New Jersey takes a step in the right direction on advertising

With a strong tip of the metaphorical hat I never wear to Kim Ringler (a former President of APRL) who alerted many ethics lawyers to the news, I write today about a new ethics opinion from the New Jersey Committee on Attorney Advertising.

In Opinion 45, issued less than a week ago, New Jersey has softened their harsh position on whether a lawyer can hold themselves out as having “expertise” or being a “specialist” or “specializing” in an area of the law.  New Jersey’s new opinion is candid about how developments in other states involving First Amendment challenges to advertising restrictions have resulted in its new stance.  It is also fairly decent in terms of the commonsense nature of the analysis it provides.

The opinion explains that it has been prompted by a grievance filed about a law firm’s website in which the statement is made that the lawyers have “expertise” in tax law.  (I’m willing to bet the shiniest of quarters that the grievance was filed by a lawyer and not a consumer.)  The opinion provides a bit of insight into the firm and its main lawyer:

The firm concentrates its practice in tax law.  The firm’s principal lawyer has an L.L.M. in tax, is the author of numerous publications on tax law, lectures on tax law, served as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service, and has been practicing tax law for more than 30 years.

The opinion explains that New Jersey had previously imposed severe restrictions on the use of such terms unless a lawyer had been certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court or by an ABA-approved organization.  (My own state has a somewhat similar black-letter rule in RPC 7.4 [though it does not seek to regulate the term “expert” or “expertise” and it only relies upon ABA-accredited groups.)

But, going forward… well … I’ll just let New Jersey speak for itself:

After revisiting the issue in light of recent out-of-state First Amendment decisions in attorney advertising, the Committee has now determined that lawyers may use the terms “expertise,” “specialize,” and “specialist” in advertising provided the terms are accurate and the lawyers can demonstrate the necessary education, training, and experience to substantiate the claim.

So, kudos where kudos are due, but the reason I say “a step” in the right direction rather than any sort of “leap” is that New Jersey couldn’t quite bring itself to commit fully to the common-sense outcome on this topic because it still is clinging to its prohibition on the use of the word “expert.”  It does so by ending its opinion with the following sentence:

Only lawyers who are certified by the Supreme Court or an organization approved by the American Bar Association may call themselves “experts.”

 

The intersection of the ethics rules and the GDPR “right to be forgotten”

Although today is Halloween in my part of the world, I am not offering any spooky content.  I thought about trying to replace all mentions of Maryland in this post with Scaryland, but that just seemed like I was trying too hard.

In fact, I’m a bit torn about even writing about this particular topic because I’m really of two minds in all respects about what to say about Maryland becoming the first U.S. jurisdiction to issue an ethics opinion attempting to wrestle with any aspect of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”).

On the one hand, it seems like Maryland ought to be applauded for trying to be on the leading edge of issues of concern and many lawyers (and their firms) are struggling with exactly what GDPR might require of them.

On the other hand, the core premise of the inquiry being addressed involves an assumption about a legal question — not an ethics issue — and is the kind of thing ethics-opinion-writing bodies likely ought to stay away from.

Lots of commentators will give ethics-opinion-writing bodies grief for not, for example, striving to apply Constitutional issues when issuing opinions about the ethics rules.  I’ve probably done that myself in the past.  But, on the whole, more trouble for lawyers can likely come from ethics opinions straying outside the lines and getting a legal issue altogether wrong.

That might or might not have been how it would have shaken out if the Maryland State Bar Association Committee on Ethics had fully committed to trying to figure out whether the premise of the question posed to it in Opinion No. 2018-06 was even how the GDPR would work in the circumstances.

Instead, the committee flagged for the reader the possibility that the GDPR would not require the lawyer to respect the request to be forgotten at all but offered up what is, on the whole, pretty sound guidance that lawyers can bear in mind as to this and similar questions as other jurisdictions start adopting new privacy laws and regulations that may hit closer to home than the GDPR.

The question posed relied on the premise that a former client, if a citizen of the EU, could exercise the “right to be forgotten” by demanding the lawyer delete data about the person and, thereby, cause the lawyer to delete information that would otherwise protect the lawyer in terms of conflict checking in the future to avoid taking on a new client or matter that would involve an unethical conflict of interest as to the former client representation.

The core of the guidance ultimately given – again explicitly premised on assuming that it might ever be necessary – is this:

If a former client asks an attorney to delete the information needed to manage conflicts of interest, and the GDPR requires the attorney do so, we believe that the client’s request can act as a waiver of conflicts that could have been discovered had the data been retained if: (1) the firm provides written advice to the former client that fully informs the former client that deleting the information could result in a conflict and that by requiring such deletion the client consents to the firm’s potential future representation of other clients with conflicts that might have otherwise have been discovered, and (2) none of the attorneys who handle the matter for the firm have any retained knowledge of the former client’s information.

That’s pretty good guidance, actually.

It probably would have been better though if they hadn’t imposed quite so large a burden of communication and advice to the firm in response to the former client.  I think that simply saying that any such request from a former client can be treated by the firm as equivalent to a waiver on the basis that a former client cannot demand that s/he be forgotten and then try to later claim the “forgotten” relationship presents a conflict.

You can read the full Maryland opinion here.

And, if you are interested in more opportunities to hear me try to talk intelligently about what the GDPR does actually mean for U.S. lawyers, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. on November 9 as part of a joint program presented by APRL and the Law Society of England and Wales.  If you’re interested, you can register at this link.

ABA Confirms that Model Rule 1.15 Should Solve What Model Rule 4.4 Doesn’t

So, I am certain you have heard by now that a little under a week ago the ABA issued a new Formal Ethics Opinion to address the ethical obligations of lawyers in the aftermath of a cyber-attack or an electronic data breach.  ABA Opinion 483 makes for a good read and provides good guidance about how the ethics rules work on the subject.

There are lots of decent summaries out there already of this ethics opinion if you want to try the tl:dr approach and just read secondary sources.  I am not going to repeat those summaries here.  Instead, I want to focus on what is, to me and perhaps only me, the most important development that ought to come from this opinion — the recognition by the ABA that “property” in Model Rule 1.15 has to also include digital property.

In the latest ABA Opinion, this issue is addressed with an eye toward thinking about electronic copies of client files, specifically as follows:

An open question exists whether Model Rule 1.15’s reference to “property” includes information stored in electronic form.  Comment [1] uses as examples “securities” and “property” that should be kept separate from the lawyer’s “business and personal property.”  That language suggests Rule 1.15 is limited to tangible property which can be physically segregated.  On the other hand, many courts have moved to electronic filing and law firms routinely use email and electronic document formats to image or transfer information.  Reading Rule 1.15’s safeguarding obligation to apply to hard copy client files but not electronic client files is not a reasonable reading of the Rule.

Now, why is this such an important takeaway to me?  Well, myopia often flows from the egocentric nature of people and I am no exception.  This is an important takeaway to me because I’ve been trying to make this point in an entirely different context – and to little avail — since 2010 when I co-authored an article entitled: “Model Rule 1.15: The Elegant Solution to the Problem of Purloined Documents” published in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct.  Now that article – which you can still find here — was itself an excerpt of part of a chapter of a book I was also fortunate enough to co-author with Doug Richmond that came out in 2011.  The “Elegant Solution” article explained that the lack of guidance offered by Model Rule 4.4(b) on what a lawyer must do if they receive stolen documents (whether on paper or electronically) should be resolved by application of Model Rule 1.15 and the obligations lawyers have under subsections (d) and (e) of that rule.

There are likely lots of reasons why that article has been largely ignored – and when not ignored treated as offering a controversial view to be shunned — but the primary one is that Model Rule 4.4(b) becomes a bit unnecessary as a rule if such questions could have been resolved under Model Rule 1.15.

Model Rule 4.4(b) reads:

A lawyer who receives a document or electronically stored information relating to the representation of the lawyer’s client and knows or reasonably should know that the document or electronically stored information was inadvertently sent shall promptly notify the sender.

Model Rule 4.4(b) only addresses information that a lawyer receives that is known to have been inadvertently sent and only requires the receiving lawyer to give notice to the sending lawyer of what has happened.  It does not address information sent purposely but without authorization, and it punts on what comes next.

In the “Elegant Solution” article, we explained why Rule 1.15 provided answers to the questions Model Rule 4.4(b) won’t address and, particularly in light of this latest ethics opinion recognizing the need for Model Rule 1.15 to apply to digital information, I think our explanation is worth repeating to close out this post:

The Model Rules do, in fact, appear to offer an elegant answer for lawyers who question
their professional responsibilities when they receive documents that may have been purloined or otherwise improperly obtained from another. The answer lies in Model Rule 1.15 and its provisions establishing lawyers’ obligations with respect to ‘‘safekeeping property.’’ See Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 1.15 (2010).  Although lawyers are generally familiar with Rule 1.15 in the trust account context, the scope of the rule is clearly not so limited, as amply evidenced by its repeated references not just to funds or fees or expenses, but also to ‘‘property.’’

Model Rule 1.15(a) declares that ‘‘[a] lawyer shall hold property of clients or third persons that is in the lawyer’s possession in connection with a representation separate from the lawyer’s own property.’’ Id. R. 1.15(a) (emphasis added). Model Rule 1.15(d) further requires that ‘‘[u]pon receiving funds or other property in which a client or third person has an interest, a lawyer shall promptly notify the client or third person.’’ Id. R. 1.15(d) (emphasis added). Finally, Model Rule 1.15(e) mandates that ‘‘[w]hen in the course of the representation
a lawyer is in possession of property in which two or more persons (one of whom may be the lawyer)
claim interests, the property shall be kept separate by the lawyer until the dispute is resolved.’’ Id. R. 1.15(e) (emphasis added).

Analysis of over-the-transom deliveries through the lens of Rule 1.15 establishes that a lawyer, upon receiving purloined documents (or if not clearly purloined at least clearly reflecting privileged or confidential information belonging to someone other than the person who delivered the documents), is obligated to hold those documents separate from the rest of the lawyer’s documents, promptly notify the person from whom the documents were taken, and, if the lawyer is going to refuse to return the documents to that person (and thereby claim either that the lawyer or the lawyer’s client has an interest in them), continue to keep those documents segregated from the rest of the lawyer’s property until the dispute over the documents is resolved,
presumably through a ruling by a tribunal. This approach places no meaningful burden on the receiving lawyer and respects the rights of the party to whom the materials belong.

Utahlking Ethics Opinions to Me? (Also Texas)

I’m interested in writing today about two recent ethics opinions that manage to go together quite nicely.  Utah Ethics Adv. Op. 18-04 and Texas Professional Ethics Committee Op. 679.  Both involve RPC 1.8 (or at least both should).  And, not only does neither opinion do a very good job with the subject matter it tackles but both tackle subjects where lawyers need to tread very carefully and could use really good advice.

But, as just a quick aside before doing so, I wanted to express some gratitude from last week and point you to a very important story worth reading.  As the culmination of a many-months-long project, I had the chance to share the stage last week at the ABA Forum on Franchising with two excellent lawyers – Shannon McCarthy Associate General Counsel for Chihuly, Inc. and Kevin Kennedy, General Counsel of Wiggin and Dana in Connecticut — and talk about a tricky and delicate topic – lawyers and obligations to report other lawyers with a particular emphasis on issues involving harassment and other toxic behavior.  I was really fortunate to get to work with them both.  For a story that offers something of a how-not-to manual offered by the experience of one of the world’s largest law firms, you can go read up here.

Now, back to regularly-scheduled programming…

While I missed it around the time it came out, the Utah State Bar put out an interesting ethics opinion explaining to lawyers a way they might be able ethically to mitigate their risk exposure in the event of third-party claims against the lawyer based on the client’s conduct.

The opinion declares that “[a]n attorney may include an indemnification provision in a retainer agreement at the commencement of representation that requires the client to indemnify the attorney and related entities against claims that arise from the client’s behavior or negligence.”

In explaining this outcome, the Utah opinion points out that nothing about RPC 1.8(h) directly prohibits it.  However, it doesn’t just stop there, it goes on to explain … just kidding actually.  It stops there on that issue.

As a practical matter, that is sort of a shame because lawyers ought to be cautioned a bit about the problems associated with starting the relationship with a client off with that sort of provision — particularly because if you are that concerned about that risk of liability from the client’s conduct, then maybe a rethink about whether to take them on is in order.  But, if one is going to do it, the beginning of the relationship is certainly more viable than mid-stream.

Speaking of which, that brings me to the Texas opinion, which tasked itself with answering this question:

May a lawyer renegotiate his fixed, flat fee for representing a client in litigation after the litigation is underway if the matter turns out to be greater in scope and complexity than the lawyer and client contemplated?

If Texas was interested in doing this right, it would recognize that the answer lies in application of its version of Model Rule 1.8(a) because that situation is a business transaction between lawyer and client.  Instead, Texas actually announced that its version of that rule does not apply to a mid-stream renegotiation of a fee.

Instead, the opinion points out that Texas courts have considered the issue and have said that it can occur but that there is a “presumption of unfairness.”  Rejecting the opportunity to apply Rule 1.8 to these circumstances is all the more baffling because — providing guidance to interpret ethics rules is the kind of thing ethics opinion writing bodies are supposed to do, rather than providing guidance about what court decisions mean.

In the end though, I’m likely being too harsh on the Texas opinion because it, at least, summarizes pretty nicely the analysis of the dynamic from the lawyer side of things and why, in most situations, effectuating an enforceable renegotiation will be unlikely:

The fundamental nature of a flat or fixed fee is that there is risk to the lawyer that the legal work and time required may exceed what the lawyer might have earned if the lawyer instead billed by the hour.  The client knows with certain that the total fee charged, no matter how much lawyer time or effort is involved, will not exceed the fixed amount.  The client’s risk in a flat or fixed fee agreement is the possibility of paying more than the client would have paid under an hourly billing agreement if the lawyer is able to complete the representation is [sic] less time than originally expected.  Because the lawyer is better able to anticipate the time and legal work required, the lawyer should be mindful that he knowingly assumed the risk — and should not unreasonably seek to change the fee agreement simply because the lawyer agreed to a fixed fee that, in hindsight, is no longer adequate.

(emphasis added).  And, also, amen to that.

 

 

Yet another reason for change. Pretty much the most serious reason.

So there are things that can really make you feel small.  And there are things that can really lead to despair and a feeling of helplessness.  Fortunately, there are few things that do both at once.  The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change can do both of those things pretty simply.  If you haven’t read it, or at least parts of it, you can do so at this link.  If you don’t want to read the report itself (or parts of it), then you can go read one of the many articles discussing at length its sobering warnings of what the future (the close-enough-future that we can imagine ourselves in it pretty easily) here or here or here for example.

You really ought to read as much about it as you can because, to a pretty significant extent, whether we have a habitable planet is just about all that really matters.  And, though the more you digest the news about the situation the easier it is to feel small and helpless, the reaction needs to be significantly different from that.

Why am I writing about this at a legal ethics blog?  (Beyond the cop-out sort of reason in which I would tell you it feels a bit petty to write about anything else given the stakes, of course.)  Well, it isn’t because lawyers are somehow going to save us from this outcome.  For every lawyer out there who lobbies a state legislature to impose some new regulation to try to reduce carbon emissions, there will be another lawyer who ends up representing the industry that seeks to challenge that legislation in court.  That’s the nature of our profession.

But, our profession can try to do a few things to not be part of making the problem worse.

A lot of the discussion about what the future of the practice of law is going to look like involves embracing technology and regulatory questions about ways in which the traditional approach to lawyer regulation may be stifling innovation that would ultimately benefit consumers of legal services.  In my opinion, all of that should continue as quickly as we can move the conversation forward.  But, as we try to talk about what the future of the profession should look like, we ought to be bearing in mind many of these much larger issues.

What can we do to make sure that technological solutions are used so that people in the court system do not have to make multiple, ultimately unnecessary, trips across town for court when nothing happens that couldn’t be handled over the telephone or by video conference or web stream if courts would permit that to occur?

What options should we be considering empowering so that fewer disputes go into the traditional court system at all if they could be resolved through online dispute resolution?  What can we do to try to better fashion courts into places that can themselves be resolving disputes online?

What can we do to persuade those remaining jurisdictions that have been unwilling to move to electronic filing to give up the fight and swiftly enact electronic filing?

Pursuit of these sorts of initiatives can save an incremental number of natural resources.

And, why can our profession readily get comfortable with relaxing the artificial barriers we impose on the ability of a lawyer licensed in one state to actively practice law in another state only in the aftermath of disasters?  Many states have issued ethics opinions in the wake of various weather disasters or passed court rules to permit flexibility for out-of-state lawyers to go to the disaster area and render legal assistance without fear of being accused of unauthorized practice of law.  My own state did so a few years back.

The ABA very recently just issued Formal Ethics Opinion 482 encouraging lawyers to be ready for disasters and to plan ahead to protect their own practice and protect their clients’ cases and matters from adverse impact in the wake of disasters.  The ethics opinion gives very good guidance and, perhaps, it gave that guidance far enough in advance of the devastating impact that Hurricane Michael is currently inflicting on a part of the world where my family has vacationed every summer for the last almost 20 years, Apalachicola and St. George Island, Florida, so that lawyers in that part of the world knew enough to have been prepared in advance.

The IPCC report presents a pretty clear indication of the coming disaster if radical change is not undertaken.  Overhauling the regulation of the legal system to remove artificial barriers to cross-border practice and barriers that prevent technology from making it easier for clients to find lawyers and for lawyers to practice law without unnecessarily wasting resources seem like some things that amount to the least our profession can do to not be part of making worst-case scenarios even more likely to come to pass.

 

 

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

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

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

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

The questions addressed in Op. 673 are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.