Awesome post. Except for the part that isn’t.

There is an awful lot to like and agree with in this post from Dan Lear, one of the folks who have been the face of Avvo for quite some time.  But there is a piece of it that is just simply wrong, and while it would be hyperbole to say it is dangerously wrong, it certainly is wrong in a way that lawyers don’t need to have reinforced.  Lear writes:

Do the RPCs apply when an attorney isn’t working as a lawyer? First, bar associations don’t regulate endeavors that aren’t the practice of law, especially awesome ones. While a lawyer may choose to apply the RPCs outside of the practice of law, the bar doesn’t regulate lawyers as a landlord, an expert witness, or even a restaurant owner.

Even understanding the larger point Lear is attempting to make, this is utterly and simply wrong.  ABA Model Rule 8.4 – with language that is tracked in I believe pretty much every U.S. jurisdiction — does not limit itself to situations in which a lawyer is only representing a client and also does not draw a bright line around a lawyer “being a lawyer,”

The easiest, and most obvious, part of the rule that makes the point is RPC 8.4(b) which gets lawyers in ethical trouble for certain criminal acts even having nothing to do with, or not happening while, they are working as a lawyer.

But there are two other, more broadly problematic ways that RPC 8.4 does extend to, and actually govern, the conduct of people who happen to also be lawyers while they are doing things that they don’t think of as working as a lawyer know matter how much they may subjectively think they are being “awesome.”

Those two other pieces are RPC 8.4(a) and (c).  When combined those pieces of the rule read:

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to . . .

(a) violate or attempt to violate [the ethics rules], knowingly assist or induce another to do so, or do so through the acts of another . . . [or]

(c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation….

I’ve often joked about 8.4(c) as being the only ethics rule in the books that has to mean something other than what it actually says because, as written, it would make it professional misconduct for me to answer questions from children about Christmas presents or bluff while playing poker or dive to get a call while playing over-35 soccer on Monday nights.  I’ve also, once before and also in response to something written by a lawyer more famous than I, advocated that it shouldn’t apply to a lawyer operating a parody account on social media.   But there are aspects of how that rule truly does apply to dishonesty by lawyers, even when not acting as lawyers, which are quite serious.  Easy examples from the recent past involve deans and others affiliated with administrative positions at law schools lying about statistics to improve enrollment numbers and the like.

And, perhaps the most perplexing and concerning of the examples Lear offers of things a lawyer could do where they wouldn’t be bound by the ethics rules is serving as an expert witness.  I’ve been fortunate enough to serve as an expert on more than a handful of occasions in my career, and, suffice it to say, RPC 8.4 is not the only ethics rule that will still apply to the lawyer when serving in that capacity.

They got away with it, but that doesn’t make it worth trying.

Lawyers billing clients on the basis of time spent is less than ideal for all involved.  For lawyers, it isn’t the best proxy for value delivered in terms of service and incentivizes inefficiency.  For clients, it isn’t the best proxy of value received in terms of service and leaves clients feeling like the only way to cut corners on costs is to either demand limited time on a task or to just not agree for a lawyer to perform a particular task.  For clients and lawyers alike, it also creates distrust of lawyers with respect to second-guessing the amount of time they spend on tasks (or claim to have spend on tasks).  It also doesn’t give clients much of a sense that they are paying for results or accomplishments.  Lots of pieces have been written, over many, many years, about how the billable hour model is outdated or on its way out the door.  Yet, it persists.

This is not going to be one of those pieces today.  Rather, I want to write a few words about a case out of Wyoming that I would worry is going to send exactly the wrong message to lawyers.  That case is a ruling on fee dispute litigation out of the Wyoming Supreme Court, Manigault v. Daly & Sorenson, LLC.  You may have seen headlines of stories about it that are in the nature of: Court rules billing in 15-minute increments was not abusive.

All lawyers who bill by the hour end up having to pick some base line minimum increment for billing purposes.  I, and my firm, do so using 6-minute increments (.1) as the baseline.  It is certainly possible to measure time more accurately than that, but (I believe) that the standard minimum these days for keeping time is to carve time up into 6 minute blocks.  There was a time when the standard minimum for those blocks were 15 minute intervals, but technology has advanced, timekeeping has improved, and the time when minimum quarter-of-an-hour billing was acceptable (in my opinion) has passed.

In the Wyoming decision, the Court ultimately found that this particular law firm’s use of a 15-minute minimum increment with this particular client was ultimately reasonable.  Remarkably, it did so even when the firm did not have a written fee agreement with the client.  But there are a couple of things about the case that – to me – stand out as crucial to the particular result and also help drive home the point that this is not something that most lawyers could get away with and, thus, should not attempt to do.

The first, and I think the more outcome-determinative, is that the fee dispute was one that was with a very long time client of the firm and, thus, someone who, over time, would be much less sympathetic to be heard complaining about 15-minute billing increments as the minimum.  Since apparently that was how this client and that firm had interacted over the course of almost 100 prior matters over 15 years.

The second is that the record indicated that the firm was relatively diligent about aggregating tasks into the minimum increments so that the minimum increment was not used as a method of easily increasing the charge to the client.

The Wyoming Supreme Court explained quite cogently the difference between the situation it had before it this time and other, prior circumstances in which it took lawyers to task for how they used their 15-minute minimum billing increment approach:

Manigault likens the firm’s use of a fifteen-minute billing interval to that which was the subject of a disciplinary proceeding in Casper.  In that case, the attorney employed a number of unethical billing practices and admittedly misused her fifteen-minute minimum billing interval.  She billed fifteen minutes every time she signed a document, and several times she billed fifteen minutes for reviewing a one-page document.  She also billed fifteen minutes to review a short document and then billed the same amount of time again for signing it.

In Casper, this Court discussed the practice of billing according to minimum intervals of six, ten, and fifteen minutes. . . . we observed it would be abusive to bill two fifteen minute charges for two five-minute phone calls in the same fifteen-minute period.

Nothing approaching that sort of unreasonable or abusive billing is evident on this record.. . .

[snip]

What is not often discussed is this concept of the need to still attempt to hew toward composite accuracy in the amount of time billed regardless of what minimum increment is used.  “Composite accuracy” might not be the right phrase but what I’m using it to attempt to describe is that the ultimate measure for a lawyer who bills by the hour has to be that you don’t use it to bill clients for more time in the day than the total time you actually spend working.

The truly pernicious problem for lawyers who attempt to still use 15-minute increments as their method of billing is how easily that can lead them to bill a collection of clients for 8 hours of time while only putting in 3 or 4 hours of actual work.  Or, more likely, billing 14 or 15 hours for a day where 6 or 7 hours of actual time was spent performing work for clients.

The Wyoming case also, unfortunately, gave credence to a common attempted justification by lawyers confronted with trying to justify the 15-minute billing increment that – to me – involves a significant amount of disingenuity:  that billing a client 15 minutes of time for a phone call that they know full well may have taken only 5 minutes is justified because the 15 minute time period also captures the time associated with stopping one task, shifting to the client’s task, making a note in the file about the interaction, and then trying to get back into the mindset of whatever you were working on before.

In modern practice, however, there is one dominant form of communication that simply – and often unequivocally – undercuts any lawyer that tries to use that justification.  Email.  Find me a lawyer who wants to justify a 15-minute minimum increment based on that kind of rationalization, and I strongly suspect that I can show that lawyer, by way of a review of their email history, that they turned much more quickly from answering an email for one client, to crafting an email for another client, then on to responding to some other email.

What that means is, if a lawyer is out there trying to charge their clients for 15 minutes of time for reading and responding to an email, which may have only taken them 5 minutes, and then attempting to justify it based on other things that were done or time lost as part of that, then it will often be extremely easy to demonstrate that within the same 15 minute period they will have replied or sent other emails to other clients on other matters and, likely, they will have billed that client for a 15 minute block as well.  This quickly adds up and is how a lawyer could easily manage in only 20 minutes of actual working time to attempt to bill for an hour of work.

That fudging of the numbers, of course, can also happen using 6-minute increments of time, which raises the ultimate larger point that I fear escapes notice of far too many lawyers:  no matter the minimum increment you pick (unless you are recording and billing for your time truly down to the minute), you are supposed to still be using that system as a proxy toward attempting to best capture your actual time spent.

That means that even if you are billing in 6-minute increments, you are supposed to be trying to bundle smaller tasks during the course of the day together into one of the minimum increments.  If, for the same client, you respond to 2 and only 2 emails during the course of a day and each one took you only a couple of minutes to address, you are supposed to bill that client for one .1 time entry – because you spent a total of 4 minutes working for them that day and you have arranged to bill them at a minimum increment of 6 minutes.  You are not supposed to bill .2 (12 minutes) for that 4 minutes of working time.  When lawyers do both this and opt for the minimum 15 minute incremental block, then the problems with the arrangement increase in magnitude because the lawyer ends up billing the client for 30 minutes of time for 2 tasks that only took 4 minutes to perform.

The intersection of the First Amendment and the Ethics Rules

So, I don’t know if any of you have ever played HQ Trivia.  In any session, they have between 500,000 and almost 2 million players, so statistically speaking, I guess there is a chance you have.  While it has nothing to do with legal ethics, in order to understand the context of what follows, let me give you a quick primer.

It is something that would have been 5 years ago the stuff of science fiction or an even an episode of Black Mirror.  It is an app on your phone through which you can play trivia in real-time answering questions read by a human being host.  Each question is presented with three multiple-choice answers and you have 10 seconds from when the host starts reading the question to click your answer.  If you answer correctly, you get to move on to the next question.  If you don’t, you are eliminated.  In the standard format, the quiz consists of 12 questions and, if you answer all the questions correctly, you win or split the pot with any other players who have done so.  (When the largest pots are offered they increase the number of questions to 15 or, quite recently, they have experimented with as many questions as is necessary to narrow down to just winner in a winner-take-all format.)

The dollar amount of the prize varies.  It is typically $2,500 but, as it appears they are closer to whatever plan they have in place for monetizing the app approaches, they have recently offered a pot as large as $100,0o0.  Reportedly, tonight they will be offering a $250,000 pot.  I have won the game on one occasion and, of course, when I did there were so many other winners that my share came to just shy of $2.  (I also know there are other companies doing similar games and some of those are competing against HQ on the basis of how awful one particular financial backer of HQ reportedly is, so I’m not going to link or provide publicity to the game, but it is the one I play [for better or worse] so if you decide to sign up for it and put in my user name – bsfaughnan- as a referral code then I will get some extra lives.)

Now all that is background for today’s topic – which is the intersection and overlap of the ethics rules and what they prohibit members of our profession from doing and the First Amendment.  This topic is frequently one I spend time thinking about because for many years my practice has also involved representing clients on First Amendment issues and, in fact, though I continue to not be listed in Best Lawyerfor Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility, in addition to being listed for Appellate Law, I am listed for Litigation-First Amendment.  It is also a topic that I have been thinkng about frequently because of various events that have worked their way into my line of sight either directly or indirectly.  Those three events are: (1) the outpouring of comments from particular portions of the bar in Tennessee arguing that the proposed RPC 8.4(g) in Tennessee is an assault on their First Amendment rights; (2) the latest post from Avvo’s GC criticizing ABA Formal Op. 480; and (3) the head of a prominent law firm speaking out publicly to indicate that a star lawyer of his firm turned down the opportunity to represent the current occupant of The White House.

So, here’s the HQ-style question and, remember, there is only one correct answer.  You won’t be limited to 10 seconds to answer from the time you start reading the question however:

Which of these presents the most compelling case for finding that discipline against a lawyer would violate the lawyer’s First Amendment rights?

  • A lawyer tweets – without client permission – about a jury verdict she obtained in order to advertise the successful outcome.
  • A lawyer, during a CLE or bar association social event, decides to lecture everyone in the room about why he considers marriage between two persons of the same gender to be an abomination.
  • A lawyer, consulted by a politician who she finds to be vile, or have views she finds to be vile, holds a press conference or tweets that she refused to represent that politician because she disagrees with everything he stands for.

 

 

Outside counsel guidelines and term limits

While I am on something of a short streak of writing about people much more famous and influential than I am, it seems as good a time as any to offer my thoughts about the article that two very fine lawyers with Hinshaw & Culbertson wrote for The Professional Lawyer in 2017 about even more aspects of the growing problems outside counsel guidelines are creating for lawyers in private practice.  (These same two authors did an earlier article that talked about the problems with indemnity provisions in such guidelines – you can go read that here if you’d like.)  The more recent article was titled The New Battle Over Conflicts of Interest: Should Professional Regulators–or Clients–Decide What is a Conflict?

If you don’t know the article of which I speak, or it has been a while since you read it, you can go read it (again) here.

It is difficult to contest the point being made by the authors in this article, and the earlier one, that increasingly frequent provisions in OCGs are creating real problems for lawyers in private practice.  Particularly so, those pieces of OCGs that feel like they are overreaching related to who must be treated as clients for purposes of determining conflicts.

The authors summarize the nature of these issues quite well as involving clients using OCGs to “expand[] the definition of who is the client (far beyond the bounds of prevailing case law);” “limit[] the universe of other clients from whom lawyers and their firms may accept work;” and to “expand[] the definition of ‘interest’ and ‘positional’ conflicts in order to prevent lawyers and firms from undertaking or continuing to work for other clients that may take public positions on issues that the client unilaterally—and often ex post facto—deems adverse to its own interests.”

What I do disagree with, however, is the authors’ proposal for how to fix this problem.  The authors propose that states amend their versions of Model Rule 5.6 to make it unethical for lawyers to propose or agree to restrictions on their right to practice in connection with being hired by a client, just as is now the case for employment agreements or as terms for resolving a client’s matter.

Under the proposed revision, Rule 5.6 would read as follows (the bold and italicized piece being the new stuff):

A lawyer shall not participate in offering or making:

(a) a partnership, shareholders, operating, employment, or other similar type of agreement that restricts the right of a lawyer to practice after termination of the relationship, except an agreement
concerning benefits upon retirement; or

(b) an agreement in which a restriction on the lawyer’s right to practice is part of the terms of engagement of a lawyer by a client or of the settlement of a client controversy.

My immediate reaction to reading that proposal was to think of the problems I have whenever people argue for imposing term limits on their elected representatives.  You get the opportunity to vote people out every time they come up for re-election.  You shouldn’t need a law that limits the number of terms they can serve because you can always simply just vote them out of office in the regular course of things.

The solution to overreaching in outside counsel guidelines is equally simple: lawyers and firms should reject OCGs that go too far and refuse to agree to terms that unreasonably define who must be treated as the client or that become tantamount to restrictions on the right to practice.

The counterargument for that position is about the same as the counter-argument when the discussion involves term limits — the deck is typically too stacked in favor of incumbents so that the balance of power is truly off and that simply saying “you can vote them out” is naive.

The nature of present day demands on lawyers and law firms means that most firms and lawyers won’t be willing enough to turn work away to push back on outside counsel guidelines that are unreasonable and amount to overreaching.  Any firm that really wants to take a stand will have too much economic pressure on it to do so.  I hear the point, but, while that might be a pretty bad basis for enacting term limits and preventing some truly effective politicians from serving for as long as their constituents might like, it’s an extraordinarily bad basis for revising an ethics rule.

In particular, it is a bad basis for revising an ethics rule when there are already one or more ethics rules that lawyers can point to as being breached by aspects of the very OCGs being complained about.  For example, the authors point out that OCGs, in order to enforce their expansive requirements about what is a conflict, also impose obligations on the lawyer to tell the client about matters they are contemplating undertaking.  In so doing, these OCGs are demanding that lawyers agree to disclose information that they are obligated to treat as confidential under RPC 1.18 (assuming they have that provision in their state).

A lawyer who wants to refuse to agree to outside counsel guidelines of that type would have a strong, persuasive argument to offer not only about that violation but the potential risk that an in-house lawyer would have – if insisting that it remain in the agreement – of being considered to have violated their state’s version of Model Rule 8.4(a) which, in most places, makes it a disciplinary violation for a lawyer to “knowingly … induce” another lawyer to violate the ethics rules.

It also seems to me be a bridge too far for lawyers and firm to be able to demand that clients be permitted to agree to advance conflict waivers and similar contractual provisions which would serve to narrow the scope of conflicts but also demand that clients should not be able to propose that the lawyer agree to treat requirements of conflicts even more broadly.

The authors also offer an alternative to their own proposed revised language – perhaps to avoid issues associated with when a restriction would be made a term of engagement or not, by suggesting that Rule 5.6 could otherwise be revised simply in (b) to prohibit “an agreement containing a restriction on the lawyer’s right to practice.”  There would be significant problems — perhaps in the nature of unintended consequences – that would come from that alternate revised Rule 5.6 proposal.

If someone is being hired as an in-house lawyer, their corporate employer should be permitted to require that they restrict their practice to only representing the corporate employer and not represent any other clients while employed in-house.  Technically speaking, the second version of the revised Rule 5.6 wouldn’t permit that.  And, even if you are a private practice lawyer and one client wants to provide you with enough work that they also want to have you agree that you won’t work on any other matters for any other clients, why shouldn’t that be okay?

There are examples out there of such lawyers other than just Tom Hagen, the lawyer in The Godfather.

And, coincidentally, Hagen’s also a pretty good example of a lawyer who should have simply turned down a proposed client engagement rather than allowing economic benefits to sway his decision.

 

A sad day in the world of legal ethics

Professor Ronald Rotunda, a legend in the field of legal ethics, has passed away at the age of 73 from complications of pneumonia.  You can read a bit about the man here.

I disagreed strongly with Professor Rotunda’s politivcal views, but when it came to the world of legal ethics he was amazingly influential, highly intelligent, and more-often-than-not correct in his analysis of those matters.  (In fact, about the only times anyone ever had a chance of trying to demonstrate that he was incorrect on an issue of legal ethics were cases in which   I can see his Legal Deskbook on Professional Responsibility from where I sit,.

It is undoubtedly true that there are a relatively small number of truly invested, truly credible experts in the world of legal ethics.

That number is smaller by one with Professor Rotunda’s untimely passing.

An object lesson about “staying in your lane.”

Prominent technology blogger, Robert Ambrogi, has taken to Above the Law to criticize the latest ABA Formal Ethics Opinion.  In addition to attempting to savage it over being somehow untimely since lawyers have been blogging for almost 20 years, his primary substantive criticism of the opinion is that it makes no sense for an ethics rule to prohibit a lawyer from speaking or writing (or blogging or Tweeting) publicly about information that is already in the public record.

Ambrogi’s criticism is a bland (and perhaps satisfying at a surface level) kind of thing to say, but it reveals that the author is not someone who has spent a bunch of time working with, or thinking about, the ethics rules.

In the nature and spirit of “open letters to people who are unlikely to read them,” I offer this primer to Mr. Ambrogi on why our profession has crafted an ethics rule that does, in fact, err on the side of prohibiting lawyers from further discussing things even that are public record without our client’s consent or the need to do so to further the representation.

Dear Mr. Ambrogi:

Let’s pretend that I was currently representing a prominent legal technology blogger in a divorce proceeding.  This is, admittedly, a hard thing to pretend as I don’t do family law, but we’ll push on nonetheless.

In order to secure the desired divorce for the blogger, and because of the truly toxic nature of the blogger’s relationship with their significant other, I end up having to share a lot of deeply personal, highly intimate, and potentially quite embarrassing information in the complaint for divorce not only about the blogger but about the blogger’s significant other and that person’s various other romantic partners.

Now that happens in a state where it is very difficult to establish the need for court filings to be sealed, thus the complaint for divorce is a public record upon filing.  It also occurs in a state where, while it is true that court records are public records, they are not well-organized online and are not all that easy to locate.

Thus, my client knows that what is in the complaint is a matter of public record, but they are certainly hopeful that the information will not be widely disseminated and that these intimate and embarrassing items are only ever learned and read by people directly associated with the court process.

Now, if your approach to the ethics rule on confidentiality were what our profession had adopted, then I’d be free at a cocktail party, or on a blog, or in a Tweet to share the wild information about my client’s personal life because it was a matter of public record, and I could do so simply to entertain those around me.

I would hope at this point we would both agree that would be a bad approach for the ethics rules governing our profession to take.

Thus, to protect against that kind of ability to disclose information, the rules are crafted to start from the premise that lawyers ought not to talk publicly about their client’s matters unless they have the client’s consent or some legitimate reason to do so.  (This includes not only further communications impliedly authorized to carry out the representation but situations where it becomes necessary to make disclosures, for example, for the lawyer to defend themselves in other proceedings.  If the blogger’s significant other turned around and filed a defamation lawsuit against me over the publication in the complaint about the intimate details of that person’s life, the ethics rules would allow me to disclose information reasonably necessary to defend myself.)

So, as that ends my rant, I will conclude by saying that I still stand by (another writing that you are unlikely to read) my prior take that Formal Opinion 480 is a good one.

 

Another good opinion from the ABA SCEPR

This was not what I originally planned to write about today, but … here we are all the same.

Today, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility released a new opinion and, because it relates to social media, it is generating a good deal of discussion online.  It is being rolled out and discussed as being of interest to lawyers who blog or tweet or otherwise participate in social media, but it actually is yet another opinion sending a message that all lawyers need to remember.  That is because it is another opinion from this body – in a relatively short period of time – emphasizing how broad the scope of client confidentiality is under Model Rule 1.6.

The key piece of the opinion worth knowing (mostly because it applies to lawyer communications in just about any forum or medium of any sort ranging from cocktail parties, to CLEs, to social media) is this:

The salient point is that when a lawyer participates in public commentary that includes client information, if the lawyer has not secured the client’s informed consent or the disclosure is not otherwise impliedly authorized to carry out the representation, then the lawyer violates Rule 1.6(a). Rule 1.6 does not provide an exception for information that is “generally known” or
contained in a “public record.” Accordingly, if a lawyer wants to publicly reveal client information, the lawyer must comply with Rule 1.6(a).

From my experience, this is a point about which lawyers cannot be reminded nearly enough.  And, it most certainly is not just a social media issue.  Though I have, in the past and far-too-snarkily written about the problem as it crops up on social media.

Interestingly, I spent most of my day today sitting through CLE programming and, perhaps coincidentally, it was the first time in a long time that I actually heard a presenter acknowledge before telling a story about a case that they had actually obtained their client’s permission to talk about the case.

Far too often, I hear lawyer presenters relate information about something they are working on at a CLE by providing so much detail about a situation that it would not take much effort at all to immediately figure out who they are actually talking about.  This latest ABA Formal Opinion also offers a helpful refresher on the problem with doing that:

A violation of Rule 1.6(a) is not avoided by describing public commentary as a“hypothetical” if there is a reasonable likelihood that a third party may ascertain the identity or situation of the client from the facts set forth in the hypothetical. Hence, if a lawyer uses a hypothetical when offering public commentary, the hypothetical should be constructed so that there is no such likelihood.

That escalated … but not all that quickly.

You’ve likely already read something this week about the Florida lawyer who was disbarred last month as the culmination of his “cumulative and escalating misconduct,” so I don’t know that I have anything truly unique to offer about the situation.

But because I so clearly remember talking about the first event in his series of bad behavior in seminars I did about 8 years ago, I feel compelled to write about his disbarment.

Back in 2010, an opinion came out that suspended Robert Ratiner for 60 days over an incident involving a highly aggressive and inappropriate reaction to another lawyer putting a sticker onto his laptop during a deposition.

That case garnered some substantial legal media attention because the Florida Supreme Court described Ratiner’s conduct as something that ought to be viewed in professionalism courses to teach lawyers how not to behave.  In that incident which happened in 2007, Ratiner responded to the other lawyer’s placement of the exhibit sticker by first trying to physically run around the table to where the lawyer was and then, instead, forcefully leaned over the table, angrily yelled at the other lawyer, and through the wadded up sticker at him.

Between that incident and the latest, Ratiner received a three-year suspension in 2015 flowing from more litigation behavior evidencing problems both with inter-personal skills and with recognizing and respecting physical boundaries.  In that case, Ratiner first called opposing counsel a “dominatrix” during a document review session and, on the following day, tried to grab a document away from her which prompted the involvement of a security guard.  That event happened in October 2009.

The February 2018 order of disbarment (which you can read here), unlike the prior two incidents, involved conduct inside the courtroom.  Ratiner was accused of loudly kicking the table of other counsel during a hearing, saying “lie, lie, lie” during the cross-examination of one of his law partners, and wrinkling and throwing documents in court.

The ethics rule Ratiner ran afoul of is Florida’s slight variation on the traditional Model Rule 8.4(d) about not engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.  That rule in Florida reads:  “A lawyer shall not engage in conduct in connection with the practice of law that is prejudicial to the administration of justice, including to knowingly, or through callous indifference, disparage, humiliate, or discriminate against litigants, jurors, witnesses, court personnel, or other lawyers.”

Perhaps remarkably, the initial proposed discipline for this event was another 3 year suspension rather than disbarment.  The Florida Supreme Court decided, however, that disbarment was required.

As the Florida Supreme Court explained:

Ratiner has denied the existence of such objectionable, disrespectful conduct over the years, even in the face of videotaped evidence and witness testimony. His argument or belief that said conduct constitutes the zealous representation of his clients is completely unacceptable.

[snip]

In cases where lawyers have previously been disciplined for engaging in misconduct of a similar nature, the Court has generally taken an incremental approach in imposing discipline, increasing the severity of discipline in each instance.

[snip]

Ratiner’s intentional and egregious misconduct continues to demonstrate an attitude that is wholly inconsistent with professional standards, and there is no indication that he is willing to follow the professional ethics of the legal profession.

Other than what is set out in the various opinions, I do not know anything more about this lawyer’s situation.  Although none of the opinions include anything to clearly signal underlying, treatable problems plaguing this lawyer,  this certainly feels like a sad story that has issues of lawyer wellness at its heart.

It also involved a pattern of conduct spread out over a fairly long time (though not as long as it feels at first when you have 10 years elapsing between the sticker-throwing incident that prompted the first, short suspension and the disbarment) when you think about it in terms of “escalation.” Ratiner practiced law for 28 years before being disbarred.  Almost 4 years passed between the deposition sticker row and the table-kicking courtroom incident.

Nevertheless, it’s as good a reason as any to remind people in our profession to add this report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well Being to your reading pile and to actually read it.  Particularly, when news in the world of lawyering brings developments like this shooting — a situation which I would say truly involves quick and very scary escalation — and the notion that this odious lawyer is out there representing our profession to the public.

Preparing for disbarment.

The panel I was fortunate enough to participate in at the meeting of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers in Vancover earlier this month has received a very good write up appearing in a Bloomberg Law publication.  You can go read it here.  We talked about a number of things other than the looming GDPR deadline, but that is what is the focus of the article.  (I do promise to write more about GDPR issues before that May 2018 deadline rolls around, but not today.)

One of the very good panel presentations I had the chance to observe at the APRL mid-year meeting involved representing lawyers in disbarment cases and how difficult it can be to manage your client when you know what’s coming – they are going to be disbarred – but they do not yet realize that’s the future (or they are still struggling mightily to convince themselves it will play out differently.)  There are certainly lawyers who deserve to be disbarred, but even those lawyers, if they’ve hired a lawyer for their matter, deserve the best advice and guidance their own lawyer can provide them about their situation.  It was a very good panel discussion and offered some good insight about the kind of skill sets lawyers who handle such matters need to possess.

Last week was a pretty big week in Tennessee for removing lawyers from the rolls as the Tennessee Supreme Court issued two opinions disbarring two lawyers in largely different scenarios.  The two prominent things they have in common are: (1) as with lots of disbarment scenarios there were conversions of client funds from trust in the mix of problematic conduct; and (2) they both involved what should have been viewed as quite obviously doomed arguments to try to have an order of disbarment be made retroactive to a much earlier date.

One of the things that lawyers representing lawyers ought to recognize – and that was at least something of an implicit theme in parts of the panel discussion – is that, sometimes, the best representation you can provide involves helping your client get disbarred as quickly as possible.  In jurisdicitons where disbarment is permanent, that isn’t necessarily true at all.  But, in jurisdictions like Tennessee, where a lawyer can apply for reinstatement even after being disbarred, but cannot do so until at least five years has passed, getting to disbarment quickly can be incredibly important.  (And, to be clear, I have no insight into the handling of this particular case.  The lawyer for the lawyer might have been trying to do everything possible in that regard and might have even made it perfectly clear to the lawyer client that the price of continued appeal was that the disbarment clock was not going to start for many years.)

One of the two opinions – likely quite rightly – describes the conduct of that lawyer as seeming to be “more bungling than nefarious” so this post will focus instead on the case that pretty clearly drips with nefariousness.  You can, of course, go read the full opinion here, but here’s a very quick and dirty, bullet point version of the wrongdoing:

  • The lawyer convinced someone to give him more than $5 million for a financial venture, promised the funds would be held in escrow and not moved without the person’s permission, and promised payouts to the person from the venture to begin within 30 days.
  • The lawyer did not keep the funds in the manner promised, made no payouts, only returned $1 million of the deposited funds, never provided an accounting to the person of what happened to the money, pulled those funds out for a variety of purposes, and then falsified accounting records filed with a court to show the money was still in trust when it wasn’t.
  • The lawyer defied a court order requiring transfer of whatever funds were still in the trust account to the Clerk of Court for holding and instead directed the bank to transfer those funds to a bank account of an employee of his law firm.
  • At around the same time, the lawyer took a $1,500 retainer from a client. wrote one letter, and then stopped communicating with the client, and didn’t refund the money.
  • A year before those situations, the lawyer separately got a payment of $5,000 from a client, did very little work, and then stopped communicating with the client altogether and ignored counsel for the opposing party, and did not refund the client’s money.
  • Later, after a temporary suspension had been entered and while on disability inactive status (NB: the only apparent claimed defense for any of the above hinged on a claim to have suffered a head injury in an attack involving being hit on the head with a metal pipe.), the lawyer worked as an assistant for another attorney (NB: back at a time when in TN we did not have the “can’t sweep the floor” rule I wrote about here.) and scammed $10,000 out of one of that attorney’s clients based on false statements that the attorney wanted the payments.

I mean, if you have a decent amount of experience with the disciplinary system, you know the end of this story once you’ve gotten up to speed with the facts:  That’s the tale of a lawyer who will be disbarred.

It’s also the tale of a lawyer who will have a very, very hard time ever being able to be reinstated to the practice of law in the future and whose best hope of reinstatement ever coming to fruition likely turns as much on what they do during the disbarment proceedings as what they do to rehabilitate themselves and become a different person over the following five years.

This is also the story of a lawyer who needed someone to remind him that there are things you can do on hills besides die on them.

If that kind of reminder was given in the form of legal advice, it certainly wasn’t followed.  Instead, a really big hill was located.

The primary argument pursued on the appeal of the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court was that the date of disbarment should have been made retroactive back some 6 to 7 years earlier.  Setting aside just the pure legal flaws associated with trying to argue that the concept of disbarment (rather than suspension) can be made retroactive to a period of ongoing temporary suspension, the act of pushing this argument in this case required someone to stand in front of the Court and ask it to enter an order of disbarment for the above conduct but agree that the lawyer could immediately turn around and apply for reinstatement.

Hope may spring eternal and all that, but that’s such an obviously untenable position that I would have hoped no lawyer would build an entire appeal around it.

In the end, as indicated above, this is the story of a lawyer that likely has no realistic chance at ever being reinstated, but, by persisting on appeal long after the ghost should have been given up (and while having been sidelined from practice for the last 7+ years), any effort at reinstatement cannot be pursued until 2023.

 

 

An incredibly unhelpful ethics opinion from Colorado

Were you looking for something that is very well-written but entirely unhelpful to your needs as a lawyer?  Well, you’ve come to the right place today.

Wait, I now see how that paragraph could be misconstrued in an entirely unflattering way and as an inadvertent passing of judgment on this whole blog.  Obviously, I didn’t mean that.  After all, I said “well-written.”

Anyway, what I’m actually intending to refer to is Colorado Formal Ethics Opinion 134 which was enacted in January 2018 but which was brought to my attention by a loyal reader of this space.  It likely came into his path because of some treatment in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual which I admittedly have not read beyond their headline and lead sentence, which is as follows:

Advance Agreements on Joint Settlement OK, Colorado Bar Says

A lawyer who represents multiple clients in a case can prepare for them, with informed consent, an agreement stating that a majority vote controls for settlement offers, a recent Colorado bar ethics opinion says.

That is one way to spin the Colorado opinion and draw peoples attention, but studying the opinon itself reveals that the picture being painted is far too rosy because a more fair introduction to the opinion would be:

Advance Agreements on Joint Settlement OK to Memorialize But Lawyer Can’t Enforce It in the Future, Colorado Bar Says

A lawyer who represents multiple clients in a case can prepare for them, with informed consent, an agreement stating that a majority vote controls for settlement offers, a recent Colorado bar ethics opinion says, but what would be the point?  The same opinion explains that if any of the clients later rejects the settlement and refuses to abide by the majority vote then the lawyer doesn’t have settlement authority and can’t continue to represent everybody.

I’m not kidding.  That is the TL/DR version of Colorado Formal Opinion 134.  Don’t believe me, go read it for yourself.

Now, Colorado may feel like it has given a helpful opinion because it distinguishes its opinion from some others by saying it is perfectly ethical for a lawyer to participate in preparing an agreement along these lines for jointly represented clients and explaining how Rule 1.8(g) is not triggered until some future point when a settlement is on the table for consideration.  But . . . geez.  From a practical perspective, it’s an exercise in navel-gazing because of this paragraph of the opinion:

If multiple clients agree in advance on a majority-decision rule for how they will respond to an aggregate settlement proposal, but one client in the future refuses to follow the majority’s decision, the dissenting client might be in breach of that agreement.  The other clients might have claims against the dissenting client.  This circumstance creates an unwaivable conflict for their joint lawyer due to the dispute between in the dissenting client and the other clients.  The lawyer may not take sides in the dispute, and may not seek to enforce the agreement againts the dissenting client, on behalf of the majority clients, by compelling the dissenting client to settle.  The lawyer might need to withdraw from the joint representation entirely.

Because of that, it seems hard to understand how any good Colorado lawyer armed with this opinion could ever respond to an inquiry by joint clients about putting together a majority-rule agreement with any advice other than:

Yeah, you don’t want me to go through all of that.  If anyone changes their mind later, I can’t enforce it and you probably just end up in additional litigation maybe over breaching the contract and you all just end up having to hire more and different lawyers.  So, let’s just wait until we have something in front of us to think about on settlement some day and then work it out if and when that day ever comes around.