More fuel for the advertising rule reform fire.

So, I’m getting a very wonderful opportunity to participate in a debate about lawyer advertising in November in Nashville at The Advocates’ Society annual meeting.  A throng of lovely Canadian attorneys will be traveling to our state capital for a two-day meeting.

I say all of this for two reasons:

Reason the first – today I had the chance to meet the other folks involved (albeit by telephone) to generally lay out what we might talk about.  It was a fascinating experience leaving me with the impression that just as our neighbors to the north were about 15 years behind us in allowing lawyers to advertise, they are still about 15 years behind us on the “what to do about the scourge of lawyer advertising timeline?”

In Canada, particularly Ontario, rules revisions have been recently adopted to impose more regulations on lawyer advertising with worries aimed at things like advertising second opinion services, and undignified locations or contents of advertisements including awards received, and whether lawyers can advertise for cases where they plan to then refer the matter out because they aren’t licensed in the jurisdiction or not capable of handling the matter.

Here in the United States though, the trend is hopefully now moving toward relaxing the marginalia of the restrictions and to streamlining regulations to simply, but strongly, prohibit actually false and misleading advertisements.

Reason the second — not everywhere in the United States is that necessarily the trend.  I was reminded of that fact when reading about this lawsuit filed in Utah over an application of Utah’s approach to prohibiting celebrity endorsements of a lawyer or law firm.  You can read the lawsuit filed by the firm, coincidentally doing business as “The Advocates,” here.

The short version of the story, laid out with a level of incredible politeness that would make even a Canadian law firm proud, is set out in the “Nature of the Action” paragraph of the lawsuit:

Plaintiffs advertise their legal services by way of live and sometimes pre-recorded interviews including statements of lawyers of the firm, radio personalities and others occurring and read during the course of regular programming of certain radio broadcasts, and during regular programming breaks (collectively, “Live Ads”).  Based on obiter dicta contained in an opinion issued November 12, 2014 by the Utah Bar’s Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee, the Utah Bar Office of Professional Conduct (“OPC”) has interpreted and applied Rule 7.2 of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct to proscribe Plaintiffs’ Live Ads.  With respect and gratitude for the Utah Bar and its Commissioners’ service to the members of the Bar, and with deference to their discretion, Plaintiffs courteously bring this Complaint seeking this Court’s interpretation and declaration of the parties’ rights and obligations under the First Amendment’s protection of commercial speech and other implicated constitutional protections.  Plaintiffs fully intend to abide by the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct as well as the high ethical standards they have set for themselves.  While they believe that their Live Ads at issue in this Complaint are protected speech and fall within the Rules, Plaintiffs will yield to the courts’ final decision, regardless of the outcome.

Setting aside the general silliness of being worried that modern consumers will somehow be tricked by a celebrity endorsement in a lawyer advertisement, and setting aside the additional general silliness that such a concept would extend to radio hosts/DJs reading live advertisements of lawyers and law firms, the whole genesis of Utah’s position that a celebrity endorsement is prohibited by the ethics rules is a pretty interesting example of writers of an ethics opinion losing the plot.

The lawsuit doesn’t explicitly say it, but Utah RPC 7.2 does not contain any direct prohibition on a celebrity endorsement.  The closest that rule would get to such a result is either to misread and expand subsection (b) of its rule which declares:

(b) If the advertisement uses any actors to portray a lawyer, members of the law firm, or clients or utilizes depictions of fictionalized events or scenes, the same must be disclosed.

or to conclude that subsection (f) of the rule doesn’t permit paying a celebrity as being a reasonable expense of an advertisement.

What the lawsuit does explain is that the notion that Utah Rule 7.2 prohibits a celebrity endorsement in an advertisement only comes about because a total non-sequitur was thrown into a Utah ethics opinion that was issued to address the question: “What are the ethical limits to participating in attorney rating systems, especially those that identify ‘the Best Lawyer’ or ‘Super Lawyer’?”

You can go read Utah Bar Ethics Advisory Committee Opinion 14-04 for yourself here, but it truly does bizarrely just add a last sentence in an otherwise unrelated paragraph that says “a lawyer who pays a celebrity or public figure to recommend the lawyer violates Rule 7.2.”  That foray down a rabbit trail actually drew a dissent from a member of that committee to the ethics opinion which is itself not something you see every day.

Efforts to restrict lawyer ads really do cloud the minds of otherwise reasonable and intelligent folks.

Does Avvo provide a bona fide lawyer rating?

A number of folks have already written about how New York has dealt another setback for Avvo Legal Services in the form of NY State Bar Ethics Op. 1132 which found that New York lawyers could not participate in Avvo Legal Services because payment of Avvo’s marketing fee amounts to payment for recommendation of services in violation of New York’s Rule 7.2(a).

You can read the full opinion here.  You can read some other pieces elaborating on the opinion here, here, and here.

The opinion is notable not just for its potential influence and the number of lawyers it impacts but because it is the first opinion weighing in on Avvo Legal Services that explicitly ties together the rating service that Avvo provides and has long provided with the Avvo Legal Services platform that has more recently come to pass.

In doing so, the New York opinion went ahead and analyzed the Rule 7.2(a) question assuming that Avvo’s lawyer ratings were bona fide ratings.  It made the point that, if they were not, then other issues would arise regarding lawyer participation with Avvo and lawyer touting of ratings issued by Avvo but went ahead and assumed they were bona fide.

I want to spend just a moment to tackle that assumption and offer my own opinion on the subject.  Are Avvo’s lawyer ratings bona fide?  No.  Of course they are not bona fide.  They are not bona fide because your only hope of having a high rating is to work with them and cooperate with them.

My basis for having this opinion is not solely about on my own experience.  But, an examination of my own rating with Avvo is an admittedly good place to start explaining my opinion.

I have never “claimed” my Avvo profile nor contributed any information to Avvo to assist in building the profile they have put together on their own for me.  (Interestingly, a few times after I have written posts here about problems with Avvo Legal Services I have gotten multiple, repeated calls from Avvo trying to assist me in improving/completing my profile and offering how to claim my profile.)  When you go search me up on Avvo you will see that they have afforded me a 6.7 rating out of 10.

Now, admittedly all lawyers are egotistical and none of us are truly capable of objectively evaluating are own worth, but …  You can probably say many negative things about me but I don’t think you can say I’m a 6.7 out of 10 when it comes to being a lawyer.

I’ve been listed in Best Lawyers in America every year since 2009.  In 2017, Best Lawyers listed me as its Appellate Lawyer of the Year in Memphis.  I’ve been listed as a “Super Lawyer” by Mid South Super Lawyers since 2011 and for two out of three years before that (2008 & 2010) I was listed by that publication as a “Rising Star.”  I have been AV rated by Martindale Hubbell since at least as early as 2010.  (It’s rating of me is 4.7 on a scale of 5).

All of that information is readily, publicly available and could be gathered and evaluated by Avvo without any input from me and without any need for me to confirm or claim my profile.  But I haven’t claimed my profile and, they’ve pegged me as a 6.7 out of 10.

Just to make clear that my opinion on this isn’t solely based on my own personal experience/situation.  Let me offer a few more examples that are impossible to reconcile with the concept of Avvo offering a bona fide rating system.

Christine P. Richards, the General Counsel of FedEx – she gets an even lower rating than I do, at 6.5.

Also getting a 6.5, Bill Freivogel the conflicts-guru in the ethics world behind Freivogel on Conflicts.  Barbara Gillers a fantastic lawyer with a prominent law firm in New York and who is the incoming Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility also gets the same 6.7 rating I do.

Or, how about Abbe Lowell the prominent D.C. lawyer who is now representing Jared Kushner.  He gets a 6.6.  Or, here’s a fun one, the lawyer heading up the special counsel investigation into the President, Robert Mueller?  He too is just a 6.5.

But Avvo’s own general counsel, Josh King?  Well, Avvo gives him a 10 rating.

Dan Lear, an attorney who also works for Avvo, he gets a 9.2 rating.

Oh, I can tell you one that they have gotten correct though, Roy D. Simon, who happens to be a member of the NYSBA committee that issued this most recent ethics opinion also gets a 10 rating from Avvo.

(N.B. While I have no misgivings about my level of readership or influence, on the off chance any of these ratings gets changed subsequent to this post, the ratings indicated above have been confirmed as of today’s date and print outs of the pages are on-file with yours truly.)

Practicing law like it’s espionage. NYC Bar Formal Op. 2017-5

This week the New York City Bar has put out a very important, and I think very helpful, ethics opinion to address a real, practical concern for lawyers: what, if anything, can be done to protect confidential client information when traveling and crossing the border into the U.S.?

NY City Bar Formal Op. 2017-5 lays out the issue as follows:

An attorney traveling abroad with an electronic device (such as a smartphone, portable hard drive, USB “thumb drive,” or laptop) that contains clients’ confidential information plans to travel through a U.S. customs checkpoint or border crossing. During the crossing, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) agent claiming lawful authority demands that the attorney “unlock” the
device and hand it to the agent so that it may be searched. The attorney has not obtained informed consent from each client whose information may be disclosed in this situation.

The opinion makes the point that with the change of administration such searches of travelers and their data has increased exponentially:

In recent years, searches of cell phones, laptop computers, and other electronic devices at border crossings into the U.S. have become increasingly frequent. According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 5,000 devices were searched by
CBP agents in February 2017 alone. By way of comparison, that is about as many U.S. border searches of electronic devices as were undertaken in all of 2015, and just under a quarter of the
approximately 23,877 U.S. border searches of such devices undertaken in 2016.

The entirety of the opinion is worth a read to see how it offers its guidance about things a lawyer might do at the time of demanded search to protect client confidential information, and to hear its additional important message that lawyers have an obligation under RPC 1.4 to contact all affected clients after such a search takes place.

The aspect of it that I want to focus on, however, is to expand on some of the practical advice it offers as to things a lawyer could do before going through customs at the border to lower risk of disclosure.  Particularly, this passage:

The simplest option with the lowest risk is not to carry any confidential information across the border. One method of avoiding the electronic transportation of clients’ confidences involves using a blank “burner” phone or laptop, or otherwise removing confidential information from one’s carried device by deleting confidential files using software designed to securely delete information, turning off syncing of cloud services, signing out of web-based services, and/or uninstalling applications that provide local or remote access to confidential information prior
crossing to the border.  This is not to say that attorneys traveling with electronic devices must remove all electronically stored information. Some electronic information, including many
work-related emails, may contain no confidential information protected by Rule 1.6(a). Even when emails contain confidential information, the obligation to remove these emails from the
portable device before crossing the border depends on what is reasonable. As previously discussed, this turns on the ease or inconvenience of avoiding possession of confidential
information; the need to maintain access to the particular information and its sensitivity; the risk of a border inspection; and any other relevant considerations.

Now, as to that sentence about some work-related emails may not contain confidential information protected by RPC 1.6(a), it is worth remembering that New York has a different RPC 1.6(a) than most jurisdictions as it comes closer to retaining the old “confidences and secrets” regime.  In most other jurisdictions, where RPC 1.6(a) covers any information related to representation of a client, then it is difficult to imagine any work-related email involving client matters that wouldn’t be protected as confidential under RPC 1.6(a).

And, for that reason, when I’ve had to help people try to work through this question, my advice has been consistent with what the New York City opinion is saying albeit perhaps stated more succinctly – delete the mail application from your smart phone until you get through the border.  Then reinstall it.  As long as your work email is stored on a server somewhere, then you should have no loss of data at all.

The only inconvenience caused is that for the time between deleting it and crossing through the border, you will have no access to email. Using the balancing factors compared to the risk of the violation of client confidences, this seems like a small inconvenience.  Simply deleting the mail application for a period of time also has the benefit of not placing the lawyer in the position of trying to “reason” with customs officials and argue with them over whether they need to be doing what they are doing.

As to other kinds of electronic data, the solutions are not as simple as with email.  Text messages are particularly concerning as deleting those or removing access to those from your device for even a short period of time would result in the loss of that data.  Generally speaking, the New York City opinion does a good job at explaining some of a lawyer’s options.  One option that the opinion doesn’t exactly spend a lot of time discussing is obtaining the consent of clients in advance.  One potential way of doing so could be standardizing provisions into engagement letters with clients to address this topic.

This unfortunately appears to be a topic that will only become more difficult to deal with for lawyers who travel frequently.  As an example, within the last month there have been stories in the media that Homeland Security is contemplating requiring all reading material be removed from carry on and put in bins for the purpose of potential review by TSA agents.  Travel is already a stressful endeavor, but as a lawyer if that were to come to pass there would be almost no way to take anything on a flight to have or review without running a real risk of loss of client confidentiality.

New Jersey weighs in as well, reminding us the difference between “is” and “ought.”

My last two posts have focused on the pretty wide-ranging and very thought-provoking work (and work product) of the Oregon State Bar Futures Task Force.  I do plan to return to the topics because there is more in that report worth discussion, but we are taking a break from that with this post.

Let’s move from the West Coast to the East Coast and talk today about a joint opinion issued in New Jersey last week because it offers something of a juxtaposition for discussion of the future of legal ethics.

On June 21, 2017, three committees of the Supreme Court of New Jersey – the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, the Committee on Attorney Advertising, and the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law — issued a Joint Opinion announcing that lawyers in New Jersey can’t get involved with Avvo Legal Services, Rocket Lawyer, or LegalZoom.  In fact, you don’t actually have to read much further than the title of the Joint Opinion to get the gist of it as it is entitled:

Lawyers Participating in Impermissible Lawyer Referral Services and Providing Legal Services for Unregistered Legal Service Plans — Avvo, LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, and Similar Companies

As indicated, the opinion explains that there are two problems: one that plagues Avvo Legal Services under their analysis, and another that plagues LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer.  The message New Jersey is sending reads as one that as starkly different from Oregon’s message.

But, and here’s what makes all of this both complicated, fascinating to discuss, and extremely important:  the analysis New Jersey offers is not wrong.

As to lawyer participation in services like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, which offer something that New Jersey refers to as a legal services plan — and the choice to see them that way and call them that is an important one — the problem for New Jersey lawyers is described in a way that appears much less pervasive than as to other companies operating in the space – that these companies simply are not properly registered in New Jersey.  I’ve written in the past about the barrier that Tennessee’s special RPC 7.6 can create for attorney participation in programs if they can be considered an intermediary organization.  New Jersey has a particular registration requirement for companies that provide “legal service plans.”  That rule is RPC 7.3(e)(4).

The opinion walks through each of the requirements ending with the registration requirement that appears in RPC 7.3(e)(4)(vii).  The opinion indicates that, regardless of anything else, neither of those companies have registered their plans and, thus, lawyers cannot participate.  The implication is that the only obstacle standing between New Jersey lawyers and signing up for plans offered by Rocket Lawyer or LegalZoom is proper registration.  The opinion doesn’t pull back the curtain to make plain for the reader whether there is any institutional barrier that makes it impossible for Rocket Lawyer or LegalZoom to choose to register.  But, the joint opinion certainly appears to strongly imply that lack of registration is the only problem.

As to participation with Avvo Legal Services, the New Jersey joint opinion has serious problems to point out – problems that would require a change in business model altogether to be solved.  The problems voiced by the New Jersey joint opinion are ones that have been expressed before in a number of other states and, in fact, the New Jersey opinion unsurprisingly explicitly cites to those other ethics opinions from Ohio, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.  Avvo’s marketing fee requires a lawyer to improperly share fees with a nonlawyer in violation of New Jersey Rule 5.4.  The opinion, in a way that when truly contemplated seems like piling on, also goes after the same payment as being the payment of impermissible referral fees in violation of New Jersey’s Rules 7.2(c) and 7.3(d).

Back in February 2016, I wrote a lengthy post that was a barely-veiled critique of the arguments Avvo kept making in terms of their efforts to defend their business model over how they were trying to blur the distinction between what is, and what ought to be, when it comes to whether participating lawyers were complying with the ethics rules.

The difference between the message being sent in New Jersey and developments in Oregon may be just as simply summed up though.

Perhaps, the gap between the two approaches is only as big as the difference between what is and what ought to be.

Coming to praise rather than bury – Colorado Formal Op. 129

It is almost three months old now, but I wanted to right a word or two about a really well-constructed ethics opinion issued in Colorado, not just because it is an opinion that deserves to be read, but also because it raises a not-quite-academic question about the phenomenon of captive law firms.

The opinion put out by the Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee, Colorado Bar Formal Op. 129, is titled “Ethical Duties of Lawyer Paid by One Other Than the Client.”

Because questions of insurance defense representation raising similar issues were previously addressed by the Committee in Formal Opinion 91, this new opinion focuses on “ethical questions that can arise in third-party payer situations that do not involve insurance as a source of payment.”  (My not-quite-academic question is importantly a variation on that theme and the different approach often allowed for the tripartite relationship….)

The opinion helpfully catalogs quite a few such scenarios, like

  • friend or family paying for someone’s defense against criminal charges
  • parents paying for representation of children
  • corporations paying for attorney fees of an employee or officer
  • contractual indemnitor paying legal fees of an indemnitee

Those last two are ones, I suspect, that lawyers don’t think about as often in terms of making sure they know what is necessary for compliance with all of the pertinent ethics rules in their jurisdictions, which if the jurisdiction tracks the approaches under the ABA Model Rules as Colorado mostly does are RPCs 1.0(e), RPC 1.6, 1.7, 1.8(f), and 5.4(c).

The opinion does a good job at addressing in detail the various ethical questions, particularly on the dynamics that can arise where, for example, the person that will be paying the freight for the representation also happens to be a client of the attorney in some other matter and how compliance with just RPC 1.8(f) and 5.4(c) alone may not be enough because of the conflict issues raised by RPC 1.7.

The opinion merits a full read, but, if you only have 1 or 2 minutes to spare, then the best part is — II.  Practical Considerations – Discussions with the Third-Party Payer — which provides insightful, detailed, and potentially uncomfortable guidance about what really ought to happen in terms of communicating to the person who will be holding the checkbook who the client actually is and to whom the lawyer’s professional duties are owed, the limitations on the rights of the person making the payments, and the consequences of non-payment.

All of this then leads to my promised question, if these same principles are the ones that would have to be adhered to by a lawyer who represents insurance policyholders for an insurance company through a model in which the lawyer’s firm is a “captive” firm of that company, would there be any realistic way to comply?  Wouldn’t the process of obtaining the informed consent of that client always require having to make crystal-clear the significant financial interest that the lawyer has in keeping his/her only source of business happy?

I say that my question along these lines is not-quite-academic, because it is actually answered in Colorado by that earlier opinion, Formal Opinion 91 which was issued in 1993 but was updated with an addendum in 2013.  For readers in Colorado, I’m pretty sure the answer is that a lot of disclosure would have to be made, but that acquiring informed consent is feasible.

But, for readers not in Colorado, there may or may not be guidance quite as clear on the question.

Two short updates for a Tuesday

Late last month, I focused a post on a West Virginia lawyer who ended up staring down a 2-year suspension over chronic over-billing.  If you missed that post, you can read it here.  If you read it, you will recall that one of the items discussed was that the Executive Director of the West Virginia Public Defender Services agency had indicated that particular lawyer was not even among the worst offenders.

The ABA Journal online has a piece up that is apparently about one such even worse offender who has skipped out on bail regarding the criminal charges he is facing over his rampant over-billing (including billing more than 24 hours on 17 different days) and is suspected to be a fugitive in a much more temperate part of the world than West Virginia.

Over a larger time period and with a bit more frequency, I’ve written a little bit about the ABA Ethics 20/20 revisions to the Model Rules — admittedly through the lens that those revisions were being considered and then adopted here in my home state of Tennessee.  If you’ve been looking for a really good window into what the technology-focused aspects of the Ethics 20/20 revisions mean for your law practice, you are in luck because the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has now put out Formal Ethics Op. 477 which pretty much provides exactly that.

It is a good opinion – it’s getting a lot of attention in the legal media for establishing new standards but that’s not quite right.  It doesn’t really establish anything new but it does do a really good job of focusing lawyers’ attention upon the logical repercussions of the Ethics 20/20 revisions and the risks that lawyers need to be acutely aware of when communicating with clients.

It is also worth noting — particularly given the last few days of ransom ware news (and one other high-profile instance of information that was promised to be kept secret being disseminated under questionable circumstances) that user error continues to be a leading cause of unintended disclosure of (or complete loss of access to) confidential information whether technology is involved or not.

It should go without saying that there is only so much a lawyer can do to try to guard against those kinds of risks.

Wisconsin rightly says no to name dropping without consent.

Earlier this week I criticized what I consider to be a pretty bad ethics opinion that was issued by Rhode Island.  To balance things out a bit, I want to write about an ethics opinion out of Wisconsin that gives the correct answer to its query – Wisconsin Formal Ethics Opinion EF-17-02.  That opinion correctly explains that because of the broad swath of confidentiality created by Rule 1.6, even the names of clients qualify as confidential information and, therefore, a lawyer can only disclose the name of a client if in advertisements or materials circulated for marketing or any other personal purpose if the client has given informed consent to the disclosure or some other exception within Rule 1.6 applies.

In issuing this opinion, Wisconsin had to withdraw an older opinion that provided guidance that the names of clients were not confidential information, Wisconsin Ethics Op. E-93-5.

Lots of lawyers (not just in Wisconsin) do not immediately grasp that this is the correct result — that the identity of a lawyer’s clients is itself confidential information.  A lot of times they don’t do so because doing so requires recognizing that there are a lot of things lawyers do that they really shouldn’t without getting their clients approval.   The Wisconsin opinion uses the example of talking about the fact of a representation as a cocktail party as an example, but there are less obvious ways this issue crops up.  Lawyers often don’t think twice about providing information about the details of their prior representations as part of responding to requests for proposals from insurance carriers as part of trying to become approved as panel counsel, for example.  Some lawyers will rationalize their approach on the basis that they are only disclosing information that can already be found in public records, but the Wisconsin opinion rightly makes the point that Rule 1.6 doesn’t remove the obligation of confidentiality for the lawyer merely because the information is available in a public record.

I’ve often attempted to explain the policy choice that Rule 1.6 enshrines for lawyers along these lines.  Imagine you are a family law attorney.  Now in order to file a divorce complaint for a particular client you are going to have to disclose in the filing a lot of details about your client’s life that they really hope no one finds out about.  Members of the public certainly could go down to the courthouse or go online if the court has electronic records and read all of the sordid details, but the client definitely hopes people don’t.  The ethics rules stake out a position – at least jurisdictions that have the ABA Model Rule version of Rule 1.6 do — that even though the lawyer has to put those things in the public complaint, lawyers are going to be charged with not talking about those things without the client’s consent to do so.  I then often ask lawyers to think about how a conversation would go if you called your client and asked them for permission to offer up the interesting anecdote about their situation.

The ramification of that policy choice ends up being that the rule errs on the side of confidential treatment even for things that many clients might not even expect could be confidential and that’s the reason, for example, that firms who circulate materials about representative clients, whether on their website or elsewhere, need to get client permission to do so.

While Wisconsin’s opinion is praiseworthy on its substance, Wisconsin should still get criticized for its insistence on shielding its formal ethics opinions from the public and providing access to them only for members of the Wisconsin Bar.  That’s a silly and outdated approach.

As a Tennessee lawyer, I only know about what the new Wisconsin opinion says because the fine folks at ABA/BNA reported on it.  Presumably, as they always do, they did a good job and, thus, if you go read their article here then you, like me, can know what Wisconsin had to say in construing its ABA Model Rule-based ethics rule on confidentiality.

Coming full circle, while I can’t stand the substantive outcome offered up by that Rhode Island opinion discussed earlier this week, at least Rhode Island allows for public access to the ethics opinions it issues.  For as long as there continue to be jurisdictions like Wisconsin that shield theirs from view, then offering public access will continue to deserve praise in Rhode Island and elsewhere.

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

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

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

The short version of the question it tackles is:

ISSUE PRESENTED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2) the representation is not prohibited by law;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohio Opinion 2017-1: Too much and too little at the same time

An opinion worthy of discussion was issued in Ohio back in February 2017  but I didn’t stumble across it until this past week.  (A tweet by ALAS got it onto my radar screen.)

Advisory Opinion 2017-1 from the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct addresses advertisement of contingent fee arrangements and, in particular, it addresses the following question:

Whether it is proper for a lawyer who advertises to use statements such as “No fee without recovery” or “You pay no fee unless you win” or “There’s no charge unless we win your case” or “You pay us only when we win.”

The opinion focuses only on the distinction in a contingent fee arrangement between fees and repayment of advanced expenses and, as a result, offers the same answer to all of the examples – no.  Now even on the opinions own terms – focusing only on the distinction between expenses and fees, I disagree that all of those should get a “no” answer, but I also think that the Ohio opinion missed an opportunity to evaluate an even more significant question about these kind of statements that has always hit me as potentially problematic.

First, as the opinion explains all of these statements must be run through the filter of RPC 7.1 and a determination has to be made about whether they are false or misleading.  The Ohio opinion concludes that all of the variations of statements tackled are “inherently false or misleading” because they “omit reference to the client’s responsibility for expenses and costs” and thereby “impl[y] that the client will not be required to pay litigation costs, regardless of the outcome of the litigation..”

On one level, I think that goes too far in terms of a harsh result for the two of the four examined statements that plainly speak in terms of “fees.”  To say that those are inherently misleading is a conclusion with which I just disagree.

On another level though, I think this opinion doesn’t go far enough because it fails to address a more legitimate question of how such advertisements can be misleading.

In my opinion, three of the four statements have a problem but it is because of the use of “win” as the conditional event triggering payment of fees.  A client who pursues a contingent fee case and has a serious injury but ends up settling their case for a small amount, let’s pick $30,000 as a random amount, might very well not consider their lawyer to have “won” their case.  For me, the statement that ought to be the exemplar for use is the first one “No fee without recovery.”  And the second one ought to be acceptable if it were to say “You pay no fee unless we recover for you.”  Maybe each of those statements would be even better if “attorney” came before “fee” but I think that’s the path where a consumer is more likely to feel misled or deceived by such an advertisement rather than on the basis that there is an implication about expenses if a lawyer only speaks in the advertisement in terms of fees.

A weird-ish ethics opinion out of New York.

I have written a few times about the ABA’s adoption of a new Model Rule 8.4(g).  One point that was brought up in the run-up to that rule actually finally being adopted was that some more than 20 jurisdictions already had an anti-discrimination rule in place in the black letter of their rules in one form or another.

One of those jurisdictions is New York, and the New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics issued an ethics opinion back in January of this year that says it addresses an interpretation of NY’s Rule 8.4(g) and whether it prohibits a lawyer from refusing to accept a representation because of a lawyer’s own religious affiliation.

Specifically, the scenario addressed in NYSBA Ethics Opinion 1111 is this:

A lawyer has been requested to represent a person desiring to bring a childhood sex abuse claim against a religious institution.  The lawyer is of the same religion as the institution against which the claim is to be made.  Because of this religious affiliation, the lawyer is unwilling to represent the claimant against the institution.

The opinion, ultimately, doesn’t really answer the question of whether refusal to accept under those facts would be illegal discrimination.  Instead, the opinion first provides reassurance (at least of the rhetorical variety) that lawyers do not have any ethical obligation to accept every request for representation that they receive.  Then, though, it mostly punts on how to reconcile that fact with the fact that lawyers cannot engage in conduct that would violate a federal, state, or local anti-discrimination statute.  The opinion references New York case law which addresses certain kinds of professional services as being “place[s] of public accommodation” and directly admits that New York’s 8.4(g) contains language acknowledging that law could limit a lawyer’s ability to freely choose to decline a representation, but, despite the fact that the very rule itself that New York chose to adopt requires for its enforcement a conclusion about “unlawful discrimination,” just punts on whether the facts trigger such a conclusion.

At some level I get why the opinion goes that route as typically bodies providing ethics opinion have refrained from ruling on questions of law as being outside the scope of the rules.  But it does seem to me like once you adopt a rule that envelops the need for such a legal determination into the enforcement of the rule, you lose some of the ability to credibly punt on such an issue.

For context, here is the language of the rule New York has in place providing that a lawyer shall not:

(g) unlawfully discriminate in the practice of law, including in hiring, promoting or otherwise determining conditions of employment on the basis of age, race, creed, color, national origin, sex, disability, marital status or sexual orientation. Where there is a tribunal with jurisdiction to hear a complaint, if timely brought, other than a Departmental Disciplinary Committee, a complaint based on unlawful discrimination shall be brought before such tribunal in the first instance. A certified copy of a determination by such a tribunal, which has become final and enforceable and as to which the right to judicial or appellate review has been exhausted, finding that the lawyer has engaged in an unlawful discriminatory practice shall constitute prima facie evidence of professional misconduct in a disciplinary proceeding….

For what it is worth, you would think that the body issuing the opinion could — at least on this particular inquiry – have been able to comfortably say that since the facts presented did not even involve a lawyer turning down a potential client because of the potential client’s religious affiliation that it would be safe to say that it is highly, highly unlikely that a credible case of unlawful discrimination could be made out against the lawyer.

One thing that this opinion does help sharpen in terms of a salient point is that ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) appears to be a better drafted approach to this issue given its explicit terms protecting decisions on whether to take on the representation of a client.  Unlike the New York version of the rule, the ABA Model — in addition to not having all the language about the need for a ruling by a tribunal to be a condition precedent in certain instances — includes this sentence in the black-letter of the rule:  “This paragraph does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16.”

Jurisdictions adopting a version of Rule 8.4(g) with that kind of language would appear to be much better positioned to actually address questions like the one raised in the New York opinion by providing the lawyer with assurance about the ability to simply choose not to take on the representation of a client where doing so would require them to sue their own church.