A tale of two ethics opinions.

So, I’ve made something of a habit of writing about ethics opinions.  Bad ones and good ones.  Mostly bad ones though.

As the trite – almost hackish – title of this post telegraphs, today I want to compare and contrast two recently released ethics opinions that manage to demonstrate the good that can come from a well done ethics opinion on the kind of issue that cries out for guidance in the form of an ethics opinion and the harm that can come from the kind of ethics opinion that likely should not be issued at all.

First, the good – an opinion issued out of Texas (which Karen Rubin has already written some about) that tackles a thorny problem that can confront a lawyer who has been retained by an insurance company to represent one of the company’s insureds in a piece of litigation.

The particular question addressed in Texas Opinion 669 is this:

Under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, may a lawyer retained by an insurance company notify the insurance company that the insured client he was assigned to represent is not cooperating in the defense of the client’s lawsuit?

The answer the Texas opinion provides, as difficult as it might be for insurance defense lawyers to hear, is “no.”  And, that answer is the correct one in any jurisdiction where the way the “tripartite” relationship is structured is that the lawyer’s only client is the insured and the insurance company is merely someone who is permitted to pay the lawyer’s bills as long as the lawyer complies with the state’s version of Model Rules 1.8(f) and 5.4(c).

In Tennessee, for example, RPC 1.8(f) specifically states one of the requirements for permitting the lawyer to accept compensation or direction from someone other than the client as being that “information relating to representation of a client is protected as required by RPC 1.6.” (Interestingly, the Texas opinion makes no mention of, or reference to, any of those kinds of rules but simply uses only its confidentiality rule to justify its analysis.)

The unfortunate opinion comes out of Virginia.  Virginia, you might recall, recently made a great leap forward in streamlining its rules on attorney advertising by revising its rules to look very much like the proposal circulated by APRL.  After adoption of those revisions, which became effective on July 1, 2017, Virginia’s ethical restrictions on advertising were largely capable of being described as simply prohibiting false or misleading communications.

Unfortunately, with the issuance of Legal Ethics Opinion 1750, Virginia manages less than a year later to undermine much of its progress by simply re-issuing and updating a lengthy opinion it has released on multiple past occasions that attempts, in advance and not in response to evaluating any particular real advertisement, to provide “guidance” about what kinds of advertising practices should still be avoided because of the potential to be considered to be misleading.

Unlike the Texas opinion, which answered a real dilemma that lawyers can face and for which definitive guidance can be provided, the Virginia opinion is the kind of ethics opinion designed almost exclusively to chill commercial speech.  Even if the guidance it gave on all of the topics it unilaterally decided to address were correct, it would still be the type of opinion that ought not be issued.

Certainly, it says some things that are undoubtedly true and fun to read about ways that a lawyer could engage in truthful advertising that would still be a problem because it would be misleading by omission.  I’ve spoken at seminars before where I’ve tried to make this point by saying that a lawyer whose ad truthfully proclaimed “I’ve never lost a jury trial,” but fails to also mention, for context, that they’ve never actually been involved in a jury trial is going to be at risk under any fair set of ethics rules.  The Virginia opinion grabs a slightly different version of this rich vein by explaining that a lawyer truthfully crowing that “They secured a $1 million jury verdict in case,” but not mentioning that it came only after turning down a $2 million settlement offer before trial would have disseminated a misleading advertisement.

But, even that guidance is something that really ought not be opined about unless there were an actual lawyer seeking actual guidance about just that sort of advertisement.

So many other pieces of the opinion are even worse, however.   Cautions about using actors in ads, hand-wringing over “no recovery, no fee” statements, and subtle digs at the use of testimonials by actual clients in the opinion appear to be rolled back out for no real reason other than to undermine the progress on lawyer regulation of advertising that had appeared to be achieved by streamlining the rules themselves.

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