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.