There comes a moment, I think for many attorneys, where you suddenly recognize how small the world is. This became very apparent to me last year when, in the space of a week, I had a client who had an altercation with her husband because of her new boyfriend, and a client who needed her order extended against her husband. It turned out that my client’s new boyfriend was my other client’s soon-to-be-ex-husband.
Technically, this is not a conflict of interest on it’s face. However, it becomes a conflict of interest pretty quickly when one client files criminal charges against the other one for assault. At this point, I became conflicted out of the cases (both of which I had already handled) and therefore was unable to follow up or offer additional services to either client.
Every attorney acts differently about conflicts. The problem is when, for example, you are representing somebody against their boyfriend and it turns out that the reason they got into an altercation is that they were having an argument about the respondent’s other girlfriend. And then, eventually, maybe not at the time because she doesn’t know the other girl’s name, you realize that you represented the other girlfriend against somebody else. Or when you have two clients who both have the same respondent. This is actually the most common scenario. The thing that is complicated about any of these situations is that none of them are technically a conflict, and all of them are privileged.
So not only can I end up in a situation where I know that Respondent has two kids with my current client, I might know that he has two kids with a former client AND neither client might know about each other. Sometimes these things are public record, but sometimes they aren’t, and there are pretty strict rules about betraying client confidentiality. In that you can do it pretty much when somebody is about to get killed or defrauded and not when they are being cheated on. I also can’t do anything that might jeopardize the safety of one of my clients.
My biggest fear is probably that one of the respondents will date one of my former clients, who will recognize me in court and tell me that her boyfriend is a saint and the girlfriend/wife, aka my client, is a terrible lying shrew. At that point, I think I would have to, at the very least disclose to my client and the court that I represented former client in a protective order against a different respondent. (Because it gets a little weird if my client is all, “why you talking to that B?” and I’m going, “she seemed friendly!”) I would also hope that my clients would recognize that I am doing my job, but we’ll see. I’m bound to run into this scenario at some point, it’s a simple reality of being a small town lawyer, even if you work in a semi-large city.