While most attorneys represent a diverse set of clients, the unique nature of document review as a contract attorney creates significant conflict concerns. Temporary attorneys frequently work for multiple agencies and firms, moving from project to project. As a full-time associate in a firm, much of the effort involved in checking for conflicts will be carried out by the firm itself. Without that structure, it is important for each attorney to maintain their own records for conflict checking purposes.
Many agencies will, before confirming a temporary attorney for a new project, require that a conflicts form be completed. Often, these forms are completed quickly, relying only on memory, a recipe for missed details. On more than one occasion I’ve fielded a call or text from someone who worked on a project several years ago trying to identify the law firm or other details involved in a matter. Other times, attorneys will report for training day on a project – always a busy and hectic experience – only to be presented with a big packet of documents from the law firm or client. Invariably, one of the forms will ask for conflicts details.
While the potential for being excluded from a project is always a concern, ethical obligations require proper conflict checking and demand that attorneys step away from projects that would create an issue. This requirement has been reiterated by, among others, the California and DC Bars. Most staffing agencies and recruiters with whom I regularly deal have a great amount of respect for people who willingly notify them of potential conflicts. In the cases I’ve seen where the conflict prevented someone from getting work, that person ended up at the top of the recruiter’s list for the next project.
One easy way to simplify providing this information (while simultaneously demonstrating professionalism and preparation) is to maintain your own spreadsheet of conflicts information and update it when you start and finish each project. After spending far too much time in a training trying to recall some of the information requested in a project packet, I started to keep my own log.
For me, accessibility was a primary goal. Often, the first people to respond to a recruiter’s request for availability are the people selected for a project. That sometimes means responding from my phone, where a spreadsheet on my home computer won’t help. Personally, I use Google Docs for this purpose, since it is easily accessible when I’m away from my computer. Other services like Dropbox, Box and Microsoft Sky Drive can also provide easy access to your record.
To select the information I record in my spreadsheet, I consulted several conflict forms from various agencies on past projects. Now, when responding to their inquiries, I simply write “see attached” on their form and include a copy of my log.
My log includes columns for:
- Law Firm
- Opposing Parties
- Opposing Law Firm
- Caption / Jurisdiction (or internal investigation)
- Short description of case
- Outcome (review completed, terminated when work slowed, case settled)
- Major areas of law
- Start date
- End date
- Agency / Work Location
- Role (review, qc, qa, team lead)
I also have a few private columns for information about the project that I find personally helpful.
- The name and contact information for the project manager.
- The rate paid.
- Total hours worked (you can generally collect this information from the timekeeping system when making your final entry).
- A more detailed description of the project to help jog my memory if later asked about the matter.
- A “people” section where I note contact information and other details of new people I meet during the engagement. It’s easy to fall out of contact with people once a project ends. Once work slows, though, these contacts can often be a valuable resource for new projects.
Verify appropriate conflict information for each project with the agency or project management before leaving the matter. While most understand and appreciate the record you’re creating, I’m aware of at least one situation where the law firm tried to prevent several long-term contract attorneys from providing information about the project on conflict check forms, claiming same was prohibited by their confidentiality agreement. Ultimately, the issue with that client was resolved, but it would have been far better for everyone involved to have sorted out that issue while the project was ongoing instead of while attorneys were being considered for a new matter.
Remember, You may not be able to get online during training days. It’s always helpful to have a printed copy of this document with you when starting a new matter.