Two ethics opinions: one good, one bad, but both reveal systemic problems.

So, New York and Florida. Interestingly, those states have been bookends of our nation’s problems with COVID-19 and with fighting it. New York got hit very badly early, given the concentrated nature of its population centers, but then engaged in a very serious effort of taking the virus very seriously and managed to significantly flatten its curve. Florida’s government ignored and downplayed the situation, and now is experiencing horrible daily numbers and now has overall numbers of cases and deaths that are worse than New York’s. The two states contrasting efforts though still combine to tell a large part of the problem plaguing the United States when it comes to the pandemic — the lack of a coordinated national strategy because we have an incompetent and dysfunctional federal executive.

Two recent developments in ethics opinions from each state also offer contrasting approaches to issuing ethics opinions, contrasting results, and combine to tell part of the larger story of issues plaguing the profession as a whole.

First, let’s start with New York State Bar Association Op. 1200 which is good on procedure but bad on outcome. This opinion addresses application of New York’s RPC 5.7 and the combination of legal services and wealth management services. It was issued after what would appear to be the traditional, efficient, process of receiving a written request for an opinion, having a committee meet and deliberate, and then issuing a written opinion.

The answer it gives to the question whether the same lawyer can render legal services to a client and, through another entity, provide wealth management services to the same person is baffling. Despite the clear rationale for a why a rule like RPC 5.7 exists and, despite the fact that RPC 1.7 should provide for the ability for a waiver of such a conflict, the answer provided is that the conflict is so severe as to be unwaivable. And the only real explanation that is proffered for why is that the lawyer is simply going to be making too much more money from the provision of the wealth management services than from the provision of legal services. Maddening because of all that implies about not only evaluating the conflict rules but how it can justify other assumptions raising questions about a number of other ethics rules that operate under the assumption that lawyers can do the right thing in terms of representing their clients ethically even when it is in conflict with their own financial interests.

Next comes Florida where there exists a proposed ethics opinion waiting on action by the Florida Supreme Court. Technically, it isn’t an ethics opinion as it comes from the Florida Bar Standing Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, but given the relationship to RPC 5.5, that’s a bit of a tomato/tomahto situation.

Now, procedurally it is nightmarish. To get to the point of even issuing the opinion, they held what for all intents and purposes looks like the equivalent of a trial. Sworn witnesses and all. Even after that, it still has to be approved by someone else. Substantively, proposed Florida Advisory Op. 2019-4, would be good because it would conclude that a New Jersey-licensed lawyer who had retired from his job, moved to Florida, and then took a new job for a New Jersey company would not be engaged in UPL if he continued to reside and work in Florida (where he was not licensed) and advised the New Jersey employer about federal law issues.

Now, it is an opinion that shouldn’t be necessary at all for a few reasons, including that if all that is occurring is advising about federal law issues, then Model Rule 5.5(d)’s language should pretty straightforwardly and clearly allow that activity. Unfortunately, Florida curiously does not have that language in its rules and does not appear willing to facially admit the underpinnings of federalism and the Supremacy Clause that require that result. And, even if the question had been about general work for the New Jersey company remotely, it shouldn’t take the equivalent of a trial to figure out that the answer should be that no UPL takes place.

This may all have been less clear to the profession before the pandemic, but during (and if we ever get to a point of “post”) the pandemic it should be painfully clear that the physical presence alone of a lawyer in a particular location should not be dispositive of whether UPL is occurring.

For what it is worth, my proposal for a practical solution to the question of UPL in modern practice that would still allow for things that truly should be regulated to be regulated would be as follows:

There should be a uniformly used “totality of the circumstances/most substantial connection”-style test that evaluates:

  1. where the lawyer is located
  2. where the client is located
  3. if there is a contemplated legal proceeding (or other matter involved such as commercial transaction or closing) where that is located or expected to be located; and
  4. what state’s law would govern in such a proceeding (or other matter).

And, unless the majority of those factors involve a state where the lawyer is not licensed then it simply isn’t UPL.

If my math is correct that would mean that as long as any 2 of the factors touched the lawyer’s state of licensure, then the lawyer is free and clear (or stated differently, unless 3 of the 4 involve a state where the lawyer isn’t licensed, then the lawyer is free and clear).

And, there would still have to be a continued exception acknowledged for purely federal law situations.

Opposite ends but still the same spectrum (mostly).

Lawyers can get into significant amounts of ethical trouble over money issues. They can put their licenses at real risk by messing up their trust accounting obligations, they can get in trouble for overbilling clients, and, often, if they end up suing a client for failure to pay bills that are appropriately due, they will get a counterclaim for legal malpractice filed in response.

Over the last week, two items popped up on the radar screen that demonstrate even more ways that lawyers can run afoul of the ethics rules on topics involving money.

The first is a classic example of things that lawyers cannot do – because of the dishonesty involved – even if the end result is that their clients are not actually harmed by what transpired.

This story involves a lawyer in Pennsylvania who has been suspended for four years for making payments from his own personal funds to clients and misleading them about the outcomes of the handling of their matters. As happens pretty frequently, I saw this story thanks to an ABA Journal online article, but here is a link to the full order of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which really comes about by way of a consent agreement for the level of discipline.

Interestingly, as far as these things go, his suspension was made retroactive all the way back to February 25, 2016 when the lawyer was temporarily suspended on an emergency basis over the misconduct. So, by the time the ultimately suspension order was issued, he has already served the full amount of the suspension and can, presumably, seek reinstatement in Pennsylvania.

More interestingly, his downfall came about as a result of falling down, quite literally. He experienced a vasovagal syncope and collapsed in such a way that he broke his face very severely. While hospitalized, others at his firm tried to cover on his matters and learned of what the lawyer had been doing.

As the filings with the Pennsylvania court detail, what he had been doing was paying clients out of pocket on their cases and telling him that these were settlements obtained for them in their cases, when, in reality, he had failed to file their matters. (There were even more clients identified where he was stringing them along about the status but had not yet gotten to the point of paying them.)

There were, as you might expect, lots of other deceptions the lawyer had to engage in to cover up the trail of what he was doing. The filings also lay out that, as often is the case when something like this takes place, the lawyer’s conduct came along despite a clean prior disciplinary history after he began experiencing problems of anxiety and depression. And that aspect of the tale makes it a little easier to attempt to be sympathetic, right up until you focus on the amounts involved.

The amounts involved amounted to in excess of $500,000, including a $424,000 payment to one of the four clients. Yes, you read those numbers right.

If I happened to have a half a million lying around that I could easily part with, I’m pretty confident I would not still be practicing law in the first place.

Shifting to the related topic that is easier to invoke sympathy, one of the things that the ethics rules in nearly every jurisdiction do is bar lawyers from providing funds to clients in order to help those clients meet their day-to-day needs. Instead, the only things that lawyers can do by way of advancing expenses to clients for which no repayment would be required is if the expenses are litigation expenses related to a matter the lawyer is handling for the client.

Last week, in connection with its first ever virtual annual meeting, the ABA House of Delegates was reportedly going to consider a resolution revising Model Rule 1.8(e) to allow for a “humanitarian” exception to this ethical prohibition. A proposal was recently enacted in New York to do likewise. I thought I had read somewhere that the ABA proposal had passed, but I cannot find anywhere online to confirm that. The resolution and report that was to be considered can be obtained from the download button link below.

Historically, the primary concern (as I understand it) that has always driven this prohibition is that, without it, deep pocketed lawyers would be able to obtain business simply by being able to pay clients directly to keep their cases.

Given the continued economic struggles being created as the pandemic rages on, it will be interesting to see what sort of traction, if any, such measures get moving forward.

Three for Thursday?

Can that be a thing?

I’ve fallen down on the job of being a reliable blogger and I’m not sure I’m getting up any time soon.

I think I’ve continued to manage to be a decent lawyer, pretty good expert witness, okay husband, mediocre father, and generally non-evil human being. But I’m failing as a blogger lately.

I have decent intentions. I can’t prove that, but you’ll just have to trust me. But when I try to carve out the time, I stray to the world of constant information of the Internet and wallow in the notion that 150,000 people in the United States have died now and so, so, so very many of them did not have to if we had even halfway decent leadership in our nation. And, it doesn’t look like it is getting better any time soon.

So, here’s three short entries about three topics I’ve written about in the past and that are back in the consciousness of, at least me, but also I think the legal news world.

Remember when, as lawyers in the United States, we were worried about protecting client information in connection with international travel?

Hey, remember when lawyers in the United States could travel internationally?

Yeah, good times.

Well, very briefly to reset the discussion to back in the before-times, things were maybe looking up and it looked like privileged and confidential information possessed by lawyers might be protected in connection with border crossings. Here’s a link to an ABA Journal story that indicates that things may not actually be looking up really at all. At least not as long as the current regime remains in charge.

So, topic the second, states are still trying to figure out how to allow the law school graduates of 2020 to demonstrate that they can be admitted into the practice of law. I wrote some about what Tennessee was going to do, and chided a little bit about how signs were pointing toward trying to go to diploma privilege was probably a better answer. Since then, Tennessee has cancelled its rescheduled in-person bar exam and instead will have an online only exam in October 2020. Better. Still not willing to allow for diploma privilege as the answer though.

On a not unrelated point, Michigan was one of the first states pursuing the online only bar exam option to move forward this week, and it did not go very well. Tech problems. Caused apparently by a DDOS attack. Good thing there is no reason to think those might happen in other states. Oh, also, Indiana has been trying to do one online and announced it will instead have an emailed bar exam.

And, finally, the ABA recently issued a Formal Ethics Opinion designed to try to lay to rest ongoing concerns about what the scope of ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) is and what it does and does not restrict. You might recall 8.4(g) which was adopted almost exactly 4 years ago by the ABA and has been adopted almost nowhere else since. (You might recall it from when I used to write about it Hamilton-style (“non stop“).) It is a good advocacy piece. Probably better than the advocacy pieces that the ABA had available when it first passed the rule. It is not a good ethics opinion exactly though because it doesn’t really do any of the things you would expect an ethics opinion to do. You can read it here.

But, I mean, have you looked at the world around us?

I don’t think a well-reasoned explanation of why states could adopt ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) and not be concerned that they would somehow be restricting cherished liberties is going to gain much traction whether it looks like a traditional ethics opinion or an outright advocacy piece.

So, I mean, why not just try an advocacy piece, I guess?

Sigh.

(P.S. Given that the only prior Taylor Swift album I liked was the one Ryan Adams did as a cover… I never expected I’d be saying how incredibly good a Taylor Swift album is, but here we are. folklore is fantastic. And it isn’t fantastic just because I love The National and Bon Iver. Ms. Swift’s got incredible talent, a very lovely voice, and wrote some really good and poignant lyrics.)

(P.P.S. It is a really good, really good album as is. But I also can totally imagine every single song (except Exile [for obvious reasons]) also being excellent if sung by Matt Berninger. I’m thinking that’s a feature not a bug.)

Ethics opinion about a business conflict goes wrong.

It is very tempting to stay on the topic of bar examinations today, given recent absurdist developments. Arkansas has declared it simply has to have its in-person bar exam in July 2020 because things are likely to get worse as the year goes on. Oklahoma has attempted to reassure everyone about the safety of their in-person planned exam in a message that simultaneously demands that all test takers self-quarantine for 14 days before the exam. Virginia, trying to take the cake apparently, is insisting on a courtroom attire dress code for their in-person exam but is doing away with having to wear a tie as a concession to COVID-19. It is tempting, but it’s all too frustrating, so…

Instead, let’s go back to some of our roots and discuss a recent ethics opinion. It comes out of Ohio and it addresses a conflict issue, but is noteworthy for at least two reasons: (1) it addresses a conflict of interest issue involving representation of a government entity and (2) it sort of addresses something that is more a business conflict issue rather than a true ethical conflict. If you’d rather just read the opinion, you can access it here.

Ohio Board of Professional Conduct Adv. Op. 2020-04 weighs in on whether a firm has a problem representing a group of landowners who are opposing a zoning variance sought by an agency seeking to establish a shelter for domestic violence victims. The agency is not a client of the firm in other matters, but the firm does represent a community mental health board that contracts with the agency. The firm has a one-year contract to perform legal services on an “as needed” basis to the board but has not been asked to do any work related to the zoning variance matter. The firm does know though that the board supports the agency’s effort to obtain the variance and wants the agency to succeed.

Now, most lawyers would hear that scenario and see a likely “business” conflict but no ethical conflict. By business conflict, I simply mean that the firm might not have wanted to take on the landowners because it might displease the institutional client – which might be a better source of ongoing and continued business to the firm.

The Ohio opinion, however, finds a way to treat the situation as an ethical conflict but, at its heart, it does so only by turning the business conflict into a material limitation conflict using the idea of “personal interest” of the lawyer as something that could be expanded to be the firm’s “personal” financial interests.

I am far from convinced that such an analysis actually works.

The opinion spends only a paragraph explaining something that should be obvious – this is not a representation involving direct adversity between firm clients. After that, the opinion lays out its argument for the existence of a “material limitation” problem for the firm. The opinion begins on the right foot by explaining how there does not appear at first to be any conflict because “the law firm’s provision of legal services to the board and its representation of the landowners are wholly separate and unrelated.” The opinion though pivots to a required “closer examination” leading it to the idea that “it would be reasonable to conclude that the board’s overall interest in supporting the agency’s zoning variance may compromise the firm’s
representation of the landowners opposing the variance.”

Delving into more explanation, the opinion speculates that the firm might be limited in pursuing legal alternatives for the landowners because of the overall interests of the other firm client. All of that is well and good, as it is true that sometimes material limitation conflicts require some digging to understand, but the opinion then moves fully into rhetoric that sounds as an analysis of a business conflict.

Specifically, the opinion points to the firm’s “inherent financial interest in maintaining its standing client-lawyer relationship with the board” as one of the factors leading to a conclusion that there is a material limitation conflict requiring waivers from both the landowners and the board in order for the firm to continue both representations.

The opinion further undercuts any claim to be purely addressing an ethical conflict question by explaining that, if the clients won’t provide consent, then the firm only has to withdraw from one of the two engagements. That remedy is most assuredly the stuff of business conflicts. Traditionally, a firm that needs to extract itself from conflicting representations that run afoul of the ethics rules cannot simply drop one of the two clients like a “hot potato,” but have to withdraw from both client representations. There are exceptions, but none of those exceptions are identified in this opinion.

The opinion also suffers from at least one more flaw. Even under its own premise, it does not follow that both the board and the landowners would need to provide consent. The only representation that the opinion discusses as being potentially harmed by the conflict is the representation of the landowners. Thus, the landowners can be said to be the only clients “affected” by the material limitation conflict. Notably, the opinion never actually quotes the language of the rule it is purporting to apply and never reminds the reader that RPC 1.7(b) only requires informed consent from “each affected client.” Thus, as long as the landowners in the zoning variance proceeding were willing to provide informed consent to the firm’s representation despite the fact that the firm’s relationship with the board could limit available options and approaches, then the rule would still be satisfied.

Two for Thursday.

It is Thursday, right?

In a “recent” effort, I mentioned that there were recent developments I was planning to eventually write about. Today presents an effort at checking two of them off the list that have only Tennessee in common. Neither of which likely provides fodder for a full post, so they will be covered together.

The first is a recently enacted revision to Tennessee’s ethics rules regarding money held in trust accounts. Specifically, the Tennessee Supreme Court has adopted a revision to RPC 1.15 regarding trust accounts to impose requirements for dealing with “unidentified funds” held in trust.

As revised, RPC 1.15 now has a new subsection (f):

(f) A lawyer who learns of unidentified funds in an IOLTA account must make periodic
efforts to identify and return the funds to the rightful owner. If after 12 months of the discovery of the unidentified funds the lawyer determines that ascertaining the ownership or securing the return of the funds will not succeed, the lawyer must remit the funds to the Tennessee Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection (TLFCP). No charge of ethical impropriety or other breach of professional conduct shall attend to a lawyer’s exercise of reasonable judgment under this paragraph (f).

A lawyer who either remits funds in error or later ascertains the ownership of remitted funds may make a claim to TLFCP, which after verification of the claim will return the funds to the lawyer.

I personally was opposed to this proposal because in almost all circumstances “unidentified funds” simply shouldn’t exist in a trust account in the first place and, thus, this is one of the very few places in the rules that addresses a situation which can nearly only come to pass because of lawyer misconduct. Although the rule doesn’t define “unidentified funds,” my understanding is that these are different from “unclaimed funds” because the lawyer simply has no idea to whom the funds belong at all. Comment [14] still indicates that as to “abandoned” funds those will likely have to go through the process of escheatment to the State. Thus, other than circumstances in which a lawyer purchases someone else’s law practice and then finds that the underlying records aren’t up to snuff, this rule addresses obligations of a lawyer who has already dropped the ball on a very important duty.

The Tennessee Bar Association publicly signaled support for the proposal, however. The rule revision was not accompanied by any new comment paragraphs, so perhaps a time will come in the future for the Court to give a bit more clarity about how funds might come to be “unidentified” and whether the protection for judgment extends only to whether to send funds to the TCLF or not and not also to judgments about whether funds qualify as “unidentified” or not.

The second development raises a question of judgment as well. If you’ve been following aspects of how the legal profession is trying to cope with the ongoing, and now worsening in the U.S., pandemic, you’ve likely seen a variety of approaches in various states to dealing with graduates of law school and how to provide them with an opportunity to get their law license. Some states have transitioned to having their bar exam online, some states have limited the number of people who can sit for the traditional bar exam in a socially-distanced room (and some of those states have given preference to in-state law school grads), and some states have opted instead to offer diploma privilege rights to law students and allow them to become licensed without having to sit for a bar examination.

To date, my state has gone with an approach that involves limited availability but with a twist. The traditional July bar exam would have limited spaces, but they also determined to hold an extra bar exam later in the fall.

Last month, however, a collection of law school graduates has filed an emergency petition with the Tennessee Supreme Court requesting that the Court take action to allow for diploma privilege in Tennessee because of, and in response to, the pandemic. You can go read the full petition here.

It is hard to try to argue that they don’t have a point.

Edit/update: About an hour after putting this up, the Tennessee Supreme Court posted an order cancelling the July 2020 bar examination in Tennessee. You can go read the order here … it doesn’t sound like the Court is seeing it along these lines … but having to cancel it rather than move it online seems to me to be more support for seriously considering the diploma privilege route.

For Juneteenth.

There have been a lot of developments in legal ethics both nationally and in Tennessee over the last few weeks, and I hope to be catching up on discussing those in posts over the coming weeks.

But not today.

Tennessee like most jurisdictions has a version of RPC 6.1 about pro bono service and calls for an aspirational goal for each lawyer to deliver 50 hours of such service and while those hours are supposed to be primarily directed at actual legal representations, the rule does also address the ability to do so by participating in activities for improving the law, the legal system, or the legal profession.

In a small, personal effort to do a little bit of that today. I want to do two things.

First, with full awareness that it includes within its recitation of shameful events that have been whitewashed from the teaching of history a massacre in my home city of Memphis, I encourage everyone who is reading this to go take 6 minutes to watch this video that has been put together by the Equal Justice Institute in connection with the release of its Reconstruction in America report: https://youtu.be/HRj35PtXnLs

If it moves you to do so, you can, through the www.eji.org website get a copy of the full report to read.

Second, to highlight just one vein of examples of how these problems are still ongoing, it is hard to pay attention these days to all of the important news – as it is constant – but a story that is not yet getting the scrutiny it deserves is that there have now been 6 people of color found dead hanging in trees over the last several weeks in locations spanning from California to Texas to New York to Oregon. Each of these has been initially reported by police to have been suicides.

You can read one of the most recent articles about this here.

I can only speak for myself, but I do not believe at all that any black man, woman, or child in 2020 in the United States who commits suicide would do so by hanging themselves from a tree.

When you look around at what is happening in this moment in history, the Occam’s Razor answer to this is not to believe the contents of the initial police reports but to reach the conclusion that it much more likely that these are homicides.

They deserve justice.

Lawyers out there losing their goddamn minds.

Apologies in advance for the fact that today’s content is going to be something of a mishmash or stream-of-consciousness type of presentation, but it’s where the brain is at based on the events of the last 48-72 hours. (Loyal readers will likely wonder why I think a mishmash is any different than the normal presentation.)

I’m pretty sure none of us expected in 2020 to be living both 1918 and 1968 simultaneously. I know I didn’t. I have a wide variety of political thoughts about our situation, but if you are interested in those go find me on Twitter.

The fragile and incendiary nature of our circumstances in the United States though have recently resulted in a variety of instances of lawyers making incredibly poor decisions. I struggled a bit with whether any of the situations merited posting about or if bringing extra attention (Ha! As if I have that kind of power or reach…) was unhelpful.

Then, yesterday, through a “professional” listserv I participate in I witnessed a lawyer call for the assassination of public officials and incarcerating people without trials and for as long as it would take for them to contract COVID-19. I also watched a different lawyer throw wholehearted support to the first lawyer’s writings and sentiments. That second lawyer though might just be salty about having previously been criticized among the same group for having disparaged an entire generation of lawyers. Those two instances did drive home the point to me that a much larger percentage of lawyers then you might think are doing what the title of this post suggests.

More instances of lawyers reacting very poorly to the current environment have been bombarding us in the legal news of late.

You’ve certainly read about the two lawyers, one of whom work(ed) for a very large law firm, who have been arrested for throwing an incendiary device into an unoccupied police car. Perhaps you’ve also read about the Florida prosecutor who just got fired over a racist Facebook post that involved comparing protestors to animals. You might also have read about the lawyer in Vermont who was immediately and temporarily suspended over pulling a gun on a store clerk in a dispute over social distancing.

But I really, truly hope you’ve been doing your reading on what – in terms of historical ramifications – was the worst of the recent lawyer conduct. If the latest reports are correct, it was the Attorney General of the United States (someone who I’ve written about repeatedly in the past with respect to defiance of his ethical obligations) who approved/authorized the deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors in D.C. in order to provide a clear pathway for the current occupant of the White House to make this video. If you’d like a different video to show you just a snippet of what it took to make that video, try here. It continues to be difficult to wrap my head around the fact that we live in a situation in which the fact that this man continues to hold the office of Attorney General is, itself, prejudicial to the administration of justice in a way that runs afoul of RPC 8.4(d).

This same lawyer also appears to be redirecting other federal law enforcement resources, including the DEA, into expanded roles that are impossible to view as anything other than highly threatening to the exercise of civil liberties and First Amendment rights of assembly and petitioning the government for redress of grievances.

In fairness, to Mr. Barr, it is not fair to say he’s lost his goddamned mind because of the ongoing circumstances. This seems to be who he has always been.

Abuse of “Iowa nice” leads to rare Dubuque rebuke.

Readers of this space know that a large part of my practice involves representing lawyers in disciplinary proceedings. Disciplinary proceedings are difficult for all that are involved, but rarely can anyone involved question that they don’t know the stakes. They are what they are and they have their own rules and procedures.

Today’s post involves a story of a lawyer getting actual discipline in Iowa, in the form of a public reprimand, not through Iowa’s disciplinary system, but imposed by a federal district judge in Iowa through a sanctions-style set of proceedings deemed “informal disciplinary proceedings.”

And, as a lawyer who does a great deal of disciplinary defense but who also does still have a “normal” litigation practice as well, I’m quite torn. Based on the story that the federal court opinion tells, the Los Angeles lawyer absolutely deserves to be on the receiving end of discipline. And the court is a bit kind when it refers to the situation as being a “he said/he said” sort of dispute when, in fact, it was a “he said/he said and this other he said and then this other he said and this she said and this other he said” dispute.

The toxic approach to litigation the Los Angeles lawyer seems to embrace is something that a handful of lawyers in my state do as well, and they almost always manage to skate through without ever being sanctioned for their conduct because, when you are dealing with them, it’s always in your client’s best interest to just try to limit the amount of time you have to deal with them rather than increase it by pursuing discipline against them for their conduct. I’m confident Tennessee is not exceptional and that there are a handful or two of these folks in just about every state. Yet, given that there exists a system for pursuing discipline rather than monetary sanctions in Iowa, no matter how bad the conduct was it feels like the federal judge should have just made a referral to the Iowa disciplinary authorities instead of imposing discipline directly.

I’m also a bit torn that the only ethics rule upon which the court premised its punishment was RPC 8.4(d) – the notion that the conduct of the lawyer was prejudicial to the administration of justice. And, throughout, the extent of the analysis is not far from saying that just about anything improper that multiples or complicates litigation proceedings to make them unnecessarily protracted or unpleasant is the same thing as being prejudicial to the administration of justice. That is something of a slippery slope under normal circumstances but also problematic when there exists a separate remedy in federal court, under 28 U.S.C. 1927, for handling litigation tactics that unreasonably and vexatiously multiply proceedings.

Yet, here, all of the misconduct found to have happened would also have run afoul of 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….” — so part of me thinks, at least as to the particular situation, that this falls into a “much harm, no foul” category. But the idea that the “wrong” ethics rule was also used to get to what was likely the right outcome is just further fuel for the fire that the better path would have been to refer the matter to disciplinary authorities.

You can go read the full opinion and draw your own conclusions about whether it was the right manner for imposing discipline by clicking on the download button below.

And a word of thanks to Todd Presnell for spotting this case and sending it my way as fodder for discussion. If you aren’t reading Presnell on Privileges, well, under normal circumstances I’d chide you and say you should, but we’re all doing what we can to hold things together these days so … what I’ll say instead is, if you’ve got the mental bandwidth to add it to your reading list, it’s really good.

Panzerotti ≠ calzone : NY confidentiality ≠ TN confidentiality

It’s been a while. I know. But I saw a blurb about a story that caught my attention in the before-times and then a second story about the same case more recently that hooked me enough to write about.

Primarily, it hooked me because it provides a compelling opportunity to discuss two important points about legal ethics at the same time. First, the ethical obligations lawyers owe to former clients go beyond simply restricting certain future representations and include restrictions on using the client’s information. Second, even a clear violation of the ethics rules does not automatically translate to a viable cause of action against an attorney.

As we’ll see at the end, it is a story that because it happened in New York might just be a bad look for the lawyer involved when it would be a lot more damning if it had happened here in Tennessee.

The initial story that caught my eye was this one in Law360 where the proprietors of a panzerotti restaurant in Brooklyn sued an attorney saying he had stolen their idea for such a restaurant and the logo they used. The more recent story that lured me, also from Law360, is that the lawyer has now filed a motion to dismiss that suit, in part, arguing that the USPTO had rejected the restaurant’s trademark claims.

You can go read the amended complaint in the lawsuit in question for yourself:

But from the “former client” side of the story, this is how they tell it. Its principals retained the lawyer, Cea, to help with documents to be filed in connection with the seeking on E-2 visa application and that, as part of that process, they had to turn over their confidential business plan for the proposed restaurant. After they did that, they say they also retained Cea to represent the business regarding lease negotiations and obtaining a liquor license for their restaurant.

The lawsuit then claims that after their restaurant opened, Cea and a partner opened a competing restaurant, but in Manhattan, using the improperly obtained confidential business plan information of the former client. The lawsuit also claims that the competing restaurant’s logo infringes upon their logo in violation of The Lanham Act.

Now, I’m no trademark lawyer but my unsophisticated eyeball comparison of the two logos doesn’t impress me at all. The rest of the complaint, though, when it focuses upon the strong similarities on how the insides of the restaurants are laid out, and the kinds of equipment used, and even approaches to menu items is a bit more compelling. The complaint also alleges that the lawyer even hired the same architect that the former client used for its restaurant for the competing restaurant. Notably, the complaint also alleges that when first contacted after the opening of the competing restaurant, the lawyer claimed that his only involvement was in helping the second restaurant with its lease.

When first digging into this story, I was overwhelmed by the audacity of any lawyer thinking they could ever do something like this without running afoul of RPC 1.9(c)’s restrictions on adversely using information related to the representation of a former client.

In Tennessee, that rule reads as follows:

A lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter … shall not thereafter reveal information relating to the representation or use such information to the disadvantage of the former client unless (1) the former client gives consent, confirmed in writing, or (2) these Rules would permit or require the lawyer to do so with respect to a client; or (3) the information has become generally known.

While proving a successful cause of action would be a different kettle of fish for reasons discussed below, because Tennessee (like most jurisdictions) treats all information related to the representation as confidential, under Tennessee’s rules, someone doing what Cea was alleged to have done would have real problems defending a disciplinary complaint. Perhaps, as to some of the allegations, Cea could engineer a defense based on all of the public facing aspects of the former client’s restaurant became “generally known” once they opened for business.

Even in Tennessee though, violations of RPC 1.9(c) wouldn’t automatically translate to a viable civil cause of action. (The actual lawsuit asserts a breach of fiduciary duty claim and that would likely be what someone would hazard as a claim in Tennessee.) That is because we, like most states, clarify in the Scope section of our rules that while ethics rules exist as a framework for imposing discipline, they are not intended or designed to provide a basis for an independent cause of action.

[21] Violation of a Rule should not itself give rise to a cause of action against a lawyer nor should it create any presumption in such a case that a legal duty has been breached. In addition, violation of a Rule does not necessarily warrant any other nondisciplinary remedy, such as disqualification of a lawyer in pending litigation. The Rules are designed to provide guidance to lawyers and to provide a structure for regulating conduct through disciplinary agencies. They are not designed to be a basis for civil liability….

We also have a final sentence in that part of the Scope that tries to clarify that there are some situations in which the violation of a rule can be relevant to determining whether a breach of the standard of care also occurred but since New York doesn’t I’ll leave that for another day.

New York’s approach to client confidentiality though is different and, as a result, even though its RPC 1.9(c) reads largely similar to Tennessee’s on adverse use of information its reduced scope of confidentiality under RPC 1.6 really changes the landscape.

New York’s RPC 1.6 limits confidential treatment to “information gained during or relating to the representation of a client, whatever its source, that is (a) protected by the attorney-client privilege, (b) likely to be embarrassing or detrimental to the client if disclosed, or (c) information that the client has requested be kept confidential.”

That distinction and what it means for a lawyer appears to be salient to Cea’s situation. Cea’s motion to dismiss, while primarily focused on an attempt to enforce an alleged settlement agreement as well as other procedural arguments, does poke at the margins of whether he was ever asked to treat any of the information he learned from any client as confidential. He also appears to take issue even with the idea that he ever had any fiduciary relationship with anyone who is a party to this litigation. You can look at the memorandum of law supporting that motion to dismiss if you are so inclined.

Utahlking real reform? Yes, Utah absolutely is.

Infrequent readers will know this pun structure is one that I have no shame in running into the ground every time it is relevant.

Frequent readers will know I am far too willing to break the fourth wall here. So just for background I had resigned myself to writing a post on Friday about the New Jersey lawyer who could only get reinstated to practice if he could assure that his wife would not have any further access to their trust accounts and it was going to likely be unnecessarily preachy and riddled with hacky references to how hard that might be when everyone is trapped in their house. So, while you are only getting content a few days late, thanks to Utah you at least are spared that the content that could have been.)

Last Friday, Utah released for public comment the final version of its work product for an overhaul of significant parts of its ethics rules. If you need to get back up to speed on that issue and the pre-pandemic discussions of it, you can find prior posts about the rapid work of Utah’s task force here.

If you’d rather read the source materials put out for public comment on April 24, 2020 yourself, you can get to them all through this link.

If you’ll allow me to describe them to you in all of their relative glory, I’ll do so now.

I’d like to start with what ought to be the least controversial piece but a part that still really ought to be cherished for the elegant thing that it is, reducing the rules on lawyer advertising down to the core and nothing but the core.

  • The Utah Supreme Court’s proposal would eliminate RPCs 7.2, 7.3, 7.4, and 7.5 and, instead, revise RPC 7.1 to address the terrain by (a) prohibiting lawyers from making false and misleading claims about themselves or their services and (b) prohibiting lawyers from going about dealing with people in ways that involve coercion, duress, or harassment.

If any state were proposing to do this to their advertising rules, and only just this, it would be an exciting development toward important regulatory reform. But wait … there’s so much more to Utah’s proposal. As a result, comprehensive reform of the advertising rules is nearly just the icing.

The centerpiece of Utah’s proposed rule revisions though involves an overhaul of RPC 5.4 in the form of the creation of two rules, one 5.4A that will look a good bit like the current rule with one very significant change and another 5.4B that will look like nothing that has been actually implemented so far in the United States.

Under the proposal, RPC 5.4A will apply to lawyers who continue to operate in the traditional fashion (read, at least in its pre-pandemic context to mean working in a law firm owned and operated only by lawyers). That rule would carry forward existing restrictions on partnerships with non-lawyers and on operating in the form of any entity in which someone who is a not a lawyer has a financial interest but would permit lawyers in such conventional settings to be able to share fees with people other than lawyers as long as sufficient disclosure is made to the client (and anyone other than the client who is paying the fee) about the fact that such sharing is occurring/going to occur and with whom. The rule though is also refashioned to make clear that lawyers still can only do these things as long as there is no interference with their independent professional judgment, maintaining their loyalty to their client, and protecting client confidences.

(One other seemingly pedestrian item in its package of revisions is to remove the current restrictions on fee sharing between lawyers not in the same firm by deleting RPC 1.5(e) altogether. This makes a lot of sense on a standalone basis as a variety of jurisdictions already permit “naked” referrals between lawyers not in the same firm as long as there is a certain amount of disclosure, but if you are going to open the doors for lawyers to share fees with people who aren’t lawyers then you certainly have to drop the RPC 1.5(e) approach.)

RPC 5.4B would be a new thing altogether and would govern the conduct of lawyers that choose to practice in nontraditional structures as part of a legal regulatory Sandbox to be launched Utah. This proposed rule establishes an ability for lawyers to practice in ways that RPC 5.4A would prohibit as long as there is no interference with any of the lawyers duties that are also stressed in RPC 5.4A (independent professional judgment, loyalty, and confidentiality). Specifically, what it permits is best described using the proposed rule itself:

(b) A lawyer may practice law with nonlawyers, or in an organization, including a partnership, in which a financial interest is held or managerial authority is exercised by one or more persons who are nonlawyers, provided that the lawyer shall:

(1) before accepting a representation, provide written notice to a prospective client that one or more nonlawyers holds a financial interest in the organization in which the lawyer practices or that one or more nonlawyers exercises managerial authority over the lawyer; and

(2) set forth in writing to a client the financial and managerial structure of the organization in which the lawyer practices.

And to implement the Sandbox concept that RPC 5.4B will permit lawyers to participate in, and to make sure that there exists an entity that will have regulatory authority over those participants in the Sandbox who are not lawyers, the Utah Supreme Court has released a proposed Standing Order that would be the foundational document for establishing the relevant regulatory entity and the regulatory principles that will govern its work.

The relevant regulatory entity will be the Office of Legal Services Innovation and, for a pilot period of two years from whenever the effective date of the Standing Order comes to pass, this Innovation Office will “establish and administer a pilot legal regulatory sandbox (Sandbox) through which individuals and entities may be approved to offer nontraditional legal services to the public by nontraditional providers or traditional providers using novel approaches and means, including options not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct and other applicable rules.”

And, as for the relevant regulatory principles? Those will be as follows:

  1. Regulation should be based on the evaluation of risk to the consumer.
  2. Risk to the consumer should be evaluated relative to the current legal services options available.
  3. Regulation should establish probabilistic thresholds for acceptable levels of harm.
  4. Regulation should be empirically driven.
  5. Regulation should be guided by a market-based approach.

There is a 90-day comment period on the proposal which ends on July 23, 2020. That comment period is not only for Utahns. (And, yes, according to the Standing Order that is how to refer to a collection of residents of Utah. College football fans likely believed, and My Cousin Vinny fanatics would likely have been demanding, that Utes to be the official term.)