May 15, 1980
Where a Legal Aid Service has separate branch offices in various counties with separate administrative control, with legal personnel being independent from the influence of attorneys in any other branch office and where the active files of all clients are mutually exclusive in each branch office and the client files in each office as accorded the highest degree of confidentiality as to other offices, an attorney in one branch office can represent the husband in a petition for restoration of his driver's license after it has been taken away for DUIL when an attorney in another branch office represents the wife in a divorce, even though the question of the husband's alcohol related problems in the driver's license restoration case, may be an issue in the divorce suit.
References: Canon 4 and 5; DR 5-105(D); C-47.
The Legal Aid of Central Michigan has its central office in Lansing, Michigan and has branch offices in outlying counties. You presented a situation where client "A" approached a branch office of Legal Aid of Central Michigan and requested assistance in obtaining a divorce. Client "B," the estranged husband of "A," approached the main office requesting assistance in obtaining a divorce. Client "B," the estranged husband of "A," approached the main office requesting assistance in petitioning the Secretary of State for reinstatement of his driver's license. It is further understood that his driver's license had been suspended for a DUIL conviction and that there is a possibility that Client "B's" alcohol related problem dealing with the reinstatement of his driver's license might be an issue in the divorce suit. The legal personnel of each office is independent of influence or coercion of any other office and that the attorneys involved in these actions perform legal work in differing fields of law. You also state that the "active" files of the respective offices are mutually exclusive and that each office maintains confidentiality on all client files.
You have requested an opinion as to whether or not a conflict of interest results when separate offices attempt to represent the interest of two related parties, in two different causes of action, when a material issue affecting one law suit may also be raised as an issue in a subsequent law suit.
We are guided by Canon 4 and 5 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. Canon 4 provides that an attorney will not reveal a confidence or secret of a client and DR 4-101(E) specifically provides that "a lawyer shall exercise reasonable care to prevent his or her employees, associates, and others whose services are utilized by them from disclosing or using confidences or secrets of a client, . . . ." DE 5-105 provides that a lawyer should not accept employment with a client where the lawyer might be adversely affected by the representation of another client. DR 5-105(D) specifically states that where a lawyer is required to decline employment or withdraw from employment under this rule, no partner or associate of his or her firm may accept or continue such employment. There is little question that if the attorneys in the situation presented worked in the same office, they would be prevented from representing both clients. Informal Opinion C-47 held that it was improper for an attorney who represented a client charged with a felony to undertake representation of the wife in a divorce action. However, the situation presented is different from the situation in the above referred to informal opinion. From the facts presented, it appears that you have two separate offices, administered and staffed by separate, independent attorneys with client files "mutually exclusive" with both offices independently maintaining confidentiality of the client files. It would not be a violation of the Code of Professional Conduct for an attorney in one office to represent the husband in his petition for license restoration and an attorney in another office to represent the wife in a divorce proceeding, even though the questions of the DUIL conviction may be raised in the divorce proceedings. It is suggested that the best procedure would be for the attorney in each office to make a full disclosure to each of the clients regarding representation of the opposite spouse by attorneys in the other office.