The Fourth Department, reversing Supreme Court, determined that plaintiff law firm, HoganWillig, could represent itself in a suit seeking payment from defendant volunteer fire company (SFC), a former client. The attorneys who were directly involved in representing the fire company were disqualified from this suit. The defendant argued the testimony of the disqualified attorneys would be prejudicial to HoganWillig, a violation of Rules of Professional Conduct rule 3.7[b]:
… [W]e agree with HoganWillig that SFC failed to establish that “it is apparent that the testimony [of the disqualified attorneys] may be prejudicial to [HoganWillig]” (Rules of Professional Conduct [22 NYCRR 1200.0] rule 3.7 [b]  … ). “The word ‘apparent’ means that prejudice to the client must be visible, as opposed to merely speculative, conceivable, or imaginable,” i.e., the prejudice “has to be a real possibility, not just a theoretical possibility” … . Consistent therewith, a movant’s “vague and conclusory” assertions are insufficient to establish that an attorney’s testimony may be prejudicial to the client … . * * *
Here, the court erred in failing to “consider such factors as [HoganWillig’s] valued right to choose its own counsel, and the fairness and effect in the particular factual setting of granting disqualification” … . “Disqualification denies a party’s right to representation by the attorney of its choice,” and we conclude under the circumstances of this case that depriving HoganWillig of its right to represent itself in the present action is particularly unwarranted given that counsel and client are one and the same … . As the court properly determined when it first considered the original motion, whether HoganWillig thinks it is desirable, despite the disqualification of three of its attorneys, to continue representing itself is a strategic decision that should be left to HoganWillig. Hoganwillig, PLLC v Swormville Fire Co., Inc., 2022 NY Slip Op 06331, Fourth Dept 11-10-22
Practice Point: Here the plaintiff law firm should have been allowed to represent itself in a suit to recover attorney’s fees from a former client. The fact that the attorneys directly involved in the former client’s case were disqualified did not require disqualification of the law firm itself. It was the defendant’s burden to demonstrate the testimony of the disqualified attorneys would prejudice the law firm (that was the basis for Supreme Court’s disqualification of the entire firm). The defendant was not able show such prejudice.