Rotting from the top down.

Being a lawyer is hard. It is certainly not the hardest thing in the world to be, but it is hard. Lawyers have lots of obligations and lots of stress. Again, there are many who have things worse, of course.

Among those “lots of obligations” are obligations to supervise those who work for them that are not also lawyers. For lawyers who practice as solo practitioners, they might not have anyone in that category, or they might have one or two such people to supervise. Lawyers who work in firms may have more, sometimes, many more.

Government lawyers can have blurry lines regarding who all is within their realm of supervisory responsibility. Attorneys who work as prosecutors can, for example, have to evaluate not just their supervisory responsibility over direct staff but whether other law enforcement officers’ conduct is something they have to be concerned with from a supervisory perspective.

In any particular jurisdiction, the ethical issues regarding all of this are primarily governed by whatever version of Model Rule 5.3 has been adopted. Other law can come into play as well.

Today’s post isn’t exactly about how all of that works, today’s post is an attempt to suss out how things like this keep happening with respect to the way that agents of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents are doing their jobs and engaging in deceptive, and illegal, conduct. In a different time, the instinct would be to say that the answer to questions of “Where were the lawyers?” would be that they were actively excluded by the other law enforcement officials so as not to know. But then there are things like this that also seem to keep happening.

So, at the moment, the simplest answer I can figure out for how this keeps happening is laid out in the contents of this editorial written by a career Justice Department prosecutor who resigned after 36-plus years of service.

The ABA comes through with another quality ethics opinion.

So, nearly everything is awful these days. Finding something interesting enough to avoid highlighting the awfulness around us is not altogether easy. This is pretty much too traumatic and damning to write about. Dwelling on this would just be petty at this point.

Coming through as a light at the end of the tunnel today is ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 494 released by the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility addressing a decent topic.

The topic – what are an attorney’s obligations that can arise from personal relationships with opposing counsel? Patterned a bit, as it explicitly acknowledges, on a recent Formal Ethics Opinion regarding judicial personal relationships with lawyers (Formal Opinion 488), Formal Opinion 494 hits all of the correct notes for dealing with this issue.

Most importantly, it appropriately centers the analysis where it fits in the Model Rules: it is an issue involving RPC 1.7(a)(2) – material limitation conflicts arising from a lawyer’s own personal interests. The opinion stresses that ordinarily such conflicts are not imputed to others at the firm. And it lays out reasonable categories to help guide lawyers in their thinking about these issues.

It also makes the point that while, most of the time, the obligation on the lawyer is disclosure to the client and moving forward only if the client is willing to waive the conflict, there can be situations where the conflict is, itself, not waivable.

The opinion posits a relationship between two lawyers that is so close that the lawyer could never get comfortable filing a well-founded motion for sanctions against the other lawyer on behalf of a client as an example of a situation where the conflict may not even be waivable.

And that entire genre of thought has, over the years, been very helpful to me in talking lawyers through situations, both in their real practice, and just as an educational tool at seminars. I, like many other ethics CLE speakers, have used lots of hypotheticals to tease out ethics issues and one that has always been fun to discuss involves something like this scenario:

You are at lunch with opposing counsel on an appellate matter who is a close friend and former colleague. Unprompted, he says, “I bet you can’t wait to see what I’ve got in store for you in my response brief. Well, you’ll have to wait a bit because I’m going to take every day allowed for me before filing so you won’t get your hands on it until a week from tomorrow.” You know, because you just checked it before coming here, that his deadline for his brief is actually tomorrow. What do you say?

This scenario usually prompts a good discussion and there is always someone in the crowd willing to say that they would tell their friend to, at least, go back and double check their math on the deadline. The problem, of course, is that doing that without first talking to your client to get approval would be extremely ethically dicey. The easiest way to drive that point home to lawyers is to ask them if, since the personal relationship with opposing counsel is so important to them, they secured informed consent from their client at the outset with respect to how the lawyer’s personal interest in their close friendship with opposing counsel could materially limit the representation.

Formal Opinion 494 is a well-done explanation of this same concept as well as something that offers a more formal set of guiding principles for determining whether disclosure to a client may be required. The full opinion is worth a read.

Is it perfect? No. It is infuriating in one respect. It is dated July 29, 2020 but was only released today, October 7, 2020.

We are all struggling with linear time these days. The last thing we need is the ABA trying to gaslight us about what month it is. Plus, if they are going to do that, you might as well go full bore and date Formal Opinion 494 as having been issued on the 221st day of March 2020.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

This is not a post about politics in the United States, though the title of the post might make it seem like it could be.

This is instead a post that has to be written because I saw a headline and thought, “well that has to be fodder for a post,” and then it turned out to be a new story about someone I wrote about previously.

(NB: I could have titled this post, “Turns out it was a story about two men named Brady” but that would have been both too deep of a deep cut if you are a new reader, and a pretty unacceptable level of punnery even for a Friday post.)

Having now “cleared my throat” on screen more than sufficiently, I’ll actually deliver some content… this is a quick hit follow up on a story I wrote about back in the before-times… July 2019.

Christopher Brady used to be a Florida lawyer. He got disbarred for some Hollywood (California not Florida) style breaking and entering to steal a computer server from his former law firm.

I got pulled into writing about his story originally because the ABA Journal online ran a headline about how he got disbarred over punctuation which was, at best, partially correct. (He created a new law firm that had the same name as the firm that had terminated him but that added periods to the abbreviation part of the law firm name, so that his former employer was Barak Law Group, PA but his new firm was Barak Law Group, P.A.)

(Barak. Like a misspelled version of the first name of the most-recent prior President of the United States. Barack Obama. You remember him, right. A man who would have never responded to a question about whether there would be a peaceful transition of power in the United States in a chilling fashion.)

So, why am I rehashing this guy’s story? Well, because the ABA Journal got me with a headline again, but this time it appears the headline was 100% accurate:

Disbarred lawyer is convicted even though twin took responsibility for the crime.

I mean, come on. Now that I know this guy had a twin brother, how in the world was that not more integral to the defense of the disciplinary proceedings?

“No, I’m not the guy you see on that video recording tying a rope from that truck to the front door of the Barak Law Group law firm and then moving the truck so that the door rips open. . . No, sir, not me. Also, I’m not one of the two guys on that tape who go inside and take out a safe and a computer server. No, sir. I’ve got a twin. That has to be the work of my twin!”

(The above is, of course, entirely fictional dialogue I just made up out of whole cloth.)

The twin defense didn’t exactly work in the latest criminal case, of course, but still. “Feels” like this should have been mentioned earlier.

The criminal case that captured the ABA Journal’s attention this week involves a crime that has much more of a “Better Call Saul” flavor rather than the “Breaking Bad” style of the truck-door-computer server heist. The criminal act was the faking of a court order impacting child custody for the benefit of the lawyer’s twin brother. The fake order, which indicated it was filed on a day the court clerk’s office wasn’t open for business and which included misspellings such as “habeus” and “honerable,” commanded the twin brother’s ex-wife to deliver custody of the child to the twin brother. According to the news reports of the trial, the former lawyer was convicted for the forgery even though the twin brother testified that he was the one who committed the act.

Interestingly, these events all occurred earlier in time than the server heist. The events leading to this conviction actually did involve the Florida lawyer acting as a lawyer because he was representing his twin brother in the child custody proceedings and was still permitted to practice law during the events. Representing family is often a bad idea for lawyers. The reasons typically are more subtle than the issues presented by the Brady twins.

If you’re looking for photos of the twins (identical not fraternal), rest assured they do have the “Florida man” flavor you might expect and you can get them at this link to some local Florida media.

The era of permanent disbarment in TN has begun.

What now seems like an eternity ago, because it was written in the before-times, I wrote about Tennessee’s change to its disciplinary procedural rules resulting in implementation of permanent disbarment. I questioned exactly why the change was needed and what it would mean given that it was being paired with changes to extend the maximum length of suspensions from 5 years to 10 years.

As with a lot of things I have written, it amounted to nothing more than screaming into the void as the changes went forward and became effective as disbarments entered on or after July 1, 2020. (Also, “Screaming into the Void” sounds like a very good high school yearbook theme for 2020-2021.)

Earlier this month, the first two permanent disbarments were entered in Tennessee under the new procedural rules. An attorney practicing in middle Tennessee was disbarred forever on September 10, 2020. The charges against him stemmed from having pled guilty in federal court in 2019 to wire fraud, identity theft, and tax fraud. The underlying conduct involved misappropriations of funds in trust belonging to a minor and misappropriating other funds in a probate case.

The second permanent disbarment order was entered a day later involving a Tennessee lawyer based in Alabama. Her case has few similarities to the first beyond the ultimate outcome. She essentially took on clients in immigration matters (6) and failed to provide services despite being paid, dumped the clients, and retained the fees. She apparently did this in the process of abandoning her practice. Once a disciplinary investigation began, she did not respond to the Board, was then temporarily suspended (did not comply with the requirements for providing clients notice after such a suspension), and then consented to the permanent disbarment ruling against her.

So, what we can learn from this with respect to how permanent disbarment might be used? Not much, I guess. Neither of these lawyers have very sympathetic stories, one of the two consented to being disbarred forever and the other is likely in federal prison for essentially stealing money. That doesn’t mean that neither might have been able to trod a path to redemption under the prior procedure, but neither presents the kind of case that would make anyone want to even online browse for, much less go to, any mattresses.

But there are two things still worth thinking about.

The first is the capriciousness of timing. As mentioned in my ancient posts, the rule change implementation was not one that was going to apply only to new cases arising after a certain date but to orders of disbarment entered after a certain date. To drive that point home, on June 26, 2020, a lawyer in Washington County, Tennessee consented to disbarment over conduct that is not publicly clarified in any respect other than with reference to rules (RPC 8.4(a)(b)(c)(d) and (e), which would imply the situation would have involved some sort of criminal conduct and some sort of dishonesty. But, because the order was entered before July 1, 2020, that lawyer has the glimmer of hope for redemption because they can apply for readmission to the bar on or after June 27, 2025.

The second is an administrative issue that probably does not matter in the two permanent disbarments so far but that might be worth some further scrutiny in the future. Both of the September 2020 permanent disbarment orders end with the statement that the former lawyers must also comply with the portions of the rules applying to disbarred attorneys with respect to notifying clients and others of the disbarment. Now that disbarments are permanent in Tennessee, that’s a pretty pointless requirement. There is no hammer to force compliance and now no longer any carrot to incentivize compliance. In the past, whether a lawyer complied with those notice requirements would play a role in any future efforts to be reinstated.

But now? If not a purely aspirational requirement to maintain, it is practically, entirely toothless.

The thing about the re-regulation of the practice of law …

. . . is it really could go either way. It could make things better or it could make things worse. It truly depends on who ends up doing the re-regulation and what motivates them along the way.

What is prompting the need to say this sentiment out loud today exactly? Well, cynical types might say it is because there are these two things I want to write about and maybe it is the only thing they have in common. Less cynical types might say … well pretty much the same thing.

It also might come from the general feeling, shared by lots of folks out there I believe, that so many things in life sit on a knife’s edge at the moment and, depending on lots of variables, could pivot in one direction and start to get better or another direction and get even worse.

Recently, we revisited the state of things on the general topic of re-regulation to note that the Utah Supreme Court actually pulled the trigger on creating their regulatory sandbox to allow lawyers and others to collaborate more closely in the delivery of legal services. Frequent readers of this space will know that, in the past, posts about the happenings in Utah have always been in close proximity to the happenings in Arizona and will not be surprised to know it has happened again.

The Arizona Supreme Court has once again jumped ahead of Utah’s trailblazing by simply eradicating RPC 5.4 altogether (as well as eradicating any restrictions on solicitation by lawyers in the advertising rules) effective January 1, 2021. No sandbox or limited experiment, just full steam ahead.

My initial belief (which will also come as no surprise to readers) is that this is and will be a good thing for consumers of legal services. But there is no guarantee that it will be. Much will depend on who takes advantage of the changes. If Arizona sees an influx of interest by investors into lawyers and law firms that represent consumers, then the needle will almost undoubtedly move in the direction of greater access to both information about the availability of legal services and access to meaningful justice. If Arizona instead sees growth mainly in the delivery of business services or expansion by large accounting and consulting firms into the practice of law and outside investment in lawyers and law firms that defend wealthy clients, then things could actually get worse in terms of the balance between the haves and the have-nots.

The battle for the re-regulation of the practice of law, however, will not be fought only in changes to ethics rules that govern those who actually already have become lawyers. It will also be fought over how those who wish to become lawyers are evaluated before being admitted to practice. In terms of evaluation, I do mean both from an intellectual preparedness standpoint but also on the topic of character and fitness to be a lawyer.

As to the first, there are many, many stories to be read on the internet these days about the difficulties facing states all over the country in how to deal with bar examinations for law school graduates as we, as a nation, still struggle with COVID-19. Unfortunately, less than a handful states so far have pivoted to granting diploma privilege to the graduates caught in this professional limbo. Fortunately, only a few states insisted on simply plowing forward with in-person examinations. All of the other states have engaged in experiments in trying to deliver online examinations. The results have been mixed at best. (With luck I will have a bit more to say on this topic later today, but only over on Twitter so hit me up with a follow @bsfaughnan over there.)

As to the second, the process of evaluating the character and fitness of those who aspire to be lawyers is a significantly less-than-perfect process. The fact that the same process is also applied to lawyers who seek additional licenses from other state bars further reveals its flaws. That it is a process that often improperly seeks to force aspiring lawyers to provide information about receiving treatment for mental health unrelated to questionable conduct further invites strong criticism.

This week in an opinion out of federal court in Kentucky a judge managed to simultaneously strongly call out that state’s problematic and invasive approach in a way that is nearly impossible to disagree with on the merits but also to provide evidence that the ABA was correct when it concluded that he was not fit for the federal bench in the first place. The opinion is a particularly bittersweet ride given that, effective today, the judge in question is now being elevated to a set on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. (As to the appellate position, the ABA has concluded that he is qualified.)

If you’d like the short version of the opinion in question, you can check out this ABA Journal online article. A full copy of the opinion, however, can be obtained at the download button below.

In the opinion, the judge absolutely savages how Kentucky treats applicants for licensure and does so in circumstances involving a lawyer who had practiced, without incident, for many years in Florida before seeking to add a Kentucky license to her tool belt. The judge particularly focuses upon the invasive nature of Kentucky’s demands for disclosures about treatment for mental health conditions, demands unbounded by any relationship to any prior inappropriate conduct or any effort by the lawyer-applicant to explain such conduct as being caused by some prior untreated condition.

In the strongest and most emotionally charged language that tends to resonate with those of us who strongly believe that mental health issues in the profession need to be de-stigmatized, the judge closes his opinion out as follows:

Law school is hard. The stress, rigor, and competition can lead to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Many students who start school healthy are far from it by the time they graduate. Some kill themselves.

Aspiring lawyers should seek the health care they need. But if Kentucky continues to punish people who get help, many won’t. And one day, a law student will die after choosing self-help over medical care because he worried a Character and Fitness Committee would use that medical treatment against him — as Kentucky’s did against Jane Doe.

It is not a matter of if, but when.

The entire opinion, in fact, is filled with this kind of simple language that is compelling and easy for lawyers to understand. But 90% of the 18-page opinion is all dicta because the judge actually disposed of the lawsuit filed by the lawyer because they had now finally become a lawyer and no longer had standing to challenge the process they went through when they were an applicant. Only an applicant would have standing to bring the kinds of claims being sought – and, perhaps, not even then because of immunity issues associated with the decision-makers. It could have been a straightforward, nondescript, three- or four-page opinion.

Thus, what the opinion really reads like is an attack on what the judge “tags” as the “Bar Bureaucracy” and drips with the vindictiveness of someone whose credentials were challenged by the largest national association of lawyers in the United States, the ABA.

As someone who believes, on the facts laid out in the opinion, that the Florida lawyer was poorly treated by the Kentucky approach to such issues, reading the opinion is still a highly bittersweet experience. (A bit like watching a shark attack even your worst enemy — something you can’t take any pleasure in because at any point the shark might turn its attention to tearing into you.)

This is particularly true when you bear in mind that this judge – like many that have been installed on the federal courts during the last 4 years and that are career-long members of The Federalist Society — appears to have a very likely overall agenda that is not centered in the kind of empathy that he now expresses over issues of mental health in the legal profession.

Instead, this is a judge whose other prominent decisions during his short-lived tenure include attacking a mayor in Kentucky who was trying to deal with the pandemic as having “criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.” He is also a judge who, if given the opportunity, is likely to vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act and strip healthcare from millions in the middle of a pandemic. He is a judge in a mold of judges who will decry all that they do not like as “judicial activism,” but blithely engage in the kind of judicial activism that involves writing a scolding and self-righteous decision nearly 90% of which was unnecessary as dicta.

If the landscape surrounding entry into the practice of law is shaped and re-regulated by the kinds of judges that have been enshrined into power over this last Presidential term of office, then things might improve for the better or they could very well become much worse.

Gambling with RPC 1.8(a) is always risky.

It is not often that you get decisions out of any of the second highest courts in the land that turn on application of an attorney ethics rule, so it can be important to highlight when such events occur.

Given how many lawyers and law firms overlook the interrelationship between RPC 1.5 and RPC 1.8(a), it is very important to highlight the Fifth Circuit’s ruling last week in Wiener, Weiss & Madison v. Fox. In Fox, the Fifth Circuit ruled that because a contingency fee agreement between the firm and its client violated Louisiana’s version of RPC 1.8(a), it was unenforceable.

The full opinion is a good read for most any lawyer or firm that dabbles in contingency fee work.

For readers here, there is only some bare-bones background necessary to understand what ended up being the court’s straightforward result:

  • The firm’s representation of Fox started on an hourly rate basis in connection with Fox’s ex-husband’s bankruptcy proceedings, but because of tied up assets the firm agreed to seek those fees from the court paid out of the bankruptcy estate
  • The firm actually got paid, on application with the court, an attorney fee in the amount of more than $1 million.
  • There was more work to be done for Fox and the firm did not think the bankruptcy court would ever approve more fees, so the firm proposed a contingency fee agreement with Fox that the firm would get up to a 35% interest in Fox’s claims against the estate or as an equity owner in certain gambling entities tied up in the bankruptcy estate. Fox signed that agreement.
  • The bankruptcy court approved a plan of reorganization and gave Fox 100% interest in a holding company coming out of the estate.
  • Firm then claimed work was done and, if their client wanted them to continue, the client would have to sign a new contingency agreement that upped the percentage to 40%. Fox signed that agreement as well.
  • A few years later, the firm decided it thought the existing agreement was “unwieldy” and asked Fox to execute a new one. This time, for the first time, the firm advised Fox to seek independent counsel about whether to enter into the agreement.
  • She did, the independent counsel advised she shouldn’t sign, apparently also advised her that the earlier agreements were in violation of the rules, and the firm eventually sued Fox for breach of contract.

The Fifth Circuit, joined the analysis of a number of other courts in concluding that the 40% agreement was unenforceable because it provided the firm with a contingent interest in property owned by Fox and was, therefore, a business transaction with a client. Because the firm did not comply with RPC 1.8(a) as to that agreement, it was void.

Interestingly though, the Fifth Circuit should have been able to get to that conclusion without having to focus even one bit on the question of the property interest piece. This is because any renegotiation of a fee agreement with an existing client where the goal of the renegotiation is to improve the financial stake of the lawyer or law firm is a business transaction with a client requiring compliance with RPC 1.8(a).

In Tennessee, we make this clear in a comment to our version of RPC 1.8(a):

[1] …. It also applies when a lawyer seeks to renegotiate the terms of the fee agreement with the client after representation begins in order to reach a new agreement that is more advantageous to the lawyer than the original agreement….

Louisiana famously has adopted the ABA Model Rules but adopted no comments to those rules, The comment language to the ABA Model Rule does not spell out the answer on renegotiation the way that Tennessee’s does so the answer to this question under Louisiana’s rules required focusing on the property interest because the comment to the ABA Model Rules does include a reference to that concept.

The reason it is so important for lawyers to see these situations when they arise for what they are is that evaluation of a contingent attorney fee agreement becomes even more strict under RPC 1.8(a) than it would be under RPC 1.5(c). Not only does there become a hard-and-fast requirement of encouraging the client to seek out independent counsel for advice, but the rule requires that the new terms to be fair and reasonable from the perspective of the client. That sometimes can mean something different than merely being a reasonable contingency fee under RPC 1.5(c) and RPC 1.5(a).

Three developments presented in decreasing order of importance.

Last week, the Utah Supreme Court officially approved the most “radical” change in any state’s ethics rules since DC adopted a limited approval for law firms to have partners who are not lawyers several decades ago.

The Utah Supreme Court announced its adoption of a package of reforms aimed at improving the access to justice gap in Utah as well as improving the availability of access to legal information generally. I’ve written about the Utah proposal in the past, but you can read the press release regarding approval of the reforms issued by the Utah Supreme Court here.

In addition to reforms to the advertising rules, the re-regulation effort revises Utah’s version of RPC 5.4 and 7.2 to allow people who are not lawyers to have ownership interests in law firms, allow lawyers and people who are not lawyers to work together in entities that will provide legal services and allow lawyers to compensate people who are not lawyers for bringing them work. As part and parcel of these efforts, Utah has formed a regulatory “sandbox” where entities can apply to take advantage of these provisions and deliver legal services and through which data can be gathered about the effectiveness of the revisions. The sandbox program will operate initially as a two-year program. You can read more takes online about this development here, here, and here.

Also, just shy of a month ago now, the Chicago Bar Association became the first voluntary bar association to have a task force report that also proposes altering aspects of the legal landscape to address these issues. You can read the full task force report from the Chicago Bar Association here if you’d like. What the Chicago Bar proposes does not go nearly as far as what Utah is undertaking – specifically the Chicago Bar was not willing to take on ownership restrictions — but it does propose significant reforms, including:

  • Removing restrictions on the ability of lawyers to work with intermediaries to deliver legal services
  • Creating a new category of licensed paralegal that could deliver certain limited legal services to consumers
  • Streamlining the Illinois ethics rules related to advertising

Finally (for today), the least important development of the three, but one I shamelessly will still write about… I am honored to report that on Friday of last week I was elected as President-Elect of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers. As a result, I will serve in that capacity from August 2020 to August 2021 and will then become President of APRL for a one-year term commencing in August 2021. I am very much looking forward to being able to serve APRL as the 32nd President in its history as an organization.

Two ethics opinions: one good, one bad, but both reveal systemic problems.

So, New York and Florida. Interestingly, those states have been bookends of our nation’s problems with COVID-19 and with fighting it. New York got hit very badly early, given the concentrated nature of its population centers, but then engaged in a very serious effort of taking the virus very seriously and managed to significantly flatten its curve. Florida’s government ignored and downplayed the situation, and now is experiencing horrible daily numbers and now has overall numbers of cases and deaths that are worse than New York’s. The two states contrasting efforts though still combine to tell a large part of the problem plaguing the United States when it comes to the pandemic — the lack of a coordinated national strategy because we have an incompetent and dysfunctional federal executive.

Two recent developments in ethics opinions from each state also offer contrasting approaches to issuing ethics opinions, contrasting results, and combine to tell part of the larger story of issues plaguing the profession as a whole.

First, let’s start with New York State Bar Association Op. 1200 which is good on procedure but bad on outcome. This opinion addresses application of New York’s RPC 5.7 and the combination of legal services and wealth management services. It was issued after what would appear to be the traditional, efficient, process of receiving a written request for an opinion, having a committee meet and deliberate, and then issuing a written opinion.

The answer it gives to the question whether the same lawyer can render legal services to a client and, through another entity, provide wealth management services to the same person is baffling. Despite the clear rationale for a why a rule like RPC 5.7 exists and, despite the fact that RPC 1.7 should provide for the ability for a waiver of such a conflict, the answer provided is that the conflict is so severe as to be unwaivable. And the only real explanation that is proffered for why is that the lawyer is simply going to be making too much more money from the provision of the wealth management services than from the provision of legal services. Maddening because of all that implies about not only evaluating the conflict rules but how it can justify other assumptions raising questions about a number of other ethics rules that operate under the assumption that lawyers can do the right thing in terms of representing their clients ethically even when it is in conflict with their own financial interests.

Next comes Florida where there exists a proposed ethics opinion waiting on action by the Florida Supreme Court. Technically, it isn’t an ethics opinion as it comes from the Florida Bar Standing Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, but given the relationship to RPC 5.5, that’s a bit of a tomato/tomahto situation.

Now, procedurally it is nightmarish. To get to the point of even issuing the opinion, they held what for all intents and purposes looks like the equivalent of a trial. Sworn witnesses and all. Even after that, it still has to be approved by someone else. Substantively, proposed Florida Advisory Op. 2019-4, would be good because it would conclude that a New Jersey-licensed lawyer who had retired from his job, moved to Florida, and then took a new job for a New Jersey company would not be engaged in UPL if he continued to reside and work in Florida (where he was not licensed) and advised the New Jersey employer about federal law issues.

Now, it is an opinion that shouldn’t be necessary at all for a few reasons, including that if all that is occurring is advising about federal law issues, then Model Rule 5.5(d)’s language should pretty straightforwardly and clearly allow that activity. Unfortunately, Florida curiously does not have that language in its rules and does not appear willing to facially admit the underpinnings of federalism and the Supremacy Clause that require that result. And, even if the question had been about general work for the New Jersey company remotely, it shouldn’t take the equivalent of a trial to figure out that the answer should be that no UPL takes place.

This may all have been less clear to the profession before the pandemic, but during (and if we ever get to a point of “post”) the pandemic it should be painfully clear that the physical presence alone of a lawyer in a particular location should not be dispositive of whether UPL is occurring.

For what it is worth, my proposal for a practical solution to the question of UPL in modern practice that would still allow for things that truly should be regulated to be regulated would be as follows:

There should be a uniformly used “totality of the circumstances/most substantial connection”-style test that evaluates:

  1. where the lawyer is located
  2. where the client is located
  3. if there is a contemplated legal proceeding (or other matter involved such as commercial transaction or closing) where that is located or expected to be located; and
  4. what state’s law would govern in such a proceeding (or other matter).

And, unless the majority of those factors involve a state where the lawyer is not licensed then it simply isn’t UPL.

If my math is correct that would mean that as long as any 2 of the factors touched the lawyer’s state of licensure, then the lawyer is free and clear (or stated differently, unless 3 of the 4 involve a state where the lawyer isn’t licensed, then the lawyer is free and clear).

And, there would still have to be a continued exception acknowledged for purely federal law situations.

Opposite ends but still the same spectrum (mostly).

Lawyers can get into significant amounts of ethical trouble over money issues. They can put their licenses at real risk by messing up their trust accounting obligations, they can get in trouble for overbilling clients, and, often, if they end up suing a client for failure to pay bills that are appropriately due, they will get a counterclaim for legal malpractice filed in response.

Over the last week, two items popped up on the radar screen that demonstrate even more ways that lawyers can run afoul of the ethics rules on topics involving money.

The first is a classic example of things that lawyers cannot do – because of the dishonesty involved – even if the end result is that their clients are not actually harmed by what transpired.

This story involves a lawyer in Pennsylvania who has been suspended for four years for making payments from his own personal funds to clients and misleading them about the outcomes of the handling of their matters. As happens pretty frequently, I saw this story thanks to an ABA Journal online article, but here is a link to the full order of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which really comes about by way of a consent agreement for the level of discipline.

Interestingly, as far as these things go, his suspension was made retroactive all the way back to February 25, 2016 when the lawyer was temporarily suspended on an emergency basis over the misconduct. So, by the time the ultimately suspension order was issued, he has already served the full amount of the suspension and can, presumably, seek reinstatement in Pennsylvania.

More interestingly, his downfall came about as a result of falling down, quite literally. He experienced a vasovagal syncope and collapsed in such a way that he broke his face very severely. While hospitalized, others at his firm tried to cover on his matters and learned of what the lawyer had been doing.

As the filings with the Pennsylvania court detail, what he had been doing was paying clients out of pocket on their cases and telling him that these were settlements obtained for them in their cases, when, in reality, he had failed to file their matters. (There were even more clients identified where he was stringing them along about the status but had not yet gotten to the point of paying them.)

There were, as you might expect, lots of other deceptions the lawyer had to engage in to cover up the trail of what he was doing. The filings also lay out that, as often is the case when something like this takes place, the lawyer’s conduct came along despite a clean prior disciplinary history after he began experiencing problems of anxiety and depression. And that aspect of the tale makes it a little easier to attempt to be sympathetic, right up until you focus on the amounts involved.

The amounts involved amounted to in excess of $500,000, including a $424,000 payment to one of the four clients. Yes, you read those numbers right.

If I happened to have a half a million lying around that I could easily part with, I’m pretty confident I would not still be practicing law in the first place.

Shifting to the related topic that is easier to invoke sympathy, one of the things that the ethics rules in nearly every jurisdiction do is bar lawyers from providing funds to clients in order to help those clients meet their day-to-day needs. Instead, the only things that lawyers can do by way of advancing expenses to clients for which no repayment would be required is if the expenses are litigation expenses related to a matter the lawyer is handling for the client.

Last week, in connection with its first ever virtual annual meeting, the ABA House of Delegates was reportedly going to consider a resolution revising Model Rule 1.8(e) to allow for a “humanitarian” exception to this ethical prohibition. A proposal was recently enacted in New York to do likewise. I thought I had read somewhere that the ABA proposal had passed, but I cannot find anywhere online to confirm that. The resolution and report that was to be considered can be obtained from the download button link below.

Historically, the primary concern (as I understand it) that has always driven this prohibition is that, without it, deep pocketed lawyers would be able to obtain business simply by being able to pay clients directly to keep their cases.

Given the continued economic struggles being created as the pandemic rages on, it will be interesting to see what sort of traction, if any, such measures get moving forward.

Three for Thursday?

Can that be a thing?

I’ve fallen down on the job of being a reliable blogger and I’m not sure I’m getting up any time soon.

I think I’ve continued to manage to be a decent lawyer, pretty good expert witness, okay husband, mediocre father, and generally non-evil human being. But I’m failing as a blogger lately.

I have decent intentions. I can’t prove that, but you’ll just have to trust me. But when I try to carve out the time, I stray to the world of constant information of the Internet and wallow in the notion that 150,000 people in the United States have died now and so, so, so very many of them did not have to if we had even halfway decent leadership in our nation. And, it doesn’t look like it is getting better any time soon.

So, here’s three short entries about three topics I’ve written about in the past and that are back in the consciousness of, at least me, but also I think the legal news world.

Remember when, as lawyers in the United States, we were worried about protecting client information in connection with international travel?

Hey, remember when lawyers in the United States could travel internationally?

Yeah, good times.

Well, very briefly to reset the discussion to back in the before-times, things were maybe looking up and it looked like privileged and confidential information possessed by lawyers might be protected in connection with border crossings. Here’s a link to an ABA Journal story that indicates that things may not actually be looking up really at all. At least not as long as the current regime remains in charge.

So, topic the second, states are still trying to figure out how to allow the law school graduates of 2020 to demonstrate that they can be admitted into the practice of law. I wrote some about what Tennessee was going to do, and chided a little bit about how signs were pointing toward trying to go to diploma privilege was probably a better answer. Since then, Tennessee has cancelled its rescheduled in-person bar exam and instead will have an online only exam in October 2020. Better. Still not willing to allow for diploma privilege as the answer though.

On a not unrelated point, Michigan was one of the first states pursuing the online only bar exam option to move forward this week, and it did not go very well. Tech problems. Caused apparently by a DDOS attack. Good thing there is no reason to think those might happen in other states. Oh, also, Indiana has been trying to do one online and announced it will instead have an emailed bar exam.

And, finally, the ABA recently issued a Formal Ethics Opinion designed to try to lay to rest ongoing concerns about what the scope of ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) is and what it does and does not restrict. You might recall 8.4(g) which was adopted almost exactly 4 years ago by the ABA and has been adopted almost nowhere else since. (You might recall it from when I used to write about it Hamilton-style (“non stop“).) It is a good advocacy piece. Probably better than the advocacy pieces that the ABA had available when it first passed the rule. It is not a good ethics opinion exactly though because it doesn’t really do any of the things you would expect an ethics opinion to do. You can read it here.

But, I mean, have you looked at the world around us?

I don’t think a well-reasoned explanation of why states could adopt ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) and not be concerned that they would somehow be restricting cherished liberties is going to gain much traction whether it looks like a traditional ethics opinion or an outright advocacy piece.

So, I mean, why not just try an advocacy piece, I guess?

Sigh.

(P.S. Given that the only prior Taylor Swift album I liked was the one Ryan Adams did as a cover… I never expected I’d be saying how incredibly good a Taylor Swift album is, but here we are. folklore is fantastic. And it isn’t fantastic just because I love The National and Bon Iver. Ms. Swift’s got incredible talent, a very lovely voice, and wrote some really good and poignant lyrics.)

(P.P.S. It is a really good, really good album as is. But I also can totally imagine every single song (except Exile [for obvious reasons]) also being excellent if sung by Matt Berninger. I’m thinking that’s a feature not a bug.)