If you had worked for less than seven hours on a case involving complex corporate litigation, would you remember that case after starting work almost four years later at a different firm?
Texas paralegal Clyde Williams didn’t recall the 6.8 hours he had billed in 2005, in a multi-suit corporate battle while working for one firm, Godwin Pappas Langley Ronquillo, LLP (Godwin Pappas), which represented one of the parties,Trans-Global.
In 2009, he started work as a paralegal at Strasburger & Price, LLP (Strasburger). He disclosed Godwin Pappas as a previous employer. Strasburger’s initial conflict check came back clear, as did separate conflicts checks based on two other possible conflicts identified by Williams. Williams also signed the employee handbook and a confidentiality agreement, requiring him to notify his supervising attorney if he became aware he’d previously worked on one of the firm’s cases.
Williams didn’t disclose the case involving Trans-Global because he didn’t recall it. Later in 2009, he worked approximately 27 hours on the Trans-Global litigation. He still didn’t remember the case, and therefore, did not notify his supervising attorney of the conflict.
But opposing counsel made the connection, and immediately notified Strasburger of the conflict. In turn, Strasburger instructed Williams not to work any further on the litigation or discuss any information he obtained during his prior employment at Godwin Pappas. Even though Trans-Global’s counsel conceded no confidences were shared due to Williams’ involvement, Trans-Global still moved to disqualify Strasburger as counsel, and the trial court granted the motion.
It is interesting to note that throughout the appellate process, prior to the dispute over Strasburger’s disqualification reaching the Texas Supreme Court, Strasburger’s screening process was deemed “exemplary.”
The Texas Supreme Court noted there is a rebuttable presumption that nonlawyers shared confidences from one firm with members of the second firm, and that the “only way to rebut the rebuttable presumption is:”
(1) to instruct the legal assistant “not to work on any matter on which the paralegal worked during the prior employment, or regarding which the paralegal has information relating to the former employer’s representation,” and (2) to “take other reasonable steps to ensure that the paralegal does not work in connection with matters on which the paralegal worked during the prior employment, absent client consent.”
Ultimately, the Court reversed the prior decisions and directed the trial court to vacate its order granting the motion to disqualify Strasburger, finding Williams’ supervising attorney reasonably did not know he had worked on the litigation, that Williams made a good faith effort to disclose potential conflicts but simply forgot a case he’d worked less than seven hours on, and the conflict screening was effective. In Re Guaranty Insurance Services, Inc., No. 10-0364 (Tex. 2011).
The Court’s detailed decision is an excellent read, and certainly illustrates the potential problems that can arise when a paralegal works on complex litigation at two different firms – with a notable gap in the time worked on the cases.
So, I’ll pose the original question again to readers, especially those that work in the area of complex litigation, do you think you’d remember prior cases where you billed only a dozen or so hours?