Bad ethics opinion or the worst ethics opinion? New York State Bar Ethics Opinion 1110 edition

Again, not fair actually.  This NY ethics opinion isn’t in the running for being the worst ethics opinion and isn’t even truly bad and actually, I guess, not even wrong.  But it does point out a really bad flaw with respect to the language of the particular NY rule it applies.

What seems like an exceedingly long time ago now, I was first inspired to title a post with this “Bad or Worst” title.  I did so when I wrote about what I thought truly was a woeful ethics opinion — and one that I cannot believe anyone even asked about in the first place — in which the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct imposed some ridiculous limitations on the ability of a lawyer to communicate with attendees at a seminar or continuing legal education presentation.

The subject matter of NY State Bar Ethics Opinion 1110 is similar – whether New York’s ethics rules on advertising, and derivatively solicitation, apply to a situation in which an attorney wishes to invite people to come to a seminar that he would put on regarding intellectual property issues.  As the opinion explains:

The inquirer, an intellectual property lawyer practicing in New York, plans to conduct online webinars and live seminars on topics within his principal fields of practice for persons who may have a business interest in those topics and a need for legal services.  Inquirer contemplates identifying persons fitting that description by use of commercially available business listings, including such listings on government agency web sites, such as business entity lists.  Admission to the webinars and seminars may be free or may be for a fee.

The opinion then lists a litany of questions it has to resolve to determine whether this can be done, but the core question is whether the seminars would be advertisements and, if so, whether they would be solicitations.  Now the opinion goes on at some length about ways that the lawyer could limit what is said or done at any such presentation so that it would not even qualify as an advertisement, but, eventually, it does the practical thing and assumes that the lawyer would likely during the seminar say things that would amount to talking about his “skills or reputation” sufficient to make the seminar an advertisement.

Assuming it is an advertisement, the opinion then also quickly gets to the conclusion that the seminar would be a solicitation — and that it would be an in-person solicitation, and, thus, the attendees would have to be limited to “close friends, relatives, former client(s), or existing client(s).”

This is the moment where, inside my head, there is the sound of screaming.

It is one thing to have an ethics rule that imposes strict prohibitions on in-person solicitations.  That’s fine.  It is also fine to have an ethics rule that requires, as to written solicitations, certain requirements about those.  I often disagree with the details of what states require as to disclaimers or font sizes, but I can be swayed not to get up in arms about the requirements.  It is another thing to have a rule that creates such a strict definition of solicitation to justify writing an ethics opinion that would say that someone who accepts an invitation to attend a seminar is being subjected to a solicitation at the seminar they could have just chosen not to attend.

The closest that New York’s RPC 7.3(b) gets to carving out communications that are initiated by a person who isn’t a lawyer from being a solicitation is the language that states that solicitation . . . “does not include a proposal or other writing prepared and delivered in response to a specific request of a prospective client.”

But the inanity of the outcome articulated by this ethics opinion is pretty epically demonstrated by analogy to an actual written solicitation letter to a targeted potential client.  Assume that a lawyer sends one of those, and complies with all the bells and whistles in such a written communication as to what the envelope cannot say, the font size, the disclaimers at the beginning, and mandatory language, but the recipient then decides — “hey, I’m interested in hearing what a lawyer could do for me” and proceeds to go to the lawyer’s office to ask for a meeting.  Everything that happens then is.not.a.solicitation.

The rules regarding in-person solicitation seek to protect potential consumers of legal services from overreaching by lawyers.  That is the espoused rationale.  I often, with tongue-in-cheek, will explain at seminars that such rules exist because when we graduate law school we have been imbued with superpowers as to persuasion that allow us to convince mere mortals to do things that they otherwise would never do but for our incredible superpowers.  (I can often then use the exception to the rules against solicitation for lawyer-on-lawyer solicitation to explain that since both sides have equal superpowers there is no need for the protection.)

But, in the conceptual situation evaluated by this formal ethics opinion, if the recipient of the invitation to the seminar doesn’t want to be in a room where a lawyer is speaking about the area of law in which they practice, they.can.just.not.go.to.where.the.seminar.is.happening.

What is missing from the text of New York’s rule to prevent this sort of result is the language that we have here in Tennessee in RPC 7.3(a)(3) indicating that an in-person or real-time solicitation of professional employment from a potential client is not prohibited if “the person contacted . . . has initiated a contact with the lawyer.”

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