Supreme Judicial Court Rules

Rules of Professional Conduct

Supreme Judicial Court Rules Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.8: Conflict of interest: Current clients: Specific rules

Adopted Date: 03/26/2015
Effective Date: 10/01/2022
Updates: Amended July 13, 2022, effective October 1, 2022

Table of Contents

(a)

A lawyer shall not enter into a business transaction with a client or knowingly acquire an ownership, possessory, security or other pecuniary interest adverse to a client unless: 

(1) the transaction and terms on which the lawyer acquires the interest are fair and reasonable to the client and are fully disclosed and transmitted in writing in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client; 

(2) the client is advised in writing of the desirability of seeking and is given a reasonable opportunity to seek the advice of independent counsel in the transaction; and 

(3) the client gives informed consent, in a writing signed by the client, to the essential terms of the transaction and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction. 

(b)

A lawyer shall not use confidential information relating to representation of a client to the disadvantage of the client or for the lawyer’s advantage or the advantage of a third person, unless the client gives informed consent, except as permitted or required by these Rules. 

(c)

 A lawyer shall not, for his own personal benefit or the benefit of any person closely related to the lawyer, solicit any substantial gift from a client, including a testamentary gift, or prepare for a client an instrument giving the lawyer or a person closely related to the lawyer any substantial gift, including a testamentary gift, unless the lawyer or other recipient of the gift is closely related to the client.  For purposes of this Rule, a person is “closely related” to another person if related to such other person as sibling, spouse, child, grandchild, parent, or grandparent, or as the spouse of any such person. 

(d)

Prior to the conclusion of representation of a client, a lawyer shall not make or negotiate an agreement giving the lawyer literary or media rights to a portrayal or account based in substantial part on information relating to the representation. 

(e)

A lawyer shall not provide financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation, except that:

(1) a lawyer may advance court costs and expenses of litigation, the repayment of which may be contingent on the outcome of the matter;

(2) a lawyer representing an indigent client may pay court costs and expenses of litigation on behalf of the client; and

(3) a lawyer representing an indigent client pro bono publico may provide modest gifts to the client for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, medicine, and other basic living expenses, provided that the lawyer may not:

(i) promise, assure, or imply the availability of such gifts prior to retention or as an inducement to enter into the client-lawyer relationship or to continue the client-lawyer relationship after retention;

(ii) seek or accept reimbursement, including from the proceeds of a settlement or judgment, from the client, a relative of the client, or anyone affiliated with the client; or

(iii) publicize or advertise a willingness to provide such gifts to prospective clients.

Gifts of financial assistance under this Rule may be provided even if the representation is eligible for fees under a fee-shifting statute.

(4) When a non-profit organization that provides free legal and other services to indigent clients has received donations or other funding to provide humanitarian aid to persons in need, such as financial assistance to pay for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, medicine, and other basic living expenses, the organization's use of such donations or other funding to provide humanitarian aid to its clients, or the clients' families, shall not be deemed a violation of Rule 1.8(e).

(f)

A lawyer shall not accept compensation for representing a client from one other than the client unless: 

(1) the client gives informed consent; 

(2) there is no interference with the lawyer’s independence of professional judgment or with the client-lawyer relationship; and 

(3) information relating to representation of a client is protected as required by Rule 1.6

(g)

A lawyer who represents two or more clients shall not participate in making an aggregate settlement of the claims of or against the clients, or in a criminal case an aggregated agreement as to guilty or nolo contendere pleas, unless each client gives informed consent, in a writing signed by the client. The lawyer’s disclosure shall include the existence and nature of all the claims or pleas involved and of the participation of each person in the settlement. 

(h)

A lawyer shall not: 

(1) make an agreement prospectively limiting the lawyer’s liability to a client for malpractice unless the client is independently represented in making the agreement; or 

(2) settle a claim or potential claim for such liability with an unrepresented client or former client unless that person is advised in writing of the desirability of seeking and is given a reasonable opportunity to seek the advice of independent legal counsel in connection therewith. 

(i)

A lawyer shall not acquire a proprietary interest in the cause of action or subject matter of litigation the lawyer is conducting for a client, except that the lawyer may: 

(1) acquire a lien authorized by law to secure the lawyer’s fee or expenses; and 

(2) contract with a client for a reasonable contingent fee in a civil case. 

(j)

A lawyer shall not:

(1) during the course of any representation by the lawyer or the lawyer's firm, employ coercion, intimidation, or undue influence to enter into or continue sexual relations with a client; or

(2) as a condition of entering into or continuing any representation by the lawyer or the lawyer's firm, require or demand sexual relations with a client or prospective client.

(k)

While lawyers are associated in a firm, a prohibition in the foregoing paragraphs (a) through (j) that applies to any one of them shall apply to all of them. 

Comment

Business Transactions Between Client and Lawyer 

[1] A lawyer’s legal skill and training, together with the relationship of trust and confidence between lawyer and client, create the possibility of overreaching when the lawyer participates in a business, property or financial transaction with a client, for example, a loan or sales transaction or a lawyer investment on behalf of a client. The requirements of paragraph (a) must be met even when the transaction is not closely related to the subject matter of the representation, as when a lawyer drafting a will for a client learns that the client needs money for unrelated expenses and offers to make a loan to the client. The Rule applies to lawyers engaged in the sale of goods or services related to the practice of law, for example, the sale of title insurance or investment services to existing clients of the lawyer’s legal practice. See Rule 5.7. It also applies to lawyers purchasing property from estates they represent. It does not apply to ordinary fee arrangements between client and lawyer, which are governed by Rule 1.5, although its requirements must be met when the lawyer accepts an interest in the client’s business or other nonmonetary property as payment of all or part of a fee. In addition, the Rule does not apply to standard commercial transactions between the lawyer and the client for products or services that the client generally markets to others, for example, banking or brokerage services, medical services, products manufactured or distributed by the client, and utilities’ services. In such transactions, the lawyer has no advantage in dealing with the client, and the restrictions in paragraph (a) are unnecessary and impracticable. 

[2] Paragraph (a)(1) requires that the transaction itself be fair to the client and that its essential terms be communicated to the client, in writing, in a manner that can be reasonably understood. Paragraph (a)(2) requires that the client also be advised, in writing, of the desirability of seeking the advice of independent legal counsel. It also requires that the client be given a reasonable opportunity to obtain such advice. Paragraph (a)(3) requires that the lawyer obtain the client’s informed consent, in a writing signed by the client, both to the essential terms of the transaction and to the lawyer’s role. When necessary, the lawyer should discuss both the material risks of the proposed transaction, including any risk presented by the lawyer’s involvement, and the existence of reasonably available alternatives and should explain why the advice of independent legal counsel is desirable. See Rule 1.0(g) (definition of informed consent).   

[3] The risk to a client is greatest when the client expects the lawyer to represent the client in the transaction itself or when the lawyer’s financial interest otherwise poses a significant risk that the lawyer’s representation of the client will be materially limited by the lawyer’s financial interest in the transaction. Here the lawyer’s role requires that the lawyer must comply, not only with the requirements of paragraph (a), but also with the requirements of Rule 1.7. Under that Rule, the lawyer must disclose the risks associated with the lawyer’s dual role as both legal adviser and participant in the transaction, such as the risk that the lawyer will structure the transaction or give legal advice in a way that favors the lawyer’s interests at the expense of the client. Moreover, the lawyer must obtain the client’s informed consent. In some cases, the lawyer’s interest may be such that Rule 1.7 will preclude the lawyer from seeking the client’s consent to the transaction. 

[4] If the client is independently represented in the transaction, paragraph (a)(2) of this Rule is inapplicable, and the paragraph (a)(1) requirement for full disclosure is satisfied either by a written disclosure by the lawyer involved in the transaction or by the client’s independent counsel. The fact that the client was independently represented in the transaction is relevant in determining whether the agreement was fair and reasonable to the client as paragraph (a)(1) further requires. 

Use of Confidential Information Related to Representation 

[5] Use of confidential information relating to the representation to the disadvantage of the client or for the lawyer’s advantage or the advantage of a third person violates the lawyer’s duty of loyalty. Paragraph (b) prohibits such use of client confidential information unless the client gives informed consent, except as permitted or required by these Rules. See Rules 1.2(d)1.61.9(c)3.34.1(b)8.1, and 8.3. Paragraph (b) applies when such information is used to benefit either the lawyer or a third person, such as another client or business associate of the lawyer. For example, if a lawyer learns that a client intends to purchase and develop several parcels of land, the lawyer may not use that information to purchase one of the parcels in competition with the client or to recommend that another client make such a purchase. 

Gifts to Lawyers 

[6] A lawyer may accept a gift from a client, if the transaction meets general standards of fairness. For example, a simple gift such as a present given at a holiday or as a token of appreciation is permitted.  If a client offers the lawyer a more substantial gift, paragraph (c) does not prohibit the lawyer from accepting it, although such a gift may be voidable by the client under the doctrine of undue influence, which treats client gifts as presumptively fraudulent. In any event, due to concerns about overreaching and imposition on clients, a lawyer may not suggest that a substantial gift be made to the lawyer or for the lawyer’s benefit, except where the lawyer is related to the client as set forth in paragraph (c). 

[7] If effectuation of a substantial gift to a lawyer or person closely related to the lawyer requires preparing a legal instrument such as a will or conveyance, the client should have the detached advice that another lawyer can provide. The sole exception to this Rule is where the client is a person closely related to the donee. 

[8] Appointments as executor of a client’s estate or other potentially lucrative fiduciary position will be subject to the general conflict of interest provision in  Rule 1.7. The lawyer should advise the client concerning the nature and extent of the lawyer’s financial interest in the appointment, as well as the availability of alternative candidates for the position. 

Literary Rights 

[9] An agreement by which a lawyer acquires literary or media rights concerning the conduct of the representation creates a conflict between the interests of the client and the personal interests of the lawyer. Measures suitable in the representation of the client may detract from the publication value of an account of the representation. Paragraph (d) does not prohibit a lawyer representing a client in a transaction concerning literary property from agreeing that the lawyer’s fee shall consist of a share in ownership in the property, if the arrangement conforms to Rule 1.5 and paragraphs (a) and (i). 

Financial Assistance 

[10] Lawyers may not subsidize lawsuits or administrative proceedings brought on behalf of their clients, including making or guaranteeing loans to their clients for living expenses, because to do so would encourage clients to pursue lawsuits that might not otherwise be brought and because such assistance gives lawyers too great a financial stake in the litigation. These dangers do not warrant a prohibition on a lawyer lending a client court costs and litigation expenses, including the expenses of medical examination and the costs of obtaining and presenting evidence, because these advances are virtually indistinguishable from contingent fees and help ensure access to the courts. Similarly, an exception allowing lawyers representing indigent clients to pay court costs and litigation expenses regardless of whether these funds will be repaid is warranted. 

Person Paying for a Lawyer’s Services 

[11] Paragraph (e)(3) provides another exception. A lawyer representing an indigent client without fee may give the client modest gifts for basic living expenses, such as contributions for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, medicine, and similar basic necessities of life. This rule applies to a lawyer in private practice representing an indigent client pro bono. The rule also applies to a lawyer representing an indigent client pro bono through a nonprofit legal services or public interest organization or through a law school clinical or pro bono program. If the gift may have consequences for the client, including, e.g., for receipt of government benefits, social services, or tax liability, the lawyer should consult with the client about these. See Rule 1.4.

[12] The paragraph (e)(3) exception is narrow. Modest gifts are allowed in specific circumstances where it is unlikely to create conflicts of interest or invite abuse. This rule is intended to permit a lawyer to provide compassionate assistance to clients on a one-time or very occasional basis. It does not permit a lawyer to subsidize a client's living expenses during the pendency of a case, nor does it permit the advancement of living expenses to be repaid as an expense of the case.

[12A] Whether a gift constitutes an inducement to enter into or continue a client-lawyer relationship in violation of paragraph (e)(3)(i) may be inferred from various factors, including the amount of the gift, the continuous or repetitive nature of gifts, the nature of the lawyer's practice (including whether the lawyer regularly makes such gifts), and, in a case where an award of fees is possible, the likelihood of a recovery of fees, the amount of fees potentially recoverable, and evidence of competition among lawyers for the representation.

[13] Financial assistance, including modest gifts pursuant to paragraph (e)(3), may be provided even if the representation is eligible for fees under a fee-shifting statute. However, paragraph (e)(3) does not permit lawyers to provide assistance in other contemplated or pending litigation in which the lawyer may eventually recover a fee, such as contingent-fee personal injury cases or cases in which fees may be available under a contractual fee-shifting provision, even if the lawyer does not eventually receive a fee.

[13A] Paragraph (e)(4) confirms that where a non-profit organization that provides free legal and other services to indigent clients receives donations or other funding to provide humanitarian aid to persons in need, the use of those donations does not violate paragraph (e)(3) even if the recipients of the aid are the indigent clients of the non-profit organization, or family members of such clients.

[14] Lawyers are frequently asked to represent a client under circumstances in which a third person will compensate the lawyer, in whole or in part. The third person might be a relative or friend, an indemnitor (such as a liability insurance company) or a co-client (such as a corporation sued along with one or more of its employees). Because third-party payers frequently have interests that differ from those of the client, including interests in minimizing the amount spent on the representation and in learning how the representation is progressing, lawyers are prohibited from accepting or continuing such representations unless the lawyer determines that there will be no interference with the lawyer’s independent professional judgment and there is informed consent from the client. See also Rule 5.4(c) (prohibiting interference with a lawyer’s professional judgment by one who recommends, employs or pays the lawyer to render legal services for another). 

[15] Sometimes, it will be sufficient for the lawyer to obtain the client’s informed consent regarding the fact of the payment and the identity of the third-party payer. If, however, the fee arrangement creates a conflict of interest for the lawyer, then the lawyer must comply with Rule 1.7. The lawyer must also conform to the requirements of Rule 1.6 concerning confidentiality. Under Rule 1.7(a), a conflict of interest exists if there is significant risk that the lawyer’s representation of the client will be materially limited by the lawyer’s own interest in the fee arrangement or by the lawyer’s responsibilities to the third-party payer (for example, when the third-party payer is a co-client). Under Rule 1.7(b), the lawyer may accept or continue the representation with the informed consent of each affected client, unless the conflict is nonconsentable under that paragraph. Under  Rule 1.7(b), the informed consent must be confirmed in writing. 

Aggregate Settlements 

[16] Differences in willingness to make or accept an offer of settlement are among the risks of common representation of multiple clients by a single lawyer. Under  Rule 1.7, this is one of the risks that should be discussed before undertaking the representation, as part of the process of obtaining the client’s informed consent. In addition, Rule 1.2(a) protects each client’s right to have the final say in deciding whether to accept or reject an offer of settlement and in deciding whether to enter a guilty or nolo contendere plea in a criminal case. The rule stated in this paragraph is a corollary of both these Rules and provides that, before any settlement offer or plea bargain is made or accepted on behalf of multiple clients, the lawyer must inform each of them about all the material terms of the settlement, including what the other clients will receive or pay if the settlement or plea offer is accepted. See also Rule 1.0(g) (definition of informed consent).  Lawyers representing a class of plaintiffs or defendants may not have a full client-lawyer relationship with each member of the class; nevertheless, such lawyers must comply with applicable rules regulating notification of class members and other procedural requirements designed to ensure adequate protection of the entire class.  Similar considerations may apply in derivative actions. 

Limiting Liability and Settling Malpractice Claims 

[17] Agreements prospectively limiting a lawyer’s liability for malpractice are prohibited unless the client is independently represented in making the agreement because they are likely to undermine competent and diligent representation. Also, many clients are unable to evaluate the desirability of making such an agreement before a dispute has arisen, particularly if they are then represented by the lawyer seeking the agreement. This paragraph does not, however, prohibit a lawyer from entering into an agreement with the client to arbitrate legal malpractice claims, provided such agreements are enforceable and the client is fully informed of the scope and effect of the agreement, including compliance with Rule 1.5(f) where applicable. Nor does this paragraph limit the ability of lawyers to practice in the form of a limited-liability entity, where permitted by law, provided that each lawyer remains personally liable to the client for his or her own conduct and the firm complies with any conditions required by law, such as provisions requiring client notification or maintenance of adequate liability insurance. Nor does it prohibit an agreement in accordance with Rule 1.2 that defines the scope of the representation, although a definition of scope that makes the obligations of representation illusory will amount to an attempt to limit liability. 

[18] Agreements settling a claim or a potential claim for malpractice are not prohibited by this Rule. Nevertheless, in view of the danger that a lawyer will take unfair advantage of an unrepresented client or former client, the lawyer must first advise such a person in writing of the appropriateness of independent representation in connection with such a settlement. In addition, the lawyer must give the client or former client a reasonable opportunity to find and consult independent counsel. 

Acquiring Proprietary Interest in Litigation 

[19] Paragraph (i) states the traditional general rule that lawyers are prohibited from acquiring a proprietary interest in litigation. Like paragraph (e), the general rule has its basis in common law champerty and maintenance and is designed to avoid giving the lawyer too great an interest in the representation. In addition, when the lawyer acquires an ownership interest in the subject of the representation, it will be more difficult for a client to discharge the lawyer if the client so desires. The Rule is subject to specific exceptions developed in decisional law and continued in these Rules. The exception for certain advances of the costs of litigation is set forth in paragraph (e). In addition, paragraph (i) sets forth exceptions for liens authorized by law to secure the lawyer’s fees or expenses and contracts for reasonable contingent fees. These may include liens granted by statute, liens originating in common law and liens acquired by contract with the client. When a lawyer acquires by contract a security interest in property other than that recovered through the lawyer’s efforts in the litigation, such an acquisition is a business or financial transaction with a client and is governed by the requirements of paragraph (a). Contracts for contingent fees in civil cases are governed by Rule 1.5.

Client-Lawyer Sexual Relationships

[20] The relationship between lawyer and client is a fiduciary one in which the lawyer occupies the highest position of trust and confidence. The relationship is often unequal; thus, a sexual relationship between lawyer and client can involve unfair exploitation of the lawyer's fiduciary role, in violation of the lawyer's basic ethical obligation not to use the trust of the client to the client's disadvantage. Paragraph (j)(1) seeks to prevent a lawyer from exploiting the professional relationship with a client by prohibiting the use of coercion, intimidation, or undue influence to obtain sexual relations with a client or a prospective client of the lawyer or the lawyer's firm, while paragraph (j)(2) more generally prohibits a lawyer from demanding sexual relations as a condition of providing legal services, even if the demand does not otherwise appear to involve coercion, intimidation, or undue influence. A sexual relationship that is permissible under paragraph (j) may nevertheless interfere with the lawyer's exercise of professional judgment and create a conflict between the lawyer’s personal interests and the best interests of the client. See Rule 1.7, Comment 12.

[21] Reserved 

[22] Reserved 

Imputation of Prohibitions 

[23] Under paragraph (k), a prohibition on conduct by an individual lawyer in paragraphs (a) through (j) also applies to all lawyers associated in a firm with the personally prohibited lawyer. For example, one lawyer in a firm may not enter into a business transaction with a client of another member of the firm without complying with paragraph (a), even if the first lawyer is not personally involved in the representation of the client.

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