Similarly, in Qwest Corp. v. Anovian Inc.4, the defendant in a lawsuit moved to disqualify the plaintiff's law firm on the ground that the defendant had an existing attorney-client relationship with the plaintiff's law firm (albeit on an unrelated matter) at the time the lawsuit was filed.
The law firm argued that its work for the defendant was a discrete assignment that concluded before the lawsuit was filed.
The court disagreed and granted the disqualification motion based on an affidavit from the defendant stating that he did not believe that his attorney-client relationship was concluded.
An important take-away from these cases is that the client's belief can be a significant factor in determining whether an attorney-client relationship has concluded.
While it might seem obvious to an attorney that the engagement is over as soon as the attorney stops billing the client for work, that point might not be so obvious to the client. This might be especially true if the attorney-client relationship has existed for a long time or the attorney has maintained close contact with the client in the hope of new assignments.
At the conclusion of an engagement, many attorneys fail to send any correspondence documenting that the assignment is complete. In some instances, this is because the attorney hopes the relationship will be ongoing and is concerned that sending an official "termination notice" might offend the client.
A prudent attorney should nevertheless seek to document that the specific engagement has ended. This can be accomplished in a cover letter accompanying the final invoice or an email thanking the client for the opportunity to work on a specific matter.
Alternatively, the attorney can include a statement in the engagement letter clarifying that the engagement is complete upon the submission of the final bill and later making it clear that the final bill has been sent.
If done tactfully, these suggestions are unlikely to hurt the prospects for future work from the client and, at the same time, they give the attorney flexibility to accept a future matter adverse to the former client if such an opportunity arises.
1 See Rule 1.7 [cmt. 7]
2 It is important to note that an attorney generally may not take advantage of the more liberal provisions of Rule 1.9 by firing an existing client once a conflict arises. Courts have almost universally rejected attorneys' attempts to treat a client like a "hot potato" and terminate an existing relationship when there is an opportunity for a new engagement adverse to that client. See e.g., Snapping Shoals Elect. Membership Corp. v. RLI Insur. Corp., 2006 WL 1877078, at *2 (N.D. Ga. July 5, 2006).