California Bar Journal
CBJ - September 2009 #05.
Limited pro bono work gets easier with new conflict of interest rule
California Bar JournalSeptember 2009Limited pro bono work gets easier with new conflict of interest ruleIn recent years, volunteers and staff for the Public Law Center in Santa Ana have paid once-a-week visits to two National Guard armories open to homeless people during the winter months. After setting up folding tables and chairs in the gymnasium-like space, they walk among the beds where some 200 people sleep nightly asking if anyone needs to talk to a lawyer.
Although some large firm practitioners have wanted to participate in the winter clinics, they have been unable to do so because of conflict of interest rules that made it virtually impossible to offer legal assistance at drop-in centers.
That barrier was eliminated in California last month with Supreme Court approval of Rule of Professional Conduct 1-650. Patterned on American Bar Association Model Rule 6.5, the new rule limits a lawyer's exposure to conflicts of interest only to representations where the lawyer knows that a real or imputed conflict exists. The rule also limits conflicts imputed to a lawyer's firm as a result of the attorney's participation in a limited legal services program.
The new rule, said Toby J. Rothschild, general counsel of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, "will provide private attorneys with the clarity and confidence needed to participate in legal aid clinics and will, as a result, provide pro bono attorneys with a crucial opportunity to assist the needy. The ability to participate in clinics is particularly important to those attorneys unable to take on more extended representation of the poor and disadvantaged."
Although many large law firms now have a pro bono coordinator or partner and take on many cases, they often turned down the smaller jobs because it is not practical to systematically screen for conflicts of interest, as is generally required before undertaking a representation. As a result, helping someone complete a legal form or manning legal advice hotlines - key services provided by legal aid programs - could not be undertaken without risk of violating Rule of Professional Conduct 3-310 (avoiding representation of adverse interests).
The change "achieves the proper balance between client...