Is a Former-Client Conflict of a Paralegal Imputed to a New Law Firm?

paralegalsYes, according to the Rhode Island Supreme Court in Fedora v. Werber, No. 2012-50-Appeal (Dec. 20, 2013). In Fedora, a paralegal who worked on a medical malpractice case at a defense firm quit and became a paralegal at the firm representing the plaintiff in the same case. The trial court found that the paralegal’s conflict was imputed to the new firm under Rhode Island Rule of Professional Conduct 1.10. The paralegal’s new firm argued on appeal that Rule 1.10 applied only to lawyers and not to paralegals. However, the firm did not properly raise the issue in its appellate brief. As a result, the supreme court did “not address the validity of the trial court’s finding that Rule 1.10(c)(2) applied to Ms. Jardon’s paralegal services.”

Could this happen in Louisiana? It shouldn’t. Louisiana Rule 1.10 imputes the conflict of a lawyer to other lawyers in the firm. It does not, however, apply to nonlawyer assistants. If the text of the rule isn’t clear enough on this point, a comment to the corresponding ABA Model Rule is:

[4] The rule in paragraph (a) also does not prohibit representation by others in the law firm where the person prohibited from involvement in a matter is a nonlawyer, such as a paralegal or legal secretary. Nor does paragraph (a) prohibit representation if the lawyer is prohibited from acting because of events before the person became a lawyer, for example, work that the person did as a law student.

See ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.10, cmt. 4. Nevertheless, the ABA comment notes that the new firm should “screen” such nonlawyers from participation in the same matter and implement procedures to “avoid communication to others in the firm of confidential information that both the nonlawyers and the firm have a legal duty to protect.” Id. (citing Model Rules 1.0(k) and 5.3). This is good advice that Louisiana lawyers should follow in order to comply with Louisiana Rule 5.3 when hiring new nonlawyer assistants.

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