There has been something of a trend of late in terms of ethics opinions focusing on variations on the breadth of the duty of client confidentiality and the inconvenience it creates for lawyers who have bought in to the modern trend of sharing and oversharing when online. There was this opinion from the ABA and then this opinion from the ABA, for example.
The latest opinion in this vein is Professional Ethics Committee for the State Bar of Texas Op. 673. Except, it is only partially in this vein because, while it starts out heading down the path of explaining how the duty of client confidentiality might prohibit lawyers from being able to do something useful, it swerves away from what would be the likely conclusion in most jurisdictions.
Of course, it does so essentially by making up a justification nearly out of whole cloth but, if you’ve ever participated in, and benefited from, access to any kind of online forum or listserv frequented by lawyers, it reaches a conclusion for which Texas lawyers should be grateful.
The questions addressed in Op. 673 are:
- Does a lawyer violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by seeking advice for the benefit of the lawyer’s client from other lawyers in an online discussion group?
- Does a lawyer violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by seeking advice for the benefit of the lawyer’s client through informal, direct consultation with another lawyer in a different firm?
The opinion then goes on to describe arrangements that will be familiar to anyone who has spent anytime on any sort of lawyer listserv or other social media group setting or online forum but also makes the point that lawyers reaching out to pick someone’s brain about an issue or perform “lazy person’s research” can also happen in the “meat space,” offline when one lawyer seeks out another lawyer’s input in a version of informal mentoring.
The Texas opinion squarely flags that the biggest concern for the asking lawyer in such scenarios is protecting the confidentiality of client information. (Importantly, the opinion also does a nice job of flagging for the answering lawyer the most significant risks for her – potentially creating duties to the asking lawyer’s client or wittingly or unwittingly violating duties to her own other clients by helping the lawyer.)
Nevertheless, the opinion explains that the asking lawyer can proceed even if providing some background information that is likely to identify the client or situation is necessary in order to get the advice without violating the ethics rules as to the disclosure of confidential information.
It is the opinion of the Committee that Rules 1.05(d)(1) and (d)(2) allow a lawyer to reveal a limited amount of unprivileged confidential information to lawyers outside the inquiring lawyer’s law firm, without the client’s express consent, when the inquiring lawyer reasonably believes that the revelation will further the representation by obtaining the responding lawyers’ experience or expertise for the benefit of the client, and when it is not reasonably foreseeable that revelation will prejudice the client.
This is where the Texas opinion is able to rely on two things. One is a “creative” interpretation of the “implied authorization” aspect of the rule on client confidentiality that most jurisdictions also have. (Texas Rule 1.05(d)(1)). The other is a nuance in Texas’s rule that jurisdictions tracking the Model Rule don’t have at their disposal to justify this kind of lawyer-friendly (and not exactly consumer unfriendly) outcome. (Texas Rule 1.05(d)(2)).
Starting with the second is the easy approach because it really is the most important thing to know to explain the outcome – Texas’s version of RPC 1.6 (which they have numbered as Rule 1.05) contains an exception (d)(2) that allows a lawyer to reveal information that is “confidential” but “unprivileged” when “the lawyer has reason to believe it is necessary to do so in order to ‘carry out the representation effectively.'”
For context, here is the entirety of Texas 1.05(d):
(d) A lawyer also may reveal unprivileged client information:
(1) When impliedly authorized to do so in order to carry out the representation.
(2) When the lawyer has reason to believe it is necessary to do so in order to:
(i) carry out the representation effectively;
(ii) defend the lawyer or the lawyer’s employees or associates against a claim of wrongful conduct;
(iii) respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client; or
(iv) prove the services rendered to a client, or the reasonable value thereof, or both, in an action against another person or organization responsible for the payment of the fee for services rendered to the client.
Now, I could quibble with that word “necessary” and how seeking out assistance from an online discussion forum could ever be “necessary,” but I can admit to being a fan of outcome-determinative analysis when I’m a fan of the outcome. (To be clear, I have always tried very hard when making use of any kind of online forum to not let any cats out of any bags in terms of actual whos, whats, and wheres.)
The fact that the Texas opinion still involves a “making-it-up-as-you-go” approach though comes through loud and clear by the fact that the opinion has to provide a set of numbered considerations spanning more than a full page to guide lawyers in deciding whether and how much confidential but unprivileged information could be disclosed. If you want to work through those factors, you can do so at pages 2-4 of the actual opinion itself here.
In any jurisdiction that does not have something like Texas’s Rule 1.05(d)(2) though, getting to this kind of result is a lot more difficult since it involves having to try to push the envelope on the “implied authorization” aspect of Model Rule 1.6(a).
Yet, again, this kind of conduct is likely not anything that a client would complain about and often results in driving down the cost of the representation by gathering the wisdom of a crowd before spending hours on research so… as good a time as any to bring back up again my thoughts on how Model Rule 1.6 ought to be revised.