It’s been a while.

Today I’m going to splice together two short discussions about topics that I haven’t mentioned in a while.  (And, for any fans of the podcast U Talking U2 to Me that are out there, you do have to read the title of this post to sound like the first words of this remake right here.)

I have not written in a while of an instance of a lawyer getting into disciplinary trouble over saying too much in the process of withdrawing from a client representation.  But it’s happened again, so it’s worth reminding people not to do that.

A week ago, the Ohio Supreme Court issued its opinion affirming a recommended one-year suspension (but with all of the suspension stayed) for a divorce lawyer who paired an affidavit with his motion to withdraw from a client’s matter.  The Ohio court succinctly laid out the problematic contents of the affidavit:

In the affidavit, he recounted communications he had had with
[the client] about the scope of his representation and his compensation, accused her of refusing to pay his agreed-upon fees “without cause,” and disclosed legal advice that he had given her. He also described [the client]’s discharge of him as “retaliatory” and alleged that it had “occurred because of [his] advice to her
concerning her objectionable and potentially illegal actions” relating to her ex-husband, which he characterized as “a problem similar to the one [he] experienced in [his] previous representation of her.”

The Ohio opinion not only cogently walks through why the lawyer’s attempted arguments that such disclosures were permitted to be made under exceptions set out in Ohio’s Rule 1.6(b) weren’t triggered, but also stresses another point too often overlooked by lawyers even when they might have justification to make certain disclosures:

Finally, even if [the lawyer] had reasonably believed that Prof.Cond.R. 1.6(b) permitted him to disclose [the client]’s allegedly fraudulent conduct, the means by which he chose to do so were improper. The comments to Prof.Cond.R. 1.6 clarify that when a lawyer believes that disclosure of client information is
necessary, the lawyer should first seek to persuade the client to take suitable action to obviate the need for the attorney’s disclosure and that a disclosure adverse to the client’s interest should be no greater than necessary to accomplish the purpose. Prof.Cond.R. 1.6, Comment 16. And “[i]f the disclosure will be made in connection with a judicial proceeding, the disclosure should be made in a manner that limits access to the information to the tribunal or other persons having a need to know it and appropriate protective orders or other arrangements should be sought by the lawyer to the fullest extent possible.” Id. Here, [the lawyer] failed to notify or communicate with [the client] about the allegations in his affidavit prior to filing it, and he did not attempt to limit public access to the document.

Another topic I haven’t mentioned in a while is ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) and how it’s playing in various states.  You will recall on at least one occasion when I did write about it, I mentioned how one of the ABA’s talking points was that somewhere north of 20 states already had black-letter rules in one form or fashion making acts of discrimination unethical.

About three weeks ago, one of those states, Vermont, just decided to scrap its version of such a rule and replace it with a Rule 8.4(g) that is substantially equivalent to the ABA Model Rule.  You can read the order of the Vermont Supreme Court adopting such a rule which will become effective on September 18, 2017 here.

Practicing law like it’s espionage. NYC Bar Formal Op. 2017-5

This week the New York City Bar has put out a very important, and I think very helpful, ethics opinion to address a real, practical concern for lawyers: what, if anything, can be done to protect confidential client information when traveling and crossing the border into the U.S.?

NY City Bar Formal Op. 2017-5 lays out the issue as follows:

An attorney traveling abroad with an electronic device (such as a smartphone, portable hard drive, USB “thumb drive,” or laptop) that contains clients’ confidential information plans to travel through a U.S. customs checkpoint or border crossing. During the crossing, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) agent claiming lawful authority demands that the attorney “unlock” the
device and hand it to the agent so that it may be searched. The attorney has not obtained informed consent from each client whose information may be disclosed in this situation.

The opinion makes the point that with the change of administration such searches of travelers and their data has increased exponentially:

In recent years, searches of cell phones, laptop computers, and other electronic devices at border crossings into the U.S. have become increasingly frequent. According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 5,000 devices were searched by
CBP agents in February 2017 alone. By way of comparison, that is about as many U.S. border searches of electronic devices as were undertaken in all of 2015, and just under a quarter of the
approximately 23,877 U.S. border searches of such devices undertaken in 2016.

The entirety of the opinion is worth a read to see how it offers its guidance about things a lawyer might do at the time of demanded search to protect client confidential information, and to hear its additional important message that lawyers have an obligation under RPC 1.4 to contact all affected clients after such a search takes place.

The aspect of it that I want to focus on, however, is to expand on some of the practical advice it offers as to things a lawyer could do before going through customs at the border to lower risk of disclosure.  Particularly, this passage:

The simplest option with the lowest risk is not to carry any confidential information across the border. One method of avoiding the electronic transportation of clients’ confidences involves using a blank “burner” phone or laptop, or otherwise removing confidential information from one’s carried device by deleting confidential files using software designed to securely delete information, turning off syncing of cloud services, signing out of web-based services, and/or uninstalling applications that provide local or remote access to confidential information prior
crossing to the border.  This is not to say that attorneys traveling with electronic devices must remove all electronically stored information. Some electronic information, including many
work-related emails, may contain no confidential information protected by Rule 1.6(a). Even when emails contain confidential information, the obligation to remove these emails from the
portable device before crossing the border depends on what is reasonable. As previously discussed, this turns on the ease or inconvenience of avoiding possession of confidential
information; the need to maintain access to the particular information and its sensitivity; the risk of a border inspection; and any other relevant considerations.

Now, as to that sentence about some work-related emails may not contain confidential information protected by RPC 1.6(a), it is worth remembering that New York has a different RPC 1.6(a) than most jurisdictions as it comes closer to retaining the old “confidences and secrets” regime.  In most other jurisdictions, where RPC 1.6(a) covers any information related to representation of a client, then it is difficult to imagine any work-related email involving client matters that wouldn’t be protected as confidential under RPC 1.6(a).

And, for that reason, when I’ve had to help people try to work through this question, my advice has been consistent with what the New York City opinion is saying albeit perhaps stated more succinctly – delete the mail application from your smart phone until you get through the border.  Then reinstall it.  As long as your work email is stored on a server somewhere, then you should have no loss of data at all.

The only inconvenience caused is that for the time between deleting it and crossing through the border, you will have no access to email. Using the balancing factors compared to the risk of the violation of client confidences, this seems like a small inconvenience.  Simply deleting the mail application for a period of time also has the benefit of not placing the lawyer in the position of trying to “reason” with customs officials and argue with them over whether they need to be doing what they are doing.

As to other kinds of electronic data, the solutions are not as simple as with email.  Text messages are particularly concerning as deleting those or removing access to those from your device for even a short period of time would result in the loss of that data.  Generally speaking, the New York City opinion does a good job at explaining some of a lawyer’s options.  One option that the opinion doesn’t exactly spend a lot of time discussing is obtaining the consent of clients in advance.  One potential way of doing so could be standardizing provisions into engagement letters with clients to address this topic.

This unfortunately appears to be a topic that will only become more difficult to deal with for lawyers who travel frequently.  As an example, within the last month there have been stories in the media that Homeland Security is contemplating requiring all reading material be removed from carry on and put in bins for the purpose of potential review by TSA agents.  Travel is already a stressful endeavor, but as a lawyer if that were to come to pass there would be almost no way to take anything on a flight to have or review without running a real risk of loss of client confidentiality.

Here’s something you don’t see every day: Brave Law Firm sues a competitor.

I’ve written here pretty frequently about issues of lawyer advertising.  I am too lazy today to try and go find links to other posts of mine in which I have stated that the overwhelming majority of disciplinary complaints filed over lawyer advertisements are filed by other lawyers.  Not always competitors, sometimes lawyers on the other side of the v, but just about always by lawyers.

While that remains true, it is rare that you ever see one lawyer or law firm sue another lawyer or law firm over advertising.  Earlier this month, one such lawsuit was filed.  That lawsuit is captioned Brave Law Firm, LLC v. Truck Accident Lawyers Group, Inc. et al. and was filed in federal court in Kansas. Here is link to the lawsuit (07914726612 brave law firm) if you desire to go read the whole thing.

There are lots of reasons why such lawsuit filings are infrequent.  The fact that in order to come up with a claim for damages a firm is likely going to have to demonstrate losing some clients to the other firm that can be traced to the advertisements in question is usually a pretty solid reason not to do it.  Instead, it is much simpler for a firm or lawyer who wants to complaint to file a disciplinary complaint because any rules infractions won’t turn on whether or not your firm was actually harmed by what the other lawyer was doing.

This suit though provides the basis for the roadmap that you’d see in terms of causes of action for such a lawsuit, including a Lanham Act claim and the relevant state law claim for tortious interference with a business relationship.

What makes the lawsuit a particularly interesting read, however, is that it levels its attacks against advertisements that defendant lawyer’s firms have made about past successes but it does not involve exactly the kind of complaints you often expect hear made about such things.  It does not undertake an assault on the advertisements as being misleading because advertising that you obtained a multi-million dollar recovery for a litigant might arguable mislead a potential client into thinking that such outcomes are achievable in their case as well.

Instead, it challenges the very veracity of the advertised outcomes themselves. The core allegations from the Complaint in this regard are as follows:

29. As one recent example, Defendants Brad Pistotnik and Brad Pistotnik Law, P.A. ran a series of advertisements touting their alleged results [NB: you can see an actual screenshot in the complaint itself but I have not included it]

30. The disclaimer at the bottom of the screen is consistent with the content of the entire ad and explicitly states that the “Amounts are gross recovery before fees and expenses.”

31. Instead, the actual “gross recovery” before fees and expenses was $387,018.00, or 16% of what was advertised.

32. This advertisement is literally false because there was no “gross recovery” of $2,400,000 by any person(s) in the case referenced in the advertisement, either before or after legal fees and expenses.

33. In addition, this advertisement is literally false as it advises the viewer that “Our past performances are no guarantee of future results” when, in fact, the “past performance” referenced in the advertisement never happened at all.

[snip]

35. As another example, all of the Defendants widely disseminated advertisements claiming that they obtained a jury verdict of $4,100,000 in a personal injury case.

36. This same advertisement also advised that the jury awarded a punitive damage award of $2,500,000 to the alleged client.

37. These advertisements were, and are, literally false as the “gross recovery” in that case was approximately $850,000.00 and the jury did not award any punitive damages to the plaintiffs.

38. Other advertisements ran by the Defendants featured other literally false “gross recoveries” via alleged verdicts including ones for $1,100,000, $845,000, and $401,000.00.

39. In addition to advertising alleged “gross recoveries” via jury verdicts that never actually happened, the Defendants also advertised purported settlements that never happened.

40. As one example, all of the Defendants advertised that they had settled a case for $9,000,000 on behalf of a former client.

41. This settlement did not happen as advertised because Defendant Bradley A. Pistotnik and the AAPLO had been terminated by the client prior to the settlement occurring and the settlement was actually obtained by another lawyer, apparently
in another state, but at various times each of the Defendants has claimed it as their own.

Obviously, if such facts could be proven, then disciplinary exposure for the lawyer responsible for such advertisements would be in the mix as well and, might I add, would be within the ambit of the kind of more limited, and more focused, ethics rules on lawyer advertising that are being advocated for adoption as a revision to the ABA Model Rules.

Given that the complaint reads like someone has provided the Brave Law Firm with some significant behind-the-scenes knowledge, it appears possible that there could be more interesting developments arising if this suit moves forward.  For example, I’d be interested to know if someone previously employed by one of the defendants now works for the plaintiff.  Unless the Brave firm got all of this information from people free to share it, then one would think potential counterclaims could get thrown into the mix in the future.

Coming to praise rather than bury – Colorado Formal Op. 129

It is almost three months old now, but I wanted to right a word or two about a really well-constructed ethics opinion issued in Colorado, not just because it is an opinion that deserves to be read, but also because it raises a not-quite-academic question about the phenomenon of captive law firms.

The opinion put out by the Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee, Colorado Bar Formal Op. 129, is titled “Ethical Duties of Lawyer Paid by One Other Than the Client.”

Because questions of insurance defense representation raising similar issues were previously addressed by the Committee in Formal Opinion 91, this new opinion focuses on “ethical questions that can arise in third-party payer situations that do not involve insurance as a source of payment.”  (My not-quite-academic question is importantly a variation on that theme and the different approach often allowed for the tripartite relationship….)

The opinion helpfully catalogs quite a few such scenarios, like

  • friend or family paying for someone’s defense against criminal charges
  • parents paying for representation of children
  • corporations paying for attorney fees of an employee or officer
  • contractual indemnitor paying legal fees of an indemnitee

Those last two are ones, I suspect, that lawyers don’t think about as often in terms of making sure they know what is necessary for compliance with all of the pertinent ethics rules in their jurisdictions, which if the jurisdiction tracks the approaches under the ABA Model Rules as Colorado mostly does are RPCs 1.0(e), RPC 1.6, 1.7, 1.8(f), and 5.4(c).

The opinion does a good job at addressing in detail the various ethical questions, particularly on the dynamics that can arise where, for example, the person that will be paying the freight for the representation also happens to be a client of the attorney in some other matter and how compliance with just RPC 1.8(f) and 5.4(c) alone may not be enough because of the conflict issues raised by RPC 1.7.

The opinion merits a full read, but, if you only have 1 or 2 minutes to spare, then the best part is — II.  Practical Considerations – Discussions with the Third-Party Payer — which provides insightful, detailed, and potentially uncomfortable guidance about what really ought to happen in terms of communicating to the person who will be holding the checkbook who the client actually is and to whom the lawyer’s professional duties are owed, the limitations on the rights of the person making the payments, and the consequences of non-payment.

All of this then leads to my promised question, if these same principles are the ones that would have to be adhered to by a lawyer who represents insurance policyholders for an insurance company through a model in which the lawyer’s firm is a “captive” firm of that company, would there be any realistic way to comply?  Wouldn’t the process of obtaining the informed consent of that client always require having to make crystal-clear the significant financial interest that the lawyer has in keeping his/her only source of business happy?

I say that my question along these lines is not-quite-academic, because it is actually answered in Colorado by that earlier opinion, Formal Opinion 91 which was issued in 1993 but was updated with an addendum in 2013.  For readers in Colorado, I’m pretty sure the answer is that a lot of disclosure would have to be made, but that acquiring informed consent is feasible.

But, for readers not in Colorado, there may or may not be guidance quite as clear on the question.

Wisconsin rightly says no to name dropping without consent.

Earlier this week I criticized what I consider to be a pretty bad ethics opinion that was issued by Rhode Island.  To balance things out a bit, I want to write about an ethics opinion out of Wisconsin that gives the correct answer to its query – Wisconsin Formal Ethics Opinion EF-17-02.  That opinion correctly explains that because of the broad swath of confidentiality created by Rule 1.6, even the names of clients qualify as confidential information and, therefore, a lawyer can only disclose the name of a client if in advertisements or materials circulated for marketing or any other personal purpose if the client has given informed consent to the disclosure or some other exception within Rule 1.6 applies.

In issuing this opinion, Wisconsin had to withdraw an older opinion that provided guidance that the names of clients were not confidential information, Wisconsin Ethics Op. E-93-5.

Lots of lawyers (not just in Wisconsin) do not immediately grasp that this is the correct result — that the identity of a lawyer’s clients is itself confidential information.  A lot of times they don’t do so because doing so requires recognizing that there are a lot of things lawyers do that they really shouldn’t without getting their clients approval.   The Wisconsin opinion uses the example of talking about the fact of a representation as a cocktail party as an example, but there are less obvious ways this issue crops up.  Lawyers often don’t think twice about providing information about the details of their prior representations as part of responding to requests for proposals from insurance carriers as part of trying to become approved as panel counsel, for example.  Some lawyers will rationalize their approach on the basis that they are only disclosing information that can already be found in public records, but the Wisconsin opinion rightly makes the point that Rule 1.6 doesn’t remove the obligation of confidentiality for the lawyer merely because the information is available in a public record.

I’ve often attempted to explain the policy choice that Rule 1.6 enshrines for lawyers along these lines.  Imagine you are a family law attorney.  Now in order to file a divorce complaint for a particular client you are going to have to disclose in the filing a lot of details about your client’s life that they really hope no one finds out about.  Members of the public certainly could go down to the courthouse or go online if the court has electronic records and read all of the sordid details, but the client definitely hopes people don’t.  The ethics rules stake out a position – at least jurisdictions that have the ABA Model Rule version of Rule 1.6 do — that even though the lawyer has to put those things in the public complaint, lawyers are going to be charged with not talking about those things without the client’s consent to do so.  I then often ask lawyers to think about how a conversation would go if you called your client and asked them for permission to offer up the interesting anecdote about their situation.

The ramification of that policy choice ends up being that the rule errs on the side of confidential treatment even for things that many clients might not even expect could be confidential and that’s the reason, for example, that firms who circulate materials about representative clients, whether on their website or elsewhere, need to get client permission to do so.

While Wisconsin’s opinion is praiseworthy on its substance, Wisconsin should still get criticized for its insistence on shielding its formal ethics opinions from the public and providing access to them only for members of the Wisconsin Bar.  That’s a silly and outdated approach.

As a Tennessee lawyer, I only know about what the new Wisconsin opinion says because the fine folks at ABA/BNA reported on it.  Presumably, as they always do, they did a good job and, thus, if you go read their article here then you, like me, can know what Wisconsin had to say in construing its ABA Model Rule-based ethics rule on confidentiality.

Coming full circle, while I can’t stand the substantive outcome offered up by that Rhode Island opinion discussed earlier this week, at least Rhode Island allows for public access to the ethics opinions it issues.  For as long as there continue to be jurisdictions like Wisconsin that shield theirs from view, then offering public access will continue to deserve praise in Rhode Island and elsewhere.

Traps for the Unwary – Employer email systems

I like to think I am “warier” than the average attorney.  But a recent attorney-client privilege opinion out of New York was a good reminder that being “wary” can be much like being “woke.”  Even if you think you are, you probably aren’t as much as you think you are, and you can always be a bit more.

I’ve spoken and written in the past about the risk for lawyers’ clients to using an email system provided by an employer to communicate with them but my focus in doing so has largely involved assumptions about ways in which the nature of the representation could be one in which the client wouldn’t actually want to the employer to be able to access the communications.  For example, where the client and the employer would actually have contrary interests.

That type of scenario was the focus of the kind of warning ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 11-459 provided to lawyers who handle employment law matters:

This opinion addresses this question in the following hypothetical situation.
An employee has a computer assigned for her exclusive use in the course of her employment. The company’s written internal policy provides that the company has a right of access to all employees’ computers and e-mail files, including those relating to employees’ personal matters. Notwithstanding this policy, employees sometimes make personal use of their computers, including for the purpose of sending personal e-mail messages from their personal or office e-mail accounts. Recently, the employee retained a lawyer to give advice about a potential claim against her employer. When the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the employee may use a workplace device or system to communicate with the lawyer, does the lawyer have an ethical duty to warn the employee about the risks this practice entails?

[snip]

The situation in the above hypothetical is a clear example of where failing to warn the client about the risks of e-mailing communications on the employer’s device can harm the client, because the employment dispute would give the employer a significant incentive to access the employee’s workplace e-mail and the employer’s internal policy would provide a justification for doing so. The obligation arises once the lawyer has reason to believe that there is a significant risk that the client will conduct e-mail communications with the lawyer using a workplace computer or other business device or via the employer’s e-mail account. This possibility ordinarily would be known, or reasonably should be known, at the outset of the representation. Given the nature of the representation–an employment dispute–the lawyer is on notice that the employer may search the client’s electronic correspondence. Therefore, the lawyer must ascertain, unless the answer is already obvious, whether there is a significant risk that the client will use a business e-mail address for personal communications or whether the employee’s position entails using an employer’s device.

With hindsight it certainly seems an obvious extension of the same point to be worried that the privilege is in jeopardy even when the underlying matter is not one in which client and the employer are adverse, yet I’ll admit that I was initially surprised to hear about through this (as always) quite good write up in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct and then dig in and read the Peerenboom v. Marvel Entertainment opinion itself (which is remarkable for its brevity) which found that Marvel’s CEO’s emails to his personal attorney on Marvel’s email system could not be shielded from discovery by a third party pursuing litigation against Marvel based on attorney-client privilege.  (Simultaneously also saying that no marital privilege existed either.)

The New York court explained that Marvel’s email policy provided that it “‘owned’ all emails on its system, and that the emails were ‘subject to all Company rules, policies, and conduct statements.’ Marvel ‘reserve[d] the right to audit networks and systems on a periodic basis to ensure [employees’] compliance’ with its email policies. It also ‘reserve[d] the right to access, review, copy and delete any messages or content,’ and ‘to disclose such messages to any party (inside or outside the Company).'”  Based on that, the court considered it easy to conclude that the CEO had no reasonable expectation of privacy in email communications to others using his Marvel email address.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the opinion does not reference or discuss in any fashion whether the CEO’s lawyer would still be obligated to treat all of the communications as confidential under the relevant ethics rules in New York(spoiler alert: he would).

Since I’ve got your webcam turned on remotely, show of hands if you’ve 100% of the time been making sure your clients’ email communications with you are only happening on a platform provided by someone other than their employer – like gmail, Yahoo, Bellsouth, or Comcast, or some other personal source of email access.

Yeah, me neither.

It certainly feels like a harsh result — particularly when you stop and think about how much email traffic takes place on email platforms that are company provided to all involved — but it can be a difficult outcome to argue against given the traditional strict construction of the privilege and how readily it can be waived as a result of exposure to anyone who is a stranger to the relationship.

The Peerenboom opinion also serves, however, as a good reminder of just how different the attorney-client privilege and the attorney work-product doctrine are and how differently they are waived.

Given the lack of evidence that Marvel viewed any of Perlmutter’s personal emails, and the lack of evidence of any other actual disclosure to a third party, Perlmutter’s use of Marvel’s email for personal purposes does not, standing alone, constitute a waiver of attorney work product protections (see People v Kozlowski . . .898 N.E.2d 891 . . . .

That point is one I’ve always found easiest to explain to lawyers with reference to another New York case (albeit one in federal court) involving a different very famous brand, Martha Stewart, United States v. Stewart, 287 F. Supp. 2d 461 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).  That was the case in which a New York federal court explained the different ramifications as to privilege waiver versus work product waiver flowing from Martha Stewart sharing her lawyer’s communications with her daughter.  While, because she was a stranger to the attorney-client relationship Stewart had with her lawyer and thus eviscerated the attorney-client privilege, as to work product:

By forwarding the e-mail to a family member, Stewart did not substantially increase the risk that the Government would gain access to materials prepared in anticipation of litigation. Martha Stewart stated in her affidavit that “Alexis is the closest person in the world to me. She is a valued confidante and counselor to me. In sharing the e-mail with her, I knew that she would keep its content strictly confidential.” Martha Stewart Aff. ¶ 6. Alexis Stewart stated that while she did not recall receiving the June 24 e-mail, she “never would have disclosed its contents.” Alexis Stewart Aff. ¶ 2. The disclosure affected neither side’s interests in this litigation: it did not evince an intent on Stewart’s part to relinquish work product immunity for the document, and it did not prejudice the Government by offering Stewart some litigation-based advantage. Accordingly, I hold that Stewart did not waive work product protection over the June 23 and 24 e-mails.

And, it seems fair to say that the more robust ability of the work-product doctrine to withstand waiver in a world in which people use their work email for a lot of things, allow me to echo Ms. Stewart to say.

That’s a good thing.

Friday follow up: DC Bar counsel’s weird priorities

So (finally) I’ve made myself read a bit more into the DC situation — that for many people is now ancient history but was news to me — about what seems like something that definitely got some play in the news but ought to be a more nationally discussed scandal.  The weird penchant that DC Bar Counsel has displayed in recent years of going after not just lawyer whistleblowers but lawyers who provide advice and counsel to such lawyers.

When I started down this path originally, it was in connection with noting the discipline that was imposed against Adrianna Koeck over her sharing of certain documents she took with her upon leaving her position as in-house counsel for GE and sharing them with the media.  I’ve now had the chance to track down and read the admonition issued against Koeck’s former professor – Robert Blakey — and the recommended findings/charges against Koeck’s lawyer – Lynne Bernabei.  Having done so, I’m still left shaking my head and thinking the priorities demonstrated are bananas.

The Report and Recommendation of the Ad Hoc Hearing Committee contains information that can be referenced to succinctly distill the underlying scenario:

In her position with GE, Koeck served “as the interface between legal issues happening in Latin America, Brazil, Argentina, Chile…and the broader businesses spread across the globe….

[snip]

When Koeck joined [GE] in 2006, Koeck’s supervisor … brief her about [an investigation involving questions regarding value added tax issues in Brazil] and gave her the file concerning the matter.  Resolving these discrepancies [the VAT issues] became one of the “big issues” on Koeck’s plate….

In mid-November 2006, after eleven months of her working for GE… Human Resources advised Koeck that [her supervisor] did not want her to either stay with the company or move to another GE business.

Koeck was to be discharged at a November 29, 2006 meeting scheduled with a GE Human Resource employee, but immediately before that meeting, Koeck emailed the GE corporate Ombudsman… claiming, among other things, that she was being retaliated against “for participating in and reporting illegal activity engaged in by [GE] personnel.”  She alleged that, in the course of her compliance investigations, she had discovered tax fraud that GE had been perpetrating in Brazil.  She claimed that she was being terminated for raising concerns about the fraud to her supervisors.

[snip]

In late August 2007, Koeck sought the legal advice of her former Notre Dame Law School professor, G. Robert Blakey.  Koeck provided Blakey with some of the confidential documents that she had copied from her GE computer.  Blakey advised Koeck, “that the documents and information she had were not covered by the attorney-client relationship, because they fell within the crime/fraud exception.”

[snip]

Blakey confined his advice to Koeck to disclosures she would make to protect herself against potential criminal liability, and he recommended that she retain an additional attorney with expertise in employment law and whistleblower complaints.  Blakely gave Koeck the names of two firms, one of which was Bernabei & Wachtel, PLLC.

[snip]

On November 27, 2007, Koeck formally retained Bernabei’s firm to handle the SOX matter before the Department of Labor.

[snip]

After Koeck retained Bernabei on November 27, 2007, she and Blakey met and agreed that Koeck should inform the press about GE’s activities in Brazil.  Beginning in December 2007, Bernabei spoke with Koeck about having a press strategy and talking to the press.

[snip]

At some point in the fall of 2007, David Cay Johnston, a New York Times reporter at the time, received a telephone call from Blakey who asked if Johnson “might be interested in material about a long-running series of felonies committed by General Electric in another country.”  Thereafter, Johnson received “hundreds of pages of documents” from Blakey or Koeck.  Subsequently in January 2008, Johnston interviewed Koeck about the alleged tax fraud in Brazil and she provided additional documents in her possession regarding GE’s activities there.

Now as to Koeck and Bernabei, an interesting wrinkle learned from reading the source documents is that because the SOX proceedings were before the Department of Labor, the disciplinary body looked to the ABA Model Rules to apply to some extent, but entirely ignored any evaluation of Model Rule 3.6 on trial publicity that would appear, arguably, to permit disclosure of aspects of the proceedings to the media.  In my earlier post, I had noted that DC does not have a trial publicity rule that extends as far as the Model Rule, but this wrinkle, to me, further undermines the outcome in these matters.

But it is the details of Professor Blakey’s situation though that are laid out in his admonition letter – that bar counsel was aware of and took into account and yet still thought discipline was warranted that most astound me and leave me sticking to my guns about this all being bananas:

Ms. Koeck told you that she was concerned that GE had not and was not taking any action to stop the alleged ongoing fraud and that she was afraid that she might be personally liable for the activity because Brazilian law holds individuals, and not corporations, liable for tax fraud and criminal activity.  Ms. Koeck also said that she knew of money-laundering activities and described instances in which GE employees in South America had been murdered.  Based on your conversations with her, you were under the mistaken impression that Ms. Koeck was residing in Brazil.  You believed that she faced possible criminal liability if she did not report the alleged illegal and fraudulent activity.  You also believed that her physical safety was in danger.

[snip]

In advising Ms. Koeck to provide information and copies of GE’s documents to Mr. Johnston, you had in mind the evidentiary crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege, but you did not give adequate consideration to the terms of Rule 1.6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Now setting aside the fact that D.C.’s Rule 1.6(d) does provide a lawyer with an exception to permit disclosure that would at least have been arguably available to cover Koeck’s circumstances, they are managing to discipline a very distinguished lawyer on a basis of saying he assisted another lawyer in violating her ethical obligations rather than attempt to prove that the lawyer’s allegedly “bad advice” rose to a level of incompetence to justify discipline under Rule 1.1.

As a lawyer who represents lawyers, I find that to be a really quite scary turn of events.

My view on the whole situation isn’t exactly made any better after tooling around a bit on the Web regarding the disciplinary counsel involved in pursuing this matter, Hamilton P. Fox, III.  Mr. Fox appears to be the same gentleman who was on the wrong side of the exercise of abusive and over-the-top enforcement powers recently as well.  You can read about the saga involved in his arrest and his wife’s detention stemming from Mr. Fox being parked in a place he shouldn’t have been parked in. and the D.C. police appearing to significantly overreact to the situation presented here.  Assuming he is the same person, and I admit it is possible that there are two separate Hamilton P. Fox, III in D.C., but assuming he’s the same person and I think I’m on solid ground about that as other people have laid out before, you’d think the experience he went through would make him more sympathetic to wielding power irresponsibly and trying to only target those who deserve punishment, but apparently not.

As a lawyer who represents lawyers, I’ll try for now just to look on the bright side of things that I don’t practice in the District of Columbia instead of dwelling on just how chilling the actions of D.C. Bar Counsel might be on lawyers who do.

Whistling about where you work.

We appear to be living now in an era in which whistle blowers are going to be in the news (and perhaps be the news) more than ever.

Many who know me, know that I hold a pretty controversial opinion — Arrested Development is potentially the greatest television show in history.  For many years when I needed a fictional lawyer for my hypos at seminars, Barry Zuckerkorn, Bob Loblaw, and Wayne Jarvis were my go-to choices.  I could drop this blog and write a blog just about the genius of that show but (perhaps) even fewer people would read that, much like it never got its fair share of viewers.  One example of the simple brilliance of its writing though was its treatment of the issue of whistle blowers from the 20th episode of the first season, “Whistler’s Mother”:

Mr. Jordan: Listen, you’ve got the money now and you know my price. You don’t need a whistle blower around here.

Michael: Interesting choice of words, Mr. Jordan. He’s right, we don’t need a whistle blower. We need a building full of whistle blowers. Okay? Whistles. I want this place to be honest. That’s exactly why I had these made up for us. When you see something wrong…

[Whistle blows]

Michael: There you go. I want you to report it. I want you to…

[Whistle blows]

Michael: Exactly. Just like that. I want us to police ourselves vigilantly… Let’s wait till something’s actually happens, though.

[Whistles blowing]

Michael: All right… Good fun… Enough!

[twenty minutes later…]

Michael: 45, 46, 47…

Michael: Okay, there’s still three whistles left out there. Who’s got the whistles?

[Whistle blows]

Board Member #1: He kept one.

Michael: There’s a good example of whistle blowing, okay, but you’ve kept yours, so it’s hurting your case.

Board Member #1: I was in the bathroom when you asked for it back.

[Whistle blows]

Board Member #2: No, he wasn’t.

When lawyers (or those that work closely with lawyers) claim to be whistle blowers, the stakes tend to be even higher and the ethical issues for those lawyers and even for the lawyers that represent those lawyers are almost always complicated.  Even when answers seem straightforward, the tensions that exist between the public interest in preventing wrongdoing and the private interest in protecting confidentiality can lead to second-guessing as to where the right lines should be drawn.  When the traditional right of a client to fire their attorney for any reason or even no reason at all is wound into the mix, sometimes that readily clarifies how the tension is resolved  but not always.  It is a pretty good explanation for why there aren’t really many instances of outside counsel to companies or government entities serving as whistle blowers.  When the lawyer seeking to blow the whistle though is an in-house counsel, that absolute right to fire your attorney can be made to yield to public policy since the client is also the lawyer’s employer.

In the last couple of weeks, there have been three stories of interest making the rounds involving three high-profile cases – two of them in California and one in D.C. — where the classic tensions are playing out in differing ways.  The D.C. case is the longest running of the three and was actually pretty much believed to be over back in 2008 when the a former in-house counsel for GE’s Sarbanes-Oxley suit — which she supported using her former client’s confidential information — was dismissed as untimely filed.  The matter got renewed attention with a recent development of a disciplinary suspension recommendation against her.  One of the California matters is part of a roiling and unseemly dispute between the State Bar of California and the Chief Disciplinary Counsel that it fired within the last year.  The other California matter is currently in the middle of trial proceedings and involves the former General Counsel of Bio-Rad, Sanford Wadler, who filed suit back in 2015 alleging he was fired because he blew the whistle on his former employer’s violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The weird mess involving the California State Bar has been back in the news twice in succession.  First, there was a story that the former assistant to the former Executive Director, Joe Dunn, would not be permitted to use information she took with her on her laptop to pursue her claim that she too was fired in retaliation because of her knowledge of the same kinds of violations for which her boss has said he was terminated.  Then, even more recently, word came down that Dunn’s suit, which had previously been forced into arbitration, has been dismissed by the arbitrator.  The  former Bio-Rad General Counsel recently received a favorable ruling about his ability to use confidential client information to seek to prove his case despite what would otherwise be his ethical obligations of confidentiality.

At a primary level, the developments in the three cases underscore a few points.  One, none of them involve outside counsel.  Two, lawyers who claim to be terminated for whistleblowing are almost always going to be met with counter-allegations that that they just simply were bad at their job and were terminated for poor performance.  Three, the obligations lawyers owe to clients in terms of confidentiality not only complicate matters and raise the stakes but almost always create satellite disputes within the litigation about use of information that will make or break the case.

Rather than try to re-tread all of the details of the three matters (because you might care about all, none, or just some of them), I’m pretty sure through the links I have provided and a little Googling, you can immerse yourself as much as you want in available information about any of the three.

One piece of one of the matters though really piqued my interest and deserves a brief separate discussion — the detail of why the former GE attorney, Adriana Koeck, appears headed for a 30-day suspension and a lawyer representing her is also getting punished — going beyond the use of the confidential client information to support allegations in the complaint but providing some of that same information to the press.   One of the reasons the matter piqued my interest originally was that, here in TN, we have a version of RPC 3.6 on trial publicity that allows communications about the media regarding the contents of a complaint, for example.  D.C. has a much different version of that rule.

But, further digging is what further made me curious because D.C. really is a weird place, I guess.  Admittedly, at this point I have only read the Law360 article, but it seems bananas that a D.C. lawyer who assisted, Koeck, in providing documents referenced in her complaint to news reporters is being disciplined for doing so.  Koeck’s 30-day suspension seems to be explainable by the fact that she didn’t participate in the proceedings having already agreed to be suspended from practice by consent.  But punishing a lawyer for that lawyer seems Draconian.  Yet, and somehow I missed reading about this back in 2015, but even the prominent law professor who gave Koeck advice that the crime-fraud exception would apply to the documents also received disciplinary punishment for doing so — that seems even more Draconian.

In fairness, I’ll have to dig a bit further to educate myself on those proceedings to see if I can better explain all of that.

In the meantime, it does appear like Season 5 of Arrested Development is going to happen.  So yay for that.

 

Bad blogger doubles up on topics.

I had every intention of posting twice this week, but events, including being under the weather with general ick much of the week, undermined my intent.  So, this mediocre post will briefly hit two items.  And, with any luck, tie the two together in a way that makes this seem, in hindsight, the correct way to approach these topics.

The first, which is a potentially really big deal with respect to lawyer ethics rules and confidentiality, is a California decision expressly concluding that Sarbanes-Oxley preempts California’s ethics rule on confidentiality to the extent that California’s rule would prohibit an in-house counsel from disclosing confidential client information to pursue a wrongful discharge/retaliation claim.  California’s ethics rule on confidentiality is admittedly something of an odd duck as it is much more stringent than other jurisdictions and often appears to make it seem like California lawyers have to deal with disputes with their clients while having both hands tied behind their back.

The Bio-Rad Laboratories decision has fortunately been written about extensively already by a more prominent blogger who focuses on privilege issues.  You can read the discussion of Bio-Rad put together at Presnell on Privileges here.

Given all of the ways in which the corporate client had already waived privilege and confidentiality as discussed in the first 30 or so pages of the Bio-Rad opinion, the California court really didn’t need to weigh in on the preemption question, but the SEC filed an amicus to make clear its position and, being a district court decision, it isn’t surprising that the judge would offer up all the grounds to support its ruling.

The second is an Ohio advisory ethics opinion from early December 2016 that addressed issues associated with interpretation of RPC 5.5 and correctly explains why a lawyer not admitted in Ohio is not engaged in UPL, even if they are officed in Ohio, if pursuing an exclusively federal practice.  You can read Ohio Advisory Opinion 2016-9 here.  The Ohio opinion recognizes that the application of supremacy principles requires this conclusion.  There are, of course, a limited number of areas of law that a lawyer can practice that are exclusively federal, but they do exist.

The way these two items go together?  I’m not going to hold my breath, but Congress could address, through federal legislation, the problems associated with many aspects of the antiquated way in which various state bar or state regulatory entities address temporary practice in, or handling of matters touching on other state laws, under RPC 5.5 by treating things as unethical that really shouldn’t be in modern law practice — remember, for example, the silliness of the reprimand issued against a Colorado attorney by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Two smart, practical ABA Ethics Opinions in a row. (And a bonus “beg to differ”.)

So, this week the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued Formal Op. 476 addressing the need to protect client confidentiality when a lawyer seeks to withdraw for reasons involving the client’s failure to pay.  As explained below, it is a solid, practical opinion touching on a subject often overlooked by lawyers who are just trying to get out of a case with as little additional wasted time and expense.

It comes on the heels of an opinion from earlier this month about a lawyer’s obligation to hold fees to be shared with a lawyer from another firm separate from the lawyer’s own funds, ABA Formal Op. 475, which — despite what this solo and small-firm centric blogger wrote recently — is also a practical, well-constructed, and correct opinion.  I have to beg to differ with the My Shingle piece because it misses the boat on the primary type of situation the ABA Formal Op. 475 is vital to addressing — where lawyers in different firms are sharing fees in a contingency case.  When you come at the question from that perspective as a starting point, the answer offered in the opinion is clearly the only answer that can be correctly offered.  The My Shingle complaints are readily resolved by simply working out a better front-end arrangement with a client about payment to multiple lawyers.

(N.B. – it can’t just be coincidence that these two opinions appear to be the first two in which my friend, Doug Richmond, shows up as a member of the committee involved in the issuance.  Doug is an excellent lawyer – as of course are all the lawyers on the committee — but Doug also has a flair for delivering practical advice through clear, straightforward written work product that leaves the reader with an abiding sense that the conclusion reached was inescapable.)

ABA Formal Op. 476 also does a nice job in tackling and acknowledging the interplay between trial court and lawyer in these circumstances.  The opinion truly can be well summed up if you lack the time or wherewithal to read it in full by simply quoting its “Conclusion,” section:

In moving to withdraw as counsel in a civil proceeding based on a client’s failure to pay fees, a lawyer must consider the duty of confidentiality under Rule 1.6 and seek to reconcile that duty with the court’s need for sufficient information upon which to rule on the motion.  Similarly, in entertaining such a motion, a judge should consider the right of the movant’s client to confidentiality.  This requires cooperation between lawyers and judges.  If required by the court to support the motion with facts relating to the representation, a lawyer may, pursuant to Rule 1.6(b)(5), disclose only such confidential information as is reasonably necessary for the court to make an informed decision on the motion.

As it stands, I really only have one item of criticism regarding Formal Op. 476 at all.  Yet it feels almost like nitpickery … in that I would have liked to see the opinion manage more clearly to stress that the need for protecting client confidences and discretion in any disclosure to a court regarding withdrawal applies to more withdrawal situations than merely not being paid.  Far too many times than I care to count have I been sitting in a courtroom and listened to a lawyer in the context of seeking withdrawal in some matter on the docket ahead of my case say too much, unprompted about their communications (or lack thereof) with the client.  The opinion says it is limiting itself to the deadbeat client situation because in other situations other rules and principles may apply, but I think there would have been value in exploring the commonalities.

The only other thing I’d like to use ABA Formal Op. 476 as a springboard to say involves highlighting an aspect of the rule we have here in Tennessee and how it provides a very helpful, practical mechanism for doing what the ABA Opinion actually encourages when it says:  “Of course, where practicable, a lawyer should first seek to persuade the client to take suitable action to remove the need for the lawyer’s disclosure.”  In the context of the ABA Formal Op. that would appear to be either: (1) pay the lawyer; (2) hire other counsel that can substitute in lieu of withdrawal, or perhaps (3) fire the lawyer so that withdrawal becomes mandatory.

In Tennessee, we offer another option as our RPC 1.16(b) also lists as a trigger for discretionary ability to withdraw merely that the client has provided informed consent confirmed in writing to withdrawal by the lawyer.  Such a clear escape valve in the rule permits a lawyer – even in a situation in which the client has become a deadbeat – to be able to counsel the client and explain that if the client will go ahead and provide informed consent to withdrawal, and show that consent by signing the motion itself, it can go an exceedingly long way in eliminating the risk that the lawyer will have to say anything about the client’s failure to pay in response to an inquiry from the court.