“It’s Groundhog Day… again.”

This past week included one of our nation’s most heralded fake holidays. Groundhog’s Day. Silly occasion, but still a really good movie, of course. But, playing off of the theme of repeating events and disappointing outcomes, we return to the oft-discussed topic of lawyers trying to respond to online criticism.

We’ve covered in the past in these parts that the current version of the ethics rules, in any jurisdiction using the ABA Model approach to RPC 1.6, prohibits lawyers from responding to online criticism posted by clients or former clients, even if the criticism is off base. We’ve also talked about the fact that if the criticism comes from someone who wasn’t actually a client, then the ethics rules do not prohibit a lawyer from going online to respond. We’ve also talked about how if the person is a client or former client and they lie about you online, that you could try to sue them for defamation. As to all of those approaches, we’ve also stressed that there are practical problems with doing some of the things that you could do, including The Streisand Effect.

What we’ve never directly addressed is the “could” or “should” of deciding to respond to online criticism from someone who was never a client or nonclient by deciding to file a lawsuit for defamation. This was an approach that an Illinois lawyer tried but was unsuccessful at the trial court level, having the claims dismissed as not actionable. Within the past week or so, the Seventh Circuit has now affirmed that dismissal. You can read the ABA Journal article about the ruling here. If you have more time to delve into the matter, you can read the full Seventh Circuit opinion here.

Interestingly, the underlying story is both one of a pretty unsympathetic character (the lawyer) and a story in which the lawyer stepped into puddles of his own making both in how he responded to initial online criticism and then in attempting to turn his situation into a federal case.

This lawyer’s tale of Internet woe starts, as many do, with a round of activity on Facebook. In response to the tantalizing “What’s on your mind, David?” that Facebook lays out to prompt users to post, this lawyer wrote: “Did Trump put Ukraine on the travel ban list?! We just cannot find a cleaning lady!” This initial statement was met with a good amount of negative feedback and criticism but limited to comments and replies in the Facebook thread itself.

The lawyer, however, proceeded to — in the words of the Seventh Circuit “double down” by responding in his comments thread with:

My business with Ukrainians will be done when they stop declaring bankruptcies. If this offends
your national pride, I suggest you look for underlying causes of why 9 out of 10 cleaning ladies we’ve had were Ukrainian and 9 out of 10 of my law school professors were not. Until then, if you don’t have a recommendation for a cleaning lady, feel free to take your comments somewhere else.

Now, the problems with this approach are varied, but they include the invitation to folks to branch out with where they provided their feedback. And branch out they did. The lawsuit explains that the people he offended with his anti-Ukrainian sentiments proceeded to the lawyer’s law firm Facebook page, his Google listing, and to Yelp to offer their opinions. The various statements ran the gamut from just 1-star reviews without comment, comments about the lawyer generally as a person, and some comments that negatively characterized his ability to be a lawyer since he was seen as being inappropriately prejudiced.

The lawyer filed a lawsuit in federal court for defamation against these posters and claiming a civil conspiracy. The opinion lays out examples of posts of the vaguer variety and those of a more specific variety, but, importantly, it does not appear that anyone he sued posted a statement that was clearly capable of being read as falsely indicating that the person had ever hired the lawyer and was commenting about something specific. Just about the closest any statements came to that was someone posting a 1-star review with the only feedback indicated being “awful customer service.” The courts at both levels were entirely unconvinced that anything that written online was something other than an unactionable expression of opinion.

Perhaps, best summarized in terms of the view of that particular court, and as food for thought for attorneys anytime they contemplate suing in similar circumstances, is this excerpt:

More fundamental, we must consider the particular social context of these online reviews and what it may signal about their contents. The defendants posted their reviews on Freydin’s Law Office’s Facebook, Yelp, and Google pages, which invite unfiltered comments. We trust that readers of online reviews are skeptical about what they read, both positive and negative. But it is enough in this case that these short reviews did not purport to provide any factual foundation and were clearly meant to express the opinions of the defendants in response to Freydin’s insults to Ukrainians generally.

Illinois, apparently, does not have any anti-SLAPP mechanism’s, or, if it does, they were not taken advantage of here, but in any state that does, this kind of lawsuit by a lawyer would likely face that additional hurdle as well.

Just another follow-up Friday.

Yes, if you are about the same age as me, you can sing that title to The Bangles tune of “Just another Manic Monday …”

So, this is a weirder follow up post as it follows up on something I posted in October 2021 but involves substantive content that came into existence in July 2021 and, thus, I really should have known about and mentioned in my October 2021 post. Does that feel like the sort of confusing timeline of events you might encounter if you are watching Archive 81 on Netflix and paying full attention or the sort of confusing timeline you could encounter if you are watching Dopesick on Hulu and a bit distracted so as not to see the numbers flash on the screen? If so, fair.

So here is the elaboration. Back in October 2021, I shared the video of my FRED talk from the APRL Annual Meeting discussing a variation of a kind of scam about which lawyers really need to be aware. What I didn’t know when I gave that talk is that The North Carolina State Bar had put out a comprehensive ethics opinion on the same topic in July 2021. That opinion, 2021-2, can be viewed in full here.

It is a particularly well-done and well thought out analysis of a number of varieties of the ways in which versions of this trust account scam can happen. But it is also noteworthy because it has a very good list of some “alerts” that exist out there that lawyers can digest and bring themselves up to speed. This excerpt from that opinion might be among the best takeaways from it:

State and federal agencies have alerted the public to the existence and persistence of these counterfeit check scams for some time. See, e.g.Counterfeit Check Scams, North Carolina Department of Justice, https://ncdoj.gov/protecting-consumers/sweepstakes-and-prizes/counterfeit-check-scams/; How to Spot, Avoid and Report Fake Check Scams, Federal Trade Commission, https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/how-spot-avoid-and-report-fake-check-scams. Similarly, state and national bar associations, lawyer regulatory bodies, and malpractice carriers have reported on and alerted lawyers to the reality that such scams often target members of the legal profession. See, e.g.Six Indicted in $32M Internet Collection Scam That Snagged 80 Lawyers, ABA Journal (Nov. 22, 2010), https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/six_indicted_in_32m_internet_collection_scam_that_snagged_80_lawyers/; Counterfeit Check Scams Continue to Target Law Firms, California Bar Journal (January 2012), https://www.calbarjournal.com/January2012/TopHeadlines/TH6.aspx; New York City Bar Formal Ethics Opinion 2015-3, Lawyers Who Fall Victim to Internet Scams (April 22, 2015), https://www.nycbar.org/member-and-career-services/committees/reports-listing/reports/detail/formal-opinion-2015-3-lawyers-who-fall-victim-to-internet-scams; Laura Loyek, Counterfeit Check Scams are Still Snaring Lawyers, Lawyers Mutual North Carolina (March 22, 2019), https://www.lawyersmutualnc.com/risk-management-resources/articles/counterfeit-check-scams-are-still-snaring-lawyers; Joanna Herzik, Scams Continue to Target Texas Attorneys, Texas Bar Blog (July 14, 2020), https://blog.texasbar.com/2020/07/articles/law-firms-and-legal-departments/scams-continue-to-target-texas-attorneys/; E-Mail Scams and Lawyer Trust Accounts, Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, https://www.iardc.org/information/alert.html. The North Carolina State Bar has also published a number of warnings to the legal profession in North Carolina about these scams. See, e.g.New Variation of Fake Check Scam Targets Law Practices, North Carolina State Bar (December 6, 2010), /news-publications/news-notices/2010/12/fake-check-scam/; Bruno Demoli, Bruno’s Top Tips: Protect Yourself from Financial Con-Artists, North Carolina State Bar Journal (Fall 2011 pp. 34 & 37); Alert: Beware of Scams that Target NC Law Practices, North Carolina State Bar (January 8, 2016), /news-publications/news-notices/2016/01/scams-targeting-nc-law-practices/. These publications describe the scenarios associated with the scams and identify the relevant warning signs to assist lawyers in detecting and avoiding such scams.

So, if you have time, you should give it a read. And, if you don’t understand either of the television show references I made above, and you have even more time on your hands and subscriptions to those platforms, go watch those shows as they are both very, very good.

“In representing a client …”

I’ve written in this space in the past before about how there are many ethics rules that limit their application to lawyers such that they do not kick in unless a lawyer is representing a client.

Perhaps, most prominently, this point has been dwelt upon when talking about the efforts to convince jurisdictions to enact a version of ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) because prohibitions on harassment and discrimination by lawyers otherwise imposed in jurisdictions under Comment language to RPC 8.4(d) about “conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice” are limited to when an attorney is acting as a lawyer for a client. (Of course, those who pay particular attention to the ethics rules know that situation is itself convoluted given that the actual language of the rule does not limit itself to applying only when a lawyer is representing a client, but, whatever.)

Now, there are a few of these rules in which legitimate questions can be raised about whether they should apply to a lawyer who is representing themselves in something – for example, if litigation, acting as a pro se litigant. For some rules, it isn’t impossible to make a good faith argument that the rule might not apply to a lawyer if the only client they have is themselves. For example, Model Rule 4.2 which prevents a lawyer from communicating with a person who is represented by counsel about the matter in which they are represented. Traditionally, parties have every right to cut their counsel out of conversations (whether it is wise or not) and communicate directly with each other. If a lawyer is pro se in their own case, one can argue that they are being unfairly limited from doing what any other litigant could do if they could not communicate directly with the opposing party. Yet, given the purpose behind Rule 4.2 — to protect people who are not lawyers from being importuned by a lawyer outside the presence of their own lawyer – the better side of the argument is that Rule 4.2 applies to a lawyer representing themselves just as it would in a normal situation.

Model Rule 4.4, however, doesn’t seem to be a rule for which there would be much of a colorable argument for it not applying to a lawyer simply because they are litigating their own case pro se.

In the past two weeks, there has been a disciplinary decision out of Illinois confirming this view and recommending that a lawyer be suspended for three years for violating Illinois RPC 4.4 in their time as a pro se litigant.

For context and a bit of a reminder, RPC 4.4(a) is the rule that a lawyer “in representing a client” from “us[ing] means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person.” [Coincidentally, this is a rule that can be used rather than RPC 8.4(d) to get to a lot of toxic harassment and discriminatory conduct by lawyers when they are representing a client.]

The Illinois lawyer in question was litigating two separate matters as pro se plaintiff and, according to the opinion, repeatedly insulted, disparaged, and threatened opposing counsel. At the time of the events, the lawyer had been practicing law for more than 30 years. Based on the names involved, and the language used, there appears to have likely been at least an undercurrent of perceived anti-Semitism going on in the nature of the disparagements in one of the cases as well.

You can read the full opinion with all of the various emails here, but just a few examples should be sufficient for our purposes.

In the first litigation matter, after issuing a subpoena to a third-party bank, and after opposing counsel took the position that the subpoena was premature because the parties had not yet had a discovery conference, the lawyer sent an email on Easter Sunday morning to opposing counsel that said:

Happy Easter, Schmatlz [sic] you are being referred to the FBI today. You are insane to have done this, clear attempted obstruction.

Maybe you should watch the news, obstruction is a big topic. I will also motion this up for her Honor to weigh in re [sic] protective order.

What country do you live in? Here, a subpoena is inviolate and you violated the authority of the Court. You sir are despicable and unfit to practice law and I pledge to bring the full weight of Justice down on you.

Disgusting

There were several more similar, but escalating emails, all sent on the same day and that started to copy prosecutors as well.

In the second matter, the lawyer had filed a lawsuit in federal court against a storage facility. After he was made the subject of a motion for sanctions, he began sending multiple emails that threatened discipline against the opposing counsel, threatened RICO actions, caused at least one of the lawyers on the other side to fear for her safety, and was rife with a variety of attacks and accusations. Ironically, they also included implications that the lawyers on the other side were somehow violating the ethics rules by communicating with him directly.

Now, I have no real idea whether a three-year suspension as recommended is too harsh or just right, but several other aspects of the proceedings unsurprisingly would have played a role in that outcome. First, not shocking in the least given that the underlying cases were ones where the lawyer acted pro se, the lawyer represented himself in the disciplinary proceedings. Almost always the wrong call. Second, as should be obvious from the context of this post, the lawyer tried to argue that RPC 4.4(a) didn’t apply to him as a pro se party. (As to one of the two matters, it certainly wasn’t helpful that the lawyer was also representing his son in the same lawsuit.) Third, during the disciplinary proceeding, the lawyer took the Fifth Amendment rather than testify. While disciplinary proceedings are often spoken of as being “quasi-criminal,” the “quasi” part goes a long way in making it problematic for a lawyer to take the Fifth in a disciplinary case as that invariably is held against them.

Sorry to “ghost” on everybody

Life remains crazy for many, and the pandemic just doesn’t seem to have any intention of ending before it can have an extended Season 3 storyline. I almost hate to write these words and “jinx” it but my wife, my children, and I have continued to be able to avoid contracting Covid-19, but that doesn’t mean that life — personal life or work life — has continued in any form of normal fashion.

Events continue to be unsettling and mental bandwidth for many is a constant battle. I’ve managed – yet again – to neglect the blog and continue to play with fire of losing the interest of readers.

So, here I am, at least trying to make a bit of an effort. I was fortunate enough this week to spend some time on the telephone with a journalist who was doing a story about a Washington lawyer who was disbarred for “cheating” on his law firm by representing about 150 or so clients off the books of his firm.

I have seen situations in the past where lawyers have these kinds of “ghost” clients, but certainly never at the volume of this instance. When I first started digging into the underlying story, I was convinced it was going to be a more recent tale and that, at its heart, was going to be that the lawyer got away with it for a while at the volume in question because it was happening during the pandemic when firms have been struggling to wrestle to ground how to supervise lawyers who are away from the office, working from home, and otherwise feeling more autonomous. That case did not involve recent conduct, however, as that lawyer was undertaking this work from 2010 to 2019.

My contribution to the article focused on the potential that more lawyers might be trying things like this during the past two years but also highlighting just how much risk there is for a lawyer in doing so. Even though the underlying conduct wouldn’t even arguably be unethical in the absence of a contractual obligation to only work for the firm in question, any lawyer who starts trying to do “off the books” work likely heads down a path that inherently requires dishonesty and misrepresentation triggering violations of RPC 8.4 if nothing else. Plus, given that it becomes easy for a law firm to allege that what is occurring is theft, the lawyer can find themselves facing criminal exposure – and further ethical infractions. And, if the lawyer as part of trying to keep the conduct quiet, is also not paying taxes on the work involved there becomes federal criminal liability in the form of tax evasion to boot.

You can read the article here with a subscription (or just by registering if you are willing to burn your one free monthly article on it): Lack of Law Firm Oversight During Pandemic Could Make ‘Ghost Clients’ a More Common Problem | Law.com

2020 too?

This past year has certainly been … something. Other than the ongoing pandemic, this year feels like it will historically be defined (at least within the United States) by the various assaults on democracy starting with the January 6 insurrection, continuing with the efforts of one political party to choose its voters rather than vice versa, and being bolstered along the way by a surprisingly large number of attorneys willing to file politically-motivated lawsuits that in normal circumstances I’d like to think wouldn’t pass muster under Rule 11 or RPC 3.1.

These anti-democracy lawsuits continue relentlessly with a parade of lawyers who don’t seem at all deterred by sanctions imposed against other lawyers.

So what will 2022 bring? Other than hopefully the end of the pandemic. Surely we will get that. Surely.

Here is where I go out on a limb and make a prediction or too about the world of legal ethics over the next year.

First, given the focus of media attention on lawyers who continue to help high-profile clients pursue questionable legal objectives — not all of which involve subverting democracy of course — I think there will be significant attention and action taken on further defining prohibitions on lawyers assisting unworthy clients in illegal endeavors.

Along those lines, with a particular focus on combatting lawyer-involvement in money-laundering activities, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility and the ABA Standing Committee on Professional Regulation circulated thoughts on potential ways to address that issue better in the ethics rules in a memo put out seeking public input on December 15, 2021. The memo previews a number of possible ways that the comments to the rules could be amended to better define obligations of lawyers in doing due diligence on clients and toward having lawyers have obligations to report suspicious activity.

Interestingly, the memo floats no proposed changes to any rules but only in the guidance offered in comments to rules. Thus, for example, there would be no effort under such a proposal to remove any ethical barriers that currently exist to forcing attorneys to support suspicious transactions beyond what already would be required by law. The potential revisions include:

  • Addition of a new Comment [11] to RPC 1.0 indicating that, as to a lawyer’s knowledge, that it “may be derived from the lawyer’s direct observation, credible information provided by others, reasonable factual inferences, or other circumstances.” And that a lawyer “who ignores or consciously avoids obvious relevant facts may be found to have knowledge of those facts.”
  • Adding several new sentences of guidance to Comment [5] to RPC 1.1 including: “In some circumstances, competent representation may require verifying, or inquiring into, facts provided by the client. Ignoring or consciously avoiding obvious relevant facts, or failure to inquire when warranted, may violate the duty of competence.”
  • Adding significant new language to the Comment to RPC 1.2 including: “To determine whether further inquiry is warranted regarding whether a client is seeking the lawyer’s assistance in criminal or fraudulent activity, including money-laundering or terrorist financing, relevant considerations include: (i) the identity of the client; (ii) the lawyer’s familiarity with the client; (iii) the nature of the requested legal services; and (iv) the relevant jurisdictions involved in the representation (when a jurisdiction is classified by credible sources as high risk for criminal or fraudulent activity).”

You can read the entire memo here and, if you happen to be planning to be in Seattle in February, you can plan to participate in a public roundtable discussion about the potential proposals.

Another area that I predict will be the subject of significant attention in 2022 is whether changes to RPC 5.5 are needed to better address modern legal practice. The restrictions imposed on the ability of a lawyer duly licensed in one state to represent clients in other states or to handle matters because they involve laws of a different state have been questioned, off-and-on, over the years, but the last almost two years of practice in a pandemic has helped push things to a potential boiling point. Perhaps never before has it been easier to make people see the relative-absurdity that RPC 5.5 can prohibit a lawyer with 20 years of business law experience licensed in South Dakota from representing a client in North Dakota who needs a contract drafted but would not prohibit a lawyer licensed in South Dakota who has never handled a tax matter in 20 years of litigation experience from representing a South Dakota client in a tax dispute. I anticipate that 2022 will bring efforts from a number of different groups to seek to modify RPC 5.5 to better offer “full faith and credit” to a lawyer’s law license.

In the meantime, thank you ever so much for your readership, stay safe, and I will see you again in January 2022.

This for Thursday.

Originally, I had plans to do another of those three-in-one posts for today, but we have some news from Tennessee, so we are pivoting to just focus on that development.

I’ve written previously about the Court’s proposal to improve upon the approach to intermediary organizations in Tennessee. Well, yesterday, the Court entered an order adopting those proposed rule revisions effective January 1, 2022.

This means that, starting next year, this better, but not perfect, approach to addressing entities that offer “matching” and similar services between lawyers and consumers of legal services will come into existence.

No longer will such entities have to register in any fashion with the Board of Professional Responsibility because Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 44 is being deleted. As a result, it will no longer be inherently unethical for a lawyer to accept fees from a client who found their way to the lawyer through an unregistered service.

Instead, whether it is ethical for a lawyer to do business with such an entity will turn significantly more on how transparent the arrangements are and the lawyer will be charged with doing the due diligence about any such entity.

Now, I mention that the new rules approach isn’t perfect — because it is not — but also as a way of justifying highlighting what I anticipate will remain as the “thorniest” issues for lawyers who want to work with such entities.

First, what will we mean when we say, “such entities?” As revised, Tennessee’s RPC 7.6 will apply to lawyer-advertising cooperatives, lawyer referral services, lawyer matching services, online marketing platforms, prepaid legal insurance providers, and “other similar organization[s] that engage[] in referring consumers of legal services to lawyers or facilitating the creation of lawyer-client relationships between consumers of legal services and lawyers willing to provide assistance for which the organization does not bear ultimate responsibility.”

Now, this still has a “catch all” concept, but it might be “better” than the previous catch all in terms of likely to snag fewer companies in its net. Regardless though, it constitutes an improvement in terms of the perspective of both lawyers and consumers, as well as servicer providers, because even if swept into the net, these entities will not have to go through any registration process with the Board.

Second, what will be the easy issues for lawyers to navigate. I think that it will be pretty easy for a lawyer to know whether the organization is trying to direct or regulate the lawyer’s professional judgment, and whether the organization is owned or controlled by the lawyer or their law firm. It will also be easy, perhaps not as easy, but still easy for the lawyer to ensure that the function of the referral arrangement is fully disclosed to the client at the beginning of the interactions with the lawyer and whether the organization “makes the criteria for inclusion available to prospective clients” including payments and fees at the beginning of the client’s interactions with the organization.

Finally, the sticking points. What will be significantly more difficult for the lawyer to determine will be whether the organization, including its agents or employees, are doing anything that involves improper solicitation under RPC 7.3 in Tennessee and whether the organization is only requiring the lawyer to pay “a reasonable sum representing a proportional share of the organization’s administrative and advertising costs.”

And, candidly, this last piece is where the need for further reform exists — it shouldn’t matter what the organization and the lawyer agree is going to be paid in terms of compensation as long as that deal is made fully transparent to the client.

Until then, this rule also at least provides some further protection for lawyers if they end up struggling with being able to figure out these two tougher sticking points because if they discover a problem after they get involved, they don’t have to immediately stop participating. Instead, they can first seek to get the organization to correct the noncompliance. Only if they cannot convince the entity to correct things do they have to withdraw from participation. Importantly, withdrawal from participation in the arrangement is what is required and not withdrawal from representing any client that may have found their way to the lawyer through the program.

Second chance to play Peril!

Allow me a short promotional post that can (almost) be justified as a public service to lawyers (at least some Tennessee ones).

This past Tuesday I did the first of two presentations of the 2021 Ethics Homeshow. We go again next Tuesday at 11:30 central. If you still need an hour of CLE credit, you can still register an play Peril! with us. We covered 14 topics in an hour this week, and we have 16 potential topics left to reveal.

It’s a fast-paced presentation, mildly fun, requires very little of you other than helping choose the squares through chat, and I will, once again, wear my game show hair as you can see in a screen shot from this week down below.

If you’re interested, and not already registered, you can do so here.

The thing about doing bad things on purpose…

Is that you have to be perfect about it pretty much all of the time.

I’m not going to tell you that there are only two kinds of people in the world because I know that kind of thing is only used as the set up to really good jokes. But among the various kinds of people in the world are people who follow the rules because they believe in rules and want to do right and people who only follow the rules because they are afraid of getting caught.

As to that second category, if they really think they can get away with breaking a rule they just might try. Another kind of person is the kind that has no problem flouting rules and sometimes does not even think about the consequences of getting caught.

I have no idea which kind of person the lawyer we are writing about today is but, regardless, this tale provides supporting evidence of two things: (1) the convenience of Zoom depositions does probably also increase the risk that lawyers will improperly try to coach witnesses if they think they can get away with it; and (2) the point made in my title plus introductory sentence … if you are going to do bad things on purpose you pretty much have to be perfect about it or you likely will get caught.

You can read the full opinion suspending this lawyer for 90 days for improper coaching of his client during a deposition here. His approach was not a very high-tech one but the one that I think many lawyers believe is going on when they suspect the other side of coaching during these kinds of depositions — he was sending text messages to his client. The opinion lays out the blunt nature of the “coaching” that the attorney (James) was doing with the client (Gray) during the questioning by the opposing counsel (Villaverde):

The following messages were exchanged between Gray and
James during Villaverde’s questioning of Gray:

10:19 a.m. (James): You don’t
10:20 a.m. (James): As to settlement checks expiration
10:20 a.m. (James): You remember the deposition but not discussing checks
10:20 a.m. (James): yes
10:21 a.m. (James): Just review notes from 02/20/2018 forward
10:23 a.m. (James): Be careful just say
10:23 a.m. (James): You may not see today
10:25 a.m. (James): Take a break in 15 minutes?
10:25 a.m. (Gray): Up to you

The opinion also details how all this misconduct came to light. So, in a development that some might say actually does shed light on which type of person this lawyer is, after 10:25 a.m., opposing counsel called out what he heard as typing during the deposition and confronted the lawyer and the witness about whether they were texting each other during the deposition. They denied the allegation and the lawyer claimed he was only receiving a text from his daughter. All the same opposing counsel requested that the lawyer put his phone away and the lawyer agreed.

Then after a break, the lawyer sent the following text messages:

11:53 a.m. (James): Just say it anyway
11:53 a.m. (James): Just say 03/28
11:54 a.m. (James): In addition to the 03/28/2018 email
containing the signed release I show . . .
11:55 a.m. (James): Don’t give an absolute answer
11:55 a.m. (James): All I can see at this time but I cannot rule out existence
11:55 a.m. (James): It’s a trap
11:56 a.m. (James): Then say that is my best answer at this time.

The text messages above, however, were somehow sent to the opposing counsel instead of the lawyer’s client. Once the opposing counsel checked his phone and saw the messages, the jig was up, and the result was the 90-day suspension for violating RPC 3.4(a) because coaching a witness about how to testify during ongoing deposition testimony is easily understood as “unlawfully obstruct[ing] another party’s access to evidence….”

Now above I mentioned that this case likely will confirm suspicions lawyers have that Zoom depositions bring a greater risk of “cheating” by the lawyers involved. In fairness, that is something of a pretty big leap because, in case you were wondering, the deposition involved in this case happened back in 2018 and occurred over the telephone, not on Zoom during the pandemic.

Florida again. Sigh.

It has only been a little over a month at this point since I wrote about how Florida was a hopeless place.

Well, here we are again. The Florida Bar Board of Governors has unanimously rejected a few proposals aimed toward progress in the re-regulation of the practice of law in the last week or so. Now, I want to be realistic in both my outrage and disappointment.

So, let’s talk first about the much less surprising piece of this development because it is just Florida rejecting something that, to date, most every state has rejected and only two states and the District of Columbia have been willing to consider or enact.

The Florida Bar Board of Governors rejected a proposal that had been submitted to it by a Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services established by the Florida Supreme Court. That proposal would have involved amending Florida’s ethics rules to allow some nonlawyer ownership in law firms as long as the majority ownership interest was still in the hands of lawyers and to allow fee-sharing to occur between lawyers and nonlawyers. The proposal involved the notion of giving these kinds of items a try in a regulatory sandbox approach rather than simply throwing doors open wide.

Given that, to date, only Arizona and Utah have joined D.C. in allowing for people without law licenses to have an ownership interest in a law firm, the fact that the Florida Bar rejected this proposal is really not surprising. It is maybe a little bit surprising that the vote was 46-0 and 45-0, but ….

Now, the other aspect of the Special Committee’s suggestions that was rejected at the same time really is a cause for outrage and disappointment. These suggested revisions targeted Florida’s regime for regulating lawyer advertising.

Florida has long been an embarrassment to the profession when it comes to its approach to restricting advertising by lawyers. And while reasonable lawyers can disagree about whether revisions to ownership regimes and fee-sharing are an inherently good direction for the profession to pursue, the notion that Florida can continue to insist that it’s approach to lawyer advertising makes sense is beyond the pale at this point.

The Special Committee had suggested revisions to the Florida advertising rules that were intended to streamline the rules — in large part this was proposed to be done by moving some of the more detailed rules into comments — if this sounds familiar to readers of this blog that would be because it should be. This kind of revision was recently enacted in Tennessee, and the Tennessee endeavor was inspired by the same things that inspired the proposal of the Florida Special Committee, the work of APRL in encouraging these kinds of revisions and the adoption by the ABA of more streamline advertising rules. The Florida Special Committee also proposed ending Florida’s mandatory review process of lawyer advertisements that offer more than just basic information or are not law firm websites.

The notion that a prominent member of the Florida Bar Board of Governors could explain opposition to such proposals by saying:

“While well intentioned, I think both of them are ahead of their time,” Sellers said.

That is the stuff of farce if not outright gaslighting. Ahead of their time? I guess if Florida wants to insist that it is the 1990s down there in terms of the refusal to streamline, and I guess the 1970s down there in refusing to stop imposing a prior restraint on constitutional speech, then, sure.

The notion that the vote on that was also unanimous (43-0) is extremely unsettling.

To be clear about what we are talking about when we talk about Florida’s advertising rules, these are rules that still, in 2021, have an entire separate rule prohibiting certain forms of advertisements as being somehow “unduly manipulative” because they contain the image or a voice of a celebrity. This is a state that has rule that also makes it improper to advertise using “an image, sound, video or dramatization in a manner that is designed to solicit legal employment by appealing to a prospective client’s emotions rather than to a rational evaluation of a lawyer’s suitability to represent the prospective client.” This is a state that still has an entire separate rule that purports to tell lawyers what content for their advertisement will be “presumptively valid content.”

All of that is bad enough, but the notion that Florida still imposes a pre-publication review requirement for commercial speech — a concept that is anathema to any reasonable understanding of the First Amendment — and that its governing body of lawyers just reaffirmed unanimously that this should continue is just … sad.

It’s another fine day to abolish the bar exam.

Now is another of the various times of year throughout the nation when law school graduates finish waiting anxiously for bar results and find out whether they passed and get the opportunity to start digging their way out of the debt they amassed in law school or failed and, thus, have to wrestle with the “sunk cost” fallacy and decide whether to amass some more debt to take another shot at passing the exam.

I’ve written a little bit before about how I’ve come to conclude that the bar exam needs to be abolished. I have admittedly not always felt this way but have come to the position over time and (I happen to think) because of growth and a better appreciation for the fact that it is a test that does not measure in any meaningful respect whether the examinee has the skills to be a competent attorney.

That was true even before the pandemic and the “pivot” from in-person exams to online undertakings but has become even more undeniable over these last 18 months.

Very, very little of the work of an attorney involves memorizing things and knowing answers off the top of one’s head. Success during a law school career spread out over three years is a much more reliable indicator of whether someone should be issued a law license. Now that states have had to partner up with software companies to administer the bar exam remotely — an opportunity that could have been used as a perfect vehicle for shifting what is tested to an open-book format that might better test the skills that an actual lawyer would have to use going forward has instead become a test of resources and sometimes just endurance.

Over the pandemic there have been a variety of news articles about the plight endured by folks taking the bar exam online. To the extent those stories ever mentioned litigation it involved efforts before an exam occurred to try to stop it from happening under certain terms and conditions or various kinds of petitions under state procedures to try to convince courts to grant a diploma privilege in lieu of requiring the exam take place.

What you do not hear a lot about is any efforts to sue by someone who fails the bar exam to seek a court ruling that they should be considered to have passed instead. There is a very good reason for that. Most states strictly circumscribe the grounds upon which the outcome of the grading of a bar exam can be challenged.

As an example, here in Tennessee, Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 7 takes great pains in explaining the various mechanisms for seeking to have the Tennessee Supreme Court review actions of our Board of Law Examiners that are believed to have aggrieved someone seeking their license to make clear that the decision about whether you obtained a passing score is not reviewable.

Sec. 13.02. Petitions to Board.

(a) Any person who is aggrieved by any action of the Board involving or arising from the enforcement of this Rule, other than failure to pass the bar examination or a determination that an applicant has not completed the application process for an examination, may petition the Board for such relief as is within the jurisdiction of the Board to grant.

(emphasis added)

ARTICLE XIV. REVIEW OF BOARD DECISIONS

Sec. 14.01. Petition for Review.

Any person aggrieved by any action of the Board may petition the Supreme Court for a review thereof as under the common law writ of certiorari, unless otherwise expressly precluded from doing so under this Rule. 

Sec. 14.04. No Review of Failure to Pass Bar Examination.

The only remedy afforded for a grievance for failure to pass the bar examination shall be the right to re-examination as herein provided.

Now, at a surface level, this makes perfect sense because absent such a restriction you could foresee graduates seeking a redo of a subjective process – grading – in court. But, given the kinds of technological failures that are coming to light from the less-than-ideal approaches being taken to online examinations and approaches to remote proctoring when the exam is administered online, the notion that asking courts to step-in and change unfair failing grades to passing grades is verboten seems worthy of some reconsideration.

And with all of that as a pretty lengthy prologue, that brings me around to what prompted these thoughts today — this story about a graduate who missed a passing score on the remote bar exam by 5 points and has filed a petition in Arizona seeking a law license because, while he was taking the exam, the software crashed, costing him the time it took to reboot his computer and that caused him to have to redo the portion of an answer he was working on. Importantly, the graduate’s score on the portion of the exam being worked on at the time of the crash was significantly lower than the score obtained on the other portions.

This kind of lawsuit can potentially be filed in any state – even in the face of a Court’s own rules seeking to handcuff itself – in reliance upon the inherent authority that the highest court of any jurisdiction has to determine who should, or should not, receive a law license. But interestingly in Arizona at least, the relevant rule appears to provide some wiggle room for directly challenging whether a passing grade was obtained.

As the Petition itself explains, Arizona Sup. Ct. R. 35(d) provides that “the Committee on Examination’s decision regarding any applicant’s grade score is final and will not be reviewed by the Court absent extraordinary circumstances.”

Hopefully, before there become enough instances of this type of outcome becoming “ordinary” circumstances, this applicant’s challenge will be successful and other jurisdictions will thoughtfully tackle the entire question of what purpose does the bar exam actually serve.