Sabey v. City of Pomona is a strange case with a good heart. The City had hired a partner from a law firm to provide representation in an advisory (non-binding) employment arbitration proceeding. The City had previously hired a different partner in the same firm to act as chief labor negotiator.
The arbitration did not go as planned, with the award confirming most of the facts adverse to the employee but recommending suspension instead of termination. In evaluating whether to accept the advisory award, the City consulted with their chief labor negotiator, who recommended that the City reject the decision and terminate the employee.
The Court of Appeals concluded that the potential bias of the chief labor negotiator in favor of the work done by his partner in the arbitration tainted the advice. Because of this potential bias, the court concluded that an outside law firm cannot provide advocacy efforts to a governmental agency and then provide advice on those same advocacy efforts because the outside law firm has an interest in promoting itself and in increasing its profitability. The result of the case was to require the City to reconsider its decision with respect to the arbitration award after receiving independent legal counsel.
In a time when all levels of government are experiencing fiscal difficulties, if not crises, a decision that forces the retention of multiple attorneys seems absurd. While all private lawyers have financial self-interest, they all have a stronger fiduciary duty to their clients. One partner should not risk a breach of this duty when asked by a client about the performance of another attorney in the firm. If a breach occurs, then there are remedies available to the client that should suffice to eliminate this type of paternalistic opinion that requires the needless multiplication of legal fees.