On occasion, small and boutique firm clients have legal needs that are outside the expertise of their lawyers. Instead of referring those clients to other lawyers, a boutique firm may wish to associate another lawyer or law firm to provide consultation and advice to the firm’s clients on specialized matters. In such a situation, that outside lawyer or law firm may be referred to as “special counsel” to the firm for that specialized area of the law.
The relationship must be identified correctly so that clients and potential clients are fully aware of the nature of the relationship. And the relationship between the law firm and the special counsel must be a bona fide relationship that utilizes special counsel’s expertise and not one established merely to serve as a referral source.
If such a “special counsel” relationship is established, both the law firm and the associated lawyer must be vigilant in identifying potential conflicts. The vicarious disqualification rule requiring the additional disqualification of a partner or associate of a disqualified lawyer applies to a special counsel.