DC Ethics Opinion 370 – Y’all knew I wouldn’t be able to resist

So, the D.C. Bar has come out with a far-reaching, sort of two-part ethics opinion addressing lawyers and social media usage.  Opinion 370 (Part 1) can be grabbed here.  Opinion 371 (Part 2) from here.  Opinion 370 has lots of really good parts, but much of the publicity it has received to date revolves around something it throws out for lawyers to bear in mind and be wary of that hasn’t really been said by opinion-writing entities before.

Here’s how the ABA Journal online headline treated it – “beware” of “social media statements on legal issues.”  Other aspects of the reporting I have seen described it as warning lawyers who offer opinions online of the potential for creating an “issue” conflict.  There’s a reason, I think, this topic hasn’t been explored much by other opinion-writing bodies:  it is a relatively silly and irresponsible take.  Regardless, given the minimal treatment of the issue that the opinion offers, even if you think there were merit to flagging the issue for consideration, the portion of Opinion 370 that “addresses” it still would be better left on the cutting room floor.

Here, in its entirety, is the analysis of this issue as a risk for lawyers from the DC Opinion:

Caution should be exercised when stating positions on issues, as those stated positions could be adverse to an interest of a client, thus inadvertently creating a conflict. Rule 1.7(b)(4) states that an attorney shall not represent a client with respect to a matter if “the lawyer’s professional judgment on behalf of the client will be or reasonably may be adversely affected by . . . the lawyer’s own financial, business, property or personal interests,” unless the conflict is resolved in accordance with Rule 1.7(c). Content of social media posts made by attorneys may contain evidence of such conflicts.

Now, to help get your bearings straight if you aren’t a D.C. lawyer, D.C.’s Rule 1.7(b)(4) is different from what is set out in the ABA Model Rules and, thus, different from what we have here in Tennessee (for example) in the closest equivalent rule, RPC 1.7(a)(2).  Our RPC 1.7(a)(2), just like the ABA Model, establishes a conflict of interest — albeit a potentially consentable one — where “there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer.”

In a (stop-me-if-you-heard-this-one-before) well-done story by Samson Habte with the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct, some quotes are gathered from folks pointing out that the concept of an “issue” or “positional” conflict of interest necessarily involves or requires taking contrasting positions in front of one or more tribunals and, thus, a lawyer’s public statements of opinion about a legal question couldn’t create a positional or issue conflict.

In Tennessee, for example, we address issue/positional conflicts of interests in Paragraph [24] of our Comment to RPC 1.7.  While incapable of being that kind of conflict, supporters of the D.C. Opinion warning might argue that it is still a risky endeavor to express opinions about a legal issue because the lawyer might then have a “personal interest” in how something is resolved that would materially limit the ability to represent a client.

To me, that kind of approach to the topic not only misunderstands what it means to be a lawyer representing a client but also what the rules say in a variety of places it means to be a lawyer at all.  I’ll stick for now to just the Tennessee rules though I’d venture a guess that similar principals are laid out in D.C.’s rules.

In the Preamble to our Rules, in the second paragraph, we lay out a list of things that a “lawyer” is and, included among them, is “a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”  In the seventh paragraph of the Preamble to the Rules we say:

As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice, and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.  As a member of a learned profession, a lawyer should cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients, employ that knowledge in reform of the law; and work to strengthen legal education.

Further, we have a rule, RPC 6.4, patterned after ABA Model Rule 6.4, that specifically makes the point that lawyers can ethically undertake service in connection with entities that seek to reform the law or its administration even though such efforts could detrimentally affect the interests of a client of the lawyer.  If a Tennessee lawyer can engage in organized efforts to reform the law even though those efforts, if successful, might detrimentally affect the interests of one of the lawyer’s clients, then absolutely they can make public statements about what the law should be without violating the ethics rules.

Now, might a client decide not to hire a lawyer who has already indicated a personal belief contrary to the client’s position.  Sure, and they’d have every right to make that decision.  But they might also make a different decision and think that, if the lawyer is willing to take on and argue their position despite past public statements to the contrary, it would make their arguments stronger.

To my knowledge. opinion-writing entities have never warned lawyers about writing learned treatises or books on legal subjects or discouraged lawyers from speaking at Continuing Legal Education events or seminars (which are these days often videotaped and archived) because of some notion that expressing an opinion about a legal issue could create an ethical conflict for the lawyer.  Seems to me that the same “logic” that drove the almost offhand reference by the DC Bar in the Ethics Opinion could be applied to tell lawyers to “beware” of such other activities as well.

One thing I hope everyone could agree upon though is: if you are going to go to the trouble of injecting this issue into what is otherwise an extremely lengthy ethics opinion, then you should have done a better job of tackling the issue comprehensively rather than simply throwing out a half-baked statement that could serve to dissuade lawyers from speaking out.

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