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Legal Activism and Client Relations

In the course of day to day business, lawyers

may be asked to do things, which–though

completely legal and permitted by the

Rules of Professional Conduct–conflict

with the lawyer’s personal ethical stan-

dards or beliefs. It does not take too much

imagination to think of several examples.

In most cases, the lawyer can simply refuse

to handle such matters. But sometimes the

pressure of business may require that the

lawyer, or members of the lawyers’ firm,

deal with these issues.

The question I want to address is: to

what extent may a lawyer ethically advocate

for issues of law reform that may conflict

with the interests of clients? (But first, a

lawyer need not be concerned under the

Rules simply because he or she does not

agree with a client. Illinois Rule 1.2(b)

states: “A lawyer’s representation of a client,

including representation by appointment,

does not constitute an endorsement of the

client’s political, economic, social or moral

views or activities.”)

As an example, can a lawyer be active in

the Sierra Club and represent coal mining

interests at the same time? Illinois Rule 6.4,

Law Reform Activities Affecting Client

Interests, directly addresses the question.

Rule 6.4 states:

A lawyer may serve as a director,

officer or member of an organization

involved in reform of the law or its

administration notwithstanding that

John Levin is the retired Assis-

tant General Counsel of GATX

Corporation and a member of



Editorial Board.

the reform may affect the interests

of a client of the lawyer. When the

lawyer knows that the interests of a

client may be materially benefited

by a decision in which the lawyer

participates, the lawyer shall disclose

that fact but need not identify the


Comment 1, however, contains the

caveat that “[i]n determining the nature

and scope of participation in such activi-

ties, a lawyer should be mindful of

obligations to clients under other Rules,

particularly Rule 1.7.”

So the general rule seems to be that

a lawyer is permitted to engage in law

reform activities that may conflict with a

client’s interests unless the Rules otherwise

prohibit such activities. So where do you

draw the line?

Some issues are clear. Under Rule 1.6,

a lawyer cannot “reveal information relat-

ing to the representation of a client unless

the client gives informed consent”. So

there can be no telling of tales. [See also

Rule 1.8(b), Conflict of Interest: Current

Clients, prohibiting using information

relating to the representation of a client.]

Other issues are harder. Rule 1.7, the

general prohibition of conflicts of interest,

states that “a lawyer shall not represent

a client if the representation involves a

concurrent conflict of interest.” However,

Comment 1 to Rule 6.4 states that lawyers

John Levin’s Ethics columns,

which are published in each

CBA Record,

are now in-

dexed and available online.

For more, go to



The CBA’s Professional Responsibility Commit-

tee can help. Submit hypothetical questions to

Loretta Wells, CBA Government Affairs Direc-

tor, by fax 312/554-2054 or e-mail lwells@


“involved in organizations seeking law

reform generally do not have a client-

lawyer relationship with the organization.”

So it is unlikely that mere involvement with

a law reform group will create a conflict

under Rule 1.7.

However, what if there is more

activity? Here the Comments to Rule

1.7 plunge the lawyer into a grey area.

Somewhere in that grey area is a line

past which involvement with law reform

activities may create “a significant risk

that a lawyer’s ability to consider, recom-

mend or carry out an appropriate course

of action for the client will be materially

limited as a result of the lawyer’s other

responsibilities or interests.” In that case

there might be a prohibited conflict. In

such a situation the lawyer should read

the Rules and Comments carefully and

come to a reasoned decision.


Did you know that the CBA has a FREE resource portal for solo small firm members? Access archived pro-

grams on firm marketing, start up tips, legal software demos, client development and more. Go to www.

, click on the Resources tab, then Solo Small Firm Resource Portal, or call 312/554-2070.