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.”

Really good guidance, but not good enough for some.

While I’m catching up on things I should have managed to write about sooner, ABA Formal Ethics Op. 488 is deserving of a few words. That opinion was issued back in early September of this year. What particularly brought it to mind now was that it covers one of multiple topics I was lucky enough to get to talk about last weekend at that PilotLegis member meeting I mentioned in a post last week.

Opinion 488 is a very well written opinion covering the landscape of what the consequences for judges should be in situations where they have some sort of relationship with lawyers or parties appearing before them. The opinion addresses this question with an eye toward what folks online refer to as IRL situations.

It divides the world for judges into three categories of relationships: (1) acquaintances; (2) friendships; and (3) close personal relationships. Having done so, it proceeds on a pretty straightforward basis to explain that if a judge and a lawyer, or a judge and a litigant, are just acquaintances, then the judge has no obligation to even make disclosure of that fact and certainly no obligation to decide to recuse themselves because they are disqualified from presiding. The opinion offers a fairly succinct proffered definition of what it means by the term “acquaintances” — “A judge and lawyer should be considered acquaintances when their interactions outside of court are coincidental or relatively superficial, such as being members of the same place of worship, professional or civic organization, or the like.” The opinion also makes clear that a judge and a litigant should be considered acquaintances under the same kinds of circumstances as judges and lawyers. As to the third category, “close personal relationships” the opinion explains that those require disqualification outright only if the relationship is a romantic one or what I’m going to call “unilaterally, aspirationally romantic.” Where the judge wants to have a romantic relationship with the person. As for the rest of the world of friendships and other close personal but non-amorous relationships, the opinion candidly admits that they are all pretty much fact specific as to whether disqualification is required or merely a disclosure on the record is what is required accompanied by an explanation of the grounds for why the judge believes they can still preside is appropriate instead.

I can manage to have some real fun criticizing ethics opinions from time-to-time so I can’t really begrudge others when they do. But this is one that I think gets things correct.

Two other prominent legal ethics experts, Karen Rubin and Alberto Bernabe, criticized this opinion in slightly different ways. Karen expresses disappointment that is does not do enough to provide what she called “needed” guidance about the impact of judges’ use of social media and connections with lawyers and litigants on questions of disqualification. Professor Bernabe mentioned that omission but was a bit more critical of the nature of the opinion as being an “it depends” and is largely “up to the judge” in the first instance.

I disagree on Professor Bernabe’s point because I think that is the very nature of the beast. And, I appreciate the opinion being candid about the exercise. I disagree with Karen Rubin for what might be two reasons, but might really just be one overall reason.

First, treating social media as something so important or different as to be deserving of its own space and separate treatment (I think) misses the larger point. A social media connection simply is just one piece of the overall puzzle of determining whether or not the judge and the person have an actual relationship that is a friendship or something less. Second, the opinion does address the topic – and does so in a way that is entirely consistent with my first point. It does this in footnote 11:

Social media, which is simply a form of communication, uses terminology that is distinct from that used in this opinion. Interaction on social media does not itself indicate the type of relationships participants have with one another either generally or for purposes of this opinion. For example, Facebook uses the term “friend,” but that is simply a title employed in that context. A judge could have Facebook “friends” or other social media contacts who are acquaintances, friends, or in some sort of close personal relationship with the judge. The proper characterization of a person’s relationship with a judge depends on the definitions and examples used in this opinion.

By simply acknowledging that it matters, but that it is no more dispositive of the relevant question than any other piece of the puzzle, I think that Opinion 488 handles it exactly the correct way. Stated another way, given the widely varying state opinions that Karen addressed in her much more timely post about this, I think the guidance needed from the ABA on the social media front was pretty much exactly what was in the footnote and nothing more. If that guidance is heeded, then perhaps state entities can start to “chill out” a bit about the trees and focus on the forest.

Why can’t we (both) be friends (of the Court)?

So within the last few days the New York State Bar Association has issued an interesting new ethics opinion addressing a variation of an issue that is straightforward nearly everywhere.

Lawyers tend to know that conflicts questions can often be complicated but that there is at least one that is pretty straightforward: different lawyers in the same law firm cannot represent different clients who are on opposite sides of the “v” in the same lawsuit.

Can’t do it; can’t ask a client for consent; just a non-starter. (In Texas, your mileage may vary. But, otherwise pretty universal across the nation.)  NYSBA Ethics Op. 1174 evaluates a somewhat esoteric question that revolves around whether participation in litigation as counsel for an amicus curiae works the same way. Namely, whether amici on opposite sides of the same litigation matter can be represented by lawyers in the same firm.

I think that the NYSBA has gotten the answer on this correct though I’m not as certain about whether the escape valve they offered the inquiring firm is entirely correct. To get to bottom of both of those points, it strikes me as easiest to first analyze something that the NYSBA did not discuss because it should ease folks into the correct answer (if you aren’t there already).

If you were representing the plaintiff in a case, could another lawyer in your firm take on the representation of an amicus curiae seeking to persuade the Court to rule in favor of the defendant’s position in that case?  I think we’d all agree that the answer to that would be “no.” Maybe we’d argue over whether that was because that second matter would be “directly adverse” to the plaintiff client or whether it would just be a “material limitation” conflict. (FWIW, seems pretty directly adverse to my eyes.)

So, concluding that two different amici on opposite sides of the same litigation matter is a conflict seems like an entirely appropriate conclusion. It also seems fair to conclude, given the traditional language used in rules like Model Rule 1.7 (as does New York’s RPC 1.7(b)(3)) that it amounts to representing clients on both sides of the same litigation and, therefore, cannot be undertaken even with client consent. Those were the conclusions reached in Opinion 1174.

Because of the nature of the scenario that was presented to it, the NYSBA went a bit further to put together something of a “but you could do this” sweetener. The inquiring firm had surveyed its associates about interest in taking on an amicus matter on a pro bono basis and gotten mixed feedback because there were some folks who believed in the correctness of the opposite sides of the issue. The NYSBA indicated that lawyers in the same firm could appear for amici on opposite sides — if the lawyers were not representing a client but were acting pro se.

While that presents a potentially messy practical question for the firm, it seems like the correct result under the ethics rules if each side’s involvement is pro se. What is not clear to me is whether the NYSBA is intended to also address whether a firm lawyer could file a pro se amicus brief to take the adverse position to another amicus who is actually a client being represented by the law firm.

Certainly seems to me like some kind of additional conflict analysis would be required to evaluate that question because of the potential that the personal interest of one more lawyers that the firm could create a significant risk of materially limiting the firm’s ability to represent its client.
The opinion also does not address a much harder issue to both evaluate and to even “catch” in the first place … representing amici in different litigation matters who are on opposite sides of the same issue and advocating for outcomes that are markedly different on the same legal issue.

If a firm is fortunate enough to have built a conflicts system that would allow them to catch it, or if they otherwise figure it out ahead of time, that issue is one that should be run through the ringer as a “positional” or “issue” conflict and likely will turn on the relationship of the courts involved and whether one of the courts would be binding on the other when it decided the issue. At the very least, unlike the “same litigation” matter scenarios, that kind of conflict might be subject to waiver by the affected clients.

TN Supreme Court Vacates Formal Ethics Opinion.

I wrote a little bit about Formal Ethics Opinion 2017-F-163 a couple of years ago when it was first issued. I haven’t said anything here about it since then because I ended up being retained by the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference to challenge the opinion.

Having obtained permission from my client to do so, I’m posting a copy for you of today’s Tennessee Supreme Court opinion vacating Formal Ethics Opinion 2017-F-163.

As the conclusion portion of the opinion sums up, the ruling not only vacates the FEO but weighs in on what RPC 3.8(d) means in Tennessee:

For the reasons stated above, we vacate the Board’s Formal Ethics Opinion 2017-F-163. We also hold that, except as provided otherwise in this opinion, the ethical obligations under Rule 3.8(d) of Tennessee’s Rules of Professional Conduct are coextensive in scope with the obligations of a prosecutor as provided by applicable statute, rules of criminal procedure, our state and federal constitutions, and case law.

You can download a copy of the opinion using the button below.