An ode (of sorts) to RPC 1.18 (but only as an example)

Today’s entry is something of a dodge in a way (I sort of wanted to pile on about this and make the point that it is a much sounder development than this was) and something of knocking down a hastily-created strawman in another respect. But what it mostly amounts to is pursuing a not-yet-fully-formed thesis that has been kicking around my brain for a bit.

The quick and dirty description of the thesis is: Ethics rules are tools; having the right one for the right situation saves a lot of time and effort, but it also protects lawyers and clients alike by providing certainty.

I keep coming back to this thesis of late because of a few instances of things arising in my practice (about which I can’t elaborate of course) as well as discussions I’ve been privy to at ethics conferences and presentations that have particularly focused on issues of civility in the practice of law and whether more should be done to establish rules to punish lawyers for conduct many (perhaps most) but certainly not all lawyers would view as uncivil.

In the discussions of civility, I keep returning to the notion that we already have certain specific rules that prohibit conduct of an uncivil nature and ought to focus on enforcing those rather than layering on other proposed solutions outside of the rules. Those rules are Model Rule 4.4(a) and Model Rule 8.4(d). Admittedly, 4.4(a) is much more supportive of my thesis as it is very clear about what it prohibits: a lawyer, who is representing a client, cannot “use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person.” I am usually hard-pressed to hear of a situation that a lawyer is complaining of under the category of “incivility” that is both clearly deserving of punishment and not already prohibited by 4.4(a).

Offering even stronger support for exploring my thesis though is this recent ethics opinion from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. Opinion 691 addresses this question: “Under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, when may a lawyer represent a client adverse to a former prospective client of the lawyer or another lawyer in the lawyer’s firm.” Examining that question, the opinion spends almost 5 pages to get to its four-paragraph conclusion.

Many of you reading this, likely are asking yourselves the same question I did when I saw news about the issuance of the opinion: Why is this a live question in Texas and why does it take so many pages to answer?

Because Texas has not adopted Model Rule 1.18, or any other specific rule, addressing a lawyer’s duties owed to prospective clients.

Fascinatingly, this Texas opinion ultimately offers an analysis that can still be distilled down to look a good bit like Model Rule 1.18 with really only one important difference: no non-consensual screening to avoid imputed disqualification. If this opinion is correct about how things should work in Texas, then Texas could just have adopted (and now could adopt) a rule that if I understand their fun numbering would be 1.17:

Duties to Prospective Client.

(a) A person who consults with a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client.

(b) Even when no client-lawyer relationship ensues, a lawyer who has learned information from a prospective client shall not use or reveal that information except as Rule 1.05 would permit.

(c) A lawyer subject to paragraph (b) shall not represent a client with interests materially adverse to those of a prospective client in the same or a substantially related matter if the lawyer received information from the prospective client that could be significantly harmful to that person in the matter. If a lawyer is disqualified from representation under this paragraph, no lawyer in a firm with which that lawyer is associated may knowingly undertake or continue representation in such a matter.

And if Texas had just done that, then lawyers and prospective clients would be able to know clearly what is to be expected. Instead, lawyers and prospective clients (and others) will be left to wonder whether this opinion accurately describes what the other rules mean.

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