Confused by Conflicts? Think “Tug of War”

I coached varsity basketball for 15 years.  One thing I learned is that different players have different learning styles.

For example, I’d wager that the play I ran most often in my career was one we called “Texas.”  We had various ways to start “Texas,” but the critical action always came from the same set.



There are different ways to teach kids a play. For some, drawing it on a whiteboard (above) was sufficient.  Others needed to watch it demonstrated on the court.  Still others had to learn by doing; that is, walk through the play on the court in order to learn it.  We’d use each method.

I don’t want you to have to walk through a disciplinary investigation in order to learn what a conflict of interest is.  However, to help you avoid conflicts, I’m not going to make you read a blog clogged with cites to Rules 1.7, 1.81.9, and 1.10.  For all I know, that wouldn’t help anyone learn anything.  Instead, I’m going to try a visual.  And that’s where “Tug of War” comes in.

Unfortunately, this is the best visual I could find.

Tug of War

Most of you should be familiar with the rules of Tug of War.  If not, look at the picture.

There are 3 white lines in the dirt.

  • Line 1 is at the feet of the guy who is at the front of the team that is closest to us.
  • Line 2 is in the middle.  The ref is standing on it.
  • Line 3 is at the feet of the team farthest from us.

There’s piece of red tape in the middle of the rope.  At the start of the match, the piece of red tape is positioned over Line 2.  The team that pulls the piece of red tape over Line 1 or Line 3 wins.

Turning to conflicts, as a lawyer, you’re the piece of red tape.  (No pun intended).

Now, let’s pretend the team at the top of the picture is your client.  If there is nobody down here at the bottom pulling you towards Line 1, it’s likely that you’re conflict-free.

But, picture this: someone or something is tugging you towards Line 1.  Who or what? Could be anything.  For purposes of this blog, I want you to imagine that the tug is a duty that you owe to someone other than your client (the team at the top of the picture). For instance:

  • duties to another client;
  • duties to a former client;
  • duties to a third person; or,
  • a personal interest of yours

That tug – someone or something pulling you away from your client – probably has interests that conflict with your client’s.  Stated differently, do the interests of the two teams in the picture align? No, they don’t.  They conflict.

Your client isn’t required to tug you towards Line 3.  Rather, your client is entitled to representation free of any conflicting interests tugging you towards Line 1.

Feeling tugged?  You might have a conflict.  You’ll need to consider whether to decline representation or, if representation has commenced, whether to withdraw.

Oh, “Texas” was a damn good play.





2 thoughts on “Confused by Conflicts? Think “Tug of War”

  1. First comment came via text from a non-lawyer former men’s league teammate: “swing it to 3 for an open 3!!” I love that he recognized spacing & ball reversal. And now he’ll know if & when his lawyer has a conflict.


  2. Like the play, the conflict scenarios are complex and involve relations back…and forward “Swing..switch….” yeah.

    It would be helpful if an expert like Mike presented all the conflict scenarios under the rules in one outline. It’s really difficult and just trying to organize the client attorney relations and the rules makes my head hurt. And that’s before I can even apply the rule.


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