Dealing with the Intruder

February 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

In an earlier, more genteel era, it was unheard of that one lawyer would talk with a party already represented by another lawyer without that lawyer’s permission. Okay, maybe not unheard of, but certainly not considered acceptable behavior.

Nowadays, though, I’m hearing lawyers telling me about receiving emails from other lawyers to the effect that “I’ve talked to your client and she’s firing you; I’m sending you the paperwork in a couple of days.” It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, I guess.

Two situations I heard of lately:

First: Lawyer One is preparing for trial and receives a letter from Lawyer Two to stop whatever One is doing because Two is going to substitute in the case and take over for trial. What is One to do?

Second: Attorney One receives a letter from Attorney Two that the executor of the estate wants One out, and Two in. The letter includes allegations of impropriety committed by One, with veiled threats of action, and enclosed is an affidavit of the executor confirming the contents of the letter.

Before going any further, I need to add that in both cases the second attorney never did make that appearance. In the first case, Lawyer Two simply never followed through. In the second case, Attorney Two sent a brief email saying he had decided not to get into the case.

The underlying principle here is that once a lawyer enters an appearance in a case he is in it until the judge signs an order letting him out. Just because another lawyer claims to be poaching the client, or the client says “you are fired,” does not relieve the lawyer of his responsibility to the court. As the lawyer of record, you are in it until the judge lets you out.

In Scenario One above, the dilemma is that the lawyer is prepping for trial, and now is in a quandary as to whether to continue to invest time in the case or get out. An obvious first step is to contact the client immediately to get some clear directions. If the client clearly wants the attorney out, or if the client will not communicate, the lawyer should file a motion immediately with the court asking for directions, spelling out the communication from the other attorney. She should do it without delay, because judges tend to be loath to further postpone a case that has been riding the docket for a while, and getting the judge to vacate a rare trial date is an uphill climb. She should give notice of hearing to the attorney on the opposing side, of course, and also the interloping lawyer, as well as the client. In this scenario there is always the option to cut the client loose — represented or not — provided it results in no irreparable harm.

In Scenario Two, the problem is that the Uniform Chancery Court Rules require the fiduciary to be represented by a lawyer. Most chancellors hew strictly to the rule and will not allow the lawyer who has entered an appearance to get out unless and until there is a replacement. Still, I would file a motion as soon as possible, with notice to the fiduciary and the interloping lawyer, asking the court for directions.

In both scenarios, while motions are pending I would continue to do whatever needs to be done to protect the client’s interest, such as meeting deadlines for identification of experts, issuing subpoenas, and so on, knowing full well that I might not be compensated for it. You can’t assume that the judge will let you out, so you have to do what needs to be done.

The question remains whether it is ethical to confer with a person about a matter in which the person is already represented by a lawyer. MRPC 4.2 clearly prohibits a lawyer in a case from communicating with another represented party about the subject matter of the case without permission of that party’s lawyer. It says that “In representing a client, a lawyer shall not communicate about the subject matter of the representation with a party the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer or is authorized by law to do so” [Emphasis added]. Here’s what Professors Jackson and Campbell have to say about it:

Rule 4.2 is sometimes misinterpreted as preventing a lawyer from having contact with any represented person. As noted, the rule only applies if the lawyer himself has a client in a matter. For example, sometimes a represented client will seek to discuss her case with a second disinterested lawyer (who has no other client in the matter), as in circumstances where the client is considering firing the existing counsel to hire the second lawyer. Such conferences can be socially useful, as these consultations can give the client a second opinion regarding her representation. Such consultations can also give the client an opportunity to determine whether the client is being adequately represented at reasonable rates.

It is not unprofessional for the second disinterested lawyer to discuss options with the represented client Rule 4.2 does not apply in such contexts. The second lawyer does not need permission of the client’s existing counsel in order to have such a consultation with the represented client. Some lawyers are hesitant to “look over another lawyer’s shoulder” or to speak ill of another lawyer’s work. Others may not want to interfere with another lawyer’s client relationships. Any reluctance the second lawyer may have discussing the work of client’s existing counsel may be based on professional courtesy or on other factors. However, again, Rule 4.2 is not implicated in these consultations. [Footnotes omitted]

J. Jackson and D. Campbell, Professional responsibility for Mississippi Lawyers, § 21-3 (2010).

If you find yourself in the position of the interlopers above, do everyone a favor and refrain from notifying pre-existing counsel that you are going to jump in until you are absolutely certain that you are going to do it. Just because a person visits with you and extracts some advice from you does not necessarily make that person a client for court purposes. If you quoted a fee and made it clear that you will not enter the case until you are paid the agreed sum, there is no need to act until it has been paid.

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