RPC 8.4(g) – Tennessee is in play

I’m pleased to report that, yesterday, a joint petition was filed by the Tennessee Bar Association and the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to adopt an RPC 8.4(g) patterned after the ABA Model Rule.

As I’ve written here in the past, I’ve long been hopeful (not necessarily optimistic but certainly hopeful) that states like mine would take action to enshrine a prohibition on harassment and discrimination into our ethics rules.

You can read the petition filed yesterday by clicking on this link: (filed_tsc_rule_8_rpc_8.4_g .)  As you’ll see, in my capacity as Chair of the TBA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, I am one of the signatories on the petition.  I am certain that there will be some public comments filed in opposition to the petition, but I’d like to think that the fact that both the TBA and the BPR are behind this effort will make it more viable for the Court to grant the petition even in the face of some opposition.

More importantly, as a matter of principle, I think the petition is one that should be gratned because the proposed rule is a good and necessary one.

We’ve made some very good additional revisions to the ABA Model Rule in our drafting process — additional revisions that even more clearly help delineate that the kind of conduct prohibited by this proposed rule is conduct that has no place in our profession but does not go so far as to infringe on important First Amendment rights of lawyers.

We made two prominent, and I think important, revisions in the new comment paragraphs that would elaborate on the new (g) provision.  Exhibit B to the petition offers a redline showing how what we have proposed differs from the language of the ABA Model Rule, but I will lay them out here because of the significance.

First, we have added the following final sentence to Comment [4]:

Legitimate advocacy protected by Section (g) includes advocacy in any conduct related to the practice of the law, including circumstances where a lawyer is not representing a client and outside traditional settings where a lawyer act as an advocate, such as litigation.

Second,  we have added a Comment [4a] not found in the Model Rule, that provides:

Section (g) does not restrict any speech or conduct not related to the practice of law, including speech or conduct protected by the First Amendment.  Thus, a lawyer’s speech or conduct unrelated to the practice of law cannot violate this Section.

I anticipate that our Court will likely put this proposed rule change out for public comment before the end of the year.

Something TIKD this way comes.

So, about a week ago, the Florida Bar and The Ticket Clinic (a Florida law firm that somehow can manage to keep the lights on by specializing in representing people regarding traffic tickets) were sued in federal district court by something called TIKD.  TIKD is, at heart, an app for your smart phone.

The lawsuit alleges that the bar and the law firm have combined to damage TIKD in its business endeavors in violation of antitrust law and other unfair competition law.  Others have already written a bit about this development, but I still cannot resist chiming in because, though the litigation will likely end up amounting to nothing truly impactful, the underlying substance (or lack thereof) of the area of law being battled over with potentially such high stakes for the profession could easily be made into the stuff of a dark fantasy novel.

While others have written about this new federal court lawsuit where TIKD is the plaintiff, and there is some decent media coverage of it at The Washington Post and in some Florida news outlets, I want to just flag for your attention the existence of another lawsuit in Florida involving TIKD, but that was brought against TIKD seven months earlier in state court by one of the defendants in the TIKD suit, The Ticket Clinic.

You can read that full lawsuit at this link.  The gist of it though is also one for unfair competition.  The law firm, Gold & Associates d/b/a as The Ticket Clinic sued TIKD and its two owners claiming TIKD engages in false and deceptive advertising and is itself engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.  You can judge for yourself, but those particular claims to me seem dubious at best.  TIKD seems to do exactly what it advertises it will do and hires lawyers rather than tries to practice law.  But in the midst of those questionable claims, the suit still finds the nub of a true problem: unfair competition for lawyers trying to compete with (rather than work with) TIKD.

While it is the suit TIKD has filed pursuing the Florida Bar and The Ticket Clinic for antitrust violations that is currently getting all the media attention — folks who want to be “disruptors” in the legal industry are certainly using it as an opportunity to attack the entire concept of the regulation of the practice of law — the lawsuit filed by The Ticket Clinic as plaintiff forces a reader to think about the flip side of that problem by pointing out that what TIKD is doing to market its service, and convince people to use it, is making guarantees and promises that lawyers are prohibited from making under the ethics rules.

Specifically, paragraph 12 of the complaint points out a number of aspects of the TIKD business model that allow for unfair competition, which includes TIKD:

b) making guarantees to pay financial penalties imposed by courts and/or the “full cost of their ticket”;

[snip]

g) promising to “cover the full cost of your ticket no matter the price – even if the cost is higher than what you paid us;”

Paragraph 28 of the complaint further drives the point home:

In promising to pay a fine if they lose at no additional cost, TIKD, RILEY and BERTHOLD make a promise that a lawyer or law firm cannot possibly make, and they essentially “rob Peter (those persons whose cases are dismissed with no fine or court cost after
paying TIKD 75-80% of the fine stated in the citation) to pay Paul (those persons who are directed to pay the fine in full or greater, with costs)” which is a “house of cards” that will eventually fall, leaving clients with no remedy.

The story in The Washington Post also helpfully reinforces that these are important aspects of what makes TIKD a desirable service for which to pay:

TIKD, which launched in February, works this way in Florida: A driver who gets a traffic ticket can contact the company on a cellphone and be offered a one-time charge below the amount of the ticket. TIKD connects the driver with an independent attorney for no additional costs or fees, and the attorney handles the case without the driver having to appear in court.

If the ticket is not dismissed, TIKD pays any fines, and if the driver gets points on his or her license, TIKD will fully refund the one-time charge.

It is undeniably correct that the ethics rules would never let a lawyer make the same arrangements with a client.  It also seems pretty clear that without the ability to make those financial guarantees the app would lose pretty much all of its luster.  Thus, regardless of what you may think about the merits of any claim that The Florida Bar and The Ticket Clinic are engaged in some coordinated effort to hurt TIKD, it appears undeniably correct that there is a fundamentally unfair competitive advantage to being able to make the kind of financial guarantees that the app is making and which any lawyer would have to risk their license to match.

A reckoning in the legal industry is going to have to take place at some point relatively soon, but part of that reckoning absolutely has to be a level playing field in the area of providing legal services.  Either the same rules and restrictions will have to apply to all those operating in the space or those rules ought to apply to no one operating in the space.

The notion that the reckoning could be ushered along more quickly because of a fight over an area of legal representation that most firms have first-year associates handle for free as a perk for clients (i.e. getting speeding tickets dismissed) and involves a firm run by a lawyer who has been embroiled in litigation over a nearly $20,000 tab at a strip club and whose firm is being investigated for taking money to falsify traffic school certificates is just absurd enough to fit in with the rest of the fundamental absurdity that plagues 2017.

“Boies will be boys was never a good response” or “Advance waivers are still better than unwanted advances”

(I’ve apologized once before for a Bullwinkle-style title and here I am doing it again.  The underlying societal issues are not funny in the least but it’s been a hard week for many folks and a little bit of levity can help you make it through.)

If you are inclined to read this blog from time to time, then you likely already have read or heard something about the mess David Boies has found himself in related to his firm’s simultaneous representation of The New York Times and his efforts to assist another client Harvey Weinstein in working with a black-ops style investigation outfit to try to stop an NYT story about Weinstein.

If you haven’t read anything about it, there is a wave of reporting to catch up on.  You can start with this ABA Journal article which gives easy jumping off points to this article in The Atlantic, and this The New York Times article, and this further ABA Journal article addressing additional issues after the NYT fired Boies’s firm.

The whole situation weaves a tale more than worthy of a law school essay exam question.  I could likely manage to spend the full three hours of the Ethics Roadshow talking about the ethics issues raised in the scenario.  (I probably won’t, but you’ll never know for sure unless you attend in one of the six cities where it will be taking place.)

While there are quite a few angles ripe for discussion, I just want to talk a bit today about the advanced waiver angle involved.  As most of the articles discuss, in addition to minimizing his role in assisting Weinstein, Boies pointed to language in his firm’s engagement letter with the NYT as authorizing certain conflicts in advance.

The topic of whether and when a lawyer can obtain an advanced waiver from a client to a future conflict is still a surprisingly controversial one in ethics and lawyering circles.  There are some who ardently fight for the position that no conflict can be waived in advance, even by sophisticated clients.  I don’t count myself among their number and, instead, believe that the availability of advance conflicts waivers is an important part of modern law practice from an ethics standpoint.  Along those lines, I believe that Tennessee, and other states that have language in a Comment to RPC 1.7 patterned after the Model Rules get the ethical guidance on the situation correct.

Tennessee’s Comment [22] to RPC 1.7, for example, explains how things generally should work when a lawyer requests a client to waive conflicts that might arise in the future:

The effectiveness of such waivers is generally determined by the extent to which the client reasonably understands the material risks that the waiver entails.  The more comprehensive the explanation provided to the client of the types of future representations that might arise and the actual and reasonably foreseeable adverse consequences of those representations, the greater the likelihood that the client will have the requisite understanding.  Thus, if the client agrees to consent to a particular type of conflict with which the client is already familiar, then the consent ordinarily will be effective with regard to that type of conflict.  If the consent is general and open-ended, then the consent ordinarily will be ineffective, because it is not reasonably likely that the client will have understood the material risks involved.  Nevertheless, if the client is an experienced user of the legal services involved and is reasonably informed regarding the risk that a conflict may arise, such consent to a future conflict is more likely to be effective, particularly if, e.g., the client is independently represented by other counsel in giving consent and the consent is limited to future conflicts unrelated to the subject matter of the representation.

This Boies/Weinstein/NYT saga, however, isn’t particularly all that helpful in terms of providing guidance into the question of whether any advance conflict waiver obtained by Boies complied with New York’s ethics rules, but it is extremely helpful in reminding that whether or not an advance conflict waiver passes muster under the ethics rules is just one aspect of the situation that lawyers and law firms need to keep in mind (and though it is a bit sacrilegious to say it might not always be the most weighty aspect of the situation).

The Boies/Weinstein/NYT saga is extremely helpful as a reminder that whether to take on a representation that can only be justified to another client on the basis of an advance waiver is extremely tricky as a business decision.

Boies’s firm included an advance waiver in its engagement letter with the NYT undoubtedly to try to maximize the number of clients it could have has now managed to lose both the NYT and Weinstein as clients.

The loss of Weinstein under all the circumstances might be a net positive, but the loss of the NYT likely stings and would have stung even if it hadn’t ended up managing to say this publicly in the process of cutting ties with Boies:

We consider this intolerable conduct, a grave betrayal of trust, and a breach of the basic professional standards that all lawyers are required to observe. It is inexcusable and we will be pursuing appropriate remedies.

Whether or not an advance waiver is consistent with the ethics rules, an offended client can always still decide to drop the lawyer or his firm and what that mess might looks like if or when that comes to pass might be the most practical way for lawyers to think through these issues.

 

Advocating for attorney advertising.

So, back in August, I mentioned that I was going to have the opportunity to debate issues of lawyer advertising before an audience of top-notch Canadian lawyers in November.  This post is something of a coda to that post as I want to, very briefly, say a word or two about that talk.

It was, as I anticipated, a highly rewarding experience and all of the attorneys affiliated with The Advocates’ Society with whom I had the opportunity to meet and speak were delightful.

During the presentation, my job was to be the one to give voice to things that those assembled might not want to hear.  So, to start things off, I broke the news to them all that we don’t pronounce Hermitage, as in The Hermitage Hotel, in the fancy manner they were wont to do.  After having dealt that disappointing blow, I gave my pitch about what regulation of lawyer advertising should be, and what it shouldn’t be.

I tried to do so with a focus on things beyond just the protections afforded under our First Amendment for commercial speech because they don’t have anything quite the same under their nation’s law.

Those points – which I will happily repeat as many times as anyone ever gives me the chance to do so — are:

  • Ethical restrictions on lawyer advertising ought to pretty much start and end with prohibiting statements that are false or actually misleading.
  • It is pretty much a universal truth that the only people who complain about lawyer advertisements are other lawyers.
  • Those tasked with regulating attorney conduct don’t particularly like spending time adjudicating squabbles between lawyers about ads.
  • Consumers don’t get worked up about lawyer advertising at least in part because they get it.  If you are paying to advertise something, you are going to emphasize its good points.
  • But consumers also don’t get worked up about it because they don’t view it the way lawyers do.  There are still people out there who simply did not know they could hire a lawyer without having to pay money or who don’t know their problem might be something a lawyer could even help them with at all.
  • Some times the way those people learn this information is because they see some kind of lawyer advertisement in one place or another and, when they do, they don’t particularly think about whether or not it is something that you would think is “dignified.”
  • If you are motivated to want to impose stricter regulations on lawyer advertisements because of a concern that there is not enough public respect for our profession and advertisements that you think should be “beneath” lawyers fosters such disrespect, then I have a suggestion of how you could better direct your energies.
  • Imagine how much more could be done to foster better respect for our profession and what we do if we all focused our energies on encouraging communication of what it is that lawyers do, the role we play in society, and what we bring to the table that can help people in times of need for legal services, including helping educate them that their problem is one that could be helped by the work of a lawyer?

An open letter to Avvo

Dear Mark or Josh or Dan (or others at Avvo):

I am a lawyer of little relative influence but I know you are likely familiar with me because I have, time and time again here on my small platform written about the travails your business model is enduring as state after state issues ethics opinions warning lawyers who do business with you that they are acting unethically.  (And Josh has been kind enough to post comments here from time to time as well.)

It, of course, has happened again with the latest Virginia ethics opinion that has just been put out.  I won’t belabor anyone reading this with the breakdown of that opinion other than to say that it hits on many of the same problems that have been hit on by other states over the last couple of years (and a couple that come up less frequently as well).  I also know that you were actively engaged in trying to convince the powers-that-be in Virginia to not issue that opinion.  I’ve even read Dan’s oral remarks published online.

I also won’t do as I normally do and break down the analysis offered in this latest ethics opinion other than to say that this one – yet again – is correct in its interpretation and application of Virginia’s rules.  (At least it is correct as to the big, universally applicable rules impacting your current business model related to fee-sharing, payments for referrals, and the like.)  Of course it is.  These opinions keep coming out because the existing rules are pretty clear about the problems and why lawyers are prohibited from participating.

I’m also writing this as an open letter to urge Avvo – if it really is interested at heart in doing the things for the profession and consumers that it says it is interested in doing – to change its focus from trying to fight the issuance of ethics opinions in states or to then engage in criticism of those opinions as somehow incorrect or “part of the problem.”  Instead, your time and money should be shifted — if those are your real goals — to pursuing efforts to have the rules that currently prohibit lawyers from being involved with your business model changed.

You are fighting a losing battle in trying to change the outcomes of ethics opinions.  You could, however, be fighting a winning battle if you made active efforts to file petitions with the appropriate bodies in various states to propose revisions to the ethics rules that would permit participation with your service and other companies doing similar things.

For example, just about anyone who wants to in my state could file a Petition with the Tennessee Supreme Court and propose changes to the ethics rules which here are housed in Supreme Court Rule 8.  There are pretty similar processes in many jurisdictions.  (I would have thought y’all might have worked this notion out by now given how differently you’ve watched things appear to go in North Carolina where you’ve been participating in efforts to change the rules rather than efforts to try to get someone to issue an opinion that would pretend the rules don’ say what they say.)

I can’t guarantee how successful you would be in obtaining satisfactory rule revisions in jurisdictions but I’d bet a shiny quarter or two that your batting average will be greatly improved upon how you are doing in terms of favorable ethics opinions versus unfavorable ethics opinions.

I reckon that this open letter will likely have the same effect of most open letters written by human beings, but . . . at least I’ll still feel better for having said it.

About last week… (and some actual content too)

So, I didn’t manage to post last week and this is something of an apology to those of you loyal readers who kept coming to the site last week each day looking for content.  (Rest assured, there’s also some substantive discussion of a live ethics issue in the post as well.)

I don’t have any real great excuse as there is always work, sometimes travel, and other commitments to overcome to keep this blog going, but the only new piece of the puzzle last week that played a role in my failure to come through was my 44th birthday last Tuesday.

It was a weird one as thinking about it caught me up and resulted in more melancholy than joy.  Thinking about it statistically, 44 signaled that was likely through 2/3 of my life and only had 1/3 to go.  In that context, and I’m certain likely many others in the legal profession, I kept ruminating on my belief that I haven’t been as successful professionally as I would have hoped I’d be at this stage of my life.  I know this sounds like one of those Facebook posts from people pursuing an indirect “woe is me” cry for attention but it isn’t meant that way at all, just an explanation for last week’s radio silence.

Speaking of Facebook, Florida continues to dedicate far too may judicial resources to the resolution of a question that — if you set technology aside ought to be easily answerable — can judges and lawyers be “friends” on Facebook.

Karen Rubin over at The Law For Lawyers Today provided a good run down last week of the history of the Florida case, so I won’t retread that ground and instead am going to take the opportunity to repeat (though I don’t believe I’ve ever stated them here on my blog) my views on the absurdity of the underlying “debate” about the issue.

Judges are human beings.  Human beings, even awful ones, are still going to manage to have a few friends.  The judicial ethics rules do not prohibit judges from having friends who are lawyers.  Thus, there is no rational way the judicial ethics rules can be said to prohibit judges from being friends with lawyers on Facebook.  The judicial ethics rules do contemplate that a friendship between a judge and a lawyer can, if close enough, result in a judge needing to recuse herself from a case involving the lawyer.  Thus, whether a judge and a lawyer are friends on Facebook should simply be one factor in evaluating whether the nature of the friendship is close enough that the judge needs to recuse.  Actual real-world interactions between the lawyer and the judge though should be a more important factor.  The analysis of this issue in any jurisdiction, including Florida, should be as simple as that.

In fact, I believe that judges using Facebook and being friends with lawyers actually does the public a service because it provides litigants and their counsel with a level of transparency they might not otherwise obtain to evaluate whether a judge has a real-world friendship with a lawyer that merits the bringing of a motion to disqualify the judge.  On Facebook, even if a judge has all of her privacy settings as locked down as possible, you can still view a list of the judge’s friends.  Armed with that information, a litigant or a lawyer can then raise the issue and may come to learn of a true, deep friendship between lawyer and judge that might not have otherwise been discovered.

Frustrations with Formal Ethics Opinion 2017-F-164

Recently (and one of the frustrations I have with this opinion I am now writing about is, that “recently” is about as specific as I can pin things down in terms of the date of issuance), the Board of Professional Responsibility in Tennessee issued a Formal Ethics Opinion giving some guidance on the ability of a Tennessee lawyer to be a part of a multi-state law firm using a trade name.

It is, on the whole, an adequate ethics opinion in that it essentially gets the answers to the questions it raises correct, but it is more frustrating than it is adequate given how it addresses the issues and, as hinted at above, how it was surfaced by the Board as having even been issued.

First, here are my frustrations with the substance.  Here are the questions FEO 2017-F-164 tackles:

I. Do the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct allow a partnership between a Tennessee Professional Services Corporation and a Florida Professional Services Corporation?

II. Can the partnership ethically use a trade name?

III. Can the Florida office of the partnership ethically lease space from SETCO Services, a title company?

Admittedly, the Board gets the answers to each of these questions correct.  Those answers are, of course, “yes,” “yes,” and “yes.”  But the opinion does not do the best job of showing its work as to some of the answers, completely ignores the fact that the questions being answered also can’t be addressed without taking a look at Florida’s analogous ethics rules, and, as to the third question, misrepresents to an extent how RPC 5.7 actually works in Tennessee, appears to assume more facts beyond the facts indicated in the opinion.

As further background to understand my griping, here is the entirety of the facts provided by the Board about the request that has been directed to them:

The requesting lawyer proposes a 50%-50% partnership between a Tennessee Professional Services Corporation (PA) and a Florida Professional Services Corporation (PA) that will operate under a trade name, SETCO Law. The Florida PA will lease space from SETCO Services, a title company, for which the requesting lawyer is in-house counsel, in Destin, Florida. The Tennessee PA will lease space from another law firm, Brannon Law, located in Memphis, TN.

The proposed Firm will have a separate computer system, including secure email system, apart from SETCO Services and can only be accessed by employees of the Firm. The Firm will have its own logo which will be conspicuous within the building. All clients, before engagement with the Firm, will be provided with a written engagement letter that provides in detail that SETCO Law is an entity separate and apart from SETCO Services and Brannon Law and that engagement with the Firm is in no way tied to any affiliation with SETCO services or any services provided therefrom.

The first two questions are readily capable of dispatch under Tennessee’s rules given that we are very reasonable on questions of trade names and, of course, do not present any unreasonable barriers to lawyers being part of a multi-state law firm.  However, it is exceedingly unhelpful for this opinion to be issued and make no reference to the fact that a lawyer seeking guidance about the second question needs to take a look at Florida’s ethics rules as well and that makes no reference at all to the fact the lawyer ought to also be educated about RPC 8.5 and how that rule provides for choice of law determinations when more than one jurisdiction’s ethics rules may be applicable to the conduct of a lawyer.

The method of addressing the third question though presents the most frustrating piece from a substantive standpoint.  This is because the third question only asks whether or not the law firm’s Florida office can lease space from a title company.  The answer to that question is: of course they can.  The first paragraph of that part of the opinion gets the answer exactly right:

No ethical rules restrict the location of the office of a lawyer. Nothing prevents a lawyer from entering into a landlord-tenant relationship and having an office in the same building as a land title company.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with those two sentences but instead offers further advice and guidance about RPC 5.7 with respect to law related services.  That advice and guidance is fine – in a vacuum but this opinion isn’t in a vacuum – but the opinion reads as certain things being mandatory in order to be able to lease the space, rather than being explained as being important in evaluating whether or not acts undertaken by a lawyer affiliated with the title company can be treated as providing services that are separately distinct from the delivery of legal services so that only some, but not all, of the Tennessee ethics rules apply to that conduct.  Nothing about RPC 5.7 requires a lawyer to do any of those things simply to be able to lease office space from someone.

And that would be bad enough but, again, the opinion completely overlooks or ignores that the office space lease question involves the office in Florida and so there is no compelling analysis given why it would be Tennessee’s RPC 5.7 that would govern at all, rather than Florida’s version of any such rule.

Having now unburdened myself on the substantive flaws, I’d like to offer a quick word about the frustrating problem with the process.  For whatever reason, the Board of Professional Responsibility did not publicize the issuance of this opinion until they happened to insert it in a regular quarterly publication that is a much larger document.  And even then what has been published is an unsigned, undated version of the opinion.  Seems very difficult to understand why that approach was undertaken.

Should you want to go read for yourself the undated, unsigned Formal Ethics Opinion 2017-f-164, you can do so at that link.

Disturbing development in a recent disciplinary case

Late this Summer, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued an opinion, over a dissent, that imposed a public censure against a lawyer for what were, pretty clearly, a series of failures on the part of the lawyer’s staff in the handling of a client’s matter.  What makes the case, Garland v. BPR, interesting, and worthy of that dissent, is not the level of discipline imposed but the choice of the particular rules the lawyer was charged with violating.  The things that make it interesting and dissent-worthy are also the things that make it potentially disturbing as precedent for lawyers and lawyers (like me) who defend lawyers.

Even though the case was clearly one in which the staff to whom the lawyer delegated tasks and responsibilities failed to do their job correctly, the Board did not charge the lawyer with a violation of the rule that is tailor-made for that situation, RPC 5.3.

RPC 5.3 requires the following of a lawyer in Garland’s position:

With respect to a nonlawyer employed or retained by or associated with a lawyer:

(a) a partner, and a lawyer who individually or together with other lawyers possesses comparable managerial authority in a law firm, shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that the nonlawyer’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer;

(b) a lawyer having direct supervisory authority over a nonlawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the nonlawyer’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer; and

(c) a lawyer shall be responsible for conduct of a nonlawyer that would be a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if engaged in by a lawyer if:

(1) the lawyer orders or, with knowledge of the specific conduct, ratifies the conduct involved; or

(2) the lawyer is a partner or has comparable managerial authority in the law firm in which the nonlawyer is employed, or has direct supervisory authority over the nonlawyer, and knows of the nonlawyer’s conduct at a time when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fails to take reasonable remedial action.

Instead of trying to build a case against Garland for any failures under RPC 5.3, the Board charged him with violations of RPC 1.3 and RPC 1.4, contending that he personally failed to act diligently in the client’s matter and failed to properly communicate directly with the client.  The Board also charged Garland with what is often an add-on violation, RPC 8.4(a), but appears to have done so with an unusual twist — justifying it on the argument that the lawyer committed violations of the rules “through the acts of another,” where the “another” was a member of his own staff.

Justice Kirby, in her dissent, made the point that the rule that should have been the focus of the case was not:

The facts in this case center on the failure of Mr. Garland’s staff to response to [client’s] inquiries, the staff’s failure to make Mr. Garland aware of things that needed his attention, or staff members’ general incompetence in tasks such as filing and mailing.

Despite the fact that, “Rule 5.3 was tailor-made for situations such as the one presented in this case,” Justice Kirby trumpeted that the Board did not pursue any charge against Garland for a violation of that rule but instead leveled RPC 1.3 and 1.4 charges and explained her reluctance to adjudicate the disciplinary matter when the Court had “no findings on what measures Mr. Garland should have had in place to supervise his staff,” “no findings on what efforts Mr. Garland should have made to reasonably ensure that his staff’s conduct was appropriate,” and “no findings on whether Mr. Garland ordered or ratified his staff’s infractions, or whether he learned of them at a time when the consequences to [the client] could have been avoided or mitigated.”

Justice Kirby not only dissented from the ruling but also scolded the Board for not pursuing the case under the correct disciplinary rule — “I fault the Board primarily for the posture of this case. It is important for ethical charges against lawyers to be properly framed, so that the rules adopted to govern certain situations are applied to the intended situations.”

Justice Kirby’s admonition to the Board is important for at least two reasons.  First, as she herself writes:

There are countless lawyers in Tennessee with law practices similar to Mr. Garland’s high-volume practice, in which many daily tasks and interactions with clients are delegated to nonlawyer staff. Delegating such tasks to nonlawyer employees does not
violate ethical rules, but failing to properly supervise nonlawyer employees does. It is important for practicing lawyers to understand what this Court expects from them in terms of supervising nonlawyer staff to whom mundane but important tasks are delegated.

Hopefully, and perhaps even more vitally, Justice Kirby’s admonition to the Board needs to have an impact because of the significant problems that could be created for lawyers if the Board is allowed to use RPC 8.4(a) to impose discipline in situations where RPC 5.3 would not support that outcome.  In other words, Justice Kirby’s words — “Delegating tasks to nonlawyer employees does not violate ethical rules” — need to continue to be the law in Tennessee.  If the Board is permitted to charge lawyers with infractions of RPC 8.4(a) on the basis that the failing of a staff member is the lawyer violating the rules through the “acts of another,” then RPC 5.3 essentially becomes surplusage in the rules altogether.

This Florida lawyer should not have “Went for It”

I had it in mind that I might write a little something about the Pennsylvania lawsuit against the Morgan & Morgan firm over lawyer advertising issues, but Karen Rubin and the fine folks at The Law for Lawyers Today beat me to that punch with a nice piece at their site that you can read at this link.

So, instead, but still staying on the general theme of lawyer advertising issues, I’m going to focus just a bit on a story coming out of what is often thought of as “ground-zero” in the U.S. when it comes to the battle over lawyer advertising issues — Florida.  It is a tale of a lawyer who is being suspended for one year over conduct involving solicitation of a client.  (Should you want to, you can read the full per curiam opinion of the Florida Supreme Court in Florida Bar v. Dopazo here.)

The opinion mostly focuses on the question of what was the right amount of punishment, deciding to increase the suspension from the 60 days that was recommended to a full one-year suspension.  That isn’t my interest for today.  My interest for today is to use this case as a reminder of a few things in the context of larger issues that are going on in the world of lawyer advertising (and, in particular, the APRL effort to persuade the ABA to revise the Model Rules to streamline the restrictions on both general advertising and solicitation).

Those who study questions of legal ethics or attorney advertising or both will remember that the only U.S. Supreme Court case to uphold a restriction on attorney advertising efforts as constitutional is Florida Bar v. Went For It.  The restriction upheld there was the 30-day off limits concept for soliciting representation by mail from folks affected by disaster or traumatic personal injury in any fashion.

Dopazo’s conduct not only ran afoul of prohibitions on in-person solicitation but was well within that kind of 30-day off-limits period and would have been prohibited in any form or fashion.

In March 2007, days after her son suffered traumatic brain injury as the result of a motor vehicle injury, Penny Jones was approached at Jackson Memorial Hospital Ryder Trauma Center  by Dopazo, who successfully solicited her to become a client of his for a fee.  There was no prior relationship between Jones and Dopazo, nor were his legal services sought by her or anyone acting on her behalf.

No one who is out there actively advocating for revisions to the ethics rules addressing lawyer advertising and solicitation is pushing a rule revision that would permit this kind of in-person solicitation in a hospital even if a jurisdiction did not also have some version of a 30-day off-limits period.  Even those of us who question the fairness of 30-day off limits provisions because they only prohibit communications from one side of things -_ the side seeking to provide representation — are in favor of restrictions on in-person solicitation by lawyers of strangers.

Those of us who are actively advocating for changes though are very much in favor of trying to not have these sort of situations — which can be adequately addressed by simple prohibitions — drive the discourse to try to justify more expansive restrictions on commercial speech.  Among the many reasons for that are the kinds of unnecessary and unneeded restrictions that can come to pass because of expansions of such concepts.

Using my own state as an example, over time our rule imposing a version of the 30-day off limits provision has now been expanded to prevent lawyers from sending letters to strangers offering to provide representation in a divorce matter within 30 days of the filing of a divorce.  I’ve written in the past about the problems I have with that concept (if you click through that link which gives you an electronic/pdf-ish version of The Memphis Lawyer magazine from 2015, you’ll need to go to pages 14-15 to read the column).

So, unquestionably, this Florida lawyer’s situation is one that the ethics rules ought to prohibit.  But the fact that such conduct was engaged in does not provide a basis for saying that the rules aren’t in need of reform.

(N.B. You might be asking yourself why in the world a lawyer is being disciplined in 2017 for misconduct that happened in 2007.  The opinion elaborates that it was not the target of the solicitation who complained about Dopazo but rather that the Florida Bar only learned of the incident in 2011 as a result of the findings of an FBI investigation of this lawyer over alleged payments to non-lawyers for a client recruitment scheme involving medical clinics.  Interestingly, the delay in the prosecution of the case from 2011 to 2015 was, in fact, taken into account as a mitigating factor when concluding that the appropriate discipline was a one-year suspension.)

Coming to praise rather than bury: NYC Bar Op. 2017-6

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak to the Tennessee Defense Lawyers Association for an hour on ethics issues, using a “hot topic” format.

One of the topics I covered was the many things there are beyond just being parties on opposite sides of the “v” in litigation that present conflicts to be managed, avoided, and addressed in handling lawsuits.

I mentioned the difficult situations that can arise as a case evolves and someone shows up on the radar screen as an important witness — particularly an expert witness — and the importance of running supplemental conflicts checks to make sure that a lawyer or her firm doesn’t first figure out the problem when learning during the deposition that the witness claims to be a client of the lawyer’s firm.  That is a scenario that lawyers sometimes don’t always think about in advance but for which there is little, if any, push back on the idea that it is a conflict about which to be concerned.

I pivoted from that topic to a similar topic — issuing subpoenas for documents to witnesses — that lawyers are more inclined to want to try to intellectualize as not creating a conflict situation because it can have the feel of a “routine” act and it also “feels” like an administrative hassle.

At the time of that presentation, I somehow had not yet seen a recent Formal Ethics Opinion out of the New York City Bar on that very topic – if I had seen it I certainly would have pointed to it — because it is a very well done treatment of the issue.  The question addressed in NYC 2017-6 is:

What ethical restrictions apply when a party’s lawyer in a civil lawsuit issues a subpoena to another current client or may need to do so?

Now, a word before delving into the insight that can be gleaned by all lawyers in all jurisdictions from this opinion about an important, but not dispositive, difference in the language of New York’s Rule 1.7(a).

In Tennessee, and many other jurisdictions with rules patterned after the ABA Model Rules, RPC 1.7(a) reads so as to address two types of conflicts as being “concurrent conflicts of interest.” One where the lawyer would be required to represent one client in matter directly adverse to the interests of another client, and one where the lawyer’s duties to someone else (or the lawyer’s own personal interests) will impose a “material limitation” on the lawyer’s ability to represent the client.

The NY version of Rule 1.7(a) has slightly different language on each of those two fronts.  NY’s 1.7(a) indicates that a lawyer has a conflict:

if a reasonable lawyer would conclude that either (1) the representation will involve the lawyer in representing differing interests; or (2) there is a significant risk that the lawyer’s professional judgment on behalf of a client will be adversely affected by the lawyer’s own financial, business, property or other personal interests.

And, “differing interests” is specifically defined in NY’s rules to mean “every interest that will adversely affect either the judgment or the loyalty of a lawyer to a client, whether it be a conflicting, inconsistent, diverse, or other interest.”  Now those NY variations on the language make it a bit easier and cleaner to see the issues created when a lawyer pursues a subpoena for records from one client for another client but so much of the opinion that explains the analysis is written not just well, but in a practical fashion that, in my opinion, allows it to resonate for lawyers in jurisdictions with the ABA Model Rule language on conflicts as well.

After surveying the landscape of earlier opinions on these subjects, the NYC opinion laid out a number of helpful conclusions:

First, issuing a subpoena to a current client to obtain testimony from that client will ordinarily give rise to a conflict of interest.  Obtaining testimony typically inconveniences the witness, involves probing a witness’ recollection, and at times may involve challenging and confronting the witness, any of which a current client may reasonably perceive to be disloyal.

[snip]

Second, it will ordinarily be a conflict of interest for a lawyer to seek to obtain documents via a subpoena to a current client.  The production of documents in response to a subpoena very often requires an allocation of resources (time and money) which the subpoenaed party would prefer not to expend.  This is all the more so when outside counsel needs to be retained, and the scope of production needs to be negotiated.

[snip]

The opinion then goes on to offer some further practical advice for lawyers to keep in mind because of their ethical obligations which the opinions lays out as:

(a) the necessity for lawyers to run conflict checks prior to serving a subpoena; (b) the potential need to decline or limit a representation, or to obtain informed consent, if a lawyer knows before being retained that subpoenaing a current client may be necessary; and (c) the retention of “conflicts counsel” to avoid the need to withdraw, or the risk of disqualification, when a lawyer learns during the course of a litigation of the need to subpoena another current client.

The opinion does go on to provide helpful explanatory details for each of those topics, and you can go read the opinion in full at this link.