An inside-baseball view of judicial ethics and the media

For today, an interesting (at least I think it is interesting) story about a judicial ethics scenario and the ability of media to “shape” a story and how that ability can transform a question of judicial ethics.

About three weeks ago, I spoke with a print reporter with The Nashville Scene about questions he had on a story he was working on about a part-time judge of the General Sessions environmental court in Nashville.  This particular court, among the cases it hears, are ones over using property for purposes of short-term rentals (think Airbnb) without obtaining the required permit to do so.

The reporter’s issue involved the fact that this court would adjudicate the question of whether a property owner was pursuing this endeavor without being properly permitted and that the part-time judge in question owned several properties that were properly permitted.  The reporter was interested in my view on whether this created a disqualifying conflict for the judge under Tennessee’s judicial ethics rules.

We talked for a good bit and, ultimately, I explained my view that — based on my understanding of what the court could (and could not) decide — that the answer was “no, not a disqualifying conflict.

You can read The Nashville Scene story, which contains a fair representation of what I had to say, here.  A few days later, as the public attention on this story continued to grow, I got a call from a reporter with a TV station in Nashville who wanted to know if I’d be willing to do an on-camera interview for a story they were doing on this situation.  He said he saw The Nashville Scene story, knew my view, and wanted me to elaborate on that for the story they were doing.

We worked out a set-up so that we could do a Skype-video interview for his use and managed to talk on camera for maybe 15 minutes or so.  And I again laid out these points in significant detail about why, in my view, this simply wasn’t a conflict.  (I’m biased, but I recall giving a really good explanation of how different the scenario would be if this particular court had the power to hear challenges to the permitting system itself on constitutional or other grounds, for example.)

Cut to the story that actually aired, which you can watch here.  I’m not in it.  Normally, I’m extremely cool with situations, even where I’ve given of my time to a media outlet, where I end up on the cutting room floor.  That’s just life.  But, when you know in advance what I am going to say and I go out of my way to make things happen on your time frame, it is a little more personally frustrating.  But, I swear, I’m not writing this to vent my personal frustration or make this about me.

Instead, the reason I think any of this is interesting at all is the impact that the kind of one-sided TV segment had on what happened next… which is that the judge in question ended up resigning the position citing the fact not that there was originally a disqualifying conflict but because:

“because I believe that the public has an absolute right to feel that their court system is fair and impartial and that recent misleading media reports could call the Court’s fairness into question.”

Now, was that all there was to the story?  No.  I’ve now come to learn in the process of writing about this that there was an intervening news story regarding whether or not the judge was also violating a provision of the ordinance his court was enforcing.  You can watch a story about that here.  I’ll admit I haven’t even tried to dive deep enough into an understanding of the ordinance involved to know whether that is the equivalent of a traffic court judge who happens to get caught speeding or something more serious.  Also, my opinion is, of course, only my opinion and is not dispositive of what the right answer to the question should have been… but as a “participant” in this process, I thought it would still make for an interesting word to the wise about how stories on ethical questions can manage to be “framed” for public consumption in ways that ultimately can heavily impact the outcome.

Two short updates for a Tuesday

Late last month, I focused a post on a West Virginia lawyer who ended up staring down a 2-year suspension over chronic over-billing.  If you missed that post, you can read it here.  If you read it, you will recall that one of the items discussed was that the Executive Director of the West Virginia Public Defender Services agency had indicated that particular lawyer was not even among the worst offenders.

The ABA Journal online has a piece up that is apparently about one such even worse offender who has skipped out on bail regarding the criminal charges he is facing over his rampant over-billing (including billing more than 24 hours on 17 different days) and is suspected to be a fugitive in a much more temperate part of the world than West Virginia.

Over a larger time period and with a bit more frequency, I’ve written a little bit about the ABA Ethics 20/20 revisions to the Model Rules — admittedly through the lens that those revisions were being considered and then adopted here in my home state of Tennessee.  If you’ve been looking for a really good window into what the technology-focused aspects of the Ethics 20/20 revisions mean for your law practice, you are in luck because the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has now put out Formal Ethics Op. 477 which pretty much provides exactly that.

It is a good opinion – it’s getting a lot of attention in the legal media for establishing new standards but that’s not quite right.  It doesn’t really establish anything new but it does do a really good job of focusing lawyers’ attention upon the logical repercussions of the Ethics 20/20 revisions and the risks that lawyers need to be acutely aware of when communicating with clients.

It is also worth noting — particularly given the last few days of ransom ware news (and one other high-profile instance of information that was promised to be kept secret being disseminated under questionable circumstances) that user error continues to be a leading cause of unintended disclosure of (or complete loss of access to) confidential information whether technology is involved or not.

It should go without saying that there is only so much a lawyer can do to try to guard against those kinds of risks.

Wisconsin rightly says no to name dropping without consent.

Earlier this week I criticized what I consider to be a pretty bad ethics opinion that was issued by Rhode Island.  To balance things out a bit, I want to write about an ethics opinion out of Wisconsin that gives the correct answer to its query – Wisconsin Formal Ethics Opinion EF-17-02.  That opinion correctly explains that because of the broad swath of confidentiality created by Rule 1.6, even the names of clients qualify as confidential information and, therefore, a lawyer can only disclose the name of a client if in advertisements or materials circulated for marketing or any other personal purpose if the client has given informed consent to the disclosure or some other exception within Rule 1.6 applies.

In issuing this opinion, Wisconsin had to withdraw an older opinion that provided guidance that the names of clients were not confidential information, Wisconsin Ethics Op. E-93-5.

Lots of lawyers (not just in Wisconsin) do not immediately grasp that this is the correct result — that the identity of a lawyer’s clients is itself confidential information.  A lot of times they don’t do so because doing so requires recognizing that there are a lot of things lawyers do that they really shouldn’t without getting their clients approval.   The Wisconsin opinion uses the example of talking about the fact of a representation as a cocktail party as an example, but there are less obvious ways this issue crops up.  Lawyers often don’t think twice about providing information about the details of their prior representations as part of responding to requests for proposals from insurance carriers as part of trying to become approved as panel counsel, for example.  Some lawyers will rationalize their approach on the basis that they are only disclosing information that can already be found in public records, but the Wisconsin opinion rightly makes the point that Rule 1.6 doesn’t remove the obligation of confidentiality for the lawyer merely because the information is available in a public record.

I’ve often attempted to explain the policy choice that Rule 1.6 enshrines for lawyers along these lines.  Imagine you are a family law attorney.  Now in order to file a divorce complaint for a particular client you are going to have to disclose in the filing a lot of details about your client’s life that they really hope no one finds out about.  Members of the public certainly could go down to the courthouse or go online if the court has electronic records and read all of the sordid details, but the client definitely hopes people don’t.  The ethics rules stake out a position – at least jurisdictions that have the ABA Model Rule version of Rule 1.6 do — that even though the lawyer has to put those things in the public complaint, lawyers are going to be charged with not talking about those things without the client’s consent to do so.  I then often ask lawyers to think about how a conversation would go if you called your client and asked them for permission to offer up the interesting anecdote about their situation.

The ramification of that policy choice ends up being that the rule errs on the side of confidential treatment even for things that many clients might not even expect could be confidential and that’s the reason, for example, that firms who circulate materials about representative clients, whether on their website or elsewhere, need to get client permission to do so.

While Wisconsin’s opinion is praiseworthy on its substance, Wisconsin should still get criticized for its insistence on shielding its formal ethics opinions from the public and providing access to them only for members of the Wisconsin Bar.  That’s a silly and outdated approach.

As a Tennessee lawyer, I only know about what the new Wisconsin opinion says because the fine folks at ABA/BNA reported on it.  Presumably, as they always do, they did a good job and, thus, if you go read their article here then you, like me, can know what Wisconsin had to say in construing its ABA Model Rule-based ethics rule on confidentiality.

Coming full circle, while I can’t stand the substantive outcome offered up by that Rhode Island opinion discussed earlier this week, at least Rhode Island allows for public access to the ethics opinions it issues.  For as long as there continue to be jurisdictions like Wisconsin that shield theirs from view, then offering public access will continue to deserve praise in Rhode Island and elsewhere.

Bad ethics opinion or the worst ethics opinion? Rhode Island 2017-02

I have perused a lot of ethics opinions over the years.  Whether a kind of scenario presents a conflict is a frequent subject of ethics opinions.  I don’t think I’ve read many that address whether a particular conflict of interest is fairly treated as a consentable conflict, however.  Having now read Rhode Island Ethics Advisory Panel Op. 2017-02, which does address that topic, I wish it hadn’t.

It is an extremely short opinion, but it gets a remarkable amount wrong in a limited amount of space.

The short version of the question it tackles is:

ISSUE PRESENTED

The inquiring attorney asks whether the law firm may represent the buyer and the seller, two current clients of the firm, in the sale of a division of the seller’s business to the buyer.

The additional factual details that you need, at minimum, to begin to wrap your head around the astoundingly bad conclusion reached in the opinion are:

  • The buyer is a manager of a division of the seller’s business.
  • The buyer will now be purchasing assets of that division from the seller.
  • The buyer will then also have to work out a lease arrangement with the seller for the premises where the division currently operates.
  • The buyer has been represented by one attorney in the firm on a number of matters unrelated to this business – that attorney has no relationship with the seller or any knowledge of work done for the seller by his/her firm.
  • The seller has been represented by a different attorney in the firm on a number of matters, including matters related to the operation of the seller’s business  – that attorney has no relationship with the buyer or any knowledge of work done for the buyer by his/her firm.
  • Both the buyer and the seller want the firm to represent them as to negotiations and drafting of necessary documents.
  • The firm, if it moves forward, intends to erect an ethics wall/screen (i.e. locked drawers for hard copy materials and limits on electronic access to files) as to the two matters so that there would be no flow of confidential information between the two sides of the proposed representation.

On those facts, the Rhode Island opinion reaches a conclusion that the conflict is so severe that the clients cannot be allowed to give their consent to it.  Now, maybe I have left out the facts that the ethics opinion treats as apparently the most important of all – the distinction between the experience level of the seller and the buyer:

The inquiring attorney states that the seller is experienced in business, including the ownership, purchase, and sale of businesses.  He/she states that the buyer is sophisticated in the industry of the division, but has never owned, purchased, or sold a business.

Well, there you go.  The seller is super sophisticated whereas the buyer is just merely sophisticated.  Seriously.

And, no there is nothing unique or unusual about Rhode Island’s version of RPC 1.7 that would explain the conclusion that this conflict is not consentable.  Rhode Island’s RPC 1.7(b) looks just like the ABA Model version, as it reads:

(b) Notwithstanding the existence of a concurrent conflict of interest under paragraph (a), a lawyer may represent a client if:

(1) the lawyer reasonably believes that the lawyer will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client;

(2) the representation is not prohibited by law;

(3)  the representation does not involve the assertion of a claim by one client against another client represented by the lawyer in the same litigation or other proceeding before a tribunal; and

(4) each affected client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.

On the facts set out above, the Rhode Island opinion concludes that there is no way that each lawyer could “reasonably believe that they will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to the buyer and to the seller in this business transaction.”

And, if that weren’t problematic enough (it is), the opinion also does further disservice to readers with its discussion of screening, stating:

The Rules of Professional Conduct permit screening in only three situations, none of which is presented in the facts of this inquiry: screening for lateral hires under Rule 1.10, screening for former government officers and employees under Rule 1.11, and screening for former judges, arbitrators and mediators under Rule 1.12.

The omission of the modifier “nonconsensual” before screening in that quote is an important one.

It’s important because it means that the Rhode Island opinion writers either failed to understand altogether, or simply chose to ignore, the difference between aspects of the ethics rules that permit a firm to erect a “nonconsensual screen” to address a conflict even over a client’s or former client’s objection and the constant ability of a firm to erect a consensual screen if it is part of what is deemed necessary or desirable in order for one or more clients to agree to give informed consent to waive a conflict.

On the whole, this is just an astoundingly poor ethics opinion and one that reaches a result that rings contrary to the client-friendly position that I’m certain the authors thought they were taking.

What not to do when opposing counsel dies.

Awful things seem to be afoot today.  So let’s talk about an awful thing.

Earlier this week I sort of criticized a federal judge in Mississippi for trying too hard to find something nice to say about a lawyer who was having to be disqualified for dropping a client like a hot potato when the Court called the lawyer’s actions in not delving too far into the new client’s case without first terminating the existing client relationship “commendable.”

That seemed overly generous to me, as I explained in that post about at tuber of elevated temperature here.

But perhaps it is all a matter of what sort of lawyer conduct you compare it to because if you compare that lawyer’s behavior to the behavior of the Tennessee lawyers necessitating this post, the Mississippi lawyer’s conduct does seem commendable.

Here is s link to the Shao v HCA order entered by a Tennessee circuit court judge in Nashville reprimanding lawyers for what is really, truly pretty vile litigation behavior.  I’ll just pull from the opinion because Judge Brothers says it pretty succinctly (for context, the motions being referenced below are the plaintiff’s motion for default judgment, defendants’ motion for extension of time to file an answer, and defendants’ motion for extending time to respond to discovery):

These motions are unfortunately clouded by the untimely and unexpected death of Michael Geracioti, who was counsel of record for these defendants.  Mr. Geracioti died in the early morning hourse of March 16, 2017, and one of his associates, Linda Natheson, advised counsel for plaintiff of his passing.  On that same day, at 12:48 pm, counsel for plaintiff, Brian Cummings, sent an email to Ms. Nathenson expressing his condolences and alerting her to outstanding items due in several cases.  Three hours and ten minutes later, at 3:38 pm, counsel for plaintiff filed the instant Motion for Default Judgment.  Four days later, on March 20, 2017, plaintiff’s counsel, Brian Manookian, sent a letter to Ms. Nathenson threatening to assert a claim of $8,000,000.00 against her clients, her law firm, and the estate of Mr. Geracioti.

This Court is profoundly disappointed in the conduct of plaintiff’s counsel and the timing and manner in which the Motion for Default was presented.  Being a zealous advocate does not mean that one abandons all sense of professionalism, courtesy and common decency.  It is clear that counsel for plaintiff was attempting to gain a tactical advantage by aggressively pursuing the claim for default on the very day of Mr. Geracioti’s death; despite the fact that all parties had been actively engaged in pretrial proceedings and plaintiff’s counsel never complained after striking the original motion.  Such behavior operates as an estoppel to the current claims of prejudice.

It is with regret that this Court must reprimand all of plaintiff’s counsel for conduct that is unbecoming members of the Bar and officers of the court.  Hopefully counsel will apply this constructively and thereby avoid such reprehensible behavior in the future.

Hopefully.

I’ve written it before that a lot of jams lawyers get themselves are avoidable by trying to stick to the principal of Don’t.Be.An.Ass.  This is another one of those situations and, as a reminder of how that rule is entirely reconcilable as Judge Brothers’ hints with being a zealous advocate, here are the words of Comment [1] to RPC 1.3 explains:

 A lawyer must also act with commitment and dedication to the interests of the client and with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf.  A lawyer is not bound, however, to press for every advantage that might be realized for a client.

Comment [3] to that same rule further explains:

A lawyer’s duty to act with reasonable promptness, however, does not preclude the lawyer from agreeing to a reasonable request for a postponement that will not prejudice the lawyer’s client.

Now, I understand that the litigation at issue appears from the caption to be a wrongful death lawsuit, and it is certainly possible that these lawyers’ client was the primary force pushing for these actions, but you would hope that most lawyers would have the ability to explain to a client pushing for such actions that the repercussions of an order such as this from the judge overseeing their suit is far more prejudicial to their case than simply not pursuing such tactics would have been.

As a matter of fact, yes, this potato is still hot. Why do you ask?

In October of this year, I’ll have the honor of again getting to serve as a moderator for a panel discussion at Aon’s Law Firm Symposium.  This year’s event will take place in D.C.  The topic of the panel I get to be a part of will be something of a DQ motion boot camp.  It is still months away, my guess is that we will be focusing on aspects of disqualification motion proceedings that will be harder to predict than the outcome of this case out of Mississippi should have been.

If you know a little something about conflicts, then you are probably have passing familiarity with all of the core concepts necessary to immediately predict the outcome of the scenario that was involved in McLain v. Allstate decided in the S.D. Miss.  I’ll succinctly describe the scenario for you:

Lawyer has had a long term relationship with an insurance company client.  That relationship is not as robust as it used to be as the lawyer is continuing to handle quite a few matters for them but has come to notice that no new matters have been coming from the company for quite a while.  Lawyer is contacted by a potential client who has a matter that would be adverse to this insurance company client.  Lawyer goes ahead and decides to take on the new representation but also terminate the ongoing representation of the insurance company client.  Insurance company brings motion to disqualify, and lawyer argues that insurance company client should be treated as former client and disqualification should occur only if new matter is substantially related to prior matters.

How will lawyer fare?

I have no doubt you answered this correctly.  Not well, the lawyer will not fare well.  The lawyer will get disqualified.  The court will explain that a lawyer cannot drop one client like a “hot potato” in order to transform them into a former client so that you can take on representation of a new client.

Thus, for you Dear Reader, almost all of the contents of the seven-page order disqualifying this lawyer will come as no surprise.

What might come as a surprise to you – it certainly surprised me — is that the federal judge who ordered disqualification actually included a sentence praising the lawyer involved for how he handled the situation. Specifically:

[Lawyer] undertook commendable efforts to insulate himself from a conflict of interest by declining to discuss or investigate McLain’s claims until after [Lawyer] promptly and formally terminated the firm’s relationship with Allstate.

I know people often accuse me of being stingy in terms of doling out praise, but that sentence just leaps off the page as trying too hard to find something nice to say.  Commendable seems a stretch.  Particularly so given that when you work your way back earlier in the opinion itself where it lays out the chronology of events, you will find that the lawyer in question had the new client sign a contract with his firm on October 11, 2016 and, then, on October 12, 2016 sent the letter that attempted to drop Allstate like a tuber of elevated-temperature.

If any aspect of the lawyer’s effort is commendable (and I’m still stretching the utility of the word itself), it would be the whole not-being-very-Machiavellian about it angle.  A truly Machiavellian type would have done more to attempt to manipulate the timeline of events.  Perhaps, having the new client execute an engagement letter, only after the lawyer had time to send the letter to terminate the current client relationship.  I’m not sure that not doing that qualifies as “commendable” exactly.  But it’s something.  As long as it was very close in time, the potato would still be hot and the outcome unchanged, but … like I said it would be something.

A tale as old as time.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one … it’s about a lawyer getting into trouble for overbilling … where there are examples of the lawyer even trying to claim to have billed more than 24 hours in a day.

You probably stopped me somewhere in there because you have heard it before.  The legal profession is filled with people who bill their time fastidiously and honestly.  The legal profession also has among its ranks some folks who don’t.  A West Virginia lawyer subjected to a two-year suspension from practice is among the “don’t” and, remarkably, almost got a much lesser suspension, in part, simply because he was not among the worst overbillers that a West Virginia agency – Public Defender Services – was dealing with.

That context is actually part of what makes this particular incident really worth writing about because it is another unfortunate example of discipline for overbilling coming up in a context where some people can often try to argue it away as being somehow more understandable — lawyers who are trying to make a living off of court-appointed work at unfairly low hourly rates.  The problem, of course, is that not only is that still not a particularly good excuse for deceptive billing practices but it also is counter-productive to how much more difficult it makes it for people who want to advocate for better compensation arrangements for such lawyers to gain traction.

I tend to think the frequency with which lawyers get caught for over-billing in connection with court-appointed work isn’t necessarily a matter of those lawyers being more prone to doing so as much as it is that they are more prone to getting caught because there is effectively one “client” able to see all of their time records and, literally, do the math that the clients of lawyers in private practice serving a variety of clients aren’t as readily positioned to do.

Overbilling was not the only ethical flaw of the West Virginia lawyer made the subject of this 40-page opinion of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals — interestingly enough his other problems involved missing deadlines and neglecting client matters and even includes an interesting side excursion into his suffering from low testosterone which manages to make the inflated billable numbers from prior years seem even more . . . nope, I’m not going to go for blue humor.  At least not today.

For those who don’t want to read a 40-page opinion about this kind of conduct, just a few of the highlights in terms of both the egregious nature of the billing practice and the really pretty remarkable testimony about how he stacked up compared to other lawyers in terms of Cooke-ing the books (We know while I may shrink at going blue I always rise to the opportunity for word play.)

First, here are the lawyer’s overbilling highlights uncovered by the Executive Director of West Virginia’s Public Defender Services:

  • “found to have exceeded fifteen billable hours a day on thirty-one dates from mid-January, 2014 to mid-September, 2014.” (NB: the lawyer’s claimed low testosterone problems were stated to be during and around August 2014 and the West Virginia court most certainly paid attention to that time line to point out that it was interesting that he claimed to be sleeping 10 to 16 hours a day when he couldn’t meet certain deadlines so that, at most, during the relevant time period he couldn’t bill more than 8 to 14 hours a day.)
  • “on four dates he submitted vouchers for twenty-three or greater billable hours and on two dates he submitted vouchers for greater than twenty-four hours” (including billing 27 hours on December 26)
  • “billed 2,568.5 hours, 2,279.3 hours, 2,671.2 hours, and 3,259.46 hours for the years 2011-2014, respectively. These billable hours equate to an average daily billable rate of 7 hours, 6.2 hours, 7.3 hours, and 8.9 hours, for 365 days.”
  • “rarely billed activity at less than .2 hours (12 minutes); the only .1 (6 minutes) entries are attempted phone calls and, occasionally, a hearing. Review of any and all documentation or correspondence, including email, is billed at a minimum .2 hours. Virtually every hearing entails billing .3 hours for “waiting in court,” which affords a higher hourly rate.”
  • “On April 17, based on Cooke’s accounting of his time utilizing his schedule and the court’s docket, in the two-hour window from 1:00 p.m. until a 3:00 meeting at the jail, he billed a cumulative 4.3 hours of “actual time”; the activity billed all consisted of travel, waiting in court, and attending hearings. Similarly, on August 18, Cooke’s incourt schedule shows hearings at 9:00, 9:30, and 10:30 with the docket resuming at 1:00. The matters which were scheduled in the three-hour window from 9:00 a.m. until noon, were billed at a cumulative 6.1 hours. Additionally, matters beginning at 1:15 p.m. on that date were billed at additional 7.2 hours and consisted solely of waiting in court, reviewing “court summaries” while waiting, and attending hearings.”
  • when first called on to explain certain aspects of his billing, he said he couldn’t do so because Public Defender Services hadn’t provided him the information he needed and ” his own time-keeping system would not permit him to retrieve that information.”

As to the chilling notion that this lawyer was not as bad as others, the Executive Director testified:

I still hold firm that we were billed for duplicate—we were billed several times for the same trip, that we were billed several times from the same period of waiting in court. In other words, if he had three hearings, let’s say he waited in 17 court for one hearing while he was actually doing another hearing. That’s not properly [sic] billing. That’s billing the same period of time. So I firmly believe that that had happened, but in looking through the vouchers and everything else, it appeared to be less frequent than I had seen with other counsel. 25 The only perceived fraud or deception that still exists in my mind is the fact that he may have been value billing, that is, billing a .2 for an activity that should’ve only been a .1 or a .4 when it should’ve been a .2. However, he wasn’t billing me 3.0 for these things and he was—and he was saying 12 minutes as opposed to 240 minutes. . . . I just did not see in his case the overt deception that existed with many other attorneys. . . . He was unable to exonerate himself completely in this situation because he had failed to comply with that time requirement, but that, overall, I believe that he was zealously representing his clients and he was providing the actual services that were described even though the time allotted to them may have been—may not have been the actual time.

and he also:

gave the example of one attorney who “rubber-stamped” the same time for each day and one attorney who billed 900 hours of travel in a three-month period.

As a way of further bolstering the problem this creates for those working hard to try to get better, fairer hourly rate reimbursements in place, the Executive Director of the West Virginia program also:

explained that PDS is paying $25 million a year to court-appointed counsel that are, in his opinion, undercompensated at $45/hour for “out of court” time and $65/hour for “in court” time.14 He indicated that when requesting an hourly increase at the Legislature he was typically confronted with the fact that many attorneys were making greater than $100,000.00 a year in court-appointed work and that the legislators took a dim view of an hourly rate increase when, in their opinion, the court-appointed attorneys had given themselves a “raise” by overbilling.

Well, anyway, get back to work I guess.

Virginia’s revised lawyer advertising rules – big win for APRL’s effort to streamline the advertising rules

[In the interest of full disclosure for those who might be new here, I am presently a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL).]

For those who aren’t new here, you know full well my personal opinion on lawyer advertising and what the ethics rules should and should not try to do in terms of regulation.

Unsurprisingly then, I was pleased to learn of Virginia’s decision to adopt new lawyer advertising rules effective July 1, 2017 and to learn that they largely do the kinds of things that APRL has been advocating should be the approach to these issues through proposed revisions to the ABA Model Rules.

You can go read the order entered by the Supreme Court of Virginia earlier this week that lays out the full text of what will now be its only rules in the 7.1 through 7.5 series, Rules 7.1 and 7.3 and accompanying Comments that will become effective July 1, 2017, but here are a few highlights:

  • Rule 7.1 will read in its entirety: “A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.  A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.”
  • Rule 7.2 has been deleted and instead any issues that it used to address are now addressed, if at all, in paragraphs of the Comment to Rule 7.1.
  • One such Comment to Rule 7.1, [2], explicitly acknowledges that the right kind of disclaimer can cure something that might otherwise be argued to be “a statement that is likely to create unjustified expectations or otherwise mislead the public.”
  • Another such Comment to Rule 7.1,, [4], explicitly acknowledges that someone could be a “specialist in a particular field of law by experience,” and that such a person can communicate that specialty as long it is not done in a way that is “false or misleading.”
  • Rule 7.3 addresses all aspects of targeted solicitations and also addresses the prohibitions on providing payment or things of value to someone for a recommendation or referral.
  • As to solicitation, Rule 7.3 makes clear that it applies only to communications that are “initiated” on the lawyer’s end.  And, appears to not attempt to prohibit in-person or real-time solicitation of clients.
  • Instead, it limits its outright prohibition on solicitation to situations where the solicitation is directed to someone who has made known to the lawyer they don’t want to be solicited or when the solicitation “involves harassment, undue influence, coercion, duress, compulsion, intimidation, threats or unwarranted promises of benefits.”
  • It does contain a provision requiring an “ADVERTISING MATERIAL” disclaimer on “written, recorded or electronic solicitation[s]” but not if they are addressed to the universe of folks ABA Model Rule 7.3 has traditionally excluded from the in-person/real-time ban (other lawyers, family members, prior professional relationships, etc.)
  • Rules 7.4 and 7.5 are deleted altogether.

Kudos to the Virginia State Bar, the Supreme Court of Virginia.  One state down, 49 more (plus D.C.) to go.

Ohio Opinion 2017-1: Too much and too little at the same time

An opinion worthy of discussion was issued in Ohio back in February 2017  but I didn’t stumble across it until this past week.  (A tweet by ALAS got it onto my radar screen.)

Advisory Opinion 2017-1 from the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct addresses advertisement of contingent fee arrangements and, in particular, it addresses the following question:

Whether it is proper for a lawyer who advertises to use statements such as “No fee without recovery” or “You pay no fee unless you win” or “There’s no charge unless we win your case” or “You pay us only when we win.”

The opinion focuses only on the distinction in a contingent fee arrangement between fees and repayment of advanced expenses and, as a result, offers the same answer to all of the examples – no.  Now even on the opinions own terms – focusing only on the distinction between expenses and fees, I disagree that all of those should get a “no” answer, but I also think that the Ohio opinion missed an opportunity to evaluate an even more significant question about these kind of statements that has always hit me as potentially problematic.

First, as the opinion explains all of these statements must be run through the filter of RPC 7.1 and a determination has to be made about whether they are false or misleading.  The Ohio opinion concludes that all of the variations of statements tackled are “inherently false or misleading” because they “omit reference to the client’s responsibility for expenses and costs” and thereby “impl[y] that the client will not be required to pay litigation costs, regardless of the outcome of the litigation..”

On one level, I think that goes too far in terms of a harsh result for the two of the four examined statements that plainly speak in terms of “fees.”  To say that those are inherently misleading is a conclusion with which I just disagree.

On another level though, I think this opinion doesn’t go far enough because it fails to address a more legitimate question of how such advertisements can be misleading.

In my opinion, three of the four statements have a problem but it is because of the use of “win” as the conditional event triggering payment of fees.  A client who pursues a contingent fee case and has a serious injury but ends up settling their case for a small amount, let’s pick $30,000 as a random amount, might very well not consider their lawyer to have “won” their case.  For me, the statement that ought to be the exemplar for use is the first one “No fee without recovery.”  And the second one ought to be acceptable if it were to say “You pay no fee unless we recover for you.”  Maybe each of those statements would be even better if “attorney” came before “fee” but I think that’s the path where a consumer is more likely to feel misled or deceived by such an advertisement rather than on the basis that there is an implication about expenses if a lawyer only speaks in the advertisement in terms of fees.

A glimpse into the world of consumer-facing legal services providers

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of serving as a moderator at a CLE event in Nashville focused on developments in the world of consumer-facing legal services providers.  There are a world of companies – predominantly existing only online — that have an increasing presence in the lives of people in need of legal services and answers to their legal questions who, often otherwise, would not reach out directly to a lawyer to try to obtain help for their problems.

The full event was a 3 hour long seminar covering several topics, but the panel I moderated encompassed an hour of conversation with Bob Aicher of ZeekBeek, Matt Horn from Legal Services Link, and Dan Lear from Avvo.

Now, if you are reading this, you’re likely already familiar with the various aspects of Avvo’s footprint in the marketplace.  You may not know as much, however, about ZeekBeek or Legal Services Link.

In some ways, they do quite similar things but the approach is different.  Both operate as an online platform through which people in need of legal services can connect with lawyers who are willing to provide services.  ZeekBeek partners exclusively with state bar associations and, thus, in those states comes across as an entity that has the imprimatur of the state regulatory body and also — for a fee — provides its participating lawyers within a state a different platform for making referrals of work to other lawyers.  Legal Services Link monetizes its provision of a market place for consumers to ask questions and obtain legal advice and representation from participating lawyers by allowing lawyers to view questions for free but requiring lawyers who want to interact with the consumer by replying and answering their inquiries to pay an annual membership fee for that privilege.

While each of the three representatives had differing views on the topic of whether they versus those they compete with are able to do what they do in a way that the participating lawyers can be assured of compliance with the ethics rules, it was very interesting (though not surprising) to hear all three of them agree that the ethics rules that relate to their services are desperately in need of change.

It was a very interesting and engaging discussion.  The good news for you, if you are interested in checking it out, is that you can view the entire program by registering/purchasing it at this link from the TBA.  (As of now there is no way to just pay for the middle hour which was the program I moderated, but should that change I will update this post.)