Fettered is almost always better for lawyers.

Fettered is a fun word on a number of levels. It is a word lawyers are usually familiar with when it has a prefix attached to it and gets used when we talk about disclosures or access as being “unfettered.” But, it is also a word that literally means “to be restrained with chains,” so it would not be an entirely incorrect usage of “fettered” to describe being physically handcuffed … although it usually involves chains or manacles around the ankles rather than handcuffs.

The connection created by that word and its meanings is truly the only thing that prompted me to link the following two stories of interest for lawyers.

One involves a very thoughtful court ruling that provides a road map for the way lawyers should go about avoiding unfettered disclosure of client confidences even when they have the right to defend themselves.

The other involves a lawyer who so flagrantly went about things the wrong way that her lateral move ended with her in actual handcuffs for a couple of days, not to mention likely financial handcuffs for many years to come.

I’ve often spoken with lawyers about how the right to disclose confidential client information to defend your conduct is clearly acknowledged by the ethics rules, but also still an endeavor not entirely free of risk given the limits imposed under those same ethics rules. Model Rule 1.6(b) and its accompanying paragraphs of Comment actually combine to do a very good job of explaining to lawyers how they still have to go to some pains to try to protect information, even in the face of unreasonable conduct by clients (or former clients) behaving incredibly unfairly.

The two biggest components of those “pains” are: (1) that you cannot simply unleash and disclose everything you know that might be damaging to your former client but have to make measured disclosures that are only what is reasonably necessary to defeat the allegations against you, and (2) that you likely also must make some effort to see if the Court will allow you to file what you have to say under seal or under some other form of protective order to prevent far and wide dissemination of the information you are disclosing. But, what happens a fair percentage of the time is that lawyers read the rule but not necessarily the explanatory comments.

In connection with a criminal case in federal court in West Virginia involving accusations of ineffective assistance, a U.S. Magistrate Judge issued a very well structured and thoughtful opinion that essentially follows the guidance of the rule and its comment in a way that provides a good model for letting a lawyer defend their conduct while properly imposing safeguards to avoid unfettered disclosures. Thus, the full opinion is now another place to point lawyers to beyond just the Comments where they can read the preferred way this needs to work. As a bonus, it also provides an excellent gloss on a now-decade-old ABA Formal Ethics Opinion that some folks believed went a bit too far.

As to the lawyer who likely thought she was seeking greener pastures but ended up in handcuffs, the easiest place to succinctly describe Chelsea Merta’s conduct is a paragraph or two of the Confession of Judgment and Consent Permanent Injunction Ms. Merta entered in state court in St. Louis, Missouri around 10 days ago:

3. On or about February 2, 2018, seven days prior to her resignation, Merta transferred approximately 22,000 data files from SLF [her then firm] onto a portable USB flash drive without authorization from SLF. The data files that were transferred to the portable USB flash drive included files from SLF’s clients and SLF. Merta took the flash drive containing these files and, upon her resignation (despite representations to the contrary during her exit interview with SLF), retained the files. Many of those files were later found to be contained on [her and her new firm’s] MacBook Pro computers and cloud storage accounts.

4. Prior to her resignation and without authorization from SLF, Merta tampered with, deleted, and wiped her SLF computer, her SLF-issued smart phone, and other storage locations of all data, including data related to SLF’s clients and SLF, and also informed three clients of her imminent departure from SLF. Thereafter, following the submission of her notice of resignation, but prior to it becoming effective, Merta contacted a number of clients to inform them of her resignation and inform them that they could transfer their file to her new law firm.

In that confession of judgment, Merta agreed that the damages caused to her former firm were in excess of $550,000. The consent judgment also references the Court having already awarded damages against her for more than $200,000 over conduct involving contempt of court.

It was the contemptuous conduct – which itself at heart was continued refusal to relinquish the improperly taken files and continued misrepresentations to the Court about those facts – that also resulted in her spending two nights in jail until she purged the contempt. You can read all about the contemptuous conduct in this earlier order here.

Merta’s behavior when leaving to start a new firm, I sadly believe, happens a lot more often than you might think. It usually does not come to light for a variety of reasons, such as the dynamic associated with the pros and cons for the firm that has been wronged of ever pursuing the wrongdoing because of potential adverse effects for the firm and for continued discomfort on the part of its current and former clients. The reason that lawyers can tend to get away with this kind of conduct though is not that the departing conduct can’t be proven as the order lays bare. Technology these days makes it very difficult to not leave behind the kind of digital trail that Merta left.

Nevertheless, the tendency to engage in the conduct on the way out the door is fundamentally puzzling because it is antithetical to what lawyers usually are — risk adverse. It will likely come as no surprise to hear that this particular lawyer also has been pursuing bankruptcy proceedings. Thus, this case demonstrates just how significant the financial and professional risk of doing this can be in those cases where the firm that is wronged does make the decision to plow forward with proving it.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asking in South Carolina and definitely not receiving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lawsuit about a lawsuit that touches on everything about 2019?

If time capsules were still a thing (are they still a thing?), and someone wanted to capture issues facing the legal profession in 2019 for a time capsule to be buried… what sort of topics would you choose to include?

Outside of the legal dynamics at play in the political landscape of the nation (which I’m excluding for today just for purposes of sanity), a quick effort to sketch things out on scratch paper might find you listing:

  • Risks of the flow of information involving modern technology
  • Financial pressures placed on lawyers and law firms
  • Continuing difficulties in achieving and maintaining diversity in law firms
  • How #metoo and problems of power and sexual misconduct in the workplace play out in law firms.
  • The role of businesses other than law firms in the delivery of legal services and what that means for the profession.

I’m probably leaving something out, but those bullet points comprise a pretty good overview of the legal landscape, right? Surely, you couldn’t find one document that would touch all of that to throw into the time capsule?

Well, thanks to a new lawsuit filed in California in May about another lawsuit filed in New York in May, you can now fill your time capsule with just one complaint plus its Exhibit A.

You may already have read any of the stories about this lawsuit that have run at the ABA Journal or in Bloomberg Law or even this Harvard Law School and snark-centric one at Above the Law.

If you want to read the entirety of what would go in the time capsule, you can read the lawsuit filed by Pierce Bainbridge against Donald Lewis (which attaches the suit Lewis filed against Pierce Bainbridge as an exhibit) by downloading the PDF below.

The two documents combined span more than 110 pages, so here’s a summary.

Lewis joined Pierce Bainbridge as a partner in June of 2018 but ended up working there for only 4 or 5 months. He was terminated by the firm in November 2018. Both sides agree that during the five months he was there A LOT happened. They disagree pretty vehemently on exactly what though.

Lewis filed a lawsuit in New York on May 15, 2019 alleging that he was wrongly terminated as a retaliatory matter because Lewis had become aware of financial wrongdoing by Pierce Bainbridge involving misrepresentations about the value of cases to a third-party litigation funding company. Lewis’s lawsuit sought $65 million in total damages with $50 million of those being claimed punitive damages.

In support of his allegations against the firm and his claims that it is a toxic environment for those who work there, Lewis’s lawsuit publicly discloses a litany of internal Pierce Bainbridge communications including what would appear to be not just emails and text messages but some that are indicated as being from the firm’s use of the Slack messaging platform.

That same day, May 15, 2019, Pierce Bainbridge filed a lawsuit against Lewis in California alleging that pre-suit sharing of a draft of the lawsuit with certain people was actionable defamation by Lewis and that by seeking a multi-million settlement to avoid filing the lawsuit, Lewis was engaged in extortion. The firm’s lawsuit also pursues claims of negligent and intentional interference with contractual relations and prospective economic advantage on the theory that Lewis’s effort to spread false information about the firm and its partners is an effort to damage the firm’s relationship with the third-party funding company and its clients and potential future clients.

Pierce Bainbridge contends that Lewis was the subject of credible allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and retaliation leveled against him by an employee of the law firm and that he attempted to obstruct the firm’s internal investigation of those allegations and was terminated on that basis. The firm’s lawsuit paints a portrait of a lateral hire alleged to have “immediately bec[ome] a corrosive presence” at the firm.

The firm alleges that on the same day Lewis was appointed to be an “assigning partner” a legal assistant made a report about an alleged event that would have occurred in June, fewer than 2 months after Lewis arrived, and that involves Lewis doing his best impression of what might happen if Louis C.K. and Matt Lauer were collaborators on a workplace project. In response to the allegations, the firm put Lewis on administrative leave and hired an outside law firm to investigate. While on leave, the firm alleges that Lewis sent an email to many at the firm airing his allegations (many of which apparently ended up the subject of his lawsuit). For that, the firm says they terminated his employment. The firm contends that their outside counsel concluded that the allegations against Lewis were credible.

Lewis, for his part in his lawsuit which spans 486 numbered paragraphs and was not filed pro se, takes issue with the propriety of that investigation as well and alleges that another partner at the firm was terminated after voicing an opinion that Lewis had gotten “a raw deal” from the firm

Using history as a guide, I’m prepared to declare that neither side will win this lawsuit. As a teaching tool, this lawsuit of course is an easy opportunity to repeat a point I’ve made many times before (here and elsewhere) about why so many law firm disputes and lawyer departures ultimately shouldn’t end up in litigation if there is any way to avoid it. The likelihood almost always is that no one “wins.” Everyone loses. And most prominently among the losers are the clients of the law firms/lawyers who don’t want to directly or even indirectly be harmed by the battle and, if they are at all risk averse, have to find themselves wondering whether they want anything to do with any of the players.

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?

“Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up.”

Serial, perhaps the best known podcast of all podcasts, has recently launched its third season and like one of the REM songs off of Life’s Rich Pageant it focuses on Cuyahoga – but not the river but the County in Ohio – more particularly, it focuses on what goes on inside the Justice Center in Cuyahoga County.  Yet, much like the song was according to Peter Buck, the podcast also may just really be about America and its lost promises too.

So far the first three episodes have dropped, and they are particularly good.  Good, of course, in a troubling way for what they show with respect to the inner workings of the justice system.  Admittedly, all this season of Serial can truly do is show problems in just one particular courthouse in one particular location, but we all know there are universal themes that recur in many other similar venues in the nation.

The first three episodes alone have also given fodder for discussions of legal ethics for those so inclined.  The first episode follows an unfortunate and unfair bar fight through the court system.  The host, Sara Koenig, is given extensive access to the criminal defense lawyer involved.  (The series so far reveals that she was given nearly free rein in the building altogether.)  Even though there is one spot in which Koenig explains that had to be excluded from a meeting between the lawyer and his client in order to protect the attorney-client relationship while they talked, those familiar with the duty of client confidentiality still know that given how incredibly much is actually revealed by the lawyer about the case he is handling, how he is handling it, what he and his client have discussed, that surely there must have been a thorough and clear consent provided by the client for there to be no breach of the lawyer’s duty under Ohio’s version of RPC 1.6.

The second of the first three episodes introduces you to a judge who almost certainly needs to be made the subject of multiple judicial ethics complaints and who seems to have no business sitting in judgment of other people.  But the judge it introduces you to is likely a character-type that will sound very familiar to you in many respects no matter whether you’ve ever been in Cuyahoga County, Ohio or not.

The third episode tackles the very relevant topic of police brutality, the intricacies that can arise when one situation results in intertwining civil and criminal matters, and, for true ethics nerds, raises (at least indirectly) issues associated with a lawyer who swaps places in the system later in their career as well as problematic issues regarding where the line is in court proceedings between advocacy and assisting someone with manipulating evidence and testimony to assure an end result that may be believed to be just.

Anyway, your mileage may vary, but I find myself hooked.  I also find myself really wishing that Karen Rubin over at The Law For Lawyers Today might be able to weigh in at some point on her take on how the show portrays things, but, because she practices in Cleveland, I’m guessing that she is likely too close to the courts and the lawyers involved to be able to comfortably weigh in.

The fourth episode should be out tomorrow.  You should check it out.  (And, yes, I’m a guy with a pretty decent sense of humor and I see the hilarity in me encouraging the few hundred or so people who read this blog to go check out something that has millions upon millions of downloads.)

Making it up as you go (but for a good cause): Texas State Bar Op. 673

There has been something of a trend of late in terms of ethics opinions focusing on variations on the breadth of the duty of client confidentiality and the inconvenience it creates for lawyers who have bought in to the modern trend of sharing and oversharing when online.  There was this opinion from the ABA and then this opinion from the ABA, for example.

The latest opinion in this vein is Professional Ethics Committee for the State Bar of Texas Op. 673.  Except, it is only partially in this vein because, while it starts out heading down the path of explaining how the duty of client confidentiality might prohibit lawyers from being able to do something useful, it swerves away from what would be the likely conclusion in most jurisdictions.

Of course, it does so essentially by making up a justification nearly out of whole cloth but, if you’ve ever participated in, and benefited from, access to any kind of online forum or listserv frequented by lawyers, it reaches a conclusion for which Texas lawyers should be grateful.

The questions addressed in Op. 673 are:

  1.  Does a lawyer violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by seeking advice for the benefit of the lawyer’s client from other lawyers in an online discussion group?
  2. Does a lawyer violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by seeking advice for the benefit of the lawyer’s client through informal, direct consultation with another lawyer in a different firm?

The opinion then goes on to describe arrangements that will be familiar to anyone who has spent anytime on any sort of lawyer listserv or other social media group setting or online forum but also makes the point that lawyers reaching out to pick someone’s brain about an issue or perform “lazy person’s research” can also happen in the “meat space,” offline when one lawyer seeks out another lawyer’s input in a version of informal mentoring.

The Texas opinion squarely flags that the biggest concern for the asking lawyer in such scenarios is protecting the confidentiality of client information.  (Importantly, the opinion also does a nice job of flagging for the answering lawyer the most significant risks for her – potentially creating duties to the asking lawyer’s client or wittingly or unwittingly violating duties to her own other clients by helping the lawyer.)

Nevertheless, the opinion explains that the asking lawyer can proceed even if providing some background information that is likely to identify the client or situation is necessary in order to get the advice without violating the ethics rules as to the disclosure of confidential information.

It is the opinion of the Committee that Rules 1.05(d)(1) and (d)(2) allow a lawyer to reveal a limited amount of unprivileged confidential information to lawyers outside the inquiring lawyer’s law firm, without the client’s express consent, when the inquiring lawyer reasonably believes that the revelation will further the representation by obtaining the responding lawyers’ experience or expertise for the benefit of the client, and when it is not reasonably foreseeable that revelation will prejudice the client.

This is where the Texas opinion is able to rely on two things.  One is a “creative” interpretation of the “implied authorization” aspect of the rule on client confidentiality that most jurisdictions also have.  (Texas Rule 1.05(d)(1)).  The other is a nuance in Texas’s rule that jurisdictions tracking the Model Rule don’t have at their disposal to justify this kind of lawyer-friendly (and not exactly consumer unfriendly) outcome.  (Texas Rule 1.05(d)(2)).

Starting with the second is the easy approach because it really is the most important thing to know to explain the outcome – Texas’s version of RPC 1.6 (which they have numbered as Rule 1.05) contains an exception (d)(2) that allows a lawyer to reveal information that is “confidential” but “unprivileged” when “the lawyer has reason to believe it is necessary to do so in order to ‘carry out the representation effectively.'”

For context, here is the entirety of Texas 1.05(d):

(d) A lawyer also may reveal unprivileged client information:

(1) When impliedly authorized to do so in order to carry out the representation.
(2) When the lawyer has reason to believe it is necessary to do so in order to:
(i) carry out the representation effectively;
(ii) defend the lawyer or the lawyer’s employees or associates against a claim of wrongful conduct;
(iii) respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client; or
(iv) prove the services rendered to a client, or the reasonable value thereof, or both, in an action against another person or organization responsible for the payment of the fee for services rendered to the client.

Now, I could quibble with that word “necessary” and how seeking out assistance from an online discussion forum could ever be “necessary,” but I can admit to being a fan of outcome-determinative analysis when I’m a fan of the outcome.  (To be clear, I have always tried very hard when making use of any kind of online forum to not let any cats out of any bags in terms of actual whos, whats, and wheres.)

The fact that the Texas opinion still involves a “making-it-up-as-you-go” approach though comes through loud and clear by the fact that the opinion has to provide a set of numbered considerations spanning more than a full page to guide lawyers in deciding whether and how much confidential but unprivileged information could be disclosed.  If you want to work through those factors, you can do so at pages 2-4 of the actual opinion itself here.

In any jurisdiction that does not have something like Texas’s Rule 1.05(d)(2) though, getting to this kind of result is a lot more difficult since it involves having to try to push the envelope on the “implied authorization” aspect of Model Rule 1.6(a).

Yet, again, this kind of conduct is likely not anything that a client would complain about and often results in driving down the cost of the representation by gathering the wisdom of a crowd before spending hours on research so… as good a time as any to bring back up again my thoughts on how Model Rule 1.6 ought to be revised.

It’s still a good ethics opinion, even if the rule itself may need rethinking

Not quite 5 months ago, I wrote a bit of a shorter post about my view as to why ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 480 counted as a good ethics opinion.  For those that may not be remembering the opinion off the top of the head, it was the one that reminded lawyers – primarily in the context of social media — that RPC 1.6 governing confidentiality does not have an exception for “generally known” information nor an exception that says it is okay to discuss just because it is a matter of public record.

This opinion has been the subject of some renewed criticism — particularly a very well done column by Bill Wernz in the Minnesota Lawyer which (if you have a subscription you can read here) — and has been (in no small part because of Bill’s influential column) the topic of some spirited debate on an ethics listserv to which I am privileged to be a part.  (Loyal readers may recall an earlier effort on my part to address a first wave of criticism directed at this particular ABA opinion here.)

The summarized version of the criticism generally is that it feels increasingly illogical for confidentiality under the ethics rules to extend to information known or knowable by scads of other people.  An example that has been bandied about is a hypothetical of an attorney who has just secured a helpful published appellate opinion in case on a Wednesday and would like to argue and make reference to that case on Thursday for a different client and whether the restriction in RPC 1.6 means they cannot without the express permission of the client in the appellate case.

A few years back in Tennessee we accomplished a revision to our version of RPC 1.6 that provides some help for hypothesized conundrums such as these with the adoption of a Comment [3b] that reads:

Information made confidential by this Rule does not include what a lawyer learns about the law, legal institutions such as courts and administrative agencies, and similar public matters in the course of representing clients.  For example, during legal research of an issue while representing a client, a lawyer may discover a particularly important precedent, devise a novel legal approach, or learn the preferable way to frame an argument before a particular judge that is useful both in the immediate matter and in other representation.  Such information is part of the general fund of information available to the lawyer.

Other aspects of the renewed criticism keep coming back to the argument that the meaning of the word “reveal” in RPC 1.6 continues to be overlooked in efforts to interpret the rule.  I continue to believe that ABA Formal Opinion 480 and opinions like it are good opinions because I don’t think the people that put so much weight in their argument on the idea that “reveal” is something you cannot do as to already public information are as correct about that as they think they are.  If you didn’t know something until I tell it to you, I think it is entirely fair to say I “revealed” it to you even if it was already public.  It is not the greatest analogy in the world but harken back to your worst experience of someone spoiling for you the shocking twist of a film before you could see it.  In discussing that with someone and explaining your dismay in having the surprise revealed to you without warning, I don’t think you’d think much of someone claiming that millions of people already knew it so telling you about it didn’t really “reveal” anything.

While we obtained the language for Comment [3b] in Tennessee, there was another proposed revision to RPC 1.6 that was not successful but that I still believe would make the rule better and that, ideally, would be a decent fix to the Model Rule as well.  We had proposed adding a piece to RPC 1.6(a) – that would have required adding some numbering to make express consent of a client reason number (1) and implied authority to carry out the representation reason number (2) — where a third reason where revealing RPC 1.6 would be allowable where:  “the disclosure is limited to information relating to the representation of a client which has already been made public and the disclosure is made in such a way that there is no reasonable likelihood of adverse effect to the client.”  Our Court rejected that proposal, but I think an amendment to the Model Rule and other rules patterned on it along those lines would address many of the criticisms of the scope of RPC 1.6 while still protecting against disclosures that it makes sense as a matter of public policy to prohibit lawyers from making — like that one offered in my most-assuredly-unopened open letter post.

 

Traps for the Unwary – Married lawyers edition.

Within the last week, there was an interesting Law.com article (subscription required) on a topic that has been something of a pet . . . well not really “peeve” of mine, and not really a pet project of mine, but a topic that I feel like is somewhat uniquely overlooked by the people to whom it should be most relevant — spouses/significant others who are both lawyers but who work different places.

The article discusses an Ohio disciplinary case that is ongoing and that involves something that – based on anecdotal evidence over the course of my career — is an extremely frequent occurrence:  the sharing of information about cases and matters between spouses and significant others who both are lawyers but who aren’t both representing the client in question.

Although (as indicated above – unless you are particularly wily about how you use the Internet and various search engines ability to “cache” content — you need a subscription to read the article, here’s a snippet to give you a flavor of the fact pattern involved.

The Ohio high court is set to review a proposed disciplinary sanction against two education law attorneys, ThomasHolmes and Ashleigh Kerr, who are engaged to one another and admitted to exchanging emails that included work product and confidential client information.

Although Holmes and Kerr focus on similar types of law—namely the representation of public school districts—they have never shared clients and they worked at different firm. Holmes practiced most recently at [a firm] in …Ohio, and Kerr practiced at [a different firm] in … Ohio.

In a disciplinary complaint lodged in December against the couple, the Ohio Supreme Court’s board of professional conduct said the two have lived together since October 2015 and became engaged in November of that year. From January 2015 to November 2016, the disciplinary complaint alleged, the two exchanged information related to their client representations on more than a dozen occasions.

“Generally,” the board alleged, “Kerr forwarded Holmes an email exchange with her client in which her client requested a legal document (i.e. a contract, waiver or opinion). In response, Holmes forwarded Kerr an email exchange with his client which attached a similar legal document that he had drafted for his client. More often than not, Holmes ultimately completed Kerr’s work relative to her particular client.”

If you want more of the detail, you can access the disciplinary complaint here.  And you can go read the pending recommendation of the Ohio board as to the discipline — which has been agreed to by each of the lawyers here.

The proposed, agreed discipline is a six-month suspension from the practice of law for each lawyer (but with the suspension fully stayed/probated.)

I suspect the outcome of that matter – and perhaps even the fact of disciplinary proceedings at all — will come as a huge surprise to many lawyers.  But the simple fact is that the underlying practice — sharing information about cases in order to try to get your spouse or significant other to help you — despite how much it may seem consistent with human nature is almost always going to be undeniably a violation of the ethics rules.  It is possible that one of the lawyers could get the client to consent to the arrangement, but beyond that approach there are very few ways to avoid the simple fact that RPC 1.6 in almost any jurisdiction won’t permit doing this.

I also strongly believe that most lawyers who do this kind of thing — if they think about it from an ethics standpoint – believe that the risk is quite low of ever being found out because of the marital privilege.  But not only because of some of the inherent limits on how far that may take you, but also because of the increasing frequency in which we all do everything digitally… this case demonstrates that there are a number of ways that the communications can surface into the light without anyone ever having a spouse voluntarily provide information any marital privilege notwithstanding.

Client Number Three – Seven lessons learned

I can’t believe I’m doing this as neither of these people deserve any benefit of the doubt or serious treatment afforded for their contentions.  But, based on spending time on the web reading comments (despite the always-spot-on advice “don’t read the comments”), there are so incredibly many people who do not understand these concepts and, thus, yesterday’s events do present a good teachable moment about privilege and confidentiality.

Lesson the 1st – it can never be said too many times that the concept of, and the scope of, attorney-client privilege and the ethical duty of client confidentiality are different.  Attorney-client privilege is an evidentiary concept and a privilege with respect to testimony and compelled production of communications in connection with litigation.  Client confidentiality is an ethical duty that imposes shackles on lawyers with respect to voluntary disclosure of information about clients or information about the representation of clients.  If you are familiar with Venn diagrams, then you can think of attorney-client privilege as a smaller circle within the much larger circle that is confidential client information under Model Rule 1.6 and its state analogs.  Client confidentiality is also different because while it imposes real restrictions on attorneys voluntarily disclosing information, it can fall to a court order requiring disclosure.  (See, for example, Model Rule 1.6(b)(6)).

Lesson the 2nd – both privilege and confidentiality will adhere to communications between an attorney and a prospective client during conversations or written communications while deciding whether or not to form a relationship.  Under the ethics rules, most states have adopted a specific rule to drive this point home patterned after Model Rule 1.18.  New York’s version of that rule reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

(a) Except as provided in Rule 1.18(e), a person who consults with a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client.
(b) Even when no client-lawyer relationship ensues, a lawyer who has learned information from a prospective client shall not use or reveal that information, except as Rule 1.9 would permit with respect to information of a former client.

Lesson the 3rd – the identity of a client, though rarely a piece of information that is itself privileged, is always confidential information under the ethics rules.

Lesson the 4th – if a prospective client communicates with an attorney in order to see if they might want to form an attorney-client relationship, those communications should not involve the actual giving of legal advice to the prospective client.  If they do, then the person is not a prospective client anymore because they have now become your client even if only for a limited time period.  If a person asks you for legal advice, and you have given them the legal advice they asked for, then they are your client.  (A much more pedestrian way this can be a problem for lawyers is along these lines:  A lawyer who decides not to take on a plaintiff’s case because the lawyer has concluded that the statute of limitations on the claim has run and the lawyer tells the plaintiff that conclusion.  The lawyer turns out to be wrong about that conclusion, but the plaintiff relies on the advice, later realizes that it was wrong, and then sues the lawyer for malpractice.  Lawyer is going to be unable to defend the malpractice claim on the basis that they were not the plaintiff’s lawyer because they gave the plaintiff legal advice.)

Lesson the 5th – you don’t have to pay a lawyer any money at all to be a client.  Communications can be protected by the attorney-client privilege without respect to whether any money ever changes hands.  And, most certainly, client confidentiality adheres without regard to payment to the lawyer.

(NB: Here endeth the legal ethics lessons.  These two bonus lessons are not about legal ethics.)

Lesson the 6th – there is no point in discussing journalistic ethics when talking about Client Number Three.  He ain’t a journalist.

Lesson the 7th – if a lawyer with only two clients takes on a third client and the common subject-matter of representation of the other two clients involves facilitating hush money payments regarding sexual improprieties, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to begin to think you know the kind of services the third client was seeking.