Can’t stop, won’t stop. Now … full stop.

I’m really, truly not trying to fall into the habit of only managing one post a week.  As proof, here’s a post about a Tennessee lawyer who couldn’t/wouldn’t follow the rules.

It is a fascinating case study for at least two reasons.  One is that discipline for conflicts of interest is, all things considered, relatively rare and, yet, this lawyer’s failure to recognize and avoid a conflict of interest has now led to disbarment.  Second is that it really wasn’t the conflict of interest that got punished with disbarment it was the lawyer’s violation of another rule I’ve mentioned before: The First Rule of Holes.  “When you are in one, stop digging.”

When you violate that rule, you end up in a hole from which you cannot climb out.  That is the end of the story for Homer Cody.

Cody has now been disbarred by the Tennessee Supreme Court in an opinion released earlier this week.  How did he get there?  Well, here’s the short version: he took on a representation that created a conflict from day one and then, despite the imposition of escalating discipline, refused to comply with court orders saying that he had to withdraw from the representation and then kept representing the clients involved even while suspended.

The slightly longer version?  Well, here goes:

A lawsuit was filed all the way back in 2002 that sought judicial dissolution of a childcare entity and its executive director over alleged self-dealing transactions between the executive director and the entity.  In 2003, that executive director was indicted by a grand jury, and then pled guilty to, two counts of theft from the childcare entity.  Near the end of 2004, Cody entered an appearance in the civil lawsuit as an attorney representing both the childcare entity and its executive director.  Joint clients with an obvious conflict between their interests.  That case ended in a ruling that the executive director had failed in her fiduciary duties to the childcare entity and a judgment entered against her in favor of the receiver  – overseeing the entity now in dissolution – for almost $300,000.  Cody filed a notice of appeal from that ruling again as an attorney for both the entity and the executive director.  Who continued to be two clients with glaringly obvious conflicts between them.

In 2007, counsel for the receiver moved to disqualify Cody and, ultimately, in 2008, our state’s Court of Appeals, ruled that Cody was disqualified from representing either of the clients.  Cody, however, continued to undertake actions representing both clients, a contempt action was pursued, and another Court of Appeals ruling was issued emphasizing that Cody had a conflict and was to refrain from representing the entity or the executive director and sent its ruling to our Board of Professional Responsibility.  The BPR filed a petition for discipline in 2011 and that proceeding ended in a public censure being issued against Cody in March 2012.

Despite that fact, Cody (shovel in hand) continued to file pleadings in court as an attorney for both clients.  This resulted in a second disciplinary petition.  In response to that second disciplinary petition, Cody filed a RICO case in federal court, as attorney for the same two clients, claiming that pretty much everyone involved in the court proceedings against his clients were using the Tennessee judicial system “to steal, embezzle, defraud, and to carry out other illegal activities.”  The pending disciplinary case was amended to bring more charges over the representation in the new federal court case.  That disciplinary case resulted in the imposition of an 180-day suspension of Cody’s license in 2015.

I’m guessing at this point, Dear Reader, you can guess what happens next (if for no other reason than that I sort of told you a few paragraphs up in the short version).  During his 180-day suspension, Cody drafted appellate briefs for the same clients, after their RICO case had been dismissed, and had them sign and file them as if he was not involved.  That resulted in a new disciplinary proceeding and culminated in a new one-year suspension in 2016.  Thereafter, Cody prepared three more appellate briefs for those clients — including a petition for cert with the U.S. Supreme Court (!) during his one-year suspension and, in 2017, was hit with a new two-year suspension.  During the one-year suspension but before the two-year suspension began, Cody went back to the state level trial court where it all started and filed an “Open Refusal to Obey Judicial Orders,” along with one or two other filings (including a challenge to the receiver’s fees and expenses), and then, during the two-year suspension period, he filed a “Motion for Determination of Proper Venue.”

Those acts resulted in Cody being found in criminal contempt and actually sentenced to 30 days in jail earlier this year.  Those acts also brought about yet another disciplinary proceeding against him, which he defended by denying the legitimacy of the orders of the Court suspending him, and that resulted in August 2018 in an order disbarring him from the practice of law.

All in all, his saga is a remarkable story that demonstrates at least three things:

(1) you can dig a pretty deep hole over the course of 14 years;

(2) there has to have been something else going on to explain the public meltdown that this lawyer managed to have after apparently practicing for more than 25 years without receiving any public discipline; and

(3) the BPR can truly be dedicated to the concept of incremental discipline when it wants to be as it is almost as hard to believe that Cody was given 180, 1-year, and then 2-year suspensions in these circumstances before ever being disbarred as it is to believe that he kept going out and getting new shovels.

RPC 5.6 and settlement agreements: The TN BPR messes up another ethics opinion.

This is not truly a development that merits the “Bad Ethics Opinion or the Worst Ethics Opinion” treatment, but it is a development that deserves commentary.

Last week while my wife and I were getting some short R&R, the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility issued Formal Ethics Opinion 2018-F-166.  If all you read of it were the first two paragraphs, it would sound like a reasonable (albeit somewhat circular) ethics opinion to have issued:

The Board of Professional Responsibility has been requested to issue a Formal Ethics Opinion on the ethical propriety of a settlement agreement which contains a confidentiality provision that prohibits any discussion of any facet of the settlement agreement with any other person or entity, regardless of the circumstances, and which prohibits the requesting attorney from referencing the incident central to the plaintiff’s case, the year, make, and model of the subject vehicle or the identity of the Defendants.

OPINION

It is improper for an attorney to propose or accept a provision in a settlement agreement that requires the attorney to be bound by a confidentiality clause that prohibits a lawyer from future use of information learned during the representation or disclosure of information that is publicly available or that would be available through discovery in other cases as part of the settlement, if that action will restrict the attorney’s representation of other clients.

So, again, that sounds reasonable in a vacuum (and it’s that last clause that makes it relatively circular as an application of RPC 5.6.  As the opinion makes clear that the rule on which it is premised and hinges is RPC 5.6(b), which provides:  “A lawyer shall not participate in offering or making: (b) an agreement in which a restriction on the lawyer’s right to practice is part of the settlement of a client controversy.”

But, this opinion isn’t issued in a vacuum.  It manages over the course of 4 pages to barely acknowledge the existence of an earlier-issued ethics opinion — Formal Ethics Opinion 98-F-141.  It also doesn’t even mention the existence of a more recent Formal Ethics Opinion 2010-F-154.  Those oversights are extremely unfortunate because the existence of those two FEOs should have made the issuance of this new FEO entirely unnecessary.

FEO 98-F-141 explained that a plaintiff’s attorney should not be required to, and should not agree to, be a party to a release and settlement agreement of their client unless the attorney is specifically releasing a claim for attorney fees.  Otherwise, being a party to the release creates conflict of interest issues between the client and the lawyer.  FEO 2010-F-154 repeated this guidance as part of explaining why – despite the problems associated with Medicare super liens — settlement agreements could not require the lawyer for the plaintiff to agree to indemnify the defendants for such liens.  Thus, the second paragraph of FEO 2018-F-166 (if it was ever issued at all) could have read:

We have already opined in FEO 98-F-141 and FEO 2010-F-154 that it is unethical for a plaintiff’s attorney to be required to, or to agree to, be a party to a client’s release and settlement agreement.  For any such provisions to be enforceable against plaintiff’s counsel, (s)he would have to be a party to the settlement agreement, which we’ve already explained is a no-no.  As long as the lawyer is not an actual party to the agreement, then any such provisions are only binding upon the client – not the lawyer — and whether or not the client wishes to agree to them is up to the client given that RPC 1.2(a) declares that the client’s decision to settle a case is something that a lawyer has to abide.  Thus, if a client wants to agree to terms of settlement that are lawful and the lawyer cannot be held to those terms as a party, then the client gets to do as the client wishes in that respect.

And then, FEO 2018-F-166 could have stopped right there.

Since it didn’t go down that way, this new opinion is, at best, unhelpful to the extent that it implies that a client doesn’t have the right to agree to things that they obviously would have the right to agree to or that it implies that if a client does it is somehow binding on the client’s lawyer going forward in future situations even if the lawyer is not a party to the release and settlement agreement and not bound thereby.

Outside counsel guidelines and term limits

While I am on something of a short streak of writing about people much more famous and influential than I am, it seems as good a time as any to offer my thoughts about the article that two very fine lawyers with Hinshaw & Culbertson wrote for The Professional Lawyer in 2017 about even more aspects of the growing problems outside counsel guidelines are creating for lawyers in private practice.  (These same two authors did an earlier article that talked about the problems with indemnity provisions in such guidelines – you can go read that here if you’d like.)  The more recent article was titled The New Battle Over Conflicts of Interest: Should Professional Regulators–or Clients–Decide What is a Conflict?

If you don’t know the article of which I speak, or it has been a while since you read it, you can go read it (again) here.

It is difficult to contest the point being made by the authors in this article, and the earlier one, that increasingly frequent provisions in OCGs are creating real problems for lawyers in private practice.  Particularly so, those pieces of OCGs that feel like they are overreaching related to who must be treated as clients for purposes of determining conflicts.

The authors summarize the nature of these issues quite well as involving clients using OCGs to “expand[] the definition of who is the client (far beyond the bounds of prevailing case law);” “limit[] the universe of other clients from whom lawyers and their firms may accept work;” and to “expand[] the definition of ‘interest’ and ‘positional’ conflicts in order to prevent lawyers and firms from undertaking or continuing to work for other clients that may take public positions on issues that the client unilaterally—and often ex post facto—deems adverse to its own interests.”

What I do disagree with, however, is the authors’ proposal for how to fix this problem.  The authors propose that states amend their versions of Model Rule 5.6 to make it unethical for lawyers to propose or agree to restrictions on their right to practice in connection with being hired by a client, just as is now the case for employment agreements or as terms for resolving a client’s matter.

Under the proposed revision, Rule 5.6 would read as follows (the bold and italicized piece being the new stuff):

A lawyer shall not participate in offering or making:

(a) a partnership, shareholders, operating, employment, or other similar type of agreement that restricts the right of a lawyer to practice after termination of the relationship, except an agreement
concerning benefits upon retirement; or

(b) an agreement in which a restriction on the lawyer’s right to practice is part of the terms of engagement of a lawyer by a client or of the settlement of a client controversy.

My immediate reaction to reading that proposal was to think of the problems I have whenever people argue for imposing term limits on their elected representatives.  You get the opportunity to vote people out every time they come up for re-election.  You shouldn’t need a law that limits the number of terms they can serve because you can always simply just vote them out of office in the regular course of things.

The solution to overreaching in outside counsel guidelines is equally simple: lawyers and firms should reject OCGs that go too far and refuse to agree to terms that unreasonably define who must be treated as the client or that become tantamount to restrictions on the right to practice.

The counterargument for that position is about the same as the counter-argument when the discussion involves term limits — the deck is typically too stacked in favor of incumbents so that the balance of power is truly off and that simply saying “you can vote them out” is naive.

The nature of present day demands on lawyers and law firms means that most firms and lawyers won’t be willing enough to turn work away to push back on outside counsel guidelines that are unreasonable and amount to overreaching.  Any firm that really wants to take a stand will have too much economic pressure on it to do so.  I hear the point, but, while that might be a pretty bad basis for enacting term limits and preventing some truly effective politicians from serving for as long as their constituents might like, it’s an extraordinarily bad basis for revising an ethics rule.

In particular, it is a bad basis for revising an ethics rule when there are already one or more ethics rules that lawyers can point to as being breached by aspects of the very OCGs being complained about.  For example, the authors point out that OCGs, in order to enforce their expansive requirements about what is a conflict, also impose obligations on the lawyer to tell the client about matters they are contemplating undertaking.  In so doing, these OCGs are demanding that lawyers agree to disclose information that they are obligated to treat as confidential under RPC 1.18 (assuming they have that provision in their state).

A lawyer who wants to refuse to agree to outside counsel guidelines of that type would have a strong, persuasive argument to offer not only about that violation but the potential risk that an in-house lawyer would have – if insisting that it remain in the agreement – of being considered to have violated their state’s version of Model Rule 8.4(a) which, in most places, makes it a disciplinary violation for a lawyer to “knowingly … induce” another lawyer to violate the ethics rules.

It also seems to me be a bridge too far for lawyers and firm to be able to demand that clients be permitted to agree to advance conflict waivers and similar contractual provisions which would serve to narrow the scope of conflicts but also demand that clients should not be able to propose that the lawyer agree to treat requirements of conflicts even more broadly.

The authors also offer an alternative to their own proposed revised language – perhaps to avoid issues associated with when a restriction would be made a term of engagement or not, by suggesting that Rule 5.6 could otherwise be revised simply in (b) to prohibit “an agreement containing a restriction on the lawyer’s right to practice.”  There would be significant problems — perhaps in the nature of unintended consequences – that would come from that alternate revised Rule 5.6 proposal.

If someone is being hired as an in-house lawyer, their corporate employer should be permitted to require that they restrict their practice to only representing the corporate employer and not represent any other clients while employed in-house.  Technically speaking, the second version of the revised Rule 5.6 wouldn’t permit that.  And, even if you are a private practice lawyer and one client wants to provide you with enough work that they also want to have you agree that you won’t work on any other matters for any other clients, why shouldn’t that be okay?

There are examples out there of such lawyers other than just Tom Hagen, the lawyer in The Godfather.

And, coincidentally, Hagen’s also a pretty good example of a lawyer who should have simply turned down a proposed client engagement rather than allowing economic benefits to sway his decision.

 

“Boies will be boys was never a good response” or “Advance waivers are still better than unwanted advances”

(I’ve apologized once before for a Bullwinkle-style title and here I am doing it again.  The underlying societal issues are not funny in the least but it’s been a hard week for many folks and a little bit of levity can help you make it through.)

If you are inclined to read this blog from time to time, then you likely already have read or heard something about the mess David Boies has found himself in related to his firm’s simultaneous representation of The New York Times and his efforts to assist another client Harvey Weinstein in working with a black-ops style investigation outfit to try to stop an NYT story about Weinstein.

If you haven’t read anything about it, there is a wave of reporting to catch up on.  You can start with this ABA Journal article which gives easy jumping off points to this article in The Atlantic, and this The New York Times article, and this further ABA Journal article addressing additional issues after the NYT fired Boies’s firm.

The whole situation weaves a tale more than worthy of a law school essay exam question.  I could likely manage to spend the full three hours of the Ethics Roadshow talking about the ethics issues raised in the scenario.  (I probably won’t, but you’ll never know for sure unless you attend in one of the six cities where it will be taking place.)

While there are quite a few angles ripe for discussion, I just want to talk a bit today about the advanced waiver angle involved.  As most of the articles discuss, in addition to minimizing his role in assisting Weinstein, Boies pointed to language in his firm’s engagement letter with the NYT as authorizing certain conflicts in advance.

The topic of whether and when a lawyer can obtain an advanced waiver from a client to a future conflict is still a surprisingly controversial one in ethics and lawyering circles.  There are some who ardently fight for the position that no conflict can be waived in advance, even by sophisticated clients.  I don’t count myself among their number and, instead, believe that the availability of advance conflicts waivers is an important part of modern law practice from an ethics standpoint.  Along those lines, I believe that Tennessee, and other states that have language in a Comment to RPC 1.7 patterned after the Model Rules get the ethical guidance on the situation correct.

Tennessee’s Comment [22] to RPC 1.7, for example, explains how things generally should work when a lawyer requests a client to waive conflicts that might arise in the future:

The effectiveness of such waivers is generally determined by the extent to which the client reasonably understands the material risks that the waiver entails.  The more comprehensive the explanation provided to the client of the types of future representations that might arise and the actual and reasonably foreseeable adverse consequences of those representations, the greater the likelihood that the client will have the requisite understanding.  Thus, if the client agrees to consent to a particular type of conflict with which the client is already familiar, then the consent ordinarily will be effective with regard to that type of conflict.  If the consent is general and open-ended, then the consent ordinarily will be ineffective, because it is not reasonably likely that the client will have understood the material risks involved.  Nevertheless, if the client is an experienced user of the legal services involved and is reasonably informed regarding the risk that a conflict may arise, such consent to a future conflict is more likely to be effective, particularly if, e.g., the client is independently represented by other counsel in giving consent and the consent is limited to future conflicts unrelated to the subject matter of the representation.

This Boies/Weinstein/NYT saga, however, isn’t particularly all that helpful in terms of providing guidance into the question of whether any advance conflict waiver obtained by Boies complied with New York’s ethics rules, but it is extremely helpful in reminding that whether or not an advance conflict waiver passes muster under the ethics rules is just one aspect of the situation that lawyers and law firms need to keep in mind (and though it is a bit sacrilegious to say it might not always be the most weighty aspect of the situation).

The Boies/Weinstein/NYT saga is extremely helpful as a reminder that whether to take on a representation that can only be justified to another client on the basis of an advance waiver is extremely tricky as a business decision.

Boies’s firm included an advance waiver in its engagement letter with the NYT undoubtedly to try to maximize the number of clients it could have has now managed to lose both the NYT and Weinstein as clients.

The loss of Weinstein under all the circumstances might be a net positive, but the loss of the NYT likely stings and would have stung even if it hadn’t ended up managing to say this publicly in the process of cutting ties with Boies:

We consider this intolerable conduct, a grave betrayal of trust, and a breach of the basic professional standards that all lawyers are required to observe. It is inexcusable and we will be pursuing appropriate remedies.

Whether or not an advance waiver is consistent with the ethics rules, an offended client can always still decide to drop the lawyer or his firm and what that mess might looks like if or when that comes to pass might be the most practical way for lawyers to think through these issues.

 

Coming to praise rather than bury: NYC Bar Op. 2017-6

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak to the Tennessee Defense Lawyers Association for an hour on ethics issues, using a “hot topic” format.

One of the topics I covered was the many things there are beyond just being parties on opposite sides of the “v” in litigation that present conflicts to be managed, avoided, and addressed in handling lawsuits.

I mentioned the difficult situations that can arise as a case evolves and someone shows up on the radar screen as an important witness — particularly an expert witness — and the importance of running supplemental conflicts checks to make sure that a lawyer or her firm doesn’t first figure out the problem when learning during the deposition that the witness claims to be a client of the lawyer’s firm.  That is a scenario that lawyers sometimes don’t always think about in advance but for which there is little, if any, push back on the idea that it is a conflict about which to be concerned.

I pivoted from that topic to a similar topic — issuing subpoenas for documents to witnesses — that lawyers are more inclined to want to try to intellectualize as not creating a conflict situation because it can have the feel of a “routine” act and it also “feels” like an administrative hassle.

At the time of that presentation, I somehow had not yet seen a recent Formal Ethics Opinion out of the New York City Bar on that very topic – if I had seen it I certainly would have pointed to it — because it is a very well done treatment of the issue.  The question addressed in NYC 2017-6 is:

What ethical restrictions apply when a party’s lawyer in a civil lawsuit issues a subpoena to another current client or may need to do so?

Now, a word before delving into the insight that can be gleaned by all lawyers in all jurisdictions from this opinion about an important, but not dispositive, difference in the language of New York’s Rule 1.7(a).

In Tennessee, and many other jurisdictions with rules patterned after the ABA Model Rules, RPC 1.7(a) reads so as to address two types of conflicts as being “concurrent conflicts of interest.” One where the lawyer would be required to represent one client in matter directly adverse to the interests of another client, and one where the lawyer’s duties to someone else (or the lawyer’s own personal interests) will impose a “material limitation” on the lawyer’s ability to represent the client.

The NY version of Rule 1.7(a) has slightly different language on each of those two fronts.  NY’s 1.7(a) indicates that a lawyer has a conflict:

if a reasonable lawyer would conclude that either (1) the representation will involve the lawyer in representing differing interests; or (2) there is a significant risk that the lawyer’s professional judgment on behalf of a client will be adversely affected by the lawyer’s own financial, business, property or other personal interests.

And, “differing interests” is specifically defined in NY’s rules to mean “every interest that will adversely affect either the judgment or the loyalty of a lawyer to a client, whether it be a conflicting, inconsistent, diverse, or other interest.”  Now those NY variations on the language make it a bit easier and cleaner to see the issues created when a lawyer pursues a subpoena for records from one client for another client but so much of the opinion that explains the analysis is written not just well, but in a practical fashion that, in my opinion, allows it to resonate for lawyers in jurisdictions with the ABA Model Rule language on conflicts as well.

After surveying the landscape of earlier opinions on these subjects, the NYC opinion laid out a number of helpful conclusions:

First, issuing a subpoena to a current client to obtain testimony from that client will ordinarily give rise to a conflict of interest.  Obtaining testimony typically inconveniences the witness, involves probing a witness’ recollection, and at times may involve challenging and confronting the witness, any of which a current client may reasonably perceive to be disloyal.

[snip]

Second, it will ordinarily be a conflict of interest for a lawyer to seek to obtain documents via a subpoena to a current client.  The production of documents in response to a subpoena very often requires an allocation of resources (time and money) which the subpoenaed party would prefer not to expend.  This is all the more so when outside counsel needs to be retained, and the scope of production needs to be negotiated.

[snip]

The opinion then goes on to offer some further practical advice for lawyers to keep in mind because of their ethical obligations which the opinions lays out as:

(a) the necessity for lawyers to run conflict checks prior to serving a subpoena; (b) the potential need to decline or limit a representation, or to obtain informed consent, if a lawyer knows before being retained that subpoenaing a current client may be necessary; and (c) the retention of “conflicts counsel” to avoid the need to withdraw, or the risk of disqualification, when a lawyer learns during the course of a litigation of the need to subpoena another current client.

The opinion does go on to provide helpful explanatory details for each of those topics, and you can go read the opinion in full at this link.

 

A three-part discussion of LA County Bar Op. 528

Though news to me much more recently, the LA County Bar Ass’n Prof’l Responsibility and Ethics Committee issued an  interesting ethics opinion back in April on a wrinkle that can arise in the tripartite relationship created in insurance defense situations.  You can read the whole thing here, but its summary is pretty to-the-point:

When an attorney engaged by an insurance carrier to defend the interests of an insured obtains information that could provide a basis for the insurance carrier to deny coverage, the attorney is ethically prohibited from disclosing that information to the insurance carrier.  In such a situation, the attorney must withdraw from the representation.

In honor of it being an opinion that hinges on California’s approach to the tripartite relationship, I want to divide this post into a three-part discussion of it.

Part the first: it certainly appears to get the answer right from a California perspective.  The answers appear clear and correct given California’s approach to the question of who is/are the client(s) when an attorney is retained by an insurance company to represent an insured.  While all jurisdictions have reached agreement on using the term “tripartite relationship,” to describe insurance defense arrangements, California is a jurisdiction that treats it as truly being one in which the lawyer involved has two clients, both the insured and the insurance company, and the duties to each are “equal and potentially competing.”  Working from that premise, then the particular scenario confronted in the opinion is certainly one that causes the ultimate result — the lawyer  being prohibited from telling one client the important information learned about the other client’s situation can no longer represent either client and has to move to withdraw.  Though the specific scenario is presented in a way that raises some immediate questions given that it involves the existence of a document and its authentication through a request for admission.  For example, does the opinion just assume both authenticity and that the insured would tell the lawyer not to let the insurer know?

Part the second:  While that is the correct result given California’s approach to the “who is the client?” issue, the outcome is more revealing for serving to demonstrate the folly of the approach California follows.  In Tennessee, for example, the tripartite situation exists but the lawyer only has one client, the insured.  The insurance company hiring the lawyer to defend the insured is not a client of the lawyer.  There are, of course, still thorny ethical issues that can arise (see below) but at least in the scenario in question, the lawyer’s path forward is both clear and one that permits continued representation of the lawyer’s only client and a focused effort to try to use the document to establish the statute of limitations defense.

Part the third:  On the California side of things, what in the world happens next in the scenario to keep things from just playing out the same way all over again?  Because the withdrawing lawyer will not be in a position to tell the insurance company the reason for the withdrawal, the whole scenario is likely to simply repeat itself when the insurance company retains a new lawyer to represent the insured.  That lawyer will eventually learn of the same information – be prohibited from disclosing to the insurance company — and then lather, rinse, and repeat.  Or, at least, that’s how it will go unless either the lawyer shirks the duty of disclosure to the insurance company or the insurance company figures out what is going on that is causing the withdrawals and goes ahead and makes a definitive coverage decision.  Either way, it is a particular example that paints a much more favorable picture of approaches to this relationship structure in which the lawyer’s only client is the insured.

(In fairness, the particular scenario examined in the opinion could be pretty readily spun out just a bit further to demonstrate how no system for this would be perfect by exploring what would happen if the the insured was trying to demand that the lawyer attempt to settle the case for the insured without disclosing to the insurer that the reason for seeking settlement prior to having to respond to the request for admission was to avoid defeating coverage.)

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.

An inside-baseball view of judicial ethics and the media

For today, an interesting (at least I think it is interesting) story about a judicial ethics scenario and the ability of media to “shape” a story and how that ability can transform a question of judicial ethics.

About three weeks ago, I spoke with a print reporter with The Nashville Scene about questions he had on a story he was working on about a part-time judge of the General Sessions environmental court in Nashville.  This particular court, among the cases it hears, are ones over using property for purposes of short-term rentals (think Airbnb) without obtaining the required permit to do so.

The reporter’s issue involved the fact that this court would adjudicate the question of whether a property owner was pursuing this endeavor without being properly permitted and that the part-time judge in question owned several properties that were properly permitted.  The reporter was interested in my view on whether this created a disqualifying conflict for the judge under Tennessee’s judicial ethics rules.

We talked for a good bit and, ultimately, I explained my view that — based on my understanding of what the court could (and could not) decide — that the answer was “no, not a disqualifying conflict.

You can read The Nashville Scene story, which contains a fair representation of what I had to say, here.  A few days later, as the public attention on this story continued to grow, I got a call from a reporter with a TV station in Nashville who wanted to know if I’d be willing to do an on-camera interview for a story they were doing on this situation.  He said he saw The Nashville Scene story, knew my view, and wanted me to elaborate on that for the story they were doing.

We worked out a set-up so that we could do a Skype-video interview for his use and managed to talk on camera for maybe 15 minutes or so.  And I again laid out these points in significant detail about why, in my view, this simply wasn’t a conflict.  (I’m biased, but I recall giving a really good explanation of how different the scenario would be if this particular court had the power to hear challenges to the permitting system itself on constitutional or other grounds, for example.)

Cut to the story that actually aired, which you can watch here.  I’m not in it.  Normally, I’m extremely cool with situations, even where I’ve given of my time to a media outlet, where I end up on the cutting room floor.  That’s just life.  But, when you know in advance what I am going to say and I go out of my way to make things happen on your time frame, it is a little more personally frustrating.  But, I swear, I’m not writing this to vent my personal frustration or make this about me.

Instead, the reason I think any of this is interesting at all is the impact that the kind of one-sided TV segment had on what happened next… which is that the judge in question ended up resigning the position citing the fact not that there was originally a disqualifying conflict but because:

“because I believe that the public has an absolute right to feel that their court system is fair and impartial and that recent misleading media reports could call the Court’s fairness into question.”

Now, was that all there was to the story?  No.  I’ve now come to learn in the process of writing about this that there was an intervening news story regarding whether or not the judge was also violating a provision of the ordinance his court was enforcing.  You can watch a story about that here.  I’ll admit I haven’t even tried to dive deep enough into an understanding of the ordinance involved to know whether that is the equivalent of a traffic court judge who happens to get caught speeding or something more serious.  Also, my opinion is, of course, only my opinion and is not dispositive of what the right answer to the question should have been… but as a “participant” in this process, I thought it would still make for an interesting word to the wise about how stories on ethical questions can manage to be “framed” for public consumption in ways that ultimately can heavily impact the outcome.

Bad ethics opinion or the worst ethics opinion? Rhode Island 2017-02

I have perused a lot of ethics opinions over the years.  Whether a kind of scenario presents a conflict is a frequent subject of ethics opinions.  I don’t think I’ve read many that address whether a particular conflict of interest is fairly treated as a consentable conflict, however.  Having now read Rhode Island Ethics Advisory Panel Op. 2017-02, which does address that topic, I wish it hadn’t.

It is an extremely short opinion, but it gets a remarkable amount wrong in a limited amount of space.

The short version of the question it tackles is:

ISSUE PRESENTED

The inquiring attorney asks whether the law firm may represent the buyer and the seller, two current clients of the firm, in the sale of a division of the seller’s business to the buyer.

The additional factual details that you need, at minimum, to begin to wrap your head around the astoundingly bad conclusion reached in the opinion are:

  • The buyer is a manager of a division of the seller’s business.
  • The buyer will now be purchasing assets of that division from the seller.
  • The buyer will then also have to work out a lease arrangement with the seller for the premises where the division currently operates.
  • The buyer has been represented by one attorney in the firm on a number of matters unrelated to this business – that attorney has no relationship with the seller or any knowledge of work done for the seller by his/her firm.
  • The seller has been represented by a different attorney in the firm on a number of matters, including matters related to the operation of the seller’s business  – that attorney has no relationship with the buyer or any knowledge of work done for the buyer by his/her firm.
  • Both the buyer and the seller want the firm to represent them as to negotiations and drafting of necessary documents.
  • The firm, if it moves forward, intends to erect an ethics wall/screen (i.e. locked drawers for hard copy materials and limits on electronic access to files) as to the two matters so that there would be no flow of confidential information between the two sides of the proposed representation.

On those facts, the Rhode Island opinion reaches a conclusion that the conflict is so severe that the clients cannot be allowed to give their consent to it.  Now, maybe I have left out the facts that the ethics opinion treats as apparently the most important of all – the distinction between the experience level of the seller and the buyer:

The inquiring attorney states that the seller is experienced in business, including the ownership, purchase, and sale of businesses.  He/she states that the buyer is sophisticated in the industry of the division, but has never owned, purchased, or sold a business.

Well, there you go.  The seller is super sophisticated whereas the buyer is just merely sophisticated.  Seriously.

And, no there is nothing unique or unusual about Rhode Island’s version of RPC 1.7 that would explain the conclusion that this conflict is not consentable.  Rhode Island’s RPC 1.7(b) looks just like the ABA Model version, as it reads:

(b) Notwithstanding the existence of a concurrent conflict of interest under paragraph (a), a lawyer may represent a client if:

(1) the lawyer reasonably believes that the lawyer will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client;

(2) the representation is not prohibited by law;

(3)  the representation does not involve the assertion of a claim by one client against another client represented by the lawyer in the same litigation or other proceeding before a tribunal; and

(4) each affected client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.

On the facts set out above, the Rhode Island opinion concludes that there is no way that each lawyer could “reasonably believe that they will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to the buyer and to the seller in this business transaction.”

And, if that weren’t problematic enough (it is), the opinion also does further disservice to readers with its discussion of screening, stating:

The Rules of Professional Conduct permit screening in only three situations, none of which is presented in the facts of this inquiry: screening for lateral hires under Rule 1.10, screening for former government officers and employees under Rule 1.11, and screening for former judges, arbitrators and mediators under Rule 1.12.

The omission of the modifier “nonconsensual” before screening in that quote is an important one.

It’s important because it means that the Rhode Island opinion writers either failed to understand altogether, or simply chose to ignore, the difference between aspects of the ethics rules that permit a firm to erect a “nonconsensual screen” to address a conflict even over a client’s or former client’s objection and the constant ability of a firm to erect a consensual screen if it is part of what is deemed necessary or desirable in order for one or more clients to agree to give informed consent to waive a conflict.

On the whole, this is just an astoundingly poor ethics opinion and one that reaches a result that rings contrary to the client-friendly position that I’m certain the authors thought they were taking.

As a matter of fact, yes, this potato is still hot. Why do you ask?

In October of this year, I’ll have the honor of again getting to serve as a moderator for a panel discussion at Aon’s Law Firm Symposium.  This year’s event will take place in D.C.  The topic of the panel I get to be a part of will be something of a DQ motion boot camp.  It is still months away, my guess is that we will be focusing on aspects of disqualification motion proceedings that will be harder to predict than the outcome of this case out of Mississippi should have been.

If you know a little something about conflicts, then you are probably have passing familiarity with all of the core concepts necessary to immediately predict the outcome of the scenario that was involved in McLain v. Allstate decided in the S.D. Miss.  I’ll succinctly describe the scenario for you:

Lawyer has had a long term relationship with an insurance company client.  That relationship is not as robust as it used to be as the lawyer is continuing to handle quite a few matters for them but has come to notice that no new matters have been coming from the company for quite a while.  Lawyer is contacted by a potential client who has a matter that would be adverse to this insurance company client.  Lawyer goes ahead and decides to take on the new representation but also terminate the ongoing representation of the insurance company client.  Insurance company brings motion to disqualify, and lawyer argues that insurance company client should be treated as former client and disqualification should occur only if new matter is substantially related to prior matters.

How will lawyer fare?

I have no doubt you answered this correctly.  Not well, the lawyer will not fare well.  The lawyer will get disqualified.  The court will explain that a lawyer cannot drop one client like a “hot potato” in order to transform them into a former client so that you can take on representation of a new client.

Thus, for you Dear Reader, almost all of the contents of the seven-page order disqualifying this lawyer will come as no surprise.

What might come as a surprise to you – it certainly surprised me — is that the federal judge who ordered disqualification actually included a sentence praising the lawyer involved for how he handled the situation. Specifically:

[Lawyer] undertook commendable efforts to insulate himself from a conflict of interest by declining to discuss or investigate McLain’s claims until after [Lawyer] promptly and formally terminated the firm’s relationship with Allstate.

I know people often accuse me of being stingy in terms of doling out praise, but that sentence just leaps off the page as trying too hard to find something nice to say.  Commendable seems a stretch.  Particularly so given that when you work your way back earlier in the opinion itself where it lays out the chronology of events, you will find that the lawyer in question had the new client sign a contract with his firm on October 11, 2016 and, then, on October 12, 2016 sent the letter that attempted to drop Allstate like a tuber of elevated-temperature.

If any aspect of the lawyer’s effort is commendable (and I’m still stretching the utility of the word itself), it would be the whole not-being-very-Machiavellian about it angle.  A truly Machiavellian type would have done more to attempt to manipulate the timeline of events.  Perhaps, having the new client execute an engagement letter, only after the lawyer had time to send the letter to terminate the current client relationship.  I’m not sure that not doing that qualifies as “commendable” exactly.  But it’s something.  As long as it was very close in time, the potato would still be hot and the outcome unchanged, but … like I said it would be something.