More of me weighing in on Oregon weighing in on the future

For those that missed my post earlier this week on the release of the Oregon State Bar Futures Task Force report, you can read that post here and get caught up.

Today, I want to offer some thoughts on one of the three Recommendations made by the Regulatory Committee of the Futures Task Force.  It is likely the most important of the Recommendations but certain to be the most controversial as well.

Recommendation 2: Revise Rules of Professional Conduct to Remove Barriers to Innovation.

This recommendation is comprised of four parts.  I’ll list them in the order they are presented, even though that is not the order in which I want to discuss them.

2.1  Amend current advertising rules to allow in-person or real-time electronic solicitation, with limited exceptions.

2.2  Amend current fee-sharing rules to allow fee sharing between lawyers and lawyer referral services, with appropriate disclosure to clients.

2.3  Amend current fee-sharing and partnership rules to allow participation by licensed paraprofessionals.

2.4  Clarify that providing access to web-based intelligent software that allows consumers to create custom legal documents is not the practice of law.

Now, that third sub-part creates a spoiler for another of the three Regulatory Committee recommendations – Implement Legal Paraprofessional Licensure.  Given the way those programs have played out to date in a number of other jurisdictions, I don’t think that is going to do much to turn any tides, so for now I’m going to pass on discussing it.  (If you want to delve into it, you can read all of thoughts of the Futures Task Force on that subject and the entirety of the 90+ page report behind the Executive Summary here.)

The fourth one – making clear that certain software programs that let someone through self-help generate customized legal documents — is a perfectly fine idea and, in this day and age, seems very difficult to argue against.  With each passing day, the notion that there are certain legal problems that states cannot allow be served through software programs that do for certain legal problems what tax return software programs do for income taxes seems harder and harder to justify.  But, I’m not sure that such a clarification is what is standing between better access to legal services for consumers and where things are today.  I tend to think that, in part, because those services already exist and are in pretty wide use because companies already make them available and consumers already use them.

The first one about changes to the advertising rules is most certainly a provision I would support (and have supported in past posts).  Virginia has just done something similar with its recent rule revisions.  But again, I don’t know that this change would be something that, as a response or solution to trying to improve public access to legal services, will make any real difference.  Why do I say that?  It is currently not at all very difficult to create an online platform in which it is the consumers that make the first communication effort so that lawyers can respond to it rather than initiate it.  As long as that is true, then lawyer advertising rules prohibiting solicitation do not present any barrier at all to getting consumers in need of legal services and lawyers with the time and ability to provide the services together.

That leaves the second subpart.  And that is the one where I suggest, respectfully, all the marbles are located for lawyers.

The notion of changing the ethics rules to allow lawyers to share fees in a particular matter with nonlawyers, as long as there is full, appropriate disclosure to the consumer of what is taking place.

The specific proposal Oregon’s Task Force has offered is for its current RPC 5.4(a)(5) that only references bar-sponsored or not-for-profit referral services to be revised to read instead as follows:

(a)  A lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a nonlawyer, except that

***

(5) a lawyer may pay the usual charges of a lawyer-referral service, including sharing legal fees with the service, only if:

(i) the lawyer communicates to the client in writing at the outset of the representation the amount of the charge and the manner of its calculation, and

(ii) the total fee for legal services rendered to the client combined with the amount of the charge would not be a clearly excessive fee pursuant to Rule 1.5 if it were solely a fee for legal services, including fees calculated as a percentage of legal fees received by the lawyer from a referral.

That is an action that would, overnight, make pretty much every technological innovation already available (or even conceivable) viable for lawyers to participate in as a way of delivering legal services to consumers and businesses.  It would also allow many existing operators in the legal space to spend less time on trying to come up with workarounds about not being engaged in making referrals in their business model to try to assuage concerns that lawyers who use their platforms will be the subject of disciplinary complaints.

In short, that recommendation appears to me to the one that must be discussed and debated and decided on before any evaluation can be made about what any of the other ones might mean or accomplish.

If Oregon follows through, it seems difficult to speculate that one or more other states won’t follow.  And, if the experience of those states shows that full disclosure of the sharing arrangement, plus compliance with the other ethics rules requiring exercise of independent professional judgment and not allowing interference with that judgment, then it will seem very difficult for any jurisdiction to argue against doing the same.

It is inherently a controversial topic because the prohibition against fee sharing with nonlawyers is viewed by many as a bedrock principle of our profession.  But — if the underlying premise of that bedrock principle is restated as preserving the independent professional judgment of lawyers from undue influence by others — then the Oregon proposal that would allow fee sharing, require fulsome disclosure to the consumer involved about that arrangement could still readily be expected to serve that bedrock principle and protect consumers while benefiting consumers because – though not highlighted in the Report, RPC 5.4(c) would still be in force as well.

(c) A lawyer shall not permit a person who
recommends, employs, or pays the lawyer to render
legal services for another to direct or regulate the
lawyer’s professional judgment in rendering such legal
services.

Existing models of the online approach to pairing lawyers and consumers in need of legal services could almost all be placed into this bucket and, thus, lawyers using these services would still have maintain their independent professional judgment and refuse and resist efforts to compromise it.

The Future of Legal Services – Oregon weighs in

I was given an opportunity to provide a Legislative Update piece in the Spring 2017 issue of TortSource a publication of the ABA Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section.  The focus of the Spring 2017 issue is “Evolving Legal Markets” and, although the authorship is Tennessee-heavy, I think you will find all the articles to be worth a read if you can get access.  There is a piece on artificial intelligence, a piece on consumer-facing legal services provided by non-lawyers, a piece on predictive coding, and one on online dispute resolution.

My piece focuses on questions of UPL and responses by states to challenges posed by the companies that compete with lawyers for clients and I’ll share with you the conclusion section:

Other jurisdictions may choose to take more strident approaches, but it would appear that the best path forward for leveling the playing field for lawyers is to seek the adoption of regulations that will require companies providing such legal services to consumers to adhere to the same ethics rules as lawyers. The ABA’s Model Regulatory Objectives for the Provision of Legal Services (A.B.A. Resolution 105, Feb. 2016) provide one template for states to consider to pursue such a path forward.

That conclusion feels more prescient than it truly was because, this past week, the Oregon State Bar Futures Task Force issued its report on the Future of Legal Services in Oregon.   Oregon is often discussed a rainy part of the U.S., and the volume of materials provided as the end product of the Futures Task Force is something of a deluge — the Executive Summary alone spans 15 pages of material.  You can read the Executive Summary here.

There is so much content of note in the work the OSB Futures Task Force has performed that I foresee spending a few posts discussing aspects of it, but today I want to start with a discussion of the findings of one of the two committees that made up the task force.

But even before discussing those two items, some background about the Futures Task Force and about the structure of the report and recommendations is in order.  First, the origin of the task force itself:

In April 2016, the OSB Board of Governors convened a Futures Task Force with the following charge:

“Examine how the Oregon State Bar can best protect the public          and support lawyers’ professional development in the face of            the public evolution of the manner in which legal services are            obtained and delivered.  Such changes have been spurred by              the blurring of traditional jurisdictional borders, the                            introduction of new models for regulating legal services and              educating legal professionals, dynamic public expectations                about how to seek and obtain affordable legal services, and                technological innovations that expand the ability to offer legal          services in dramatically different and financially viable ways.”

Second, the first step that was pursued as to the Task Force once created:

The Board split the Futures Task Force into two committees: a Legal Innovations Committee, focused on the tools and models required for a modern legal practice, and a Regulatory Committee, focused on how to best regulate and protect the public in light of the changing legal services market.

The end result was that the Regulatory Committee has made three recommendations and the Legal Innovations Committee has made five recommendations.  I plan to definitely write further, and in more detail, about the Regulatory Committee recommendations.

But, as indicated, for now I just want to talk about the findings made by one of the two committees, the Regulatory Committee.  I want to focus on them because, I think, they reveal just how universal the situation is that is faced in U.S. jurisdictions and, in turn, this means that the work product of this Oregon group has obvious potential application as a road map for action just about anywhere.  The Regulatory Committee made these nine findings:

  1. Oregonians need legal advice and legal services to successfully resolve problems and to access the courts.
  2. Consumers are increasingly unwilling or unable to engage traditional full-service legal representation.
  3. A significant number of self-represented litigants choose not to hire lawyers, even though they could afford to do so.
  4. Self-help resources are crucial and must be improved, even as we take steps to make professional legal services more accessible.
  5. Subsidized and free legal services, including legal aid and pro bono representation, are a key part of solving the access-to-justice gap, but they remain inadequate to meet all of the civil legal needs of low-income Oregonians.
  6. Despite the existence of numerous under- and unemployed lawyers, the supply of legal talent is not being matched with the need.
  7. Oregonians’ lack of access to legal advice and services leads to unfair outcomes, enlarges the access-to-justice gap, and generates public distrust in the justice system.
  8. For-profit online service providers are rapidly developing new models for delivering legal services to meet consumer demand.
  9. To fully serve the Bar’s mission of promoting respect for the rule of law, improving the quality of legal services, and increasing access to justice, we must allow and encourage the development of alternate models of legal service delivery to better meet the needs of Oregonians.

The question I would leave you with today is:  any reason at all to think that the first 8 items described would be any different if the discussion was about your state and its consumers rather than Oregon and Oregonians?  And, if not, then how could you think that the item identified in 9 isn’t something that your state is going to have to pursue as well?

 

Coming to praise rather than bury – Colorado Formal Op. 129

It is almost three months old now, but I wanted to right a word or two about a really well-constructed ethics opinion issued in Colorado, not just because it is an opinion that deserves to be read, but also because it raises a not-quite-academic question about the phenomenon of captive law firms.

The opinion put out by the Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee, Colorado Bar Formal Op. 129, is titled “Ethical Duties of Lawyer Paid by One Other Than the Client.”

Because questions of insurance defense representation raising similar issues were previously addressed by the Committee in Formal Opinion 91, this new opinion focuses on “ethical questions that can arise in third-party payer situations that do not involve insurance as a source of payment.”  (My not-quite-academic question is importantly a variation on that theme and the different approach often allowed for the tripartite relationship….)

The opinion helpfully catalogs quite a few such scenarios, like

  • friend or family paying for someone’s defense against criminal charges
  • parents paying for representation of children
  • corporations paying for attorney fees of an employee or officer
  • contractual indemnitor paying legal fees of an indemnitee

Those last two are ones, I suspect, that lawyers don’t think about as often in terms of making sure they know what is necessary for compliance with all of the pertinent ethics rules in their jurisdictions, which if the jurisdiction tracks the approaches under the ABA Model Rules as Colorado mostly does are RPCs 1.0(e), RPC 1.6, 1.7, 1.8(f), and 5.4(c).

The opinion does a good job at addressing in detail the various ethical questions, particularly on the dynamics that can arise where, for example, the person that will be paying the freight for the representation also happens to be a client of the attorney in some other matter and how compliance with just RPC 1.8(f) and 5.4(c) alone may not be enough because of the conflict issues raised by RPC 1.7.

The opinion merits a full read, but, if you only have 1 or 2 minutes to spare, then the best part is — II.  Practical Considerations – Discussions with the Third-Party Payer — which provides insightful, detailed, and potentially uncomfortable guidance about what really ought to happen in terms of communicating to the person who will be holding the checkbook who the client actually is and to whom the lawyer’s professional duties are owed, the limitations on the rights of the person making the payments, and the consequences of non-payment.

All of this then leads to my promised question, if these same principles are the ones that would have to be adhered to by a lawyer who represents insurance policyholders for an insurance company through a model in which the lawyer’s firm is a “captive” firm of that company, would there be any realistic way to comply?  Wouldn’t the process of obtaining the informed consent of that client always require having to make crystal-clear the significant financial interest that the lawyer has in keeping his/her only source of business happy?

I say that my question along these lines is not-quite-academic, because it is actually answered in Colorado by that earlier opinion, Formal Opinion 91 which was issued in 1993 but was updated with an addendum in 2013.  For readers in Colorado, I’m pretty sure the answer is that a lot of disclosure would have to be made, but that acquiring informed consent is feasible.

But, for readers not in Colorado, there may or may not be guidance quite as clear on the question.

Go read this other stuff.

In a little over 2 years and out of 244 prior posts, this is only the second time I have done this, so I don’t feel incredibly bad.  Though I admittedly do feel somewhat bad.  But try as I have to find something this week that I had to say that was worth writing about and on-topic, I’ve been unable to do so.

Thus, if you happen to be checking here for worthwhile content, let me point you to 4 pieces written by other very intelligent folks that are truly worth your time.

First, following very quickly on the heels of Ravel Law’s announcement about one of its new offerings (which I did write about), it was announced that LexisNexis is buying Ravel Law.  Bob Ambrogi has written about how significant a development this is and you can read that here.

Second, although it is now a two-week old piece, the fine folks at The Law for Lawyers Today  have a really good post on yet another instance of a litigator crossing lines during a deposition into obstruction and why that continues to be such a bad idea for litigators.

Third, a circumstance in Tennessee has gotten a high-enough profile to be written about on Above The Law and you can go read about it here.  I don’t want to say too much about it at the moment, not because I have any involvement in the matter, but because a petition seeking a rule change has also been filed with the Tennessee Supreme Court and the TBA Ethics Committee that I chair will likely be looking that over and offering input.  (If you happen to be a subscriber to The Nashville Post, you can read article about the rule petition here.)

And, finally, Mike McCabe over at his blog has a very nice piece up reminding IP lawyers about how important it is to abide by protective orders in IP cases – though the reminder is just as valid to lawyers in other litigation practice areas.

What’s in a name?

For example, the folks behind the popular Radiolab podcast also launched a spin-off podcast last year about the U.S. Supreme Court called “More Perfect.”  The reason for naming it that, of course, is that it almost assuredly a reference to the famous line in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

But today it seems a funny/ironic name because the U.S. Supreme Court managed to make a pretty bad mistake that is being reported on now and that likely added some real stress into the life of a lawyer whose only crime was having almost the same name as another lawyer.

You can read about the story itself, and find links to other outlets reporting on the story, at the ABA Journal online, but the short version is that the U.S. Supreme Court intending to suspend and potentially disbar a Christopher P. Sullivan of Vermont instead suspended and issued show cause why disbarment should not occur to a Christopher P. Sullivan of Boston, Massachusetts.  The Vermont Sullivan’s middle name was Paul and he had already been disbarred in Vermont after being involved in a fatal automobile accident and pleading guilty to a DUI.  The Massachusetts Sullivan’s middle name is Patrick.

If you do the math, you will find that the Sullivan who was wrongfully sullied ended up with 15 days passing between being suspended and the U.S. Supreme Court fixing its mistake and reinstating him.  Presuming he was aware of and dealing with fixing the Court’s mistake, I imagine that was a long 2 weeks for that gentleman.

But, in terms of a larger lesson to be learned, I think the lesson is that we all need to be more deliberate rather than more perfect in what we do.  I can’t help but think that a more deliberate review of information on the Court’s part would have avoided the “mistaken identity” error in the first place.

I like to think that most errors I make are ones that, upon reflection, I could have avoided had I been more deliberate in the first place.  I reckon you might say the same about yourself, so …

Monday memories

Now, I admit, you may be of the opinion that a blog that has only existed for just a bit longer than 2 years probably has no business trying to recycle past posts as flashbacks or memories or what-have-yous.  But, I’ll make you a deal:  you start your own blog and you get to do whatever you want on that one.

A few events that have been prominently in the news in the American South, including in my own city, have led me to want to re-post something I wrote back on May 18, 2015 and that, perhaps, you didn’t read when I first wrote it.  The fact that today is Memorial Day has also provided additional “synergy” for my decision today.

The events and the topic are: Confederate memorials and the efforts in New Orleans and elsewhere to take them down.  The most recent news item that has prompted me to decide to re-run today something I wrote two years ago is this news out of Alabama that the Alabama legislature has passed a bill to make it illegal to take down a Confederate monument.

If you are looking for an even longer, and admittedly more eloquent and better read on the overall issue, I would commend you to the transcript of the speech given by the Mayor of New Orleans earlier this month which you can find here.

If you are just looking for the “how could there ever have been a legal ethics component to this topic” piece, I am pasting below my piece, originally published here on May 18, 2015, that was titled “Things I Don’t Understand” below (and that you will be shocked to learn also involved an Alabama law).  And if you are among the few who read this piece when it was first posted, and are reading today, thank you for your patronage!

(I will also add that this re-posted pieces is actually as much about “click-bait” headlines as anything else and, thankfully, those are not something that we have any reason to continue to worry about either:

I was not born in the South but have lived here for the overwhelming majority of my life.  I’ve never understood, however, the uniquely Southern interest in the history of the Civil War.  And, I don’t mean just at the role-playing levels of Civil War re-enactment events but even at the more subtle levels at which it is fervently studied but not seemingly for the purpose of trying to learn lessons from history to avoid repeating history.  It has always puzzled me that anyone would present that time period in American history as anything other than the darkest time in the history of our nation and something for which we should be ashamed and reluctant to speak about it unless absolutely necessary.  But that’s just me, your mileage may vary.

So when I saw this headline at the ABA Journal online “Lawyer removes Confederate flags from civil war cemetery, sparking calls for disbarment,” I thought for certain that reading it would leave me overwhelmed with more sentiments I cannot understand.  But having read it, what I really cannot understand is why the ABA would present such a misleading title.  Having now read the news sources to which the ABA Journal links (the most thorough of which seems to be this one), none of them really contain anyone willing to actually call for the lawyer’s disbarment.

And, of course, no one should.  Even if you have a problem with him removing the flags and want to go so far as to raise questions about whether the conduct is in violation of the Alabama law regarding real and personal property in cemeteries and graveyards, it is difficult to get to a disciplinary violation from there, much less one for which disbarment would be in order.  Alabama, like Tennessee, has a version of RPC 8.4 patterned after the ABA Model Rules that treats the commission of crimes by lawyers even when not acting as a lawyer as grounds for discipline if the criminal act is one “that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.”  Comment [2] to the Rule does the best it can to try to stress the point that lawyers, like all other human beings are personally answerable to criminal laws, but “should be professionally answerable only for offenses that indicate lack of those characteristics relevant to law practice.”   This most certainly is not that.

I think the “click-bait” nature of the ABA Journal’s headline comes closer to being “conduct involving . . . misrepresentation” that would run afoul of RPC 8.4(c) then the removal of flags, bagging them up, and leaving them at city hall to be picked up by the owners comes to being a violation of RPC 8.4(b).

Something to chew on during your holiday weekend.

I am nowhere near the most plugged in when it comes to lawyers on the forefront of tracking the ways in which rapid developments in technology are changing the practice of law.  I’m a bit more aware than likely most lawyers, in part because I’m constantly looking for things worth writing about here, but also because I’ve been fortunate enough over the last two years to be a members of the Tennessee Bar Association’s Special Committee on the Evolving Legal Market.

For a combination of those reasons, I’ve been reading a bit about the latest tool that Ravel Law has unleashed on the world, “Firm Analytics.”  Among other selling points that Ravel Law touts, and the one I want to leave you to think about over the weekend is:

In another first, Firm Analytics also provides rankings of firms across key variables including practice area, case volume, venue experience, and motion win rates. These leaderboards allow comparisons across substantive performance metrics, a significant innovation to traditional revenue and size rankings. As part of this launch, we are releasing rankings of the top five law firms across employment, securities, antitrust, administrative law, and bankruptcy (more below).

This is, of course, excellent information to be made available in the marketplace and with the constant creation of new ways to better, and more quickly, aggregate and synthesize data it is also inevitable for it to come into existence.

The thought I want to leave you with though is this — how crazy is it that, in many U.S. jurisdictions, if a lawyer or law firm wanted to advertise themselves using this same kind of data (win rates, success history, etc.), they would likely be opening themselves up to a disciplinary complaint under state advertising rules that prohibit lawyers from touting past successful outcomes in matters?

For example, let me pick a state at random and not a state that has any reason at all to be in the news, Montana.  If a law firm in Montana or a lawyer there decided to aggregate this data and tout their win percentages, they’d likely be at risk of seeing bar regulators accuse them of violating either or both of these provisions in Rule 7.1 prohibiting communications about a lawyer’s services that:

(b) is likely to create an unjustified expectation about results the lawyer can achieve;

(c) proclaims results obtained on behalf of clients, such as the amount of a damage award or the lawyer’s record in obtaining favorable verdicts or settlements, without stating that past results afford no guarantee of future results and that every case is different and must be judged on its own merits.

An inside-baseball view of judicial ethics and the media

For today, an interesting (at least I think it is interesting) story about a judicial ethics scenario and the ability of media to “shape” a story and how that ability can transform a question of judicial ethics.

About three weeks ago, I spoke with a print reporter with The Nashville Scene about questions he had on a story he was working on about a part-time judge of the General Sessions environmental court in Nashville.  This particular court, among the cases it hears, are ones over using property for purposes of short-term rentals (think Airbnb) without obtaining the required permit to do so.

The reporter’s issue involved the fact that this court would adjudicate the question of whether a property owner was pursuing this endeavor without being properly permitted and that the part-time judge in question owned several properties that were properly permitted.  The reporter was interested in my view on whether this created a disqualifying conflict for the judge under Tennessee’s judicial ethics rules.

We talked for a good bit and, ultimately, I explained my view that — based on my understanding of what the court could (and could not) decide — that the answer was “no, not a disqualifying conflict.

You can read The Nashville Scene story, which contains a fair representation of what I had to say, here.  A few days later, as the public attention on this story continued to grow, I got a call from a reporter with a TV station in Nashville who wanted to know if I’d be willing to do an on-camera interview for a story they were doing on this situation.  He said he saw The Nashville Scene story, knew my view, and wanted me to elaborate on that for the story they were doing.

We worked out a set-up so that we could do a Skype-video interview for his use and managed to talk on camera for maybe 15 minutes or so.  And I again laid out these points in significant detail about why, in my view, this simply wasn’t a conflict.  (I’m biased, but I recall giving a really good explanation of how different the scenario would be if this particular court had the power to hear challenges to the permitting system itself on constitutional or other grounds, for example.)

Cut to the story that actually aired, which you can watch here.  I’m not in it.  Normally, I’m extremely cool with situations, even where I’ve given of my time to a media outlet, where I end up on the cutting room floor.  That’s just life.  But, when you know in advance what I am going to say and I go out of my way to make things happen on your time frame, it is a little more personally frustrating.  But, I swear, I’m not writing this to vent my personal frustration or make this about me.

Instead, the reason I think any of this is interesting at all is the impact that the kind of one-sided TV segment had on what happened next… which is that the judge in question ended up resigning the position citing the fact not that there was originally a disqualifying conflict but because:

“because I believe that the public has an absolute right to feel that their court system is fair and impartial and that recent misleading media reports could call the Court’s fairness into question.”

Now, was that all there was to the story?  No.  I’ve now come to learn in the process of writing about this that there was an intervening news story regarding whether or not the judge was also violating a provision of the ordinance his court was enforcing.  You can watch a story about that here.  I’ll admit I haven’t even tried to dive deep enough into an understanding of the ordinance involved to know whether that is the equivalent of a traffic court judge who happens to get caught speeding or something more serious.  Also, my opinion is, of course, only my opinion and is not dispositive of what the right answer to the question should have been… but as a “participant” in this process, I thought it would still make for an interesting word to the wise about how stories on ethical questions can manage to be “framed” for public consumption in ways that ultimately can heavily impact the outcome.

Two short updates for a Tuesday

Late last month, I focused a post on a West Virginia lawyer who ended up staring down a 2-year suspension over chronic over-billing.  If you missed that post, you can read it here.  If you read it, you will recall that one of the items discussed was that the Executive Director of the West Virginia Public Defender Services agency had indicated that particular lawyer was not even among the worst offenders.

The ABA Journal online has a piece up that is apparently about one such even worse offender who has skipped out on bail regarding the criminal charges he is facing over his rampant over-billing (including billing more than 24 hours on 17 different days) and is suspected to be a fugitive in a much more temperate part of the world than West Virginia.

Over a larger time period and with a bit more frequency, I’ve written a little bit about the ABA Ethics 20/20 revisions to the Model Rules — admittedly through the lens that those revisions were being considered and then adopted here in my home state of Tennessee.  If you’ve been looking for a really good window into what the technology-focused aspects of the Ethics 20/20 revisions mean for your law practice, you are in luck because the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has now put out Formal Ethics Op. 477 which pretty much provides exactly that.

It is a good opinion – it’s getting a lot of attention in the legal media for establishing new standards but that’s not quite right.  It doesn’t really establish anything new but it does do a really good job of focusing lawyers’ attention upon the logical repercussions of the Ethics 20/20 revisions and the risks that lawyers need to be acutely aware of when communicating with clients.

It is also worth noting — particularly given the last few days of ransom ware news (and one other high-profile instance of information that was promised to be kept secret being disseminated under questionable circumstances) that user error continues to be a leading cause of unintended disclosure of (or complete loss of access to) confidential information whether technology is involved or not.

It should go without saying that there is only so much a lawyer can do to try to guard against those kinds of risks.

Wisconsin rightly says no to name dropping without consent.

Earlier this week I criticized what I consider to be a pretty bad ethics opinion that was issued by Rhode Island.  To balance things out a bit, I want to write about an ethics opinion out of Wisconsin that gives the correct answer to its query – Wisconsin Formal Ethics Opinion EF-17-02.  That opinion correctly explains that because of the broad swath of confidentiality created by Rule 1.6, even the names of clients qualify as confidential information and, therefore, a lawyer can only disclose the name of a client if in advertisements or materials circulated for marketing or any other personal purpose if the client has given informed consent to the disclosure or some other exception within Rule 1.6 applies.

In issuing this opinion, Wisconsin had to withdraw an older opinion that provided guidance that the names of clients were not confidential information, Wisconsin Ethics Op. E-93-5.

Lots of lawyers (not just in Wisconsin) do not immediately grasp that this is the correct result — that the identity of a lawyer’s clients is itself confidential information.  A lot of times they don’t do so because doing so requires recognizing that there are a lot of things lawyers do that they really shouldn’t without getting their clients approval.   The Wisconsin opinion uses the example of talking about the fact of a representation as a cocktail party as an example, but there are less obvious ways this issue crops up.  Lawyers often don’t think twice about providing information about the details of their prior representations as part of responding to requests for proposals from insurance carriers as part of trying to become approved as panel counsel, for example.  Some lawyers will rationalize their approach on the basis that they are only disclosing information that can already be found in public records, but the Wisconsin opinion rightly makes the point that Rule 1.6 doesn’t remove the obligation of confidentiality for the lawyer merely because the information is available in a public record.

I’ve often attempted to explain the policy choice that Rule 1.6 enshrines for lawyers along these lines.  Imagine you are a family law attorney.  Now in order to file a divorce complaint for a particular client you are going to have to disclose in the filing a lot of details about your client’s life that they really hope no one finds out about.  Members of the public certainly could go down to the courthouse or go online if the court has electronic records and read all of the sordid details, but the client definitely hopes people don’t.  The ethics rules stake out a position – at least jurisdictions that have the ABA Model Rule version of Rule 1.6 do — that even though the lawyer has to put those things in the public complaint, lawyers are going to be charged with not talking about those things without the client’s consent to do so.  I then often ask lawyers to think about how a conversation would go if you called your client and asked them for permission to offer up the interesting anecdote about their situation.

The ramification of that policy choice ends up being that the rule errs on the side of confidential treatment even for things that many clients might not even expect could be confidential and that’s the reason, for example, that firms who circulate materials about representative clients, whether on their website or elsewhere, need to get client permission to do so.

While Wisconsin’s opinion is praiseworthy on its substance, Wisconsin should still get criticized for its insistence on shielding its formal ethics opinions from the public and providing access to them only for members of the Wisconsin Bar.  That’s a silly and outdated approach.

As a Tennessee lawyer, I only know about what the new Wisconsin opinion says because the fine folks at ABA/BNA reported on it.  Presumably, as they always do, they did a good job and, thus, if you go read their article here then you, like me, can know what Wisconsin had to say in construing its ABA Model Rule-based ethics rule on confidentiality.

Coming full circle, while I can’t stand the substantive outcome offered up by that Rhode Island opinion discussed earlier this week, at least Rhode Island allows for public access to the ethics opinions it issues.  For as long as there continue to be jurisdictions like Wisconsin that shield theirs from view, then offering public access will continue to deserve praise in Rhode Island and elsewhere.