Abuse of “Iowa nice” leads to rare Dubuque rebuke.

Readers of this space know that a large part of my practice involves representing lawyers in disciplinary proceedings. Disciplinary proceedings are difficult for all that are involved, but rarely can anyone involved question that they don’t know the stakes. They are what they are and they have their own rules and procedures.

Today’s post involves a story of a lawyer getting actual discipline in Iowa, in the form of a public reprimand, not through Iowa’s disciplinary system, but imposed by a federal district judge in Iowa through a sanctions-style set of proceedings deemed “informal disciplinary proceedings.”

And, as a lawyer who does a great deal of disciplinary defense but who also does still have a “normal” litigation practice as well, I’m quite torn. Based on the story that the federal court opinion tells, the Los Angeles lawyer absolutely deserves to be on the receiving end of discipline. And the court is a bit kind when it refers to the situation as being a “he said/he said” sort of dispute when, in fact, it was a “he said/he said and this other he said and then this other he said and this she said and this other he said” dispute.

The toxic approach to litigation the Los Angeles lawyer seems to embrace is something that a handful of lawyers in my state do as well, and they almost always manage to skate through without ever being sanctioned for their conduct because, when you are dealing with them, it’s always in your client’s best interest to just try to limit the amount of time you have to deal with them rather than increase it by pursuing discipline against them for their conduct. I’m confident Tennessee is not exceptional and that there are a handful or two of these folks in just about every state. Yet, given that there exists a system for pursuing discipline rather than monetary sanctions in Iowa, no matter how bad the conduct was it feels like the federal judge should have just made a referral to the Iowa disciplinary authorities instead of imposing discipline directly.

I’m also a bit torn that the only ethics rule upon which the court premised its punishment was RPC 8.4(d) – the notion that the conduct of the lawyer was prejudicial to the administration of justice. And, throughout, the extent of the analysis is not far from saying that just about anything improper that multiples or complicates litigation proceedings to make them unnecessarily protracted or unpleasant is the same thing as being prejudicial to the administration of justice. That is something of a slippery slope under normal circumstances but also problematic when there exists a separate remedy in federal court, under 28 U.S.C. 1927, for handling litigation tactics that unreasonably and vexatiously multiply proceedings.

Yet, here, all of the misconduct found to have happened would also have run afoul of RPC 4.4(a) — ” In representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person….” — so part of me thinks, at least as to the particular situation, that this falls into a “much harm, no foul” category. But the idea that the “wrong” ethics rule was also used to get to what was likely the right outcome is just further fuel for the fire that the better path would have been to refer the matter to disciplinary authorities.

You can go read the full opinion and draw your own conclusions about whether it was the right manner for imposing discipline by clicking on the download button below.

And a word of thanks to Todd Presnell for spotting this case and sending it my way as fodder for discussion. If you aren’t reading Presnell on Privileges, well, under normal circumstances I’d chide you and say you should, but we’re all doing what we can to hold things together these days so … what I’ll say instead is, if you’ve got the mental bandwidth to add it to your reading list, it’s really good.

Panzerotti ≠ calzone : NY confidentiality ≠ TN confidentiality

It’s been a while. I know. But I saw a blurb about a story that caught my attention in the before-times and then a second story about the same case more recently that hooked me enough to write about.

Primarily, it hooked me because it provides a compelling opportunity to discuss two important points about legal ethics at the same time. First, the ethical obligations lawyers owe to former clients go beyond simply restricting certain future representations and include restrictions on using the client’s information. Second, even a clear violation of the ethics rules does not automatically translate to a viable cause of action against an attorney.

As we’ll see at the end, it is a story that because it happened in New York might just be a bad look for the lawyer involved when it would be a lot more damning if it had happened here in Tennessee.

The initial story that caught my eye was this one in Law360 where the proprietors of a panzerotti restaurant in Brooklyn sued an attorney saying he had stolen their idea for such a restaurant and the logo they used. The more recent story that lured me, also from Law360, is that the lawyer has now filed a motion to dismiss that suit, in part, arguing that the USPTO had rejected the restaurant’s trademark claims.

You can go read the amended complaint in the lawsuit in question for yourself:

But from the “former client” side of the story, this is how they tell it. Its principals retained the lawyer, Cea, to help with documents to be filed in connection with the seeking on E-2 visa application and that, as part of that process, they had to turn over their confidential business plan for the proposed restaurant. After they did that, they say they also retained Cea to represent the business regarding lease negotiations and obtaining a liquor license for their restaurant.

The lawsuit then claims that after their restaurant opened, Cea and a partner opened a competing restaurant, but in Manhattan, using the improperly obtained confidential business plan information of the former client. The lawsuit also claims that the competing restaurant’s logo infringes upon their logo in violation of The Lanham Act.

Now, I’m no trademark lawyer but my unsophisticated eyeball comparison of the two logos doesn’t impress me at all. The rest of the complaint, though, when it focuses upon the strong similarities on how the insides of the restaurants are laid out, and the kinds of equipment used, and even approaches to menu items is a bit more compelling. The complaint also alleges that the lawyer even hired the same architect that the former client used for its restaurant for the competing restaurant. Notably, the complaint also alleges that when first contacted after the opening of the competing restaurant, the lawyer claimed that his only involvement was in helping the second restaurant with its lease.

When first digging into this story, I was overwhelmed by the audacity of any lawyer thinking they could ever do something like this without running afoul of RPC 1.9(c)’s restrictions on adversely using information related to the representation of a former client.

In Tennessee, that rule reads as follows:

A lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter … shall not thereafter reveal information relating to the representation or use such information to the disadvantage of the former client unless (1) the former client gives consent, confirmed in writing, or (2) these Rules would permit or require the lawyer to do so with respect to a client; or (3) the information has become generally known.

While proving a successful cause of action would be a different kettle of fish for reasons discussed below, because Tennessee (like most jurisdictions) treats all information related to the representation as confidential, under Tennessee’s rules, someone doing what Cea was alleged to have done would have real problems defending a disciplinary complaint. Perhaps, as to some of the allegations, Cea could engineer a defense based on all of the public facing aspects of the former client’s restaurant became “generally known” once they opened for business.

Even in Tennessee though, violations of RPC 1.9(c) wouldn’t automatically translate to a viable civil cause of action. (The actual lawsuit asserts a breach of fiduciary duty claim and that would likely be what someone would hazard as a claim in Tennessee.) That is because we, like most states, clarify in the Scope section of our rules that while ethics rules exist as a framework for imposing discipline, they are not intended or designed to provide a basis for an independent cause of action.

[21] Violation of a Rule should not itself give rise to a cause of action against a lawyer nor should it create any presumption in such a case that a legal duty has been breached. In addition, violation of a Rule does not necessarily warrant any other nondisciplinary remedy, such as disqualification of a lawyer in pending litigation. The Rules are designed to provide guidance to lawyers and to provide a structure for regulating conduct through disciplinary agencies. They are not designed to be a basis for civil liability….

We also have a final sentence in that part of the Scope that tries to clarify that there are some situations in which the violation of a rule can be relevant to determining whether a breach of the standard of care also occurred but since New York doesn’t I’ll leave that for another day.

New York’s approach to client confidentiality though is different and, as a result, even though its RPC 1.9(c) reads largely similar to Tennessee’s on adverse use of information its reduced scope of confidentiality under RPC 1.6 really changes the landscape.

New York’s RPC 1.6 limits confidential treatment to “information gained during or relating to the representation of a client, whatever its source, that is (a) protected by the attorney-client privilege, (b) likely to be embarrassing or detrimental to the client if disclosed, or (c) information that the client has requested be kept confidential.”

That distinction and what it means for a lawyer appears to be salient to Cea’s situation. Cea’s motion to dismiss, while primarily focused on an attempt to enforce an alleged settlement agreement as well as other procedural arguments, does poke at the margins of whether he was ever asked to treat any of the information he learned from any client as confidential. He also appears to take issue even with the idea that he ever had any fiduciary relationship with anyone who is a party to this litigation. You can look at the memorandum of law supporting that motion to dismiss if you are so inclined.

Utahlking real reform? Yes, Utah absolutely is.

Infrequent readers will know this pun structure is one that I have no shame in running into the ground every time it is relevant.

Frequent readers will know I am far too willing to break the fourth wall here. So just for background I had resigned myself to writing a post on Friday about the New Jersey lawyer who could only get reinstated to practice if he could assure that his wife would not have any further access to their trust accounts and it was going to likely be unnecessarily preachy and riddled with hacky references to how hard that might be when everyone is trapped in their house. So, while you are only getting content a few days late, thanks to Utah you at least are spared that the content that could have been.)

Last Friday, Utah released for public comment the final version of its work product for an overhaul of significant parts of its ethics rules. If you need to get back up to speed on that issue and the pre-pandemic discussions of it, you can find prior posts about the rapid work of Utah’s task force here.

If you’d rather read the source materials put out for public comment on April 24, 2020 yourself, you can get to them all through this link.

If you’ll allow me to describe them to you in all of their relative glory, I’ll do so now.

I’d like to start with what ought to be the least controversial piece but a part that still really ought to be cherished for the elegant thing that it is, reducing the rules on lawyer advertising down to the core and nothing but the core.

  • The Utah Supreme Court’s proposal would eliminate RPCs 7.2, 7.3, 7.4, and 7.5 and, instead, revise RPC 7.1 to address the terrain by (a) prohibiting lawyers from making false and misleading claims about themselves or their services and (b) prohibiting lawyers from going about dealing with people in ways that involve coercion, duress, or harassment.

If any state were proposing to do this to their advertising rules, and only just this, it would be an exciting development toward important regulatory reform. But wait … there’s so much more to Utah’s proposal. As a result, comprehensive reform of the advertising rules is nearly just the icing.

The centerpiece of Utah’s proposed rule revisions though involves an overhaul of RPC 5.4 in the form of the creation of two rules, one 5.4A that will look a good bit like the current rule with one very significant change and another 5.4B that will look like nothing that has been actually implemented so far in the United States.

Under the proposal, RPC 5.4A will apply to lawyers who continue to operate in the traditional fashion (read, at least in its pre-pandemic context to mean working in a law firm owned and operated only by lawyers). That rule would carry forward existing restrictions on partnerships with non-lawyers and on operating in the form of any entity in which someone who is a not a lawyer has a financial interest but would permit lawyers in such conventional settings to be able to share fees with people other than lawyers as long as sufficient disclosure is made to the client (and anyone other than the client who is paying the fee) about the fact that such sharing is occurring/going to occur and with whom. The rule though is also refashioned to make clear that lawyers still can only do these things as long as there is no interference with their independent professional judgment, maintaining their loyalty to their client, and protecting client confidences.

(One other seemingly pedestrian item in its package of revisions is to remove the current restrictions on fee sharing between lawyers not in the same firm by deleting RPC 1.5(e) altogether. This makes a lot of sense on a standalone basis as a variety of jurisdictions already permit “naked” referrals between lawyers not in the same firm as long as there is a certain amount of disclosure, but if you are going to open the doors for lawyers to share fees with people who aren’t lawyers then you certainly have to drop the RPC 1.5(e) approach.)

RPC 5.4B would be a new thing altogether and would govern the conduct of lawyers that choose to practice in nontraditional structures as part of a legal regulatory Sandbox to be launched Utah. This proposed rule establishes an ability for lawyers to practice in ways that RPC 5.4A would prohibit as long as there is no interference with any of the lawyers duties that are also stressed in RPC 5.4A (independent professional judgment, loyalty, and confidentiality). Specifically, what it permits is best described using the proposed rule itself:

(b) A lawyer may practice law with nonlawyers, or in an organization, including a partnership, in which a financial interest is held or managerial authority is exercised by one or more persons who are nonlawyers, provided that the lawyer shall:

(1) before accepting a representation, provide written notice to a prospective client that one or more nonlawyers holds a financial interest in the organization in which the lawyer practices or that one or more nonlawyers exercises managerial authority over the lawyer; and

(2) set forth in writing to a client the financial and managerial structure of the organization in which the lawyer practices.

And to implement the Sandbox concept that RPC 5.4B will permit lawyers to participate in, and to make sure that there exists an entity that will have regulatory authority over those participants in the Sandbox who are not lawyers, the Utah Supreme Court has released a proposed Standing Order that would be the foundational document for establishing the relevant regulatory entity and the regulatory principles that will govern its work.

The relevant regulatory entity will be the Office of Legal Services Innovation and, for a pilot period of two years from whenever the effective date of the Standing Order comes to pass, this Innovation Office will “establish and administer a pilot legal regulatory sandbox (Sandbox) through which individuals and entities may be approved to offer nontraditional legal services to the public by nontraditional providers or traditional providers using novel approaches and means, including options not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct and other applicable rules.”

And, as for the relevant regulatory principles? Those will be as follows:

  1. Regulation should be based on the evaluation of risk to the consumer.
  2. Risk to the consumer should be evaluated relative to the current legal services options available.
  3. Regulation should establish probabilistic thresholds for acceptable levels of harm.
  4. Regulation should be empirically driven.
  5. Regulation should be guided by a market-based approach.

There is a 90-day comment period on the proposal which ends on July 23, 2020. That comment period is not only for Utahns. (And, yes, according to the Standing Order that is how to refer to a collection of residents of Utah. College football fans likely believed, and My Cousin Vinny fanatics would likely have been demanding, that Utes to be the official term.)

Pennsylvania wins the race to be first with COVID-19 ethics guidance.

I’ve lived in Memphis since 5th grade at this point, but I was actually born in Pennsylvania. I’ll heed all the guidance making the rounds of social media about not sharing information that might be a security question somewhere and won’t tell you what city.

But a part of my heart will always be in Pennsylvania since part of me really grew up there. It’s also the reason why my sporting allegiances beyond the Memphis Grizzlies and Chelsea Football Club all involve Pittsburgh teams.

So, I feel somewhat proud that the Pennsylvania State Bar seems to be the first bar to put out a truly comprehensive ethics opinion attempting to give guidance to lawyers and law firms about their ongoing ethical duties during the pandemic and in dealing with the “new normal” of working remotely from home.

While typically Pennsylvania ethics opinions have been hard to get access to some times because they have historically restricted them, Bob Ambrogi seems to have gotten his hands on the full opinion in digital format, so I’m linking to it as his site here.

It is quite good and really quite thorough (and you probably have some time on your hands), so I’d encourage you to read the whole thing. It addresses a number of rules, including Pennsylvania’s version of the ethics rules on competence and supervising non-lawyer assistants.

I only want to highlight two things that it specifically addresses and one thing that it, unfortunately, does not say at all.

First, I think this is the first ethics opinion from any lawyer regulatory body that comes out so clearly to call out what happens with smart speakers and other “always on” listening devices. It links to a vox.com article to allege that Amazon’s Alexa device and the Google Home speaker actually do have people reviewing the recordings of what those devices pick up and encourages lawyers (and people who work for lawyers and law firms) to not have client conversations in rooms where those always listening devices are located. I cannot remember for certain and have run out of the mental bandwidth today to go searching but I think I’ve written before about how the epiphany is obvious once you have it that the only way such devices can recognize when you call out their name for assistance is that they have to be “listening” before their name is uttered, but your view of such items profoundly changes once you have the epiphany. For what it is worth, I’ve been doggedly adhering to this by trying to have all of my calls take place in one of two places in my house (and on my second-floor balcony) where such devices are not located. And, yet, there’s still my iPhone and Siri which presumably also is a vigilant digital assistant just waiting for me to say her name.

Second, I feel a little personally attacked by the guidance that is stressed about only going to websites that are “secure” in that they have the https: designation. You might notice that this blog is not such a site but also I don’t ask you for any information or try to sell you any products here, so please keep coming around.

And, finally, the one thing that the opinion does not say that I really wish it would have done is this: Pennsylvania’s rules, like Tennessee’s and most others, contain language in the Preamble/Scope to stress that the ethics rules are rules of reason and should be construed as such.

All of the guidance in the opinion is very good and particularly offers a very good clearinghouse of things that lawyers should be trying to do, if at all possible. At the same time though, given how difficult all of this is we should not be sending messages to the profession that we are going to make perfect the enemy of the good.

During these difficult times, my hope will be that mistakes that lawyers may make with respect to the confidentiality and safeguarding of information will be treated as fodder for disciplinary proceedings only in instances of truly reckless or grossly negligent conduct and not mere negligence caused from trying to accomplish what client’s need to get accomplished in circumstances of a prolonged emergency.

That, to me, is a highly practical but entirely timely application of what the rules mean when they say they are rules of reason. Along those lines, while not guidance from a state bar or regulatory entity itself, I also commend for your reading a piece put out by the Holland & Knight law firm that ultimately grabs the spirit of that aspect of the ethics rules to analyze some guidance that can be found in the Restatement of the Law Governing Lawyers.

There will be discontent.

The title of today’s post is an inside joke in that it makes reference to this post from what feels like years ago now.

As these are not particularly humorous times at the moment, it will be the only attempt at humor.

Professionally, I’ve had a pretty good week. I didn’t get what I wanted for clients on a couple of matters, but I participated in a nearly 10 hour Zoom mediation that resulted in the resolution of a case earlier in the week and closed out the week winning summary judgment in a federal court case. Yet, I feel no professional satisfaction and just mostly discontent.

Discontent at what is going on around me, my circumstances, and all the work that must be done to try to repair things. Fortunately, just discontent and not despair.

That’s likely because in the grand scheme of things I’m exceedingly fortunate. I have an established law practice and a better safety than many. I have a roof over my head and thus a place to stay home and stay safe. My family can afford to buy the things it needs right now, and, most importantly, so far all of us have stayed healthy.

All of that is to say that I am entirely cognizant of how good I have it. I recognize that my safety and relative comfort does not make my discontent particularly important, but I do think it makes it telling and, perhaps, worth acknowledging out loud for those who are reading this. Mostly because I think it indicates just how many people who might only be in a slightly worse off position than I could easily slide from discontent into despair.

I still strongly believe as I wrote before that most lawyers are not delivering “essential services” in the context of risking the safety of others. But I just as strongly believe that all the human beings who are those lawyers are essential.

Lawyers as a profession were plagued with higher statistics of depression and anxiety and substance abuse and suicide before the pandemic than the national average. If this pandemic makes those numbers seem closer to the norm, it will likely only be because the average increases.

When you struggle, seek out the help you can afford. There are a wide variety of resources better than this blog to get that help. Here’s just one pretty good one.

I’ve shared my small story before. I feel very fortunate that my timing was such that I went through it when it was physically a lot easier to leave the house and get help. I know it would have been much harder if it were happening now for me. And I’m incredibly fortunate that I’m doing okay on that front.

For any new readers, I’m sharing the post (which is actually from years ago) where I shared the video (you have to click on the link inside the post regarding the last 12 minutes of that year’s Ethics Roadshow) of my “coming out” about this issue again here.

Stay safe. And as a truly final word for now, stolen from someone much smarter and more eloquent than me but because I only saw it on Twitter and failed to note the author: “Try to remember that you aren’t really working from home now. You are staying home in order to live through a pandemic and you are also trying to work.”

Cute story? No. Chance for Cutestory reference? Yes.

♫ You’re a crook, Captain Hook / / Judge, won’t you throw the book at the pirate… ♫

For me, much as I’m certain it likely is for you, it is now “Day Something” (I’ve lost track) of surviving a pandemic. I hope that you are doing all that you need to do to both stay safe and take the appropriate steps to value your mental health and overall wellness.

What I had originally envisioned for a post for today was going to be something that sort of collected a variety of instances of attorneys being jerks and emphasizing how incongruous such behavior is with our current reality, but Michael Kennedy, the chief disciplinary counsel for Vermont, has already done that better than I might have, so here’s a link to his post on that subject.

Instead, I’m going to talk about a very specific, pre-pandemic incident that involves a maritime lawyer and, thus, gives me an excuse to talk about bingeworthy television, and specifically, my absolute favorite comedic television program of all time, Arrested Development.

We certainly live in the Golden Age of Television and will do so for at least a little bit longer until the current shut down in production schedules translates in the future to a lack of new content. But even before this true golden age of television, Arrested Development came on the scene. It hit me in all the right spots. So, if you are somehow desperately trying to figure out what to watch in your spare time and have access to Netflix and haven’t yet watched all of it – please feel free to do so.

Now, I segue from this into how I tie this even tenuously to legal ethics. This past week Law360 released a story, and the ABA Journal online followed with one of their own, about a maritime lawyer who got sanctioned in the form of a $1,000 fine for his bad behavior during a deposition as well as the opposing party’s attorney fees associated with certain aspects of the proceedings which will likely amount to much more than $1,000. Specifically, he interrupted the deposition questioning 145 times including 106 rather lengthy objections. This happened in federal court in Louisiana, one of the few places in the United States where maritime lawyers could thrive because of the robust seaport there.

The order is made available through both web portals but the ABA Journal requires no subscription so it’s likely easier for you to read that one here.

Because of the impact that Arrested Development had on me, I will forever associate being a maritime lawyer with Chareth Cutestory – a pseudonym used by Michael Bluth when he tried to flirt with Maggie Lizer, a lawyer played by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss.

It feels particularly on brand to reference that fictional plotline because (a) the real maritime lawyer involved was named Salley (but not Sally Sitwell) and (b) it feels like if Michael Bluth had actually been permitted to be in a deposition pretending to be a maritime lawyer then he could have ended up with a judge issuing a ruling that said something like this as well:

Of the 255-page transcript of the deposition, Salley appears on 170 pages. Salley objected 106 times, 52 of which were lengthy speaking objections. There are long, speaking objections that cover entire pages of the transcript. One speaking objection and Salley’s attendant argument, which followed a question asking the deponent when an affidavit was signed, covers in excess of six pages of the transcript….

That is simply a smattering of cites to Salley’s objections from the transcript. He also instructed the witness not to answer 16 times…. This Court’s review of the record reveals that none of these instructions was based on a valid reason under Rule 30.

And if you, like many, need a little visual help in getting the whole oeuvre of both this post and the Chareth Cutestory subplot, here you go.

(P.S. Stay safe.)

(P.P.S. And if you take any depositions in the next few weeks by Zoom, or Skype, or WebEx or telephone or otherwise, don’t do the kind of stuff (like speaking objections) that will get you sanctioned.)

Essential? It depends.

So, I have now been exclusively working from home for . . . a number of days that … who am I kidding? Just like you, I barely can keep track of time at this point. March seems to have been 3 years long so far. It’s definitely been a while. And, importantly for context of this post, I’ve been doing it now for longer than the time that my firm’s office has now been closed.

My firm’s office, the Memphis office, of our multi-office firm, closed at 6pm on I think it was Tuesday of this past week. We did this because the “safer at home” order entered by the Mayor of Memphis went into effect at 6pm that day and it indicated that lawyers delivering legal services were only “essential services” exempt from the stay-at-home restrictions when we were delivering legal services necessary to the delivery of others who were providing essential services.

Our office had to go a different route than our Nashville office because Nashville’s “safer at home” order treated the delivery of legal services as essential services without exception.

This discrepancy from municipality to municipality in our state has prompted the Tennessee Bar Association to issue a public statement lobbying for the idea that lawyers should be treated as essential services under any such orders. Discrepancies elsewhere have also caused the American Bar Association to lobby for the same outcome: that any order requiring people to stay at home should include an exception for lawyers as essential services.

But, here’s the thing. In the context of orders for public safety designed to keep people in their homes for social distancing and prevent people from commuting to common spaces for the performance of work — most of us lawyers are not performing that kind of “essential services.”

Most of us with law licenses and an internet connection can do our jobs from the safety (both our own safety and the safety of others) of our home.

The taking of nuanced positions is difficult in normal times. It is incredibly difficult in the middle of a pandemic, but I feel obligated to say to both the TBA and the ABA that it is fundamentally irresponsible to stake out a non-nuanced position on this topic.

In the middle of a pandemic, certain things are undeniably essential services: healthcare, food, water, things related to infrastructure… the list is admittedly longer than that… but reasonable people should be able to agree that, in such circumstances, only certain lawyers in certain situations should qualify as essential services.

Lawyers representing criminal defendants? Absolutely. Lawyers working as prosecutors? Absolutely. Lawyers who somehow actually have a trial that is actually going forward despite the circumstances? Certainly. Lawyers representing juveniles defending themselves in delinquency proceedings where the juveniles could end up in prison? Yes.

But, the rest of us? No matter how important what we are doing is – and I’m NOT trying to gainsay the importance…I’m doing quite a few things that I would defy anyone to argue are not important right now (well, not “right now,” right now I’m just writing an incredibly unimportant blogpost) — but in the context of a discussion about whether we have to go to a business location, and require other staff members to do the same, the answer has to be simply no.

Lawyers are exceedingly important. But so many of us can do the things we do on a daily basis using only technology and so much of what we do can routinely be pushed off for 30 days at a time that, if the circumstances weren’t so grave, it would be almost laughable for us to be arguing so hard to be treated as exempt from stay-at-home requirements.

There will be content.

So, it is March 20, 2020. We don’t know much about much in terms of what comes next. Stress and anxiety are most folks constant companions at the moment I’m certain. (And I bet a lot of you weren’t expecting the need to tech competence under the ethics rules to come at you quite this fast.) Whether or not there will be things to read here probably matters almost not at all to most people. Nevertheless, for better or worse, as long as I’ve got access to the internet I will plan to continue to post contents on the same weird and unsettling sort of “schedule.” Today’s another one of those days.

Today’s post is an opportunity to talk a bit about the dark side of litigation funding. Now, do not get me wrong, I’m generally “pro” when it comes to the topic of litigation funding. In fact, I had the opportunity to be a lawyer for one of the early litigation funding companies that operated in a niche, high-end space. Even then, one of the consistent issues for a company doing things the right way was the stigma of litigation funders as being companies that would take financial advantage of people in need.

Today’s story isn’t exactly about taking advantage of the kind of person in financial need you might think of, but it certainly is a story that sheds some light on unsavory aspects of an industry that speculates on the outcome of litigation.

Today’s story though also is something of a revisiting of the travails of a prominent California law firm that I’ve written about a few times in the past. Those posts had focused on a very contentious set of litigation matters between the firm and one of its former partners that effectively boiled down to a “he said, it said” sort of situation where the “he” was saying that the “it” was engaged in financial fraud and fired him when he raised questions about it and the “it” said that “he” was a sexual harasser. (If you aren’t familiar with that post, you can catch up here.)

It’s been a very bad couple of weeks for just about everyone in the United States. It’s been an even worse couple of weeks for John Pierce, the founder of the Pierce Bainbridge law firm. It has been such a bad couple of weeks that it is hard for an objective viewer not to think that the previously-referenced “he” seems to have a leg-up in proving his side of events against the “it” in the “he said, it said” landscape.

Before elaborating on the litigation funding issue, just a short recap of the recent chronology of events for the founder of this particular law firm.

And, about that deal, that is the deal with Parvati Capital that was front and center in the allegations in the “he said, it said” litigation. As a result of the Philadelphia suit, the details of that arrangement have come out and involve a highly -unusual approach to litigation funding where the law firm was given the sole responsibility for placing a value on their cases as part of agreeing to a 50-50 split with the litigation funder on the fees obtained in such future cases.

If you have access to Law360, you can read a pretty good article about that piece of the puzzle, one in which a former law partner of mine (who I practiced with back when I had the chance to represent a good litigation funding company many years ago) speaks on the ethical problems with the Parvati Capital deal. (Spoiler: pretty squarely an RPC 5.4 problem since it quacks very much like a fee-sharing duck.)

There are lots of aspects to dealing with litigation funding arrangements that can raise difficult ethics issues. But there are a variety of ways to obtain litigation funding within the ethics rules. Interestingly enough, while the Parvati arrangement seems very problematic as to some issues, and while having the lawyer assign a value to cases is bad news for a variety of reasons, such an approach does avoid altogether problems with navigating how to share documents and other details with a litigation funder for purposes of evaluating a case while doing what can be done to comply with RPC 1.6 and seek to protect privilege and work product.

Change seems like it never comes … right up until it does.

So, I’m not a public health expert and I try to pride myself on not talking too much about conversations to which I am unable to meaningfully contribute. Thus, I’m not going to purport to speak directly to how to be dealing with the pandemic looming over everything. I’ve been doing what little I can to try to help “flatten the curve,” because I’m economically privileged enough and have robust access to technology to be able to do so. If you are in a similar situation, I hope you will do the same.

I’m going to instead focus on something much smaller … the disappointing news out of California yesterday that goes a long way toward kneecapping the efforts of the California ATILS task force. As mentioned in an earlier post, the ATILS task force itself had already scaled down its efforts but the California State Bar voted down significant aspects of even the watered-down proposal.

If you’d like to read the details, you can do so at this The American Lawyer article. If you’d like a sense of what comes next, you can read this Twitter thread from Andrew Arruda, a very irked member of the task force.

All I want to say for today is that I don’t think the California State Bar is going to have the last word on this, not by a long shot.

Beyond the fact that the post-pandemic world is going to be different, I’m not prepared to predict what different exactly looks like. But it seems clear already that, at least in the United States, we are learning quickly that a lot of things people have been told weren’t possible actually are.

Your job likely can be done remotely through telecommuting. The for-profit health system can make allowance to discount costs. A quality legal education can be obtained through online classes. Courts do not have to have as many in-person hearings in order to dispense justice.

The list is much, much longer.

It is hard not to think that there are going to be a variety of businesses, large and small (including law firms), that will not be able to survive in an environment where large swaths of the population do not venture out of their house for much of a 30 or 60 day period. It won’t all be businesses in the food and beverage delivery industry and businesses that otherwise require large groups to gather. Yet, given the legalistic nature of U.S. society today, the demand for people to be helped with their legal and contractual rights likely only increases.

Whether that translates to an increased demand for lawyers to do those things though is a lot less clear.

Innovations will likely happen out of necessity.

In the meantime, stay safe out there.

A tale of two signature issues.

There are certain things that ought to be ingrained in lawyers that they know they cannot do. Maybe we could reach agreement on all of what should be on that list of things, but that task is far too ambitious for any Friday, much less this Friday.

I would hope we could agree that an item on that list though is not to sign someone else’s name to something and claim that they were the one who actually signed it. In a lot of circumstances, this is called… and I’m going to use the technical term here, “forgery.” (Fun fact: this is also something that people who are not lawyers really shouldn’t do as well. This includes if you were [hypothetically-speaking] an 18-year old filling out a permission form that they think their parents would likely have signed.)

Now, admittedly, lawyers in collegial litigation practice settings certainly will, on many occasions during their professional career, end up signing opposing counsel’s name to an order for entry with the Court. But, the key of course in doing so is that the lawyer (a) always indicates that it is being done with the other lawyer’s permission; and (b) doesn’t try to make the signature look at all like that lawyer’s actual signature.

Earlier this week, a lawyer in Kansas has been visited with a weighty suspension from practice, in part, for signing names of folks for whom she should not have been doing that. Unfortunately, examples involved falsifying the signature of a judge on a court filing as well as a separate instance of a court clerk’s signature. Although it was the aspect that garnered the media attention, forging signatures was just really the tip of the iceberg regarding the findings of misconduct against that lawyer. Many others involving misrepresentations to other lawyers and clients and neglect of several different matters. A full read of the order imposing a two-year suspension also reveals that, as is often true of lawyers who make very bad decisions, the lawyer suffered from severe depression and anxiety.

But, also recently and in my own backyard, there was an instance of what turned out to be a much grayer area of a lawyer’s ability to sign someone else’s name to something that resulted, after prolonged disciplinary proceedings, in a determination that the lawyer did not commit any professional misconduct. If you are not at all familiar with the concept of a “conformed signature,” then reading the case will provide you with a bit of an education on that front.

But, the short version to walk away from that case though I think is still that the lawyer really should have gone about things in a markedly different fashion. Perhaps it is only true with hindsight, but I tend to think that even in real time, a lawyer would think that doing something more to clearly denote when placing a “/s [someone else’s name]” onto a document to then be used in litigation exactly what the lawyer is doing. For that particular lawyer, doing it the way they did certainly did not ultimately result in actual discipline, but it certainly ended up costing an awful lot of time and money to have to get all the way through the process to the Tennessee Supreme Court before being fully exonerated.

(P.S. Tomorrow is the 5th anniversary of this blog. In celebration, go treat yourself to something nice. It’s on you.)