Professional Guidelines

An agency of the Supreme Court of Virginia

The Virginia State Bar

Professional Guidelines

Rule 1.10

Imputed Disqualification: General Rule

  • (a) While lawyers are associated in a firm, none of them shall represent a client when the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that any one of them practicing alone would be prohibited from doing so by Rules 1.6, 1.7, 1.9, or 2.10(e).
  • (b) When a lawyer has terminated an association with a firm, the firm is not prohibited from thereafter representing a person with interests materially adverse to those of a client represented by the formerly associated lawyer and not currently represented by the firm, unless:
    • (1) the matter is the same or substantially related to that in which the formerly associated lawyer represented the client; and
    • (2) any lawyer remaining in the firm has information protected by Rules 1.6 and 1.9(c) that is material to the matter.
  • (c) A disqualification prescribed by this Rule may be waived by the affected client under the conditions stated in Rule 1.7.
  • (d) The imputed prohibition of improper transactions is governed by Rule 1.8(k).
  • (e) The disqualification of lawyers associated in a firm with former or current government lawyers is governed by Rule 1.11.


Definition of "Firm"

[1] Whether two or more lawyers constitute a firm as defined in the Terminology section can depend on the specific facts. For example, two practitioners who share office space and occasionally consult or assist each other ordinarily would not be regarded as constituting a firm. However, if they present themselves to the public in a way suggesting that they are a firm or conduct themselves as a firm, they should be regarded as a firm for the purposes of the Rules. The terms of any formal agreement between associated lawyers are relevant in determining whether they are a firm, as is the fact that they have mutual access to information concerning the clients they serve. Furthermore, it is relevant in doubtful cases to consider the underlying purpose of the Rule that is involved. A group of lawyers could be regarded as a firm for purposes of the Rule that the same lawyer should not represent opposing parties in litigation, while it might not be so regarded for purposes of the Rule that information acquired by one lawyer is attributed to the other.

[1a] With respect to the law department of an organization, there is ordinarily no question that the members of the department constitute a firm within the meaning of the Rules of Professional Conduct. However, there can be uncertainty as to the identity of the client. For example, it may not be clear whether the law department of a corporation represents a subsidiary or an affiliated corporation, as well as the corporation by which the members of the department are directly employed. A similar question can arise concerning an unincorporated association and its local affiliates.

[1b] Similar questions can also arise with respect to lawyers in legal aid. Lawyers employed in the same unit of a legal service organization constitute a firm, but not necessarily those employed in separate units. As in the case of independent practitioners, whether the lawyers should be treated as associated with each other can depend on the particular rule that is involved, and on the specific facts of the situation.

[1c] Where a lawyer has joined a private firm after having represented the government, the situation is governed by Rule 1.11(b) and (c); where a lawyer represents the government after having served private clients, the situation is governed by Rule 1.11(d)(1). The individual lawyer involved is bound by the Rules generally, including Rules 1.6, 1.7 and 1.9.

[1d] Different provisions are thus made for movement of a lawyer from one private firm to another and for movement of a lawyer between a private firm and the government. The government is entitled to protection of its client confidences and, therefore, to the protections provided in Rules 1.6, 1.9 and 1.11. However, if the more extensive disqualification in Rule 1.10 were applied to former government lawyers, the potential effect on the government would be unduly burdensome. The government deals with all private citizens and organizations and, thus, has a much wider circle of adverse legal interests than does any private law firm. In these circumstances, the government's recruitment of lawyers would be seriously impaired if Rule 1.10 were applied to the government. On balance, therefore, the government is better served in the long run by the protections stated in Rule 1.11.

Principles of Imputed Disqualification

[2] The rule of imputed disqualification stated in paragraph (a) gives effect to the principle of loyalty to the client as it applies to lawyers who practice in a law firm. Such situations can be considered from the premise that a firm of lawyers is essentially one lawyer for purposes of the rules governing loyalty to the client, or from the premise that each lawyer is vicariously bound by the obligation of loyalty owed by each lawyer with whom the lawyer is associated. Paragraph (a) operates only among the lawyers currently associated in a firm. When a lawyer moves from one firm to another, the situation is governed by Rules 1.9(b) and 1.10(b).

[2a] A lawyer or firm should maintain and use an appropriate system for detecting conflicts of interest. The failure to maintain a system for identifying conflicts or to use that system when making a decision to undertake employment in a particular matter may be deemed a violation of Rule 1.10(a) if proper use of a system would have identified the conflict.

[3 - 4] ABA Model Rule Comments not adopted.

[5] Rule 1.10(b) operates to permit a law firm, under certain circumstances, to represent a person with interests directly adverse to those of a client represented by a lawyer who formerly was associated with the firm. The Rule applies regardless of when the formerly associated lawyer represented the client. However, the law firm may not represent a person with interests adverse to those of a present client of the firm, which would violate Rule 1.7. Moreover, the firm may not represent the person where the matter is the same or substantially related to that in which the formerly associated lawyer represented the client and any other lawyer currently in the firm has material information protected by Rules 1.6 and 1.9(c).

Virginia Code Comparison

There was no direct counterpart to this Rule in the Virginia Code. DR 5-105(E) provided that "[ i ]f a lawyer is required to decline employment or to withdraw from employment under DR 5-105, no partner of his or his firm may accept or continue such employment."

Committee Commentary

The ABA Model Code contained a broadly inclusive imputation rule, prohibiting representation by a partner, associate, or any affiliated lawyer when a lawyer would be required to decline employment under any Disciplinary Rule. See ABA Model Code DR 5-105(D). The Virginia Code limited imputation to disqualification under DR 5-105. See Virginia Code DR 5-105(E). The Committee concluded that the provisions of the ABA Model Rule struck the appropriate balance between the confidentiality needs of clients and the professional needs of lawyers.

The amendments effective January 1, 2004, in paragraph (a), added the references to Rules 1.6 and 2.10(e), deleted the references to Rules 1.8(c) and 2.2; added paragraphs (d) and (e).

The amendments effective July 31, 2015, in paragraph (a), deleted “knowingly” and added “the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that…” and added Comment [2a].

Updated: July 31, 2015