Link to original WordPerfect Document
11 N.J.L. 2156
170 N.J.L.J. 439
November 4, 2002
ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON PROFESSIONAL ETHICS
Appointed by the New Jersey Supreme Court
OPINION 693 (Supersedes ACPE Opinion 218)
Conflict of Interest -
Non-profit legal assistance organization -
Board member conflict with
client of legal assistance program
Inquirer is a non-profit legal assistance organization. A board member of that organization
also is an executive with a non-profit housing corporation which is a landlord for some of the legal
assistance organization's tenant clients. Inquirer asks whether the conflict presented is controlled
by RPC 1.7 (a) and (b). The inquiry also implicates the issue of whether Opinion 218 of this
Committee, issued September 2, 1971, thirteen years before New Jersey's adoption of the Rules of
Professional Conduct, remains applicable. Subject to the following cautions and comments, we
conclude that RPC 1.7 (b) controls, and Opinion 218 no longer has applicability.
While the specific situation presented _ conflict with a board member whose organization
is an adverse party to a client represented by the legal assistance program _ is not expressly
referenced in RPC 1.7, we must examine whether the circumstance is within the broad language of
RPC 1.7 (b). The test is whether the representation may be materially limited by the lawyer's
responsibilities to another client or to a third person, or by the lawyer's own interests.
Board membership on non-profit legal assistance organizations must be consistent with the
precepts of In Re Education Law Center, Inc., 86 N.J. 124 (1981), decided under the prior
disciplinary rules, as well as current RPCs 5.4(b) (professional independence) and 6.3 (conflicts).
In general, this precedent and rules preclude such board members from having any direct
involvement in or control over specific legal cases handled by the legal assistance entity.
Ordinarily, therefore, it might appear that an organization lawyer's representation of a client
would not be materially limited by the board member's role outlined in the inquiry. We are unable
to establish a general rule to this effect, however, because roles of board members can vary from
organization to organization, and it is possible to hypothesize situations in which an organization
lawyer might feel materially limited, by this conflict or even by other connections or conduct of
a board member.
In the first instance, then, the decision as to whether a board member's role _ or in the case
of a lawyer board member that member's representation of an opposing client _ materially limits
a lawyer's representation of a client is left to the sound professional discretion of the lawyer and the
legal supervisory staff of the organization, given all the facts and circumstances. If such a limitation
is perceived, but the lawyer reasonably believes the representation will not be adversely affected,
then there must be full disclosure of the circumstances and consultation with the client under (2).
The client then decides whether to consent to representation given the conflict. We do not choose
to extend the appearance of impropriety doctrine expressed in RPC 1.7(c) to these situations. In
cases where one of the clients is or is a representative of a public entity, there can be no consent to
representation by or on behalf of that public entity. In this regard, we note that Opinion 567 of this
Committee (August 15, 1985) remains in full force and effect. For the reasons set forth therein, it
is improper for legal representatives of public entities and officials, and those officials themselves,
to serve as board members or staff of non-profit legal assistance organizations if those organizations
periodically represent clients who have such public entities or officials as adversaries.
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