At Legal Ethics Blog, Professor Andrew Perlman posts a hypothetical:

I was recently a panelist at the Association of Corporate Counsel’s annual conference, and someone in the audience posed an interesting hypothetical.

Imagine that in-house counsel is conducting an internal investigation and speaks with an employee whose conduct may have been unlawful. 

Let me interrupt to point out that the above hypothetical is one of the classical examples used to teach professional responsibility to law students. Employees are frequently confused about the role of the company’s lawyers in internal investigations, and frequently do not understand that the lawyer there represents solely the company and not the employees themselves. The context of these interviews — typically involving nothing more than the lawyer coming into the employee’s workplace — heightens the likelihood of confusion.

As such, corporate lawyers are under a duty (under Model Rule 1.13(f)) to explain the distinction whenever they deal with directors, officers, employees, members, shareholders or other corporate constituents.

But Perlman’s hypothetical is a bit different:

The employee does not have her own counsel, so the in-house lawyer makes clear to the employee that the lawyer represents the company and not the employee herself. So far, so good.

But now let’s imagine that the employee is reluctant to speak with the lawyer. The lawyer then says to the employee, "You are subject to the company’s employment policies, which require you to speak with me about this matter."

Several audience members were convinced that such a statement was both commonplace and ethically permissible. It was my position that such a statement, which appears to be giving legal advice to an unrepresented (and potentially adverse) party regarding her obligations under the employment policy, could be unethical under Rule 4.3. What do you think?

Here’s the whole text of Rule 4.3:

In dealing on behalf of a client with a person who is not represented by counsel, a lawyer shall not state or imply that the lawyer is disinterested. When the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the unrepresented person misunderstands the lawyer’s role in the matter, the lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to correct the misunderstanding. The lawyer shall not give legal advice to an unrepresented person, other than the advice to secure counsel, if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the interests of such a person are or have a reasonable possibility of being in conflict with the interests of the client.

It’s an interesting question. As I responded in the comments [with minor edits here], I think it comes down to context. If the context has made it clear to the employee that the employee’s interests are, or could be adverse, then there is not much problem in the lawyer advancing the views of the company, since the concern about "misunderstanding" expressed by the rule is inapplicable.

If, however, the impression created is one of a neutral investigator, then it seems to be legal advice given to an adverse unrepresented party.

The precise wording also creates a problem for the attorney, because they did not merely assert that the company could do if the employee did not cooperate (e.g., terminate and/or sue them), but instead outright told the employee what their legal obligations were under the employment agreement. That’s the essence of legal advice.