California proposes an ethics opinion that needs further workshopping.

Let’s talk for a bit today about a proposed California ethics opinion for which public comment is being accepted until June 8, 2021.

The general topic when you hear about the proposed opinion is immediately of interest — can a lawyer help a client obtain a contractual agreement including a provision that is against the law? It is a topic that I did a seminar on – unrelated to California law — back in the before times. (I think it is still available for listening if anyone is of interest here.)

In jurisdictions that have a version of RPC 1.2 that tracks the Model Rules, it can be a bit easier of a question to parse through because what ABA Model Rule 1.2(d) prohibits is limited to not counseling “a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is criminal or fraudulent. . . .” Thus, tricky questions about whether a contract provision might be unenforceable under current law become a bit easier to deal with in terms of a bright-line at least because it is only problematic for the lawyer to be involved if the client’s path involves criminal conduct or the commission of a fraud on the other contracting party.

Although California has relatively recently (and finally) adopted a version of ethics rules that are patterned on the Model Rules, their version of RPC 1.2(d) deviates significantly from the Model Rule approach by expanding the lawyer’s obligation to include not just something that is criminal or fraudulent but anything that the lawyer knows is “a violation of any law, rule, or ruling of a tribunal.”

Thus, this proposed formal opinion (Interim No. 19-00003) addresses a much broader question than might be evaluated in most jurisdictions. Now, perhaps as a way of making the outcome more palatable, the opinion tees up the following as the fact pattern it decides to evaluate:

Lawyer works for a large California corporation providing employment law advice to the Human Resources department (“HR”) responsible for all non-executive hiring. Employees hired through HR are presented with a standard form written employment agreement (“Agreement”). This Agreement is presented by HR to new hires as a non-negotiable agreement that must be signed as a condition of employment. Lawyer is tasked with reviewing and updating the Agreement, which contains a provision that has been found to be illegal under California law.

Factual Scenarios

1. Lawyer knows that the provision has been found to be illegal, but advises HR to use the Agreement anyway, without further advice or analysis.

2. Same facts, except that Lawyer does not know that the provision is illegal.

3. Same facts, except that Lawyer advises that the contract provision has been found to be illegal under California law, but does not recommend against including the provision.

4. Same facts, except that Lawyer advises that the contract provision has been found to be illegal under California law and recommends against including the provision. HR advises Lawyer that it understands the provision is illegal but would still like to include it in the Agreement for its chilling effect. HR has asked the Lawyer to assist in enforcing the provision.

Offering up that scenario makes it a lot easier to offer conclusions such as:

A California lawyer has a duty not to counsel or assist a client in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal, fraudulent, or a violation of any law, rule, or ruling of a tribunal. That conduct includes the use of a contract provision in a transaction with a third party that has been found to be illegal under the law of the jurisdiction applicable to the transaction. If the lawyer knows that the provision is illegal, the lawyer: (1) should advise the client accordingly; (2) may not recommend the use of the provision; and (3) must counsel the client not to use it.

If the client insists on the use of the illegal provision against the lawyer’s advice, the lawyer may not participate in presenting the illegal provision to the third party and may not assist the client in enforcing the provision. In that event, the lawyer may withdraw from the representation but is not required to do so.

If the lawyer concludes that the conduct is a violation of law reasonably imputable to the organization and likely to result in substantial injury to the organization, the lawyer for an organization must report the actions of the client constituent to a higher authority, unless the lawyer reasonably concludes that it is not in the best lawful interest of the organization to do so

Confined to the facts evaluated in the opinion, it would feel hard to get worked up about the conclusions because who wants to openly advocate for a corporation being able to knowingly put an unenforceable noncompete or nondisparagement provision in an employee contract merely for “its chilling effect”? Right?

But, work with me here for a minute. RPC 3.1 in most places, including California, expressly permits lawyer to advocate in court proceedings for extensions, modifications, or reversals of existing law. Court matters don’t happen without cases or controversies and, thus, cases arguing that aspects of existing state law, whether contract law or otherwise, should be modified or reversed unless people take actions that are “illegal” until litigated and the existing law reversed.

So, how in the world does that ever get to happen in California, if this ethics opinion moves forward? How does a lawyer help someone who is willing to seek to change a bad law to do so? Is California really going to say that the only way to do that is through lobbying legislative bodies? What if California had a law on the books that made it “illegal” to rent any house greater than 2,000 square feet in size to anyone other than Caucasians? And I’m not talking about something where the law in question makes it a crime, but just a statute that prohibits it without imposing any criminal penalties. Are California’s ethics rules going to prevent a lawyer from assisting a willing landlord in crafting a lease agreement that violates that law?

And, look, I get that the opinion is constrained in that it has to interpret California’s rule, and that it might well be that the problem is the rule itself, but, sometimes the process of putting together an ethics opinion reveals a bad rule and instead of issuing the opinion, someone should spend their time fixing the rule.

If you agree, and you have any sway in California, you can send a comment in on the proposal in the next 45 days or so.

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