The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) recently held that the simultaneous representation of business competitors by attorneys in different offices of the same law firm does not constitute a per se conflict of interest. In Maling v. Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner LLP, the client hired a law firm’s Boston office to secure patents for his screwless eyeglass invention. After successfully obtaining the patents, the client discovered that the law firm’s Washington, D.C. office represented a competitor seeking a patent for its own screwless eyeglass technology.
The client brought suit against the law firm, alleging that the representation caused him harm and financial hardship. The lower court dismissed the case for failure to state a claim under which relief could be granted. The client appealed the decision and the SJC took direct review of the case.
In affirming the dismissal by the lower court, the SJC analyzed Rule 1.7 of the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, which states that a lawyer should not represent a client if such representation is directly adverse or would be materially limited by the representation of another client. The SJC reasoned that the representation was not directly adverse because the two clients were not on opposing sides of litigation nor were the two clients competing for the same patent. Furthermore, the Court stated that the client did not provide any facts showing that the judgment of the attorney was impaired because of the dual representation by the two offices. However, the Court emphasized the need for law firms to implement adequate conflict check procedures to prevent ethical violations.