and speak directly to her? If not, may I direct Owner to speak to her and report back to me? And may I interview other Restaurant employees about this matter? 
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