Lateral moves can be hard. One type in particular is harder than the rest.

In 2017, a lawyer moving from one law firm to another is a pretty common place occurrence.  Anyone who has been through the process knows how personally difficult and stressful the ordeal can be no matter how excited you are about your next destination.  The emotional and personal components alone can be trying, but the pressures imposed by the ethics rules are often overlooked … even though they shouldn’t be.

One area where the requirements of the ethics rules can make a potential lateral move nearly impossible is if a lawyer is looking to join a firm that is on the other side of an ongoing legal matter.  A well-done, quite succinct ethics opinion out of North Carolina issued near the end of January 2017 explains what the ethics rules actually require in order for such a move to be possible.   (And, important note to add, we’re only talking about if the lawyer looking to lateral is looking at moving from one private practice position to another private practice position.  Moves into and out of government employment are different and governed by different rules.) North Carolina Formal Ethics Op. 2016-3, titled “Negotiating Private Employment With Opposing Counsel,” lays out the sticking point that make this kind of lateral move more difficult than others — there comes a point in time when any such discussions have become serious enough — even though there is not yet any done deal — that both sets of clients have to give their informed consent for the negotiations/discussions to continue.

The ethics risk that mandates this result is the “material limitation” conflict that arises from the personal interests of the lawyers involved requiring consent under Rule 1.7(a)(2).  In laying this out, the North Carolina opinion echoes sentiments previously expressed in (1) an ABA Formal Opinion from 1996, (2) The Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers, and (3) a Kentucky ethics opinion issued in 1998.

The North Carolina opinion also provides a similar description as did those other authorities of the moment in time that matters in terms of triggering the need to obtain the client’s consent: when the discussions become “substantive.”  The opinion also describes, in practical terms, what is necessary for each side of the potential lateral discussion to seek out and obtain consent from its respective client:

To obtain the client’s informed consent, the job-seeking lawyer must explain to the client the current posture of the case, including what, if any, additional legal work is required, and whether another firm lawyer is available to take over the representation should the lawyer seek to withdraw.  If the client declines to consent, the job-seeking lawyer must either cease the employment negotiations until the client’s matter is resolved or withdraw from the representation but only if the withdrawal can be accomplished without material adverse effect on the interests of the client.  Rule 1.16(b)(1).  Because personal conflicts of interests are not imputed to other lawyers in the firm, another lawyer in the firm may continue to represent the client.  Rule 1.10(a).

Similarly, the hiring law firm must not engage in substantive employment negotiations with opposing counsel unless its own client consents.  If the client does not consent, the firm must cease the employment negotiations or withdraw from the representation.  The firm may only withdraw if the withdrawal can be accomplished without material adverse effect on the interests of the client.  Rule 1.16(b)(1).

Most lawyers like to think of themselves as being risk averse as a general matter.  Interestingly enough, when the depths of the details are fully mined, the notion of doing what the North Carolina opinion indicates is required might seem riskier than not saying anything at all.  The situation gets more difficult for some lawyers to work through because it can be viewed as something of a modified prisoner’s dilemma situation — each side of the potential employment discussion may be making its own independent decisions about whether the situation has escalated to a point of seriousness where client notification and consent is required, and each side has its own thoughts about what is the right answer for each side (stop talking or withdraw) if the affected clients won’t consent.  While the two parties to the discussions might seemingly be in harmony about the potential move otherwise, they may very well have starkly different views in terms of balancing how important they value the business of the affected client versus the business that could be gained from the lateral move.

As a result, I have long suspected that most such moves that actually come to fruition are the products of one side or the other not strictly complying with their ethical requirements.  No, that is probably too cynical a thing to say and certainly a bit of an exaggeration of my view.

Some percentage of the moves that actually work out are the product of something less than strict compliance.  Probably not the majority, however.

The majority of them likely either involved matters for clients who are so incredibly important to the economics of the deal that there is a need to know sooner rather than later whether the impacted clients will consent or matters for clients who are of such little economic significance that all of the lawyers involved would be happy to jettison their matter if consent is not forthcoming.

An even more important factor in play that likely can be dispositive about whether such a move can be made is whether the jurisdiction involved permits the use of nonconsensual screening to avoid imputation of a disqualifying conflict.  No mention is made of this topic in the North Carolina opinion because North Carolina does not have any language in its version of Rule 1.10 to permit such screening.

In Tennessee, scenarios involving lawyers who aren’t litigators are potentially much more viable lateral moves because of our weirdish rule that treats “side switching” situations in litigation differently than in other contexts.  In Tennessee, whether a nonconsensual ethics wall can be erected to avoid disqualification from a lateral move can have a different answer depending on whether the matter is a litigation matter or not.

Our RPC 1.10 reads in relevant part:

(c) Except with respect to paragraph (d) below, if a lawyer is personally disqualified from representing a person with interests adverse to a client of a law firm with which the lawyer was formerly associated, other lawyers currently associated in a firm with the personally disqualified lawyer may represent the person, notwithstanding paragraph (a) above, if both the personally disqualified lawyer and the lawyers who will represent the person on behalf of the firm act reasonably to:

(1) identify that the personally disqualified lawyer is prohibited from participating in the representation of the current client; and

(2) determine that no lawyer representing the current client has acquired any information from the personally disqualified lawyer that is material to the current matter and is protected by RPC 1.9(c);

(3) promptly implement screening procedures to effectively prevent the flow of information about the matter between the personally disqualified lawyer and the other lawyers in the firm; and

(4) advise the former client in writing of the circumstances that warranted the implementation of the screening procedures required by this Rule and of the actions that have been taken to comply with this Rule.

(d) The procedures set forth in paragraph (c) may not be used to avoid imputed disqualification of the firm, if:

(1) the disqualified lawyer was substantially involved in the representation of a former client; and

(2) the lawyer’s representation of the former client was in connection with an adjudicative proceeding that is directly adverse to the interests of a current client of the firm; and

(3) the proceeding between the firm’s current client and the lawyer’s former client is still pending at the time the lawyer changes firms.

Thus, a Tennessee lawyer could make a move from one side of the table to the other in the middle of a $50 million real estate deal but could not make the same move if it involved moving from one side of the “v” to the other in a $10,000 automobile accident lawsuit.

Bad ethics opinion or the worst ethics opinion? New York State Bar Ethics Opinion 1110 edition

Again, not fair actually.  This NY ethics opinion isn’t in the running for being the worst ethics opinion and isn’t even truly bad and actually, I guess, not even wrong.  But it does point out a really bad flaw with respect to the language of the particular NY rule it applies.

What seems like an exceedingly long time ago now, I was first inspired to title a post with this “Bad or Worst” title.  I did so when I wrote about what I thought truly was a woeful ethics opinion — and one that I cannot believe anyone even asked about in the first place — in which the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct imposed some ridiculous limitations on the ability of a lawyer to communicate with attendees at a seminar or continuing legal education presentation.

The subject matter of NY State Bar Ethics Opinion 1110 is similar – whether New York’s ethics rules on advertising, and derivatively solicitation, apply to a situation in which an attorney wishes to invite people to come to a seminar that he would put on regarding intellectual property issues.  As the opinion explains:

The inquirer, an intellectual property lawyer practicing in New York, plans to conduct online webinars and live seminars on topics within his principal fields of practice for persons who may have a business interest in those topics and a need for legal services.  Inquirer contemplates identifying persons fitting that description by use of commercially available business listings, including such listings on government agency web sites, such as business entity lists.  Admission to the webinars and seminars may be free or may be for a fee.

The opinion then lists a litany of questions it has to resolve to determine whether this can be done, but the core question is whether the seminars would be advertisements and, if so, whether they would be solicitations.  Now the opinion goes on at some length about ways that the lawyer could limit what is said or done at any such presentation so that it would not even qualify as an advertisement, but, eventually, it does the practical thing and assumes that the lawyer would likely during the seminar say things that would amount to talking about his “skills or reputation” sufficient to make the seminar an advertisement.

Assuming it is an advertisement, the opinion then also quickly gets to the conclusion that the seminar would be a solicitation — and that it would be an in-person solicitation, and, thus, the attendees would have to be limited to “close friends, relatives, former client(s), or existing client(s).”

This is the moment where, inside my head, there is the sound of screaming.

It is one thing to have an ethics rule that imposes strict prohibitions on in-person solicitations.  That’s fine.  It is also fine to have an ethics rule that requires, as to written solicitations, certain requirements about those.  I often disagree with the details of what states require as to disclaimers or font sizes, but I can be swayed not to get up in arms about the requirements.  It is another thing to have a rule that creates such a strict definition of solicitation to justify writing an ethics opinion that would say that someone who accepts an invitation to attend a seminar is being subjected to a solicitation at the seminar they could have just chosen not to attend.

The closest that New York’s RPC 7.3(b) gets to carving out communications that are initiated by a person who isn’t a lawyer from being a solicitation is the language that states that solicitation . . . “does not include a proposal or other writing prepared and delivered in response to a specific request of a prospective client.”

But the inanity of the outcome articulated by this ethics opinion is pretty epically demonstrated by analogy to an actual written solicitation letter to a targeted potential client.  Assume that a lawyer sends one of those, and complies with all the bells and whistles in such a written communication as to what the envelope cannot say, the font size, the disclaimers at the beginning, and mandatory language, but the recipient then decides — “hey, I’m interested in hearing what a lawyer could do for me” and proceeds to go to the lawyer’s office to ask for a meeting.  Everything that happens then is.not.a.solicitation.

The rules regarding in-person solicitation seek to protect potential consumers of legal services from overreaching by lawyers.  That is the espoused rationale.  I often, with tongue-in-cheek, will explain at seminars that such rules exist because when we graduate law school we have been imbued with superpowers as to persuasion that allow us to convince mere mortals to do things that they otherwise would never do but for our incredible superpowers.  (I can often then use the exception to the rules against solicitation for lawyer-on-lawyer solicitation to explain that since both sides have equal superpowers there is no need for the protection.)

But, in the conceptual situation evaluated by this formal ethics opinion, if the recipient of the invitation to the seminar doesn’t want to be in a room where a lawyer is speaking about the area of law in which they practice, they.can.just.not.go.to.where.the.seminar.is.happening.

What is missing from the text of New York’s rule to prevent this sort of result is the language that we have here in Tennessee in RPC 7.3(a)(3) indicating that an in-person or real-time solicitation of professional employment from a potential client is not prohibited if “the person contacted . . . has initiated a contact with the lawyer.”

Arkansas and Wisconsin weigh in on client files in different ways and on different sides.

The need for clarity with respect to what makes up the “client file” has been an issue I have tried to stay up to date on dating back to our unsuccessful efforts back in 2009 to convince the Tennessee Supreme Court to adopt a rule – what would have been RPC 1.19 — to address the issues.  As I’ve explained before, our unsuccessful RPC 1.19 was patterned largely after North Dakota’s Rule 1.19.  There is no ABA Model Rule addressing client files and, as recently as last year, the ABA’s guidance as to client files still leaves many questions open so states navigate these waters pretty much on their own using only the language about lawyers’ obligations to “surrender papers and property of the client” in their versions of Model Rule 1.16.

As you may recall from a couple of posts I wrote last year, some seven years later we’ve obtained some real clarity in Tennessee on a few fronts as to client files through two Formal Ethics Opinions issued by our Board of Professional Responsibility.  Particularly, we now have clear guidance that we are an “entire file” jurisdiction rather than an “end product” jurisdiction regarding what are the contents of the client file.

Late last year, Arkansas adopted its own RPC 1.19 addressing client file issues but although they went with an approach that adopts a black letter rule to address the matter, they’ve gone in the opposite direction from us as Arkansas RPC 1.19 opts for an “end product” approach.  Technically, Arkansas has been an “end product” jurisdiction for more than seven years dating back to a 2009 opinion of the Arkansas Supreme Court – Travis v. Committee on Professional Conduct.  You can read the Arkansas Supreme Court order with the full text of RPC 1.19 and its comments here.

The architecture of this new Arkansas rule tackles client file questions in two parts.

RPC 1.19(a) defines what makes up the contents of the client file both positively [(a)(1) identifies items that are in] and negatively [(a)(2) identifies items that are excluded] .  The most important exceptions being “the lawyer’s work product,” “internal memoranda,” and “legal research” materials.  It appears though that (a)(2)(E) serves to override any attempt to view (a)(1) as a comprehensive identification of what is included as that subpart explains that anything that isn’t listed as excluded in (a)(2)(A-D) are things that “shall be considered to be part of the client file to which the client is entitled.”  RPC 1.19(a) also addresses the need to honor requests by the client for delivery of file and when a lawyer may charge costs of copying or retain a copy for their own purposes.  Smartly, the rule also expressly clarifies that a lawyer and client can address all of those issues regarding copy costs and delivery costs in a fashion they prefer by contract as part of the engagement agreement.

RPC 1.19(b) addresses the length of the obligation to retain client file records and under what circumstances a lawyer can destroy client files in his possession.  Five years is the default length of time chosen for retention in Arkansas, and any time after that the lawyer is free to destroy the file materials.  RPC 1.19(b)(3) also makes clear that these time frames can be varied by contract between attorney and client.  RPC 1.19(b)(4) takes certain criminal matters out of the general rules of retention and destruction, however, and instead requires the lawyer to maintain the client’s file for the life of the client in those particular situations.

Another jurisdiction has weighed in recently but differs from what Arkansas has done both structurally and substantively.  Wisconsin recently put out an ethics opinion to further clarify the obligations lawyers have to clients in terms of turning over files at the end of the representation.  Wisconsin, like Pennsylvania, denies public access to its ethics opinions, but you can read a well-written article about Wisconsin Formal Ethics Op. EF-16-03 here.

The primary focus of the formal opinion appears to be clarifying that lawyers can neither try to leverage retaining the client file in order to obtain payment nor condition turning the file over upon the execution of a release of malpractice liability.  (Both things you might be surprised to hear about how often lawyers attempt to do despite the perils.)

But Wisconsin’s latest opinion on the subject matter also addresses some of the same vital issues that are at the heart of resolving situations involving disputes between attorneys and clients over who is entitled to what.  Unlike Arkansas, Wisconsin takes an approach more in keeping with the “entire file” approach to the question as several items carved out from the file in Arkansas are not in Wisconsin.  The Wisconsin opinion specifically identifies “legal research and drafts of documents that are relevant to the matter” as being included in the client file as well as “[a]ny materials for which the client has been billed, either directly or through lawyer or staff time.”

Yet, the Wisconsin opinion does limit certain categories of items as being allowed to be withheld from the client — including two items that were at the heart of the battles that doomed our effort in Tennessee to adopt an RPC 1.19 of our own — “materials containing information, which, if released, could endanger the health, safety, or welfare of the client or others,” and “materials that could be used to perpetrate a crime or fraud.”  Interestingly, however, the Wisconsin opinion also crafts an exclusion for materials that seems pretty antithetical to the idea that the guidance is really consistent with Wisconsin being an “entire file” jurisdiction:

Materials containing the lawyer’s assessment of the client, such as personal impressions and comments relating to the business of representing the client.  If a lawyer’s notes contain both factual information and personal impressions, the notes may be redacted or summarized to protect the interests of both the lawyer and the client.

The Wisconsin opinion also addresses the inability of the lawyer to hold the file hostage as a way to first receive payment and provides a clear answer that a lawyer cannot refuse to provide the entire file at the end of the representation based on an argument that lawyer provided everything to the client along the way during the life of the representation.  The Wisconsin opinion also offers insight on when the lawyer has to provide a client with an electronic copy of a file and stresses that while a lawyer can retain a copy of the file, the lawyer cannot charge for that expense because that is being done for the lawyer’s own benefit.

Another interesting wrinkle of the Wisconsin opinion is that it gives a nod to a scenario that is rarely discussed in such opinions — though it does come up in discussions of “red flags” of new client intake matters — but that is an exceedingly difficult situation to deal with:  “There may be unusual circumstances where a client has specifically instructed a lawyer not to surrender a file to a successor counsel, and the lawyer must abide by those instructions.”

In the end though, both the Wisconsin opinion and, in part, the Arkansas rule, offer guidance that furthers what ought to be the primary, practical guidance for lawyers given the disparities that exist on this issue from jurisdiction to jurisdiction — the more focus can be given to these issues in an engagement agreement such that you can have a contractual agreement between lawyer and client on just what will be provided, how, and when (and at whose cost) the better off all involved will be.

 

Two quick technology takes – texting and more on email “bugs”

Not too long ago, I weighed in on an Alaska Ethics Opinion about the ethics of lawyers using email “bugs” that surreptitiously track what happens to an email after it has been sent.  There is a new, interesting read on the “legal or not” aspect of this technology in the ABA/BNA Lawyers Manual on Professional Conduct authored by Chad Gilles, a former lawyer who is now involved with customer strategy and legal affairs with a company called MailControl.net.  It certainly makes for an interesting and informative read, and I appreciate the short mention of a snippet of what I said here on my blog.  I was surprised in the Gilles article to read that Professor Dane Ciolino of Loyola University New Orleans had espoused a belief that it was ethical to use such technology if you were a sending lawyer and, for what it is worth, I’ve now gone and read Ciolino for myself on the issue  and … well, color me still unconvinced.

For what it is worth, the notion that Gilles explains that the jury is out on whether the conduct — using mail bugs — also runs afoul of one or more federal statutes (think the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) leaves me more confident that my conclusion that the conduct is unethical is on the right side of things.

On an unrelated note — other than being related by way of the broadly encompassing “technology” category — Thomas Spahn and I will be doing a teleseminar on January 20, 2017 focusing specifically on a variety of ethical issues that can arise in connection with lawyers using text messaging to communicate with clients and each other.  I haven’t been fortunate enough to do a seminar with Tom in a few years and am looking forward to discussing this topic with him.

I’ve also spent a little bit of time — unsuccessfully — trying to re-find a case/situation that was reported on within the last couple of years involving a lawyer who saw part of the contents of a text sent to a judge because the judge’s phone was laying out on the bench and it lit up and the first part of the message was viewable.  I can’t remember if it was the lawyer who got in trouble for the snooping or the judge because of what was on the text, but I remember it happening.  It serves as a great teaching tool for thinking about turning off the “preview” function for texts on your smart phone, but only if I can properly reference it.

If anyone reading this, recalls it or is more proficient at finding it before January 20, I’d appreciate you shooting me a message of where to find it.  And, either way, if you have the time please feel free to sign up for our teleseminar — it is being offered through a variety of bar entities so you should be able to find it with a google search, but here’s a link to one state bar where you can sign up for it.

 

Two smart, practical ABA Ethics Opinions in a row. (And a bonus “beg to differ”.)

So, this week the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued Formal Op. 476 addressing the need to protect client confidentiality when a lawyer seeks to withdraw for reasons involving the client’s failure to pay.  As explained below, it is a solid, practical opinion touching on a subject often overlooked by lawyers who are just trying to get out of a case with as little additional wasted time and expense.

It comes on the heels of an opinion from earlier this month about a lawyer’s obligation to hold fees to be shared with a lawyer from another firm separate from the lawyer’s own funds, ABA Formal Op. 475, which — despite what this solo and small-firm centric blogger wrote recently — is also a practical, well-constructed, and correct opinion.  I have to beg to differ with the My Shingle piece because it misses the boat on the primary type of situation the ABA Formal Op. 475 is vital to addressing — where lawyers in different firms are sharing fees in a contingency case.  When you come at the question from that perspective as a starting point, the answer offered in the opinion is clearly the only answer that can be correctly offered.  The My Shingle complaints are readily resolved by simply working out a better front-end arrangement with a client about payment to multiple lawyers.

(N.B. – it can’t just be coincidence that these two opinions appear to be the first two in which my friend, Doug Richmond, shows up as a member of the committee involved in the issuance.  Doug is an excellent lawyer – as of course are all the lawyers on the committee — but Doug also has a flair for delivering practical advice through clear, straightforward written work product that leaves the reader with an abiding sense that the conclusion reached was inescapable.)

ABA Formal Op. 476 also does a nice job in tackling and acknowledging the interplay between trial court and lawyer in these circumstances.  The opinion truly can be well summed up if you lack the time or wherewithal to read it in full by simply quoting its “Conclusion,” section:

In moving to withdraw as counsel in a civil proceeding based on a client’s failure to pay fees, a lawyer must consider the duty of confidentiality under Rule 1.6 and seek to reconcile that duty with the court’s need for sufficient information upon which to rule on the motion.  Similarly, in entertaining such a motion, a judge should consider the right of the movant’s client to confidentiality.  This requires cooperation between lawyers and judges.  If required by the court to support the motion with facts relating to the representation, a lawyer may, pursuant to Rule 1.6(b)(5), disclose only such confidential information as is reasonably necessary for the court to make an informed decision on the motion.

As it stands, I really only have one item of criticism regarding Formal Op. 476 at all.  Yet it feels almost like nitpickery … in that I would have liked to see the opinion manage more clearly to stress that the need for protecting client confidences and discretion in any disclosure to a court regarding withdrawal applies to more withdrawal situations than merely not being paid.  Far too many times than I care to count have I been sitting in a courtroom and listened to a lawyer in the context of seeking withdrawal in some matter on the docket ahead of my case say too much, unprompted about their communications (or lack thereof) with the client.  The opinion says it is limiting itself to the deadbeat client situation because in other situations other rules and principles may apply, but I think there would have been value in exploring the commonalities.

The only other thing I’d like to use ABA Formal Op. 476 as a springboard to say involves highlighting an aspect of the rule we have here in Tennessee and how it provides a very helpful, practical mechanism for doing what the ABA Opinion actually encourages when it says:  “Of course, where practicable, a lawyer should first seek to persuade the client to take suitable action to remove the need for the lawyer’s disclosure.”  In the context of the ABA Formal Op. that would appear to be either: (1) pay the lawyer; (2) hire other counsel that can substitute in lieu of withdrawal, or perhaps (3) fire the lawyer so that withdrawal becomes mandatory.

In Tennessee, we offer another option as our RPC 1.16(b) also lists as a trigger for discretionary ability to withdraw merely that the client has provided informed consent confirmed in writing to withdrawal by the lawyer.  Such a clear escape valve in the rule permits a lawyer – even in a situation in which the client has become a deadbeat – to be able to counsel the client and explain that if the client will go ahead and provide informed consent to withdrawal, and show that consent by signing the motion itself, it can go an exceedingly long way in eliminating the risk that the lawyer will have to say anything about the client’s failure to pay in response to an inquiry from the court.

DC Ethics Opinion 370 – Y’all knew I wouldn’t be able to resist

So, the D.C. Bar has come out with a far-reaching, sort of two-part ethics opinion addressing lawyers and social media usage.  Opinion 370 (Part 1) can be grabbed here.  Opinion 371 (Part 2) from here.  Opinion 370 has lots of really good parts, but much of the publicity it has received to date revolves around something it throws out for lawyers to bear in mind and be wary of that hasn’t really been said by opinion-writing entities before.

Here’s how the ABA Journal online headline treated it – “beware” of “social media statements on legal issues.”  Other aspects of the reporting I have seen described it as warning lawyers who offer opinions online of the potential for creating an “issue” conflict.  There’s a reason, I think, this topic hasn’t been explored much by other opinion-writing bodies:  it is a relatively silly and irresponsible take.  Regardless, given the minimal treatment of the issue that the opinion offers, even if you think there were merit to flagging the issue for consideration, the portion of Opinion 370 that “addresses” it still would be better left on the cutting room floor.

Here, in its entirety, is the analysis of this issue as a risk for lawyers from the DC Opinion:

Caution should be exercised when stating positions on issues, as those stated positions could be adverse to an interest of a client, thus inadvertently creating a conflict. Rule 1.7(b)(4) states that an attorney shall not represent a client with respect to a matter if “the lawyer’s professional judgment on behalf of the client will be or reasonably may be adversely affected by . . . the lawyer’s own financial, business, property or personal interests,” unless the conflict is resolved in accordance with Rule 1.7(c). Content of social media posts made by attorneys may contain evidence of such conflicts.

Now, to help get your bearings straight if you aren’t a D.C. lawyer, D.C.’s Rule 1.7(b)(4) is different from what is set out in the ABA Model Rules and, thus, different from what we have here in Tennessee (for example) in the closest equivalent rule, RPC 1.7(a)(2).  Our RPC 1.7(a)(2), just like the ABA Model, establishes a conflict of interest — albeit a potentially consentable one — where “there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer.”

In a (stop-me-if-you-heard-this-one-before) well-done story by Samson Habte with the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct, some quotes are gathered from folks pointing out that the concept of an “issue” or “positional” conflict of interest necessarily involves or requires taking contrasting positions in front of one or more tribunals and, thus, a lawyer’s public statements of opinion about a legal question couldn’t create a positional or issue conflict.

In Tennessee, for example, we address issue/positional conflicts of interests in Paragraph [24] of our Comment to RPC 1.7.  While incapable of being that kind of conflict, supporters of the D.C. Opinion warning might argue that it is still a risky endeavor to express opinions about a legal issue because the lawyer might then have a “personal interest” in how something is resolved that would materially limit the ability to represent a client.

To me, that kind of approach to the topic not only misunderstands what it means to be a lawyer representing a client but also what the rules say in a variety of places it means to be a lawyer at all.  I’ll stick for now to just the Tennessee rules though I’d venture a guess that similar principals are laid out in D.C.’s rules.

In the Preamble to our Rules, in the second paragraph, we lay out a list of things that a “lawyer” is and, included among them, is “a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”  In the seventh paragraph of the Preamble to the Rules we say:

As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice, and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.  As a member of a learned profession, a lawyer should cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients, employ that knowledge in reform of the law; and work to strengthen legal education.

Further, we have a rule, RPC 6.4, patterned after ABA Model Rule 6.4, that specifically makes the point that lawyers can ethically undertake service in connection with entities that seek to reform the law or its administration even though such efforts could detrimentally affect the interests of a client of the lawyer.  If a Tennessee lawyer can engage in organized efforts to reform the law even though those efforts, if successful, might detrimentally affect the interests of one of the lawyer’s clients, then absolutely they can make public statements about what the law should be without violating the ethics rules.

Now, might a client decide not to hire a lawyer who has already indicated a personal belief contrary to the client’s position.  Sure, and they’d have every right to make that decision.  But they might also make a different decision and think that, if the lawyer is willing to take on and argue their position despite past public statements to the contrary, it would make their arguments stronger.

To my knowledge. opinion-writing entities have never warned lawyers about writing learned treatises or books on legal subjects or discouraged lawyers from speaking at Continuing Legal Education events or seminars (which are these days often videotaped and archived) because of some notion that expressing an opinion about a legal issue could create an ethical conflict for the lawyer.  Seems to me that the same “logic” that drove the almost offhand reference by the DC Bar in the Ethics Opinion could be applied to tell lawyers to “beware” of such other activities as well.

One thing I hope everyone could agree upon though is: if you are going to go to the trouble of injecting this issue into what is otherwise an extremely lengthy ethics opinion, then you should have done a better job of tackling the issue comprehensively rather than simply throwing out a half-baked statement that could serve to dissuade lawyers from speaking out.

Alaska you a question about read receipts.

Sorry, bad and lazy pun for a title.  As loyal readers of the site know, I like to write from time-to-time about formal ethics opinions issued by state regulatory bodies.  A recent one caught my attention at first for its — “I cannot believe someone even had to ask feel.”  But, ultimately after I read it all the way through, it intrigued me as a gateway to raise another, related and I happen to think a bit more interesting question.

With that as prologue, on October 26, 2016, the Alaska Bar Association Board of Governors approved Ethics Opinion 2016-1 for release.  The opinion tackles the following question:

Is it ethically permissible for a lawyer to use a “web bug” or other tracking device to track the location and use of emails and documents sent to opposing counsel?

The opinion gets the answer to that question undoubtedly correct by saying that, no, it isn’t and that doing something like that violates Alaska’s RPC 8.4 on generally deceptive conduct and is also problematic because it can undercut the receiving lawyer’s ability to comply with her own obligations under RPC 1.6 to attempt to protect information related to her representation of her client as confidential.

To give a better sense of the kind of technology being discussed, the Opinion explains:

One commercial provider of this web bug service advertises that users may track emails “invisibly” (i.e., without the recipient’s knowledge) and may also track, among other details:

  • when the email was opened;
  • how long the email was reviewed (including whether it was in the foreground or background while the user worked on other activities);
  • how many times the email was opened;
  • whether the recipient opened attachments to the email;
  • how long the attachment (or a page of the attachment) was reviewed;
  • whether and when the subject email or attachment was forwarded; and
  • the rough geographical location of the recipient.

Yikes, right.  That’s a pretty dogged little bug and one that would provide a significant, surreptitious window into the work of the lawyer on the other side.  When I saw the headlines at places like the ABA Journal online about the issuance of this opinion, I jumped to the incorrect conclusion that the lawyer requesting the opinion was a lawyer looking to use this kind of software feature.  At that point, I was surprised anyone would need to ask to know that you couldn’t do this, but the Opinion explains that the request actually came from someone who received an email with one of these “web bugs.”  Thus, the request for a definitive opinion of the wrongful nature of the conduct makes more sense.  (And, for those immediately wondering, apparently some email providers do have countermeasures in place that notify you about some of these “webbugs” and that has to be how the receiving lawyer knew what had transpired.)

I think the opinion is pretty well done and reaches the obvious and correct solution.  It offers some interesting discussion about how, even if the webbug were not surreptitious but actually announced itself, the use of it by the sending lawyer could still be problematic as invasive on the attorney-client relationship through, among other things, potentially revealing otherwise work-product protected information and even endangering the whereabouts of clients who are trying to stay hidden.

What intrigued me enough to write this piece though was a tangential topic that is raised a bit in a footnote to the Opinion, the ethical issues surrounding generic “read receipts” on emails.  Specifically, in footnote 6, the Opinion says:

The use of “delivery receipts” and “read receipts” through Outlook and similar email services does not intrude upon the attorney’s work product or track the use of a document, and therefore is not at issue here.  Those types of receipts are functionally comparable to the receipt one may receive from the use of certified mail.

That last part may well be true — that these are digitally the functional equivalents of a return receipts on certified mail — but I have a slightly different view on this topic.  I certainly do not contend it is unethical for attorneys to send emails to other attorneys that include a request for a “read receipt,” but I uniformly refuse to comply when I get such “read receipt” requests, and I do so because of my obligations under the ethics rules.

If I’m getting an email only because I am an attorney representing a client, then information about when I read that email – how close to when you sent it to me or how far away from when you sent it to me – is “information related to the representation of my client,” and I see no need to do anything other than act to reasonably safeguard that information and decline the read receipt request.

I doubt anyone would ever get disciplined for doing otherwise as a violation of RPC 1.6, but I’m curious as to whether there are others reading this who conduct themselves the same way and have the same view of the “read receipt” issue.

 

Texas Ethics Opinion Offers Stellar Example of Why You Ought to Have a Rule About This.

I’ve mentioned in the past the fact that Tennessee has a version of RPC 4.4(b) that directly addresses, and provides what I happen to think is the correct outcome, for what a lawyer is supposed to do about the receipt of someone else’s confidential information either inadvertently or via someone who isn’t authorized to have it in the first place.  Our RPC 4.4(b) goes further than the ABA Model Rule in two respects on this front in that: (1) it doesn’t just require notice as to inadvertently received information but makes clear that the lawyer has to either abide by any instructions as to what to do with the information or has to refrain from doing anything further with it until a court ruling can be obtained; and (2) we apply the same standard to information received unauthorizedly, e.g. a purloined document.  (Of course, I’ve also mentioned … repeatedly I admit … that the ABA Model Rules ought to be construed via Model Rule 1.15 to fill the gap on that second point, but … leading horses… and drinking water… and all that.

Earlier this month the State Bar of Texas Professional Ethics Committee issued Opinion 664 which “addresses” the following two questions:

1. Do lawyers violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct if they fail to notify an opposing party or its counsel that they are in possession of confidential information taken from the opposing party without the opposing party’s knowledge or consent?

2.  Do lawyers violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct if they fail to notify an opposing party or its counsel that they have inadvertently received confidential information of the opposing party?

In a relatively short opinion that discusses almost exclusively the first question, the Texas Committee ultimately says, “hey look, we don’t have a rule on any of this… so you are kind of on your own.”  That’s not really a quote from the opinion, of course.  The real quote from the opinion is longer but the gist is pretty much exactly the same as my fake quote.

The opinion then goes on to hold out the possibility that if you have this fact scenario plus something more than maybe one or more other rules could be violated — like Texas’s equivalents of Model Rule 1.2(d) or or Model Rule 3.3(a) or Model Rule 4.1 or Model Rule 8.4(d).  Quoting the opinion this time for real:

It is possible that under some circumstances the failure to provide notice to opposing counsel, or take other action upon receipt of an opponent’s confidential information, might violate one or more of the Texas Disciplinary Rules requiring lawyers to be truthful and to avoid assisting or condoning criminal or fraudulent acts or denigrating the justice system or subverting the litigation process.

The opinion also reminds readers that the lawyer’s course of conduct in such circumstances must be well thought through because the risk of disqualification still lurks, but in the end the opinion largely concludes with something that is mostly a restatement of the problem for Texas lawyers (and of my general inability to get horses standing so close to water to drink since Texas does have a version of ABA Model Rule 1.15  and confidential information certainly is “property”):

The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct do not prescribe a specific course of conduct a lawyer must follow upon the unauthorized or inadvertent receipt of another party’s confidential information outside the normal course of discovery.

The insistence on referencing discovery and, thus, making it seem like this is solely a problem for litigators rather than all lawyers is also a bit unfortunate.

Everything’s bigger in Texas, including rule problems sometimes.

First, no argument from me that I’ve been a bad blogger this week.  I’d offer excuses, but no one likes to hear excuses.

Second, how about some actual substantive content … I’ve written in the past about ethical issues surrounding the verein structure of some of the largest law firms in the world.  Those prior discussions involved conflicts issues stemming from treatment of the verein as one firm for purposes of the ethics rules.

Within the last few weeks the State Bar of Texas Professional Ethics Committee issued Opinion 663 which reveals a new problem for lawyers practicing in a verein but a problem that is relatively specific to Texas given that it involves a pretty antiquated approach to law firm names — an approach that bars “trade names” altogether but that also gets very particular about whether a law firm name can have the name of someone who doesn’t actually practice law in that firm.

Texas still has in place a very persnickety rule about what law firm names, Rule 7.01 which reads:

A lawyer in private practice shall not practice under a trade name, a name that is misleading as to the identity of the lawyer or lawyers practicing under such name, or a firm name containing names other than those of one or more of the lawyers in the firm, except that … if otherwise lawful a firm may use as, or continue to include in, its name the name or names of one or more deceased or retired members of the firm or of a predecessor firm in a continuing line of succession.

So, what particularly was the issue – and the opinion does genericize the firm names involved but you can read this TexasLawyer article if you want to know the real details — well, the issue is a law firm, previously known as Smith, Johnson wants to operate under the name of the verein it has joined – Brown, Jones, Smith — as explained by the Committee is that there has never been a lawyer at the Smith, Johnson firm named Brown or Jones.  Kind of silly, right?  They also say it is misleading because it would make people think that all the lawyers in the firms in the verein are all lawyers in the same law firm when they aren’t really.

The outcome of the opinion also raises an interesting question of larger impact which is why did the Texas committee make the assumption it made in the first place? Everything about the opinion flows from the assumption that the Committee explains to open the “Discussion” portion:

This opinion is based on the Committee’s assumption that the lawyers in the law firms that become members of an organization that includes other law firms (in this instance a verein) are not legally determined to be members of one law firm as defined in the Terminology section of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.

The word “firm” in that Terminology section, by the way, defines a firm in an entirely circular fashion as being “a lawyer or lawyers in a private firm; or a lawyer or lawyers employed in the legal department of a corporation, legal services organization, or other organization, or in a unit of government.”

The opinion explains that the facts it had been provided about the verein’s role in a way that would seem to support the conclusion that it was not one firm:

The verein provides some administrative services to each of the member firms and coordinates certain activities of the firms, but it does not provide legal services to clients. The lawyers who are members of the Texas law firm and who are licensed in Texas are not partners or members of the other law firms in the verein. The lawyers in the Texas law firm do not share profits, losses, or liabilities with the lawyers in the other law firms in the verein. The lawyers in the Texas law firm have no authority or vote in the actions of the other law firms in the verein. The law firms who joined the verein are not merged as a result of joining the verein.

So, in an interesting way, this Texas opinion truly is the flipside to the disqualification ruling involving Dentons that I wrote about so long ago.  That judge decided that because Dentons held itself out to the world as one firm, it should be treated that way under the ethics rules as to conflicts.  The Texas opinion says that you can’t hold yourself out to the world as one firm because you aren’t really one.

And, if you happen to be in the Murfreesboro area today and happen to be a legal professional, you could come hear me speak about the “12 Commandments of Social Media for Legal Professionals.”

 

Bad ethics opinion or the worst ethics opinion? Tenn. FEO 2016-F-161 edition

I haven’t rolled a post out with this title in a while, but the more truthful title when it comes to an ethics opinion, issued here in Tennessee on September 9, 2016 would be: “More bad than worthless or more worthless than bad?”

First, the good news.  Tenn. Formal Ethics Op. 2016-F-161 is short.  It won’t take you but maybe five minutes to read it in full.  You’ll never get those 5 minutes back, but…

Now, the not-so-good news … Formal Ethics Opinion 2016-F-161 could have been a whole lot shorter, maybe only a paragraph — in fact, the first paragraph with the heading “OPINION” probably would have sufficed.  It states a premise that isn’t necessarily incorrect — a settlement agreement that would require an attorney to return work product violates RPC 5.6(b) if it restricts the lawyers ability to represent other clients– but it doesn’t do anything more than that.

To the extent it does, it isn’t exactly helpful because it works from a premise that doesn’t involve something that clearly involves work-product, and not surprisingly (given that it treats something as if it were work-product when that is less than clear) it doesn’t really explain why one thing might be okay and the other not.

If you were looking for a jumping off point to make the point that a demand for relinquishing work-product as part of a settlement agreement could violate RPC 5.6, I’m not sure this is the premise to pick:

Plaintiff’s counsel received from Defendant 541,927 pages in image form and had to electronically covert every single page to a pdf document.  Plaintiff’s counsel then processed the 541,927 pages with optical character recognition to make each document searchable.  The documents were then organized by relevant subtopics and incorporated into demonstrative exhibits.  Creating this work product was the only way to understand the complex issues in the case, articulated the product defects, depose experts, present claims, and ultimately reach a successful settlement for the client.  Plaintiff’s counsel relied on the produced materials to cut a full-size vehicle into parts for use in explaining complex engineering, vehicle dynamics, and safety mechanisms to the jury.  This demonstrative evidence is useless without the underlying work product.

In addition to the way in which that description reads like the inquiring attorney wrote it, did you catch the part there where things went askew?  Of course, you did.  It was that moment where they wrote “Creating this work product…” despite not having referenced any creation of work product.

What they described was the production of materials by the other side in discovery.  Converting TIFFs to PDFs doesn’t turn the other side’s document production into your work product.  OCR’ing those PDFs doesn’t do that either.  The incorporation of certain aspects of the discovery into demonstrative exhibits might rise to the level of the creation of work product, but the demonstrative exhibits would be the work product not the source material that was added to them as a component part.  But even giving the Board the benefit of doubt, the opinion doesn’t exactly tackle whether (or how) the request to return discovery materials also requires the return of additional things — work product — that incorporate parts of the discovery materials.

The opinion also doesn’t clearly indicate that the settlement agreement being examined requires anything to be returned besides discovery documents produced.  What is says is this: “The parties agreed on a settlement amount, and as a condition precedent to signing the settlement agreement Defendant demanded return of all documents produced….”  Now the opinion then says “… which included Plaintiff’s counsel’s work product,” but I don’t know how to take that because “documents produced” on its own wouldn’t support a reading that work-product must be returned.

Otherwise, the TN opinion to bolster the premise that requiring return of work product could be a problem spends a bit of time trying to (sort of) adopt the rationale of a North Dakota ethics opinion from 1997.  This part of that North Dakota opinion is fine: “Whether providing the opposing side access to or losing his or her own access to work product materials would restrict the attorney’s representation of other clients is a factual question the attorney must decide based on the documents involved and the facts and circumstances of the case.”

But, there is a key deficiency in the North Dakota opinion too , at least as described by the TN opinion, there is a seeming failure to recognize that if a client pays an attorney for work product the attorney creates, that work product also belongs to the client.  Remember, in this context RPC 1.16(d), which only provides the slimmest of windows for a lawyer to refuse to turn over work-product that a client hasn’t paid for, upon the termination of the representation.

So, when the Tennessee opinion quotes the North Dakota opinion to say: “Under 5.6(b) an attorney may not agree — even at a client’s request: To turn over to opposing party or counsel documents protected by the attorney work product doctrine if that action would restrict the attorney’s representation of other clients….,” it overlooks the fundamental concept that the client, not the attorney, makes the decision whether to settle a matter.  (RPC 1.2)  And, if the condition on settlement is that the attorney relinquish work product that now would belong to the client because the attorney’s fee will be paid, then… well, it’s pretty dangerous for an attorney to seek to blow up that settlement on the basis that the work product is the attorney’s alone to do with as she sees fit.