Attorneys serving as public officials can continue to represent clients within their locality, but they need to heed applicable law and ethics guidelines, the New York State Bar Association’s ethic committee said in a July 8 opinion.
The committee considered the issue after receiving an inquiry from an attorney with a private practice who was considering a run for town supervisor.
Before taking any action in a matter, an attorney has to make sure it’s not prohibited by any relevant laws, ethics codes, or regulations that apply to government lawyers because these trump New York’s ethics rule 1.11, “Special Conflicts of Interest for Former and Current Government Officials and Employees,” the committee said.
Otherwise, the rule has two prohibitions, it said. Lawyers who are town supervisors have to recuse themselves from any participation in matters they were involved in as private attorneys, and a town supervisor can’t represent private clients with regular business with the township, the committee said.
The rule also prohibits certain conduct including using the position to try curry favor with a tribunal on behalf of a client or accepting gifts meant to influence the official’s actions.
Using a public office to obtain special treatment for a client is prohibited “unless the official could make a good faith judgment that the client’s interests accord with the public interest,” the committee noted.
Finally, if an attorney comes across “confidential government information” about a person while in public office, the attorney can’t represent a party with adverse interests to that person, it said.
The opinion is N.Y.S. Bar Ass’n Comm. on Prof’l Ethics, Op. 1169, 7/9/19.