ABA favors innovation but really stresses the “no” part.

Okay. Now that all of the problems with the erosion of the rule of law in our country have been solved, I can write that post about the onslaught of developments in the last little bit related to potential efforts to “re-regulate” the legal profession.

Just kidding. Rule of law is still ENTIRELY in jeopardy despite the fact that more than 2,000 former officials of the U.S. Department of Justice have co-signed a letter calling on the current Attorney General of the U.S. to resign.

Nevertheless, we are doing this long-contemplated post today. So, in just the first two months of 2020, there have been several developments demonstrating continued momentum for reform in the world of legal ethics and the delivery of legal services.

In Utah, that states rapidly-moving effort continues apace. Utah’s Implementation Task Force on Regulatory Reform is up and running. And its website is accepting inquiries about participation in its Legal Regulatory Sandbox at this link.

In Arizona, a petition was filed on January 30, 2020 seeking to have the Arizona Supreme Court, among other things, delete its RPC 5.4. The petition was filed by a member of the Arizona Task Force on the Delivery of Legal Services who serves as the Chair of one of its work groups. The petitioner also happens to be Administrative Director of the Arizona Administrative Office of Courts.

Even earlier during January 2020, the Global Legal Practice Committee of the D.C. Bar put out a formal request for public comment about a number of topics related to its existing RPC 5.4. In so doing, Washington, D.C., which has permitted a limited form of non-lawyer ownership opportunities in law firms since 1991 has now announced feedback on seven pretty-thorough bullet point requests, ending with: “If D.C.’s existing Rule 5.4 should not be changed, why not?”

News reports in January 2020 indicate that the Connecticut Bar has launched a task force called the State of the Legal Profession Task Force.

California has a crucial meeting of its Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services on tap for February 24, 2020. The agenda for that meeting lists seven report and recommendations and one clarifying statement up for consideration. Included in the list is not only what sounds like some minor amendments to California’s RPC 5.4 but also implementation of some form of regulatory sandbox focused on being a pilot program to gather data, and the study of a licensing program to allow people other than lawyers to provide certain kinds of limited legal services.

And, most recently, the ABA House of Delegates has adopted Resolution 115 to seek to encourage states (such as those mentioned above that are already far out in front of the ABA) to pursue innovation.

When originally circulated, ABA Resolution 115 was the kind of thing that read as short, to the point, and (particularly given all the task forces already in place in various states) seemingly not truly all that controversial:

RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association encourages U.S. jurisdictions to consider innovative approaches to the access to justice crisis in order to help the more than 80% of people below the poverty line and the majority of middle-income Americans who lack meaningful access to civil legal services.

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association encourages U.S. jurisdictions to consider regulatory innovations that have the potential to improve the accessibility, affordability, and quality of civil legal services, while also ensuring necessary and appropriate protections that best serve the public, including the provision of legal counsel for children facing essential civil legal matters, for anyone facing a possible loss of physical liberty, and for low income individuals in adversarial proceedings where basic human needs are at stake.

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association encourages U.S. jurisdictions to collect and assess data regarding regulatory innovations both before and after the adoption of any innovations to ensure that changes are effective in increasing access to legal services and are in the public interest.

And, yet, even that was a step-too-far in the world of ABA politics as a number of prominent slices of ABA membership, including the New York State Bar and the Solo and Small Firm section of the ABA, went on the attack against Resolution 115 as a radical proposal.

Perhaps thinking it would be hard to imagine how the reaction to a sort of milquetoast resolution encouraging the exploration of innovative ideas to engendering such vociferous opposition, far too many media outlets reported on the resolution as proposing significant changes to the Model Rules when, in fact, no rule revisions at all were actually included.

Thereafter, the forces in favor of Resolution 115 made amendments to try to provide reassurance to the clamor from a variety of groups. In so doing, what was already a “meh” proposal was watered down even further. Specifically, the resolution was revised to add an additional “Further resolved” paragraph at the end:

FURTHER RESOLVED, That nothing in this Resolution should be construed as altering any of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, including Rule 5.4, as they relate to nonlawyer ownership of law firms, the unauthorized practice of law, or any other subject.

The extensive and thorough report that accompanied the Resolution was also pared down to remove references to, and discussions of, a number of efforts at exploration that have occurred or are under consideration in various jurisdictions, including in the area of considering revisions to RPC 5.4 and to allowing non-lawyer ownership. As a result, the original nine-page report became a three-page report. And given that the addition of the third “Further Resolved” paragraph just reads as surplus of the silly sort, it is the defenestration of 2/3 of what the Report had to say originally that is the true loss.

Having been further watered down to the point where it was still a resolution encouraging innovation but strongly signaling that some innovations would be encouraged a lot less than others, Resolution 115, as amended, passed the ABA House of Delegates with overwhelming support.

I mean, “Yay!” … I guess. If a half of a loaf is better than no loaf at all, then so it follows as well that a quarter of a loaf is better than the complete absence of a loaf. But I still can’t help but think of the message of Resolution 115 as being a lot like one of my favorite moments from the show Reno 911:

And I tell you what, ma’am — We are gonna tell you that we are gonna try our best.

That’s what we’re gonna tell you. We’ll try our best. Thank you.

We aim to try. We aim to try — That’s our motto.

That’s what our motto is becoming.

The future of legal ethics?

What I’d like to write about is a series of stories that have been piling up on pretty important developments on various fronts touching on the efforts to re-regulate the legal profession and debates about whether and how to do that … and all of those things would seem to be very important. But I’m not writing about that today because other things are going on that raise a much more immediate, potentially much more alarming, issue — is there even a viable future for legal ethics that means anything at all?

Yesterday, a number of alarming things happened rapidly to raise real questions about whether efforts to try to re-regulate the profession and tackle subjects like law firm ownership, fee-sharing, and payments for referral or other marketing arrangements to make legal services more affordable for middle-class consumers and possibly increase overall access to justice is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The first thing you need to remember – in case it somehow slipped your mind — is that among the many people who have been convicted or plead guilty from within the President’s campaign circle is a man named Roger Stone. Stone was convicted for lying to Congress about his contacts with the Trump campaign and with WikiLeaks and for obstructing the Congressional probe into Russian influence in the 2016 election and for witness tampering. Prior to yesterday’s events, the federal prosecutors handling his case had filed paperwork with the court recommending that the appropriate sentence range for Stone would be between 7 and 9 years.

Then came yesterday. First, at about 1 a.m., the current occupant of The White House took to Twitter to complain that the sentencing recommendation made by the federal prosecutors handling the case against Roger Stone was too harsh. This was what he had to say:

Later that morning, the Department of Justice announced that it will be making a new recommendation for a shorter, less-harsh sentence, effectively overriding what federal prosecutors had already communicated to the court and certainly seeming to be in reaction to the tweet.

Later in the day, the third President in U.S. history to be impeached publicly stated that he had every right to tell the Department of Justice what to do. You can go see that video here.

By the end of the day, all four federal prosecutors who were counsel of record for the United States in the Stone case had filed papers to withdraw from the representation and one of those four also resigned altogether from their position as an AUSA and another resigned his position as a Special Assistant Attorney in DC while intending to keep his job as an AUSA in Baltimore. Then the media reports came out to indicate that the Attorney General of the United States was now personally taking on all of the cases that mattered to the guy who is likely, if the United States Congress is paying attention, to become the 1st President in United States history to be impeached twice. In addition to intervening in the Stone matter, the article indicates sources are relaying that Barr also was behind the change in the approach to sentencing for Michael Flynn another of Trump’s campaign comrades who pled guilty to lying to the FBI and is now, two years later, trying to withdraw his guilty plea.

I’ve written before about the fundamental problem under the ethics rules if not otherwise for the Attorney General of the United States to act as if he were the personal attorney for the President rather than the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. You can read that here.

But more importantly you can pretty quickly get up to speed on yesterday’s very troubling developments here, here, and here. Or if you want to go straight to the source to confirm what is going on, you can read this from this morning:

And, if you want some reference to the actual ethics rules to feel like this post somehow really counts as “on ethics,” let’s talk a bit about how the four AUSAs who are seeking to withdraw from the Stone case are – unlike their Attorney General — complying with their ethical obligations under the ethics rules.

They appear to have a keen awareness that, as lawyers representing the United States, the United States as an entity is their client and not the guy occupying the Oval Office. Both the Model Rules and state analogs, including D.C., uniformly make plain that when you represent an organization, the entity is your client. Both the Model Rules and state analogs, including D.C., pretty uniformly impose ethical obligations on a lawyer representing a governmental entity or other organization who comes to know that officers of the entity are acting in ways that violate the law.

Some state variations on RPC 1.13, including mine here in Tennessee (which admittedly has no bearing on any aspect of the Stone case) not only impose those requirements for reporting up the ladder in the organization but demand that “[i]f despite the lawyer’s efforts in accordance with paragraph (b) the highest authority that can act on behalf of the organization insists upon or fails to address in a timely and appropriate manner an action, or a refusal to act, that is clearly a violation of law, and is likely to result in substantial injury to the organization, the lawyer may withdraw in accordance with RPC 1.16….”

Please do go read the links. It is not really all that hyperbolic to describe this situation as truly jeopardizing the rule of law in our country. The fire may be spreading so rapidly that we’re about to be out of glass to try and break.

PDA: If you’re going to get disbarred in TN, get it done before July 1, 2020.

Because if you can get it finalized by June 30, then you might still have the chance to be reinstated starting July 1, 2025. In this instance, PDA is short for “public disservice announcement,” not “public display of affection.” You might remember back last year I wrote about a proposed revision to the rules of disciplinary enforcement in Tennessee and my reasons for thinking it was not a necessary change.

On Friday, the Court entered an order adopting the revisions as proposed. The order mentions that in addition to comments filed by the Tennessee Bar Association, the Board of Professional Responsibility, and the Knoxville Bar Association, there were comments filed by two individual lawyers. It should probably come as no surprise to anyone reading this that all of the comments, except for the BPR’s comment, voiced opposition to the proposed changes. You can read all of the comments that were submitted here.

The Court’s order offers no explanation for why the Court thought the revision to be necessary in the first place, nor does it undertake any explanation of why it disagreed with the majority of the comments or what about the Board’s position it found persuasive, if anything. (The most effort that the Board put into its response was actually to talk at length about the Hughes case that already demonstrates that the Court had the power and willingness under the current system to refuse to reinstate a disbarred lawyer who it doesn’t feel should be reinstated.) So … disbarment in Tennessee is about to become a “forever” punishment, putting Tennessee into a very small group of states that embrace such an approach, and we still don’t know “why” the Court thought the change was needed.

Thus, on the present record, there seem to be only two possible conclusions to draw: (1) the Court simply thinks that disbarment under the current system is not sufficiently severe in terms of a penalty because it provides for a second-chance; or (2) the Court thinks that disbarment should truly be reserved only for the worst-of-the-worst offenses and that most lawyers who get disbarred should actually be hit instead with a suspension of somewhere between 6 and 10 years in length.

Which one is it? Only time will tell I guess.

WhatsApp at Atrium? A lot, but also WhatsApp with you?

Now, I’m certain the 5 or 6 of you still left who haven’t been alienated by the long hiatus are a bit miffed about the lack of content over the last couple of weeks.

Fair, but technically there has been new content posted to the blog first on January 10 and then on January 12, just not by me. Two interesting comments on this post of mine about Atrium Law were left by someone who — other news sources tell me – may well have been one of the lawyers laid off by Atrium in the past few weeks.

Now I’m not really in the breaking of legal news business as much as the commenting on breaking legal news business so the fact that I life and work conspired to cause me to miss the opportunity to be among the first to speak on that development is not so bad. My delay allows me to instead point you to a number of good pieces that have been written about the goings on over at Atrium. Try here, here, and here.

For today, I want to try getting slightly out in front of a different issue that needs to be relevant to lawyers struggling with finding the right balance for how to engage in electronic communications with clients on various platforms. While “scary” is an overused term in a world as unstable as ours and where wealth is unevenly distributed and people all over the world truly live in scary conditions, concerns associated with the security of communications platforms can at least be “scary” at the “world of lawyering” level.

With WhatsApp being a pretty prominent texting platform, particularly for international organizations, the news of one or possibly two very prominent apparent hacks through use of that platform should make lawyers very cautious about using it to communicate with clients. The one that seems more concrete is the news regarding Amazon’s CEO having been hacked by a Saudi Arabian royal through the sending of a link through WhatsApp. You can read a good article about that trending story here. That article also helpfully reminds users of the fact that a similar-sounding vulnerability was acknowledged and patched by the app in November 2019.

The more speculative story making the rounds ties together these stories about potentially improper use of personal devices and apps to pursue official White House business and the known friendship Jared Kushner and the particular Saudi Arabian royal involved in the alleged Jeff Bezos hack.

Now, others have written long ago about reasons to be concerned about whether this particular app can be used ethically at all given other issues that are known risks, like this article that was in Above the Law more almost a year ago.

Prominent news stories such as these raise the specter of concern over less obvious risks of use. Such risks tied in with the fact that almost every state now has adopted some version of the “ethical duty of technical competence” concept through embrace of language in paragraph [8] of the Comment to ABA Model Rule 1.1 just adds more fodder for lawyers to be wary of the risks associated with third-party platforms when communicating with clients and to be deliberate about deciding whether to address such concerns in advance through language in engagement agreements.

Two more ethics opinions explore restrictions on lawyers’ ability to enter (or even offer) certain contracts.

First, this is not being titled as a “Friday Follow Up” post because, like the rest of you, I have no idea what day of the week it is at this point.

Second, there is way much more important events afoot in the world and if you want to know my thoughts about those you can go find me on Twitter. Given the complete lack of even a fig leaf to connect to legal ethics on that front, I’m sticking to sports here.

Third, two ethics opinions from two different states came out late last year addressing two different variations on ways that the ethics rules makes lawyers “special” when it comes to the right to contract. Because states like mine have been engaged in the issuance of ethics opinions really pushing the boundaries of this concept (at least as to the scope of RPC 5.6), it seems worth mentioning these two opinions albeit each for slightly different reasons.

The first of the two is almost entirely straightforward in addressing something that I certainly think is undoubtedly clear from the Comment to the ABA Model Rule — whether the scope of RPC 5.6 is somehow different for in-house counsel. Nevada, in Formal Op. 56, has made plain that the scope is not different, explaining that an in-house counsel cannot accept a stock award agreement that is made contingent upon agreeing to a one-year covenant not to compete. It somewhat helps to understand why Nevada would have to issue an ethics opinion on this question to know that Nevada has no Comments adopted along with its rules. Instead, Nevada’s Supreme Court has offered that both the preamble and the comments to the ABA Model Rules are something that “may be consulted for guidance in interpreting and applying the Nevada Rules of Professional Conduct.”

Here in Tennessee, we actually have our own Comment identical to the ABA Model Rule version so an ethics opinion wouldn’t really be necessary to cover the fact that the Comment specifically says it applies to organizational employers as well as private firms. One nuance that the opinion introduces but does not explore in any real depth is that an in-house counsel could agree to a non-compete that would only apply to the performance of business functions, rather than legal services, at a competitor. Thus, an in-house lawyer serving as both General Counsel and Executive Vice President at one corporate employer could be required to agree as part of a stock bonus not to take any similar employment with a competing company in the future by focusing only on the executive portion of the existing job.

The Nevada opinion also delves a bit into a way that a confidentiality agreement as part of such a stock award could also run afoul of RPC 5.6 by extending beyond the requirements of RPC 1.6 and RPC 1.9 under the ethics rules.

The other opinion I wanted to touch on comes from Los Angeles. LA County Bar Op. 532 tackles a question that does not require application of RPC 5.6 to resolve but that is not entirely unrelated to that rule — whether a lawyer can agree to indemnify the adverse party as a condition of a settlement. The LA County opinion correctly reaches the conclusion that the lawyer cannot do so because of the conflict that creates between the personal interests of the attorney and the client’s interests. It is an uncontroversial conclusion as the opinion admits because there are some 20+ other jurisdictions, including here in Tennessee, that have likewise made such a settlement provision improper.

Two other aspects of the opinion are much more interesting, however. One is that the primary ground on which the opinion nixes the possibility is that doing so would be the lawyer improperly paying the client’s business or personal expenses in violation of California’s RPC 1.8(b)(5). The other is that the opinion also involves RPC 8.4(a) to create the same dynamic that is in play when RPC 5.6 is triggered – it is unethical for a lawyer to propose such an agreement to the plaintiff’s lawyer because it would be unethical for the plaintiff’s lawyer to agree to it. While RPC 5.6 states plainly that it is an unethical for a lawyer to “participate in offering or making” the kind of agreement addressed by Nevada as discussed above, the potential reach of RPC 8.4(a) when it comes to negotiating contracts is often overlooked. California’s rule, like the ABA Model, makes it a disciplinary violation for a lawyer to “knowingly … induce another” lawyer to violate the ethics rules.

My favorite post of 2019

For the second straight year, I’m ending the year with an homage to a concept (ripping off an idea) pursued by Nate DiMeo the writer and performer of The Memory Palace podcast. I’m going to re-post what was my favorite post from the past year.

Deciding what to put out there again this year was fairly easy as it is a post that (I think) offers the most solid and original idea about anything related to ethics that I offered up this year. It also continues something of a theme of last year’s repeat offering as it focuses on what the profession should be moving toward and, thus, also is a nice way to usher in a new year — particularly a new year where the numbering offers plenty of opportunities for puns about vision.

Of course, as often happens when I think I have offered up a solid and original idea, it ends up pretty much entirely ignored. So, let’s give this one another chance to gain relevance.

Loosing a big (maybe?) idea into the world.

I had originally promised myself that the articulation of this thought would debut here at my blog. I almost managed it but I raised this notion in the real world lately among some very bright lawyers. So, before I do it again somewhere other than the Internet, I’m following through to put this idea out through this platform for anyone who wishes to chew on it to chew on it.

The only background that I think you need (even if you are not a regular reader of this space) is that there is much activity going on across the country in terms of real efforts at proposed change to the way lawyer ethics rules address certain topics that are largely viewed as barriers to information about the availability of legal services.

Two of the potentially most important, and relatively fast-moving, endeavors are the work of the California Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services, the APRL Future of Lawyering project. But there is movement happening in a number of different states to propose changes to the ethics rules to loosen, if not outright delete, restrictions on monetary and other arrangements between lawyers and people who are not lawyers, that are currently placed in rules patterned after ABA Model Rule 5.4 (generally prohibiting fee-sharing with people who are not lawyers) and 7.2 (restricting the ability of lawyers to make payments to others for referrals to, or recommendations of the lawyer).

It is anticipated that there will be some significant level of outcry over any such proposed changes on the grounds that removal of such rules erodes the protection against lawyers having their exercise of independent professional judgment interfered with. Most every time I engage with anyone on that topic, I find myself making the point that, even without those provisions, the rules still require lawyers to maintain their independent professional judgment.

But, here’s the idea I am letting loose into the world: perhaps we should make that obligation more prominent. At present, outside of any particular context, the only rule that plainly starts down this path is the first sentence of Rule 2.1 which reads: “In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.”

Should we, as part of the coming necessary reform of the ethics rules, revise the first rule? Perhaps like this?

Rule 1.1: Competence and Independence

(a) A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

(b) A lawyer representing a client shall not permit any person to direct, regulate, or otherwise interfere with the lawyer’s exercise of independent professional judgment.

If that rule existed, then in all places in which restrictions considered to be barriers to access to legal information but which are justified because of the risk to lawyer independence could be replaced with a pointer back to the lawyer’s obligation under Rule 1.1(b).

The perils of letting your clients speak for themselves.

I’ve been known in the past when writing or speaking about Model Rule 4.2 and the restrictions it imposes to make the point that our ethics rule treats grown up adults as incapable of making decisions for themselves. Mostly jokingly I make that point. When elaborating it is merely to focus on the idea that in order to protect clients from overreaching by adverse counsel the rule does not allow the client to make the decision it wishes to communicate with the lawyer for their adversary. The consent to allow such a communication to occur has to come from the lawyer for that person.

But, what can happen when a represented client decides to freelance and talk about their legal issues without the input of their counsel? Well, as luck would have it during this extremely historic week in the United States, we have an example that can be taught and learned from.

An example where the client made a public communication that could be described by those who read it as “incoherent,” “utterly frivolous,” “chock-full of impenetrable arguments and unsupported assertions,” “organized in ways that escape our understanding,” and that “capitalizes words seemingly at random.”

You probably know exactly what I am referring to.

What? No, I didn’t see that the third President in U.S. history to ever be impeached sent a letter out earlier this week that his lawyers didn’t bless. I’ll have to check that out.

No, I’m referring to a brief that was filed in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals by a represented party but that wasn’t actually authored or approved by the lawyer for the party.

The ABA Journal has a story about it here. You can give the two opinions of the Court of Appeals that resulted a read if you’d like here and here.

Though as both the article and the opinion stress in their own ways, the true problem for the lawyer involved in this situation, and the reason for sanctioning, was the decision to let the client’s filing appear as if it had been the work-product of the lawyer and not a pro se filing by the client. The Seventh Circuit was particularly chapped when it first ruled at the notion that an attorney was responsible for a “monstrosity of an appellate brief.”

The patently frivolous nature of this appeal isn’t the only thing that troubles us. The hopelessness of McCurry’s cause didn’t deter her lawyer, Jordan Hoffman, from signing and submitting a bizarre appellate brief laden with assertions that have no basis in the record and arguments that have no basis in the law.

That, in and of itself, is a rare variation on a topic much-discussed, and likely much more common, when a lawyer offers behind-the-scenes assistance to a client but then has the client make the filing pro se and without disclosing that a lawyer’s assistance was provided. That is a set of circumstances that can also bring about ire from a court but for entirely different reasons.

As a reminder to my Tennessee-based readers, we have a Formal Ethics Opinion addressing that particular ghostwriting issue, which you can refresh your memory about at this link.

Two updates: Ruff[alo]ed feathers in Georgia & Piercing personal jurisdiction in California

Apologies for the drought in content over the last little bit as I’ve been traveling my state for my Ethics Roadshow doing a three-hour presentation in four cities about what I think the future looks like for those who will still be practicing in 2025.

For today, two updates of note that involve important, ongoing topics but that also involve strikingly different interactions.

I’ve written quite a few posts during 2019 and I’ve had subsequent interactions with lawyers involved in two of those matters. One of the interactions has been cordial and one has not. As with all things in the world, their situations and lives have continued and more has transpired regarding their disputes since I interacted with their stories.

The lawyer taking on whistleblower status in a high-profile dispute with his former law firm that involved litigation on both coasts that I wrote about earlier this year (under the heading “A lawsuit about a lawsuit that touches on everything about 2019?”) has emailed me on a few occasions to update me about the litigation proceedings. His dispute with his former law firm involves very serious allegations being thrown in both directions by the adversarial sides.

Most recently, the California lawsuit that was filed against him by his former firm, after he had filed his own lawsuit against his former firm in New York, appears to have been dismissed/quashed on the basis of a lack of personal jurisdiction.

The New York litigation between the parties is ongoing, however. One piece of the ongoing dispute appears to be over whether the lawyer will be entitled to obtain a copy of the investigative report upon which the firm allegedly relied in deciding to terminate him and whether another sealed litigation matter in New York should be unsealed. Should you be interested, you can read the firm’s opposition to those efforts and the lawyer’s reply to that opposition at the buttons below.

Another post I wrote earlier this year was about a Georgia lawyer who was being disbarred and who provided an example of how difficult it can be in a disciplinary case to plead the Fifth Amendment without being visited with dire consequences for one’s license. She has also corresponded with me, but her interactions with me have involved demanding that I delete my prior post about her disbarment.

Given that my prior writing on her situation relied upon both the Georgia Supreme Court disbarment order and reporting by the ABA Journal online, I’m not concerned about any threats or demands to delete content. What I’ve written is clearly covered by fair report privilege as well as worthy of protection under my state’s anti-SLAPP statute.

But I did want to share a filing she has sent me that she has made with the United States Supreme Court because it raises issues of potential real importance in the world of lawyering and disciplinary defense.

As I wrote back at the time, even though disciplinary proceedings are treated as quasi-criminal, lawyers who plead the Fifth when trying to defend their licenses invariably have such refusal to testify held against them. This particular lawyer is now seeking relief from the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case and to stay the disbarment, in part, on the basis of arguments over the correct application of In re Ruffalo and other U.S. Supreme Court decisions addressing the impact of asserting the Fifth Amendment on a disciplinary matter.

Her effort to have the Court take her case and overturn the disbarment also raises an issue that I talked about some during my recent Ethics Roadshow, the impact of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in North Carolina State Dental Board v. FTC on the risks for unified bars of potential attacks based on antitrust liability when the majority of the decision-makers are active practicing lawyers.

I would imagine that the likelihood of the Court taking this lawyer’s case up is small, if for no other reason than that statement is true about any effort to get the Supreme Court to hear a case. But the motion seeking stay makes arguments that, if the Court does take the matters up, could make for interesting developments and it makes for interesting reading in terms of how those arguments are constructed as well.

You can read that U.S. Supreme Court motion filing at the button immediately below:

For attorney’s eyes only.

Okay. It helps to get into my mindset while writing this if you hear the title in the voice of the musical snippet “For British Eyes Only” from Arrested Development. If you can’t make the frame of reference, then so be it. We’ll have to work to find common ground all the same. (Actually, for the briefest of moments I forgot that we live in 2019 when everything is but a link away, so here is what you want the title of the post to sound like: clip.)

Ethics opinions are interesting creatures. They provide a group (usually) of people with law degrees with an opportunity to elaborate on otherwise potentially unsettled (or even unsettling) questions of application of the ethics rules. As a result, they can be used to set a trend in one direction or another toward either expanding or limiting the scope of a rule.

Usually, they are most influential when they involve an interpretation of the standard version of a particular ethics rule. In Tennessee, as I’ve written about a few times now, formal ethics opinions are being used (for better or worse) to severely expand the scope of what RPC 5.6 means in terms of when an agreement entered into in connection with the settlement of client’s matter will be deemed to involve an improper restriction on the attorney’s right to practice. Those opinions are potentially of particular moment because they are interpreting language that is pretty widespread in its uniformity: “A lawyer shall not participate in offering or making … (b) an agreement in which a restriction on the lawyer’s right to practice is part of the settlement of a client controversy.” Over the course of a few opinions now, the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility has added layer upon layer of kinds of provisions that could be in a settlement agreement for a number of potentially legitimate reasons but that are being ruled out because they are being treated as an improper restriction under RPC 5.6.

A recent ethics opinion in Ohio addressing another variation of same seems to be rowing in the same direction as it concluded that a plaintiff’s lawyer could not be asked to commit to the fact that they did not actually have any other clients at the moment of settlement with similar claims against the settling defendant. You can read that one here.

So, I was briefly intrigued when I saw a tweet about a proposed ethics opinion in North Carolina that was concluding that a lawyer could ethically agree to an “attorney’s eyes only” restriction on the production of certain documents in a case without first getting their client’s consent to such an arrangement. That seemed like a very difficult position to justify and it seemed like it was something of a polar opposite of what is going on in the thread of Tennessee ethics opinions about RPC 5.6. The 5.6 series of opinions is almost going out of its way to find conflicts between an attorney’s interest and their client’s interest in order to shoehorn the situations into RPC 5.6. Yet, here was a nearby state proclaiming that something that seemed squarely like a real conflict for the lawyer would be kosher even in the absence of seeking client consent.

(Admittedly, my initial reaction also was to be skeptical about the conclusion. I’ve certainly encountered my fair share of AEO provisions in protective orders but I’ve never signed off on one without running it by the client so that they can decide in advance if they are going to have a problem with the arrangement. Seems like a pretty clear creation of a conflict of real importance to the attorney-client relationship where the client should be signing off on accepting such a situation before it transpires.)

But, in reading the proposed opinion, which you can access here,what I learned is that it leans heavily upon non-standard language in North Carolina’s rules that provides strong justification for the conclusion. Specifically, it relies upon the fact that North Carolina has divided its RPC 1.2 into a number of subparts, including an (a)(3) that gives the lawyer the ability to “exercise his or her professional judgment to waive or fail to assert a right or position of the client.”

On its face, the existence of such a rule could provide grounds to think this is a correct conclusion, but, if you really think about it, that provision if it is without limit is … I believe the technical, legal term would be BANANAS!

Surely, it was never intended to impact things that are vital to the representation and for which the client should have final say. Right? I mean, on its face, it would allow a lawyer to exercise professional judgment to waive the client in a criminal case’s right to choose not to testify.

To the extent the comments provide us with any insight about what was intended it seems pretty important to note that paragraph [1] of the Comment provides only one elaboration on the concept: “For example, a lawyer may consent to an extension of time for the opposing party to file pleadings or discovery without obtaining the client’s consent.” That is both an innocuous example of the use of the rule and one that seems pretty redundant for RPC 1.2(a)(3) given that North Carolina’s RPC 1.2(a)(2) also addresses that kind of situation by saying: “A lawyer does not violate this rule by acceding to reasonable requests of opposing counsel that do not prejudice the rights of a client, by being punctual in fulfilling all professional commitments, by avoiding offensive tactics, or by treating with courtesy and consideration all persons involved in the legal process.”

Hoosier overseer?

If you are a reader of legal publications or legal blogs, you’ve likely already read something about the nightmarish night out in Indiana that resulted in two state court judges being shot and three state court judges being disciplined. You can read all of the underlying facts if you’d like in the decision that was issued earlier this month imposing judicial discipline here.

Beyond making, by pretending I’m not making, a joke about how their trip to White Castle went much worse than Harold and Kumar’s, I’m not particularly interested in piling on with opinions about that situation.

If you’ve ever personally allowed yourself to consume much more alcohol than you should – and as a result experienced a situation in which you stopped making new memories (which as I understand it is actually what scientists and researchers believe happens when you “blackout”) — then even if you think what happened would never happen to you, you know deep down that maybe, just maybe, you’ve been at risk of such an outcome. But, I do want to use this story to make two points that are worth continuing to think about.

First, each of the judges was a lawyer in the past (and still had a law license at the time) and all of the discussions that we have as a profession about mental health and substance abuse issues in our profession apply equally, if not more in some circumstances, to those on the bench. The need to de-stigmatize seeking help and treatment for judges is just as topical as it is for lawyers.

Second, these judges ultimately were subjected to discipline over this. That is because when it comes to lower level judges we have bodies that oversee their compliance with judicial ethics rules and impose judicial discipline. If the players in the events outlined in the Indiana opinion were not Indiana state court judges, but instead were Justice Kavanagh, Justice Alito, and Justice Kagan experiencing a drunken night on the town that went horribly wrong, there would not be any potential for any disciplinary repercussions whatsoever because we have no regulatory body that is imbued with the authority to enforce any code of federal judicial ethics as against any members of the United States Supreme Court.

Sure, it is possible that articles of impeachment could be pursued to seek to remove a Justice from the bench over conduct like that, but . . . well, let’s just agree that a body a bit more removed from politics would seem like a more reliable regulator in terms of predicting whether it would see certain conduct as indefensible and worthy of rebuke.

There are people out there generating ideas for ways to bring about ethics reform with respect to the United States Supreme Court. The Brennan Center has put out a white paper with three ideas for reform you can read here. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill (not acted upon in the U.S. Senate of course) that would require the Court to adopt a code to govern the conduct of its justices. It has recently (earlier this year at least) been in the news that Justice Roberts is exploring creating such a code.

I don’t purport to know what the correct answer is exactly, but I know that while the risk of something like what happened in Indiana happening to members of the highest Court in the land is likely pretty slim, there are real, substantial ethics questions in play about the members of the Court conduct themselves and our system would be greatly benefited if there was clear, and clearly articulated, rules governing their conduct just like exist for all other judges in our country.