Williams & Connolly faces a motion to disqualify the firm from a civil lawsuit in Washington federal court involving the son of partner Brendan Sullivan Jr.
The firm represents Brendan Sullivan III against Sullivan's former business partner, Robert Elwood. Late last week, Elwood filed a motion to disqualify, arguing the firm and several individual lawyers-the elder Sullivan included-had done too much work in the past for the business at issue to ethically litigate the dispute.
The younger Sullivan and Elwood were longtime friends who for years worked together running sports-related youth programs through a business known as Headfirst, according to the complaint the younger Sullivan filed in April. Over the years, according to Elwood, Williams & Connolly served as general counsel for Headfirst, and the elder Sullivan and firm partner Stephen Sorensen provided personal and business-related legal advice.
In the lawsuit, the younger Sullivan accused Elwood of stealing from Headfirst and interfering with the business after being fired. Elwood filed counterclaims accusing Sullivan of kicking him out of the business to avoid sharing profits and because Elwood raised concerns about how Sullivan was handling taxes and managing relationships with schools that worked with Headfirst.
On July 19, Elwood, represented by a team from Venable, moved to disqualify Williams & Connolly from the case. Elwood argued that the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct barred the firm from representing Sullivan because of its previous representation of Headfirst as well as Elwood and Sullivan individually.
"We believe the motion is required to protect the Elwoods’ interests and the fairness of the process, and are disappointed by its necessity and saddened by this lawsuit involving the break up of the near life-long friendship of Mr. Elwood and Brendan Sullivan III," Venable's J. Douglas Baldridge said in an email.
Sullivan's attorney, Williams & Connolly partner Michael Sundermeyer, could not be reached for comment. Neither could the elder Sullivan or Sorensen.
Elwood argued Williams & Connolly's participation was barred by three rules of professional conduct. First, under a rule prohibiting lawyers from representing one client against another, Elwood argued that both he and Sullivan, as partners in the Headfirst business, were firm clients because of the firm's work for Headfirst. Elwood said that although Sullivan would deny Elwood's claim that he was a partner, that was a question to be decided later in the case and that, in the meantime, the court had to assume that either side could be correct.
Second, Elwood cited a rule barring a lawyer from suing a former client if the dispute is related to a matter the lawyer handled for the ex-client. Elwood argued that firm attorneys advised him over the years on his role in the Headfirst business.
Finally, Elwood pointed to a rule that a lawyer couldn’t represent a client if another lawyer from the same firm would have to testify against the client. Elwood said Sorensen and the elder Sullivan would be called to the stand and that their "truthful testimony" would support Elwood's claims.
"If one of Sorensen’s [Williams & Connolly] colleagues were to try this case, he or she would be placed in the position of either having to impeach Sorensen and Sullivan Jr. as W&C partners in order to advocate for Plaintiffs, or defending the credibility of their partners at the cost of zealously representing their clients," Elwood's brief argued.
The case is before U.S. District Senior Judge Thomas Hogan. An initial scheduling conference is scheduled for September 16.