End-of-life notice: American Legal Ethics Library
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Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct
Comment - Rule 1.13
The Entity as Client
An organizational client is a legal entity, but it cannot act except through its officers, directors, employees, shareholders and other constituents.
Officers, directors, employees and shareholders are the constituents of the corporate organizational client. The duties defined in this Comment apply equally to unincorporated associations. “Other constituents” as used in this Comment means the position equivalent to officers, directors, employees and shareholders held by persons acting for organizational clients that are not corporations.
When one of the constituents of an organizational client communicates with the organization’s lawyer in that person’s organizational capacity, the communication is protected by Rule 1.6. Thus, by way of example, if an organizational client requests its lawyer to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, interviews made in the course of that investigation between the lawyer and the client’s employees or other constituents are covered by Rule 1.6. This does not mean, however, that constituents of an organizational client are the clients of the lawyer. The lawyer may not disclose to such constituents information relating to the representation except for disclosures explicitly or impliedly authorized by the organizational client in order to carry out the representation or as otherwise permitted by Rule 1.6.
When constituents of the organization make decisions for it, the decisions ordinarily must be accepted by the lawyer even if their utility or prudence is doubtful. Decisions concerning policy and operations, including ones entailing serious risk, are not as such in the lawyer’s province. However, different considerations arise when the lawyer knows that the organization may be substantially injured by action of constituent that is in violation of law. In such a circumstance, it may be reasonably necessary for the lawyer to ask the constituent to reconsider the matter. If that fails, or if the matter is of sufficient seriousness and importance to the organization, it may be reasonably necessary for the lawyer to take steps to have the matter reviewed by a higher authority in the organization. Clear justification should exist for seeking review over the head of the constituent normally responsible for it. The stated policy of the organization may define circumstances and prescribe channels for such review, and a lawyer should encourage the formulation of such a policy. Even in the absence of organization policy, however, the lawyer may have an obligation to refer a matter to higher authority, depending on the seriousness of the matter and whether the constituent in question has apparent motives to act at variance with the organization’s interest. Review by the chief executive officer or by the board of directors may be required when the matter is of importance commensurate with their authority. At some point it may be useful or essential to obtain an independent legal opinion.
In an extreme case, it may be reasonably necessary for the lawyer to refer the matter to the organization’s highest authority. Ordinarily, that is the board of directors or similar governing body. However, applicable law may prescribe that under certain conditions highest authority reposes elsewhere; for example, in the independent directors of a corporation.
Relation to Other Rules
The authority and responsibility provided in paragraph (b) are concurrent with the authority and responsibility provided to [so in original] other Rules. In particular, this Rule does not limit or expand the lawyer’s responsibility under Rules 1.6, 1.8, 1.16, or 3.3. If the lawyer’s services are being used by an organization to further a crime or fraud by the organization, Rule 1.2(d) can be applicable.
The duty defined in this Rule applies to governmental organizations. However, when the client is a governmental organization, a different balance may be appropriate between maintaining confidentiality and assuring that the wrongful official act is prevented or rectified, for public business is involved. In addition, duties of lawyers employed by the government or lawyers in military service may be defined by statutes and regulation. Therefore, defining precisely the identity of the client and prescribing the resulting obligations of such lawyers may be more difficult in the government context. Although in some circumstances the client may be a specific agency, it is generally the government as a whole. For example, if the action or failure to act involves the head of a bureau, either the department of which the bureau is a part or the government as a whole may be the client for purpose of this Rule. Moreover, in a matter involving the conduct of government officials, a government lawyer may have authority to question such conduct more extensively than that of a lawyer for a private organization in similar circumstances. This Rule does not limit that authority. See note on Scope.
Clarifying the Lawyer's Role
There are times when the organization’s interest may be or becomes adverse to those of one or more of its constituents. In such circumstances the lawyer should advise any constituent, whose interest the lawyer finds adverse to that of the organization of the conflict or potential conflict of interest, that the lawyer cannot represent such constituent, and that such person may wish to obtain independent representation. Care must be taken to assure that the individual understands that, when there is such adversity of interest, the lawyer for the organization cannot provide legal representation for that constituent and individual, and that discussion between the lawyer for the organization and the individual may not be privileged.
Whether such a warning should be given by the lawyer for the organization to any constituent individual may turn on the facts of each case.
Paragraph (e) recognizes that a lawyer for an organization may also represent a principal officer or major shareholder.
Under generally prevailing law, the shareholders or members of a corporation may bring suit to compel the directors to perform their legal obligations in the supervision of the organization. Members of unincorporated associations have essentially the same right. Such an action may be brought nominally by the organization, but usually is, in fact, a legal controversy over management of the organization.
The question can arise whether counsel for the organization may defend such an action. The proposition that the organization is the lawyer’s client does not alone resolve the issue. Most derivative actions are a normal incident of an organization’s affairs, to be defended by the organization’s lawyer like any other suit. However, if the claim involves serious charges of wrongdoing by those in control of the organization, a conflict may arise between the lawyer’s duty to the organization and the lawyer’s relationship with the board. In those circumstances, Rule 1.7 governs who should represent the directors and the organization.