Nebraska brings us … this.

It’s been something of a big month for Nebraska. First, thanks to its divided approach to providing electoral votes, it is contributing one of the electors totaling up to President-Elect Joe Biden’s 306 electoral votes. Second, like everywhere else in the United States (my state is doing just as bad if not worse) unfortunately, it has seen its COVID-19 numbers surge in November.

Third, and relevant to this space, it has issued an ethics opinion of note. It deserves a bit of discussion because it takes what could be a very interesting topic – one I have counseled people through in the past – and manages to make it not interesting at all. Moreover, it effectively avoids addressing the core issue on which lawyers actually need guidance.

The opinion in question – Nebraska Ethics Advisory Opinion for Lawyers 20-02 – offers an answer to the following question:

May a person/entity or group of defendants who are parties to pending litigation in a district court lawsuit brought by a plaintiff who is a trustee of a trust recommend a list of attorneys and pay for the non-party trust beneficiaries’ legal services needed to bring a county court action to
remove the trustee?

Ultimately, it only sort of answers that question because it points out that it can only give advice to lawyers and not litigants and so, instead, really just provides a refresher on the ethical obligations that a lawyer generally is going to have when they get retained to represent one person, but some other person is paying their bills.

Which is fine. But the world has a pretty good amount of guidance on that topic already. Given the actual question, this kind of ethics opinion would have been a tailor-made opportunity to address the ethics of being a lawyer who has a client who wants you the lawyer to help them secure a lawyer for someone else because the client thinks it is in the client’s best interest for that person to be represented by a lawyer.

One way the issue can come up is when a company wants to hook up a former employee with counsel. Wrestling through the ethics issues for the lawyer in that situation can be tricky as much of the analysis can turn on who came up with the idea and why they want to pursue it.

The closest that the Nebraska opinion comes to providing any sort of pointer toward guidance relevant to those questions is where it explains:

To the extent the question presented can be framed as whether the lawyer representing the litigants can recommend the hiring of another
lawyer, the Committee believes §3-508.4 applies. “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to: (a) violate or attempt to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, knowingly assist or induce another to do so, or do so through the acts of another.” As long as the lawyer representing the
defendants in the lawsuit brought by the trustee does not induce another lawyer to violate the ethics rules, the defendants’ lawyer has not committed an ethics violation.

Nebraska’s version of RPC 8.4(a) is patterned after the ABA Model Rule version and, thus, that can be a generally helpful pointer. But there are other risks floating around for the lawyer, even if it is their client who truly, independently came up with the idea of trying to hire a lawyer for their former employee.

One risk for the lawyer is if what is motivating the client is a desire to make the former employee “off limits” from informal communications with the opposing party because of the application of RPC 4.2. If that is in the mix, the lawyer may have to be concerned about whether the client is trying to get the lawyer to circumvent the prohibition in RPC 3.4(f) regarding requesting someone to voluntarily refrain from giving relevant information to another party. Lining up and paying for counsel for a former employee is always a safer proposition if what has prompted the idea is that the deposition of the former employee has been noticed.

Another risk for the lawyer (actually two different risks) is if the client wants the lawyer to also take on the former employee as a client rather than hire a different lawyer for that former employee. In addition to the conflicts issues the lawyer has to muddle through about that idea, if the lawyer is the one that is going to be foisted upon the former employee as a proffered free-of-charge counsel, then the lawyer also has to worry about application of the jurisdiction’s rules on solicitation of potential clients. Navigating that path very much drives home the point of the risk associated with RPC 8.4(a) – and not with respect to inducing some other lawyer to violate the ethics rules as the Nebraska opinion briefly mentions – but with respect to violating the rules “through the acts of another.”

And, at each stage, an additional ethics rule lurks in the background – RPC 1.2(d). That’s the rule that simultaneously prohibits lawyers from assisting clients in criminal or fraudulent conduct while attempting to make clear that lawyers are entitled to advise clients about all of their legal rights and the consequences of certain actions. In this context, it is the rule that means that if the client is the one that comes up with the idea, then the client may well be entitled to hear from their lawyer whether they have the right to try to make counsel available at no charge to a former employee and have a “discuss[ion of] the legal consequences” of that proposed course of conduct.

An ethics opinion offering guidance to lawyers navigating that kind of situation would be something that – if done right – lawyers in Nebraska and elsewhere would likely have found to be very helpful.

So, my question, dear readers, is this: does anyone out there know if a state has issued any kind of guidance like that? Hit me up and let me know if there is.

Conflicts in large law firms.

The title of this post is extremely boring. No getting around that fact. The topic though is not boring at all. Managing conflict issues in large law firms can be described in a number of different ways, but the adjective “boring” never fits the bill.

The topic is front of mind for me this week – in addition to all of the normal reasons — because of two recent developments arising in vastly different settings. One is an ethics opinion issued out of Ohio addressing the inability of a firm to cure a variety of conflict in the transactional world through the use of nonconsensual screening. The other is an appellate court decision in my state reversing a defense ruling involving evaluating of an advance waiver.

The ethics opinion undoubtedly gets the answer wrong. The appellate decision … I’m not so sure.

Let’s go with the problematic ethics opinion first.

Earlier this month the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct issued Opinion 2020-10, which addressed the following question:

Whether lawyers in a law firm may represent two directly adverse clients in the same transaction by screening separately assigned groups of firm lawyers and with the informed, written consent of the affected clients.

For the record, the answer should be “yes.” The answer should be yes even before you learn that the two clients in question are each sophisticated entities, with long-term relationships with the firm, and that each has their own in-house counsel. Yet, the Ohio Board cannot manage to get to “yes.” Instead, the Ohio opinion essentially exalts the existence of imputation principles for conflicts of interest in a firm to a higher level of importance than client autonomy. I will not offer a very extended analysis of the ways that the opinion goes wrong – in part, because the Ohio opinion doesn’t really offer much of an extended analysis either.

Essentially, the Ohio opinion wants to be capable of being read as being based on the conclusion that the arrangement is not consentable because the lawyers could not competently handle the representations adequately, but it really is more of an exercise of trying to pretend something is such a square peg that it can’t be made to fit into a round hole.

Where the opinion goes wrong the furthest is by taking rules that address the use of nonconsensual screens (RPC 1.10) to cure conflicts and acting like the fact that the rule does not address consensual screens means that consensual screens cannot be used to avoid imputation or as a condition of obtaining client consent. To call that highly flawed logic is probably being too nice.

While it is easy for me to shrug off the Ohio opinion since I do not practice in Ohio, a more recent appellate opinion from the Tennessee Court of Appeals is not something that can just be shrugged off. Thus, the struggle of whether it has offered the correct conclusion on the conflict issues hits much closer to home.

On October 16, 2020, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued an opinion reversing a grant of judgment on the pleadings in a legal malpractice case against the largest law firm in Tennessee. The claims of legal malpractice stem from allegations of a conflict of interest. Interestingly, it involves litigation where not only is the plaintiff proceeding pro se but so is the defendant as the opinion indicates the defense side representation was handled by in-house lawyers for the law firm. You can read the full opinion in Culpepper v. Baker Donelson here.

The decision was overturned on two grounds. One involved the commencement of the statute of limitations not fit for today’s discussion. The other ground involved a conclusion that the trial court was wrong when it decided that the conflict waiver that the client in question signed was not enforceable.

I’ll turn it over to Bill Freivogel who offers a very to-the-point summation of the decision for you over at his site:

Joint Representation; Advance Waiver (posted October 19, 2020) Culpepper v. Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C., No E2019-01932-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. App. Oct. 16, 2020). Plaintiff is suing Law Firm for malpractice, arising out of Law Firm’s representing Plaintiff and Plaintiff’s former employer in an SEC investigation. The trial court granted Law Firm a judgment on the pleadings. Plaintiff claimed Law Firm had a conflict of interest. The trial court ruled that Plaintiff had waived any conflict by signing Law Firm’s “engagement, waiver and consent letter.” In this opinion the appellate court reversed and remanded the case to the trial court. [Our note: Law Firm’s waiver letter was carefully drafted for a joint representation of an employer and employee. It covers the usual subjects of sharing confidences (or not), withdrawal from one client and continuing with the other, and so forth. The issue, as we see it, is whether, given the facts of this case (including Law Firm’s conduct) the letter could have adequately protected the employee. Too early to tell.]

To give just a little more helpful background, Bill isn’t kidding when he says that the language of the client waiver covers all of the ground you might expect. The portion of the engagement letter addressing the joint representation of Culpepper, his company, and two other individuals spans six paragraphs. Here are some excerpts:

In a situation where our firm represents multiple clients jointly in the same matter, we are free to share confidential information
communicated to us by one client with the other joint clients in the course of and in furtherance of the joint representation. We would expect to share information we receive from you with the Company, but we will not necessarily share with you information that we receive from other clients, and you will not be entitled to obtain any confidential information provided to us by any other joint client either during the joint representation or thereafter. Please contact me immediately if you have any objections or concerns regarding this approach.

[snip]

If a conflict should arise between you and the Company, we will be
required to withdraw from representing you, and you may need to engage another attorney to represent you. You agree that, should this occur, we would be free to continue to represent the Company and other joint clients (except in litigation directly adverse to you in this or a substantially related matter) and that we and they may use any information we have obtained during our representation of you, including any confidential information you may provide to us.

[snip]

You should be aware that joint representation of multiple clients
may result in significant benefits for each client, but it may also result in
certain risks that might not arise if each client had his or its own separate counsel. . . . In addition, the Company has decided as a condition of this joint representation, that confidential or privileged information disclosed to Baker Donelson by individual clients will be shared with the Company and that confidential or privileged information of the Company will not necessarily be shared with individual clients, including yourself. The Company may disclose, or direct us to disclose, to the SEC, or other federal or state regulatory agencies or other third parties confidential or privileged information provided by you and could decide to use such information in a manner that could be disadvantageous to you.

So, in the end, the plaintiff’s argument is fundamentally that the situation was one in which he could never have voluntarily and knowingly waived the conflict under any circumstances. That argument is made despite the fact that the conclusion of the engagement letter, preceding his signature read as follows:

I have carefully read the foregoing letter, considered all information
necessary and useful in determining whether or not to consent to the
representations outlined above. I have been encouraged to consult with
independent counsel regarding this consent to representation, and I am fully aware of my legal rights in this regard. Upon reasoned reflection, I hereby voluntarily consent to the representations by Baker Donelson as outlined above.

As an outsider to the proceedings, I could potentially be convinced that somehow the very nature of the matter involved – the SEC investigation – could have been so fraught with peril that it was not the kind of particular conflict that the firm could ever be able to handle for all involved competently and diligently. But the opinion that has been issued – albeit only resolving things at a judgment on the pleadings stage – certainly isn’t convincing on that front.

What is most disappointing about the opinion though is that, despite the portions of RPC 1.7 and accompanying Comment that are discussed, the Court does not address at all the language in our Comment that specifically addresses the waiver of conflicts in advance, Comment [22].

It would have been helpful for the Court to at least attempt to offer thoughts of its analysis through the lens of this Comment because it would have helped many lawyers and firms attempt to glean some guidance about whether there was something about the disclosures that was not sufficiently specific and detailed or if the problem truly amounts to nothing more than an application of the final sentence of that comment:

In any case, advance consent cannot be effective if the circumstances that materialize in the future are such as would make the conflict nonconsentable under paragraph (b).

The ABA comes through with another quality ethics opinion.

So, nearly everything is awful these days. Finding something interesting enough to avoid highlighting the awfulness around us is not altogether easy. This is pretty much too traumatic and damning to write about. Dwelling on this would just be petty at this point.

Coming through as a light at the end of the tunnel today is ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 494 released by the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility addressing a decent topic.

The topic – what are an attorney’s obligations that can arise from personal relationships with opposing counsel? Patterned a bit, as it explicitly acknowledges, on a recent Formal Ethics Opinion regarding judicial personal relationships with lawyers (Formal Opinion 488), Formal Opinion 494 hits all of the correct notes for dealing with this issue.

Most importantly, it appropriately centers the analysis where it fits in the Model Rules: it is an issue involving RPC 1.7(a)(2) – material limitation conflicts arising from a lawyer’s own personal interests. The opinion stresses that ordinarily such conflicts are not imputed to others at the firm. And it lays out reasonable categories to help guide lawyers in their thinking about these issues.

It also makes the point that while, most of the time, the obligation on the lawyer is disclosure to the client and moving forward only if the client is willing to waive the conflict, there can be situations where the conflict is, itself, not waivable.

The opinion posits a relationship between two lawyers that is so close that the lawyer could never get comfortable filing a well-founded motion for sanctions against the other lawyer on behalf of a client as an example of a situation where the conflict may not even be waivable.

And that entire genre of thought has, over the years, been very helpful to me in talking lawyers through situations, both in their real practice, and just as an educational tool at seminars. I, like many other ethics CLE speakers, have used lots of hypotheticals to tease out ethics issues and one that has always been fun to discuss involves something like this scenario:

You are at lunch with opposing counsel on an appellate matter who is a close friend and former colleague. Unprompted, he says, “I bet you can’t wait to see what I’ve got in store for you in my response brief. Well, you’ll have to wait a bit because I’m going to take every day allowed for me before filing so you won’t get your hands on it until a week from tomorrow.” You know, because you just checked it before coming here, that his deadline for his brief is actually tomorrow. What do you say?

This scenario usually prompts a good discussion and there is always someone in the crowd willing to say that they would tell their friend to, at least, go back and double check their math on the deadline. The problem, of course, is that doing that without first talking to your client to get approval would be extremely ethically dicey. The easiest way to drive that point home to lawyers is to ask them if, since the personal relationship with opposing counsel is so important to them, they secured informed consent from their client at the outset with respect to how the lawyer’s personal interest in their close friendship with opposing counsel could materially limit the representation.

Formal Opinion 494 is a well-done explanation of this same concept as well as something that offers a more formal set of guiding principles for determining whether disclosure to a client may be required. The full opinion is worth a read.

Is it perfect? No. It is infuriating in one respect. It is dated July 29, 2020 but was only released today, October 7, 2020.

We are all struggling with linear time these days. The last thing we need is the ABA trying to gaslight us about what month it is. Plus, if they are going to do that, you might as well go full bore and date Formal Opinion 494 as having been issued on the 221st day of March 2020.

Two ethics opinions: one good, one bad, but both reveal systemic problems.

So, New York and Florida. Interestingly, those states have been bookends of our nation’s problems with COVID-19 and with fighting it. New York got hit very badly early, given the concentrated nature of its population centers, but then engaged in a very serious effort of taking the virus very seriously and managed to significantly flatten its curve. Florida’s government ignored and downplayed the situation, and now is experiencing horrible daily numbers and now has overall numbers of cases and deaths that are worse than New York’s. The two states contrasting efforts though still combine to tell a large part of the problem plaguing the United States when it comes to the pandemic — the lack of a coordinated national strategy because we have an incompetent and dysfunctional federal executive.

Two recent developments in ethics opinions from each state also offer contrasting approaches to issuing ethics opinions, contrasting results, and combine to tell part of the larger story of issues plaguing the profession as a whole.

First, let’s start with New York State Bar Association Op. 1200 which is good on procedure but bad on outcome. This opinion addresses application of New York’s RPC 5.7 and the combination of legal services and wealth management services. It was issued after what would appear to be the traditional, efficient, process of receiving a written request for an opinion, having a committee meet and deliberate, and then issuing a written opinion.

The answer it gives to the question whether the same lawyer can render legal services to a client and, through another entity, provide wealth management services to the same person is baffling. Despite the clear rationale for a why a rule like RPC 5.7 exists and, despite the fact that RPC 1.7 should provide for the ability for a waiver of such a conflict, the answer provided is that the conflict is so severe as to be unwaivable. And the only real explanation that is proffered for why is that the lawyer is simply going to be making too much more money from the provision of the wealth management services than from the provision of legal services. Maddening because of all that implies about not only evaluating the conflict rules but how it can justify other assumptions raising questions about a number of other ethics rules that operate under the assumption that lawyers can do the right thing in terms of representing their clients ethically even when it is in conflict with their own financial interests.

Next comes Florida where there exists a proposed ethics opinion waiting on action by the Florida Supreme Court. Technically, it isn’t an ethics opinion as it comes from the Florida Bar Standing Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, but given the relationship to RPC 5.5, that’s a bit of a tomato/tomahto situation.

Now, procedurally it is nightmarish. To get to the point of even issuing the opinion, they held what for all intents and purposes looks like the equivalent of a trial. Sworn witnesses and all. Even after that, it still has to be approved by someone else. Substantively, proposed Florida Advisory Op. 2019-4, would be good because it would conclude that a New Jersey-licensed lawyer who had retired from his job, moved to Florida, and then took a new job for a New Jersey company would not be engaged in UPL if he continued to reside and work in Florida (where he was not licensed) and advised the New Jersey employer about federal law issues.

Now, it is an opinion that shouldn’t be necessary at all for a few reasons, including that if all that is occurring is advising about federal law issues, then Model Rule 5.5(d)’s language should pretty straightforwardly and clearly allow that activity. Unfortunately, Florida curiously does not have that language in its rules and does not appear willing to facially admit the underpinnings of federalism and the Supremacy Clause that require that result. And, even if the question had been about general work for the New Jersey company remotely, it shouldn’t take the equivalent of a trial to figure out that the answer should be that no UPL takes place.

This may all have been less clear to the profession before the pandemic, but during (and if we ever get to a point of “post”) the pandemic it should be painfully clear that the physical presence alone of a lawyer in a particular location should not be dispositive of whether UPL is occurring.

For what it is worth, my proposal for a practical solution to the question of UPL in modern practice that would still allow for things that truly should be regulated to be regulated would be as follows:

There should be a uniformly used “totality of the circumstances/most substantial connection”-style test that evaluates:

  1. where the lawyer is located
  2. where the client is located
  3. if there is a contemplated legal proceeding (or other matter involved such as commercial transaction or closing) where that is located or expected to be located; and
  4. what state’s law would govern in such a proceeding (or other matter).

And, unless the majority of those factors involve a state where the lawyer is not licensed then it simply isn’t UPL.

If my math is correct that would mean that as long as any 2 of the factors touched the lawyer’s state of licensure, then the lawyer is free and clear (or stated differently, unless 3 of the 4 involve a state where the lawyer isn’t licensed, then the lawyer is free and clear).

And, there would still have to be a continued exception acknowledged for purely federal law situations.

Ethics opinion about a business conflict goes wrong.

It is very tempting to stay on the topic of bar examinations today, given recent absurdist developments. Arkansas has declared it simply has to have its in-person bar exam in July 2020 because things are likely to get worse as the year goes on. Oklahoma has attempted to reassure everyone about the safety of their in-person planned exam in a message that simultaneously demands that all test takers self-quarantine for 14 days before the exam. Virginia, trying to take the cake apparently, is insisting on a courtroom attire dress code for their in-person exam but is doing away with having to wear a tie as a concession to COVID-19. It is tempting, but it’s all too frustrating, so…

Instead, let’s go back to some of our roots and discuss a recent ethics opinion. It comes out of Ohio and it addresses a conflict issue, but is noteworthy for at least two reasons: (1) it addresses a conflict of interest issue involving representation of a government entity and (2) it sort of addresses something that is more a business conflict issue rather than a true ethical conflict. If you’d rather just read the opinion, you can access it here.

Ohio Board of Professional Conduct Adv. Op. 2020-04 weighs in on whether a firm has a problem representing a group of landowners who are opposing a zoning variance sought by an agency seeking to establish a shelter for domestic violence victims. The agency is not a client of the firm in other matters, but the firm does represent a community mental health board that contracts with the agency. The firm has a one-year contract to perform legal services on an “as needed” basis to the board but has not been asked to do any work related to the zoning variance matter. The firm does know though that the board supports the agency’s effort to obtain the variance and wants the agency to succeed.

Now, most lawyers would hear that scenario and see a likely “business” conflict but no ethical conflict. By business conflict, I simply mean that the firm might not have wanted to take on the landowners because it might displease the institutional client – which might be a better source of ongoing and continued business to the firm.

The Ohio opinion, however, finds a way to treat the situation as an ethical conflict but, at its heart, it does so only by turning the business conflict into a material limitation conflict using the idea of “personal interest” of the lawyer as something that could be expanded to be the firm’s “personal” financial interests.

I am far from convinced that such an analysis actually works.

The opinion spends only a paragraph explaining something that should be obvious – this is not a representation involving direct adversity between firm clients. After that, the opinion lays out its argument for the existence of a “material limitation” problem for the firm. The opinion begins on the right foot by explaining how there does not appear at first to be any conflict because “the law firm’s provision of legal services to the board and its representation of the landowners are wholly separate and unrelated.” The opinion though pivots to a required “closer examination” leading it to the idea that “it would be reasonable to conclude that the board’s overall interest in supporting the agency’s zoning variance may compromise the firm’s
representation of the landowners opposing the variance.”

Delving into more explanation, the opinion speculates that the firm might be limited in pursuing legal alternatives for the landowners because of the overall interests of the other firm client. All of that is well and good, as it is true that sometimes material limitation conflicts require some digging to understand, but the opinion then moves fully into rhetoric that sounds as an analysis of a business conflict.

Specifically, the opinion points to the firm’s “inherent financial interest in maintaining its standing client-lawyer relationship with the board” as one of the factors leading to a conclusion that there is a material limitation conflict requiring waivers from both the landowners and the board in order for the firm to continue both representations.

The opinion further undercuts any claim to be purely addressing an ethical conflict question by explaining that, if the clients won’t provide consent, then the firm only has to withdraw from one of the two engagements. That remedy is most assuredly the stuff of business conflicts. Traditionally, a firm that needs to extract itself from conflicting representations that run afoul of the ethics rules cannot simply drop one of the two clients like a “hot potato,” but have to withdraw from both client representations. There are exceptions, but none of those exceptions are identified in this opinion.

The opinion also suffers from at least one more flaw. Even under its own premise, it does not follow that both the board and the landowners would need to provide consent. The only representation that the opinion discusses as being potentially harmed by the conflict is the representation of the landowners. Thus, the landowners can be said to be the only clients “affected” by the material limitation conflict. Notably, the opinion never actually quotes the language of the rule it is purporting to apply and never reminds the reader that RPC 1.7(b) only requires informed consent from “each affected client.” Thus, as long as the landowners in the zoning variance proceeding were willing to provide informed consent to the firm’s representation despite the fact that the firm’s relationship with the board could limit available options and approaches, then the rule would still be satisfied.

Pennsylvania wins the race to be first with COVID-19 ethics guidance.

I’ve lived in Memphis since 5th grade at this point, but I was actually born in Pennsylvania. I’ll heed all the guidance making the rounds of social media about not sharing information that might be a security question somewhere and won’t tell you what city.

But a part of my heart will always be in Pennsylvania since part of me really grew up there. It’s also the reason why my sporting allegiances beyond the Memphis Grizzlies and Chelsea Football Club all involve Pittsburgh teams.

So, I feel somewhat proud that the Pennsylvania State Bar seems to be the first bar to put out a truly comprehensive ethics opinion attempting to give guidance to lawyers and law firms about their ongoing ethical duties during the pandemic and in dealing with the “new normal” of working remotely from home.

While typically Pennsylvania ethics opinions have been hard to get access to some times because they have historically restricted them, Bob Ambrogi seems to have gotten his hands on the full opinion in digital format, so I’m linking to it as his site here.

It is quite good and really quite thorough (and you probably have some time on your hands), so I’d encourage you to read the whole thing. It addresses a number of rules, including Pennsylvania’s version of the ethics rules on competence and supervising non-lawyer assistants.

I only want to highlight two things that it specifically addresses and one thing that it, unfortunately, does not say at all.

First, I think this is the first ethics opinion from any lawyer regulatory body that comes out so clearly to call out what happens with smart speakers and other “always on” listening devices. It links to a vox.com article to allege that Amazon’s Alexa device and the Google Home speaker actually do have people reviewing the recordings of what those devices pick up and encourages lawyers (and people who work for lawyers and law firms) to not have client conversations in rooms where those always listening devices are located. I cannot remember for certain and have run out of the mental bandwidth today to go searching but I think I’ve written before about how the epiphany is obvious once you have it that the only way such devices can recognize when you call out their name for assistance is that they have to be “listening” before their name is uttered, but your view of such items profoundly changes once you have the epiphany. For what it is worth, I’ve been doggedly adhering to this by trying to have all of my calls take place in one of two places in my house (and on my second-floor balcony) where such devices are not located. And, yet, there’s still my iPhone and Siri which presumably also is a vigilant digital assistant just waiting for me to say her name.

Second, I feel a little personally attacked by the guidance that is stressed about only going to websites that are “secure” in that they have the https: designation. You might notice that this blog is not such a site but also I don’t ask you for any information or try to sell you any products here, so please keep coming around.

And, finally, the one thing that the opinion does not say that I really wish it would have done is this: Pennsylvania’s rules, like Tennessee’s and most others, contain language in the Preamble/Scope to stress that the ethics rules are rules of reason and should be construed as such.

All of the guidance in the opinion is very good and particularly offers a very good clearinghouse of things that lawyers should be trying to do, if at all possible. At the same time though, given how difficult all of this is we should not be sending messages to the profession that we are going to make perfect the enemy of the good.

During these difficult times, my hope will be that mistakes that lawyers may make with respect to the confidentiality and safeguarding of information will be treated as fodder for disciplinary proceedings only in instances of truly reckless or grossly negligent conduct and not mere negligence caused from trying to accomplish what client’s need to get accomplished in circumstances of a prolonged emergency.

That, to me, is a highly practical but entirely timely application of what the rules mean when they say they are rules of reason. Along those lines, while not guidance from a state bar or regulatory entity itself, I also commend for your reading a piece put out by the Holland & Knight law firm that ultimately grabs the spirit of that aspect of the ethics rules to analyze some guidance that can be found in the Restatement of the Law Governing Lawyers.

Lawyers continue to struggle with tackling online negative reviews.

Today’s topic come up again for two different reasons. First, because the North Carolina State Bar has put out a new proposed ethics opinion seeking public comment about the topic. Second, because it was also discussed at one of the presentations made at the APRL mid-year meeting a week or so ago.

As the title of the post indicates, the topic is the ethical constraints on lawyers when faced with trying to respond to an online negative review posted by a client where they feel hard done and feel like, if allowed, they could demonstrate that the client’s negative allegations are unfair.

Proposed 2020 Formal Ethics Opinion 1 in North Carolina reaches roughly the same conclusion as the other ethics opinions issued on this topic: tread carefully because none of the confidentiality exceptions offered by RPC 1.6(b) are satisfied merely by the posting of an online review. Attempting to offer some practical advice, the proposed opinion says that the attorney can “post a proportional and restrained response that does not reveal any confidential information.” Given the broad scope of confidentiality under the ethics rules, this outcome offers little room for lawyers to offer much of a response. Perhaps recognizing that a bit, the opinion tries to find ways to authorize a lawyer to contest the negative review with denials while walking a fine line of not disclosing actual information by referencing some “generic” or limited denials that other ethics committees have proffered.

It’s a fine proposed ethics opinion in so far as it goes. (It’s also a good round-up of the opinions issued to date on this issue by other groups.) But it fails to fully wrestle with one ethical question it acknowledges is relevant and fails to address at all at least one interesting ethical question that ought to be the most relevant one of all.

It does address, in part, the meaning of certain language in Comment [11] to RPC 1.6 about a lawyer not being required to “await the commencement” of an action or proceeding to rely upon the self-defense exception. But it only focuses on it in one direction. Looking only to whether the disenchanted (or disingenuous if you believe the lawyer targeted) client is likely to pursue a proceeding, the opinion brushes aside that language as any justification for a lawyer on the basis that the client’s willingness to post a negative review does not alone demonstrate that the client is contemplating pursuing any formal proceeding against the lawyer.

But the opinion does not spend any time talking about the flipside, which was actually raised by an audience member at the APRL mid-year meeting I referenced above: What if the lawyer is the one contemplating pursuing a proceeding?

For example, some lawyers — lawyers who rely very heavily for work on their online presence and can be very badly damaged by a false review — may view the inability to respond to an online negative review as meaning that actually filing a suit for defamation against the client/former client is their only viable option. If they actually filed the suit, they’d be able to disclose information about the representation to make the case. So the logic goes, could they not begin to exercise that right of self-defense before they have commenced that proceeding?

Under that line of thinking, couldn’t they respond to the online review to contest the allegations, and indicate to the client that they will file suit for defamation if the client doesn’t retract the statements? I don’t think that works primarily because any such communication to the client about the review making that kind of demand before filing suit would have no need to occur publicly. In fact, it would seem reasonable to read the language in the Comment to RPC 1.6 exhorting lawyers to take certain steps, including seeking protective orders or filing matters under seal, even when pursuing litigation so as to keep reasonable disclosures of client information from unnecessary public dissemination as fundamentally contrary to such a course of public action prior to commencing such a suit.

The relevant ethical question that the opinion does not address at all is what a lawyer can do with respect to crafting a path for being able to respond through RPC 1.6(a) rather than RPC 1.6(b). As a practical matter, having written frequently about The Streisand Effect here in the past, I still believe that most of the time the best course for a lawyer is not to do anything to risk amplifying the megaphone the client has already obtained. Usually, engaging in a public skirmish with the person is only going to result in more people learning about the criticism, but I recognize that there are some lawyers who simply cannot afford the damage that can be caused to their business pipeline from negative online reviews.

For those lawyers, I think the only ethical path to get beyond offering platitudes and perfunctory denials would be to secure a client’s agreement, in advance, as part of an engagement contract that the lawyer may respond to any future online negative review that the client chooses to make.

Given that RPC 1.6(a) clearly allows lawyers to disclose information about their representation of a client if they have the client’s informed consent to do so. It seems to me that if the issue is described sufficiently on the front end, and the client agrees in advance that the price of going online to complain is that the lawyer can use information about the representation to respond to the complaint, then the requirement of informed consent can be satisfied. While it could feel very much like a truly awful first foot to put forward with a client by raising the issue, if the lawyer’s practice is such that the issue is that important, there also is a benefit to being up front with the person about it at the time that they are prospective client.

But maybe you all can tell me if I’m missing something in that respect?

Two more ethics opinions explore restrictions on lawyers’ ability to enter (or even offer) certain contracts.

First, this is not being titled as a “Friday Follow Up” post because, like the rest of you, I have no idea what day of the week it is at this point.

Second, there is way much more important events afoot in the world and if you want to know my thoughts about those you can go find me on Twitter. Given the complete lack of even a fig leaf to connect to legal ethics on that front, I’m sticking to sports here.

Third, two ethics opinions from two different states came out late last year addressing two different variations on ways that the ethics rules makes lawyers “special” when it comes to the right to contract. Because states like mine have been engaged in the issuance of ethics opinions really pushing the boundaries of this concept (at least as to the scope of RPC 5.6), it seems worth mentioning these two opinions albeit each for slightly different reasons.

The first of the two is almost entirely straightforward in addressing something that I certainly think is undoubtedly clear from the Comment to the ABA Model Rule — whether the scope of RPC 5.6 is somehow different for in-house counsel. Nevada, in Formal Op. 56, has made plain that the scope is not different, explaining that an in-house counsel cannot accept a stock award agreement that is made contingent upon agreeing to a one-year covenant not to compete. It somewhat helps to understand why Nevada would have to issue an ethics opinion on this question to know that Nevada has no Comments adopted along with its rules. Instead, Nevada’s Supreme Court has offered that both the preamble and the comments to the ABA Model Rules are something that “may be consulted for guidance in interpreting and applying the Nevada Rules of Professional Conduct.”

Here in Tennessee, we actually have our own Comment identical to the ABA Model Rule version so an ethics opinion wouldn’t really be necessary to cover the fact that the Comment specifically says it applies to organizational employers as well as private firms. One nuance that the opinion introduces but does not explore in any real depth is that an in-house counsel could agree to a non-compete that would only apply to the performance of business functions, rather than legal services, at a competitor. Thus, an in-house lawyer serving as both General Counsel and Executive Vice President at one corporate employer could be required to agree as part of a stock bonus not to take any similar employment with a competing company in the future by focusing only on the executive portion of the existing job.

The Nevada opinion also delves a bit into a way that a confidentiality agreement as part of such a stock award could also run afoul of RPC 5.6 by extending beyond the requirements of RPC 1.6 and RPC 1.9 under the ethics rules.

The other opinion I wanted to touch on comes from Los Angeles. LA County Bar Op. 532 tackles a question that does not require application of RPC 5.6 to resolve but that is not entirely unrelated to that rule — whether a lawyer can agree to indemnify the adverse party as a condition of a settlement. The LA County opinion correctly reaches the conclusion that the lawyer cannot do so because of the conflict that creates between the personal interests of the attorney and the client’s interests. It is an uncontroversial conclusion as the opinion admits because there are some 20+ other jurisdictions, including here in Tennessee, that have likewise made such a settlement provision improper.

Two other aspects of the opinion are much more interesting, however. One is that the primary ground on which the opinion nixes the possibility is that doing so would be the lawyer improperly paying the client’s business or personal expenses in violation of California’s RPC 1.8(b)(5). The other is that the opinion also involves RPC 8.4(a) to create the same dynamic that is in play when RPC 5.6 is triggered – it is unethical for a lawyer to propose such an agreement to the plaintiff’s lawyer because it would be unethical for the plaintiff’s lawyer to agree to it. While RPC 5.6 states plainly that it is an unethical for a lawyer to “participate in offering or making” the kind of agreement addressed by Nevada as discussed above, the potential reach of RPC 8.4(a) when it comes to negotiating contracts is often overlooked. California’s rule, like the ABA Model, makes it a disciplinary violation for a lawyer to “knowingly … induce another” lawyer to violate the ethics rules.

The perils of letting your clients speak for themselves.

I’ve been known in the past when writing or speaking about Model Rule 4.2 and the restrictions it imposes to make the point that our ethics rule treats grown up adults as incapable of making decisions for themselves. Mostly jokingly I make that point. When elaborating it is merely to focus on the idea that in order to protect clients from overreaching by adverse counsel the rule does not allow the client to make the decision it wishes to communicate with the lawyer for their adversary. The consent to allow such a communication to occur has to come from the lawyer for that person.

But, what can happen when a represented client decides to freelance and talk about their legal issues without the input of their counsel? Well, as luck would have it during this extremely historic week in the United States, we have an example that can be taught and learned from.

An example where the client made a public communication that could be described by those who read it as “incoherent,” “utterly frivolous,” “chock-full of impenetrable arguments and unsupported assertions,” “organized in ways that escape our understanding,” and that “capitalizes words seemingly at random.”

You probably know exactly what I am referring to.

What? No, I didn’t see that the third President in U.S. history to ever be impeached sent a letter out earlier this week that his lawyers didn’t bless. I’ll have to check that out.

No, I’m referring to a brief that was filed in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals by a represented party but that wasn’t actually authored or approved by the lawyer for the party.

The ABA Journal has a story about it here. You can give the two opinions of the Court of Appeals that resulted a read if you’d like here and here.

Though as both the article and the opinion stress in their own ways, the true problem for the lawyer involved in this situation, and the reason for sanctioning, was the decision to let the client’s filing appear as if it had been the work-product of the lawyer and not a pro se filing by the client. The Seventh Circuit was particularly chapped when it first ruled at the notion that an attorney was responsible for a “monstrosity of an appellate brief.”

The patently frivolous nature of this appeal isn’t the only thing that troubles us. The hopelessness of McCurry’s cause didn’t deter her lawyer, Jordan Hoffman, from signing and submitting a bizarre appellate brief laden with assertions that have no basis in the record and arguments that have no basis in the law.

That, in and of itself, is a rare variation on a topic much-discussed, and likely much more common, when a lawyer offers behind-the-scenes assistance to a client but then has the client make the filing pro se and without disclosing that a lawyer’s assistance was provided. That is a set of circumstances that can also bring about ire from a court but for entirely different reasons.

As a reminder to my Tennessee-based readers, we have a Formal Ethics Opinion addressing that particular ghostwriting issue, which you can refresh your memory about at this link.

For attorney’s eyes only.

Okay. It helps to get into my mindset while writing this if you hear the title in the voice of the musical snippet “For British Eyes Only” from Arrested Development. If you can’t make the frame of reference, then so be it. We’ll have to work to find common ground all the same. (Actually, for the briefest of moments I forgot that we live in 2019 when everything is but a link away, so here is what you want the title of the post to sound like: clip.)

Ethics opinions are interesting creatures. They provide a group (usually) of people with law degrees with an opportunity to elaborate on otherwise potentially unsettled (or even unsettling) questions of application of the ethics rules. As a result, they can be used to set a trend in one direction or another toward either expanding or limiting the scope of a rule.

Usually, they are most influential when they involve an interpretation of the standard version of a particular ethics rule. In Tennessee, as I’ve written about a few times now, formal ethics opinions are being used (for better or worse) to severely expand the scope of what RPC 5.6 means in terms of when an agreement entered into in connection with the settlement of client’s matter will be deemed to involve an improper restriction on the attorney’s right to practice. Those opinions are potentially of particular moment because they are interpreting language that is pretty widespread in its uniformity: “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.” Over the course of a few opinions now, the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility has added layer upon layer of kinds of provisions that could be in a settlement agreement for a number of potentially legitimate reasons but that are being ruled out because they are being treated as an improper restriction under RPC 5.6.

A recent ethics opinion in Ohio addressing another variation of same seems to be rowing in the same direction as it concluded that a plaintiff’s lawyer could not be asked to commit to the fact that they did not actually have any other clients at the moment of settlement with similar claims against the settling defendant. You can read that one here.

So, I was briefly intrigued when I saw a tweet about a proposed ethics opinion in North Carolina that was concluding that a lawyer could ethically agree to an “attorney’s eyes only” restriction on the production of certain documents in a case without first getting their client’s consent to such an arrangement. That seemed like a very difficult position to justify and it seemed like it was something of a polar opposite of what is going on in the thread of Tennessee ethics opinions about RPC 5.6. The 5.6 series of opinions is almost going out of its way to find conflicts between an attorney’s interest and their client’s interest in order to shoehorn the situations into RPC 5.6. Yet, here was a nearby state proclaiming that something that seemed squarely like a real conflict for the lawyer would be kosher even in the absence of seeking client consent.

(Admittedly, my initial reaction also was to be skeptical about the conclusion. I’ve certainly encountered my fair share of AEO provisions in protective orders but I’ve never signed off on one without running it by the client so that they can decide in advance if they are going to have a problem with the arrangement. Seems like a pretty clear creation of a conflict of real importance to the attorney-client relationship where the client should be signing off on accepting such a situation before it transpires.)

But, in reading the proposed opinion, which you can access here,what I learned is that it leans heavily upon non-standard language in North Carolina’s rules that provides strong justification for the conclusion. Specifically, it relies upon the fact that North Carolina has divided its RPC 1.2 into a number of subparts, including an (a)(3) that gives the lawyer the ability to “exercise his or her professional judgment to waive or fail to assert a right or position of the client.”

On its face, the existence of such a rule could provide grounds to think this is a correct conclusion, but, if you really think about it, that provision if it is without limit is … I believe the technical, legal term would be BANANAS!

Surely, it was never intended to impact things that are vital to the representation and for which the client should have final say. Right? I mean, on its face, it would allow a lawyer to exercise professional judgment to waive the client in a criminal case’s right to choose not to testify.

To the extent the comments provide us with any insight about what was intended it seems pretty important to note that paragraph [1] of the Comment provides only one elaboration on the concept: “For example, a lawyer may consent to an extension of time for the opposing party to file pleadings or discovery without obtaining the client’s consent.” That is both an innocuous example of the use of the rule and one that seems pretty redundant for RPC 1.2(a)(3) given that North Carolina’s RPC 1.2(a)(2) also addresses that kind of situation by saying: “A lawyer does not violate this rule by acceding to reasonable requests of opposing counsel that do not prejudice the rights of a client, by being punctual in fulfilling all professional commitments, by avoiding offensive tactics, or by treating with courtesy and consideration all persons involved in the legal process.”