88 N.J.L.J. 460
July 15, 1965
Conflict of Interest
Municipal Employee's Partners
A firm of attorneys ask whether or not its members may
represent clients before the municipal court and local bodies of a
city in which one member of the firm is employed in a lay civil
service job as supervisor of rehabilitation of dwellings.
The supervisor is hired to enforce the building code. He holds hearings, issues directives to correct violations and appears as a witness when an alleged breach of the code reaches the court. The fact that the partner is a full-time city employee engaged in nonlegal work and shares fees which the firm receives from clients for whom they appear before city boards makes no difference in the result reached. Our conclusion would be the same if no fees were shared and the employment were only part-time.
It is the opinion of this Committee that it would be improper for a city employee's firm to represent clients before that city's court or any of its bodies. When an attorney is a public official, his behavior is nevertheless judged by the ethics of the profession. See this Committee's Opinion 70, 88 N.J.L.J. 161 (1965). As a municipal official he may not appear in any proceeding against the city; see our Opinion 53, 87 N.J.L.J. 610 (1964). Nor may he appear where his employer is not involved and only private parties are concerned; for the public will be troubled by the suspicion that the success of his firm may have been attributable to his position or influence; see our Opinion 64, 87 N.J.L.J. 801 (1964). A lawyer may not do what his partner may not do. Drinker, Legal Ethics 106 (1953); see our Opinions 54, 87 N.J.L.J. 689 (1964), and 68, 88 N.J.L.J. 91 (1965). Hence, the city employee's firm may not appear before the city court or any of the bodies of the city where he is employed. As was pointed out in Ass'n. of the Bar, City of New York, Committee on Professional Ethics, Opinion 332 (1938):
...the possibilities of conflict of interest and valid or invalid assumptions detrimental to the Bar can only be avoided if a lawyer employed for full time by the government withdraws from his partnership.
For the reasons stated, none of the members of the firm should appear before the city court or any of the bodies of the city where one firm member is employed in a lay capacity.