90 N.J.L.J. 473
July 20, 1967
An inquirer states the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association of
the City of X has requested his firm to represent the association.
This representation would involve giving legal advice to the association and appearing on its behalf before the municipal council.
No further information is given by the inquirer as to the duties and responsibilities of the representation to the association or to its members. Negatively, it is stated "Should any
police officer be charged with a breach of duty by the city manager and face a departmental hearing, or should a police officer be charged with a criminal violation, he is at liberty to retain counsel of his own choosing."
Information is furnished that this firm represents defendants in the municipal court on complaints made by police officers of the city; it also represents complainants in the same court and on occasion uses police officers as witnesses on behalf of said complainants; it also represents police officers of the same city on workmen's compensation and negligence claims.
The question posed is whether there would be a conflict of interest or breach of ethics as prohibited by the Canons of Professional Ethics, Canon 6, if the firm were retained by the P.B.A.
At the outset, we are not unmindful of what the New Jersey State Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Inc. is, nor of its operation throughout the State under local branches. N.J. State Patrolmen's Benevolent Association v. Patrolmen's Benevolent Association of West New York et al., 113 N.J. Eq. 295 (Ch. 1933). The membership is composed of regularly appointed full-time patrolmen and, upon admission to the local branch, each member thereby becomes a member of the state association. We are also cognizant of the fact that generally the attorney for a local branch of the P.B.A., in addition to representing the organization, appears for its members on charges and complaints made against the police officers. This facet of representation seems not to have been mentioned by the inquirer, or passed over lightly with the statement that the police officer is at liberty to retain counsel of his own choosing. Surely this statement permits the choosing and retaining of the attorney of the local branch of the P.B.A. who has never disqualified himself.
The real ethical problem is created once the attorney representing the P.B.A. and its members, directly or indirectly, appears in court representing either defendants on complaints made by the police officer, or complaints where the police officer is called as a witness for the complainant. In the minds of some, and outspoken in others, will always be the belief that success in the trial was achieved by unfair help and assistance from the police officer and the P.B.A.
It is our opinion that this is not particularly or solely within the purview of Canon 6, but, as we previously stated, Opinion 68, 88 N.J.L.J. 91 (1965):
There appears to be no Canon of Professional Ethics which specifically provides the answer to this inquiry, nor any language in any canon which expressly precludes the inquirer from pursuing the course of action contemplated. But, as the Preamble to the Canons states, "No code or set of rules can be framed, which will particularize all the duties of the lawyer in the varying phases of litigation or in all the relations of professional life."
In Opinion 85, 88 N.J.L.J. 631 (1965), we concluded that it was improper to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the canons, and we set forth the expressed consideration applicable in the opening passages of Drinker, Legal Ethics (1953).
Again, in Opinion 22, 87 N.J.L.J. 13 (1964), we stated:
The duty of the lawyer is expressly stated in Canon 29:
He should strive at all times to uphold the honor and to maintain the dignity of the profession and to improve not only the law but the administration of justice.
Lawyers should also conduct themselves in such a way as not to impair the confidence of the community in the administration of justice and government.
See also A.B.A. Comm. on Professional Ethics and Grievances, Opinion 104 (1934).
Applicable here is the basic principle
that appearance of complete absence of
improper influence is as important as the
actual absence thereof.
It is our opinion that the representations contemplated is improper and should be avoided. This applies to law partners and associates. Opinion 43, 87 N.J.L.J. 265 (1964).