The thing about the re-regulation of the practice of law …

. . . is it really could go either way. It could make things better or it could make things worse. It truly depends on who ends up doing the re-regulation and what motivates them along the way.

What is prompting the need to say this sentiment out loud today exactly? Well, cynical types might say it is because there are these two things I want to write about and maybe it is the only thing they have in common. Less cynical types might say … well pretty much the same thing.

It also might come from the general feeling, shared by lots of folks out there I believe, that so many things in life sit on a knife’s edge at the moment and, depending on lots of variables, could pivot in one direction and start to get better or another direction and get even worse.

Recently, we revisited the state of things on the general topic of re-regulation to note that the Utah Supreme Court actually pulled the trigger on creating their regulatory sandbox to allow lawyers and others to collaborate more closely in the delivery of legal services. Frequent readers of this space will know that, in the past, posts about the happenings in Utah have always been in close proximity to the happenings in Arizona and will not be surprised to know it has happened again.

The Arizona Supreme Court has once again jumped ahead of Utah’s trailblazing by simply eradicating RPC 5.4 altogether (as well as eradicating any restrictions on solicitation by lawyers in the advertising rules) effective January 1, 2021. No sandbox or limited experiment, just full steam ahead.

My initial belief (which will also come as no surprise to readers) is that this is and will be a good thing for consumers of legal services. But there is no guarantee that it will be. Much will depend on who takes advantage of the changes. If Arizona sees an influx of interest by investors into lawyers and law firms that represent consumers, then the needle will almost undoubtedly move in the direction of greater access to both information about the availability of legal services and access to meaningful justice. If Arizona instead sees growth mainly in the delivery of business services or expansion by large accounting and consulting firms into the practice of law and outside investment in lawyers and law firms that defend wealthy clients, then things could actually get worse in terms of the balance between the haves and the have-nots.

The battle for the re-regulation of the practice of law, however, will not be fought only in changes to ethics rules that govern those who actually already have become lawyers. It will also be fought over how those who wish to become lawyers are evaluated before being admitted to practice. In terms of evaluation, I do mean both from an intellectual preparedness standpoint but also on the topic of character and fitness to be a lawyer.

As to the first, there are many, many stories to be read on the internet these days about the difficulties facing states all over the country in how to deal with bar examinations for law school graduates as we, as a nation, still struggle with COVID-19. Unfortunately, less than a handful states so far have pivoted to granting diploma privilege to the graduates caught in this professional limbo. Fortunately, only a few states insisted on simply plowing forward with in-person examinations. All of the other states have engaged in experiments in trying to deliver online examinations. The results have been mixed at best. (With luck I will have a bit more to say on this topic later today, but only over on Twitter so hit me up with a follow @bsfaughnan over there.)

As to the second, the process of evaluating the character and fitness of those who aspire to be lawyers is a significantly less-than-perfect process. The fact that the same process is also applied to lawyers who seek additional licenses from other state bars further reveals its flaws. That it is a process that often improperly seeks to force aspiring lawyers to provide information about receiving treatment for mental health unrelated to questionable conduct further invites strong criticism.

This week in an opinion out of federal court in Kentucky a judge managed to simultaneously strongly call out that state’s problematic and invasive approach in a way that is nearly impossible to disagree with on the merits but also to provide evidence that the ABA was correct when it concluded that he was not fit for the federal bench in the first place. The opinion is a particularly bittersweet ride given that, effective today, the judge in question is now being elevated to a set on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. (As to the appellate position, the ABA has concluded that he is qualified.)

If you’d like the short version of the opinion in question, you can check out this ABA Journal online article. A full copy of the opinion, however, can be obtained at the download button below.

In the opinion, the judge absolutely savages how Kentucky treats applicants for licensure and does so in circumstances involving a lawyer who had practiced, without incident, for many years in Florida before seeking to add a Kentucky license to her tool belt. The judge particularly focuses upon the invasive nature of Kentucky’s demands for disclosures about treatment for mental health conditions, demands unbounded by any relationship to any prior inappropriate conduct or any effort by the lawyer-applicant to explain such conduct as being caused by some prior untreated condition.

In the strongest and most emotionally charged language that tends to resonate with those of us who strongly believe that mental health issues in the profession need to be de-stigmatized, the judge closes his opinion out as follows:

Law school is hard. The stress, rigor, and competition can lead to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Many students who start school healthy are far from it by the time they graduate. Some kill themselves.

Aspiring lawyers should seek the health care they need. But if Kentucky continues to punish people who get help, many won’t. And one day, a law student will die after choosing self-help over medical care because he worried a Character and Fitness Committee would use that medical treatment against him — as Kentucky’s did against Jane Doe.

It is not a matter of if, but when.

The entire opinion, in fact, is filled with this kind of simple language that is compelling and easy for lawyers to understand. But 90% of the 18-page opinion is all dicta because the judge actually disposed of the lawsuit filed by the lawyer because they had now finally become a lawyer and no longer had standing to challenge the process they went through when they were an applicant. Only an applicant would have standing to bring the kinds of claims being sought – and, perhaps, not even then because of immunity issues associated with the decision-makers. It could have been a straightforward, nondescript, three- or four-page opinion.

Thus, what the opinion really reads like is an attack on what the judge “tags” as the “Bar Bureaucracy” and drips with the vindictiveness of someone whose credentials were challenged by the largest national association of lawyers in the United States, the ABA.

As someone who believes, on the facts laid out in the opinion, that the Florida lawyer was poorly treated by the Kentucky approach to such issues, reading the opinion is still a highly bittersweet experience. (A bit like watching a shark attack even your worst enemy — something you can’t take any pleasure in because at any point the shark might turn its attention to tearing into you.)

This is particularly true when you bear in mind that this judge – like many that have been installed on the federal courts during the last 4 years and that are career-long members of The Federalist Society — appears to have a very likely overall agenda that is not centered in the kind of empathy that he now expresses over issues of mental health in the legal profession.

Instead, this is a judge whose other prominent decisions during his short-lived tenure include attacking a mayor in Kentucky who was trying to deal with the pandemic as having “criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.” He is also a judge who, if given the opportunity, is likely to vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act and strip healthcare from millions in the middle of a pandemic. He is a judge in a mold of judges who will decry all that they do not like as “judicial activism,” but blithely engage in the kind of judicial activism that involves writing a scolding and self-righteous decision nearly 90% of which was unnecessary as dicta.

If the landscape surrounding entry into the practice of law is shaped and re-regulated by the kinds of judges that have been enshrined into power over this last Presidential term of office, then things might improve for the better or they could very well become much worse.

Gambling with RPC 1.8(a) is always risky.

It is not often that you get decisions out of any of the second highest courts in the land that turn on application of an attorney ethics rule, so it can be important to highlight when such events occur.

Given how many lawyers and law firms overlook the interrelationship between RPC 1.5 and RPC 1.8(a), it is very important to highlight the Fifth Circuit’s ruling last week in Wiener, Weiss & Madison v. Fox. In Fox, the Fifth Circuit ruled that because a contingency fee agreement between the firm and its client violated Louisiana’s version of RPC 1.8(a), it was unenforceable.

The full opinion is a good read for most any lawyer or firm that dabbles in contingency fee work.

For readers here, there is only some bare-bones background necessary to understand what ended up being the court’s straightforward result:

  • The firm’s representation of Fox started on an hourly rate basis in connection with Fox’s ex-husband’s bankruptcy proceedings, but because of tied up assets the firm agreed to seek those fees from the court paid out of the bankruptcy estate
  • The firm actually got paid, on application with the court, an attorney fee in the amount of more than $1 million.
  • There was more work to be done for Fox and the firm did not think the bankruptcy court would ever approve more fees, so the firm proposed a contingency fee agreement with Fox that the firm would get up to a 35% interest in Fox’s claims against the estate or as an equity owner in certain gambling entities tied up in the bankruptcy estate. Fox signed that agreement.
  • The bankruptcy court approved a plan of reorganization and gave Fox 100% interest in a holding company coming out of the estate.
  • Firm then claimed work was done and, if their client wanted them to continue, the client would have to sign a new contingency agreement that upped the percentage to 40%. Fox signed that agreement as well.
  • A few years later, the firm decided it thought the existing agreement was “unwieldy” and asked Fox to execute a new one. This time, for the first time, the firm advised Fox to seek independent counsel about whether to enter into the agreement.
  • She did, the independent counsel advised she shouldn’t sign, apparently also advised her that the earlier agreements were in violation of the rules, and the firm eventually sued Fox for breach of contract.

The Fifth Circuit, joined the analysis of a number of other courts in concluding that the 40% agreement was unenforceable because it provided the firm with a contingent interest in property owned by Fox and was, therefore, a business transaction with a client. Because the firm did not comply with RPC 1.8(a) as to that agreement, it was void.

Interestingly though, the Fifth Circuit should have been able to get to that conclusion without having to focus even one bit on the question of the property interest piece. This is because any renegotiation of a fee agreement with an existing client where the goal of the renegotiation is to improve the financial stake of the lawyer or law firm is a business transaction with a client requiring compliance with RPC 1.8(a).

In Tennessee, we make this clear in a comment to our version of RPC 1.8(a):

[1] …. It also applies when a lawyer seeks to renegotiate the terms of the fee agreement with the client after representation begins in order to reach a new agreement that is more advantageous to the lawyer than the original agreement….

Louisiana famously has adopted the ABA Model Rules but adopted no comments to those rules, The comment language to the ABA Model Rule does not spell out the answer on renegotiation the way that Tennessee’s does so the answer to this question under Louisiana’s rules required focusing on the property interest because the comment to the ABA Model Rules does include a reference to that concept.

The reason it is so important for lawyers to see these situations when they arise for what they are is that evaluation of a contingent attorney fee agreement becomes even more strict under RPC 1.8(a) than it would be under RPC 1.5(c). Not only does there become a hard-and-fast requirement of encouraging the client to seek out independent counsel for advice, but the rule requires that the new terms to be fair and reasonable from the perspective of the client. That sometimes can mean something different than merely being a reasonable contingency fee under RPC 1.5(c) and RPC 1.5(a).

Three developments presented in decreasing order of importance.

Last week, the Utah Supreme Court officially approved the most “radical” change in any state’s ethics rules since DC adopted a limited approval for law firms to have partners who are not lawyers several decades ago.

The Utah Supreme Court announced its adoption of a package of reforms aimed at improving the access to justice gap in Utah as well as improving the availability of access to legal information generally. I’ve written about the Utah proposal in the past, but you can read the press release regarding approval of the reforms issued by the Utah Supreme Court here.

In addition to reforms to the advertising rules, the re-regulation effort revises Utah’s version of RPC 5.4 and 7.2 to allow people who are not lawyers to have ownership interests in law firms, allow lawyers and people who are not lawyers to work together in entities that will provide legal services and allow lawyers to compensate people who are not lawyers for bringing them work. As part and parcel of these efforts, Utah has formed a regulatory “sandbox” where entities can apply to take advantage of these provisions and deliver legal services and through which data can be gathered about the effectiveness of the revisions. The sandbox program will operate initially as a two-year program. You can read more takes online about this development here, here, and here.

Also, just shy of a month ago now, the Chicago Bar Association became the first voluntary bar association to have a task force report that also proposes altering aspects of the legal landscape to address these issues. You can read the full task force report from the Chicago Bar Association here if you’d like. What the Chicago Bar proposes does not go nearly as far as what Utah is undertaking – specifically the Chicago Bar was not willing to take on ownership restrictions — but it does propose significant reforms, including:

  • Removing restrictions on the ability of lawyers to work with intermediaries to deliver legal services
  • Creating a new category of licensed paralegal that could deliver certain limited legal services to consumers
  • Streamlining the Illinois ethics rules related to advertising

Finally (for today), the least important development of the three, but one I shamelessly will still write about… I am honored to report that on Friday of last week I was elected as President-Elect of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers. As a result, I will serve in that capacity from August 2020 to August 2021 and will then become President of APRL for a one-year term commencing in August 2021. I am very much looking forward to being able to serve APRL as the 32nd President in its history as an organization.

Two ethics opinions: one good, one bad, but both reveal systemic problems.

So, New York and Florida. Interestingly, those states have been bookends of our nation’s problems with COVID-19 and with fighting it. New York got hit very badly early, given the concentrated nature of its population centers, but then engaged in a very serious effort of taking the virus very seriously and managed to significantly flatten its curve. Florida’s government ignored and downplayed the situation, and now is experiencing horrible daily numbers and now has overall numbers of cases and deaths that are worse than New York’s. The two states contrasting efforts though still combine to tell a large part of the problem plaguing the United States when it comes to the pandemic — the lack of a coordinated national strategy because we have an incompetent and dysfunctional federal executive.

Two recent developments in ethics opinions from each state also offer contrasting approaches to issuing ethics opinions, contrasting results, and combine to tell part of the larger story of issues plaguing the profession as a whole.

First, let’s start with New York State Bar Association Op. 1200 which is good on procedure but bad on outcome. This opinion addresses application of New York’s RPC 5.7 and the combination of legal services and wealth management services. It was issued after what would appear to be the traditional, efficient, process of receiving a written request for an opinion, having a committee meet and deliberate, and then issuing a written opinion.

The answer it gives to the question whether the same lawyer can render legal services to a client and, through another entity, provide wealth management services to the same person is baffling. Despite the clear rationale for a why a rule like RPC 5.7 exists and, despite the fact that RPC 1.7 should provide for the ability for a waiver of such a conflict, the answer provided is that the conflict is so severe as to be unwaivable. And the only real explanation that is proffered for why is that the lawyer is simply going to be making too much more money from the provision of the wealth management services than from the provision of legal services. Maddening because of all that implies about not only evaluating the conflict rules but how it can justify other assumptions raising questions about a number of other ethics rules that operate under the assumption that lawyers can do the right thing in terms of representing their clients ethically even when it is in conflict with their own financial interests.

Next comes Florida where there exists a proposed ethics opinion waiting on action by the Florida Supreme Court. Technically, it isn’t an ethics opinion as it comes from the Florida Bar Standing Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, but given the relationship to RPC 5.5, that’s a bit of a tomato/tomahto situation.

Now, procedurally it is nightmarish. To get to the point of even issuing the opinion, they held what for all intents and purposes looks like the equivalent of a trial. Sworn witnesses and all. Even after that, it still has to be approved by someone else. Substantively, proposed Florida Advisory Op. 2019-4, would be good because it would conclude that a New Jersey-licensed lawyer who had retired from his job, moved to Florida, and then took a new job for a New Jersey company would not be engaged in UPL if he continued to reside and work in Florida (where he was not licensed) and advised the New Jersey employer about federal law issues.

Now, it is an opinion that shouldn’t be necessary at all for a few reasons, including that if all that is occurring is advising about federal law issues, then Model Rule 5.5(d)’s language should pretty straightforwardly and clearly allow that activity. Unfortunately, Florida curiously does not have that language in its rules and does not appear willing to facially admit the underpinnings of federalism and the Supremacy Clause that require that result. And, even if the question had been about general work for the New Jersey company remotely, it shouldn’t take the equivalent of a trial to figure out that the answer should be that no UPL takes place.

This may all have been less clear to the profession before the pandemic, but during (and if we ever get to a point of “post”) the pandemic it should be painfully clear that the physical presence alone of a lawyer in a particular location should not be dispositive of whether UPL is occurring.

For what it is worth, my proposal for a practical solution to the question of UPL in modern practice that would still allow for things that truly should be regulated to be regulated would be as follows:

There should be a uniformly used “totality of the circumstances/most substantial connection”-style test that evaluates:

  1. where the lawyer is located
  2. where the client is located
  3. if there is a contemplated legal proceeding (or other matter involved such as commercial transaction or closing) where that is located or expected to be located; and
  4. what state’s law would govern in such a proceeding (or other matter).

And, unless the majority of those factors involve a state where the lawyer is not licensed then it simply isn’t UPL.

If my math is correct that would mean that as long as any 2 of the factors touched the lawyer’s state of licensure, then the lawyer is free and clear (or stated differently, unless 3 of the 4 involve a state where the lawyer isn’t licensed, then the lawyer is free and clear).

And, there would still have to be a continued exception acknowledged for purely federal law situations.

Opposite ends but still the same spectrum (mostly).

Lawyers can get into significant amounts of ethical trouble over money issues. They can put their licenses at real risk by messing up their trust accounting obligations, they can get in trouble for overbilling clients, and, often, if they end up suing a client for failure to pay bills that are appropriately due, they will get a counterclaim for legal malpractice filed in response.

Over the last week, two items popped up on the radar screen that demonstrate even more ways that lawyers can run afoul of the ethics rules on topics involving money.

The first is a classic example of things that lawyers cannot do – because of the dishonesty involved – even if the end result is that their clients are not actually harmed by what transpired.

This story involves a lawyer in Pennsylvania who has been suspended for four years for making payments from his own personal funds to clients and misleading them about the outcomes of the handling of their matters. As happens pretty frequently, I saw this story thanks to an ABA Journal online article, but here is a link to the full order of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which really comes about by way of a consent agreement for the level of discipline.

Interestingly, as far as these things go, his suspension was made retroactive all the way back to February 25, 2016 when the lawyer was temporarily suspended on an emergency basis over the misconduct. So, by the time the ultimately suspension order was issued, he has already served the full amount of the suspension and can, presumably, seek reinstatement in Pennsylvania.

More interestingly, his downfall came about as a result of falling down, quite literally. He experienced a vasovagal syncope and collapsed in such a way that he broke his face very severely. While hospitalized, others at his firm tried to cover on his matters and learned of what the lawyer had been doing.

As the filings with the Pennsylvania court detail, what he had been doing was paying clients out of pocket on their cases and telling him that these were settlements obtained for them in their cases, when, in reality, he had failed to file their matters. (There were even more clients identified where he was stringing them along about the status but had not yet gotten to the point of paying them.)

There were, as you might expect, lots of other deceptions the lawyer had to engage in to cover up the trail of what he was doing. The filings also lay out that, as often is the case when something like this takes place, the lawyer’s conduct came along despite a clean prior disciplinary history after he began experiencing problems of anxiety and depression. And that aspect of the tale makes it a little easier to attempt to be sympathetic, right up until you focus on the amounts involved.

The amounts involved amounted to in excess of $500,000, including a $424,000 payment to one of the four clients. Yes, you read those numbers right.

If I happened to have a half a million lying around that I could easily part with, I’m pretty confident I would not still be practicing law in the first place.

Shifting to the related topic that is easier to invoke sympathy, one of the things that the ethics rules in nearly every jurisdiction do is bar lawyers from providing funds to clients in order to help those clients meet their day-to-day needs. Instead, the only things that lawyers can do by way of advancing expenses to clients for which no repayment would be required is if the expenses are litigation expenses related to a matter the lawyer is handling for the client.

Last week, in connection with its first ever virtual annual meeting, the ABA House of Delegates was reportedly going to consider a resolution revising Model Rule 1.8(e) to allow for a “humanitarian” exception to this ethical prohibition. A proposal was recently enacted in New York to do likewise. I thought I had read somewhere that the ABA proposal had passed, but I cannot find anywhere online to confirm that. The resolution and report that was to be considered can be obtained from the download button link below.

Historically, the primary concern (as I understand it) that has always driven this prohibition is that, without it, deep pocketed lawyers would be able to obtain business simply by being able to pay clients directly to keep their cases.

Given the continued economic struggles being created as the pandemic rages on, it will be interesting to see what sort of traction, if any, such measures get moving forward.

Three for Thursday?

Can that be a thing?

I’ve fallen down on the job of being a reliable blogger and I’m not sure I’m getting up any time soon.

I think I’ve continued to manage to be a decent lawyer, pretty good expert witness, okay husband, mediocre father, and generally non-evil human being. But I’m failing as a blogger lately.

I have decent intentions. I can’t prove that, but you’ll just have to trust me. But when I try to carve out the time, I stray to the world of constant information of the Internet and wallow in the notion that 150,000 people in the United States have died now and so, so, so very many of them did not have to if we had even halfway decent leadership in our nation. And, it doesn’t look like it is getting better any time soon.

So, here’s three short entries about three topics I’ve written about in the past and that are back in the consciousness of, at least me, but also I think the legal news world.

Remember when, as lawyers in the United States, we were worried about protecting client information in connection with international travel?

Hey, remember when lawyers in the United States could travel internationally?

Yeah, good times.

Well, very briefly to reset the discussion to back in the before-times, things were maybe looking up and it looked like privileged and confidential information possessed by lawyers might be protected in connection with border crossings. Here’s a link to an ABA Journal story that indicates that things may not actually be looking up really at all. At least not as long as the current regime remains in charge.

So, topic the second, states are still trying to figure out how to allow the law school graduates of 2020 to demonstrate that they can be admitted into the practice of law. I wrote some about what Tennessee was going to do, and chided a little bit about how signs were pointing toward trying to go to diploma privilege was probably a better answer. Since then, Tennessee has cancelled its rescheduled in-person bar exam and instead will have an online only exam in October 2020. Better. Still not willing to allow for diploma privilege as the answer though.

On a not unrelated point, Michigan was one of the first states pursuing the online only bar exam option to move forward this week, and it did not go very well. Tech problems. Caused apparently by a DDOS attack. Good thing there is no reason to think those might happen in other states. Oh, also, Indiana has been trying to do one online and announced it will instead have an emailed bar exam.

And, finally, the ABA recently issued a Formal Ethics Opinion designed to try to lay to rest ongoing concerns about what the scope of ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) is and what it does and does not restrict. You might recall 8.4(g) which was adopted almost exactly 4 years ago by the ABA and has been adopted almost nowhere else since. (You might recall it from when I used to write about it Hamilton-style (“non stop“).) It is a good advocacy piece. Probably better than the advocacy pieces that the ABA had available when it first passed the rule. It is not a good ethics opinion exactly though because it doesn’t really do any of the things you would expect an ethics opinion to do. You can read it here.

But, I mean, have you looked at the world around us?

I don’t think a well-reasoned explanation of why states could adopt ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) and not be concerned that they would somehow be restricting cherished liberties is going to gain much traction whether it looks like a traditional ethics opinion or an outright advocacy piece.

So, I mean, why not just try an advocacy piece, I guess?

Sigh.

(P.S. Given that the only prior Taylor Swift album I liked was the one Ryan Adams did as a cover… I never expected I’d be saying how incredibly good a Taylor Swift album is, but here we are. folklore is fantastic. And it isn’t fantastic just because I love The National and Bon Iver. Ms. Swift’s got incredible talent, a very lovely voice, and wrote some really good and poignant lyrics.)

(P.P.S. It is a really good, really good album as is. But I also can totally imagine every single song (except Exile [for obvious reasons]) also being excellent if sung by Matt Berninger. I’m thinking that’s a feature not a bug.)

Ethics opinion about a business conflict goes wrong.

It is very tempting to stay on the topic of bar examinations today, given recent absurdist developments. Arkansas has declared it simply has to have its in-person bar exam in July 2020 because things are likely to get worse as the year goes on. Oklahoma has attempted to reassure everyone about the safety of their in-person planned exam in a message that simultaneously demands that all test takers self-quarantine for 14 days before the exam. Virginia, trying to take the cake apparently, is insisting on a courtroom attire dress code for their in-person exam but is doing away with having to wear a tie as a concession to COVID-19. It is tempting, but it’s all too frustrating, so…

Instead, let’s go back to some of our roots and discuss a recent ethics opinion. It comes out of Ohio and it addresses a conflict issue, but is noteworthy for at least two reasons: (1) it addresses a conflict of interest issue involving representation of a government entity and (2) it sort of addresses something that is more a business conflict issue rather than a true ethical conflict. If you’d rather just read the opinion, you can access it here.

Ohio Board of Professional Conduct Adv. Op. 2020-04 weighs in on whether a firm has a problem representing a group of landowners who are opposing a zoning variance sought by an agency seeking to establish a shelter for domestic violence victims. The agency is not a client of the firm in other matters, but the firm does represent a community mental health board that contracts with the agency. The firm has a one-year contract to perform legal services on an “as needed” basis to the board but has not been asked to do any work related to the zoning variance matter. The firm does know though that the board supports the agency’s effort to obtain the variance and wants the agency to succeed.

Now, most lawyers would hear that scenario and see a likely “business” conflict but no ethical conflict. By business conflict, I simply mean that the firm might not have wanted to take on the landowners because it might displease the institutional client – which might be a better source of ongoing and continued business to the firm.

The Ohio opinion, however, finds a way to treat the situation as an ethical conflict but, at its heart, it does so only by turning the business conflict into a material limitation conflict using the idea of “personal interest” of the lawyer as something that could be expanded to be the firm’s “personal” financial interests.

I am far from convinced that such an analysis actually works.

The opinion spends only a paragraph explaining something that should be obvious – this is not a representation involving direct adversity between firm clients. After that, the opinion lays out its argument for the existence of a “material limitation” problem for the firm. The opinion begins on the right foot by explaining how there does not appear at first to be any conflict because “the law firm’s provision of legal services to the board and its representation of the landowners are wholly separate and unrelated.” The opinion though pivots to a required “closer examination” leading it to the idea that “it would be reasonable to conclude that the board’s overall interest in supporting the agency’s zoning variance may compromise the firm’s
representation of the landowners opposing the variance.”

Delving into more explanation, the opinion speculates that the firm might be limited in pursuing legal alternatives for the landowners because of the overall interests of the other firm client. All of that is well and good, as it is true that sometimes material limitation conflicts require some digging to understand, but the opinion then moves fully into rhetoric that sounds as an analysis of a business conflict.

Specifically, the opinion points to the firm’s “inherent financial interest in maintaining its standing client-lawyer relationship with the board” as one of the factors leading to a conclusion that there is a material limitation conflict requiring waivers from both the landowners and the board in order for the firm to continue both representations.

The opinion further undercuts any claim to be purely addressing an ethical conflict question by explaining that, if the clients won’t provide consent, then the firm only has to withdraw from one of the two engagements. That remedy is most assuredly the stuff of business conflicts. Traditionally, a firm that needs to extract itself from conflicting representations that run afoul of the ethics rules cannot simply drop one of the two clients like a “hot potato,” but have to withdraw from both client representations. There are exceptions, but none of those exceptions are identified in this opinion.

The opinion also suffers from at least one more flaw. Even under its own premise, it does not follow that both the board and the landowners would need to provide consent. The only representation that the opinion discusses as being potentially harmed by the conflict is the representation of the landowners. Thus, the landowners can be said to be the only clients “affected” by the material limitation conflict. Notably, the opinion never actually quotes the language of the rule it is purporting to apply and never reminds the reader that RPC 1.7(b) only requires informed consent from “each affected client.” Thus, as long as the landowners in the zoning variance proceeding were willing to provide informed consent to the firm’s representation despite the fact that the firm’s relationship with the board could limit available options and approaches, then the rule would still be satisfied.

Two for Thursday.

It is Thursday, right?

In a “recent” effort, I mentioned that there were recent developments I was planning to eventually write about. Today presents an effort at checking two of them off the list that have only Tennessee in common. Neither of which likely provides fodder for a full post, so they will be covered together.

The first is a recently enacted revision to Tennessee’s ethics rules regarding money held in trust accounts. Specifically, the Tennessee Supreme Court has adopted a revision to RPC 1.15 regarding trust accounts to impose requirements for dealing with “unidentified funds” held in trust.

As revised, RPC 1.15 now has a new subsection (f):

(f) A lawyer who learns of unidentified funds in an IOLTA account must make periodic
efforts to identify and return the funds to the rightful owner. If after 12 months of the discovery of the unidentified funds the lawyer determines that ascertaining the ownership or securing the return of the funds will not succeed, the lawyer must remit the funds to the Tennessee Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection (TLFCP). No charge of ethical impropriety or other breach of professional conduct shall attend to a lawyer’s exercise of reasonable judgment under this paragraph (f).

A lawyer who either remits funds in error or later ascertains the ownership of remitted funds may make a claim to TLFCP, which after verification of the claim will return the funds to the lawyer.

I personally was opposed to this proposal because in almost all circumstances “unidentified funds” simply shouldn’t exist in a trust account in the first place and, thus, this is one of the very few places in the rules that addresses a situation which can nearly only come to pass because of lawyer misconduct. Although the rule doesn’t define “unidentified funds,” my understanding is that these are different from “unclaimed funds” because the lawyer simply has no idea to whom the funds belong at all. Comment [14] still indicates that as to “abandoned” funds those will likely have to go through the process of escheatment to the State. Thus, other than circumstances in which a lawyer purchases someone else’s law practice and then finds that the underlying records aren’t up to snuff, this rule addresses obligations of a lawyer who has already dropped the ball on a very important duty.

The Tennessee Bar Association publicly signaled support for the proposal, however. The rule revision was not accompanied by any new comment paragraphs, so perhaps a time will come in the future for the Court to give a bit more clarity about how funds might come to be “unidentified” and whether the protection for judgment extends only to whether to send funds to the TCLF or not and not also to judgments about whether funds qualify as “unidentified” or not.

The second development raises a question of judgment as well. If you’ve been following aspects of how the legal profession is trying to cope with the ongoing, and now worsening in the U.S., pandemic, you’ve likely seen a variety of approaches in various states to dealing with graduates of law school and how to provide them with an opportunity to get their law license. Some states have transitioned to having their bar exam online, some states have limited the number of people who can sit for the traditional bar exam in a socially-distanced room (and some of those states have given preference to in-state law school grads), and some states have opted instead to offer diploma privilege rights to law students and allow them to become licensed without having to sit for a bar examination.

To date, my state has gone with an approach that involves limited availability but with a twist. The traditional July bar exam would have limited spaces, but they also determined to hold an extra bar exam later in the fall.

Last month, however, a collection of law school graduates has filed an emergency petition with the Tennessee Supreme Court requesting that the Court take action to allow for diploma privilege in Tennessee because of, and in response to, the pandemic. You can go read the full petition here.

It is hard to try to argue that they don’t have a point.

Edit/update: About an hour after putting this up, the Tennessee Supreme Court posted an order cancelling the July 2020 bar examination in Tennessee. You can go read the order here … it doesn’t sound like the Court is seeing it along these lines … but having to cancel it rather than move it online seems to me to be more support for seriously considering the diploma privilege route.

For Juneteenth.

There have been a lot of developments in legal ethics both nationally and in Tennessee over the last few weeks, and I hope to be catching up on discussing those in posts over the coming weeks.

But not today.

Tennessee like most jurisdictions has a version of RPC 6.1 about pro bono service and calls for an aspirational goal for each lawyer to deliver 50 hours of such service and while those hours are supposed to be primarily directed at actual legal representations, the rule does also address the ability to do so by participating in activities for improving the law, the legal system, or the legal profession.

In a small, personal effort to do a little bit of that today. I want to do two things.

First, with full awareness that it includes within its recitation of shameful events that have been whitewashed from the teaching of history a massacre in my home city of Memphis, I encourage everyone who is reading this to go take 6 minutes to watch this video that has been put together by the Equal Justice Institute in connection with the release of its Reconstruction in America report: https://youtu.be/HRj35PtXnLs

If it moves you to do so, you can, through the www.eji.org website get a copy of the full report to read.

Second, to highlight just one vein of examples of how these problems are still ongoing, it is hard to pay attention these days to all of the important news – as it is constant – but a story that is not yet getting the scrutiny it deserves is that there have now been 6 people of color found dead hanging in trees over the last several weeks in locations spanning from California to Texas to New York to Oregon. Each of these has been initially reported by police to have been suicides.

You can read one of the most recent articles about this here.

I can only speak for myself, but I do not believe at all that any black man, woman, or child in 2020 in the United States who commits suicide would do so by hanging themselves from a tree.

When you look around at what is happening in this moment in history, the Occam’s Razor answer to this is not to believe the contents of the initial police reports but to reach the conclusion that it much more likely that these are homicides.

They deserve justice.

Lawyers out there losing their goddamn minds.

Apologies in advance for the fact that today’s content is going to be something of a mishmash or stream-of-consciousness type of presentation, but it’s where the brain is at based on the events of the last 48-72 hours. (Loyal readers will likely wonder why I think a mishmash is any different than the normal presentation.)

I’m pretty sure none of us expected in 2020 to be living both 1918 and 1968 simultaneously. I know I didn’t. I have a wide variety of political thoughts about our situation, but if you are interested in those go find me on Twitter.

The fragile and incendiary nature of our circumstances in the United States though have recently resulted in a variety of instances of lawyers making incredibly poor decisions. I struggled a bit with whether any of the situations merited posting about or if bringing extra attention (Ha! As if I have that kind of power or reach…) was unhelpful.

Then, yesterday, through a “professional” listserv I participate in I witnessed a lawyer call for the assassination of public officials and incarcerating people without trials and for as long as it would take for them to contract COVID-19. I also watched a different lawyer throw wholehearted support to the first lawyer’s writings and sentiments. That second lawyer though might just be salty about having previously been criticized among the same group for having disparaged an entire generation of lawyers. Those two instances did drive home the point to me that a much larger percentage of lawyers then you might think are doing what the title of this post suggests.

More instances of lawyers reacting very poorly to the current environment have been bombarding us in the legal news of late.

You’ve certainly read about the two lawyers, one of whom work(ed) for a very large law firm, who have been arrested for throwing an incendiary device into an unoccupied police car. Perhaps you’ve also read about the Florida prosecutor who just got fired over a racist Facebook post that involved comparing protestors to animals. You might also have read about the lawyer in Vermont who was immediately and temporarily suspended over pulling a gun on a store clerk in a dispute over social distancing.

But I really, truly hope you’ve been doing your reading on what – in terms of historical ramifications – was the worst of the recent lawyer conduct. If the latest reports are correct, it was the Attorney General of the United States (someone who I’ve written about repeatedly in the past with respect to defiance of his ethical obligations) who approved/authorized the deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors in D.C. in order to provide a clear pathway for the current occupant of the White House to make this video. If you’d like a different video to show you just a snippet of what it took to make that video, try here. It continues to be difficult to wrap my head around the fact that we live in a situation in which the fact that this man continues to hold the office of Attorney General is, itself, prejudicial to the administration of justice in a way that runs afoul of RPC 8.4(d).

This same lawyer also appears to be redirecting other federal law enforcement resources, including the DEA, into expanded roles that are impossible to view as anything other than highly threatening to the exercise of civil liberties and First Amendment rights of assembly and petitioning the government for redress of grievances.

In fairness, to Mr. Barr, it is not fair to say he’s lost his goddamned mind because of the ongoing circumstances. This seems to be who he has always been.