Threats to the legal profession include threats by members of the profession

This post is coming late in the week because this week marked the first two stops on the Ethics Roadshow for 2018.  (If you are in or near Memphis and Nashville you can still register to come attend next week’s stops and hear about a potential recipe for ethical lawyering involving the 5 Cs of Competence, Communication, Candor, Confidentiality and Conflicts.)

This year’s Roadshow doesn’t focus much on threats to the legal profession from developing technologies and outside providers of legal services nearly in the way that last year’s Roadshow did, but today I want to discuss a slightly different kind of threat to the legal profession – threats made my members of our profession.

I’ve written in the recent past about the generalized problems of anger and violence given that we are living in angry times but two recent things I came across (one a full blown story and the other a Twitter thread) lead me to think that a bit of attention should be paid again to threats of violence particularly where the people engaged in the threatening conduct are attorneys.

The ABA Journal, working from a Louisville Courier Journal story, highlighted right at the end of November an arrest of a Kentucky criminal defense lawyer.  The lawyer who, it will come as no surprise, is male was arrested and charged with, among other things, terroristic threatening.  Perhaps in an effort to just let some irony simmer, the news articles point out that one of the lawyer’s own clients was convicted of terroristic threatening earlier in the same month.  The subject of his allegedly terroristic threats were two lawyers involved in the handling of his own child custody case – one was opposing counsel and the other had been appointed by a court to be the guardian ad litem.

The ABA Journal piece highlights the nature of the threats — which ranged from some aggressive voicemail messages to much more tangible examples of actually communicating to third parties an intention to kill the lawyers involved.  The article also discusses other recent problems the lawyer has been going through related to those proceedings and published reports of a positive drug test for meth.  Even though the lawyer’s conduct doesn’t involve representation of a client, this Kentucky lawyer will likely be at real risk of discipline (in addition to having to deal with the criminal law issues) under a variety of parts of RPC 8.4.

I also managed to stumble onto a thread involving similarly unprofessional and threatening behavior by a lawyer on Twitter.  You can peruse the thread here if you’d like to read it yourself.  It involves someone who appears to be a Texas lawyer and who, if the fact that he was willing to be a lawyer for (and apparently member of) The Proud Boys (a white supremacist group) in the past wasn’t already a pretty good indication of what kind of fellow he might be, decided to make his feelings plain by going on the attack against a journalist employing a homophobic epithet and a threat of violence sent by email.

As seems like a fairly good option, both for purposes of self-protection and as a way of possible shaming the lawyer involved, the reporter posted a screen shot of the email on Twitter.  The email the reporter received read as follows:

Now that I am no longer part of the Proud Boys and no longer representing them.  I want to let you know that you are a despicable and evil human being.  It is my hope that your duties as a HuffPo reporter bring you to the metroplex this holiday season so that I can give you the gift of a left hook.

Kiss my ass, faggot.

For what it is worth, this particular reporter has been focusing a good bit of time on trying, through reporting, to highlight the problem our country has involving the rise of violent extremists.  It appears that shedding some light on this particular lawyer only shows how deep some of those problems go.

Reading these kinds of exchanges also makes me continue to think through questions in my own head – written about in the past — about whether the willingness to be openly racist should simply be disqualifying for lawyers from a character and fitness standpoint.

(P.S. The Twitter thread itself tries to bring this conduct to the attention of Texas disciplinary authorities so it will be interesting to see what comes about.  With a little digging, this lawyer appears to have retired his Texas license but also appears to be licensed in Colorado, D.C., and Georgia and appears to have a clean disciplinary record in each of those states.)

(P.P.S. An entirely different reporter received death threats from the same Texas lawyer and also created a thread on Twitter about those exchanges as well.)

(P.P.P. S. BlacKkKlansman is a movie all should see, is germane to the above discussion of the problems of white supremacists in our nation, and I’m thrilled that it is getting some rightly deserved nominations.

Asking for a conflict waiver is a step that is hard to take back.

Look, I understand too little too late
I realize there are things you say and do
You can never take back
But what would you be if you didn’t even try
You have to try
So after a lot of thought
I’d like to reconsider
Please
If it’s not too late
Make it a cheeseburger

– Lyle Lovett

Working though questions of conflicts of interest can certainly be challenging for lawyers.  The initial phases of figuring out whether a conflict exists are highly important.

From a loss prevention standpoint, you want to get it right as you certainly do not want to take something on that you shouldn’t because you had a conflict that you simply couldn’t even ask to be waived or for which you strongly suspected you’d never be able to get a waiver from those from whom a waiver would be needed.

It is also important to get right, however, so that you don’t treat something as a conflict that isn’t a conflict.  Once you start down the path of asking someone for a conflict waiver, you empower them to tell you “no” and you potentially reduce your choices about what to do in such event pretty severely.  It is not impossible to change course after unsuccessfully asking for a conflict waiver and begin to claim that the waiver wasn’t needed in the first place.  But it is certainly difficult.  Thus, it isn’t just the case that you don’t want to treat something as a conflict that isn’t a conflict; you also might want to think long and hard about treating something as a conflict if you intend to contend it isn’t a conflict.

An interesting story touching on just how difficult unwinding such a situation can be was written about by The American Lawyer earlier this week.  It involves an effort – seldom used (for reasons that ought to be a bit obvious) — to file a separate lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that something was not a conflict in the first place and an injunction to allow the lawyer to start working for a new firm.

You can read the full article here, but the short version is this: a Houston lawyer who was looking to change firms has been unable to do so because a corporate entity much in the news of late – USA Gymnastics — refused to provide a conflict waiver requested by the lawyer.  USA Gymnastics is a client of the lawyer’s former firm.  The firm to which the lawyer had hoped to move currently represents a number of individuals who have sued USA Gymnastics over the sordid situation involving Larry Nassar.

Typically, conflicts of interest get litigated through motions to disqualify.  Although firms and clients do not like to have to deal with those for obvious reasons, at least in those proceedings the firms and clients have the ability to argue that the party moving for disqualification has the burden of proof.  Even that procedural tool can be lost when the lawyer or firm is the one bringing the action to ask a court for a ruling that they have no conflict.

A quote from the story itself taken from the managing partner of the firm to which the lawyer wanted to go to work provides a helpful bit of transition:

The law as we understand it is that if a person worked at a law firm and doesn’t work on a case, and goes to work for another law firm that has that case and [the lawyer] is shielded from the case … there’s no conflict.

Now, if this were being governed by Tennessee law, I could readily delve into whether that statement would be correct or incorrect assertion of the state of play here, but these are events that involve other states and different rules.

But, to repeat the larger point, if that is what the relevant law or rules set out, then the lawyer and his new firm should never have sought the waiver in the first place.

Litigating your own work product – a tricky (at best) topic.

So, first things first, I am thoroughly surprised and incredibly honored to have made it into the ABA Journal’s 2018 Web 100.  If you are here for the first time because this happened, thanks for reading and feel free to look around as there is 3+ years of content you can read while you are on hold with customer support.  If you are a long-time reader here out of habit, I cherish you and you can rest easy knowing that you are still going to receive the same not-exactly-regularly-scheduled-mostly-maybe-twice-a-week-but-sometimes-only-once-a-week content you have come to expect.

Second things second:  I truly and profoundly recognize the irony that this post leads off crowing about the Web 100 honor after literally just talking about how lawyers shouldn’t blow their own horn online six days ago.  But I’m going to just blow past that irony and move on to today’s offering which comes up more than you might imagine in real-world consultations and that is on the radar screen for today because of two recent developments — a recent ethics opinion from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and an order denying disqualification out of a Pittsburgh federal court.  If you are a Law360 subscriber you can read some about the Pennsylvania decision and even download the order now here.

Both the ethics opinion and the Pennsylvania decision grapple with what Bill Freivogel refers to on his site as the “Underlying Work” Problem. Bill has written a very good overview at that link of the problem for law firms when they decide to take on the litigation of a matter where its earlier work for the client involved will be at issue and, if history is any guide, will likely have a good summary of that case up relatively soon.

The short version of the order denying disqualification goes like this:  A visiting senior district judge denied a motion to disqualify the lawyer representing a company sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The nature of the claim is that the employee was wrongfully denied extra breaks to deal with her anxiety issues.  The genesis of the disqualification dispute was that the lawyer in question was also the lawyer who gave the company the legal advice that it could deny the employee’s request for this accommodation.

The longer version of understanding how that might not be the outcome you’d expect is best laid out by discussing the recent, really-good, Texas opinion.

In Opinion 682, the Texas Committee explains how its version of the “advocate-witness” rule works under these facts:

A Texas lawyer assisted a client in drafting and negotiating a contract with another party represented by separate counsel.  A lawsuit arose concerning the meaning of certain provisions in the contract.  The lawyer drafted and negotiated those provisions.  The lawyer’s client wants the lawyer and a trial lawyer in the same firm to represent her in the lawsuit.  Both lawyers are attempting to ascertain whether they may do so, and if so, under what conditions, if any.

The opinion does a nice job of explaining the different analysis required for the individual attorney at the firm versus other attorneys at the same firm who were not actually involved in doing the underlying work.  The fundamental difference if it has to be cliff-noted is simply that the confusion involved in the dual role of witness and advocate is severely obviated when a different lawyer is doing the advocating.  The opinion also does a decent job of emphasizing a point that judges sometimes overlook when ruling on disqualification motions — that the disqualification for the witness-lawyer generally does not actually come into play until the trial – not during discovery or even pre-trial motion practice, just at the trial.

As Texas lawyers know, the numbering of the Texas ethics rules is a bit off from the ABA Model Rules even where the substance may be roughly the same.  So, while lawyers normally think of the ethics rule addressing lawyers as witnesses as being Rule 3.7, in Texas it is housed in Rule 3.08.  Although I think the Texas opinion provides the structural narrative for getting to the correct analysis even under the language of Model Rule 3.7, I think it is worth highlighting two pieces of Texas Rule 3.08 that likely are a real improvement on the Model Rule.

First, the rule includes an exception that seems obviously correct but is not actually addressed in the text of the Model Rule.  Texas’s rule makes plain that if the lawyer happens to be a party to the lawsuit and acting pro se, then the prohibition does not arise.  (I have a long history of trying [both for altruistic and pecuniary reasons]to discourage lawyers from acting pro se but it still happens and opposing counsel should not be able to try to use Model Rule 3.7 as a cudgel in such situations.)

Second, and more universally important, the Texas rule goes further in terms of requiring disclosure in two respects that I think are positive.  Like the Model Rule, the Texas rule acknowledges that “substantial hardship” for the client involved can provide an exception to the lawyer’s disqualification if they also have to be a witness.  Unlike the Model Rule, the Texas rule requires the lawyer who will be traveling under that exception to “promptly notif[y] opposing counsel that the lawyer expects to testify in the matter and disqualification of the lawyer would work substantial hardship on the client.”  The Texas rule also requires more disclosure to the client when the lawyer’s firm intends to handle the case by taking advantage of imputation of the witness-lawyer’s conflict not working its way to other lawyers at the firm by explicitly conditioning the ability to have some other lawyer at the firm handle upon “the client’s informed consent.”  I think that is a vital piece of the puzzle from a loss prevention standpoint for any firm in such a situation as fully discussing with the client on the front end what the plan is and the risk associated with additional expense in the form of motions to disqualify goes a long way to avoiding grief.

 

 

 

Nevada provides lawyers yet another reason not to blow their own horn online.

I have beaten the drum for many, many years now about lawyers not understanding the true scope of their obligation of confidentiality under rules patterned after ABA Model Rule 1.6.  The ability to quickly share information far and wide online has not been helpful to lawyers who lack that understanding.  I remain astounded at how lawyers do not seem to recognize the unnecessary risk they are taking on by touting achievements in particular cases online.

Now, of course, I’m not privy to discussions between those attorneys and their clients in advance of such efforts so, perhaps, everything I see is kosher because every time I see a lawyer engage in such conduct they have gotten their client’s consent to do so in advance.

Based on my experience over the past 20 years though, I’m highly skeptical of that.  What I think is much more likely is that because these sorts of things usually never amount to any disciplinary proceedings much less instances of public discipline, this just continues to be something that many lawyers do either on the basis that the risk is minimal compared to the perceived reward or on the basis that they don’t see any risk at all.

For some lawyers, it is the misunderstanding about how confidentiality functions that can be the problem as they either aren’t aware (or simply don’t care) about the counter-intuitive fact that a public jury verdict is still RPC 1.6 confidential information as far as the lawyer is concerned.  Those transgressions can likely be forgiven by most, if not all, involved.  But, particularly when the self-congratulatory efforts in question go beyond just providing information about a jury verdict and also opt to reveal information about pre-trial settlement negotiations, the egregious nature of the breach of confidentiality is nearly impossible to forgive.  And, thanks to the way the Internet works, it is certainly impossible to forget.

Just this week, I saw one of these posts from lawyers with whom I use to practice law blowing their own horn about a very large jury verdict and revealing what the settlement offer from the defense was before trial.  I hope that they were operating with the consent of their clients or, if they happen to be reading this, that they go and at least get retroactive consent from the client involved which is better than having never gotten consent at all.

As if the risk of discipline (even if perceived to be a small risk) wasn’t enough to discourage lawyers from self-congratulatory social media postings (and if you spend any time on social media you know that it isn’t enough to discourage most), the Nevada Supreme Court provides a new opinion in a piece of defamation litigation that ought to give lawyers another reason to think very, very carefully about blowing their own horn online.

In Patin v. Lee, the Nevada Supreme Court rejected the effort of a lawyer and a law firm to stop a defamation case brought against them by a dentist.  The dentist had been one of the opposing parties of the firm’s client in a dental malpractice case.  The lawyer and law firm tried through exercise of an anti-SLAPP motion to bring the defamation case to a quick end.  They were unsuccessful though as Nevada adopted California’s approach to determining whether something written online can be considered “in direct connection with an issue under consideration by a judicial body.”  If you aren’t familiar with the general concept of anti-SLAPP statutes, then such language is likely meaningless to you.  But, if you read the opinion it will give you a pretty efficient primer on the concept of anti-SLAPP statutes (SLAPP being an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). You can read that opinion right here

From a loss prevention standpoint, let me drill down on what is readily understandable in terms of the problematic conduct by the lawyer and law firm.  The lawyer represented a plaintiff in a dental malpractice lawsuit against three defendants – a dental group and two individual dentists.  The lawyer obtained a $3.4 million verdict in favor of the client against the dental group and one of the two individual dentists.  The jury verdict against the other dentist was one finding no liability.

There was some appellate wrangling in the malpractice case after the jury verdict but because the ultimate outcome on appeal did not change, that wrangling matters much less than what the lawyer and law firm decided to post on their website to tout their success in the case:

DENTAL MALPRACTICE/WRONGFUL DEATH – PLAINTIFF’S VERDICT $3.4M, 2014 Description; Singletary v. Ton Vinh Lee, DDS et al.

A dental malpractice-based wrongful death action that arose out of the death of Decedent Reginald Singletary following the extraction of the No. 32 wisdom tooth by Defendants on or about April 16, 2011.  Plaintiff sued the dental office, Summerlin Smiles, the owner, Ton Vinh Lee, DDS, and the treating dentists, Florida Traivai, DMD and Jai Park, DDS, on behalf of the Estate, herself and minor son.

The problem with this self-congratulatory post on the firm’s website — separate and apart from the normal questions that might be asked about whether the clients were consulted and consented before the post was made — is that it doesn’t mention that Dr. Lee — the person named in the caption headline and in the body of the update — was the individual dentist found by the jury to have no liability.  That dentist, in turn, is who sued the lawyer and law firm for defamation because a reader of the post in question would reasonably think that Dr. Lee had been on the wrong end of a $3.4 million jury verdict.

Those that know me know that I am not much for dropping Bible quotes but, even I have to say that this would be a pretty good place to drop Proverbs 27:2 – “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth….”

Friday Follow-Up: Florida Finds Facebook Friendship Fine

You’ve probably heard this news by now.  But, it’s Friday and I wrote about this before, so … I feel a sense of obligation to follow-up.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the fact that a judge is Facebook friends with a lawyer appearing before her in a litigated matter is not alone sufficient to justify disqualification of the judge.  You can read lots of good articles providing summary treatment of this decision.  I’d recommend this one from the folks at Bloomberg/BNA.

The majority certainly got to what I strongly believe is the right result.  And, the core of the correctness of that result lies in these six sentences which I have admittedly spliced together from different parts of the majority opinion:

[T]he mere existence of a friendship between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship. No reasonably prudent person would fear that she could not receive a fair and impartial trial based solely on the fact that a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge are friends of an indeterminate nature. Facebook “friendship” is not—as a categorical matter—the functional equivalent of traditional “friendship.” The establishment of a Facebook “friendship” does not objectively signal the existence of the affection and esteem involved in a traditional “friendship.”  Therefore, the mere existence of a Facebook “friendship” between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship.

I’m writing today about this more to make three points that I feel like have to be said out loud.

  1.  I can’t believe it was a 4-3 decision and that three justices of the Florida Supreme Court were willing to sign their names to the following position:  “The bottom line is that because of their indeterminate nature and the real possibility of impropriety, social media friendships between judges and lawyers who appear in the judge’s courtroom should not be permitted.”
  2. I’m even a bit more amazed that the concurring opinion (“I concur with the majority opinion. However, I write to strongly urge judges
    not to participate in Facebook.”) demonstrates a majority of the Court (4 justices) believes that judges simply shouldn’t be on Facebook at all.  There are legitimate reasons why maybe all of us should delete Facebook, but the reasons espoused by the dissent and concurrence aren’t among them.
  3. If you are in a band and aren’t actively considering naming it, or changing its existing name to,”Friends of an Indeterminate Nature,” then I don’t really think I can ever understand you.

New Jersey takes a step in the right direction on advertising

With a strong tip of the metaphorical hat I never wear to Kim Ringler (a former President of APRL) who alerted many ethics lawyers to the news, I write today about a new ethics opinion from the New Jersey Committee on Attorney Advertising.

In Opinion 45, issued less than a week ago, New Jersey has softened their harsh position on whether a lawyer can hold themselves out as having “expertise” or being a “specialist” or “specializing” in an area of the law.  New Jersey’s new opinion is candid about how developments in other states involving First Amendment challenges to advertising restrictions have resulted in its new stance.  It is also fairly decent in terms of the commonsense nature of the analysis it provides.

The opinion explains that it has been prompted by a grievance filed about a law firm’s website in which the statement is made that the lawyers have “expertise” in tax law.  (I’m willing to bet the shiniest of quarters that the grievance was filed by a lawyer and not a consumer.)  The opinion provides a bit of insight into the firm and its main lawyer:

The firm concentrates its practice in tax law.  The firm’s principal lawyer has an L.L.M. in tax, is the author of numerous publications on tax law, lectures on tax law, served as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service, and has been practicing tax law for more than 30 years.

The opinion explains that New Jersey had previously imposed severe restrictions on the use of such terms unless a lawyer had been certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court or by an ABA-approved organization.  (My own state has a somewhat similar black-letter rule in RPC 7.4 [though it does not seek to regulate the term “expert” or “expertise” and it only relies upon ABA-accredited groups.)

But, going forward… well … I’ll just let New Jersey speak for itself:

After revisiting the issue in light of recent out-of-state First Amendment decisions in attorney advertising, the Committee has now determined that lawyers may use the terms “expertise,” “specialize,” and “specialist” in advertising provided the terms are accurate and the lawyers can demonstrate the necessary education, training, and experience to substantiate the claim.

So, kudos where kudos are due, but the reason I say “a step” in the right direction rather than any sort of “leap” is that New Jersey couldn’t quite bring itself to commit fully to the common-sense outcome on this topic because it still is clinging to its prohibition on the use of the word “expert.”  It does so by ending its opinion with the following sentence:

Only lawyers who are certified by the Supreme Court or an organization approved by the American Bar Association may call themselves “experts.”

 

One thing that lawyers and judges have in common.

People often think of lawyers and judges differently.  And, to a large extent, they should.  In almost every situation, someone cannot become a judge without having been a lawyer first.  But once a lawyer transforms into a judge, their role in the judicial system becomes radically different and they now have a new set of ethics rules to which they have to comply.

Yet, lawyers who become judges are still human beings and lawyers who become judges can be plagued by some of the same flawed aspects of being human as lawyers who never become judges.

This post for your Friday wants to offer up 4 very recent examples – 2 involving lawyers and 2 involving judges – of human beings all demonstrating the same variation of a common flaw:  Not knowing when to simply not say stupid things out loud (or in digital format).

On back-to-back days earlier this week, The ABA Journal online had stories about two different lawyers (who likely would have hit it off if they knew each other) getting in trouble for communications to or about clients that were roughly equally ill-advised although they involved the use of two different means of electronic communication.

The first was a New Jersey lawyer who has now been publicly censured over a text communication to a criminal defense client.  The client in question had ceased paying the lawyer and the lawyer had tried on two occasions to be granted leave to withdraw but was unsuccessful as the court denied the withdrawal motions.  Despite being stuck with having to pursue the representation (or perhaps because of it), the lawyer sent a text to his client that the ABA Journal described as follows:

In a text, Terry told the client he wouldn’t prepare in the weekend before the trial without getting paid first. Then he wrote, in all capital letters: “HAVE FUN IN PRISON.”

That text ultimately did manage to get the lawyer out of the case as the client showed it to the judge and the judge then removed the lawyer as counsel.  But it also resulted in the public censure.  At core, the ethics rule the lawyer was deemed to have violated was a conflict of interest rule by placing his own personal interest in getting paid ahead of his obligation to diligently represent the client.

The second was an Iowa lawyer who allowed himself to get too worked up on Facebook — enough to publicly disparage a client.  While, as things currently stand, the lawyer has only been the subject of negative publicity, it remains a real possibility that a disciplinary proceeding could be part of the lawyer’s future.  The ABA Journal treatment of the core of what happened is pretty succinct so I’ll just offer it up for your reading:

In the post, Frese told of a meeting to help prepare a client for trial on federal drug and gun charges. The client told Frese he would have a hard time connecting with blue-collar jurors because he hadn’t “had to work for anything in your life.”

Frese wrote that he was “flabbergasted” by the comment because anyone who knows him is aware of his modest background. Frese wrote that the man is an “idiot and a terrible criminal.”

“He needed to shut his mouth because he was the dumbest person in the conversation by 100 times,” Frese wrote. “You wonder why we need jails huh?”

The lawyer deleted the post in question after he was contacted by the Associated Press about it.  The article points out that the AP was able to piece together from what was written exactly who the lawyer was talking about even though the lawyer didn’t use the name of the client in the post.  The Iowa lawyer’s story highlights one of many reasons why lawyers shouldn’t be writing about their client’s matters without express and clear consent from their client.  Of course, technically, the lawyer made the situation even worse by what it is reported that he said to the AP when contacted:

Frese told AP that he told the client he was in jail because he was terrible at what he did, and they left the meeting on good terms. He didn’t immediately respond to a voicemail from the ABA Journal seeking comment.

On the judicial front, Law360 had two examples reported on the same day of judges demonstrating problems with communications as well.  One of the judges in question also hails from New Jersey.  That judge, as Law360 explained, was censured for inappropriately making certain when communicating to court staff about his own personal child support case to emphasize his status as a judge.  This came across as an obvious attempt to use his judicial office to achieve special treatment.  The other judge highlighted in Law360 this week ended up later engaging in actual conduct that was much worse than the original communications but still also managed to allow the ready access of text messaging to start him down the bad path.  As with most Law360 articles, you will need a subscription to read the full article, but you can get a strong sense of the Jeopardy category of wrongdoing from the opening blurb which explains the circumstances for which he was now offering an apology to a state ethics body in an attempt to avoid discipline:

An ex-Pennsylvania judge facing discipline for exchanging sexually explicit text messages and eventually sleeping with the girlfriend of a man participating in a court-mandated rehab program he oversaw ….

These are, unfortunately, not earth-shattering examples of “new” problems in the human condition.  They do though tend to highlight how much easier modern technology makes it for well-educated professionals to somehow make really poor judgment calls when technology makes it easy to do so and to do so rapidly.

 

The intersection of the ethics rules and the GDPR “right to be forgotten”

Although today is Halloween in my part of the world, I am not offering any spooky content.  I thought about trying to replace all mentions of Maryland in this post with Scaryland, but that just seemed like I was trying too hard.

In fact, I’m a bit torn about even writing about this particular topic because I’m really of two minds in all respects about what to say about Maryland becoming the first U.S. jurisdiction to issue an ethics opinion attempting to wrestle with any aspect of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”).

On the one hand, it seems like Maryland ought to be applauded for trying to be on the leading edge of issues of concern and many lawyers (and their firms) are struggling with exactly what GDPR might require of them.

On the other hand, the core premise of the inquiry being addressed involves an assumption about a legal question — not an ethics issue — and is the kind of thing ethics-opinion-writing bodies likely ought to stay away from.

Lots of commentators will give ethics-opinion-writing bodies grief for not, for example, striving to apply Constitutional issues when issuing opinions about the ethics rules.  I’ve probably done that myself in the past.  But, on the whole, more trouble for lawyers can likely come from ethics opinions straying outside the lines and getting a legal issue altogether wrong.

That might or might not have been how it would have shaken out if the Maryland State Bar Association Committee on Ethics had fully committed to trying to figure out whether the premise of the question posed to it in Opinion No. 2018-06 was even how the GDPR would work in the circumstances.

Instead, the committee flagged for the reader the possibility that the GDPR would not require the lawyer to respect the request to be forgotten at all but offered up what is, on the whole, pretty sound guidance that lawyers can bear in mind as to this and similar questions as other jurisdictions start adopting new privacy laws and regulations that may hit closer to home than the GDPR.

The question posed relied on the premise that a former client, if a citizen of the EU, could exercise the “right to be forgotten” by demanding the lawyer delete data about the person and, thereby, cause the lawyer to delete information that would otherwise protect the lawyer in terms of conflict checking in the future to avoid taking on a new client or matter that would involve an unethical conflict of interest as to the former client representation.

The core of the guidance ultimately given – again explicitly premised on assuming that it might ever be necessary – is this:

If a former client asks an attorney to delete the information needed to manage conflicts of interest, and the GDPR requires the attorney do so, we believe that the client’s request can act as a waiver of conflicts that could have been discovered had the data been retained if: (1) the firm provides written advice to the former client that fully informs the former client that deleting the information could result in a conflict and that by requiring such deletion the client consents to the firm’s potential future representation of other clients with conflicts that might have otherwise have been discovered, and (2) none of the attorneys who handle the matter for the firm have any retained knowledge of the former client’s information.

That’s pretty good guidance, actually.

It probably would have been better though if they hadn’t imposed quite so large a burden of communication and advice to the firm in response to the former client.  I think that simply saying that any such request from a former client can be treated by the firm as equivalent to a waiver on the basis that a former client cannot demand that s/he be forgotten and then try to later claim the “forgotten” relationship presents a conflict.

You can read the full Maryland opinion here.

And, if you are interested in more opportunities to hear me try to talk intelligently about what the GDPR does actually mean for U.S. lawyers, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. on November 9 as part of a joint program presented by APRL and the Law Society of England and Wales.  If you’re interested, you can register at this link.

ABA Confirms that Model Rule 1.15 Should Solve What Model Rule 4.4 Doesn’t

So, I am certain you have heard by now that a little under a week ago the ABA issued a new Formal Ethics Opinion to address the ethical obligations of lawyers in the aftermath of a cyber-attack or an electronic data breach.  ABA Opinion 483 makes for a good read and provides good guidance about how the ethics rules work on the subject.

There are lots of decent summaries out there already of this ethics opinion if you want to try the tl:dr approach and just read secondary sources.  I am not going to repeat those summaries here.  Instead, I want to focus on what is, to me and perhaps only me, the most important development that ought to come from this opinion — the recognition by the ABA that “property” in Model Rule 1.15 has to also include digital property.

In the latest ABA Opinion, this issue is addressed with an eye toward thinking about electronic copies of client files, specifically as follows:

An open question exists whether Model Rule 1.15’s reference to “property” includes information stored in electronic form.  Comment [1] uses as examples “securities” and “property” that should be kept separate from the lawyer’s “business and personal property.”  That language suggests Rule 1.15 is limited to tangible property which can be physically segregated.  On the other hand, many courts have moved to electronic filing and law firms routinely use email and electronic document formats to image or transfer information.  Reading Rule 1.15’s safeguarding obligation to apply to hard copy client files but not electronic client files is not a reasonable reading of the Rule.

Now, why is this such an important takeaway to me?  Well, myopia often flows from the egocentric nature of people and I am no exception.  This is an important takeaway to me because I’ve been trying to make this point in an entirely different context – and to little avail — since 2010 when I co-authored an article entitled: “Model Rule 1.15: The Elegant Solution to the Problem of Purloined Documents” published in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct.  Now that article – which you can still find here — was itself an excerpt of part of a chapter of a book I was also fortunate enough to co-author with Doug Richmond that came out in 2011.  The “Elegant Solution” article explained that the lack of guidance offered by Model Rule 4.4(b) on what a lawyer must do if they receive stolen documents (whether on paper or electronically) should be resolved by application of Model Rule 1.15 and the obligations lawyers have under subsections (d) and (e) of that rule.

There are likely lots of reasons why that article has been largely ignored – and when not ignored treated as offering a controversial view to be shunned — but the primary one is that Model Rule 4.4(b) becomes a bit unnecessary as a rule if such questions could have been resolved under Model Rule 1.15.

Model Rule 4.4(b) reads:

A lawyer who receives a document or electronically stored information relating to the representation of the lawyer’s client and knows or reasonably should know that the document or electronically stored information was inadvertently sent shall promptly notify the sender.

Model Rule 4.4(b) only addresses information that a lawyer receives that is known to have been inadvertently sent and only requires the receiving lawyer to give notice to the sending lawyer of what has happened.  It does not address information sent purposely but without authorization, and it punts on what comes next.

In the “Elegant Solution” article, we explained why Rule 1.15 provided answers to the questions Model Rule 4.4(b) won’t address and, particularly in light of this latest ethics opinion recognizing the need for Model Rule 1.15 to apply to digital information, I think our explanation is worth repeating to close out this post:

The Model Rules do, in fact, appear to offer an elegant answer for lawyers who question
their professional responsibilities when they receive documents that may have been purloined or otherwise improperly obtained from another. The answer lies in Model Rule 1.15 and its provisions establishing lawyers’ obligations with respect to ‘‘safekeeping property.’’ See Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 1.15 (2010).  Although lawyers are generally familiar with Rule 1.15 in the trust account context, the scope of the rule is clearly not so limited, as amply evidenced by its repeated references not just to funds or fees or expenses, but also to ‘‘property.’’

Model Rule 1.15(a) declares that ‘‘[a] lawyer shall hold property of clients or third persons that is in the lawyer’s possession in connection with a representation separate from the lawyer’s own property.’’ Id. R. 1.15(a) (emphasis added). Model Rule 1.15(d) further requires that ‘‘[u]pon receiving funds or other property in which a client or third person has an interest, a lawyer shall promptly notify the client or third person.’’ Id. R. 1.15(d) (emphasis added). Finally, Model Rule 1.15(e) mandates that ‘‘[w]hen in the course of the representation
a lawyer is in possession of property in which two or more persons (one of whom may be the lawyer)
claim interests, the property shall be kept separate by the lawyer until the dispute is resolved.’’ Id. R. 1.15(e) (emphasis added).

Analysis of over-the-transom deliveries through the lens of Rule 1.15 establishes that a lawyer, upon receiving purloined documents (or if not clearly purloined at least clearly reflecting privileged or confidential information belonging to someone other than the person who delivered the documents), is obligated to hold those documents separate from the rest of the lawyer’s documents, promptly notify the person from whom the documents were taken, and, if the lawyer is going to refuse to return the documents to that person (and thereby claim either that the lawyer or the lawyer’s client has an interest in them), continue to keep those documents segregated from the rest of the lawyer’s property until the dispute over the documents is resolved,
presumably through a ruling by a tribunal. This approach places no meaningful burden on the receiving lawyer and respects the rights of the party to whom the materials belong.

Friday Follow Up: Ohio Gets to the Right Outcome on UPL

Almost exactly three months ago, I wrote about what I considered to be a very disturbing ruling in a lawyer admissions case in Ohio.  If you missed that post, you can read it here.

I’m pleased to write, in follow-up today, that the Ohio Supreme Court has ultimately gotten to the correct outcome – it has rejected the findings below that the applicant was engaged in UPL while working on Kentucky matters for Kentucky clients in an Ohio office while awaiting action on her application for admission in Ohio.  As a result, it has finally cleared her to be admitted to practice in Ohio after multiple years of waiting after transferring from a Kentucky office of her law firm employer to an Ohio office of that same firm.

The majority opinion does a workperson-like job at justifying that outcome by stretching the meaning of the word “temporary” to its furthest defensible point — anything that is not permanent.  But, as the fascinating-and-much-more-important-to-the-future-of-our-profession concurring opinion explains: the majority opinion did so at the cost of mostly ignoring other text of the rules – particularly the text of the relevant rule that limits when a lawyer can provide services “through an office.”

The concurring opinion deserves your attention and a full read.  It is my strong hope that the rationale and logic expressed in the concurring opinion is the rationale and logic which will be embraced moving forward by all courts and other bodies dealing with this issue.  If RPC 5.5 could be used to determine that a lawyer “working remotely” is engaged in UPL, then RPC 5.5 applied in that fashion is simply, but plainly, unconstitutional.

The core of the concurring opinion’s analysis is a strong and smart understanding of what such a rule is truly saying:

But when applied to a lawyer who is not practicing Ohio law or appearing in Ohio courts, [RPC] 5.5(b) serves no state interest. Plainly, as applied to such a lawyer, the rule does not further the state’s interest in protecting the integrity of our court system. Jones, and others like her, are not practicing in Ohio courts.

Nor does application of the rule to such lawyers serve the state’s interest in protecting the Ohio public. Jones and others in her situation are not providing services to or holding themselves out as lawyers to the Ohio public.  Jones’s conduct as a lawyer is regulated by the state of Kentucky—the state in
whose forums she appears.

The problem is that unless a specific exception applies, [RPC] 5.5(b)(1) holds one to be engaged in the “unauthorized practice of law” and subject to legal sanction therefor simply because one has established an office or a systematic and continuous presence in the state. The rule deems such a
lawyer to have engaged in the unauthorized practice of law regardless of whether her practice touches on the Ohio public or Ohio courts. In an earlier age, perhaps such a rule made sense. Before the advent of the Internet, electronic communication, and the like, a lawyer who worked in Ohio was almost always
practicing Ohio law. But today that is hardly the case. Any number of lawyers, for any number of reasons, may choose to do their work from Ohio. Yet that does not give Ohio a right to prohibit their conduct.

Indeed, imagine what would happen if the rule were strictly enforced. Are we to ban lawyers from setting up a secondary office inside their homes so that they can access their files remotely simply because their homes happen to be in Ohio and their practices in another state? What about a New York attorney who maintains an Ohio vacation home on Lake Erie and is there for several months of the year? Certainly such an attorney has a continuous and systematic
presence in Ohio, but are we really going to say that she has engaged in the unauthorized practice of law because she does New York legal work at her vacation home?

I would conclude that as applied to an out-of-state attorney who is not practicing in Ohio courts or providing Ohio legal services, [RPC] 5.5(b)(1) violates Article I, Section 1 of the Ohio Constitution and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.