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When an attorney is considering handling a case, and receives off-the-record threats against his(/her) life, property, family, professional future, etc., is it ethical for the attorney to simply tell the prospective client that (s/)he has a conflict of interest of a confidential nature and can't take the case or explain any further details? After all, the attorney does have a conflict of interest in wishing to sustain what is threatened.

Suppose that the attorney though the client had a good case prior to the threats about what would happen to any attorney representing that client (e.g. from the opposing party or allies thereof).

Suppose also that the threats are made off the record and are quite convincing to the attorney, but the attorney cannot provide or publicize evidence proving the threats (and/or that the person making them is powerful enough that nobody would believe or act on such claims anyway).

Atticus Finch comes to mind but is a fictional role model and may or may not have any direct bearing on modern professional codes of legal ethics.

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Rule 1.7(a) of the the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which are generally applicable in almost every state, says:

A concurrent conflict of interest exists if ... there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited ... by a personal interest of the lawyer.

So from there, the question becomes whether the threat will "materially limit" the attorney's ability to represent the client, meaning that it effectively "forecloses alternatives that would otherwise be available to the client" because of the attorney's inability to "to consider, recommend or carry out an appropriate course of action."

This test is generally applied objectively, meaning that the question is whether the reasonable lawyer would be so limited. Therefore, it may not matter if you had an attorney who was willing to literally die for your case or would really prefer that you killed his wife. He would still face a conflict of interest.

Keep in mind, though, that a conflict of interest is not necessarily disqualifying; there are procedures by which a conflicted attorney may continue the representation.

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