Ok, let’s talk about the 60 Minutes piece that aired this past Sunday. If you haven’t watched it, by all means you should — it is worth the 20-30 minutes of your time. You can watch it here. As always, I’ll wait until you get done and come back.
Now, it seems beyond dispute that the 60 Minutes broadcast plays as a story likely to blacken the eye of the profession. It’s also the kind of piece that, as it gets legs, tends to lead inexorably to vigorous discussions about the need for new and better regulations to crack down on using lawyers for such transactions. Further, the story is a bad look for all of the lawyers involved in terms of publicity (with the exception of the lawyer who said no and should be well primed to do a Diet Snapple commercial or two) and that the ABA comes out at the end looking particularly bad. Not just because of the level of enthusiasm that its former president showed for pursuing assisting the arrangement on a going forward basis (and, call me cynical, but the written statement about what the cameras would have shown if they’d kept rolling after the meeting ended rings hollow in my ears) but also for the juxtaposition of the ABA’s constant position in opposition to the Senate legislation which Senator Levin was given camera time to speak about having pursued on many occasions without success. In the interest of being fair though, here is the link to the statement the ABA has put out in response to the 60 Minutes piece and that does rightly focus on the fact that the ABA’s perspective in terms of opposing legislation has been driven by seeking to protect the attorney-client privilege.
There are, of course, really weighty ethics issues raised by this rare sort of “behind closed doors” opportunity to see what happened at these consultations but before I roll up my sleeves to offer some of my own thoughts on those issues, I want to highlight one aspect of the story that the broadcast piece mentioned once but then blew right past because I think it deserves larger prominence for a positive it shows regarding the state of our profession.
Very early in the broadcast, Kroft mentions that this Global Witness outfit started out by contacting 50 law firms by telephone using their prepared script to try to set up in-person meetings to explore the potential representation. From the brief image up on the screen, the script for the telephone portion would appear to have had the same core facts designed to make the situation raise red flags as the story told in person. Kroft quickly then says that Global Witness was able to obtain sit-down meetings with 13 law firms and then stressing that of those 13, and of the 16 lawyers that they met with from those 13 law firms, only 1 turned them down. (“Diet Snapple – it gives you the courage to make the right choice!” or “Diet Snapple – I drink it because my standards are higher.” – Hey, Madison Avenue, call me – I’m a veritable gold mine.)
1 out of 16 or even 1 out of 13 sounds like a very bad rate of success in terms of firms and lawyers seeing the “red flags” and declining to get involved. But that isn’t the real ratio, the more positive takeaway is that some 37 law firms appear to have been savvy enough and focused enough on ethics (or at least loss prevention) to balk even before agreeing to an in-person meeting in the first place. That’s a good thing and deserves to be given some media attention. Further, the only 1 out of 13 turned them down is something of a skewed number when the story only focuses on the 13 of the 50 firms that were already inclined toward trying to pursue this business, i.e. didn’t reject the scenario outright over the telephone alone.
Now that I’ve mentioned the good, let’s dwell a bit more on the bad. A government minister from a West African nation rich in minerals who is now rolling in dough from arranging for companies and corporations to obtain mineral rights is the potential client?!?! Then the representative for that person indicates that they aren’t willing to tell you which one?!?! Only 1 of the lawyers we are shown explicitly mentioned the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by name, which is disappointing enough. But it is equally remarkable (at least to me) that none of the lawyers appear to have spent a moment being concerned about the Specially Designated Nationals list or any of the other aspects of the fact that there is a giant list the Treasury Department keeps of certain countries, entities, and individuals with whom it is illegal for a U.S. citizen to do business in any respect.
If the potential client’s agent is telling you that the person involved is in a West African country but they won’t tell you which one and they are not inclined to want to necessarily even share the person’s name, how in the world could you or your firm ever expect to be able to run any appropriate check to make sure you aren’t dealing with someone in a country, or someone who themselves are on, the SDN list?
And speaking of things you are setting yourself up to never be able to do, whither these firms’ conflict checks? Maybe 60 Minutes just edited out any of the conversations where these attorneys talked about how difficult it would be to run an appropriate conflict check if they won’t be told the country of residence or name of the individual whose money and assets they would be attempting to shield?
Now, as to the core legal ethics issue presented by the various consultations we are permitted to witness because of the hidden camera, where is the line between counseling a client about compliance with the law versus assisting a client on a path to accomplish fraudulent or illegal conduct? That issue is primarily addressed in Model Rule 1.2(d). That rule provides:
A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent, but a lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client and may counsel or assist a client to make a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law.
Comment  of that Rule provides a bit of elaboration with its last sentence: “There is a critical distinction between presenting an analysis of legal aspects of questionable conduct and recommending the means by which a crime or fraud might be committed with impunity.”
Now, I have my own opinion of how close the various lawyers caught on the hidden camera footage were to crossing the line that separates the two sides of this “critical distinction,” but there isn’t much point ruminating about that given that the interactions weren’t actually “real,” and that they involved a proposed scenario that sounded shady enough that almost 75% of the law firms approached initially were able to recognize it and turn it away without agreeing to an in-person meeting. I suspect if you asked most viewers of the 60 Minutes piece — especially those without law degrees — many of them would tell you they found those conversations to be much more along the lines of “recommending the means by which a crime or fraud might be committed with impunity.”
I do think it is worth pointing out though that Tennessee has an even stricter variation of RPC 1.2(d) as we add the words “or reasonably should know” after “knows” and before “is criminal or fraudulent.” If the lawyers under the 60 Minutes spotlight had been Tennessee lawyers, it would be very difficult to defend the path they appeared to be pursuing as they wouldn’t be able to fall back on a claim that they didn’t “know” of criminal or fraudulent conduct; rather they would be battling over whether the criminal or fraudulent nature of the endeavor being explored was something that they reasonably should have known.