Not breaking: Dentons didn’t have to say “aloha” to Hawai’i

Well, at least not the goodbye, “aloha.” They can still say the other one as much as they want.

So, you probably have seen a headline somewhere in your online surfing about this wacky issue litigated before the Hawai’i Supreme Court. But, just in case you didn’t, here’s all that I think you need to know about it.

Dentons, who has featured here a few times before, would appear to be the world’s largest law firm at present. Back in 2018, it swallowed up a Hawai’i law firm. Since then it has had lawyers in its firm practicing law in Hawai’i. Not the stuff so far of an interesting story.

In one of the pieces of litigation its lawyers have been handling in Hawai’i, they filed a motion to seek pro hac vice admission on behalf of a non-Dentons lawyer licensed in California. The opposing party opposed the pro hac motion not on the basis of any problem with the California lawyer, but on grounds that Dentons was engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Why? Is a question you, dear reader, might ask. Well, because not every lawyer at Dentons is licensed in Hawai’i.

Sounds like a crazy argument doesn’t it?

It actually was a crazy argument, but it was an argument supported by a slightly-messed up court rule. You can read the entirety of the 21-page opinion resolving the situation here.

The short version of what you’d find if you had the time to read that 21-page opinion is that it is true that Hawai’i used to have extremely restrictive and parochial rules preventing anyone who was not a Hawai’i-licensed lawyer from serving as a partner in a law firm in Hawai’i.

Believe it or not, those restrictions were a part of Hawai’i’s ethics rules until 1981. Beginning with changes starting in 1981, those restrictions were lifted and modified. A number of places in the present ethics rules in Hawai’i clearly indicate that it must be true that a multi-state law firm can have offices in Hawai’i. (One of them is Hawai’i’s RPC 7.5 about letterhead. This marks the first time in history I’ve found an ethics rule about letterhead to have been a helpful part of a state’s ethics rules.) But there was still one Hawai’i rule, not in the ethics rules but a different Hawai’i Supreme Court rule that had potentially problematic language if you were part of a multi-state law firm — Haw. Sup. Ct. R. 6 “Lawyer’s Professional Business Organizations.”

Specifically, Section (d)(1) of that rule provided that “[s]hares or interests in a lawyers’ professional business organization may be owned only by a lawyers’ professional business organization or by one or more persons licensed to practice law in this state by this court….”

Sometimes it only takes the slimmest of reeds for a certain kind of lawyer to be willing to make what otherwise seems like an outrageously foolhardy argument on behalf of a client. Turned out that the lawyer opposing Dentons in this case was, at least for a short period of time, that kind of lawyer. (NB: If you are looking for further proof of any pet theories you have about living in a simulation, the lawyer’s surname is (no kidding) Bickerton and, according to this article from a publication in Hawai’i he had the chutzpah to actually call one of Dentons’ arguments a “dumb ass argument.”)

The Hawai’i Supreme Court was able to dispose of this issue, and avoid having to address serious constitutional questions that would have arisen had Bickerton’s client’s rule interpretation been given merit, by explaining that the rule in question had been superseded by implication.

The court also ended its opinion by addressing any concerns that might be raised over the possibility that attorneys not licensed in Hawai’i could direct the conduct of Hawai’i lawyers without being subject to the jurisdiction of the disciplinary authorities in Hawai’i. It did so by referencing case law that (thankfully) concluded that Oregon general counsel for an Oregon company was not engaged in unauthorized practice in Hawai’i by assisting from Oregon and being actively involved with local Hawai’i counsel.

That portion of the opinion seems only to have been necessary because Hawai’i is still operating with an antiquated version of RPC 5.5 in place. While the Hawai’i Supreme Court has these issues in the front of its mind, it really ought to give some thought to adopting a version of ABA Model Rule 5.5 to make things a bit easier over there.

Until then, Me ka aloha pumehana.

You take the good, you take the bad…

You take them both and there you have … the news about Tenn. Formal Ethics Opinion 2019-F-167 (draft).

First, the good. I cannot give sincere and strong enough kudos to the Tennessee BPR for implementing a new policy to release draft Formal Ethics Opinions to the public for comment before deciding to actually adopt and issue them. That is a wonderful development for Tennessee lawyers and should ultimately lead to Tennessee having some of the best and most helpful ethics opinions of any state in the nation.

Now, the bad. 2019-F-167 in draft form ain’t one. This proposed FEO is yet another one seeking to weigh in on the topic of what kinds of provisions in settlement agreements might run afoul of a lawyer’s obligations under RPC 5.6 not to agree to restrictions on their practice as part of resolving a client matter. This time the underlying question is a provision in the settlement of an automobile products liability case that would require destruction of the allegedly defective vehicle.

The summary of the BPR’s conclusion is: “It is improper for an attorney to propose or accept a provision in a settlement agreement, in a products liability case, that requires destruction of the subject vehicle alleged to be defective if that action will restrict the attorney’s representation of other clients.”

Working from high-level problems first all the way down to problems at the level of details, here (for what it is worth) is what is wrong with this draft opinion:

  • The original intention of the rule, RPC 5.6, is to prevent an attorney from being put in a position where they have to agree that they will never again be adverse to someone as a condition for settling a particular client’s case. That is a policy decision made to try to protect the public’s general right to counsel despite the fact that the ethics rules (RPC 1.2) expressly provide that whether or not to settle a case is, and has to be, the ultimate decision of the client and not the lawyer. Every step down paths that are more remote from the original purpose of the restriction is one more step to making the rule tilt in the wrong direction of putting the lawyer’s future interests ahead of the current client’s right to settle their case.
  • Opinions that interpret a rule that says ” don’t do X” but that offer a conclusion of this other thing Y is wrong if Y also manages to “do X” aren’t all that helpful unless you provide really insightful guidance about when something would or would not also manage to “do X.” If you cannot articulate what things would or would not in a way that is, as a practical matter, helpful, then maybe you shouldn’t be issuing an opinion on the question.
  • The opinion goes to great lengths to explain how important the future possession of an arguably defective automobile is for the lawyer/firm making the inquiry and, in so doing, makes the following assertion as if it was the gospel truth: “The most compelling evidence when establishing the existence of a defect in a vehicle is the existence of other similar incidents.” But, it’s not. I’m not an expert in products liability litigation, though I have handled some cases over the years (admittedly, always on the defense side). If I need to prove that a particular vehicle that caused some particular person harm, then I need to prove that particular vehicle was defective. I don’t have to prove that any other vehicle at any other time was defective. Just that one. But also… that one. If I prove that other vehicles in other situations were defective and caused harm to other people, that isn’t actually going to correlate in any direct fashion to whether this particular vehicle that caused this particular harm was defective.
  • After doing that, the opinion explains a lot about the ways that the firm goes about purchasing the vehicle to have possession of it and talks about how “[i]t is the firm’s practice at the end of the case to request from the client that the firm be allowed to retain ownership and possession of the vehicle.” It does not, at any point in the opinion, provide any guidance on whether the firm has to comply with RPC 1.8(a) – business transaction with a client – in doing so; nor does it discuss whether such a policy on that firm’s part is a problem under RPC 1.8(i) – not acquiring a proprietary interest in a cause of action or subject matter of litigation that the lawyer is handling for a client.
  • The opinion does contain a discussion of RPC 3.4(a) and concerns of spoliation but makes another statement as if it were gospel truth that is actually simply not even close to 100% correct: “Clearly, in the context of a product liability case, the alleged defective product is key evidence in other current or subsequent cases of a similar defect.” It is bordering on irresponsible to put the imprimatur of the BPR on a position that the destruction of a particular physical piece of evidence at the conclusion of a particular piece of litigation would clearly put a lawyer at risk of being accused of spoliation of evidence in some future piece of litigation that does not yet even exist.
  • The opinion includes a discussion about the firm’s right to retain file materials and how that is important in terms of the ability to defend themselves in a subsequent legal malpractice action. That is a good issue to address. However, the sentence: “Without the ability to review the most important piece of evidence in the underlying products liability suit, the law firm would be left essentially defenseless if a former client brought a professional malpractice claim.” is another one of those bridge-too-far moments. The firm will have and retain copies of its expert reports from inspections of the vehicle and can even have and retain copious photographic and video evidence of the vehicle. There are many ways that it can satisfy its need to protect itself without having to have possession of the actual vehicle.
  • The opinion then ends with the BPR taking it upon itself to declare that the “ability for plaintiffs’ firms to act as industry watchdogs is both good public policy and was specifically addressed as a vested responsibility during Congress’s enactment of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. It doesn’t seem wise to me for the BPR to be in the business of taking positions on public policy issues that are not absolutely necessary in order to provide guidance under the ethics rules. This doesn’t seem like that kind of situation, but, as the opinion cross-references, the BPR already did that with this exact same language in Formal Ethics Op. 2018-F-166, so the horse is already out of that particular barn.

So, I would say that this one needs to go back into the shop for some much needed repairs if not taken off the street altogether.

Speaking of which, the opinion’s reference to the firm’s willingness to assure the settling defendant that the vehicle will not be placed back on the road is actually the key point of all of this. The only real reason – to my knowledge – that a defendant ever seeks to include a destruction provision in settlement is a matter of safety in terms of making certain that the same vehicle does not go back in use to put anyone else at risk of harm and, of course, to put the defendant at risk of not having to get sued again over the same defective item injuring a different person. If the assurance that is offered to be provided by the firm can be done in a manner that is actually enforceable, then that should always likely suffice to resolve the situation. An re-drafted opinion that puts more emphasis on that and that spots other issues that could create problems with an eye toward getting to the right practical result would certainly seem more like helpful guidance than this draft.

The deadline for submitting public comments to the BPR on this opinion, should you be so inclined, is April 10, 2019. The document immediately below provides instructions on how you can do that.

A teachable moment to make your eyes water.

When you spend a lot of time consulting with and advising lawyers, finding teachable moments from examples of things that happen in real life are extremely helpful.

The world can be filled with teachable moments. On a non-ethics front, here is one: If you don’t pay attention to when a credit card has a new expiration date and update accordingly, you could end up having your domain briefly expire leaving you vulnerable to someone else potentially buying it.

On an ethics front, the importance of making sure you do what you can to make clear in an engagement letter who is and who is not your client, as well as what you are being hired to do versus other things someone might later try to claim were your responsibility is pretty high. As a result, paying attention to outside counsel guidelines or other documents that may come into your firm from a client that address those issues is extremely important.

A February 2019 case from the Federal Circuit stands as a very good teachable moment about how not paying attention to such things can lead to disqualification. If you practice in a law firm of any significant size, the full opinion is worth reading because it addresses not only the topics mentioned but also involves a fact pattern involving lateral movement that, ultimately, resulted in the disqualification proceedings coming to pass in the first place. Specifically, the lawyers who moved from another firm to Katten Muchin and brought with them their representation of a party adverse to a corporate parent of Bausch & Lomb in the first place were only ever informed that Katten Muchin was representing Bausch & Lomb.

The disqualification of the law firm of Katten Muchin in the lawsuit of Dr. Falk Pharma Gmbh et al. v. Generico, LLC et al. truly came about, however, because the firm did not push back on outside counsel guidelines it received that expanded the universe of what could constitute a conflict of interest (or, more realistically, didn’t pay attention at any true level that such was occurring).

The underlying moving parts of litigation are pretty detailed and intricate and involve patent litigation and trademark matters, part of which (I only mention to bring a satisfying end to the attempt at humor in my title) involved a dispute over the trademark MOISTURE EYES™.

If you want a more thorough understanding of the intellectual property issues in play in the various proceedings, you can get that over at Mike McCabe’s blog here.

For our purposes today, w/r/t the teachable moments, the following excerpts from the opinion ought to be able to drive home the importance of knowing what is in engagement letters that come from clients rather than emanate from your firm and knowing the details of any outside counsel guidelines being incorporated into any engagement letter:

The motions to disqualify stem from Katten’s representation of Bausch & Lomb Inc. … a corporate affiliate of Valeant-CA and Salix, in a trademark litigation and its concurrent representation of Mylan, adverse to movants, in the pending appeals. Specifically, Katten signed an engagement letter with Bausch & Lomb that broadly defined Katten’s client as any Valeant entity. Attorneys [Mukerjee and Soderstrom] represented Mylan during various stages of [these proceedings] first, as attorney from Alston & Bird LLP, but later, as attorneys from Katten. The parties agree that Mukerjee and Soderstrom moved to Katten as of May 3, 2018.

[snip]

In the course of representing Bausch & Lomb, Katten signed a general engagement letter “governing the overall relationship between [Katten] and Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, Inc…. This engagement letter incorporates by reference Valeant’s Outside Counsel Guidelines (“OC Guidelines…”

[snip]

The OC Guidelines also specify that “Valeant expects a significant degree of loyalty from its key external firms,” defined as “firms with 12 month billings exceeding one million dollars.” These key firms should “not represent any party in any matters where such party’s interests conflict with the interests of any Valeant entity.”

[snip]

On May 3, 2018, Mylan notified the district court that Mukerjee and Soderstrom had left Alston & Bird to join Katten. On May 25, 2018, Valeant-CA filed a motion to disqualify Katten in the district court action.

[snip]

Because the engagement letter creates an ongoing attorney-client relationship between the law firm, Katten, and its organizational clients, Valeant-CA and Salix, Katten’s representation of Mylan adverse to movants in Valeant II gives rise to a concurrent conflict of interest under Rule 1.7.

[snip]

Finally, we conclude that Katten’s erection of an ethical wall is insufficient to resolve its violation of Rule 1.7. Katten claims that this wall cordons off Mukerjee and Soderstrom from Katten attorneys who have worked for matters for Bausch & Lomb, Valeant-CA, or affiliates in the 18 months preceding May 7, 2018. But this wall does nothing to address concerns stemming from Katten’s violation because it was created after Mukerjee and Soderstrom joined Katten, it applies only partially to work conducted within 18 months before May 7, 2018, and Katten never previously informed movants of any potential conflict.

Now, in fairness, even without the engagement letter terms and the OC Guidelines, the outcome may have been the same because, as the opinion explains, the corporate entities involved here were so interrelated in terms of common infrastructure and shared legal departments, and financial interdependence as to be treated as amounting to corporate affiliates still subject to treatment as clients under conflict of interest rules. But that is another teachable moment issue for a different day.

Discipline for entities? Not the answer to any relevant future questions.

It appears somehow that life and practice left me with nothing to post for more than a week now. If I have any readers left, today’s post will be a relatively quick one.

I managed to write a couple ofposts now about one topic that was covered at the APRL mid-year meeting in Las Vegas earlier this year. In keeping with the spirit of not having things that happen in Vegas stay in Vegas this time around, Jayne Reardon a Chicago lawyer who participated in a different panel discussion has put out a new post about the topic of law firm (or entity) regulation over at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism blog, 2Civility. You can read it here.

Now, I do not disagree that aspects of the trend of entity regulation that is taking place with respect to law firms in other countries may have some utility here in the states IF we were to remove barriers to how lawyers and people without law licenses could work together to practice law. Until that happens, it simply isn’t something that is helpful to addressing actual issues. And particularly not if the focus is on discipline.

As the article does acknowledge, the disciplinary rules already provide a means for having members of management and partners in law firms on the hook for discipline in certain circumstances through RPC 5.1. I consider that tool to be more than enough regulation from the disciplinary side of things for many of the examples that Jayne offers in her article to be addressed.

That being said, I absolutely agree that if we could start to see movement toward a more proactive system — like the PMBR course that Jayne discusses that is being implemented in Illinois – then I’d be all for exploring how to move toward a regulatory framework that looks more toward regulation of the entities in which many lawyers practice than merely targeting individual attorneys for discipline.

But, we don’t. We live in a world in which individual attorneys get targeted for discipline. So, today, I’d suggest we all take some time to listen to what this recently disbarred attorney has to say today.

Lying about everything is an awful way to go about life.

So, I am rapidly approach the 4th anniversary of this blog and this is the very first time I have had a post sharing exactly the same title as an earlier post.

Interestingly (at least to me), that earlier post with that title was written on Groundhog’s Day 2 years ago. The title for this post seemed a fitting title because … well, I think it will be clear when we launch into this – but also referencing back to that older post and it having been a Groundhog’s Day themed post also is pretty appropriate because the pathological nature of the lying of this Chicago lawyer has something of a deja vu sort of feel when compared to the lying of that Michigan lawyer from the prior post.

You’ve probably already read about this story but, if not, this is your window into the story of this Chicago lawyer who has been lying off and on about having cancer for more than a decade, who has lied about having a son, and even lied about the son he never had also having the same kind of cancer that he doesn’t have but has lied about having.

The repeated lying about having leiomyosarcoma, including falsely claiming that his pretend son had the same thing, grabbed the headlines but there were at least two other karma-tempting whoppers over the years, including: Lying to his firm that he had retained an expert but that the expert couldn’t work because his daughter had been hit by a car; and lying about having to attend a funeral in Montreal to get a court extension

There really is not an awful lot I can add to the obvious reasons why this kind of tale of a lawyer going beyond the pale in terms of what they were willing to lie about, and how often they apparently were willing to lie about it, is so disturbing.

One disturbing aspect of the situation is that his lawyer, in an answer filed in the disciplinary proceedings, has said that he came up with the cancer lie because he was actually suffering from depression in 2005 and was afraid to admit to suffering from a mental illness at the time when he was applying to law school. As someone who believes strongly in the fact that our profession needs to do much better about the topic of wellness and who readily recognizes that our profession needs to do all we can to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues in our profession, I’d really like to believe that explanation and be more sympathetic, but when you lie about the really big stuff it is hard not to think that you are lying about your reason for lying.

I particularly have a hard time with achieving a sympathetic point of view after reading this piece of the pleadings in the disciplinary case about this kind of false statement made nearly 11 years after applying to law school:

64. On July 25, 2016 at 9:45 a.m. Respondent sent an email to AUSA Brock, and copied to AUSA Hancock, the following message related to Respondent’s purported reason for requesting an extension to complete discovery in the Harris case: “Yes, all went well. Thanks so much for asking. He has leiomyosarcoma, a form of stomach cancer, and had to have a small portion of his stomach and GI tract removed. It sounds terrible but apparently it is a rare but also highly treatable disease. My fiance and 1 have fostered kids on and off for the last 5 or so years. The only downside is that these incredible kids are often in this situation in the first place because they have one or more serious illnesses/conditions. I normally wouldn’t share such personal information but I really do feel so grateful for yours and Gina’s support last week and think it’s important that you know what it actually meant to me.”

Answer: Admit

65. Respondent’s statements to AUSAs Brock and Hancock, as set forth in paragraph 64, that his son’s surgery went well, that Respondent’s son had leiomyosarcoma which required surgery to remove a small portion of his stomach and GI tract, and that Respondent and his fiance [sic] had fostered children for the last five years were false.

Answer: Admit

66. Respondent knew his statements to AUSAs Brock and Hancock, that his son’s surgery went well, that Respondent’s son had leiomyosarcoma which required surgery to remove a small portion of his stomach and GI tract, and that Respondent and his fiance [sic] had fostered children for the last five years, as set forth in paragraph 64, were false because Respondent had no child or foster child, therefore no diagnosis of leiomyosarcoma, and no surgery.

Answer: Admit

But the part of this whole thing that really grabbed me by the proverbial lapels and piqued my interest was the original set of circumstances that led to the lawyer coming up with the lie that he had cancer. You see cancer was the story offered to explain to The University of Chicago Law School why this future lawyer only scored a 158 on the LSAT.

Wait for it.

I only scored 160 on the LSAT. It never dawned on me that I was even supposed to be disappointed in that result, much less that I should have tried to lie about having cancer to explain the poor performance.

But, 160 is two points higher than 158; also, I wasn’t applying to the University of Chicago Law School. So, apples and oranges I guess.

If you want to read the entirety of the latest amended disciplinary complaint against Vincenzo Field, you can get it here.

Crowdfunding for attorney fees? Yes, but no.

So, since about early December of last year I’ve been trying to find a way to write about a really good, quite practical (albeit practical about a very niche situation) D.C. ethics from November 2018. The D.C. Opinion, Ethics Opinion 375, addresses the idea of using crowdfunding platforms as an ethical way for a client to afford otherwise unaffordable attorney fees.

It is easy to get in the right mindset to elaborate on why an ethics opinion is bad. I have had a hard time getting into writing about Opinion 375 because, truth be told, it is hard to write something that feels useful and interesting about a well-done ethics opinion.

But I’m writing about it today because, thankfully, along came a West Virginia disciplinary case with a development that makes this so much easier to discuss.

First, let’s get you up to speed on the D.C. opinion — “Ethical Considerations of Crowdfunding.” Now, of the various mechanisms that exist online for crowdfunding, the D.C. opinion focuses only on donation-based crowdfunding platforms — things like Go Fund Me rather than other kinds of platforms that bring large groups together to fund things in exchange for an equity stake or something similar.

The summary that starts out the opinion is largely all you really need to know about it:

Lawyers are generally free to represent clients who pay for legal services through crowdfunding. The ethical implications of crowdfunding a legal representation vary depending on the lawyer’s level of involvement in the crowdfunding. When the client directs the crowdfunding and the lawyer is merely aware of it, the lawyer incurs no specific ethical obligations although the lawyer should consider the potential risks associated with receipt of such funds and may counsel the client on the wisdom of publicly sharing confidential information. When the lawyer directs the crowdfunding, the lawyer must comply with the Rules governing a lawyer’s receipt of money from third parties. Further, a lawyer who directs the crowdfunding should be cognizant of ethical obligations regarding fee agreements, communications with donors, and the management of the funds raised.

Now, if you want to troll the depths (the D.C. Bar managed to list off 11 different ethical rules that were applicable to the situation), there is more than five pages of analysis to be had in the full opinion.

All in all, it’s well done and practical advice to address what is a particularly modern variation on the question of third parties paying a client’s fees.

So, crowdfunding is a viable option for clients to pay a lawyer … but … there are certain ways it can’t. be. used. For one thing, it can’t be used by a lawyer to get clients in the first place.

And that point brings us to West Virginia. Were I more of a delusional sort, I’d think this story was fabricated into existence Truman Show style just for my benefit. In terms of trying to appeal to me, this story has everything … (and you have to say this next part in the voice of Bill Hader’s “Stefon” character from SNL): it has a lawyer with the same name as a lawyer at a prominent firm in Memphis; the West Virginia lawyer started practicing law essentially exactly when I did [1999]; the West Virginia lawyer was serving as a treasurer [I’m the treasurer for two organizations at the moment] for a local soccer organization [ask me about soccer, I dare you, I won’t stop talking], and West Virginia’s Chief Disciplinary Counsel actually recused from the case because they are a soccer official.

Now, this West Virginia lawyer’s story isn’t really a story about Go Fund Me. Where the lawyer really went afoul of his ethical obligations was something he did long before he tried to use Go Fund Me in exactly the wrong sort of way, but that piece was the headline grabber for at least one West Virginia media outlet that wrote: “Charleston attorney suspended for 3.5 years after offering legal advice for Go Fund Me money.”

This lawyer’s original – and much more significant — transgression was that the lawyer embezzled about $12,000 from the soccer organization’s account by transferring those funds to his personal checking account. After he was confronted about his theft, he resigned from the treasurer position and repaid the money in three installment payments.

He self-reported his violation [which would have been, at minimum, a violation of West Virginia’s RPC 8.4(c) and probably (b)) and then was fired from his employment when his employer learned about the theft from the soccer organization.

After that, he tried setting up a Go Fund Me page to raise money to help him transition from being a lawyer employed at a firm to being a sole practitioner. What he offered, however, was that those who donated to the Go Fund Me would receive free legal services in exchange.

The West Virginia bar cited that conduct as being a violation of the rules against soliciting clients. The lawyer denied ever receiving any funds as a result of the Go Fund Me account in question and contended that he did not realize he had actually made it publicly-viewable.

An article in The ABA Journal online also emphasizes some of the aspects in which the Go Fund Me appeal itself was supported with false and misleading statements:

The fundraising appeal said the move was based on a decision to help children.
“After nearly 20 years of practicing law, I have finally found what I was meant to be doing,” the appeal said. “I have transitioned from an insurance defense practice to becoming a sole practitioner representing individuals and families. My primary focus is helping children who have been abused and/or neglected.”
Glover went on to say that his employer asked him to leave immediately after learning of his plans to go solo. “Given the short notice, I was not able to build up my savings, and I am now struggling to meet my personal expenses,” he wrote.
“It is my intention to return any gifts once my income become steady, and I will be happy to offer free legal advice (if I can) to my benefactors as well.”

That piece of this story is a very good reminder that, no matter the platform, rules patterned after ABA Model Rule 7.1 make it a disciplinary infraction for a lawyer to make statements about themselves or their services that are false or misleading.

New Lunar Year, New Lunar Rule?

Okay, the title is something of a stretch to acknowledge that today marks the beginning of a new lunar year, the Year of the Pig. Nothing about what I have to say relates to the moon or anything Lunar.

But I did want to continue one part of the discussion begun in Las Vegas last month, and truly follow through on my insistence about how what happens in Vegas shouldn’t just stay in Vegas this time, by sharing the text of a proposed new Model Rule that I drafted and that we kicked around during a panel discussion at the APRL Mid-Year Meeting.

The general topic is what to do with the rules, if anything, to address the reality of online lawyer matching services and other similar platforms that are benefiting consumers by helping connect consumers who are willing to pay a certain price point for legal services and lawyers who are willing and able to deliver those services at that price point but that are always in tension with the current ethics rules because of restrictions on lawyers providing compensation for referrals or recommendations and related restrictions on fee sharing.

We have a rule here in Tennessee which I believe to be substantively bad, but the architecture of the rule is pretty good if you change its goals. Sort of like an old house with really good bones but simply god-awful interior decorations. That rule is RPC 7.6 and imposes certain registration requirements and limitations on things denominated as “intermediary organizations.” Long time readers of this blog, might remember this post about how I believed RPC 7.6 applied to Avvo Legal Services back when that was still in operation.

The rule I have drafted as a conversation starter uses the architecture of the Tennessee rule but is designed to provide a more permissive and more flexible approach to the topic.

Implementation of such a rule would likely also require changes to Model Rules 5.4 and 7.2 to make clear that payments to intermediary organizations are not prohibited as fee sharing or prohibited by the restrictions on payment for referrals, and the accompanying Comment would likely need a paragraph to make clear certain things that are not intended to be swept up as an intermediary organization, but carts and horses and all of that.

The draft is posted below, all feedback is most welcome.


Proposed Model Rule 7.7:  Intermediary Organizations
(a)  An intermediary organization is a lawyer referral service, lawyer matching service, or other similar organization which engages in referring consumers of legal services to lawyers or facilitating the creation of attorney-client relationships between consumers of legal services and lawyers willing to provide assistance.


(b)  A lawyer may make a payment to an intermediary organization, including a payment that would be considered sharing of an attorney fee with an intermediary organization, in connection with any referral or facilitation of a relationship with a client as long as:


                (1)  The relationship between the lawyer and intermediary organization is fully disclosed to the client including, if requested by the client, the amount of any payment made by lawyer to the intermediary organization;
                (2)  The cost to the lawyer of any payment to the intermediary organization is not passed on to the client; and
                (3)  The lawyer does not permit the intermediary organization to direct or regulate the lawyer’s professional judgment in rendering legal services to the client.

Inflation is likely more widespread than you’d like to believe.

Time inflation that is. I’m certainly not an economist.

In the past, I have written about issues associated with overbilling by lawyers in a number of different respects.

Today’s post involves a rare public situation involving the admission of overbilling by a lawyer – one that comes out of Illinois and involves a lawyer who worked his way up the ladder in not just one but two prominent firms in Chicago.  The attorney, Christopher Anderson, has now been made the subject of formal disciplinary proceedings based on his own admission of inflating his time entries and billings first while at Kirkland & Ellis as an associate and later at Neal Gerber Eisenberg, ultimately achieving the status of a non-equity partner.

Anderson came clean to the powers-that-be at the Neal Gerber firm after he had been practicing there for three years in 2018.  That firm did its own investigation and decided it needed to offer refunds or credits to some 100 clients who had been made to overpay as a result of Anderson’s conduct.  The refunds, as reported in the disciplinary complaint, amounted to roughly $150,000 and stemmed from the conclusion that only 4/5 of the time Anderson had billed to clients was legitimate.  The complaint indicates that once Kirkland & Ellis learned of Anderson’s conduct and that he had been engaged in the behavior there as well worked through its own process to offer refunds to clients.

The complaint describes the nature of the scheme on Anderson’s part to inflate his billings and is what I have always believed is what happens to be the most widespread way of abusing billable hours in our profession because it is the most tempting route to travel and the one that lawyers believe is the hardest to prove is happening:

During his time at both firms, in an attempt to meet what he perceived to be the firms’ billing expectations, Respondent recorded time beyond what he had actually spent in handling client matters, knowing that the time he recorded would be billed to his client and that they would be asked to pay fees based on the records he created.  For the days that Respondent felt he had not recorded sufficient time on client matter, he increased the time he claimed to have been spent on those matter based on a number of factors, including his assessment of the likelihood that the client would object to the time he recorded.  As an example, if Respondent spent 0.3 hours on a client matter, he would record that he had actually spent 0.5 hours, or he would bill 2.1 hours for work that actually took him 1.7 hours to complete.

Not surprisingly, some immediate reporting about the situation from The American Lawyer stressed the rareness of intentional overbilling. I beg to differ on that.   Unfortunately, I think this kind of practice goes on much more often than our profession would ever care to admit.  People who act out of a feeling of pressure that their “numbers” are not strong enough or who feel like they’re being forced to accept a cut-rate hourly fee for their time can find themselves heading down this path because, unlike inventing tasks that could be proven not to have been performed, there truly is very little ability for an outsider to prove that a lawyer who says they spent 2.1 hours doing something that really only took them 1.7 hours to complete is lying to you.

Or, as more succinctly put by my friend Trisha Rich who was quoted in the Chicago media about this:


“It would be hard for somebody to catch on to (overbilling in small increments) if somebody was doing that over time, because basically our billing records are on your honor,”

Other than this particular situation in which the conduct came to light because of the lawyer’s own guilty conscience, instances usually will not be ferreted out unless the lawyer also forgets that “pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.”

The other interesting piece of this story is that Illinois is only charging Anderson with violations of RPC 1.5 and RPC 8.4(c), but not also charging for violating RPC 7.1.  Illinois’s Rule 7.1 certainly could have also been included in the complaint because Illinois’s version of the rule has the same language as the ABA Model Rules:  “A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.”

Given that Anderson essentially has admitted the misconduct, throwing an additional charge at him likely would just have been piling on, but trying to remind lawyers that RPC 7.1 doesn’t just apply to advertising but applies to a wide variety of false statements about a lawyer or their services (here, falsely stating how much time you actually worked) is something of pet peeve of mind mine. [edited to be less stupid on 1/31/19]

More UPL Madness From Ohio

You may recall some past discussion here of the prolonged saga of the Dinsmore lawyer who moved from one of its offices in Kentucky to its Cincinnati, Ohio office and nearly was denied comity admission in Ohio over accusations of the unauthorized practice of law.

While that story ended happily — she was ultimately determined not to have character and fitness problems after the Ohio Supreme Court decided that it was not the unauthorized practice of law for her to sit in a chair in Ohio and continue to work on Kentucky cases using her Kentucky license while awaiting bar admission in Ohio — it was unnecessarily messy for all concerned.

In the past, one of the points I have raised about bar regulators using UPL accusations as a cudgel is that it seems that many jurisdictions seek to have it both ways – arguing that you are always practicing law “in” their jurisdiction whether they have to put you there through being in a seat in the state or if they have to put you there despite the fact that your seat is in a different state.

The most recent UPL ruling out of Ohio demonstrates that Ohio apparently has this proclivity as well.

Right at the end of 2018, the Ohio Supreme Court issued an order concluding that a lawyer, who was licensed in New York, New Jersey, and California, and his law firm, had engaged in UPL by representing debtors who lived in Ohio. The order wasn’t actually a disciplinary penalty but it essentially enjoined them from further practice in Ohio, and imposed a $2,000 civil fine.

The Panel Report which the Court adopted through its order provided detail regarding the representation:

This matter involves Respondents’ representation of an Ohio resident, Timothy Hoover . . . .  Respondents executed a Power of Attorney document on January 6, 2010, through which Mr. Hoover appointed Respondents as “his true and lawful attorney.”  On May 14, 2010, Respondents on behalf of Mr. Hoover, issued a letter to Ohio attorney Lee Peterson, who represented CitiFinancial, Inc. (“CitiFinancial”), a creditor of Mr. Hoover’s.  Respondents held themselves out in the May 14, 2010 letter as Mr. Hoover’s counsel, identifying themselves as a law firm and referring to Mr. Hoover as their “client.”  A similar letter followed on May 27, 2010.  It appears that Respondents’ outreach coincided with a suit filed by CitiFinancial against Mr. Hoover in the Licking County Municipal Court for money owed on a note, though Respondents did not make, or attempt to make, an appearance in that matter.  Regardless, the facts are undisputed (1) that CitiFinancial sued Mr. Hoover, an Ohio resident, in an Ohio court based on transaction and default that occurred in Ohio, and (2) that Respondents, without any legal counsel licensed to practice law in Ohio, contacted counsel for CitiFinancial and purported to represent Mr. Hoover in debt negotiations on that Ohio matter.

Of course, the correct response to someone laying out those “undisputed” facts in a just world would be: so what?

Neither the order nor the Panel report it adopted provide all that much in the way of detail about any of the arguments made by the lawyer to defend himself against the charges (and, in fact, it mostly reads like he didn’t.)

A review of Ohio RPC 5.5 demonstrates though that there were at least two strong arguments that should have been pursued because Ohio’s version of that rule largely tracks the ABA Model Rules.

First, assuming that the lawyer truly was not only ever going to attempt to negotiate the debt reduction without ever being willing to appear in the lawsuit, the lawyer should have been able to argue that, as long as he had no reason to think he could not ultimately be admitted pro hac in the lawsuit if negotiation was unsuccessful, (c)(2) should provide sufficient cover. That rule provides the ability on a temporary basis to provide services:

reasonably related to a pending or potential proceeding before a tribunal in this or another jurisdiction, if the lawyer, or a person the lawyer is assisting, is authorized by law or order to appear in such proceeding or reasonably expects to be so authorized;

Second, assuming that the lawyer couldn’t look to (c)(1) because they were never going to do anything beyond negotiating, the lawyer could have looked to Ohio RPC 5.5(c)(4) for approval to contend that these negotiations for the client were ones that “arise out of or are reasonably related to the lawyer’s practice in a jurisdiction in which the lawyer is admitted to practice.” This would be because, as the Panel report and Order also explained, the lawyer and his firm’s “practice includes counseling and assistance to individuals regarding the reduction of consumer debt. Once retained, Respondents contact their client’s creditors and attempt to negotiate a reduction of outstanding debts.”

What’s happening in Vegas this week?

So glad you asked. Let me tell you, and tell you why, despite the tried and true adage, it needs to not stay in Vegas.

Later this week the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers is having its mid-year meeting in Las Vegas, and we are dedicating our entire programming to a theme: The Future of Lawyering. Under the leadership of former APRL President, Art Lachman, and as I have mentioned in the past, we have launched a Future of Lawyering Committee that is taking a look at potential ways to overhaul certain aspects of the ethics rules.

We will have a day and a half of programming dedicated to that topic. There will be panels discussing each of the following topics:

  • The potential for reform in the 21st Century on issues of cross-border practice
  • How to address “nonlawyer” practice in this modern era.
  • What the practice of law might be like if there was no Model Rule 5.4.
  • The pros and cons of the notion of making having professional liability insurance mandatory for lawyers.
  • What ought to be done, if anything, about changing how law firms are regulated (or not) under the ethics rules
  • Exploring the impact of A.I. on ethical law practice

Oh, and there’s one I left out of that list.

I’m fortunate enough to be involved in one of the panel discussions: “Ethical ‘Evils’ of Referral Fees and For-Profit Referral Services: Time for a Change?” Our panel will be teeing up two possible ideas for things to consider in terms of the restrictions that exist on the ability of lawyers to compensate people and entities who, in one form or fashion or another, refer business to them.

One possibility will be the “radical” notion of what would the rules simply look like if there was no restriction at all in Model Rule 7.2 on providing such compensation? The other possibility will be to look at a proposed new Model Rule 7.7 that yours truly has drafted in the first instance that would seek to permit the wide variety of currently-existing (and recently shut down) on-line matching platforms, and dropping away any concerns about whether such arrangements involve unlawful payments for referrals, as long as the lawyers involved maintain their independent professional judgment, costs of the arrangement aren’t passed on to clients by the lawyer, and the arrangement is transparent to the client.

This combination of programs should make for a very invigorating and enlightening debate on a wide variety of important issues. And, for once, hopefully we will all manage to agree that what happens in Vegas does not just stay in Vegas this time.