Things I don’t understand… Atrium LLP

You may, by now, have read an article or two about the launch of a “technology-focused law firm” by the name of Atrium LLP.  Its headquarters are in California.  Having now read several articles about it – and how it has come to be and how it will operate – I simply don’t understand it.

I get what a technology-focused law firm might be, of course.  What I don’t get is how in the world any of the lawyers involved with the venture can think that they can do this and comply with the ethics rules.

I kept reading more and more about it to figure out what I was missing that would not cause this arrangement to be a violation of the rules prohibiting sharing of fees with nonlawyers and prohibiting investment by non-lawyers in law firms.  I could still be missing the explanation, but I haven’t found it yet.

Here – through a series of snippets – is the situation as it has been reported.

Let’s start with information from an ABA Journal article as a base:

With $10.5 million, serial entrepreneur Justin Kan is about to take on Big Law….Atrium LLP will compliment, but is separate from, Atrium Legal Technology Services, also operated by Kan. Atrium LTS will develop the technologies and processes that automate repetitive tasks and manage the firm’s operations….While Kan is not an attorney, the firm’s founding partners are. Augie Rakow is a former partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, while Bebe Chueh is an attorney and founded AttorneyFee.com, which sold to LegalZoom in 2014. The other co-founder and Atrium LTS chief technology officer, Chris Smoak, is a serial entrepreneur and software engineer. Kan is the founder of live-streaming sites Justin.tv and Twitch.tv, selling the latter to Amazon for nearly $1 billion in 2014.

[snip]

While separate entities, the financial relationship between Atrium LTS and Atrium LLP is inextricable. Atrium LTS provided the firm a loan to cover all startup costs, and Atrium attorneys are being paid through options in Atrium LTS or a salary for advising the technology company.

[snip]

In June, Atrium LTS closed a Series A funding round worth $10.5 million, which was led by General Catalyst, a venture capital firm focused on early stage investments.

Let’s sprinkle in a few more salient details from Bob Ambrogi’s interview and post with affiliated folks at his Law Sites blog:

What is launching today is a law firm, Atrium LLP, that is separate and apart from Kan’s technology company Atrium LTS, but that is symbiotically connected to it. Atrium’s lawyers will focus exclusively on practicing law, while Atrium LTS (the LTS is for Legal Technology Services) will handle all operations for the firm, even including marketing, and develop and operate software to streamline the firm’s workflows.

[snip]

Atrium LTS is paying all the start-up costs for the law firm, structured as a loan. Atrium attorneys receive stock or options in Atrium LTS and some receive salaries from Atrium LTS for serving as advisors.

Now, a bit more from the Atrium website itself:

To solve this, Augie teamed up with successful lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Bebe Chueh to found Atrium, a technology-first law firm. They partnered with Justin and Chris Smoak to also create Legal Technology Services, a legal technology company with a world-class engineering team to build tools for that firm.

Strikingly absent from anything I have been able to find and read about the rollout of Atrium is how it isn’t just outright flouting California’s ethics rules that prohibit non-lawyer ownership in law firms and that prohibit people who aren’t lawyers from being partners in a law firms.  Although California does not yet have rules tracking the Model Rules in many areas (so they don’t for example have all of the provisions of ABA Model Rule 5.4), it does have Rule 1-310 that pretty much tracks Model Rule 5.4(b).

Rule 1-310 Forming a partnership With a Non-Lawyer

A member shall not form a partnership with a person who is not a lawyer if any of the activities of that partnership consist of the practice of law.

Discussion:

Rule 1-310 is not intended to govern members’ activities which cannot be considered to constitute the practice of law. It is intended solely to preclude a member from being involved in the practice of law with a person who is not a lawyer.

It also has a rule that imposes other restrictions on sharing fees with nonlawyers, Rule 1-320

Now, I noticed from one of the articles the idea that Atrium LTS (the tech company) is only “loaning” the start up costs to Atrium.  I mean there are lots of places where that concept seems vulnerable to analysis, but throw in the point that the way the attorneys for the Atrium law firm are getting paid is either stock or stock options in Atrium the tech company or salaries paid by Atrium the tech company for being advisors to the tech company and … just … come on. That really doesn’t pass any laugh test.  Does it?

So, really, what am I missing about this?  Assume the things being done by Atrium the tech company as part of launching Atrium the law firm were being done by an actual bank, wouldn’t everyone immediately recognize that the lawyers involved were violating the ethics rules?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge believer in the benefits of moving away from the billable hour and innovation in the delivery of legal services and embracing technology, but the Atrium model sounds very much like something that can only be done in California (or just about any other U.S. jurisdiction besides D.C.) if, first, the ethics rules are revised to permit it.

Is this just an effort by an entity with lots of resources to do it and dare someone to stop them?

A patchwork post for your Friday

Today’s content will be an original recipe of (1) part shameless self-promotion; (2) two parts serious recommendations to read the writings of others; and (3) pop culture recommendations for your downtime this weekend.

First, the shameless.  I am pleased to announce the plan for this year’s Ethics Roadshow.  Here’s the promotional piece you will soon see making the rounds to explain this year’s endeavor.

This is the 13th year that Brian Faughnan is performing the Ethics Roadshow for the TBA, but that is NOT actually the reason for the “13 Reasons Why” title.  This year’s program “Ethics Roadshow 2017 The Mixtape:  Thirteen Reasons Why Ethics Issues are More Complicated Than Ever.” is so-titled because of the presenter’s slavish devotion to being influenced by pop culture.

This past year, a highly controversial show largely about teen suicide and its consequences aired on Netflix.  “13 Reasons Why,” was based on a much less controversial book but the series was heavily criticized for – among other things – violating the “rules” in the world of television for how (and how not) suicide is to be depicted.  Questions, of course, exist about whether such rules are outdated in a day and age when it is as easy as surfing the Web for someone, even a teenager, to find such information.

Questions also exist in modern law practice about whether certain ethics rules are outdated, and we will spend some time talking about that issue and related topics.  We will also discuss the problems with substance abuse, stress, and mental health issues that plague our profession and put our members at risk of self-harm at rates much higher than the general population and other professions.)  The outdated technology of audiotape also plays a significant role in the Netflix series.  (It is also making something of a comeback in the music industry.)  We will spend time talking about the ethical obligations of lawyers when it comes to use of technology and whether some of those obligations and the risks of modern technology might create an incentive for lawyers to make use of some outdated technology in the future as a way of better protecting client information.

And, we will cover it all in a format that had its heyday when cassette tapes were king – the “mixtape.”  Your presenter will curate the order of topics for you with any eye toward your three-hour listening experience.

If you are a Tennessee lawyer (or a lawyer who practices in a nearby state) interested in attending, all of the stops will take place in December 2017 and you can find them and register for them at these links: Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. You can also register for video broadcasts of the program in Jackson and Johnson City.

In terms of reading recommendations, go check out yesterday’s post from Karen Rubin over at The Law for Lawyers Today on a follow up to an issue I’ve written about – the problems with protecting client confidentiality in a world in which border agents are demanding access to electronic devices and their contents.  Karen writes about a lawsuit filed by an organization near and dear to me that is challenging the practice.  Also go check out the latest blogpost from Avvo’s General Counsel, Josh King, about the intersection of First Amendment issues and the issuance of ethics opinions.  While I don’t know the details of the discussion at a New York event he references, I do know some of the players that were there and I can’t help but wonder if what Josh is interpreting as a bad take on the issue of constitutional challenges and certain concepts being settled actually stems from a more fundamental disagreement about whether saying lawyers cannot pay referral fees to non-lawyers is actually a restriction on commercial speech at all.  If not, then it doesn’t require intermediate scrutiny in terms of any First Amendment challenge but is merely reviewed on a rational review basis.  And, I’m guessing the point someone was trying to make was that others have tried and readily failed to say that states don’t have a sufficient interest in regulating the practice of law to prevent letting lawyers pay non-lawyers for making referrals.

Finally, recommendations for a more pleasurable way to spend your weekend. If you happen to have Netflix, I actually do (albeit sheepishly) recommend checking out the 13 Reasons Why series.  Less sheepishly, as to the efforts to bring the mixtape concept back, I wholeheartedly recommend exploring some of the online mixtapes that Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton has curated.  You can grab one of them at this link.

“DoNotPay” Becomes HelpYouSue

I had another idea for a blogpost in mind at this stage of the week, but between travel and this story, this was the thing that had to be acknowledged today.  Yesterday’s big technology news for lawyers (sort of lost in the Apple event revealing a brand new version of what will likely become Ted Cruz’s new favorite device for viewing images he likes) is this story.

I’ve written a little bit in the past about the leading chatbot – DoNotPay.  This story  at The Washington Post details what will (I’m guessing) be something of a watershed moment in the development of the functionality of chatbots and what they can, and truly will, mean for lawyering in the near future.

In the wake of the Equifax data breach, the makers of DoNotPay launched a chatbot yesterday to allow people with just a few simple clicks to file suit in the small claims court in their home jurisdiction against Equifax over the data breach.

I usually like to think that I can add my own profound insight on an issue to make it worth reading over and above the underlying story.  Today though I’m going to primarily just point readers to the source material and then ask you to allow your own minds to ponder the possibilities this raises.  The Washington Post story was written at a time when the chatbot would only be available for suits in California and New York, but it was quickly modified to render availability nationwide, as explained in this Yahoo! article.

Once you’ve done that, check back in with me for just a moment or two.  I’ll wait right here.

Ok.  First, undoubtedly a lot of the people that will use this chatbot to file this suit would otherwise never take on this kind of matter at all.  For many others, if they pursued it at all, they wouldn’t ever hire a lawyer and would try to handle it themselves .  To that end, this is a net win in terms of access to justice (at least for everyone except Equifax).  (To the extent that these kinds of cases might get resolved before any class action suits that have already been filed and will be filed, they certainly might not be a net win for such class action lawyers.)

Second, the continuing development of chatbots in this direction will still leave plenty of work for lawyers (and create some work for lawyers that might not otherwise exist) – and not just in the form of lawyers who, for example, will show up to represent Equifax in thousands of small claims suits.

Part of this is because of the inherent differences that still exist from jurisdiction to jurisdiction over access to and proceedings in small claims court.

As one example, here in Tennessee our civil small claims court is called General Sessions Court.  There are a number of ways that it works differently from the general features described in the articles as to other states small claims courts.  We have a jurisdictional limit of under $25,000.  In our general sessions courts, you certainly are entitled to have a lawyer represent you in that court and, in fact, if you are a corporate or business entity of any kind seeking to pursue suit or defend suit, you have to be represented by an attorney.  Further, both parties to a general sessions judgment (even the prevailing party) have an absolute right to appeal the outcome and, if they do, it goes up to our regular state trial level court for de novo proceedings.  Thus, in a way, nothing that happens in our General Sessions court matters unless everyone involved agrees it mattered.

In addition to simply demonstrating how fast things are moving on these fronts, this evolution of the use of the DoNotPay bot also adds another wrinkle about how an attorney could at some point co-opt such technologies in situations where they may have a potential client with a looming timing issue in the form of a statute of limitations about to expire.  Specifically, it is not difficult to imagine a near future in which this kind of chatbot could permit the filing of suits involving other issues where a lawyer could point a brand new client -with a time sensitive matter- toward such a chatbot to get a suit filed before a statute expires and then come in, take over, and amend pleadings once the lawyer has more time to get involved.

A rare example of the perfect application of RPC 8.4(c)

I’ve written in the past about issues associated with RPC 8.4(c) and how its potential application to any act of dishonesty on the part of a lawyer — no matter how trivial or unrelated to the practice of law it might be — makes it a problematic ethics rule.  A disciplinary proceeding presently being pursued against an Illinois lawyer offers an example of a situation to which RPC 8.4(c) applies perfectly.

The Illinois lawyer has been in the news within the last few weeks for the repercussions of his harassment of a fellow Illinois lawyer.  The primary focus of the media coverage has been on the creation of a fake Match.com profile for the purpose of embarrassing and disparaging a female lawyer.  It was that conduct that got the lawyer — Drew Quitschau — fired from the law firm in Illinois where he had been a partner since 2012.  A Law.com story dipped its toe into the waters of some of the other online misconduct involved, mentioning that he signed the other lawyer up for a membership in the Obesity Action Coalition and in Pig International..  The ABA Journal story was a bit more comprehensive in identifying the multiple membership or subscription organizations involved in Quitschau’s abuse which also included registrations/unwanted signups for Diabetic Living and Auto Trader.

But, the full picture of the extent of Quitschau’s attack occurring from June 2016 to December 2016 is best taken in through a read of the petition for discipline filed against him last month by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.  There also were other acts of deception and fraudulent online activity that went beyond personal attacks into professional attacks as well.

The petition explains that Quitschau created a false negative review of the female lawyer on each of www.martindale.com and www.lawyers.com, and created a false Facebook account for the sole purpose of then using that persona to post a negative review of the female lawyer’s law firm.

Based on the timing of events, it appears to be efforts at professional harm was what Quitschau first tried against the female lawyer and only thereafter did he move on to harassment that was purely personal in nature.  That conduct isn’t “worse” in any true sense of the word as the other purely personal attacks are pretty vile, but the expanded activity that focused the deception and harassment on the female lawyer’s own reputation as a lawyer certainly comes closer to being conduct that might actually also be prosecuted as violations of other ethics rules and not just RPC 8.4(c) because the female lawyer and Quitschau had been opposing counsel in seven matters during an 8-month stretch of time during his course of conduct.  .

If the Illinois board could prove any connection between this conduct and Quitschau’s representation of any of those clients, then a rule like RPC 4.4(a) — which declares that “[i]n representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person, or use methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of such a person” — could also come into play.

Regardless, the ability to pursue inexcusable conduct of the sort Mr. Quitschau undertook should be universally agreed to be a fitting use of RPC 8.4(c).

A three-part discussion of LA County Bar Op. 528

Though news to me much more recently, the LA County Bar Ass’n Prof’l Responsibility and Ethics Committee issued an  interesting ethics opinion back in April on a wrinkle that can arise in the tripartite relationship created in insurance defense situations.  You can read the whole thing here, but its summary is pretty to-the-point:

When an attorney engaged by an insurance carrier to defend the interests of an insured obtains information that could provide a basis for the insurance carrier to deny coverage, the attorney is ethically prohibited from disclosing that information to the insurance carrier.  In such a situation, the attorney must withdraw from the representation.

In honor of it being an opinion that hinges on California’s approach to the tripartite relationship, I want to divide this post into a three-part discussion of it.

Part the first: it certainly appears to get the answer right from a California perspective.  The answers appear clear and correct given California’s approach to the question of who is/are the client(s) when an attorney is retained by an insurance company to represent an insured.  While all jurisdictions have reached agreement on using the term “tripartite relationship,” to describe insurance defense arrangements, California is a jurisdiction that treats it as truly being one in which the lawyer involved has two clients, both the insured and the insurance company, and the duties to each are “equal and potentially competing.”  Working from that premise, then the particular scenario confronted in the opinion is certainly one that causes the ultimate result — the lawyer  being prohibited from telling one client the important information learned about the other client’s situation can no longer represent either client and has to move to withdraw.  Though the specific scenario is presented in a way that raises some immediate questions given that it involves the existence of a document and its authentication through a request for admission.  For example, does the opinion just assume both authenticity and that the insured would tell the lawyer not to let the insurer know?

Part the second:  While that is the correct result given California’s approach to the “who is the client?” issue, the outcome is more revealing for serving to demonstrate the folly of the approach California follows.  In Tennessee, for example, the tripartite situation exists but the lawyer only has one client, the insured.  The insurance company hiring the lawyer to defend the insured is not a client of the lawyer.  There are, of course, still thorny ethical issues that can arise (see below) but at least in the scenario in question, the lawyer’s path forward is both clear and one that permits continued representation of the lawyer’s only client and a focused effort to try to use the document to establish the statute of limitations defense.

Part the third:  On the California side of things, what in the world happens next in the scenario to keep things from just playing out the same way all over again?  Because the withdrawing lawyer will not be in a position to tell the insurance company the reason for the withdrawal, the whole scenario is likely to simply repeat itself when the insurance company retains a new lawyer to represent the insured.  That lawyer will eventually learn of the same information – be prohibited from disclosing to the insurance company — and then lather, rinse, and repeat.  Or, at least, that’s how it will go unless either the lawyer shirks the duty of disclosure to the insurance company or the insurance company figures out what is going on that is causing the withdrawals and goes ahead and makes a definitive coverage decision.  Either way, it is a particular example that paints a much more favorable picture of approaches to this relationship structure in which the lawyer’s only client is the insured.

(In fairness, the particular scenario examined in the opinion could be pretty readily spun out just a bit further to demonstrate how no system for this would be perfect by exploring what would happen if the the insured was trying to demand that the lawyer attempt to settle the case for the insured without disclosing to the insurer that the reason for seeking settlement prior to having to respond to the request for admission was to avoid defeating coverage.)

A kind note from a satisfied client

Since I’m seeing quite a few of these notes from satisfied clients on LinkedIn, Facebook, and other places in various formats, it seems like a good time to share a touching one I received recently.

Brian,

Thank you very much for the really great work and the successful outcome.  I really appreciate you and all that you do.  I’m sure I don’t even need to say this, but I’m certainly hopeful that you have the common sense not to try to publicly share my kind, private remarks to you about my case on any social media or anywhere else.  I figure you probably know not to do this without my consent because … well, you have that obligation of client confidentiality under RPC 1.6 and posting this as some sort of “atta-boy pat-on-the-back” which is really just a kind-of-but-not-really-all-that-subtle effort at marketing and touting your excellent work and client satisfaction certainly isn’t something that would be impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation.

Plus, if you did that, it would be just kind of … I don’t know … crass (gauche?).  The mere act of sharing it to crow is one thing I guess, but then the way social media works you’re just crying out for people to comment and say, yeah you’re great and your clients are lucky to have you, or to “like” it and provide you further validation which certainly wasn’t why I sent you this kind note.   And even if the reason I’m so excited and grateful about your work is that the matter is over and now I’m just a former client, you still have confidentiality obligations to me under RPC 1.9 and if this had become generally known as would be necessary at that point, then you probably don’t need to do this because if you are going to get accolades they would come more naturally (right?), so, I mean, again.  How about you just not with the sharing this?

I mean I guess you could try to strip down any information anyone might use from my message to you to be able to figure out who I am or what the matter was, (because remember the Comment to RPC 1.6 talks about how even disclosures that don’t directly disclose confidential information are prohibited if the disclosures “could reasonably lead to the discovery of such information by a thid person”) but once you’ve done that it truly becomes so impersonal that it doesn’t really have the impact you were hoping for, and depending on the format you use, it might even look like you’ve maybe just made the whole thing up.

And, if you don’t do something like that, then you really are placing my confidentiality rights at risk because maybe you did remove everything you needed to in order to protect anyone in your network or circle of connections from being able to figure out who it was that would have sent this, but maybe you didn’t.  If you didn’t, I’m potentially not going to be very happy about that.  Plus, you might in your introductory paragraph of your social meda “update” say something about time and place or circumstances that actually does — combined with this note — let the cat out of the bag.

So, anyway, thanks for getting me that extension of time.  Sorry for being such a scold.

[name redacted]

These are the kind of messages that make being a lawyer worth it all.

Happy Friday!

On second thought, “this” is the least discussed ethics rule.

Many moons ago (look at me and my topical thinly-veiled 8/21/17 Eclipse reference), I wrote a post about Model Rule 2.1 being perhaps the least discussed ethics rule and why maybe it shouldn’t be.  But, a recent news item about a relatively humdrum topic, a relatively large multi-state law firm (Husch Blackwell) announcing that it has named a new CEO who is not lawyer, got me thinking about another ethics rule that much more likely is, hands-down, the least discussed ethics rule.  That rule is Model Rule 5.4(b)(2).  Unlike Rule 2.1 though, Rule 5.4(b)(2) is deservedly never made the subject of discussion because if it were paid attention to, then one of two things would be true.  Either it is an essentially meaningless rule or it’s a rule that tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of lawyers throughout the U.S. violated by showing up to work today.

You probably might have some trouble thinking what the rule in question says so I’ll help you out.  It’s this one:

(d)  A lawyer shall not practice with or in the form of a professional corporation or association authorized to practice law for a profit, if:

(2) a nonlawyer is a corporate director or officer thereof or occupies the position of similar responsibility in any form of association other than a corporation.

We have this same language in Tennessee in our RPC 5.4(d)(2) and, odds are, you do too in whatever state where you happen to be reading this.  Now, if your law firm is organized as a corporation, then no worries under any circumstances because the “other than a corporation” language at the end there makes it clear that a corporation can have a nonlawyer in an officer position.

If you practice law in a firm that is organized as a professional limited liability company, or a limited liability partnership (for the record, Husch Blackwell happens to be an LLP) or some such similar entity, and you have someone – not a lawyer – in a position like a Chief Marketing Officer, or a Chief Financial Officer, or a Chief Operating Officer, or a CEO, then … well the existence of this rule is unfortunate, unless it can be said that none of those entities qualifies as a “form of association.”

If they don’t qualify, then what exactly is the purpose of this rule?  Why should only lawyers practicing in an “association of attorneys,” but not organized in one of these other formal business entity forms be prohibited from having a nonlawyer be an officer?

If such limited liability entities do qualify as associations under the rule, then what exactly is the reason for still having this rule on the books anywhere?  Particularly given that 5.4(d)(3) already effectively prohibits the actual harm by prohibiting practicing even in a firm that is a corporation if “a nonlawyer has the right to direct or control the professional judgment of a lawyer.”

There are a significant number of firms these days that have someone who isn’t a lawyer serving in one of those roles managerial roles as an officer, and I’m certainly not aware of any instances of any bar regulator seeking discipline against lawyers practicing with those firms on that basis.  (For what it is worth the ABA’s Annotated Model Rules of Professional Conduct that I have handy [Sixth Edition] declares that “Rule 5.4(d) prohibits a lawyer from practicing in any for-profit entity in which a nonlawyer has an ownership interest, a position of responsibility, or a right to direct the lawyer’s professional judgment.”)

So, like I said, probably for the best that this is the least discussed rule.

More fuel for the advertising rule reform fire.

So, I’m getting a very wonderful opportunity to participate in a debate about lawyer advertising in November in Nashville at The Advocates’ Society annual meeting.  A throng of lovely Canadian attorneys will be traveling to our state capital for a two-day meeting.

I say all of this for two reasons:

Reason the first – today I had the chance to meet the other folks involved (albeit by telephone) to generally lay out what we might talk about.  It was a fascinating experience leaving me with the impression that just as our neighbors to the north were about 15 years behind us in allowing lawyers to advertise, they are still about 15 years behind us on the “what to do about the scourge of lawyer advertising timeline?”

In Canada, particularly Ontario, rules revisions have been recently adopted to impose more regulations on lawyer advertising with worries aimed at things like advertising second opinion services, and undignified locations or contents of advertisements including awards received, and whether lawyers can advertise for cases where they plan to then refer the matter out because they aren’t licensed in the jurisdiction or not capable of handling the matter.

Here in the United States though, the trend is hopefully now moving toward relaxing the marginalia of the restrictions and to streamlining regulations to simply, but strongly, prohibit actually false and misleading advertisements.

Reason the second — not everywhere in the United States is that necessarily the trend.  I was reminded of that fact when reading about this lawsuit filed in Utah over an application of Utah’s approach to prohibiting celebrity endorsements of a lawyer or law firm.  You can read the lawsuit filed by the firm, coincidentally doing business as “The Advocates,” here.

The short version of the story, laid out with a level of incredible politeness that would make even a Canadian law firm proud, is set out in the “Nature of the Action” paragraph of the lawsuit:

Plaintiffs advertise their legal services by way of live and sometimes pre-recorded interviews including statements of lawyers of the firm, radio personalities and others occurring and read during the course of regular programming of certain radio broadcasts, and during regular programming breaks (collectively, “Live Ads”).  Based on obiter dicta contained in an opinion issued November 12, 2014 by the Utah Bar’s Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee, the Utah Bar Office of Professional Conduct (“OPC”) has interpreted and applied Rule 7.2 of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct to proscribe Plaintiffs’ Live Ads.  With respect and gratitude for the Utah Bar and its Commissioners’ service to the members of the Bar, and with deference to their discretion, Plaintiffs courteously bring this Complaint seeking this Court’s interpretation and declaration of the parties’ rights and obligations under the First Amendment’s protection of commercial speech and other implicated constitutional protections.  Plaintiffs fully intend to abide by the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct as well as the high ethical standards they have set for themselves.  While they believe that their Live Ads at issue in this Complaint are protected speech and fall within the Rules, Plaintiffs will yield to the courts’ final decision, regardless of the outcome.

Setting aside the general silliness of being worried that modern consumers will somehow be tricked by a celebrity endorsement in a lawyer advertisement, and setting aside the additional general silliness that such a concept would extend to radio hosts/DJs reading live advertisements of lawyers and law firms, the whole genesis of Utah’s position that a celebrity endorsement is prohibited by the ethics rules is a pretty interesting example of writers of an ethics opinion losing the plot.

The lawsuit doesn’t explicitly say it, but Utah RPC 7.2 does not contain any direct prohibition on a celebrity endorsement.  The closest that rule would get to such a result is either to misread and expand subsection (b) of its rule which declares:

(b) If the advertisement uses any actors to portray a lawyer, members of the law firm, or clients or utilizes depictions of fictionalized events or scenes, the same must be disclosed.

or to conclude that subsection (f) of the rule doesn’t permit paying a celebrity as being a reasonable expense of an advertisement.

What the lawsuit does explain is that the notion that Utah Rule 7.2 prohibits a celebrity endorsement in an advertisement only comes about because a total non-sequitur was thrown into a Utah ethics opinion that was issued to address the question: “What are the ethical limits to participating in attorney rating systems, especially those that identify ‘the Best Lawyer’ or ‘Super Lawyer’?”

You can go read Utah Bar Ethics Advisory Committee Opinion 14-04 for yourself here, but it truly does bizarrely just add a last sentence in an otherwise unrelated paragraph that says “a lawyer who pays a celebrity or public figure to recommend the lawyer violates Rule 7.2.”  That foray down a rabbit trail actually drew a dissent from a member of that committee to the ethics opinion which is itself not something you see every day.

Efforts to restrict lawyer ads really do cloud the minds of otherwise reasonable and intelligent folks.

Does Avvo provide a bona fide lawyer rating?

A number of folks have already written about how New York has dealt another setback for Avvo Legal Services in the form of NY State Bar Ethics Op. 1132 which found that New York lawyers could not participate in Avvo Legal Services because payment of Avvo’s marketing fee amounts to payment for recommendation of services in violation of New York’s Rule 7.2(a).

You can read the full opinion here.  You can read some other pieces elaborating on the opinion here, here, and here.

The opinion is notable not just for its potential influence and the number of lawyers it impacts but because it is the first opinion weighing in on Avvo Legal Services that explicitly ties together the rating service that Avvo provides and has long provided with the Avvo Legal Services platform that has more recently come to pass.

In doing so, the New York opinion went ahead and analyzed the Rule 7.2(a) question assuming that Avvo’s lawyer ratings were bona fide ratings.  It made the point that, if they were not, then other issues would arise regarding lawyer participation with Avvo and lawyer touting of ratings issued by Avvo but went ahead and assumed they were bona fide.

I want to spend just a moment to tackle that assumption and offer my own opinion on the subject.  Are Avvo’s lawyer ratings bona fide?  No.  Of course they are not bona fide.  They are not bona fide because your only hope of having a high rating is to work with them and cooperate with them.

My basis for having this opinion is not solely about on my own experience.  But, an examination of my own rating with Avvo is an admittedly good place to start explaining my opinion.

I have never “claimed” my Avvo profile nor contributed any information to Avvo to assist in building the profile they have put together on their own for me.  (Interestingly, a few times after I have written posts here about problems with Avvo Legal Services I have gotten multiple, repeated calls from Avvo trying to assist me in improving/completing my profile and offering how to claim my profile.)  When you go search me up on Avvo you will see that they have afforded me a 6.7 rating out of 10.

Now, admittedly all lawyers are egotistical and none of us are truly capable of objectively evaluating are own worth, but …  You can probably say many negative things about me but I don’t think you can say I’m a 6.7 out of 10 when it comes to being a lawyer.

I’ve been listed in Best Lawyers in America every year since 2009.  In 2017, Best Lawyers listed me as its Appellate Lawyer of the Year in Memphis.  I’ve been listed as a “Super Lawyer” by Mid South Super Lawyers since 2011 and for two out of three years before that (2008 & 2010) I was listed by that publication as a “Rising Star.”  I have been AV rated by Martindale Hubbell since at least as early as 2010.  (It’s rating of me is 4.7 on a scale of 5).

All of that information is readily, publicly available and could be gathered and evaluated by Avvo without any input from me and without any need for me to confirm or claim my profile.  But I haven’t claimed my profile and, they’ve pegged me as a 6.7 out of 10.

Just to make clear that my opinion on this isn’t solely based on my own personal experience/situation.  Let me offer a few more examples that are impossible to reconcile with the concept of Avvo offering a bona fide rating system.

Christine P. Richards, the General Counsel of FedEx – she gets an even lower rating than I do, at 6.5.

Also getting a 6.5, Bill Freivogel the conflicts-guru in the ethics world behind Freivogel on Conflicts.  Barbara Gillers a fantastic lawyer with a prominent law firm in New York and who is the incoming Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility also gets the same 6.7 rating I do.

Or, how about Abbe Lowell the prominent D.C. lawyer who is now representing Jared Kushner.  He gets a 6.6.  Or, here’s a fun one, the lawyer heading up the special counsel investigation into the President, Robert Mueller?  He too is just a 6.5.

But Avvo’s own general counsel, Josh King?  Well, Avvo gives him a 10 rating.

Dan Lear, an attorney who also works for Avvo, he gets a 9.2 rating.

Oh, I can tell you one that they have gotten correct though, Roy D. Simon, who happens to be a member of the NYSBA committee that issued this most recent ethics opinion also gets a 10 rating from Avvo.

(N.B. While I have no misgivings about my level of readership or influence, on the off chance any of these ratings gets changed subsequent to this post, the ratings indicated above have been confirmed as of today’s date and print outs of the pages are on-file with yours truly.)

Speaking again of rarer occurrences

Last week I dedicated a post to highlighting some topics of note that I hadn’t written about in a while.  This is another such post as the Tennessee Supreme Court has again taken action on its own initiative to increase discipline against an attorney beyond a result that both the accused attorney and the prosecuting entity had decided not to even appeal.  I previously wrote about such an occurrence back in April 2015.

Any time it happens it’s an interesting outcome because for lawyers in such proceedings, and the lawyers who represent them, the possibility always looms in the background when handling a matter but does not frequently occur.  As the opinion explains, Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9, § 15.4 imposes a duty on the Court even if no one has appealed to “review the recommended punishment provided in such judgment or settlement with a view to attaining uniformity of punishment throughout the State and appropriateness of punishment under the circumstances of each particular case.”

This more recent instance has occurred to a Nashville criminal defense lawyer by the name of Paul Walwyn and you can read the full ruling here.

The nature of case against the lawyer reads in a pretty straightforward manner:

This case arose from Mr. Walwyn’s representation of Jonathan Gutierrez in a first degree murder trial in 2011. At the time, Mr. Walwyn had been licensed to practice law since 1996 and had been practicing criminal law for fifteen to sixteen years. Following
Mr. Gutierrez’s convictions for first degree murder and four counts of aggravated assault, he was sentenced to life in prison and four consecutive four-year sentences, for a total effective sentence of life plus sixteen years. Mr. Walwyn filed a motion for new trial,
which was subsequently denied on September 30, 2011. However, Mr. Walwyn did not file a notice of appeal in Mr. Gutierrez’s case until May 8, 2015, even though the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure require that a notice of appeal be filed within
thirty days.  The trial court appointed new counsel, Mr. Richard Strong, on June 3, 2015.  The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals subsequently accepted the late-filed notice of appeal in the interest of justice. See Tenn. R. App. P. 4(a).

The opinion reveals there were some factual wrinkles, including questions about how (in)frequent communication with the client was during the delay in noticing the appeal and that a TV interview the lawyer provided after trial meant he shouldn’t handle the appeal, but the primary focus of the disciplinary matter was on the 3 1/2 year delay in filing a notice of appeal.

Originally the hearing panel imposed a one-year suspension with all of the time served on probation rather than active suspension.  While that used to be an acceptable framework in Tennessee, the rules changed within the last few years and, now, if an attorney is to be suspended they must have an active period of suspension of no fewer than 30 days.  Because the hearing panel managed to overlook the rule changes, disciplinary counsel filed a motion to have the judgment altered to comply with the rules.  In response, the hearing panel altered the punishment not by imposing 30 days of active suspension but by reducing the punishment to a public censure along with certain conditions, including a practice monitor.  Thereafter, Mr. Walwyn (not surprisingly) did not appeal and neither did disciplinary counsel (surprisingly).

The Court exercised its Section 15.4 obligation to review, however, and indicated it would consider increasing the punishment.  After that point, the Board – which is allowed a second bite at the apple in such a situation – did begin to advocate to the Court that Mr. Walwyn should be suspended.  The Court agreed and imposed a 12-month suspension with 6 months of active suspension and 6 months on probation with a practice monitor as well as imposing some additional CLE requirements as the final sanction.

In the end, the driving force was the fact that the attorney had previously been disciplined several times for very similar conduct.

Prior to this disciplinary hearing, Mr. Walwyn had been disciplined on five separate occasions. In 2003, he received a private reprimand for failing to file a proposed order for four years. In 2004, he received a public censure for filing a proposed order late
in a child support and custody case, filing a notice of appeal in a criminal case five days late, filing an appellate brief sixty days late, and failing to file a timely petition to this Court, resulting in the petition being denied as untimely. In 2006, he received a public
censure for failing to timely respond to Disciplinary Counsel. As a condition of his guilty plea, Mr. Walwyn was required to undergo a law practice management evaluation by another attorney; audit the law practice management course at the Nashville School of
Law; and complete six additional hours of CLE hours on subjects related to client relations, the management of a law practice, the Rules of Professional Conduct, or disciplinary actions of the Board of Professional Responsibility. In 2006, Mr. Walwyn received a private informal admonition for neglecting to have a default judgment set aside and for failing to provide an affidavit to Disciplinary Counsel. Finally, in December 2015, Mr. Walwyn was suspended from the practice of law for six months, with thirty days to be served on active suspension and five months to be served on
probation. See Walwyn v. Bd. of Prof’l Resp., 481 S.W.3d 151, 161-62, 171 (Tenn.2015). Mr. Walwyn was still completing this probation at the time of his disciplinary hearing in this case.

Loyal readers of this blog (or at least those with eidetic memories) will recall that December 2015 suspension of Mr. Walwyn as being the case in which his lawyer articulated the “rambling and bordering on incoherent” attack on the structure of the disciplinary system in Tennessee.  (That same lawyer represented Mr. Walwyn in this matter as well.)

Finally, having received a bit of feedback from a fellow ethics nerd as a comment on my post about my perceived delay in a California disciplinary case last week, I also want to mention that this case also shows some of my perspective as to timing.  A review of this latest Walwyn matter will show that the time between the filing of the formal petition for discipline and this ultimate outcome from the Tennessee Supreme Court, even with all of the added procedural hurdles involved, was just under 2 years.