When Former Client Conflicts are Disqualifying

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Division 1 of the Washington Court of Appeals recently issued a significant decision applying a new standard for former client conflicts in the disqualification context. In Plein v. USAA Casualty Insurance Company, the plaintiff homeowners filed an insurance “bad faith” claim against their property insurance carrier, defendant USAA, over coverage for a fire and subsequent…

via Court of Appeals: New Standard in Disqualification for Former Client Conflicts — NWSidebar

Engagement Letters Are Your Friend

Today, I’d like to share a recent post from our friends at NW Sidebar about the importance of engagement letters.

In Cox v. Alliant Insurance Services, Inc., 2017 WL 4640452 (E.D. Wash. Sept. 19, 2017) (unpublished), the plaintiffs sought to disqualify the opposing law firm based on a conflict of interest. One of the plaintiffs argued that he was a former client of the firm on a substantially related matter, necessitating the law firm’s withdrawal.

The plaintiff’s contact with the firm was as a representative for a corporation.  In concluding that no attorney-client relationship existed between the plaintiff and the law firm, the court relied on two key points:

  • The law firm and corporation executed a written engagement agreement that identified the corporation (and not the individual) as the client in the matter.
  • The plaintiff failed to introduce contradictory evidence, i.e., he could not point to any communication or action by the firm which expanded the attorney-client relationship to include him individually as a client.

Read the full post here.

Lessons Learned

As we discussed in the CLE, Limiting Exposure to Conflicts, identifying your client and clarifying the client’s status (prospect, current client, or former client) is paramount to conflict screening and limiting your potential liability. The single best tool at your disposal? Written engagement, disengagement, and nonengagement letters – all of which are available at the Professional Liability Fund website.

But the law firm in Cox didn’t stop at the engagement letter. Firm members were also consistent in their actions toward the corporate representative. There was no evidence of emails, correspondence, or other communication supporting that the corporate representative was an individual client of the firm.

The moral of the story? A solid engagement letter is a small investment to make in the realm of thwarting conflicts and liability. Even better: maintaining consistency in your corporate communications.

All Rights Reserved 2018 – Beverly Michaelis