My favorite post of 2018

This post (which is not the post referred to in the title) is inspired entirely by something that is done by Nate DiMeo, the wonderful and talented force behind The Memory Palace podcast. (If you’ve never heard it, you are missing out and should grab a few episodes from wherever you download podcasts.)

At the end of the year, he rebroadcasts what is his favorite episode of his podcast performed in the prior year. He manages to do it in a way that is likely much less heavy-handed than I will and also manages to come across entirely self-effacing in evaluating his own content.

I wasn’t entirely sure I could pull something like that off – and still am not so sure — but thanks to the ABA Journal Web 100 recognition this year, there are undoubtedly some new eyeballs at this site that likely didn’t read everything I wrote before that development.

So, with many of the same caveats that Nate offers, here goes. This is not necessarily the best thing I wrote this year or even the thing that sparked the most views or interest, but it is (for a variety of reasons) my favorite post from 2018. It was written in June and was titled: “Time to choose: are you Illinois or New Jersey?” So, in case you missed it the first time, I’m putting it right down below these words without any further editing or re-writing [i.e. warts and all], which might be the hardest part of re-publishing it.

Blackhawks or Devils?

Bulls or Nets?

Barack Obama or Chris Christie?

Northwestern or Rutgers?

Kanye or Wu-Tang Clan?

Wilco or Bruce Springsteen?

Some of those are easy calls; some are harder decisions to make.  What they all have in common though is that one comes out of Illinois and the other comes out of New Jersey.

As to the future of legal ethics, we now face a similar decision that has to be made.  Are you down with what is coming out of Illinois or will you choose what New Jersey has to offer?

I’ll explain further.  Avid readers of this space will be well aware that I have devoted quite a few bits and bytes to discussions of the evolving market for legal services and the push/pull in place between companies that push the envelope of what lawyers can do under existing ethics rules and various ethics opinions that have been released explaining how lawyers can or cannot do business with such companies.  In order to avoid spamming this post with about 10-15 links to previous posts of mine, I’ll just say that if you are just getting here for the first time (welcome!), then look through the older posts for ones with the tag “Future of Legal Ethics” and you are sure to find one pretty quickly that discusses these topics.

Within the last couple of weeks, these have been the two developments that pretty nicely identify the choice that lawyers (and the legal profession) face.

First there is the Illinois development.  The Illinois ARDC — which is Illinois’s regulatory and disciplinary agency [Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee] — issued a more than 100-page report making the case for why the ethics rules need to be overhauled to permit lawyers to ethically participate in “lawyer-matching services” such as Avvo and other platforms but that, along with such changes, there need to be regulations adopted to impose certain requirements on such companies and platforms for lawyers to be able to participate.

In large part, much of what Illinois describes sounds a bit like a subtle variation on RPC 7.6 in Tennessee that I have written about in the past.  But it still also requires fundamental changes to other pieces of the ethics rules addressing financial arrangements between lawyers and those not licensed to practice law.

By way of juxtaposition, the New Jersey Supreme Court, asked to review a joint opinion issued by its legal ethics regulatory body, its advertising regulatory body, and its body focused on UPL aligned with other jurisdictions that have issued ethics opinions prohibiting lawyers from participating in programs like Avvo Legal Services, declined to review the opinion or otherwise disagree with its conclusions.

For my part, I think the choice is an easy one to make.

But, the most important thing for today (IMO) is for people to understand that there really is not a middle ground position here — you are going to have to make a choice and you are going to have to decide that you are either on board with the Illinois approach or the New Jersey approach to this topic.

Choose wisely.

A recipe for ethical lawyering?

Now that the Ethics Roadshow is complete in all of the cities where it was staged, I want to repackage the main idea from this year into a post and make a similar ask of my readers that I made of the attendees as to feedback on the point.

The title of the Roadshow this past year was “Back to Basics: Sailing the Five Cs of Ethical Lawyering,” but the main ultimate question or conceit when boiled down was whether the 5 Cs I had identified could provide not only a basic road map for being an ethical lawyer no matter the nature or setting of your practice but could also provide the ingredients of a recipe that can be used to justify the existence of those pieces of the ethics rules that are absolutely worth keeping moving forward in discussions about the future of legal ethics and lawyer regulation. 

The 5 Cs as put forth as the ingredients of the recipe were:

  • Be COMPETENT at what you do
  • Recognize and respect your obligations of CONFIDENTIALITY
  • COMMUNICATE appropriately with your clients (and others) both as to content and frequency
  • Employ CANDOR in all situations in your practice [If you absolutely cannot be 100% truthful, and can’t simply stay silent, then don’t be false.]
  • Avoid CONFLICTS for which you don’t have, or cannot get, consent.

Recognizing that some people might immediately think of another important “C,” avoiding commingling I then offered thoughts about how quite clearly rules about trust accounting could be readily reverse-engineered by combining ingredients.  I initially suggested that Competence + Candor + Communication could do the trick; some others suggested that particularly the requirement to avoid commingling could be described as Candor + Communication + Conflicts.

There are a number of different groups at work on trying to make progress on what the modern regulation of the practice of law should look like.  One of those is APRL’s Future of Lawyering Committee.

I’m fortunate to be a member of that committee and our mission is this:

[T]o explore the evolving nature of technology and its impact on the delivery of legal services and access to justice.  Our goal is to develop specific proposals for amending the legal ethics rules and reforming the lawyer regulatory process.

And so my ask of you is the same as my ask of attendees: Unless a rule is truly, and absolutely, required in order to protect consumers of legal services, shouldn’t the rules worth revisiting be the ones that are hard, if not impossible, to describe using a combination of ingredients from this recipe?

Friday Follow Up: TIKD off at the Wisconsin judicial system

Just two short items by way of follow up from pieces I’ve written about in the past here.

First, I’ve written several different posts about the saga down in Florida that appeared to be one of the first big disputes – post the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the North Carolina Board of Dentistry case –  in which the rise of technology and alternative methods of delivering legal services to consumers would be pitted against traditional bar regulation with antitrust law issues serving as the rules of engagement.  You can read each of those older posts at the links above and this one right here too.

If you haven’t read any of those earlier posts, or don’t know the reference to the Florida litigation, TIKD is an app that you can put on your phone to use to resolve speeding tickets and similar moving violations without ever having to go to court yourself.  It arranges the retention of a lawyer for you and even provides you with a financial guarantee on cost and a promise to pay court fines for you if unsuccessful.  The company behind the app filed an antitrust lawsuit against The Florida Bar and a Florida law firm (The Ticket Clinic) challenging allegedly conspiratorial conduct designed to damage TIKD’s business operations.  I’ve focused so much on the dispute and what its ramifications might be that it would be a pretty big cop out not to mention the fact that the federal district court in Florida issued a 1-page order earlier this month granting the Florida Bar’s motion to dismiss the antitrust claims against it.

It is a classically unsatisfying order for an outsider to litigation to read because it offers no insight into its rationale other than to say it ruled that way based on the “reasons stated at the motions hearing.”  Having followed the events, I would think the reasons have to be a belief that, despite the fact that the Florida Bar regulators include market participants, the regulations they are enforcing are clearly delineated and emanate directly from the Florida Supreme Court.  Assuming there will be an appeal, then there may be more discussion of how this shook out, but, for now, it appears that TIKD’s shot at the regulatory framework in Florida ended up being full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

Going much back further into the archives, you will find a couple of posts expressing frustration and outrage with a particular Wisconsin lawyer who became infamous (at least for a while) with the release of Netflix’s Making a Murderer documentary.  You can read my original thoughts on the awfulness that was Len Kachinsky’s way of practicing law here and here.

His was a name I was never hoping to run across again so it was quite a roller coaster of emotions to simultaneously learn that Kachinsky had been arrested and charged with stalking but to simultaneously learn he had been acquitted of the charge.  The roller coaster ride went even lower though at the moment the words I was reading about his employment situation fully engulfed me … he had become a municipal judge in Wisconsin.

WT actual F Wisconsin?  Are y’all not even trying?  How can that guy have failed upward into a position in your judiciary?  How is he allowed to preside over any case about any thing?  That’s just a travesty.

Not all who wear capes are heroes.

This really is just too absurd not to write about.  The absurd story commanding my fingers to tap these keys today involves a lawyer who managed to blow some significant aspects of the fundamentals of being an ethical lawyer.  You may have seen the ABA Journal online story about the now-disbarred lawyer whose absurd story is commanding my fingers to type entitled: “Former lawyer who portrayed Excuseman pleads guilty to client theft.”  If not, you can take a quick look at it (and even watch the bizarre montage video of his cosplay/hacky stand-up/performance art in a really, really bad costume) at that link immediately above.

(*Adult subject matter warning, some of the “comedy” in the video is pretty blue, but it’s the stuff that is weirdly done by some other person who is included in the video for no obviously discernible reason and she seems to be reading from printed pages?)

What the ABA Journal article doesn’t exactly do for you is make absolutely plain the timing of the events.  Several years before this gentleman ended up getting disbarred, he was doing . . . whatever this thing was . . . some combination of bad stand-up comedy or bad performance art . . . that involved portraying this, “Excuseman,” character who …. I give up.  I watched the video at the link and I can’t make heads or tails of the point.  I mean it was obviously a cry for help, but I can’t figure out what he thought the point of doing it was.  He did spend some real money on pursuing his cosplay dreams and, as it turns out, given the timing of the events it is quite likely he funded the folly with some of the money that he stole from clients. 

After first being temporarily suspended, he was disbarred in Illinois in 2015 as a result of his conduct in settling cases of his clients without their consent and pocketing the settlement proceeds.  He is back in the news now because he has pled guilty to felony theft arising out of that same conduct.

And, yet, remarkably, the thing about the current version of the story that hits me hardest in terms of dramatic, nigh poetic, irony is it now feels like the person who truly needs to offer a good excuse for their conduct is the prosecutor who ended up agreeing to the plea deal this guy obtained: 

As a Chicago Tribune article linked in the ABA Journal story explains:

Margolis was initially charged with 36 felony counts of theft, theft by deception, misappropriation of financial institution property, continuing a financial crimes enterprise and forgery.  But in a plea agreement with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to a single theft count.
He faces up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of $25,000 at his sentencing next June.

Apparently, the total amount swindled from clients was as much as $1.1 million.  The various articles also indicate that, in the disciplinary proceedings, he was hit with a large restitution order and was separately hit with a large judgment in a legal malpractice case, but the existence of those judgments and awards doesn’t necessarily translate to those dollars ever making it into the hands of those wronged clients.

The articles also indicate that the disbarred lawyer now lives in California and is pursuing a career as a screenwriter.  Somehow I don’t imagine Excuseman will be showing up as a character in the fourth Avengers film….so I’m guessing that if those judgments haven’t already been satisfied, they won’t be getting paid in full any time soon.

Threats to the legal profession include threats by members of the profession

This post is coming late in the week because this week marked the first two stops on the Ethics Roadshow for 2018.  (If you are in or near Memphis and Nashville you can still register to come attend next week’s stops and hear about a potential recipe for ethical lawyering involving the 5 Cs of Competence, Communication, Candor, Confidentiality and Conflicts.)

This year’s Roadshow doesn’t focus much on threats to the legal profession from developing technologies and outside providers of legal services nearly in the way that last year’s Roadshow did, but today I want to discuss a slightly different kind of threat to the legal profession – threats made my members of our profession.

I’ve written in the recent past about the generalized problems of anger and violence given that we are living in angry times but two recent things I came across (one a full blown story and the other a Twitter thread) lead me to think that a bit of attention should be paid again to threats of violence particularly where the people engaged in the threatening conduct are attorneys.

The ABA Journal, working from a Louisville Courier Journal story, highlighted right at the end of November an arrest of a Kentucky criminal defense lawyer.  The lawyer who, it will come as no surprise, is male was arrested and charged with, among other things, terroristic threatening.  Perhaps in an effort to just let some irony simmer, the news articles point out that one of the lawyer’s own clients was convicted of terroristic threatening earlier in the same month.  The subject of his allegedly terroristic threats were two lawyers involved in the handling of his own child custody case – one was opposing counsel and the other had been appointed by a court to be the guardian ad litem.

The ABA Journal piece highlights the nature of the threats — which ranged from some aggressive voicemail messages to much more tangible examples of actually communicating to third parties an intention to kill the lawyers involved.  The article also discusses other recent problems the lawyer has been going through related to those proceedings and published reports of a positive drug test for meth.  Even though the lawyer’s conduct doesn’t involve representation of a client, this Kentucky lawyer will likely be at real risk of discipline (in addition to having to deal with the criminal law issues) under a variety of parts of RPC 8.4.

I also managed to stumble onto a thread involving similarly unprofessional and threatening behavior by a lawyer on Twitter.  You can peruse the thread here if you’d like to read it yourself.  It involves someone who appears to be a Texas lawyer and who, if the fact that he was willing to be a lawyer for (and apparently member of) The Proud Boys (a white supremacist group) in the past wasn’t already a pretty good indication of what kind of fellow he might be, decided to make his feelings plain by going on the attack against a journalist employing a homophobic epithet and a threat of violence sent by email.

As seems like a fairly good option, both for purposes of self-protection and as a way of possible shaming the lawyer involved, the reporter posted a screen shot of the email on Twitter.  The email the reporter received read as follows:

Now that I am no longer part of the Proud Boys and no longer representing them.  I want to let you know that you are a despicable and evil human being.  It is my hope that your duties as a HuffPo reporter bring you to the metroplex this holiday season so that I can give you the gift of a left hook.

Kiss my ass, faggot.

For what it is worth, this particular reporter has been focusing a good bit of time on trying, through reporting, to highlight the problem our country has involving the rise of violent extremists.  It appears that shedding some light on this particular lawyer only shows how deep some of those problems go.

Reading these kinds of exchanges also makes me continue to think through questions in my own head – written about in the past — about whether the willingness to be openly racist should simply be disqualifying for lawyers from a character and fitness standpoint.

(P.S. The Twitter thread itself tries to bring this conduct to the attention of Texas disciplinary authorities so it will be interesting to see what comes about.  With a little digging, this lawyer appears to have retired his Texas license but also appears to be licensed in Colorado, D.C., and Georgia and appears to have a clean disciplinary record in each of those states.)

(P.P.S. An entirely different reporter received death threats from the same Texas lawyer and also created a thread on Twitter about those exchanges as well.)

(P.P.P. S. BlacKkKlansman is a movie all should see, is germane to the above discussion of the problems of white supremacists in our nation, and I’m thrilled that it is getting some rightly deserved nominations.

Asking for a conflict waiver is a step that is hard to take back.

Look, I understand too little too late
I realize there are things you say and do
You can never take back
But what would you be if you didn’t even try
You have to try
So after a lot of thought
I’d like to reconsider
Please
If it’s not too late
Make it a cheeseburger

– Lyle Lovett

Working though questions of conflicts of interest can certainly be challenging for lawyers.  The initial phases of figuring out whether a conflict exists are highly important.

From a loss prevention standpoint, you want to get it right as you certainly do not want to take something on that you shouldn’t because you had a conflict that you simply couldn’t even ask to be waived or for which you strongly suspected you’d never be able to get a waiver from those from whom a waiver would be needed.

It is also important to get right, however, so that you don’t treat something as a conflict that isn’t a conflict.  Once you start down the path of asking someone for a conflict waiver, you empower them to tell you “no” and you potentially reduce your choices about what to do in such event pretty severely.  It is not impossible to change course after unsuccessfully asking for a conflict waiver and begin to claim that the waiver wasn’t needed in the first place.  But it is certainly difficult.  Thus, it isn’t just the case that you don’t want to treat something as a conflict that isn’t a conflict; you also might want to think long and hard about treating something as a conflict if you intend to contend it isn’t a conflict.

An interesting story touching on just how difficult unwinding such a situation can be was written about by The American Lawyer earlier this week.  It involves an effort – seldom used (for reasons that ought to be a bit obvious) — to file a separate lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that something was not a conflict in the first place and an injunction to allow the lawyer to start working for a new firm.

You can read the full article here, but the short version is this: a Houston lawyer who was looking to change firms has been unable to do so because a corporate entity much in the news of late – USA Gymnastics — refused to provide a conflict waiver requested by the lawyer.  USA Gymnastics is a client of the lawyer’s former firm.  The firm to which the lawyer had hoped to move currently represents a number of individuals who have sued USA Gymnastics over the sordid situation involving Larry Nassar.

Typically, conflicts of interest get litigated through motions to disqualify.  Although firms and clients do not like to have to deal with those for obvious reasons, at least in those proceedings the firms and clients have the ability to argue that the party moving for disqualification has the burden of proof.  Even that procedural tool can be lost when the lawyer or firm is the one bringing the action to ask a court for a ruling that they have no conflict.

A quote from the story itself taken from the managing partner of the firm to which the lawyer wanted to go to work provides a helpful bit of transition:

The law as we understand it is that if a person worked at a law firm and doesn’t work on a case, and goes to work for another law firm that has that case and [the lawyer] is shielded from the case … there’s no conflict.

Now, if this were being governed by Tennessee law, I could readily delve into whether that statement would be correct or incorrect assertion of the state of play here, but these are events that involve other states and different rules.

But, to repeat the larger point, if that is what the relevant law or rules set out, then the lawyer and his new firm should never have sought the waiver in the first place.

Litigating your own work product – a tricky (at best) topic.

So, first things first, I am thoroughly surprised and incredibly honored to have made it into the ABA Journal’s 2018 Web 100.  If you are here for the first time because this happened, thanks for reading and feel free to look around as there is 3+ years of content you can read while you are on hold with customer support.  If you are a long-time reader here out of habit, I cherish you and you can rest easy knowing that you are still going to receive the same not-exactly-regularly-scheduled-mostly-maybe-twice-a-week-but-sometimes-only-once-a-week content you have come to expect.

Second things second:  I truly and profoundly recognize the irony that this post leads off crowing about the Web 100 honor after literally just talking about how lawyers shouldn’t blow their own horn online six days ago.  But I’m going to just blow past that irony and move on to today’s offering which comes up more than you might imagine in real-world consultations and that is on the radar screen for today because of two recent developments — a recent ethics opinion from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and an order denying disqualification out of a Pittsburgh federal court.  If you are a Law360 subscriber you can read some about the Pennsylvania decision and even download the order now here.

Both the ethics opinion and the Pennsylvania decision grapple with what Bill Freivogel refers to on his site as the “Underlying Work” Problem. Bill has written a very good overview at that link of the problem for law firms when they decide to take on the litigation of a matter where its earlier work for the client involved will be at issue and, if history is any guide, will likely have a good summary of that case up relatively soon.

The short version of the order denying disqualification goes like this:  A visiting senior district judge denied a motion to disqualify the lawyer representing a company sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The nature of the claim is that the employee was wrongfully denied extra breaks to deal with her anxiety issues.  The genesis of the disqualification dispute was that the lawyer in question was also the lawyer who gave the company the legal advice that it could deny the employee’s request for this accommodation.

The longer version of understanding how that might not be the outcome you’d expect is best laid out by discussing the recent, really-good, Texas opinion.

In Opinion 682, the Texas Committee explains how its version of the “advocate-witness” rule works under these facts:

A Texas lawyer assisted a client in drafting and negotiating a contract with another party represented by separate counsel.  A lawsuit arose concerning the meaning of certain provisions in the contract.  The lawyer drafted and negotiated those provisions.  The lawyer’s client wants the lawyer and a trial lawyer in the same firm to represent her in the lawsuit.  Both lawyers are attempting to ascertain whether they may do so, and if so, under what conditions, if any.

The opinion does a nice job of explaining the different analysis required for the individual attorney at the firm versus other attorneys at the same firm who were not actually involved in doing the underlying work.  The fundamental difference if it has to be cliff-noted is simply that the confusion involved in the dual role of witness and advocate is severely obviated when a different lawyer is doing the advocating.  The opinion also does a decent job of emphasizing a point that judges sometimes overlook when ruling on disqualification motions — that the disqualification for the witness-lawyer generally does not actually come into play until the trial – not during discovery or even pre-trial motion practice, just at the trial.

As Texas lawyers know, the numbering of the Texas ethics rules is a bit off from the ABA Model Rules even where the substance may be roughly the same.  So, while lawyers normally think of the ethics rule addressing lawyers as witnesses as being Rule 3.7, in Texas it is housed in Rule 3.08.  Although I think the Texas opinion provides the structural narrative for getting to the correct analysis even under the language of Model Rule 3.7, I think it is worth highlighting two pieces of Texas Rule 3.08 that likely are a real improvement on the Model Rule.

First, the rule includes an exception that seems obviously correct but is not actually addressed in the text of the Model Rule.  Texas’s rule makes plain that if the lawyer happens to be a party to the lawsuit and acting pro se, then the prohibition does not arise.  (I have a long history of trying [both for altruistic and pecuniary reasons]to discourage lawyers from acting pro se but it still happens and opposing counsel should not be able to try to use Model Rule 3.7 as a cudgel in such situations.)

Second, and more universally important, the Texas rule goes further in terms of requiring disclosure in two respects that I think are positive.  Like the Model Rule, the Texas rule acknowledges that “substantial hardship” for the client involved can provide an exception to the lawyer’s disqualification if they also have to be a witness.  Unlike the Model Rule, the Texas rule requires the lawyer who will be traveling under that exception to “promptly notif[y] opposing counsel that the lawyer expects to testify in the matter and disqualification of the lawyer would work substantial hardship on the client.”  The Texas rule also requires more disclosure to the client when the lawyer’s firm intends to handle the case by taking advantage of imputation of the witness-lawyer’s conflict not working its way to other lawyers at the firm by explicitly conditioning the ability to have some other lawyer at the firm handle upon “the client’s informed consent.”  I think that is a vital piece of the puzzle from a loss prevention standpoint for any firm in such a situation as fully discussing with the client on the front end what the plan is and the risk associated with additional expense in the form of motions to disqualify goes a long way to avoiding grief.

 

 

 

Nevada provides lawyers yet another reason not to blow their own horn online.

I have beaten the drum for many, many years now about lawyers not understanding the true scope of their obligation of confidentiality under rules patterned after ABA Model Rule 1.6.  The ability to quickly share information far and wide online has not been helpful to lawyers who lack that understanding.  I remain astounded at how lawyers do not seem to recognize the unnecessary risk they are taking on by touting achievements in particular cases online.

Now, of course, I’m not privy to discussions between those attorneys and their clients in advance of such efforts so, perhaps, everything I see is kosher because every time I see a lawyer engage in such conduct they have gotten their client’s consent to do so in advance.

Based on my experience over the past 20 years though, I’m highly skeptical of that.  What I think is much more likely is that because these sorts of things usually never amount to any disciplinary proceedings much less instances of public discipline, this just continues to be something that many lawyers do either on the basis that the risk is minimal compared to the perceived reward or on the basis that they don’t see any risk at all.

For some lawyers, it is the misunderstanding about how confidentiality functions that can be the problem as they either aren’t aware (or simply don’t care) about the counter-intuitive fact that a public jury verdict is still RPC 1.6 confidential information as far as the lawyer is concerned.  Those transgressions can likely be forgiven by most, if not all, involved.  But, particularly when the self-congratulatory efforts in question go beyond just providing information about a jury verdict and also opt to reveal information about pre-trial settlement negotiations, the egregious nature of the breach of confidentiality is nearly impossible to forgive.  And, thanks to the way the Internet works, it is certainly impossible to forget.

Just this week, I saw one of these posts from lawyers with whom I use to practice law blowing their own horn about a very large jury verdict and revealing what the settlement offer from the defense was before trial.  I hope that they were operating with the consent of their clients or, if they happen to be reading this, that they go and at least get retroactive consent from the client involved which is better than having never gotten consent at all.

As if the risk of discipline (even if perceived to be a small risk) wasn’t enough to discourage lawyers from self-congratulatory social media postings (and if you spend any time on social media you know that it isn’t enough to discourage most), the Nevada Supreme Court provides a new opinion in a piece of defamation litigation that ought to give lawyers another reason to think very, very carefully about blowing their own horn online.

In Patin v. Lee, the Nevada Supreme Court rejected the effort of a lawyer and a law firm to stop a defamation case brought against them by a dentist.  The dentist had been one of the opposing parties of the firm’s client in a dental malpractice case.  The lawyer and law firm tried through exercise of an anti-SLAPP motion to bring the defamation case to a quick end.  They were unsuccessful though as Nevada adopted California’s approach to determining whether something written online can be considered “in direct connection with an issue under consideration by a judicial body.”  If you aren’t familiar with the general concept of anti-SLAPP statutes, then such language is likely meaningless to you.  But, if you read the opinion it will give you a pretty efficient primer on the concept of anti-SLAPP statutes (SLAPP being an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). You can read that opinion right here

From a loss prevention standpoint, let me drill down on what is readily understandable in terms of the problematic conduct by the lawyer and law firm.  The lawyer represented a plaintiff in a dental malpractice lawsuit against three defendants – a dental group and two individual dentists.  The lawyer obtained a $3.4 million verdict in favor of the client against the dental group and one of the two individual dentists.  The jury verdict against the other dentist was one finding no liability.

There was some appellate wrangling in the malpractice case after the jury verdict but because the ultimate outcome on appeal did not change, that wrangling matters much less than what the lawyer and law firm decided to post on their website to tout their success in the case:

DENTAL MALPRACTICE/WRONGFUL DEATH – PLAINTIFF’S VERDICT $3.4M, 2014 Description; Singletary v. Ton Vinh Lee, DDS et al.

A dental malpractice-based wrongful death action that arose out of the death of Decedent Reginald Singletary following the extraction of the No. 32 wisdom tooth by Defendants on or about April 16, 2011.  Plaintiff sued the dental office, Summerlin Smiles, the owner, Ton Vinh Lee, DDS, and the treating dentists, Florida Traivai, DMD and Jai Park, DDS, on behalf of the Estate, herself and minor son.

The problem with this self-congratulatory post on the firm’s website — separate and apart from the normal questions that might be asked about whether the clients were consulted and consented before the post was made — is that it doesn’t mention that Dr. Lee — the person named in the caption headline and in the body of the update — was the individual dentist found by the jury to have no liability.  That dentist, in turn, is who sued the lawyer and law firm for defamation because a reader of the post in question would reasonably think that Dr. Lee had been on the wrong end of a $3.4 million jury verdict.

Those that know me know that I am not much for dropping Bible quotes but, even I have to say that this would be a pretty good place to drop Proverbs 27:2 – “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth….”

Friday Follow-Up: Florida Finds Facebook Friendship Fine

You’ve probably heard this news by now.  But, it’s Friday and I wrote about this before, so … I feel a sense of obligation to follow-up.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the fact that a judge is Facebook friends with a lawyer appearing before her in a litigated matter is not alone sufficient to justify disqualification of the judge.  You can read lots of good articles providing summary treatment of this decision.  I’d recommend this one from the folks at Bloomberg/BNA.

The majority certainly got to what I strongly believe is the right result.  And, the core of the correctness of that result lies in these six sentences which I have admittedly spliced together from different parts of the majority opinion:

[T]he mere existence of a friendship between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship. No reasonably prudent person would fear that she could not receive a fair and impartial trial based solely on the fact that a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge are friends of an indeterminate nature. Facebook “friendship” is not—as a categorical matter—the functional equivalent of traditional “friendship.” The establishment of a Facebook “friendship” does not objectively signal the existence of the affection and esteem involved in a traditional “friendship.”  Therefore, the mere existence of a Facebook “friendship” between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship.

I’m writing today about this more to make three points that I feel like have to be said out loud.

  1.  I can’t believe it was a 4-3 decision and that three justices of the Florida Supreme Court were willing to sign their names to the following position:  “The bottom line is that because of their indeterminate nature and the real possibility of impropriety, social media friendships between judges and lawyers who appear in the judge’s courtroom should not be permitted.”
  2. I’m even a bit more amazed that the concurring opinion (“I concur with the majority opinion. However, I write to strongly urge judges
    not to participate in Facebook.”) demonstrates a majority of the Court (4 justices) believes that judges simply shouldn’t be on Facebook at all.  There are legitimate reasons why maybe all of us should delete Facebook, but the reasons espoused by the dissent and concurrence aren’t among them.
  3. If you are in a band and aren’t actively considering naming it, or changing its existing name to,”Friends of an Indeterminate Nature,” then I don’t really think I can ever understand you.

New Jersey takes a step in the right direction on advertising

With a strong tip of the metaphorical hat I never wear to Kim Ringler (a former President of APRL) who alerted many ethics lawyers to the news, I write today about a new ethics opinion from the New Jersey Committee on Attorney Advertising.

In Opinion 45, issued less than a week ago, New Jersey has softened their harsh position on whether a lawyer can hold themselves out as having “expertise” or being a “specialist” or “specializing” in an area of the law.  New Jersey’s new opinion is candid about how developments in other states involving First Amendment challenges to advertising restrictions have resulted in its new stance.  It is also fairly decent in terms of the commonsense nature of the analysis it provides.

The opinion explains that it has been prompted by a grievance filed about a law firm’s website in which the statement is made that the lawyers have “expertise” in tax law.  (I’m willing to bet the shiniest of quarters that the grievance was filed by a lawyer and not a consumer.)  The opinion provides a bit of insight into the firm and its main lawyer:

The firm concentrates its practice in tax law.  The firm’s principal lawyer has an L.L.M. in tax, is the author of numerous publications on tax law, lectures on tax law, served as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service, and has been practicing tax law for more than 30 years.

The opinion explains that New Jersey had previously imposed severe restrictions on the use of such terms unless a lawyer had been certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court or by an ABA-approved organization.  (My own state has a somewhat similar black-letter rule in RPC 7.4 [though it does not seek to regulate the term “expert” or “expertise” and it only relies upon ABA-accredited groups.)

But, going forward… well … I’ll just let New Jersey speak for itself:

After revisiting the issue in light of recent out-of-state First Amendment decisions in attorney advertising, the Committee has now determined that lawyers may use the terms “expertise,” “specialize,” and “specialist” in advertising provided the terms are accurate and the lawyers can demonstrate the necessary education, training, and experience to substantiate the claim.

So, kudos where kudos are due, but the reason I say “a step” in the right direction rather than any sort of “leap” is that New Jersey couldn’t quite bring itself to commit fully to the common-sense outcome on this topic because it still is clinging to its prohibition on the use of the word “expert.”  It does so by ending its opinion with the following sentence:

Only lawyers who are certified by the Supreme Court or an organization approved by the American Bar Association may call themselves “experts.”