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MONTH-IN-BRIEF (Jul 2018)

Professional Responsibility

Suspicious Client Transactions: Duty of Inquiry

By Keith R. Fisher

A recent ethics opinion of the New York City Bar explores professional obligations when a lawyer has doubts about the lawfulness of a transaction for a client. Though acknowledging that the rules do not explicitly address this situation or expressly impose a duty of investigation, the opinion concludes that “competent” representation under N.Y. Rule 1.1 implies a duty of inquiry in some circumstances. This approach seeks to avoid violating N.Y. Rule 1.2(d) (knowingly assisting in unlawful conduct)—which is similar to Model Rule 1.2(d) but without the final clause—and “to render reasonable and candid advice to the client about whether to undertake the proposed conduct and the consequences of doing so.” The NYC opinion also cautions that, in making an inquiry, the lawyer must be mindful of other requirements, e.g., Rule 1.6 to preserve client confidences and Rule 1.4 to explain (notwithstanding Rule 1.4(a)(5)) to the client the lawyer’s doubts about the legality of the transaction.

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