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.

 

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.

Time to choose: are you Illinois or New Jersey?

Blackhawks or Devils?

Bulls or Nets?

Barack Obama or Chris Christie?

Northwestern or Rutgers?

Kanye or Wu-Tang Clan?

Wilco or Bruce Springsteen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose wisely.

The good and bad of social media on display

Today’s title refers to two developments worth writing about that caught my attention in the last little bit that only have the issue of social media in common.  I will try to let the reader decided which is which (or if both are both) in due course.

The first development is an example of a lawyer behaving badly who managed to get caught in a lie because of his own social media posts proving that he had not been truthful with a federal judge.  Now lying to a federal judge is never a good choice to make, but doing so and then providing the seeds through social media for someone to prove that you did is just… well… “sloppy” seems like the wrong sort of word given that it appears to imply a value judgment that the “wrong” here is not the falsehood, but the careless unwillingness to try to maintain the facade.  Nevertheless, that is the one of the takeaways of the short version of the story of how this New Jersey lawyer ended up in this situation.  In summary form, lawyer blew some important deadlines, told the court it was because of a family medical emergency, but posted on several occasions during the time period in question on Instagram pictures showing she was on vacation in Miami, traveling and sightseeing in New York City, and other places.  You can read the much longer version at the link.  In the end, it was the freedom (and accompanying folly) that robust use of social media can bring that brought the lawyer down but that also brought the truth to light.  As the story reveals, the lawyer now no longer represents the clients in question and, instead of learning the art of the Latergram has, at least, now managed to set her Instagram account to private.

The second is a new judicial ethics opinion issued out of Massachusetts that continues the process of taking Massachusetts down a path in which judges cannot have lawyers as “friends” on Facebook at all if those lawyers are likely to appear before the judge.  I learned about CJE Opinion No. 2018-03, and the earlier opinion on which it builds (Letter Opinion 2016-01), because it was circulated on a very robust (and very valued) listserv/forum that is available to members of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers.  (If you aren’t an APRL member, it is always a good time to explore the benefits of membership.)  This opinion talks about the obligation of judges to disclose to litigants whether they used to be Facebook friends with any of the lawyers appearing before them since the earlier opinion mandated that they delete lawyers as friends.  I normally like to proffer original content here, but, in this instance, I’ll simply restate the opinion I offered on that forum a few days ago.  (Repasting it seems particularly appropriate where loyal readers will recognize that the sentiment is pretty much repetitious of earlier content here anyway.]

Well, that’s a pretty silly add-on to an inherently silly underlying opinion.  The judicial ethics rules don’t prohibit judges from having friends who are attorneys.  If someone can be a friend IRL, then there is no reason they cannot appear as a friend on social media.  The fact that this entity had to issue this opinion about how long you have to disclose that you essentially tried to cover your tracks by deleting attorneys from your connections belies the point that allowing/encouraging judges to go about their normal friendships on social media is actually a good thing since it permits a way to “search up” information they might not disclose about relationships they have with the attorneys appearing before them.

In fact, the only thing that judicial ethics opinion writing bodies ought to be mandating is that judges make certain that they have their settings established in a way that lets the public have access to their list of friends/connections even if they put all of the rest of it into a “private” setting.

A tale of two ethics opinions.

So, I’ve made something of a habit of writing about ethics opinions.  Bad ones and good ones.  Mostly bad ones though.

As the trite – almost hackish – title of this post telegraphs, today I want to compare and contrast two recently released ethics opinions that manage to demonstrate the good that can come from a well done ethics opinion on the kind of issue that cries out for guidance in the form of an ethics opinion and the harm that can come from the kind of ethics opinion that likely should not be issued at all.

First, the good – an opinion issued out of Texas (which Karen Rubin has already written some about) that tackles a thorny problem that can confront a lawyer who has been retained by an insurance company to represent one of the company’s insureds in a piece of litigation.

The particular question addressed in Texas Opinion 669 is this:

Under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, may a lawyer retained by an insurance company notify the insurance company that the insured client he was assigned to represent is not cooperating in the defense of the client’s lawsuit?

The answer the Texas opinion provides, as difficult as it might be for insurance defense lawyers to hear, is “no.”  And, that answer is the correct one in any jurisdiction where the way the “tripartite” relationship is structured is that the lawyer’s only client is the insured and the insurance company is merely someone who is permitted to pay the lawyer’s bills as long as the lawyer complies with the state’s version of Model Rules 1.8(f) and 5.4(c).

In Tennessee, for example, RPC 1.8(f) specifically states one of the requirements for permitting the lawyer to accept compensation or direction from someone other than the client as being that “information relating to representation of a client is protected as required by RPC 1.6.” (Interestingly, the Texas opinion makes no mention of, or reference to, any of those kinds of rules but simply uses only its confidentiality rule to justify its analysis.)

The unfortunate opinion comes out of Virginia.  Virginia, you might recall, recently made a great leap forward in streamlining its rules on attorney advertising by revising its rules to look very much like the proposal circulated by APRL.  After adoption of those revisions, which became effective on July 1, 2017, Virginia’s ethical restrictions on advertising were largely capable of being described as simply prohibiting false or misleading communications.

Unfortunately, with the issuance of Legal Ethics Opinion 1750, Virginia manages less than a year later to undermine much of its progress by simply re-issuing and updating a lengthy opinion it has released on multiple past occasions that attempts, in advance and not in response to evaluating any particular real advertisement, to provide “guidance” about what kinds of advertising practices should still be avoided because of the potential to be considered to be misleading.

Unlike the Texas opinion, which answered a real dilemma that lawyers can face and for which definitive guidance can be provided, the Virginia opinion is the kind of ethics opinion designed almost exclusively to chill commercial speech.  Even if the guidance it gave on all of the topics it unilaterally decided to address were correct, it would still be the type of opinion that ought not be issued.

Certainly, it says some things that are undoubtedly true and fun to read about ways that a lawyer could engage in truthful advertising that would still be a problem because it would be misleading by omission.  I’ve spoken at seminars before where I’ve tried to make this point by saying that a lawyer whose ad truthfully proclaimed “I’ve never lost a jury trial,” but fails to also mention, for context, that they’ve never actually been involved in a jury trial is going to be at risk under any fair set of ethics rules.  The Virginia opinion grabs a slightly different version of this rich vein by explaining that a lawyer truthfully crowing that “They secured a $1 million jury verdict in case,” but not mentioning that it came only after turning down a $2 million settlement offer before trial would have disseminated a misleading advertisement.

But, even that guidance is something that really ought not be opined about unless there were an actual lawyer seeking actual guidance about just that sort of advertisement.

So many other pieces of the opinion are even worse, however.   Cautions about using actors in ads, hand-wringing over “no recovery, no fee” statements, and subtle digs at the use of testimonials by actual clients in the opinion appear to be rolled back out for no real reason other than to undermine the progress on lawyer regulation of advertising that had appeared to be achieved by streamlining the rules themselves.

TN BPR releases two more “stealth” ethics opinions

Earlier this month, and again in a fashion that seems a bit more in keeping with NOT wanting people to know they’ve been released rather than to give advice and guidance intended to be disseminated far and wide, the Board of Professional Responsibility here in Tennessee issued two new Formal Ethics Opinions.

The only way to know they had been released would be to have not only paid attention to a Board Notes newsletter that was sent out, but to also have gone in and read said newsletter to see that it contained these two FEOs.  Other than being quietly rolled out at the same time, the two FEOs do not have much in common.

One, 2018-F-165, blesses – with a laundry list of caveats – lawyer participation in an unnamed legal marketplace website that would essentially be a bit like an eBay for legal services where people looking to hire lawyers could pay for access to the site to post requests for needed services and lawyers interested in being hired could pay for access to the site and purchase the right to make a certain number of bids for services.  You can go read the opinion if you’d like here, but I’m not inclined to spend any real time talking about it because there really isn’t much to say about it and the service it addresses simply doesn’t sound, realistically, like much of the kind of thing any regular consumer is going to be seek to use since it would require the consumer to pay merely to have the ability to use it to try to hire lawyers.  (I could be wrong about that, of course, but, even so, this particular opinion is not of the earthshaking variety.)

The other is one that I do want to discuss at some length.  It weighs in on whether the ethical duty of a prosecutor under RPC 3.8(d) is the same as the duty to disclose under the constitutional series of cases most readily referredto in shorthand as Brady.

First, based on numbering alone, it is has been in the works and obviously on hold for a bit.  It is 2017-F-163.  It is a bit silly for the Board to stick with, and insist on titling it a 2017 opinion, since it was signed on March 15, 2018.  (For context, Opinion 165 was signed on March 9, 2018.)  Though, in fairness, perhaps the Board decided to stick with a “2017” title for this FEO because it didn’t update its research from the summer of 2017 when it crafted this particular opinion.  This can readily be gleaned from the fact that footnote 4 still cites to a 2005 Louisiana Supreme Court opinion as part of a “majority of states hold[ing] that the ethical duty of a prosecutor is broader and extends beyond Brady.”  That decision though was overruled/repudiated by the Louisiana Supreme Court in October 2017 in In re Seastrunk:

We reject ODC’s efforts here to broaden Rule 3.8(d) beyond that which Brady and its progeny mandates, and specifically find that the duties outlined in 3.8(d) and Brady are coextensive

Second, the opinion unfortunately persists in speaking of a prosecutor’s ethical duty of disclosure as going to “favorable” evidence.  This is not a helpful approach because it isn’t what the rule being interepreted actually says.  At all.  RPC 3.8(d) doesn’t use the term “favorable evidence,” and this opinion truly should not either.

What RPC 3.8(d) speaks of [other than with respect to sentencing] is the duty to disclose “information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense.”  Those are objective categories of things and not susceptible to the kind of subjectivity that is involved in trying to decide whether people agree as to the status of evidence as “favorable.”

Third, and related to the second, the opinion’s ultimate conclusion that the ethical duty under RPC 3.8(d) is “broader than and extends beyond Brady” is an acceptable conclusion to reach to the extent it is intended to mean that the actual language of the rule and what it says must be disclosed is not to be read to include the word “material” before “information” but, and particularly given the erroneous reference to what has to be disclosed as “favorable evidence,” it is also a woefully incomplete message to send to the bar and to prosecutors without also expressly explaining that the ethical duty is also narrower than Brady in some respects.

Specifically, what is missing from this opinion, to further explain to the public and to members of the bar generally and to remind prosecutors specifically, is language along the lines of the following:  It should be noted, however, that there are aspects of the disclosure requirements of Brady that are broader than the disclosure requirements of RPC 3.8 as well.  One example being that Brady may require disclosure of information that would provide a basis for impeachment even if it was not evidence that tended to negate the guilt of the accused.

 

The intersection of the First Amendment and the Ethics Rules

So, I don’t know if any of you have ever played HQ Trivia.  In any session, they have between 500,000 and almost 2 million players, so statistically speaking, I guess there is a chance you have.  While it has nothing to do with legal ethics, in order to understand the context of what follows, let me give you a quick primer.

It is something that would have been 5 years ago the stuff of science fiction or an even an episode of Black Mirror.  It is an app on your phone through which you can play trivia in real-time answering questions read by a human being host.  Each question is presented with three multiple-choice answers and you have 10 seconds from when the host starts reading the question to click your answer.  If you answer correctly, you get to move on to the next question.  If you don’t, you are eliminated.  In the standard format, the quiz consists of 12 questions and, if you answer all the questions correctly, you win or split the pot with any other players who have done so.  (When the largest pots are offered they increase the number of questions to 15 or, quite recently, they have experimented with as many questions as is necessary to narrow down to just winner in a winner-take-all format.)

The dollar amount of the prize varies.  It is typically $2,500 but, as it appears they are closer to whatever plan they have in place for monetizing the app approaches, they have recently offered a pot as large as $100,0o0.  Reportedly, tonight they will be offering a $250,000 pot.  I have won the game on one occasion and, of course, when I did there were so many other winners that my share came to just shy of $2.  (I also know there are other companies doing similar games and some of those are competing against HQ on the basis of how awful one particular financial backer of HQ reportedly is, so I’m not going to link or provide publicity to the game, but it is the one I play [for better or worse] so if you decide to sign up for it and put in my user name – bsfaughnan- as a referral code then I will get some extra lives.)

Now all that is background for today’s topic – which is the intersection and overlap of the ethics rules and what they prohibit members of our profession from doing and the First Amendment.  This topic is frequently one I spend time thinking about because for many years my practice has also involved representing clients on First Amendment issues and, in fact, though I continue to not be listed in Best Lawyerfor Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility, in addition to being listed for Appellate Law, I am listed for Litigation-First Amendment.  It is also a topic that I have been thinkng about frequently because of various events that have worked their way into my line of sight either directly or indirectly.  Those three events are: (1) the outpouring of comments from particular portions of the bar in Tennessee arguing that the proposed RPC 8.4(g) in Tennessee is an assault on their First Amendment rights; (2) the latest post from Avvo’s GC criticizing ABA Formal Op. 480; and (3) the head of a prominent law firm speaking out publicly to indicate that a star lawyer of his firm turned down the opportunity to represent the current occupant of The White House.

So, here’s the HQ-style question and, remember, there is only one correct answer.  You won’t be limited to 10 seconds to answer from the time you start reading the question however:

Which of these presents the most compelling case for finding that discipline against a lawyer would violate the lawyer’s First Amendment rights?

  • A lawyer tweets – without client permission – about a jury verdict she obtained in order to advertise the successful outcome.
  • A lawyer, during a CLE or bar association social event, decides to lecture everyone in the room about why he considers marriage between two persons of the same gender to be an abomination.
  • A lawyer, consulted by a politician who she finds to be vile, or have views she finds to be vile, holds a press conference or tweets that she refused to represent that politician because she disagrees with everything he stands for.

 

 

An object lesson about “staying in your lane.”

Prominent technology blogger, Robert Ambrogi, has taken to Above the Law to criticize the latest ABA Formal Ethics Opinion.  In addition to attempting to savage it over being somehow untimely since lawyers have been blogging for almost 20 years, his primary substantive criticism of the opinion is that it makes no sense for an ethics rule to prohibit a lawyer from speaking or writing (or blogging or Tweeting) publicly about information that is already in the public record.

Ambrogi’s criticism is a bland (and perhaps satisfying at a surface level) kind of thing to say, but it reveals that the author is not someone who has spent a bunch of time working with, or thinking about, the ethics rules.

In the nature and spirit of “open letters to people who are unlikely to read them,” I offer this primer to Mr. Ambrogi on why our profession has crafted an ethics rule that does, in fact, err on the side of prohibiting lawyers from further discussing things even that are public record without our client’s consent or the need to do so to further the representation.

Dear Mr. Ambrogi:

Let’s pretend that I was currently representing a prominent legal technology blogger in a divorce proceeding.  This is, admittedly, a hard thing to pretend as I don’t do family law, but we’ll push on nonetheless.

In order to secure the desired divorce for the blogger, and because of the truly toxic nature of the blogger’s relationship with their significant other, I end up having to share a lot of deeply personal, highly intimate, and potentially quite embarrassing information in the complaint for divorce not only about the blogger but about the blogger’s significant other and that person’s various other romantic partners.

Now that happens in a state where it is very difficult to establish the need for court filings to be sealed, thus the complaint for divorce is a public record upon filing.  It also occurs in a state where, while it is true that court records are public records, they are not well-organized online and are not all that easy to locate.

Thus, my client knows that what is in the complaint is a matter of public record, but they are certainly hopeful that the information will not be widely disseminated and that these intimate and embarrassing items are only ever learned and read by people directly associated with the court process.

Now, if your approach to the ethics rule on confidentiality were what our profession had adopted, then I’d be free at a cocktail party, or on a blog, or in a Tweet to share the wild information about my client’s personal life because it was a matter of public record, and I could do so simply to entertain those around me.

I would hope at this point we would both agree that would be a bad approach for the ethics rules governing our profession to take.

Thus, to protect against that kind of ability to disclose information, the rules are crafted to start from the premise that lawyers ought not to talk publicly about their client’s matters unless they have the client’s consent or some legitimate reason to do so.  (This includes not only further communications impliedly authorized to carry out the representation but situations where it becomes necessary to make disclosures, for example, for the lawyer to defend themselves in other proceedings.  If the blogger’s significant other turned around and filed a defamation lawsuit against me over the publication in the complaint about the intimate details of that person’s life, the ethics rules would allow me to disclose information reasonably necessary to defend myself.)

So, as that ends my rant, I will conclude by saying that I still stand by (another writing that you are unlikely to read) my prior take that Formal Opinion 480 is a good one.

 

Another good opinion from the ABA SCEPR

This was not what I originally planned to write about today, but … here we are all the same.

Today, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility released a new opinion and, because it relates to social media, it is generating a good deal of discussion online.  It is being rolled out and discussed as being of interest to lawyers who blog or tweet or otherwise participate in social media, but it actually is yet another opinion sending a message that all lawyers need to remember.  That is because it is another opinion from this body – in a relatively short period of time – emphasizing how broad the scope of client confidentiality is under Model Rule 1.6.

The key piece of the opinion worth knowing (mostly because it applies to lawyer communications in just about any forum or medium of any sort ranging from cocktail parties, to CLEs, to social media) is this:

The salient point is that when a lawyer participates in public commentary that includes client information, if the lawyer has not secured the client’s informed consent or the disclosure is not otherwise impliedly authorized to carry out the representation, then the lawyer violates Rule 1.6(a). Rule 1.6 does not provide an exception for information that is “generally known” or
contained in a “public record.” Accordingly, if a lawyer wants to publicly reveal client information, the lawyer must comply with Rule 1.6(a).

From my experience, this is a point about which lawyers cannot be reminded nearly enough.  And, it most certainly is not just a social media issue.  Though I have, in the past and far-too-snarkily written about the problem as it crops up on social media.

Interestingly, I spent most of my day today sitting through CLE programming and, perhaps coincidentally, it was the first time in a long time that I actually heard a presenter acknowledge before telling a story about a case that they had actually obtained their client’s permission to talk about the case.

Far too often, I hear lawyer presenters relate information about something they are working on at a CLE by providing so much detail about a situation that it would not take much effort at all to immediately figure out who they are actually talking about.  This latest ABA Formal Opinion also offers a helpful refresher on the problem with doing that:

A violation of Rule 1.6(a) is not avoided by describing public commentary as a“hypothetical” if there is a reasonable likelihood that a third party may ascertain the identity or situation of the client from the facts set forth in the hypothetical. Hence, if a lawyer uses a hypothetical when offering public commentary, the hypothetical should be constructed so that there is no such likelihood.

An incredibly unhelpful ethics opinion from Colorado

Were you looking for something that is very well-written but entirely unhelpful to your needs as a lawyer?  Well, you’ve come to the right place today.

Wait, I now see how that paragraph could be misconstrued in an entirely unflattering way and as an inadvertent passing of judgment on this whole blog.  Obviously, I didn’t mean that.  After all, I said “well-written.”

Anyway, what I’m actually intending to refer to is Colorado Formal Ethics Opinion 134 which was enacted in January 2018 but which was brought to my attention by a loyal reader of this space.  It likely came into his path because of some treatment in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual which I admittedly have not read beyond their headline and lead sentence, which is as follows:

Advance Agreements on Joint Settlement OK, Colorado Bar Says

A lawyer who represents multiple clients in a case can prepare for them, with informed consent, an agreement stating that a majority vote controls for settlement offers, a recent Colorado bar ethics opinion says.

That is one way to spin the Colorado opinion and draw peoples attention, but studying the opinon itself reveals that the picture being painted is far too rosy because a more fair introduction to the opinion would be:

Advance Agreements on Joint Settlement OK to Memorialize But Lawyer Can’t Enforce It in the Future, Colorado Bar Says

A lawyer who represents multiple clients in a case can prepare for them, with informed consent, an agreement stating that a majority vote controls for settlement offers, a recent Colorado bar ethics opinion says, but what would be the point?  The same opinion explains that if any of the clients later rejects the settlement and refuses to abide by the majority vote then the lawyer doesn’t have settlement authority and can’t continue to represent everybody.

I’m not kidding.  That is the TL/DR version of Colorado Formal Opinion 134.  Don’t believe me, go read it for yourself.

Now, Colorado may feel like it has given a helpful opinion because it distinguishes its opinion from some others by saying it is perfectly ethical for a lawyer to participate in preparing an agreement along these lines for jointly represented clients and explaining how Rule 1.8(g) is not triggered until some future point when a settlement is on the table for consideration.  But . . . geez.  From a practical perspective, it’s an exercise in navel-gazing because of this paragraph of the opinion:

If multiple clients agree in advance on a majority-decision rule for how they will respond to an aggregate settlement proposal, but one client in the future refuses to follow the majority’s decision, the dissenting client might be in breach of that agreement.  The other clients might have claims against the dissenting client.  This circumstance creates an unwaivable conflict for their joint lawyer due to the dispute between in the dissenting client and the other clients.  The lawyer may not take sides in the dispute, and may not seek to enforce the agreement againts the dissenting client, on behalf of the majority clients, by compelling the dissenting client to settle.  The lawyer might need to withdraw from the joint representation entirely.

Because of that, it seems hard to understand how any good Colorado lawyer armed with this opinion could ever respond to an inquiry by joint clients about putting together a majority-rule agreement with any advice other than:

Yeah, you don’t want me to go through all of that.  If anyone changes their mind later, I can’t enforce it and you probably just end up in additional litigation maybe over breaching the contract and you all just end up having to hire more and different lawyers.  So, let’s just wait until we have something in front of us to think about on settlement some day and then work it out if and when that day ever comes around.