California dreaming.

As promised, I’m not done writing about the ATILS initial recommendations that have been put out for public comment in California.

In fact, I’m here in San Francisco for the next few days at the APRL meeting where there will also be a public forum about the recommendations on August 10.

The public comment period continues until September 23, but if the sentiment that gets expressed at the hearing is anything like the feedback during the public comment period, there may be pitchforks and torches.

It should come as no surprise to those paying attention but California lawyers are scared and uninterested in embracing reform of the way legal services are delivered. While I cannot find anywhere online to actually read the comments that have been submitted so far, you can access something of a spreadsheet here that is a tally of favorable or opposed submissions. People so far even have overwhelmingly commented against doing the easy stuff I mentioned in my prior post.

Nevertheless, let’s talk about a piece of the ATILS recommendation because I still think reform has to happen … one way or another.

The piece I want to talk about today is the proposed recommendation about changing RPC 5.4 in terms of prohibiting partnerships between lawyers and non-lawyers. This is an issue that the APRL Future of Lawyering project is also tackling but California has more quickly made tangible proposals. They’ve done so in the alternative offering a proposed recommendation 3.1 and an alternative proposed recommendation 3.2.

3.1 – Adoption of a proposed amended rule 5.4 [Alternative 1] “Financial and Similar Arrangements with Nonlawyers” which imposes a general prohibition against forming a partnership with, or sharing a legal fee with, a nonlawyer. The Alternative 1 amendments would: (1) expand the existing exception for fee sharing with a nonlawyer that allows a lawyer to pay a court awarded legal fee to a nonprofit organization that employed, retained, recommended, or facilitated employment of the lawyer in the matter; and (2) add a new exception that a lawyer may share legal fees with a nonlawyer and may be a part of a firm in which a nonlawyer holds a financial interest, provided that the lawyer or law firm complies with certain requirements including among other requirements, that: the firm’s sole purpose is providing legal services to clients; the nonlawyers provide services that assist the lawyer or law firm in providing legal services to clients; and the nonlawyers have no power to direct or control the professional judgment of a lawyer.

3.2 – Adoption of an amended rule 5.4 [Alternative 2] “Financial and Similar Arrangements with Nonlawyers” which imposes a general prohibition against forming a partnership with, or sharing a legal fee with, a nonlawyer. Unlike Recommendation 3.1, the Alternative 2 approach would largely eliminate the longstanding general prohibition and substitute a permissive rule broadly permitting fee sharing with a nonlawyer provided that the lawyer or law firm complies with requirements intended to ensure that a client provides informed written consent to the lawyer’s fee sharing arrangement with a nonlawyer.

Now, my quibbles with either proposed amendment to RPC 5.4 would be at the margins. I think what is missing from the second alternative is that also there would need to be protection that the nonlawyer have no power to direct or control the professional judgment of a lawyer. As to the first alternative, my only real quibble is that I think the second alternative is better on substance.

I understand why a lot of lawyers would get queasy at the second alternative, but I’m at something of a loss to see how – other than based purely on either pure self-interest or “guild” protection – lawyers can wield torches in response to the first alternative. Very weirdly there has (so far) been more opposition to 3.1 than to 3.2.

To some extent recommendation 3.1 is not strikingly different than what D.C. already permits and it embraces the reality of what is (or at least with respect to Avvo “was”) already happening online when it comes to business providing marketplaces to pair willing attorneys with interested clients.

Shimkonicity (shim-ko-nis-a-tee)

When I first read some reporting about this decision from Ohio involving the indefinite suspension of a lawyer, I expected it to come across very much as an obvious case of a lawyer’s third strike leading to a steep punishment. But, the coming together of so many things with respect to this lawyer’s situation actually offers quite a story from which a lot of lawyers can learn a few things (or at least be reminded of some things they already knew). Thus, showing my age again, I’ve gone with The Police album rip-off title for this post.

So, yes, at the straightforward level, if you read this opinion, you will digest the story of a lawyer getting hit with his third strike. About nine years ago, Mr. Shimko engaged in some financial chicanery with some clients leading to a public censure in Ohio that was imposed as reciprocal discipline after Arizona had first done the same. Three years or so after that, he received a one-year suspension (but it was all stayed so he continued to practice) for disparaging a judge. Now, he’s received an indefinite suspension after he appealed a recommended two-year suspension for charging an excessive fee to a client and then unnecessarily disclosing confidential information about the client in connection with suing the client for the excessive fee amount (along with a bit of unsavory threatening to disclose the information in order to try to get the client to settle).

Most of his story is routine stuff that all lawyers know (or should know) they should not do. The last seven-or-so-pages of the opinion also offer a tangible example of why trying to throw every potential appellate argument into a mix — particularly in a disciplinary case — is not a very good strategy. But along the way, there are two real teachable nuggets here of things that a surprising number of lawyers sometimes don’t know, and there is also one big topic that the Court simply fails to mention which also is pretty important (and which it could have used to further skewer the lawyer’s scattershot allegations of error on appeal.)

Much the way my son tackles fast food; first we will tackle the nuggets:

Nugget #1: You just can’t bill your clients for time you spend drafting what amounts to your engagement letter. If it is a good engagement letter, you are substantially creating it for your own benefit and protection. At most, it is documentation that is partially being created for the client’s benefit. Don’t try to charge the client for that time.

Nugget #2: There is a second-level of consideration when a lawyer is proceeding under a self-defense exception to restrictions on the disclosure of confidential information. Not only do you have to be able to demonstrate that one of the specific exceptions under RPC 1.6(b) can be satisfied, which you can do if you are trying to pursue payment from the client as an example. But you also have to remember that the disclosures you make need to be no more than is reasonably necessary AND in a lot of circumstances you still have to make efforts to try to limit the number of people to whom the disclosure is made. The comments to RPC 1.6 lay out guidance about this in most jurisdictions in a very clear and helpful fashion. If you are litigating a fee dispute with a client, even though you can disclose confidential information to the Court in order to prevail on your claim or defeat the claim of your client/former client, you may very well have to also seek the entry of a protective order to try to prevent the information you are disclosing from becoming fully available to the public.

And the thing that was missing? Any discussion by the Court of why this Ohio lawyer’s arguments about how he was entitled to do what he did because the client was committing insurance fraud using his services are very hard to reconcile with one or two other ethics rules in Ohio (and elsewhere) – RPC 3.3 and RPC 4.1.

If the lawyer’s version of events regarding what the client had told him in advance of the examination under oath was to be believed, then under RPC 4.1 what the lawyer was required to do, at minimum, was to withdraw from the representation so as not to assist with the fraud. If representing someone in a pending insurance dispute during an examination under oath is somehow treated as a representation to a tribunal under Ohio law (which I would suspect is not the case), then RPC 3.3 in Ohio — patterned after the Model Rule — would have required the lawyer to speak up during the EUO about what was happening not after the fact.

The Court likely didn’t address those issues because it did not need to since the earlier rulings had found the lawyer’s assertions not to be credible, but even a footnote highlighting this issue for lawyers might have been a worthwhile piece of dicta.

Really big goings on in California.

And, no, in the title I’m not referring to the leak of information about the California Bar essay topics before the bar exam. Although that story is certainly bananas.

You’ve likely by now read at least something somewhere online about the most recent product coming out of the California State Bar Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services, consisting of tentative recommendations that has been formally put out for public comment. Most of the usual places where you can readily get good news about issues relevant to (or related to) the practice of law have done a piece of some sort about it.

It really is a significant step in the national discussion about what the regulation of the practice of law ought to look like moving forward and, if you have the time, the full 250-or-so-pages of report and related attachments is worth a read and available at this link. (To be clear, if you only have time to read one report spanning hundreds of pages, it should be The Mueller Report. The future of legal ethics in this country isn’t going to be of much importance if we can’t get a handle on just how badly the rule of law is currently being threatened by our institutions (Part 2) and just how little faith and confidence we can have in the integrity of our elections process (Part 1). So, if you are a lawyer and still have not read that report yet, then you need to do so.)

(If you have time to read two massively long reports, then the ATILS report should be the other one.)

There is so much about the ATILS proposal, and its variants, that is worth writing about that I’m pretty certain I’m going to end up dedicating a few posts to the subject matter – though spread out a bit so as not to only write about it and nothing else for too long a time period. Aspects of what is being discussed are really substantial changes to the way things work now and will most certainly be scrutinized and subjected to significant debate.

To start off though, I want to just talk about two aspects of the report that ought to be much less controversial both because it is an easy jumping off point and because, on their own, they give a glimpse into how fast things are moving these days.

Now you may recall that California only very recently (effective November 1, 2018 as a matter of fact) revised their ethics rules in an overhaul that more closely resembles aspects of the ABA Model Rules. In so doing, California became the very last U.S. state to do so. But getting there took more than 17 years. With those revisions, California adopted a version of ABA Model Rule 1.1 on competence and adopted ethics rules related to legal advertising that at least followed the numbering and overall framework – with some deviations – of ABA Model Rules 7.1 through 7.5.

Despite the fact that California’s versions of those rules still essentially have a “wet paint” sign on them, the task force report is proposing a revision to California’s RPC 1.1 and is proposing that another pass be taken at California RPCs 7.1 through 7.5 to either put them more in line with the most recent revisions to the ABA Model Rules or possibly more in line with the less modest proposal that the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers made that (as written about here a time or two) started the process moving that led to the ABA revisions.

Being willing to consider such things less than a year since adopting new rules is a bit unusual on its own, but when it comes to RPC 1.1, the task force is going a bit further and proposing that California revise the language a bit even from what the ABA Model Rule says. To a large degree the proposed deviation is a bit wonky because, at heart, it stems from the age-old debate about where exactly the right lines are in terms of what Comments can be used for and what they can do when compared to the text of the rule itself. (The discussion of the motivation and issue is found at p. 18-19 of the task force report documents.)

The ABA Model Rule comment language reads:

To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and in practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology….

The California proposal would instead be:

The duties set forth in this rule include the duty to keep abreast of the changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.

For what it is worth, I can manage to both think that the ABA Model Rule approach does not run afoul of the balance between comment and rule but also agree with the task force proposal that if California adopted the proposed variation, it would likely be a better approach.

Now the cynical amongst us may say that these topics wouldn’t be being addressed if there wasn’t a much larger set of reforms being put on the table. And those folks are probably right … about which more later.

A modest proposal (about NYC Bar Op. 2019-5)

I have made a living (well not actually a living since no one compensates me in any form of currency, whether crypto or otherwise, for my writings here) writing about problematic ethics opinions. July 11, 2019 brings what might be the most practically useless ethics opinion ever released. If it were only just practically useless, then it might not be worth writing about. But it adds into the mix the fact that it appears, without discussion, to significantly expand the scope of the rule being interpreted as well.

It comes from the New York City Bar, and it addresses cryptocurrency. Well, that’s not fair exactly. Nebraska opinion 17-03 which I wrote about almost two years ago can be described as an ethics opinion that addresses cryptocurrency. This opinion from the New York City Bar addresses a highly speculative question related to cryptocurrency. It asks “what if…a lawyer entered into an agreement with a client that would require the client to pay the lawyer in cryptocurrency?” Not kidding. That is literally the overriding premise. Now, admittedly, Memphis is a long way from New York City, but is this really a potential fee contract provision with relevance to more than a handful of lawyers?

If it is relevant to you, then you could go read the full opinion at this link. Before you decide whether that is how you wish to spend your time though, here is an excerpt from the opinion that literally identifies the three variations of possible fee agreements it considers:

  1. The lawyer agrees to provide legal services for a flat fee of X units of cryptocurrency, or for an hourly fee of Y units of cryptocurrency.
  2. The lawyer agrees to provide legal services at an hourly rate of $X dollars to be paid in cryptocurrency.
  3. The lawyer agrees to provide legal services at an hourly rate of $X dollars, which the client may, but need not, pay in cryptocurrency in an amount equivalent to U.S. Dollars at the time of payment.

If those questions cry out to you as needing answers, then by all means do go read the full opinion.

But, if those questions don’t sound like they are relevant to you and your practice (and the opinion itself even acknowledges that the first scenario is “perhaps-unrealistic” and the second scenario is only “perhaps more realistic”), then here’s my modest proposal.

Let’s pretend that NYC Bar Op. 2019-5 starts at roughly p. 12 and just includes the rest…. because (1) those four pages of analysis are a pretty good overview of how you work through RPC 1.8 in most jurisdictions in order to evaluate the business transaction with a client issue, and (2) it reminds the reader of the two significant ways that New York’s version of RPC 1.8(a) differs from the ABA Model Rule.

New York’s version differs from the ABA Model by making the scope of its RPC 1.8(a) less broad in two different ways. It mandates that the rule only applies to transactions where the lawyer and client have “differing interests” in the transaction and where the client expects the lawyer to be exercising professional judgment on behalf of the client.

Nevertheless, the last four pages of the opinion give sound guidance of what a lawyer has to be concerned about with respect to a business transaction with a client:

First, the lawyer must ensure that the transaction is “fair and reasonable to the client” and must disclose the terms of the transaction in writing and “in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client.”

[snip]

Second, the lawyer must advise the client, in writing, about the desirability of seeking separate counsel and must then give the client a reasonable opportunity to consult separate counsel.

[snip]

Third, the client must understand and agree to “the essential terms of the transaction, and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction.”

One added benefit of my modest proposal is that it will also avoid the Pandora’s Box this opinion appears to wish to open. As long as the full version of this opinion exists, then lawyers will need to pay very close attention to what happens on page 4. That is when the opinion blithely sticks the words “(or prospective client)” in without discussion. Given the text of the rule, this reference would appear to entirely transform RPC 1.8(a) from a rule that only applies to a business transaction with someone who has already become your client into a rule that now applies to contracts to form an attorney-client relationship.

While the NYC Bar Opinion does cite to Professor Simon’s annotated version of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct (not surprisingly in the four pages at the end which should stay), my admittedly quick review of what Professor Simon offers in the annotations to RPC 1.8(a) doesn’t appear to indicate that the rule is as expansive as this opinion seems to indicate. Many of those annotations certainly read like the transaction in question can’t be the one that creates the attorney-client relationship itself. That seems like a pretty big thing to parenthetically speak into existence in this ethics opinion.

Tales of typos and punctuation problems.

I’ve written once or twice in the past about how questions of punctuation and typographical error can be unimportant when the issue amounts only to pedantry. Of course, punctuation can be very important. The stage phenomenon Hamilton has a good line or two about this involving “My dearest Angelica. With a comma after dearest, you’ve written … My dearest, Angelica” with this particular Schuyler sister noting how it changed the meeting and inquiring whether Alexander intended it.

There are more mundane, less lyrical examples that can be encountered in situations every day. For example, just playing around with punctuation can change entirely the meaning of two paragraphs that only differ by their punctuation:

  • Somehow I managed not to write anything for almost two weeks. I’m sick it happened. I’ll try to do better starting now.
  • Somehow, I managed. Not to write anything. For almost two weeks I’m sick. It happened. Ill! Try to do better. Starting now.

Today’s post hits two topics with nearly nothing in common other than the role that punctuation (or asserted typographical errors) plays in each one.

The ABA Journal directs all of our collective attention to this story of a Florida lawyer who has now been disbarred for breaking into his former law firm and stealing items. The headline of the article reads: “Lawyer disbarred after breaking into former law firm; blamed punctuation problem.” Now, setting aside the fact that the ABA managed not to properly use that semicolon there in that headline, the headline is one that seems like it is designed just to make you click through to see how in the world a punctuation problem could be a defense to breaking and entering.

Go ahead and click if you want, but [SPOILER ALERT] it’s not even close to a viable defense. I’d call the role of punctuation in that case mere pedantry but I think that might be insulting even to pedants. You can read more of the details in the order disbarring the lawyer here, but the flimsy reed to support some of his conduct apparently was that because his former law firm had incorporated its professional name – Barak Law Group, PA – without putting periods after the “P” and the “A,” then he could incorporate his own entity by the same name but with “P.A.” That, apparently, would give him ownership and domain over the assets of his former law firm.

He proceeded to hold himself out in public as the owner of the firm and to file hundreds of notices of liens as well as some other public record or court documents to try to cause money to be diverted in his direction.

Of course, the lawyer in question also must have come to realize that his magical argument about the missing periods wasn’t as powerful as he hoped. One of the pieces of misconduct spelled out against him in the proceedings involved surveillance video driving home the point that his punctuation arguments weren’t opening doors for him as he had hoped:

The video allegedly showed Brady and his brother backing a truck up to the Barak firm, tying a rope from the truck to the front door and using the car to rip the door open. The video showed Brady and his brother removing a safe and the computer server, Barak testified.

In the end, he got what Florida characterizes as permanent disbarment, and the article explains that a big factor in that was a complete lack of remorse for the misconduct. Or, more lyrically as the article spells out, he “clings to his justification for his actions with a ferocity that is quite disturbing.”

Shifting gears from playing with punctuation to quickly admitting and fixing a mistake in the form of a typographical error, the Tennessee Supreme Court put out an order yesterday that adopted a new revision to what was already a pretty brand new rule approving the concept of collaborative law practice.

The rule is Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 53. The fix had to be made to Section 16 of that rule and it involves replacing the word “record” with the word “agreement.” Now, strictly speaking, that isn’t exactly what I think of when I think of a typographical error. Having the rule say “agerment” or “egreement” would be a typographical error. Going with “record” when you meant to use “agreement” seems much more like just an error. But quibbling about that would truly be pedantry.

Without poring over the entirety of Rule 53, it is difficult to see what sort of difference it makes to have referenced a “record” rather than an agreement in the provision, but, I’ll paste it below so you can guess for yourself if you’d like:

Section 16. Confidentiality of Collaborative Family Law Communication. A collaborative family law communication is confidential to the extent agreed to by the parties in a signed record agreement. Evidence of conduct or statements made in the course of a collaborative family law proceeding shall be inadmissible to the same extent as conduct or statements are inadmissible under Tennessee Rule of Evidence 408.

I’m really only including reference to it because I wrote a little bit about this rule when it was adopted back in April 2019, and I don’t believe i raised one thought that I had about it at that time.

The concept of collaborative lawyering – which at least under the Tennessee rule is now embraced exclusively in the context of domestic relations law – is in some ways antithetical to a number of recognized aspects of the practice of law and in other ways is just something of an expansion of the lawyer as intermediary rule that we still have in Tennessee (RPC 2.2).

Now, the ABA long ago jettisoned Model Rule 2.2 but Tennessee is one of two U.S. jurisdictions to still have it. If the reference isn’t striking any bells for you, it is the rule that applies:

when the lawyer provides impartial legal advice and assistance to two or more clients who are engaged in a candid and non adversarial effort to accomplish a common objective with respect to the formation, conduct, modification, or termination of a consensual legal relation between them.

Thus, aspects of the role that lawyers play in a collaborative lawyering arena can be thought of a bit like if two different lawyers were engaged in a joint venture for the purpose of serving two clients as intermediaries. But, admittedly, that analogy is imperfect at best.

[P.S. I’m fully invoking Muphry’s Law here in advance of any errors anyone spots in this post.]

Asking in South Carolina and definitely not receiving.

This development in South Carolina happened last month and I saw some folks getting a little worked up about it but am only getting around to writing a little about it now. (In fairness, last month only became last month around 80 hours or so ago.) But for some people getting worked up about it, it wouldn’t actually be all that noteworthy given that all South Carolina did was adopt a comment that made plain what the rule already truly required.

Nevertheless, it makes for an interesting subject not only because of the reaction it garnered but how it came about… in response to a petition seeking to change South Carolina’s Rule 1.6 in an entirely different direction.

But, I’ve managed to get way ahead of myself with the textual throat-clearing and have started in on all of this like you know what I am talking about.

In June 2019, the South Carolina Supreme Court entered an order that rejected an attempt by the South Carolina Bar to seek to have RPC 1.6 revised to permit lawyers to make reference to published court decisions in their advertising without having to get their client’s informed consent. And, to be clear, what the bar was asking for was a very incremental level of permission. They were seeking to have the rule allow a lawyer to make reference to the citation of a published case, not the details of it, just the citation.

Now I suspect many lawyers would assume that no such revision was even necessary on the basis that they simply think that public information is public information and can be used in whatever fashion is desired. In fact, this Bloomberg article quotes someone from a law firm I used to work for saying something along those lines. That might well be a common sense approach but it is simply an entirely incorrect statement when it comes to how the ethics rule on confidentiality works.

As I’ve written about in the past (probably more times than you care to remember but most recently in August 2018), RPC 1.6 continues to impose confidentiality obligations on lawyers as to information related to representation of a client even as to the most public of events. And, what that means is, when you work through the rule and its various provisions authorizing disclosure of such information . . . there simply isn’t a provision that justifies use of the information in commercial advertising endeavors without the consent of the client.

The South Carolina Supreme Court was not interested in what the Bar was seeking. Instead, it opted to adopt a new comment to RPC 1.6 to drive the point home about what the text of RPC 1.6 already requires.

Specifically, the Court added the following new Comment [7] to its RPC 1.6:

[7] Disclosure of information related to the representation of a client for the purpose of marketing or advertising the lawyer’s services is not impliedly authorized because the disclosure is being made to promote the lawyer or law firm rather than to carry out the representation of a client. Although other Rules govern whether and how lawyers may communicate the availability of their services, paragraph (a) requires that a lawyer obtain informed consent from a current or former client if an advertisement reveals information relating to the representation. This restriction applies regardless of whether the information is contained in court filings or has become generally known. See Comment [3]. It is important the client understand any material risks related to the lawyer revealing information when the lawyer seeks informed consent in accordance with Rule 1.0(g). A number of factors may affect a client’s decision to provide informed consent, including the client’s level of sophistication, the content of any lawyer advertisement and the timing of the request. General, open-ended consent is not sufficient.

Of course, the South Carolina Supreme Court is not wrong about this. And, at a practical level, requiring client consent is not truly that onerous.

However, given the connection to lawyer advertising generally that this development has, it is worth pointing out that South Carolina is still a generally bad jurisdiction when it comes to that topic. Partly, this is because it still refuses to recognize at a fundamental level what the purpose of advertising actually is by having this kind of requirement in its RPC 7.2(a):

All advertisements shall be predominately informational such that, in both quantity and quality, the communication of factual information rationally related to the need for and selection of a lawyer predominates and the communication includes only a minimal amount of content designed to attract attention to and create interest in the communication.

Loosing a big (maybe?) idea into the world.

I had originally promised myself that the articulation of this thought would debut here at my blog. I almost managed it but I raised this notion in the real world lately among some very bright lawyers. So, before I do it again somewhere other than the Internet, I’m following through to put this idea out through this platform for anyone who wishes to chew on it to chew on it.

The only background that I think you need (even if you are not a regular reader of this space) is that there is much activity going on across the country in terms of real efforts at proposed change to the way lawyer ethics rules address certain topics that are largely viewed as barriers to information about the availability of legal services.

Two of the potentially most important, and relatively fast-moving, endeavors are the work of the California Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services, the APRL Future of Lawyering project. But there is movement happening in a number of different states to propose changes to the ethics rules to loosen, if not outright delete, restrictions on monetary and other arrangements between lawyers and people who are not lawyers, that are currently placed in rules patterned after ABA Model Rule 5.4 (generally prohibiting fee-sharing with people who are not lawyers) and 7.2 (restricting the ability of lawyers to make payments to others for referrals to, or recommendations of the lawyer).

It is anticipated that there will be some significant level of outcry over any such proposed changes on the grounds that removal of such rules erodes the protection against lawyers having their exercise of independent professional judgment interfered with. Most every time I engage with anyone on that topic, I find myself making the point that, even without those provisions, the rules still require lawyers to maintain their independent professional judgment.

But, here’s the idea I am letting loose into the world: perhaps we should make that obligation more prominent. At present, outside of any particular context, the only rule that plainly starts down this path is the first sentence of Rule 2.1 which reads: “In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.”

Should we, as part of the coming necessary reform of the ethics rules, revise the first rule? Perhaps like this?

Rule 1.1: Competence and Independence

(a) A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

(b) A lawyer representing a client shall not permit any person to direct, regulate, or otherwise interfere with the lawyer’s exercise of independent professional judgment.

If that rule existed, then in all places in which restrictions considered to be barriers to access to legal information but which are justified because of the risk to lawyer independence could be replaced with a pointer back to the lawyer’s obligation under Rule 1.1(b).

Tennessee transparency update

Recently I wrote a bit about the latest Formal Ethics Opinion adopted in Tennessee including a bit of additional content focused on the enactment of this opinion as the maiden voyage of the new process involving the seeking of public comment on the FEO in draft form. If you missed those, you might want to read the two links above first in order to get up to speed.

One looming question was whether the BPR was going to be making the public comments it received before adopting the opinion actually public.

I learned today that the Board has addressed that question formally by adding a mechanism for doing so as part of its process and has posted the comments that were received regarding this particular proposed FEO here.

Having had the chance to read them, it did turn out that the only public comment received that criticized the draft opinion was the letter prepared by my colleagues. They also appear to be the only lawyers focused on the defense of products cases who submitted public comments at all. Many of the eight other comments received appear to have been submitted by plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The comments make for interesting reading as it appears that a recurring theme contained therein is how the Board got the answer correct from a public policy perspective. Making public policy, of course, is not exactly the role of the Board when it comes to issuing formal ethics opinions. At least one of the comments manages to heighten the point with respect to the conflicts presented by the interest of the lawyer and the client in ways that are not exactly addressed in the FEO. Not many of the comments make any real effort to address how it would be that destruction of the product would amount to a restriction on the lawyer’s right to practice.

Nevertheless, it is still heartening to know that (1) the Board’s approach to this new policy will include making public comments available publicly; and (2) this was not a situation where the Board received a significant amount of negative feedback and moved forward despite that fact.

New good, but not perfect, guidance from the ABA

The Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility of the ABA has been on something of a bit of a “spree” when it comes to the issuance of ethics opinions. (At least, it feels like it.) In the last 18 months, it has issued 10 opinions.

The most recent one is ABA Formal Op. 487 which offers ethical guidance to lawyers who take cases on a contingent fee basis or, more precisely, lawyers who take cases on a contingent fee basis after some other lawyer in a different firm has previously taken on the same case on a contingent fee basis. The dynamic of what exactly happens in such situations if, ultimately, there is some sort of successful result is largely the stuff of state-specific case law driven by lien laws and the distinction between whether a lawyer ends up being able to seek fees under their contract or under quantum meruit. Despite that, and relegating reference to those issues to a footnote at the end of the opinion, SCEPR has decided this area needs to be filled with guidance.

In doing so, the opinion focuses its attention upon the obligations of the new lawyer to communicate to the client about the potential – as difficult to quantify as it admittedly is – that the first lawyer might still be entitled to an amount of fees in the event of a recovery in the matter.

In giving this guidance, the ABA Formal Opinion certainly isn’t wrong (although I think it is wrong in one particular statement), but it is not entirely helpful and it is certainly not very practical.

Where a client hires successor counsel to handle an existing contingency fee matter, it does not pose an unreasonable burden on the successor counsel to advise the client that the predecessor counsel may have a claim to a portion of the legal fee if there is a recovery. In many instances, precision on this issue may be difficult as successor counsel may need to review the predecessor counsel’s fee agreement and assess its enforceability. Similarly, successor counsel may not be fully familiar with the nature and extent of the prior lawyer’s work on the matter. Successor counsel also will not know the amount of the recovery, if any, at the beginning of the representation. Nevertheless, Rules 1.5(b) and (c) mandate that successor counsel provide written notice that a portion of the fee may be claimed by the predecessor counsel.

That reading of the requirements of Rules 1.5(b) and (c) is not really an obvious and straightforward one. Thus, I don’t think it gives a very compelling foundation for the opinion’s conclusion. The conclusion is still probably correct though. Because there is an ABA Model Rule that provides a pretty compelling rationale for the conclusion even though the opinion rather remarkably never once references it — Model Rule 1.4(b) (“A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”)

As to the one particular statement that I think the opinion simply gets wrong, it is the statement that talks about clients not being able to be exposed to “more than one contingent fee when switching attorneys” and that ordinarily neither the first lawyer nor the second lawyer would ordinarily be entitled to a full contingent fee. I think both of those statements are offered with far too much certainty to comport with reality. It is not at all difficult to come up with scenarios where it is only the work of the second lawyer that provides the reasons for the successful outcome triggering the availability of a contingent fee.

One thing that the opinion does very well though is make clear the way in which the rules don’t work on this topic. The opinion spends a good bit of time explaining something that should have been obvious – but has not been for some courts — the rule on fee sharing between lawyers in different firms does not have any application to this situation.

The opinion adroitly walks through the ways in which ABA Model Rule 1.5(e) is entirely inapplicable to a situation in which the first lawyer on a case has been discharged and a second lawyer has taken over the representation of the client.

Two Arkansas items involving rare procedural developments

As I attempt this week to get back into the saddle, two items – each relatively unusual and each involving Arkansas – grabbed my attention. One involves a judge and the other a lawyer.

Although Fridays are usually reserved for standard “follow ups,” the first item is in the nature of follow-up because I wrote previously about when this Arkansas judge was hit with disciplinary charges over his involvement in a protest against the death penalty around about the same time he was ruling on issues related to the death penalty in a case. The ABA Journal now has a story about the charges against the judge being dismissed by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The reason for dismissal? The delay in the pursuit of the charges against him. The article notes that the charges were first filed against the judge back in April 2017. While both judges and lawyers alike subjected to disciplinary cases often feel like the process goes on longer than it should, and often times if you pay attention to the timelines in disciplinary opinions you see how extended the time frames often are between the opening of the case and the ultimate resolution, it is rare to see delay in disciplinary proceedings resulting in the outright dismissal of the charges. Twenty-six months would certainly be a long time if nothing at all was transpiring in the matter.

Of note, the article also mentions that the related ethics cases against six of seven justices on the Arkansas Supreme Court related to their treatment of the Arkansas judge in question (also discussed in my long-ago post) were also dismissed in November 2018 but the reasons for that dismissal are not mentioned.

On the lawyer side, a daily publication from the Tennessee Bar Association has started including disciplinary orders in its coverage of court opinions and, on Friday, it included the kind of order not seen every day on a number of fronts.

It is an order commencing a disciplinary case (or maybe not actually even truly doing that) against a Tennessee lawyer for having been convicted of a DUI offense in Arkansas. It’s unusual in a couple of respects in as much as historically there have not been many instances of any public discipline against Tennessee lawyers for criminal conduct involving drunk driving. While this order is certainly public in nature and can, itself, be something of a public censure for the lawyer involved, the order does not technically actually require the Board of Professional Responsibility in Tennessee to do anything about the situation.

The specific language of the order from the Tennessee Supreme Court reads:

This matter shall be referred to the Board for whatever action the Board may deem warranted.

Whether or not anything does come of it is unclear, the only provision that can be triggered by a DUI offense is RPC 8.4(b) and will turn on whether this particular criminal act is treated as one that “reflects adversely on the lawyer’s … fitness as a lawyer in other respects.” For what it may be worth, the lawyer in question does not have any past disciplinary history in terms of public discipline, but the Board’s website does reflect a pending petition against him that has been open since April 2018 so it would seem likely to be entirely unrelated to this offense which involved a traffic citation/arrest occurring in October 2018.