Hoosier overseer?

If you are a reader of legal publications or legal blogs, you’ve likely already read something about the nightmarish night out in Indiana that resulted in two state court judges being shot and three state court judges being disciplined. You can read all of the underlying facts if you’d like in the decision that was issued earlier this month imposing judicial discipline here.

Beyond making, by pretending I’m not making, a joke about how their trip to White Castle went much worse than Harold and Kumar’s, I’m not particularly interested in piling on with opinions about that situation.

If you’ve ever personally allowed yourself to consume much more alcohol than you should – and as a result experienced a situation in which you stopped making new memories (which as I understand it is actually what scientists and researchers believe happens when you “blackout”) — then even if you think what happened would never happen to you, you know deep down that maybe, just maybe, you’ve been at risk of such an outcome. But, I do want to use this story to make two points that are worth continuing to think about.

First, each of the judges was a lawyer in the past (and still had a law license at the time) and all of the discussions that we have as a profession about mental health and substance abuse issues in our profession apply equally, if not more in some circumstances, to those on the bench. The need to de-stigmatize seeking help and treatment for judges is just as topical as it is for lawyers.

Second, these judges ultimately were subjected to discipline over this. That is because when it comes to lower level judges we have bodies that oversee their compliance with judicial ethics rules and impose judicial discipline. If the players in the events outlined in the Indiana opinion were not Indiana state court judges, but instead were Justice Kavanagh, Justice Alito, and Justice Kagan experiencing a drunken night on the town that went horribly wrong, there would not be any potential for any disciplinary repercussions whatsoever because we have no regulatory body that is imbued with the authority to enforce any code of federal judicial ethics as against any members of the United States Supreme Court.

Sure, it is possible that articles of impeachment could be pursued to seek to remove a Justice from the bench over conduct like that, but . . . well, let’s just agree that a body a bit more removed from politics would seem like a more reliable regulator in terms of predicting whether it would see certain conduct as indefensible and worthy of rebuke.

There are people out there generating ideas for ways to bring about ethics reform with respect to the United States Supreme Court. The Brennan Center has put out a white paper with three ideas for reform you can read here. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill (not acted upon in the U.S. Senate of course) that would require the Court to adopt a code to govern the conduct of its justices. It has recently (earlier this year at least) been in the news that Justice Roberts is exploring creating such a code.

I don’t purport to know what the correct answer is exactly, but I know that while the risk of something like what happened in Indiana happening to members of the highest Court in the land is likely pretty slim, there are real, substantial ethics questions in play about the members of the Court conduct themselves and our system would be greatly benefited if there was clear, and clearly articulated, rules governing their conduct just like exist for all other judges in our country.

Really good guidance, but not good enough for some.

While I’m catching up on things I should have managed to write about sooner, ABA Formal Ethics Op. 488 is deserving of a few words. That opinion was issued back in early September of this year. What particularly brought it to mind now was that it covers one of multiple topics I was lucky enough to get to talk about last weekend at that PilotLegis member meeting I mentioned in a post last week.

Opinion 488 is a very well written opinion covering the landscape of what the consequences for judges should be in situations where they have some sort of relationship with lawyers or parties appearing before them. The opinion addresses this question with an eye toward what folks online refer to as IRL situations.

It divides the world for judges into three categories of relationships: (1) acquaintances; (2) friendships; and (3) close personal relationships. Having done so, it proceeds on a pretty straightforward basis to explain that if a judge and a lawyer, or a judge and a litigant, are just acquaintances, then the judge has no obligation to even make disclosure of that fact and certainly no obligation to decide to recuse themselves because they are disqualified from presiding. The opinion offers a fairly succinct proffered definition of what it means by the term “acquaintances” — “A judge and lawyer should be considered acquaintances when their interactions outside of court are coincidental or relatively superficial, such as being members of the same place of worship, professional or civic organization, or the like.” The opinion also makes clear that a judge and a litigant should be considered acquaintances under the same kinds of circumstances as judges and lawyers. As to the third category, “close personal relationships” the opinion explains that those require disqualification outright only if the relationship is a romantic one or what I’m going to call “unilaterally, aspirationally romantic.” Where the judge wants to have a romantic relationship with the person. As for the rest of the world of friendships and other close personal but non-amorous relationships, the opinion candidly admits that they are all pretty much fact specific as to whether disqualification is required or merely a disclosure on the record is what is required accompanied by an explanation of the grounds for why the judge believes they can still preside is appropriate instead.

I can manage to have some real fun criticizing ethics opinions from time-to-time so I can’t really begrudge others when they do. But this is one that I think gets things correct.

Two other prominent legal ethics experts, Karen Rubin and Alberto Bernabe, criticized this opinion in slightly different ways. Karen expresses disappointment that is does not do enough to provide what she called “needed” guidance about the impact of judges’ use of social media and connections with lawyers and litigants on questions of disqualification. Professor Bernabe mentioned that omission but was a bit more critical of the nature of the opinion as being an “it depends” and is largely “up to the judge” in the first instance.

I disagree on Professor Bernabe’s point because I think that is the very nature of the beast. And, I appreciate the opinion being candid about the exercise. I disagree with Karen Rubin for what might be two reasons, but might really just be one overall reason.

First, treating social media as something so important or different as to be deserving of its own space and separate treatment (I think) misses the larger point. A social media connection simply is just one piece of the overall puzzle of determining whether or not the judge and the person have an actual relationship that is a friendship or something less. Second, the opinion does address the topic – and does so in a way that is entirely consistent with my first point. It does this in footnote 11:

Social media, which is simply a form of communication, uses terminology that is distinct from that used in this opinion. Interaction on social media does not itself indicate the type of relationships participants have with one another either generally or for purposes of this opinion. For example, Facebook uses the term “friend,” but that is simply a title employed in that context. A judge could have Facebook “friends” or other social media contacts who are acquaintances, friends, or in some sort of close personal relationship with the judge. The proper characterization of a person’s relationship with a judge depends on the definitions and examples used in this opinion.

By simply acknowledging that it matters, but that it is no more dispositive of the relevant question than any other piece of the puzzle, I think that Opinion 488 handles it exactly the correct way. Stated another way, given the widely varying state opinions that Karen addressed in her much more timely post about this, I think the guidance needed from the ABA on the social media front was pretty much exactly what was in the footnote and nothing more. If that guidance is heeded, then perhaps state entities can start to “chill out” a bit about the trees and focus on the forest.

Rule revision roundup.

That title is probably a thing somewhere else on the interwebs already, but I’m just lazy enough to not look it up at the moment.

So, it’s been a minute since I have written anything about the progress (or lack thereof) of jurisdictions adopting ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) and since I have written anything (other than indirectly) about whether any progress has been made on adopting the revised, modernized approach to lawyer advertising rules seen in the APRL-inspired, ABA Model Rules revision from last year.

In overlooking those stories in favor of writing about more radical proposed changes to the ethics landscape (some of which have thrown modernized advertising proposals into the stew), I’ve been highlighting a lot of activity in the western United States. But spending a bit of time on these other two topics, gives me a chance to write about happenings in the New England region of the United States.

Specifically, earlier this year (more than five months ago in fact), Maine became the second U.S. jurisdiction to adopt a version of ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) to seek to address harassment and discrimination related to the practice of law. A neighboring state, Vermont, is the only other state to have done so. Unlike Vermont, however, Maine did not adopt an exact version of the ABA Model Rule. Instead, Maine tweaked it in a few significant ways: (1) the Maine version does not include “marital” or “socioeconomic” status among the grounds for which discrimination is off-limits; (2) the Maine version does not include bar activities or professional social functions within what counts as “related to the practice of law,” and (3) it provides more detailed examples of what amounts to “harassment” and what amounts to “discrimination” under the rule. You may recall that an effort to adopt a modified version of Rule 8.4(g) here in my state of Tennessee failed miserably in 2018.

A bit more recently (only just three months ago), Connecticut became the first state to adopt the ABA revisions to the Model Rules related to lawyer advertising. You may recall that Virginia actually overhauled its rules even before the ABA took action by adopting the original APRL proposal back in 2017. In so doing, Connecticut (for the most part) has stripped its advertising regulations down to just three rules — patterned on ABA Model Rules 7.1, 7.2, and 7.3. Connecticut does still keep a couple of its additional bells and whistles (though it can be hard at first blush to know for certain because they used [brackets] to indicate deletions rather than strike-through text). One deviation that it kept was its 40-day off limits provision for people involved in accidents. Another deviation is that they have a three-year record retention requirement in their version of these rules. A few other deviations made it through as well.

If I could take issue with one choice Connecticut has made (well, technically two — seriously, don’t do the brackets thing ever again), it would be the level of unnecessary detail in the following provision about record retention:

An electronic communication regarding the lawyer’s services shall be copied once every three months on a compact disc or similar technology and kept for three years after its last dissemination.

The problem with this is … well there are several. In 2019, a whole lot of computers don’t even have CD-ROM drives any longer, but also the level of specificity and detail is both micromanagement of an unneeded degree and entirely unlikely to actually accomplish anything. As to micromanagement, just require that an electronic record be retained for the three year period – if they want to store it in a server or in the cloud or wherever, it won’t matter as long as they retain it so that if you ever need to examine it you get it from them.

And also, every three months? Both micromanagement and ineffectual, a lawyer who wants to game that system just changes an electronic communication to be shady in the middle of the three month window and changes it back in time to make the every three-month copy.

Except, of course not really, because the stories about Connecticut’s adoption of the ABA Model Rules on advertising, including this story, all buried the lede — Connecticut still requires lawyers who advertise in public media to file a copy of the advertisement in the form it is distributed with the Statewide Grievance Committee. Sigh. While this is not a “prior restraint,” it is a “prior pain-in-the-ass” (TM, TM, TM, TM) that serves little to no purpose other than imposing additional expenses and red tape on lawyer advertising.

To have both such a filing requirement and a three-year record retention requirement is among the worst sort of “belt and suspenders” arrangements.

In the end, I guess that’s part of why it took so long to actually write this post. Between reading the headlines and being a bit excited and actually studying what Connecticut did, I ended up feeling like I just got nutmegged.

Then I went and slept on Arizona

So … as far as 400th posts go … this should be my best 400th post at this blog.

A while back I warned everyone not to sleep on Arizona when it comes to movement toward radically reshaping the regulatory landscape for lawyers. Apparently, I should practice what I preach because Arizona’s Task Force on the Delivery of Legal Services put out its most recent report a month ago, and I haven’t gotten around to reading it or writing about it until now.

You can read the full report and its appendices here, but the headline that matters for today is that the Arizona task force — like Utah before it — has also proposed eliminating altogether Arizona’s Rule 5.4. The report includes a large number of other proposals aimed at improving the delivery of legal services in Arizona but because of the dynamics involved, any serious proposal in any state to throw open the doors to lawyers being able to practice in firms owned by people who are not lawyers will consume all of the oxygen in any given room.

As with all of the reports that are being churned out by various work groups, the Arizona task force report spends a lot of time discussing issues associated with the “justice gap.” The Arizona report does a pretty good, very pithy, job of making the point that many hear but don’t allow to fully marinate when thinking about these issues — on average, real people (as opposed to corporate people) don’t hire lawyers for much of what they need to be hiring lawyers for and, on average, lawyers who work in small firms don’t have enough work to do to make ends meet.

While admittedly blending together data involving disparate time periods, the Arizona report nicely blends together information written about by Professor Henderson and data made available by Clio:

One reason for the current “justice gap” is that the costs of hiring lawyers has increased since the 1970s, and many individual litigants have been forced to forego using professional legal services and either represent themselves or ignore their legal problems. Professor William D. Henderson, Indiana University Maurer School of Law, has noted the alarming decline in legal representation for what he calls the “PeopleLaw sector,” observing that law firms have gradually shifted the core of their client base from individuals to entities. Indeed, while total receipts of United States law firms from 2007 to 2012 rose by $21 billion, receipts from representing individuals declined by almost $7 billion.

[snip]

According to the 2017 Clio Legal Trends Report, the average small firm lawyer bills $260 per hour, performs 2.3 hours billable work a day, bills 1.9 hours of that work, and collects 86% of invoiced fees.11 As a result, the average small firm lawyer earns $422 per day before paying overhead costs. These lawyers are spending roughly the same amount of time looking for legal work and running their business as they are performing legal work for clients.

In reaching the conclusion that Rule 5.4 should simply be scrapped, the report explains that the task force considered and rejected options to just amend Arizona’s Rule 5.4 to do something closer to what the D.C. Rules have long permitted at the entity level and also rejected a small “sandbox” sort of arrangement that would have allowed just applicants who could get approval to run “pilot” project style efforts.

The Arizona report, like Utah’s before it, also has an eye toward creating a mechanism for “entity” regulation. Interestingly, the Arizona report also recommends scrapping Rule 5.7 regarding law-related services in light of the deletion of Rule 5.4’s prohibitions and in favor of amendments to other rules to make clear that the kinds of protections that a rule like Rule 5.7 gave a lawyer a mechanism for not having to afford to customers who were not clients should always be afforded to customers in a post-5.4 world whether clients or not. Also, as indicated would be the case in my earlier post about the goings-on in Arizona, the report does propose dropping altogether the restriction on paying for referrals housed in Rule 7.2(b).

The Arizona report also contains an Opposition Statement, written by a member of the Arizona task force who also happens to sit on the Arizona Court of Appeals. In short, Judge Swann’s Opposition Statement can be summed up as seeing the proposal to scrap Rule 5.4 as a cash grab by the legal profession wearing the cloak of concern with access to justice. Perhaps the strongest point Judge Swann makes is how badly the judicial system itself is in need of reform:

Though the current rules do an excellent job of implementing the “Cadillac” system of trial by jury and cutting-edge discovery techniques, they are completely ineffective at offering a simple path to dispute resolution for self-represented litigants, and they offer no streamlined procedures for small cases. The complexity of the system – indeed the very need for legal services in many cases – is a problem of our own making. I respectfully submit that the Task Force should have directed its attention to systemic reforms, and not to finding ways to direct even more resources to an already-too-resource hungry system. If the court system is too complex for the average citizen, then we must create a simpler and more efficient system – not new industries that will continue to consume the public’s money.

With its built-in “dissent,” the Arizona report really does frame the issues quite appropriately in terms of the nature of the choices that are out there for what must or should or will happen next both in Arizona and elsewhere.

This coming weekend, this general topic will be one of several that Merri Baldwin and I will be speaking on at an event for the PilotLegis Annual Member Conference in Washington, D.C.

Later this year, what has been going on and what comes next will be the focus of the 2019 Ethics Roadshow. We’re calling it “What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Fundamental Changes in the Legal Profession).” I’ll be doing it live in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville over the course of two weeks in December 2019.

What happens when it Gaetz worse?

So, I’m doing everything I can to only write about this stuff occasionally, but the latest stunt in connection with the ongoing investigations into the current administration requires at least some discussion – not just because of the brazen hypocrisy (after all the ethics rules do not prohibit lawyers from being hypocrites) but because the incident raises a fascinating question (at least for me) about the application of RPC 8.4(d).

Ok, before I go further assuming you know what I’m talking about, I’m talking about Congressman Matthew Gaetz, a Florida Republican, who appears to be the closest thing to the Jonah Ryan character from Veep that we have in the Trump cinematic universe version of that show.  Gaetz, who is a Florida lawyer, led a group of 40 Republican congressmen in unauthorizedly barging their way into the SCIF.  (Technically, 13 of them sit on committees that are entitled to be in there so, unless they were among the ones with phones, their involvement wasn’t unauthorized just outlandish.)

Now, if you are unfamiliar with the rules of Congress regarding the use of a SCIF or even what that stands for, you can go read this excellent article on the topic here.  Now as the news has come out, in addition to the fact that the only thing missing from the event to fully underscore the Olympic-level hypocrisy would have been for Gaetz to scream “Benghazi” as they pushed their way in, there are now indications that the activity may have been coordinated with the POTUS and, ultimately, it resulted in the Sergeant-at-Arms coming and declaring that the members were in violation of the rules of the legislative body.

While it is clear that this conduct, spearheaded by Gaetz, was in violation of the House’s own rules on such things, it is less clear to me about whether it involved an actual violation of the law.  On its face though, one thing that seems absolutely clear to me:  given that this was aimed at obstructing impeachment investigation proceedings, something that is a power given solely to the House, is there any argument that it is not conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice for purpose of Rule 8.4(d)?

I mean, there are several level of problems with storming a secure area in order to seek to disrupt Constitutionally-authorized proceedings, but given that it happened in connection with a deposition that was being given by a witness who was testifying in response to a lawful subpoena the day after pretty-damning testimony from the Ambassador to Ukraine raises the specter of witness intimidation in a way that would likely raise red flags for someone who hadn’t already faced proceedings about improper conduct that could be viewed as threatening witnesses to official proceedings much less someone who already found themselves in the cross-hairs defending themselves against such issues.

This might be an academic question only because Florida’s version of Model Rule 8.4(d), though expanded recently to reach harassment and discrimination, only prohibits conduct “related to the practice of law.” So it appears that you’d have to conclude this was a crime to come after him and constitutional protections for legislators under the Speech and Debate clause are pretty robust.

But, it really is not an academic question because Gaetz has already put his license at risk over such behavior. He has previously had to deal with a disciplinary investigation over a Tweet he directed at Michael Cohen, a former fixer/lawyer for Trump, which appeared to threaten Cohen at a time in which Cohen was scheduled to testify before Congress. Apparently, that matter was resolved with no disciplinary action but merely a letter of advice.

It would appear that Gaetz, like the man he appears to be willing to risk his license for, has not taken that kind of advice to heart.

Why can’t we (both) be friends (of the Court)?

So within the last few days the New York State Bar Association has issued an interesting new ethics opinion addressing a variation of an issue that is straightforward nearly everywhere.

Lawyers tend to know that conflicts questions can often be complicated but that there is at least one that is pretty straightforward: different lawyers in the same law firm cannot represent different clients who are on opposite sides of the “v” in the same lawsuit.

Can’t do it; can’t ask a client for consent; just a non-starter. (In Texas, your mileage may vary. But, otherwise pretty universal across the nation.)  NYSBA Ethics Op. 1174 evaluates a somewhat esoteric question that revolves around whether participation in litigation as counsel for an amicus curiae works the same way. Namely, whether amici on opposite sides of the same litigation matter can be represented by lawyers in the same firm.

I think that the NYSBA has gotten the answer on this correct though I’m not as certain about whether the escape valve they offered the inquiring firm is entirely correct. To get to bottom of both of those points, it strikes me as easiest to first analyze something that the NYSBA did not discuss because it should ease folks into the correct answer (if you aren’t there already).

If you were representing the plaintiff in a case, could another lawyer in your firm take on the representation of an amicus curiae seeking to persuade the Court to rule in favor of the defendant’s position in that case?  I think we’d all agree that the answer to that would be “no.” Maybe we’d argue over whether that was because that second matter would be “directly adverse” to the plaintiff client or whether it would just be a “material limitation” conflict. (FWIW, seems pretty directly adverse to my eyes.)

So, concluding that two different amici on opposite sides of the same litigation matter is a conflict seems like an entirely appropriate conclusion. It also seems fair to conclude, given the traditional language used in rules like Model Rule 1.7 (as does New York’s RPC 1.7(b)(3)) that it amounts to representing clients on both sides of the same litigation and, therefore, cannot be undertaken even with client consent. Those were the conclusions reached in Opinion 1174.

Because of the nature of the scenario that was presented to it, the NYSBA went a bit further to put together something of a “but you could do this” sweetener. The inquiring firm had surveyed its associates about interest in taking on an amicus matter on a pro bono basis and gotten mixed feedback because there were some folks who believed in the correctness of the opposite sides of the issue. The NYSBA indicated that lawyers in the same firm could appear for amici on opposite sides — if the lawyers were not representing a client but were acting pro se.

While that presents a potentially messy practical question for the firm, it seems like the correct result under the ethics rules if each side’s involvement is pro se. What is not clear to me is whether the NYSBA is intended to also address whether a firm lawyer could file a pro se amicus brief to take the adverse position to another amicus who is actually a client being represented by the law firm.

Certainly seems to me like some kind of additional conflict analysis would be required to evaluate that question because of the potential that the personal interest of one more lawyers that the firm could create a significant risk of materially limiting the firm’s ability to represent its client.
The opinion also does not address a much harder issue to both evaluate and to even “catch” in the first place … representing amici in different litigation matters who are on opposite sides of the same issue and advocating for outcomes that are markedly different on the same legal issue.

If a firm is fortunate enough to have built a conflicts system that would allow them to catch it, or if they otherwise figure it out ahead of time, that issue is one that should be run through the ringer as a “positional” or “issue” conflict and likely will turn on the relationship of the courts involved and whether one of the courts would be binding on the other when it decided the issue. At the very least, unlike the “same litigation” matter scenarios, that kind of conflict might be subject to waiver by the affected clients.

A companion piece.

As I inch ever closer to my 400th blogpost here, today’s offering is something of a companion piece to a post I wrote almost exactly 13 months ago that demonstrates what should be an obvious point, what is a very important point in the world of disciplinary defense but much less obvious, and at least one highly curious one.

This post involves, Sherri Jefferson, a Georgia lawyer who has now been disbarred over what was largely the same sort of conduct that got the Pennsylvania lawyer in trouble who was the subject of that earlier post.

I’ll let the headline from The ABA Journal online article – which is what first caught my eye – explain: “Lawyer disbarred after she’s accused of having romantic involvement with client and hiring detective to spy on him.”

It’s a pretty good headline but it omits, as headlines sometimes must for space reasons, the important thing that happened between romance and spying – the client stopped being a client and started dating another woman. This paragraph of the disbarment order gives the expanded details but still in a pretty succinct fashion:

Jefferson represented an individual from 2008 to 2010 in a custody modification action; during the representation, Jefferson and that individual were romantically involved. This relationship led to the filing of a disciplinary matter against Jefferson, but the matter was subsequently dismissed by this Court in 2014. During the pendency of that disciplinary matter, Jefferson’s former client began dating another woman and, following the dismissal of that matter, Jefferson hired a private investigator to conduct an investigation including surreptitious surveillance of the former client, his son, and the other woman. Additionally, Jefferson falsely disparaged the other woman to the woman’s employer, including making false and misleading statements about the custody proceeding.

The important, and obvious, point here being that bad ethical conduct from lawyers driven by jealousy is not exclusively the province of male lawyers. Jefferson also did not make matters any better for herself thereafter by making a number of provably false statements during criminal proceedings that arose after criminal warrants for stalking and defamation were filed against her.

Jefferson also made a strategic decision in the defense of her disciplinary case that tees up discussion of the other important, but less obvious, point, she pled the Fifth.

Now, sometimes that truly is the best (if not the only) option when the conduct is also potentially criminal conduct, but it almost always has damning consequences on the disciplinary side. The order of disbarment discusses in a couple of footnotes how taking the Fifth justified an adverse inference that the disciplinary allegations were essentially true. (These were relegated to footnotes because, by being uncooperative in certain aspects of the proceedings, Jefferson also was the subject of a sanctions order that essentially acted as a default judgment against her.)

Although much ink has been spilled in the past about what it means for disciplinary cases to be “quasi-criminal” in nature when it comes to Fifth Amendment rights, as a practical matter the “quasi” always does more work in that description than “criminal” does and lawyers who sit in judgment of other lawyers tend not to hesitate to draw negative conclusions about a lawyer who invokes the Fifth Amendment in proceedings about lawyer discipline.

And the final point, injected into the mix purely for the curiosity factor is that she apparently has also attempted to draw parallels to how she has been treated to events occurring on the national stage in a way that, I’m just guessing, probably will not carry the kind of weight she thinks.

That same ABA Journal article concludes with a quote from her – that apparently is made in a filing Jefferson has made to seek to stay and vacate the order of disbarment — “Akin to the Russian probe, this case is marred by abuse of prosecutorial misconduct, abuse of discretion and acts of complete denial of due process.”

Akin to the Russian probe … sigh.

You’ve probably already read this letter…

It’s Tuesday night, October 8, 2019. What are you going to do with your evening? Want to read a letter written by someone who seems pretty clearly like someone who should not be permitted to be a lawyer at all but certainly who fails to understand that being White House Counsel is not the same thing as being a personal lawyer for the person presently holding that government office?

You’ve probably already read it, but just in case you haven’t, here is a link where you can read it in all of its infamy: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/6459967/PAC-Letter-10-08-2019.pdf

Enjoy.

And when I write “enjoy,” what I really mean is . . . lament the level of institutional failure that has given us someone like Pat Cipollone as White House Counsel at this period of history rather than someone who would have the decency to resign rather than pen that feeble-minded missive in order to stay employed by someone who is wholly unworthy of, and dangerous to, the institution of the Presidency.

Although, if I were trying desperately to say something positive about this letter, I could say that at least he didn’t use comic sans as the font.

Fettered is almost always better for lawyers.

Fettered is a fun word on a number of levels. It is a word lawyers are usually familiar with when it has a prefix attached to it and gets used when we talk about disclosures or access as being “unfettered.” But, it is also a word that literally means “to be restrained with chains,” so it would not be an entirely incorrect usage of “fettered” to describe being physically handcuffed … although it usually involves chains or manacles around the ankles rather than handcuffs.

The connection created by that word and its meanings is truly the only thing that prompted me to link the following two stories of interest for lawyers.

One involves a very thoughtful court ruling that provides a road map for the way lawyers should go about avoiding unfettered disclosure of client confidences even when they have the right to defend themselves.

The other involves a lawyer who so flagrantly went about things the wrong way that her lateral move ended with her in actual handcuffs for a couple of days, not to mention likely financial handcuffs for many years to come.

I’ve often spoken with lawyers about how the right to disclose confidential client information to defend your conduct is clearly acknowledged by the ethics rules, but also still an endeavor not entirely free of risk given the limits imposed under those same ethics rules. Model Rule 1.6(b) and its accompanying paragraphs of Comment actually combine to do a very good job of explaining to lawyers how they still have to go to some pains to try to protect information, even in the face of unreasonable conduct by clients (or former clients) behaving incredibly unfairly.

The two biggest components of those “pains” are: (1) that you cannot simply unleash and disclose everything you know that might be damaging to your former client but have to make measured disclosures that are only what is reasonably necessary to defeat the allegations against you, and (2) that you likely also must make some effort to see if the Court will allow you to file what you have to say under seal or under some other form of protective order to prevent far and wide dissemination of the information you are disclosing. But, what happens a fair percentage of the time is that lawyers read the rule but not necessarily the explanatory comments.

In connection with a criminal case in federal court in West Virginia involving accusations of ineffective assistance, a U.S. Magistrate Judge issued a very well structured and thoughtful opinion that essentially follows the guidance of the rule and its comment in a way that provides a good model for letting a lawyer defend their conduct while properly imposing safeguards to avoid unfettered disclosures. Thus, the full opinion is now another place to point lawyers to beyond just the Comments where they can read the preferred way this needs to work. As a bonus, it also provides an excellent gloss on a now-decade-old ABA Formal Ethics Opinion that some folks believed went a bit too far.

As to the lawyer who likely thought she was seeking greener pastures but ended up in handcuffs, the easiest place to succinctly describe Chelsea Merta’s conduct is a paragraph or two of the Confession of Judgment and Consent Permanent Injunction Ms. Merta entered in state court in St. Louis, Missouri around 10 days ago:

3. On or about February 2, 2018, seven days prior to her resignation, Merta transferred approximately 22,000 data files from SLF [her then firm] onto a portable USB flash drive without authorization from SLF. The data files that were transferred to the portable USB flash drive included files from SLF’s clients and SLF. Merta took the flash drive containing these files and, upon her resignation (despite representations to the contrary during her exit interview with SLF), retained the files. Many of those files were later found to be contained on [her and her new firm’s] MacBook Pro computers and cloud storage accounts.

4. Prior to her resignation and without authorization from SLF, Merta tampered with, deleted, and wiped her SLF computer, her SLF-issued smart phone, and other storage locations of all data, including data related to SLF’s clients and SLF, and also informed three clients of her imminent departure from SLF. Thereafter, following the submission of her notice of resignation, but prior to it becoming effective, Merta contacted a number of clients to inform them of her resignation and inform them that they could transfer their file to her new law firm.

In that confession of judgment, Merta agreed that the damages caused to her former firm were in excess of $550,000. The consent judgment also references the Court having already awarded damages against her for more than $200,000 over conduct involving contempt of court.

It was the contemptuous conduct – which itself at heart was continued refusal to relinquish the improperly taken files and continued misrepresentations to the Court about those facts – that also resulted in her spending two nights in jail until she purged the contempt. You can read all about the contemptuous conduct in this earlier order here.

Merta’s behavior when leaving to start a new firm, I sadly believe, happens a lot more often than you might think. It usually does not come to light for a variety of reasons, such as the dynamic associated with the pros and cons for the firm that has been wronged of ever pursuing the wrongdoing because of potential adverse effects for the firm and for continued discomfort on the part of its current and former clients. The reason that lawyers can tend to get away with this kind of conduct though is not that the departing conduct can’t be proven as the order lays bare. Technology these days makes it very difficult to not leave behind the kind of digital trail that Merta left.

Nevertheless, the tendency to engage in the conduct on the way out the door is fundamentally puzzling because it is antithetical to what lawyers usually are — risk adverse. It will likely come as no surprise to hear that this particular lawyer also has been pursuing bankruptcy proceedings. Thus, this case demonstrates just how significant the financial and professional risk of doing this can be in those cases where the firm that is wronged does make the decision to plow forward with proving it.


But why though?

This past week the Tennessee Supreme Court proposed revisions to the rules of disciplinary enforcement that would transform disbarment into an irrevocable form of discipline in Tennessee and that would extend the potential length of a suspension from 5 years maximum to 10 years maximum.

Which leads me to the highly-technical title of this post: But why though?

Under Tennessee’s current approach, the maximum length of suspension is 5 years, and the only harsher punishment is disbarment. At present, in Tennessee, if you are disbarred it is not a “death penalty” as to your license because you can apply for reinstatement after 5 years has passed.

What is going on that would make anyone think this was a needed change in Tennessee?

I assume that if this change were enacted what it would mean is that some percentage of lawyers who are presently finding themselves disbarred might now instead just end up receiving suspensions in the 6-10 year range and some other percentage of lawyers who are already going to end up disbarred will still be disbarred but will have it be a new “disbarment is forever” standard.

But … why? I admittedly do not have access to all information about what is going on in the world of discipline in Tennessee, but I have some decent insight, and I’m simply not attuned to what the problem is that this seeks to fix.

Lawyers who get disbarred do not just get automatically reinstated after spending 5 years disbarred. They have to apply for reinstatement. They have the burden of proving that being permitted to return to the practice of law will not be detrimental to the public and the profession. Disciplinary counsel has the opportunity to zealously advocate against the requested reinstatement and marshal whatever evidence they can get their hands on to demonstrate why the person involved has not changed sufficiently to be given the privilege to practice law once again.

By the way, that is also how it works if you get a 5-year suspension (or a 3-year suspension or a 1-year suspension). You have to apply to be reinstated; you have to prove the required elements to demonstrate why you should be reinstated. If you can’t, you stay suspended for 6 or 7 or 8 or even 10 years until you can prove you should be able to practice law again. Based on other revisions to the rules not too long ago, that is also how it works even if you only get suspended for 30 days. You still have to get yourself reinstated by way of a petition.

Why doesn’t that work? Why does Tennessee need to add itself to the list of a handful or so other states to have permanent, irrevocable disbarment? Why does Tennessee need to double the length of available periods of suspension up to 10 years?

It has now been more than 10 years since our Court issued its decision in Hughes v. BPR but it certainly knows that it already has the precedent to deny a lawyer reinstatement if it thinks it should not happen even in the face of significant evidence of rehabilitation.

The statistics that are easily accessible also do not seem to indicate anything is horribly awry with the current approach. If you look at the most recent annual report from the TBPR, there were 21 lawyers disbarred, 18 lawyers receiving disciplinary suspensions (which would be anywhere between the 30-day minimum and the 5-year maximum), and 7 lawyers reinstated. If you look at the report for the year before that, there were 23 lawyers disbarred, 28 lawyers receiving suspensions, and 14 lawyers reinstated. The year before that, 23 disbarments, 18 suspensions, and only 5 lawyers managed to get reinstated.

And, also, while I think that what I’ve discussed above is the big and truly weighty question at play here, even if one decided there should be a change, why in the world would it ever make sense to pick a future date when disbarments would become permanent and not indicate that it is for disbarments arising from disciplinary proceedings commenced on or after that date?

The proposed revision would change Section 30.2 of Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9 to read as follows:

30.2. Individuals disbarred on or after July 1, 2020, are not eligible for reinstatement. Individuals disbarred under Rule 9 prior to July 1, 2020, may not apply for reinstatement until the expiration of at least five years from the effective date of the disbarment.

Why inject a questionable level of due process deficiency into this situation by proposing to revise the rule so that people who already have cases in the system would have a different meaning for the outcome of disbarment depending on whether it was complete by June 30, 2020? Lawyers on their way to disbarment are admittedly not sympathetic characters, but if they have begun being investigated and prosecuted under one set of rules, there seems no really good reason to change those rules on them in the middle of the process.