When you hire an attorney, their obligations to you don’t end when the case is over. Attorneys have a number of continuing obligations to former clients under the law and under the State Bar of California’s Rules of Professional Conduct. These obligations help ensure that a client can trust their attorney and can be completely honest and open with them without fear that the information could later be used against them.
Here’s a simple example. Say an attorney helps you draft a contract with one of your vendors. That attorney can’t later represent that vendor if they breach the contract or claim it’s invalid. It’s a clear conflict of interest, and they’d have confidential information from your case that could be potentially used against you. The California Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct typically prohibits using any confidential information “to the disadvantage of the former client.”
What if the attorney is at a new law firm?
Where things can get tricky is when lawyers move on to other law firms. However, the attorney-client privilege is sacrosanct, and it’s crucial for attorneys to avoid any conflict of interest.
Therefore, say the attorney who drafted that contract is now with another firm. Another lawyer in that firm may be able to represent the vendor in a suit against you. However, your former attorney can’t reveal confidential information to the lawyer representing them. If they did so, the new attorney couldn’t use it.
There can be some exceptions, such as if “the information has become generally known.” There are also some exceptions where a former client can provide written consent to use privileged information.
The Rules of Professional Conduct are very clear in stating, “After termination of a lawyer-client relationship, the lawyer….may not…do anything that will injuriously affect the former client in any matter in which the lawyer represented the former client….” If you believe an attorney who once represented you in either a civil or criminal matter has violated these rules of conduct and has caused you harm as a result, it’s wise to find out what you can do.