HK – Patricia J. Dillman v. Holland & Knight

In 1 on January 3, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Washington, D.C., Case Spotlights the Mobility of Nonlawyers at Law Firms

Claim of tortious interference arises following a potential conflict of interest.

By Ashley Johnson

Paralegals and nonlawyers are very much aware of conflicts of interest when changing jobs between law firms. But how much time must a paralegal spend on a case for there to be a conflict and what protective measures are in place to ensure client confidentiality when paralegals accept a new position at a different firm? These are questions being raised by a recent case, Patricia J. Dillman v. Holland & Knight, in Washington, D.C.

In August 2007, Dillman, who had been employed with Holland & Knight as the director of litigation support since December 2004, interviewed with law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed in New York for a position as the director of litigation support. On Sept. 6, 2007, she received an offer for employment with Hughes Hubbard, and on the same day, she resigned from her position at Holland & Knight, planning to start at Hughes Hubbard on Oct. 8, 2007. However, before starting at Hughes Hubbard, Dillman’s offer was rescinded after Holland & Knight brought a conflict of interest to Hughes Hubbard’s attention, reserving the right to move to disqualify Hughes Hubbard from the case in conflict if Dillman was hired.

Dillman filed a complaint against Holland & Knight on Nov. 17, 2007, for tortious interference with a contract. A judge dismissed the case on Feb. 22, on the grounds that no official contract was in place between Dillman and Hughes Hubbard; rather, it was a prospective contract. The complaint was amended to say that Holland & Knight interfered with prospective business relations, which immediately was followed by a second motion to dismiss by Holland & Knight. On May 16, Judge Odessa F. Vincent took Holland & Knight’s motion to dismiss under advisement and set a schedule for the case to proceed to the discovery phase.

The conflict in question involved a case, Reino De Espana v. American Bureau of Shipping, in which Holland & Knight represented the plaintiff and Hughes Hubbard the defendant, and on which Dillman billed 13.6 hours. She argues that her work didn’t allow her to acquire client confidences. According to Lynne Bernabei, attorney for Dillman and a partner at Bernabei & Wachtel in Washington, D.C., the time Dillman  spent on the case mainly was to locate a vendor in Europe to copy documents related to the case. However, according to Robert Trout, attorney for Holland & Knight, the amount of time Dillman spent on the case doesn’t matter. “Number one: It doesn’t matter whether she worked on it for 13 hours or 1,300 hours if she got confidential information,” he said. “And number two: The law presumes that she did receive confidential information because there is no way to really inquire whether certain information was confidential or other information was not confidential unless you reveal that information, which you can’t do.”

“There’s a lot of mobility in particular among support staff or people in [Dillman]’s position or paralegals between law firms,” Bernabei said. “And I think the bar association, in terms of the ethical rules binding paralegals and other support personnel, has always realized that they’re not in the same position as law­yers who are in charge of a case. They’ve always been pretty careful not to restrict mobility based on these ethical concerns.”

While Dillman tried to negotiate with Holland & Knight before proceeding with her case, she felt that the two months’ salary offered to her was not adequate because, at the time of negotiation, she had been unemployed for three months and because the opportunity at Hughes Hubbard, which took her nine months to find, was rare. Dillman, who has worked in the legal field for 25 years, has no qualms about her decision to go forward with the case. “I really have a lot of faith that this will work out one way or another,” she said. “I really won’t regret ever taking this step toward resolving it in this manner because I really think that it’s a statement for myself personally, but I [also] think generally for those of us who need to be able to step up and try to do something to resolve a conflict like this.”

Posted via email from HKLaw Investigation


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