117 N.J.L.J. 414
April 3, 1986
Conflict of Interest -
Ownership of Office Building
Between Municipal Court Judge,
Municipal Prosecutor, and Municipal Attorney
In Opinion 189, 93 N.J.L.J. 789 (1970), our Committee made the
Of the almost 200 opinions of this Committee published so far, 66 have involved questions arising out of the relationship between lawyers or law firms and governmental agencies in which the lawyer or a member of his firm occupies an official position, either elective or appointive. In addition, the Committee has voted to reject a great many inquiries concerning such situations where it seemed obvious that prior opinions had adequately answered the question presented.
The facts as presented by the inquirer are that an attorney who is a municipal court judge and is a sole practitioner (at the time of the inquiry) has plans to erect an office building as co-owner with a partner who is a non-lawyer; the attorney to have his office in the building as a tenant. Another law firm, consisting of two attorneys, one of whom is municipal attorney and the other of whom is municipal prosecutor for the same municipality for which the inquirer is judge, proposes to maintain its offices in the same building. Thus, the municipal court judge, the municipal attorney, and the municipal prosecutor would have their offices located within the same office complex. The latter two attorneys (that is, the law firm consisting of the municipal attorney and the municipal prosecutor) desire to become partners with the inquirer and his partner in the ownership of the office building. The inquirer further states that there would be no sharing of space; there would be separate libraries, separate conference rooms, and separate reception areas. He states further that he has reviewed the opinions of our Committee and has been unable to find an opinion on point.
We are of the opinion that the foregoing suggested relationship would involve a matter of the equivalent of sharing office space and certainly, at the least, would present an absolute appearance of impropriety. For example, what impression can the average layman have in a situation in which the municipal court judge and the municipal prosecutor are business partners with offices in the same office building?
Opinion 185, 93 N.J.L.J. 505 (1970) appears to be almost directly on point. In that Opinion, we held that the relationship would be of such a nature as to constitute "office associates", citing Opinion 74, 88 N.J.L.J. 357 (1965). The Opinion contains the following statement:
The facts here are similar to the facts in our Opinion 74, supra, except that the only office facility shared in common is the parking area. But does the non-sharing of "common office facilities" exclude from consideration all other elements of what may constitute an association? Lawyers cannot be considered office associates merely because their offices are in the same building or because they share a common parking area, but here there are additional factors. There are ownership of the property as tenants in common, equal participation in payment of mortgage interest, tax and maintenance expenses, and the fact that they are presently office associates and merely propose to relocate their offices to avoid the implication of the words "common office facilities" as used in the Rule. The thrust of R. 1:15 is to promote public confidence in the legal profession and in our system of justice. One of its purposes is to enhance the public image of the profession by preventing even the appearance of impropriety. In N.J. Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, Opinion 8, 86 N.J.L.J. 718 (1963), we said: "An attorney should not only avoid all impropriety, but should likewise avoid the appearance of impropriety." The American Bar Association, Committee on Professional Ethics, Opinion 49 (1931), used the following language to express the ethical principle involved:
... If the profession is to occupy that position in public esteem which will enable it to be of the greatest usefulness, it must avoid not only all evil but must likewise avoid the appearance of evil.
See also Opinion 189, supra, 415, 103 N.J.L.J. 38 (1979); and
563, 116 N.J.L.J. 203 (1985).