102 N.J.L.J. 353
October 19, 1978
Conflict of Interest
Municipal Attorney and Municipal
Public Defender - Office Associates
The inquirer is the public defender of a municipality. He
rents office space from the municipal attorney in the same town.
Each attorney has his own letterhead which contains no reference to
the other. Each has his own separate clientele, case files,
telephone system and billing system. They have separate signs at
street level outside the office space and on the exterior windows
of the offices. However, they do have mutual use of a common
entrance and waiting room. The other attorney maintains a legal
library as part of his suite, which the inquirer uses under their
rental agreement. On occasion, the inquirer has performed legal
services for the other attorney as an independent contractor on an
The inquirer has two pending cases in the municipal court of the municipality. In one case he represents his client as private defense counsel. We are not told whether the inquirer was engaged by this client before or after his appointment as public defender. In the other he represents the client as assigned defense counsel. The assignment predates the inquirer's appointment as public defender. The inquirer informs us that hardship will result to the client if he is required to withdraw from either representation. He asks whether he may properly continue to represent these clients in the municipal court.
R. 1:15-3(b) provides that: "A municipal attorney of any municipality shall not represent any defendant in the municipal court thereof, except to perform his official duties...."
R. 1:15-3(c) provides that: "Paragraphs (a) and (b) of the rule shall not be deemed to exhaust the limitations on practice necessitated by a conflict of interest on the part of an attorney
representing a public body, agency or officer."
R. 1:15-4 provides that: Whenever R. 1:15 imposes limitations
on the practice of law by an attorney, such limitations shall also ascend to any attorney who is his partner, employer, employee or office associate; except that, as applied to partners, employers, employees and office associates, the limitations imposed on the practice of law by judges of municipal courts by R. 1:15-1(c) shall ascend only to the county in which the court of the judge or acting
judge is located nor shall the limitations imposed by R. 1:15 on attorneys preclude assignments of their partners, employers, employees and office associates by the court for the representation of indigents.
R. 1: 15-5(b) provides that: "The term 'office associates' as used in R. 1:15 includes attorneys who share common office facilities."
Despite the many areas of separateness of their operations, we are satisfied that by reason of the joint features described, the municipal attorney and the inquiring public defender are "office associates" within the meaning of R. 1:15 and that the inquirer is therefore precluded from further representation of the private client. See Opinions 74, 88 N.J.L.J. 357 (1965); 185, 93 N.J.L.J. 505 (1970); 192, 94 N.J.L.J. 44 (1971); 202, 94 N.J.L.J. 309 (1971); Wise, Legal Ethics (2d ed. 1970) 268. The assigned client comes squarely within the exception provided by R. 1:15-4 and the continuing representation of this client is permissible.
Although we have not been asked, we must question the wisdom, if not the propriety, of maintaining the office arrangement which gives rise to the specific inquiries presented. See Opinions 185 and 192, supra, Wise, op. cit., supra.