113 N.J.L.J. 525
May 17, 1984
Conflict of Interest -
Opposing Former Partner's
Corporate Client in Unrelated Divorce
An attorney while a partner in a law firm handled a corporate
realty matter for a client prior to the latter's marriage. Upon leaving the firm, that attorney retained possession of all of the client's file and all notes relating to that matter. The firm states that no one else in the firm has any knowledge of that client's transaction. Thereafter, the attorney prepared an antenuptial agreement - for this same client. The client's wife has now engaged the original law firm in a suit for divorce. The husband's attorney suggests that his former firm may not represent the wife because of a conflict of interest.
The general rule is that if a member of a firm is barred by reason of an ethical consideration, all members of that firm are likewise restricted. In matters of the sort related in this inquiry, two ethical concerns arise: first, the possible appearance of impropriety and second, the protection of client's confidences.
In this inquiry the information divulged to the husband's attorney while a partner in the old firm related to real estate acquired by client's corporation prior to the husband's marriage. We note that real estate acquired prior to marriage plays no part in the matter of equitable distribution.
The inquiry emphasizes that no one in the law firm has any knowledge whatever of the husband's affairs as exposed in the realty transaction. On this basis we see no possible prejudice to the husband. There are no secrets or confidences in possession of the law firm to cause DR 4-101 and DR 5-101 to come into play.
Generally, there is no prohibition in undertaking a new matter against a former client where the former representation has concluded and where there are no confidential communications that would prejudice the former client.
We have said that where the former client feels aggrieved the appearance of impropriety compels the withdrawal of the attorney complained against. See our Opinion 507, 110 N.J.L.J. 408 (1982). However, the basis for objection must be reasonable. Compare, Higgins v. A.C.P.E. 73 N.J. 123 (1977). Since no member of-the firm representing the wife has any information on the realty matter and since that realty transaction took place before the marriage and can have no possible effect in equitable distribution, we hold that there is no reasonable basis for the husband to feel aggrieved within the ethical considerations above stated. See our Opinion 216, 94 N.J.L.J. 677 (1971).