Withdrawing a guilty plea is notary-ly easy thing to do.

The pun was, of course, inevitable.  It was also fully intended.  In fact, it is, at least for me, repetitive as back in 2013 I was asked to do a seminar on the ethics of being a notary public — they have their own ethics code — and I called it “Notary-ly Common Topic: The Intersection of Lawyer and Notary Public Ethics.”

I’m writing today about a relatively straightforward criminal case arising out of federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands but that has at least four interesting lawyer ethics percolating under the surface of it.  The decision also has one of the most elegant and timeless statements penned by the district judge authoring the opinion that I’ve read in a federal court opinion.  It is either one of the most useful statements of insight into the human condition or one of the best pieces of universal (but indirect) advice to offer to anyone – including lawyers — or possibly both.

In case you want to stop reading at this point, I’ll just share with you the district judge’s statement which, for many reasons (no matter when you manage to read this) will be timely:

Probably every adult feels that there is some important decision she has made that she wishes she could do over.  But that does not mean she did not make that decision voluntarily and did not know what she was doing at the time.

To be exceedingly candid, I’m also writing this post about this case because an incredible lawyer, and a giant in the field of legal ethics issues, Bill Freivogel, brought the case to my attention and encouraged to me to think I might have something to say about it that would be worth reading.

The case is U.S. v. Li and you can grab the PDF of it here: United States v. Li (D. N.Mariana Is., 2018).  In sum, Li was a notary public.  He managed to mess up a document he was notarizing for a passport application for a minor child, and the application was rejected for that discrepancy.  When folks reassembled to try to fix it and reapply, the father had already flown back home to China.  Despite the fact that it was contrary to the ethics code for a notary public, and despite the fact that the form was requiring him to speak under oath, Li signed the form misrepresenting under oath that the father was physically present the second time when he was not.

It seems clear that Li did this thinking that it was his own mistake that created the problem and that this would fix the error.  How the falsehood came to light is much less clear, but it did and Li was charged with two federal criminal counts related to false statements on a passport application.

A week before the case was set for trial, the parties submitted a plea agreement and proceeded to a change of plea hearing.  At that hearing, Li’s attorney – Holmes – was present as was a more senior attorney from Holmes’ law firm.  The opinion walks through the fairly detailed line of questioning the federal judge presented to Li designed to ensure that the record was crystal clear about the voluntariness of the guilty plea.  These questions solicited many clear answers demonstrating voluntary and knowing decision-making, including Li’s statements that he was fully satisfied with his attorney’s advice and legal representation.

Two months after the guilty plea was entered and about two months before the date set for sentencing, a new lawyer for Li filed a notice of appearance.  About 45 days later, Holmes moved to withdraw from representing Li citing “professional reasons.”  That motion was denied without prejudice based on failure to demonstrate good cause.

Two things then occurred right about a week before sentencing: Li, through the new counsel, filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea and Holmes renewed the motion to withdraw now pointing to statements in a pre-sentence report that were alleged to create a conflict between her firm and Li.  This renewed motion to withdraw was granted.  (The opinion does not provide a ready explanation or insight into what the nugget was in that pre-sentence report that Holmes was forced to surface in order to be let out of the case.)

The order then details what Li argued as his grounds for seeking now to withdraw his guilty plea – it largely involved accusations that his attorneys would not listen to him and coerced him – through time pressures, denigrating his chances at trial, and hammering the potential of a prison sentence of more than a year, even allegedly going so far as to tell Li that he would be sexually assaulted if he had to do prison time.

The district court, however, was entirely unconvinced by Li’s allegations and walked through an objective view of what the attorney time records, and other underlying documents, showed about the events that occurred surrounding the plea negotiations.

Three of ethics issues here are, I think, readily recognizable.

The case is at least an indirect reminder for attorneys that RPC 1.2 doesn’t provide crystal clear guidance on all decision-making as between clients and attorneys but leaves no room for doubt that the decision whether to plead guilty in a criminal matter is always the client’s to make.

The case also is a good, indirect reminder to attorneys who have support staff who are notaries that your obligations under RPC 5.3 can be considered to include having some measures in place to provide reasonable assurance that they know how important complying with the law and their own code of ethics as to notarizing documents can be.  (For the record, there was no indication in the opinion itself that Li had any employment situation where he was working for an attorney.)

Also, the case reveals how sometimes – despite the best efforts of the drafters of the rules – the guidance given to attorneys seeking to withdraw from representation doesn’t always work as designed.  ABA Model Rule 1.16 cmt. [3] tries to provide guidance to attorneys about situations when they should begin by stating only that “professional considerations” require withdrawal and indicating the hope that courts will accept that “statement as sufficient,” but courts do not always go along and end up putting attorneys into a situation where they have to disclose information the client might rather not have aired.

The fourth ethics issue, however, is not as obvious but is, I think, the most interesting and compelling.  The district judge, without explicitly saying so, made clear that if the lawyers had scared Li into pleading guilty “by conjuring the nightmare of sexual assault in prison,” that would have been the kind of thing that could have “put their bar license on the line.”  I’m torn on that front.  Obviously, if the lawyers had actually threatened to cause that to happen or otherwise crossed lines into coercing someone against their will to plead guilty, then I’d agree wholeheartedly.  But, if a lawyer representing someone facing potential jail time, and knowing their client had the chance to take a plea that was likely to result in no jail time at all, engaged their client in discussions about the possibility of going to prison and the realities of the problems in the U.S. prison system including the statistics on violence and sexual assault that happens there on a daily basis, would that really be unethical conduct?

I tend to think the exact opposite.  I think that a lawyer would certainly be entitled under Model Rule 2.1 to discuss as “other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation.”  In fact, depending on the client and the likely prison in play, a lawyer might well be ethically obligated to discuss such issues under Model Rule 1.4(b)’s obligation “to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”

Neither a stalker nor a burglar be.

Matters of the heart have caused people lots of problems throughout the course of human history.  Matters of the heart, when the heart is located inside the chest of a lawyer, work pretty much the same way.

Of course, sometimes stories that, on the surface, seem like matters of the heart might be more fairly characterized as being really about the inability of men to avoid controlling or toxic behavior directed toward the women in their lives (or who used to be in their lives).

This post is about a story of a Pennsylvania lawyer who is now suspended from practice over really bad judgment flowing either from a matter of the heart or from the more toxic issue of controlling behavior.  I don’t know the back story or the people involved in any way so I don’t know which, but I have my suspicions.  The story itself makes for an interesting post (maybe?) over and above just being an example of a lawyer behaving badly because it offers another reminder of how aspects of the ethics rules can apply to a lawyer even when they aren’t practicing law, and it taught me that I apparently do not know the full extent of what can constitute burglary.

If this blog is on your reading list, you likely already have read at least one article about this suspended lawyer (hopefully this one) — but in case you haven’t the suspension flowed from his secretly putting a GPS tracking device on the back of his ex-girlfriend’s car and hiding an audio recording gadget insider her car (under the driver’s seat to be more specific) in order to spy on her in hopes of finding out who she was now dating.

To some extent, being suspended for a year followed by four more years of probation is a secondary problem professionally for this particular lawyer because he also will be serving probation in the criminal system for five years as result of a guilty plea to two felonies: criminal trespass and to something of a violation of a criminal wiretapping statute in Pennsylvania for the same conduct.

Because of the felony convictions, it should certainly come as no surprise that the ethics violations with which he was tagged include a violation of Pennsylvania’s Rule 8.4(b) – conduct involving the commission of a crime reflecting dishonesty.

His suspension was also premised on a violation of Rule 8.4(c) which is simply the general provision prohibiting lawyers from engaging in any conduct involving dishonesty or fraud.  I’ve written in the past about the problematic potential scope of Rule 8.4(c)’s prohibition for lawyers given that it is not in any way actually textually moored to representation of a client or even to conduct related to the practice of law.

This probably would not be the kind of case where a lawyer would get much traction trying to argue that applying that rule to this kind of conduct would amount to overreaching.

As promised above, the other tidbit of note – more just educational for me – is the notion that, although he didn’t plead to the charge, he was also charged with burglary under Pennsylvania law for what he did to his ex-girlfriend.  That’s a new one for me given that while he may have broken into her vehicle, he didn’t actually take anything out of it but instead left something inside of it.

Turns out, under Pennsylvania law, burglary is defined to be entering any building or occupied structure with the intent to commit a crime inside.  So, this must mean that for the charge against him to have been colorable, his ex-girlfriend’s car was inside a garage at the time he put the recording device inside.

So, while there are many lessons to take from the situation described above, hopefully for most of you reading this the most practical one — the one that addresses the thing you are most likely to do that would be bad — is to remember that if you do not regularly practice a particular area of law you probably don’t know as much about it as you think you do.

(Also, though I know you don’t need this reminder, once your significant other moves on, you should too.  And, even if you can’t, don’t stalk them.  Seriously.)

Nebraska demonstrating less patience than Tennessee

Although I live in SEC country, I am a Chelsea FC fan rather than a follower of college football.  So this is not a sly college football reference in my title.  (I am aware that apparently UT lost its first game of the season but have literally no idea whether the Cornhuskers have even played yet in 2018.)  This post title is actually a very short description of the difference in how quickly the Nebraska Supreme Court managed to disbar an attorney who was obviously flouting the rules than did the Tennessee Supreme Court in the last matter about which I wrote.  The less patient approach on display in Nebraska was entirely understandable because the underlying rule being flouted was related to trust accounts and not conflicts.

The now-former lawyer in question – John Nimmer – went from one prior instance of having received a public censure to being disbarred for his next offense in 2018 because he repeatedly commingled funds and used money in client trust accounts to pay an array of personal expenses.  He also managed to get disbarred because his only defense to the charges – which were first pursued in 2016 but covered his banking for more than a decade – was something of an attempt to plead ignorance.  (He also managed a too-cute-by-half variation of something I’ve written about before as apparently having worked for one particular Wisconsin lawyer – failing to also keep records sufficient to fully prove what you did.)

Interestingly, before I tell you all that I will tell you about why the outcome seems so justifiable, it is worth noting that the initial decision against him was not disbarment, it was merely a 1-year suspension followed by 2-years of probation.  Nimmer objected to/appealed that proposal and, ultimately, got disbarment.  (It likely would come as no surprise to anyone who does disciplinary defense to hear that Nimmer was pro se on appeal.)

Also interestingly, unlike your normal trust account violation disciplinary proceeding, this one began when the SEC (no, not that one I referenced earlier, the Securities and Exchange Commission) made a referral in March 2016 to Nebraska bar regulators after gaining access by subpoena to Nimmer’s trust account records and finding much questionable activity.

The SEC’s “review of Nimmer’s trust account transactions revealed that he wrote numerous checks for personal expenses, ranging from rent and child support to
dog boarding and landscaping fees.”

Nebraska bar counsel first asked Nimmer to explain a number of the checks and he declined to do so.  They then issued their own subpoena for his trust account records covering a time period going back more than 10 years to January 1, 2006.  Thereafter, they pursued a formal petition for discipline against him alleging that:

between January 2006 and February 2016, Nimmer wrote personal checks on
his client trust account to 29 different businesses, individuals, and organizations. Additionally, it alleged that on December 20, 2007, Nimmer deposited a $10,000 check from his mother issued to him with the notation “loan” into his client trust
account.

As often happens in pro se disciplinary proceedings, Nimmer first challenged (unsuccessfully) the notion that there was any jurisdiction since bar counsel worked for the Supreme Court and also sought out a requirement that bar counsel should have to be disqualified because Nimmer was going to call him as a witness.  He ultimately got a special counsel assigned to his case, but the dismissal motions were unsuccessful.  Nimmer also tried a number of other procedural “Hail Marys,” including trying to have his trust account records barred from evidence because he was only actually required to keep records going back 5 years.

You can read the 31-page opinion here (N00006179PUB) and the array of transactions that were involved and that Nimmer admitted happened.  But, I’ll end with a quick elaboration on that “ignorance of the law” defense, paired as it was with an attempt to argue that he was acting at all times in good faith.

Essentially, the record was undeniably clear that Nimmer used his trust account like a personal checking account — he repeatedly wrote checks to pay the power company, his internet service provider, to pay for his daughter’s camps and health insurance, to pay for his cell phone service, and even one to pay his Nebraska State Bar dues out of his trust account.

Nimmer attempted to argue that “maybe” he was actually using earned fees he had deposited into the trust account to make these payments but he didn’t exactly offer documentation to support the possibility.  He also argued that the commingling rules were less than clear so he didn’t understand that he couldn’t, for example: receive a loan from his mother for $10,000, deposit that into his trust account, and then use that $10,000 to pay a whole series of personal debts.

Nebraska grabbed language from our nation’s capital to quickly dispatch of such an argument in this situation:

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals explained it well: “If a failure to understand
the most central Rules of Professional Conduct could be an acceptable defense for a charged violation, even in cases of good faith mistake, the public’s confidence in the bar and, more importantly, the public’s protection against lawyer overreaching
would diminish considerably.”  In re Smith, 817 A.2d 196, 202 (D.C. 2003).

Can’t stop, won’t stop. Now … full stop.

I’m really, truly not trying to fall into the habit of only managing one post a week.  As proof, here’s a post about a Tennessee lawyer who couldn’t/wouldn’t follow the rules.

It is a fascinating case study for at least two reasons.  One is that discipline for conflicts of interest is, all things considered, relatively rare and, yet, this lawyer’s failure to recognize and avoid a conflict of interest has now led to disbarment.  Second is that it really wasn’t the conflict of interest that got punished with disbarment it was the lawyer’s violation of another rule I’ve mentioned before: The First Rule of Holes.  “When you are in one, stop digging.”

When you violate that rule, you end up in a hole from which you cannot climb out.  That is the end of the story for Homer Cody.

Cody has now been disbarred by the Tennessee Supreme Court in an opinion released earlier this week.  How did he get there?  Well, here’s the short version: he took on a representation that created a conflict from day one and then, despite the imposition of escalating discipline, refused to comply with court orders saying that he had to withdraw from the representation and then kept representing the clients involved even while suspended.

The slightly longer version?  Well, here goes:

A lawsuit was filed all the way back in 2002 that sought judicial dissolution of a childcare entity and its executive director over alleged self-dealing transactions between the executive director and the entity.  In 2003, that executive director was indicted by a grand jury, and then pled guilty to, two counts of theft from the childcare entity.  Near the end of 2004, Cody entered an appearance in the civil lawsuit as an attorney representing both the childcare entity and its executive director.  Joint clients with an obvious conflict between their interests.  That case ended in a ruling that the executive director had failed in her fiduciary duties to the childcare entity and a judgment entered against her in favor of the receiver  – overseeing the entity now in dissolution – for almost $300,000.  Cody filed a notice of appeal from that ruling again as an attorney for both the entity and the executive director.  Who continued to be two clients with glaringly obvious conflicts between them.

In 2007, counsel for the receiver moved to disqualify Cody and, ultimately, in 2008, our state’s Court of Appeals, ruled that Cody was disqualified from representing either of the clients.  Cody, however, continued to undertake actions representing both clients, a contempt action was pursued, and another Court of Appeals ruling was issued emphasizing that Cody had a conflict and was to refrain from representing the entity or the executive director and sent its ruling to our Board of Professional Responsibility.  The BPR filed a petition for discipline in 2011 and that proceeding ended in a public censure being issued against Cody in March 2012.

Despite that fact, Cody (shovel in hand) continued to file pleadings in court as an attorney for both clients.  This resulted in a second disciplinary petition.  In response to that second disciplinary petition, Cody filed a RICO case in federal court, as attorney for the same two clients, claiming that pretty much everyone involved in the court proceedings against his clients were using the Tennessee judicial system “to steal, embezzle, defraud, and to carry out other illegal activities.”  The pending disciplinary case was amended to bring more charges over the representation in the new federal court case.  That disciplinary case resulted in the imposition of an 180-day suspension of Cody’s license in 2015.

I’m guessing at this point, Dear Reader, you can guess what happens next (if for no other reason than that I sort of told you a few paragraphs up in the short version).  During his 180-day suspension, Cody drafted appellate briefs for the same clients, after their RICO case had been dismissed, and had them sign and file them as if he was not involved.  That resulted in a new disciplinary proceeding and culminated in a new one-year suspension in 2016.  Thereafter, Cody prepared three more appellate briefs for those clients — including a petition for cert with the U.S. Supreme Court (!) during his one-year suspension and, in 2017, was hit with a new two-year suspension.  During the one-year suspension but before the two-year suspension began, Cody went back to the state level trial court where it all started and filed an “Open Refusal to Obey Judicial Orders,” along with one or two other filings (including a challenge to the receiver’s fees and expenses), and then, during the two-year suspension period, he filed a “Motion for Determination of Proper Venue.”

Those acts resulted in Cody being found in criminal contempt and actually sentenced to 30 days in jail earlier this year.  Those acts also brought about yet another disciplinary proceeding against him, which he defended by denying the legitimacy of the orders of the Court suspending him, and that resulted in August 2018 in an order disbarring him from the practice of law.

All in all, his saga is a remarkable story that demonstrates at least three things:

(1) you can dig a pretty deep hole over the course of 14 years;

(2) there has to have been something else going on to explain the public meltdown that this lawyer managed to have after apparently practicing for more than 25 years without receiving any public discipline; and

(3) the BPR can truly be dedicated to the concept of incremental discipline when it wants to be as it is almost as hard to believe that Cody was given 180, 1-year, and then 2-year suspensions in these circumstances before ever being disbarred as it is to believe that he kept going out and getting new shovels.

Making it up as you go (but for a good cause): Texas State Bar Op. 673

There has been something of a trend of late in terms of ethics opinions focusing on variations on the breadth of the duty of client confidentiality and the inconvenience it creates for lawyers who have bought in to the modern trend of sharing and oversharing when online.  There was this opinion from the ABA and then this opinion from the ABA, for example.

The latest opinion in this vein is Professional Ethics Committee for the State Bar of Texas Op. 673.  Except, it is only partially in this vein because, while it starts out heading down the path of explaining how the duty of client confidentiality might prohibit lawyers from being able to do something useful, it swerves away from what would be the likely conclusion in most jurisdictions.

Of course, it does so essentially by making up a justification nearly out of whole cloth but, if you’ve ever participated in, and benefited from, access to any kind of online forum or listserv frequented by lawyers, it reaches a conclusion for which Texas lawyers should be grateful.

The questions addressed in Op. 673 are:

  1.  Does a lawyer violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by seeking advice for the benefit of the lawyer’s client from other lawyers in an online discussion group?
  2. Does a lawyer violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by seeking advice for the benefit of the lawyer’s client through informal, direct consultation with another lawyer in a different firm?

The opinion then goes on to describe arrangements that will be familiar to anyone who has spent anytime on any sort of lawyer listserv or other social media group setting or online forum but also makes the point that lawyers reaching out to pick someone’s brain about an issue or perform “lazy person’s research” can also happen in the “meat space,” offline when one lawyer seeks out another lawyer’s input in a version of informal mentoring.

The Texas opinion squarely flags that the biggest concern for the asking lawyer in such scenarios is protecting the confidentiality of client information.  (Importantly, the opinion also does a nice job of flagging for the answering lawyer the most significant risks for her – potentially creating duties to the asking lawyer’s client or wittingly or unwittingly violating duties to her own other clients by helping the lawyer.)

Nevertheless, the opinion explains that the asking lawyer can proceed even if providing some background information that is likely to identify the client or situation is necessary in order to get the advice without violating the ethics rules as to the disclosure of confidential information.

It is the opinion of the Committee that Rules 1.05(d)(1) and (d)(2) allow a lawyer to reveal a limited amount of unprivileged confidential information to lawyers outside the inquiring lawyer’s law firm, without the client’s express consent, when the inquiring lawyer reasonably believes that the revelation will further the representation by obtaining the responding lawyers’ experience or expertise for the benefit of the client, and when it is not reasonably foreseeable that revelation will prejudice the client.

This is where the Texas opinion is able to rely on two things.  One is a “creative” interpretation of the “implied authorization” aspect of the rule on client confidentiality that most jurisdictions also have.  (Texas Rule 1.05(d)(1)).  The other is a nuance in Texas’s rule that jurisdictions tracking the Model Rule don’t have at their disposal to justify this kind of lawyer-friendly (and not exactly consumer unfriendly) outcome.  (Texas Rule 1.05(d)(2)).

Starting with the second is the easy approach because it really is the most important thing to know to explain the outcome – Texas’s version of RPC 1.6 (which they have numbered as Rule 1.05) contains an exception (d)(2) that allows a lawyer to reveal information that is “confidential” but “unprivileged” when “the lawyer has reason to believe it is necessary to do so in order to ‘carry out the representation effectively.'”

For context, here is the entirety of Texas 1.05(d):

(d) A lawyer also may reveal unprivileged client information:

(1) When impliedly authorized to do so in order to carry out the representation.
(2) When the lawyer has reason to believe it is necessary to do so in order to:
(i) carry out the representation effectively;
(ii) defend the lawyer or the lawyer’s employees or associates against a claim of wrongful conduct;
(iii) respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client; or
(iv) prove the services rendered to a client, or the reasonable value thereof, or both, in an action against another person or organization responsible for the payment of the fee for services rendered to the client.

Now, I could quibble with that word “necessary” and how seeking out assistance from an online discussion forum could ever be “necessary,” but I can admit to being a fan of outcome-determinative analysis when I’m a fan of the outcome.  (To be clear, I have always tried very hard when making use of any kind of online forum to not let any cats out of any bags in terms of actual whos, whats, and wheres.)

The fact that the Texas opinion still involves a “making-it-up-as-you-go” approach though comes through loud and clear by the fact that the opinion has to provide a set of numbered considerations spanning more than a full page to guide lawyers in deciding whether and how much confidential but unprivileged information could be disclosed.  If you want to work through those factors, you can do so at pages 2-4 of the actual opinion itself here.

In any jurisdiction that does not have something like Texas’s Rule 1.05(d)(2) though, getting to this kind of result is a lot more difficult since it involves having to try to push the envelope on the “implied authorization” aspect of Model Rule 1.6(a).

Yet, again, this kind of conduct is likely not anything that a client would complain about and often results in driving down the cost of the representation by gathering the wisdom of a crowd before spending hours on research so… as good a time as any to bring back up again my thoughts on how Model Rule 1.6 ought to be revised.

Information overload; summer struggles.

Mid-August often feels like summer doldrums.  Yet, there has been so much recent information of interest in the world of legal ethics that it is hard to keep up.  Thus, one can manage to feel simultaneously adrift and overloaded.

In that spirit (and because I am that “one”), here are a handful (plus 2) of laconic (if not insightful) entries about important things that have happened of late but that between the constant push/pull of overload and doldrums will not be written about here separately at any great length:

  1.  The competitive space in the legal industry impacted by developments in artificial intelligence and the continued push of providers of legal services other than law firms had a “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter” moment recently with the announcement that one of the Big 4 accounting firms – E&Y – was purchasing Riverview Law, which among other things is responsible for the AI product KIM.  You can read a pretty good summary of what this might mean in the short (and long) term at the first link above and here.
  2. A California Bar task force is undertaking exploration of whether to change rules to permit people other than lawyers to own legal services firms.  This move was prompted by a report the California Bar commissioned from a leading guru, Bill Henderson who you can keep up with here.   Though action from this report could be seismic for the legal profession the task force isn’t scheduled to provide any such report until the end of 2019 by which time, California might not actually be able at the rate things are going to “go first.”
  3. Utah is about to be able to be added to the list of U.S. jurisdictions that allow limited licensing of paralegals so that they can practice certain types of law similar to Washington’s set up for Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLTs).
  4. LegalZoom put out a press release about having received a secondary investment of half a billion dollars in a deal that values it at $2 billion dollars total.  (As the old joke goes, that is a tough amount of money to envision, so try thinking of a billion dollars as being represented by a one-hundred dollar bill and now imagine you had 2 of those!)
  5. A coalition of law firms (including law firm biggie Baker Hostetler – which you might recall as being the first major law firm to sign up with ROSS) and startups in the blockchain space have made a big announcement about an endeavor they intend to launch in October, as Forbes reports, to: “develop a new legal services platform called the Agreements Network. Originally revealed in April, the network is being designed to allow lawyers to perform tasks like managing contracts, leases, and governance documents via smart contracts that are compatible with the public ethereum blockchain.”
  6. The enacted-but-never-implemented “Persuader Rule” that I wrote some about many, many moons ago was rescinded by the Department of Labor, in part, having heard the concerns that were expressed by many over the harm it would inflict on attorney-client privilege and client confidentiality.
  7. And speaking of the intersection of government and legal ethics, the current occupant of The White House speaks of John Dean as if he were a villain in the story of Watergate.  For those of us who focus on legal ethics, and are familiar with the role that the events of Watergate played in the evolution of modern legal ethics, that is a pretty chilling piece of information.

 

The ethics of putting together an unenforceable contract.

It is still astounding (as well as deeply dispiriting) that the context of the discussion I’m about to launch is the work of White House Counsel but this is the world we currently occupy.  You may very well have read this fascinating The Washington Post article by now released in connection with the ongoing news story of a former White House staffer who repeatedly secretly taped conversations – including her own firing in The Situation Room — inside The White House and what those recordings may reveal about whether that person says even more outrageous things in private than the outrageous things he says in public, as well as whether that person is suffering from a decline in his mental faculties.

Because tackling the notion of the ethics of representing a client with diminished capacity if that client happens to be – at least theoretically – the most powerful politician on the planet – is too depressing to tackle, I’m not writing about that today.  If you want to delve into those issues, your starting point is ABA Model Rule 1.14.

Instead I want to talk about [as the title of the post telegraphed] what can be a thorny ethics issue even in much more pedestrian contexts: is it ethical for a lawyer to draft and create a contract for a client’s use that the lawyer knows to be unenforceable?

As the topic du jour the context of the question is requiring staff at The White House – public employees — to sign non-disclosure agreements including provisions that would prohibit them from disparaging the 45th President of the United States.  Seemingly everyone acknowledges that given the nature of public employment, democracy, the at-least-still-for-the-time-being cherished concept of transparency in government, and numerous other federal laws such an agreement is obviously and undisputedly unenforceable.  The article describes what the media has been told about the events:

A number of White House aides were urged to sign NDAs in early 2017 by White House Counsel Donald McGahn, according to current and former aides, who requested anonymity to discuss internal West Wing deliberations. Trump was obsessed with leaks to the news media and repeatedly demanded that McGahn draft the agreement, the aides said.

Initially, McGahn told Trump he would not draft or give aides the NDAs because they were not enforceable, White House officials said. But in the end, McGahn created a document that said aides would not divulge any confidential or nonpublic information to any person outside the building at any time, according to three people who signed it.

Other media outlets have reported that McGahn may have convinced people to actually sign the document by reassuring them that it was unenforceable.  One of the reasons the question is important ethically is that if you create a contract for a client that you know is unenforceable, they will likely still try to use that contract in the future against people and cause them harm (at the very least economic harm and inconvenience associated with defending a lawsuit seeking to claim a breach of the unenforceable contract).  Media reports today indicate that something like this is now being undertaken – although admittedly apparently based on an NDA that was required by the campaign and not the actual government.

My opinion about the answer to the question of whether any such conduct by a lawyer is unethical is, unfortunately, less than equivocal.  At heart, it will have to turn on a situation-by-situation analysis.  Using the Model Rules to explain, this is because there is not exactly a specific rule outside of the litigation context that flatly prohibits a lawyer from assisting a client in pursuing a frivolous position in negotiation of a document in the same way that there is such a rule prohibiting the pursuit of frivolous claims in litigation.

What is available is a collection of rules that would need to be sifted through and applied to the circumstances to reach a conclusion about the lawyer’s role in assisting a client in getting someone to agree to a provision in a contract (or an entire contract) that is known to be unenforceable.  Those rules are:

RPC 1.2(d):  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.

RPC 1.16(a):  … a lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if: (1) the representation will result in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law ….

RPC 4.1:  In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall not knowingly: (a) make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person; or (b) fail to disclose a material fact when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client, unless disclosure is prohibited by Rule 1.6.

RPC 4.3:  In dealing on behalf of a client with a person who is not represented by counsel, a lawyer shall not state or imply that the lawyer is disinterested. . . . The lawyer shall not give legal advice to an unrepresented person, other than the advice to secure counsel, if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the interests of such a person are or have a reasonable possibility of being in conflict with the interests of the client.

RPC 4.4(a):  In representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person ….

RPC 8.4(d):  It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to … engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Assuming that, at all times in dealing with the members of staff being asked to sign the contracts, White House counsel was truthful about the situation, then the most troublesome provisions from the list above would be RPC 4.4(a) as there seems no “substantial” purpose other than to burden these people to seek to have them agree to an unenforceable contract — particularly where one of the grounds of unenforceability in this scenario is a constitutional issue.

In other circumstances, for example, where the unenforceable piece of the contract puzzle is just one part of an otherwise enforceable contract or, on the other extreme, where the contract itself is unenforceable because its purpose is inherently criminal or illegal, then the interweaving of these rules may provide a clearer outcome.

ABA adopts new, more modern advertising rules! So, of course, Eeyores assemble.

Earlier this week, the ABA House of Delegates, on a voice vote, passed some much needed improvements to the Seven Series of the Model Rules in order to modernize certain aspects of the regulation of lawyer advertising.  I’ve written in the past about how the proposal before the ABA came about as a result of the hard work and persistent effort of APRL.  Although the ABA revisions have been brought about as a result of APRL’s proposal, the ABA revisions are not as good as APRL’s original proposal.  A number of items fell by the wayside, but they are still a significant improvement and should be championed as such.  This is true because of the incremental nature of change when it comes to the rules that govern our profession.  If the substance of the changes have not already been described to you, you can read about them here.

Nevertheless, and in no small part because there are always opportunities for page views and clicks for those willing to champion the perfect as the enemy of the good, a number of legal writers have already come out with their hot takes decrying the ABA revisions as insufficient.  While that kind of commentary is certainly predictable, it is still disappointing.  (And one of those folks, on Twitter, used a now-trite deck chairs on the Titanic analogy, which was both lazy and disappointing given that the deck chairs on the Titanic analogy would have been much better directed at the ABA membership revisions aimed at staunching their bleed of membership and revenues.)

This kind of improvement to the ABA Model Rules is incredibly significant because it is likely to move the goal posts and increase the ability of states to tinker further in a pro-consumer direction.  As a staunch backer of the original APRL proposal, I would have loved it if more states followed Virginia’s lead and largely just adopted the APRL proposal even before the ABA took action,

That didn’t happen though.  Now that the ABA has acted, two paths for improvement are available.  States that merely decide to adopt the ABA improvements will be positively impacting the landscape by streamlining regulation and removing unnecessary barriers to proposing a commercial transaction.  Other states, particularly ones that may see themselves as wanting to put down a marker for being more progressive on lawyer advertising issues, can choose to view the ABA action as a good first step and adopt their own, even more substantial modernizing revisions,

(P.S. This is my first post written entirely in an ENO on a porch of a beach house in a beautiful breeze.  If you want more of this kind of content, then y’all are going to need to set up some sort of GoFundMe to keep me down here at the beach.)

It’s still a good ethics opinion, even if the rule itself may need rethinking

Not quite 5 months ago, I wrote a bit of a shorter post about my view as to why ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 480 counted as a good ethics opinion.  For those that may not be remembering the opinion off the top of the head, it was the one that reminded lawyers – primarily in the context of social media — that RPC 1.6 governing confidentiality does not have an exception for “generally known” information nor an exception that says it is okay to discuss just because it is a matter of public record.

This opinion has been the subject of some renewed criticism — particularly a very well done column by Bill Wernz in the Minnesota Lawyer which (if you have a subscription you can read here) — and has been (in no small part because of Bill’s influential column) the topic of some spirited debate on an ethics listserv to which I am privileged to be a part.  (Loyal readers may recall an earlier effort on my part to address a first wave of criticism directed at this particular ABA opinion here.)

The summarized version of the criticism generally is that it feels increasingly illogical for confidentiality under the ethics rules to extend to information known or knowable by scads of other people.  An example that has been bandied about is a hypothetical of an attorney who has just secured a helpful published appellate opinion in case on a Wednesday and would like to argue and make reference to that case on Thursday for a different client and whether the restriction in RPC 1.6 means they cannot without the express permission of the client in the appellate case.

A few years back in Tennessee we accomplished a revision to our version of RPC 1.6 that provides some help for hypothesized conundrums such as these with the adoption of a Comment [3b] that reads:

Information made confidential by this Rule does not include what a lawyer learns about the law, legal institutions such as courts and administrative agencies, and similar public matters in the course of representing clients.  For example, during legal research of an issue while representing a client, a lawyer may discover a particularly important precedent, devise a novel legal approach, or learn the preferable way to frame an argument before a particular judge that is useful both in the immediate matter and in other representation.  Such information is part of the general fund of information available to the lawyer.

Other aspects of the renewed criticism keep coming back to the argument that the meaning of the word “reveal” in RPC 1.6 continues to be overlooked in efforts to interpret the rule.  I continue to believe that ABA Formal Opinion 480 and opinions like it are good opinions because I don’t think the people that put so much weight in their argument on the idea that “reveal” is something you cannot do as to already public information are as correct about that as they think they are.  If you didn’t know something until I tell it to you, I think it is entirely fair to say I “revealed” it to you even if it was already public.  It is not the greatest analogy in the world but harken back to your worst experience of someone spoiling for you the shocking twist of a film before you could see it.  In discussing that with someone and explaining your dismay in having the surprise revealed to you without warning, I don’t think you’d think much of someone claiming that millions of people already knew it so telling you about it didn’t really “reveal” anything.

While we obtained the language for Comment [3b] in Tennessee, there was another proposed revision to RPC 1.6 that was not successful but that I still believe would make the rule better and that, ideally, would be a decent fix to the Model Rule as well.  We had proposed adding a piece to RPC 1.6(a) – that would have required adding some numbering to make express consent of a client reason number (1) and implied authority to carry out the representation reason number (2) — where a third reason where revealing RPC 1.6 would be allowable where:  “the disclosure is limited to information relating to the representation of a client which has already been made public and the disclosure is made in such a way that there is no reasonable likelihood of adverse effect to the client.”  Our Court rejected that proposal, but I think an amendment to the Model Rule and other rules patterned on it along those lines would address many of the criticisms of the scope of RPC 1.6 while still protecting against disclosures that it makes sense as a matter of public policy to prohibit lawyers from making — like that one offered in my most-assuredly-unopened open letter post.

 

Traps for the Unwary – Married lawyers edition.

Within the last week, there was an interesting Law.com article (subscription required) on a topic that has been something of a pet . . . well not really “peeve” of mine, and not really a pet project of mine, but a topic that I feel like is somewhat uniquely overlooked by the people to whom it should be most relevant — spouses/significant others who are both lawyers but who work different places.

The article discusses an Ohio disciplinary case that is ongoing and that involves something that – based on anecdotal evidence over the course of my career — is an extremely frequent occurrence:  the sharing of information about cases and matters between spouses and significant others who both are lawyers but who aren’t both representing the client in question.

Although (as indicated above – unless you are particularly wily about how you use the Internet and various search engines ability to “cache” content — you need a subscription to read the article, here’s a snippet to give you a flavor of the fact pattern involved.

The Ohio high court is set to review a proposed disciplinary sanction against two education law attorneys, ThomasHolmes and Ashleigh Kerr, who are engaged to one another and admitted to exchanging emails that included work product and confidential client information.

Although Holmes and Kerr focus on similar types of law—namely the representation of public school districts—they have never shared clients and they worked at different firm. Holmes practiced most recently at [a firm] in …Ohio, and Kerr practiced at [a different firm] in … Ohio.

In a disciplinary complaint lodged in December against the couple, the Ohio Supreme Court’s board of professional conduct said the two have lived together since October 2015 and became engaged in November of that year. From January 2015 to November 2016, the disciplinary complaint alleged, the two exchanged information related to their client representations on more than a dozen occasions.

“Generally,” the board alleged, “Kerr forwarded Holmes an email exchange with her client in which her client requested a legal document (i.e. a contract, waiver or opinion). In response, Holmes forwarded Kerr an email exchange with his client which attached a similar legal document that he had drafted for his client. More often than not, Holmes ultimately completed Kerr’s work relative to her particular client.”

If you want more of the detail, you can access the disciplinary complaint here.  And you can go read the pending recommendation of the Ohio board as to the discipline — which has been agreed to by each of the lawyers here.

The proposed, agreed discipline is a six-month suspension from the practice of law for each lawyer (but with the suspension fully stayed/probated.)

I suspect the outcome of that matter – and perhaps even the fact of disciplinary proceedings at all — will come as a huge surprise to many lawyers.  But the simple fact is that the underlying practice — sharing information about cases in order to try to get your spouse or significant other to help you — despite how much it may seem consistent with human nature is almost always going to be undeniably a violation of the ethics rules.  It is possible that one of the lawyers could get the client to consent to the arrangement, but beyond that approach there are very few ways to avoid the simple fact that RPC 1.6 in almost any jurisdiction won’t permit doing this.

I also strongly believe that most lawyers who do this kind of thing — if they think about it from an ethics standpoint – believe that the risk is quite low of ever being found out because of the marital privilege.  But not only because of some of the inherent limits on how far that may take you, but also because of the increasing frequency in which we all do everything digitally… this case demonstrates that there are a number of ways that the communications can surface into the light without anyone ever having a spouse voluntarily provide information any marital privilege notwithstanding.