A short update on Avvo ratings

You may recall, a while back, that I kvetched a bit here about my belief that Avvo’s rating system was less than a bona fide system.  The primary focus of my argument centered on Avvo’s decision to assign numerical ratings to some lawyers even though those lawyers have never claimed their profiles.  I then spent a little bit of digital space picking some examples of lawyers that I considered to be exceedingly better than their ranking and that the such ratings would actually do a disservice not only to those lawyers – seeming to “punish” them for not claiming their profile – but also to consumers trying to use Avvo to make decisions about lawyers.  While admittedly not scientifically exhaustive, my research seemed to indicate that it was a rare lawyer who could get a rating at 7 or above without at least claiming their profile.

Well, I am pleased to report that Avvo has recently changed its approach and has now returned to offering only a non-numerical rating for most lawyers who have not claimed their Avvo profile.  Earlier this month, Avvo has changed its approach and, according to Avvo’s General Counsel, “most unclaimed lawyer profiles are now rated either ‘No Concern’ or ‘Attention’ (the latter for those with underlying Avvo Ratings below a 5).”

If you go back to look at that prior post, you will see that Avvo’s General Counsel, Josh King, was kind enough to share that information in a new Comment on that post last week, but knowing that not everyone goes back and reads old posts to find new comments I wanted to make sure to prominently note the change here.

Also, in light of this change, I can follow through with what I said in a comment to that earlier post in an exchange with Josh where I wrote:  “If Avvo only assigned numerical ratings to those who claim and participate, and limited itself to the “no concern” or “concern” approach to others, I would readily agree that it was a bona fide system in the way the rules contemplate.”

Now that they are back to that sort of approach, and consumers now can’t use numerical ratings to compare apples and oranges, I think I am left where I said I would be – readily agreeing that Avvo’s rating system is bona fide in the way the rules contemplate.

Advocating for attorney advertising.

So, back in August, I mentioned that I was going to have the opportunity to debate issues of lawyer advertising before an audience of top-notch Canadian lawyers in November.  This post is something of a coda to that post as I want to, very briefly, say a word or two about that talk.

It was, as I anticipated, a highly rewarding experience and all of the attorneys affiliated with The Advocates’ Society with whom I had the opportunity to meet and speak were delightful.

During the presentation, my job was to be the one to give voice to things that those assembled might not want to hear.  So, to start things off, I broke the news to them all that we don’t pronounce Hermitage, as in The Hermitage Hotel, in the fancy manner they were wont to do.  After having dealt that disappointing blow, I gave my pitch about what regulation of lawyer advertising should be, and what it shouldn’t be.

I tried to do so with a focus on things beyond just the protections afforded under our First Amendment for commercial speech because they don’t have anything quite the same under their nation’s law.

Those points – which I will happily repeat as many times as anyone ever gives me the chance to do so — are:

  • Ethical restrictions on lawyer advertising ought to pretty much start and end with prohibiting statements that are false or actually misleading.
  • It is pretty much a universal truth that the only people who complain about lawyer advertisements are other lawyers.
  • Those tasked with regulating attorney conduct don’t particularly like spending time adjudicating squabbles between lawyers about ads.
  • Consumers don’t get worked up about lawyer advertising at least in part because they get it.  If you are paying to advertise something, you are going to emphasize its good points.
  • But consumers also don’t get worked up about it because they don’t view it the way lawyers do.  There are still people out there who simply did not know they could hire a lawyer without having to pay money or who don’t know their problem might be something a lawyer could even help them with at all.
  • Some times the way those people learn this information is because they see some kind of lawyer advertisement in one place or another and, when they do, they don’t particularly think about whether or not it is something that you would think is “dignified.”
  • If you are motivated to want to impose stricter regulations on lawyer advertisements because of a concern that there is not enough public respect for our profession and advertisements that you think should be “beneath” lawyers fosters such disrespect, then I have a suggestion of how you could better direct your energies.
  • Imagine how much more could be done to foster better respect for our profession and what we do if we all focused our energies on encouraging communication of what it is that lawyers do, the role we play in society, and what we bring to the table that can help people in times of need for legal services, including helping educate them that their problem is one that could be helped by the work of a lawyer?

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.)

Something to chew on during your holiday weekend.

I am nowhere near the most plugged in when it comes to lawyers on the forefront of tracking the ways in which rapid developments in technology are changing the practice of law.  I’m a bit more aware than likely most lawyers, in part because I’m constantly looking for things worth writing about here, but also because I’ve been fortunate enough over the last two years to be a members of the Tennessee Bar Association’s Special Committee on the Evolving Legal Market.

For a combination of those reasons, I’ve been reading a bit about the latest tool that Ravel Law has unleashed on the world, “Firm Analytics.”  Among other selling points that Ravel Law touts, and the one I want to leave you to think about over the weekend is:

In another first, Firm Analytics also provides rankings of firms across key variables including practice area, case volume, venue experience, and motion win rates. These leaderboards allow comparisons across substantive performance metrics, a significant innovation to traditional revenue and size rankings. As part of this launch, we are releasing rankings of the top five law firms across employment, securities, antitrust, administrative law, and bankruptcy (more below).

This is, of course, excellent information to be made available in the marketplace and with the constant creation of new ways to better, and more quickly, aggregate and synthesize data it is also inevitable for it to come into existence.

The thought I want to leave you with though is this — how crazy is it that, in many U.S. jurisdictions, if a lawyer or law firm wanted to advertise themselves using this same kind of data (win rates, success history, etc.), they would likely be opening themselves up to a disciplinary complaint under state advertising rules that prohibit lawyers from touting past successful outcomes in matters?

For example, let me pick a state at random and not a state that has any reason at all to be in the news, Montana.  If a law firm in Montana or a lawyer there decided to aggregate this data and tout their win percentages, they’d likely be at risk of seeing bar regulators accuse them of violating either or both of these provisions in Rule 7.1 prohibiting communications about a lawyer’s services that:

(b) is likely to create an unjustified expectation about results the lawyer can achieve;

(c) proclaims results obtained on behalf of clients, such as the amount of a damage award or the lawyer’s record in obtaining favorable verdicts or settlements, without stating that past results afford no guarantee of future results and that every case is different and must be judged on its own merits.

Friday Flashback – Folks still forgetting The Streisand Effect

In my early days (If a blog that has only been around for just a smidge over 2 years can be characterized as having early days.), I wrote a post with a reference to “The Streisand Effect” and the need for lawyers and law firms who are thinking about trying to take actions to shut down unfair criticism online to give real thought to whether they are just amplifying the negative publicity.  If you are interested in reading that post, you can get there from this link.

My guess is that reminding people about the concept of The Streisand Effect will never get old.  This time though, to save people a step, I’ll simply share the quote from the Wikipedia entry itself rather than making you click a link to see what we mean when we refer to The Streisand Effect:

The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet. It is an example of psychological reactance, wherein once people are aware something is being kept from them, their motivation to access and spread the information is increased.

It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose 2003 attempt to suppress photographs of her residence in Malibu, California, inadvertently drew further public attention to it. Similar attempts have been made, for example, in cease-and-desist letters to suppress numbers, files, and websites. Instead of being suppressed, the information receives extensive publicity and media extensions such as videos and spoof songs, often being widely mirrored across the Internet or distributed on file-sharing networks.

In this story at The American Lawyer (which it seems almost entirely unnecessary to state has a significantly larger readership than this here little blog), a reader will probably learn a few things.

First, the existence of a four lawyer construction firm in Houston, Texas named The Cromeens Law Firm.

Second, the existence of a negative review of the firm on Yelp as well as some others on Google.  Which armed with that first piece of new information and the second piece of new information becomes really easy to find and read.

Third, that the four-lawyer firm is worried enough about these reviews that it is willing to spend some part of its time not focused on matters for its clients but rather in pursuing a lawsuit against unknown defendants to try to make the reviews go away.

Your mileage may vary, but my view on such matters continue to be that: (a) more people will read the reviews now than they ever would have before; (b) the lawsuit is very unlikely to succeed in making the reviews disappear; and (c) contractors and subcontractors who might be making decisions in and around Houston about whether to retain these construction lawyers probably weren’t likely to be all that influenced but unless the goal of this suit is to make stories about it end up being pretty high on the list of things that turn up in an online search about your law firm, this probably doesn’t end up being a net positive.

Now, in fairness, if the negative reviews you are trying to get to go away are at the very top of what people see if they search for you online, then a suit like this might accomplish the rare “reverse Streisand” by replacing those with higher results referencing the lawsuit at least, but when I checked today several of the first hits for this law firm’s name were good ones, so . . .

 

Another Tennessee-centric offering.

Using the term “Tennesentric” would probably be more efficient, but two items involving potential rule revisions relating to ethics and lawyering in Tennessee are worth briefly discussing.  One of the two has gone out for public comment and has a deadline, while the other has just been filed with the Court and does not.

I’ve written at length in the past about Tennessee’s effort at cleaning up some problems with comity admission standards and the extended amnesty period for certain folks in need of getting properly registered as in-house counsel.

Our Board of Law Examiners has recently filed a petition, which the Court has put out for public comment, to further extend the dates and deadlines for folks to have gotten into compliance in these areas.  Interestingly, the Petition seeks to extend the time period but not all the way up until the petition itself was filed, but rather has sought a cut-off period that would be December 31, 2016.  If enacted, the impact of this rule change would appear to be to make amnesty available to in-house counsel who did not get into compliance by July 2016 but who would have if the deadline for compliance was December 31, 2016 and to afford the Board with the same flexibility in making rulings on comity applications that were filed as late as December 31, 2016 but for which the Board didn’t rule – for obvious reasons – before the end of the year.  The deadline for public comments on that proposal is April 14, 2017.

The other proposal – which has not yet been put out for public comment —  is a filing by our Board of Professional Responsibility to clarify in our Rule 9 itself that the hearing in a disciplinary proceeding is public, unless a protective order is obtained.  This has long been the practice, but the rules presently do not exactly say that.  If this petition is granted, the result would be that the rules would bless the traditional practice.  But one even better benefit of this revision, if adopted, is important for cases of potential public and media interest, because this would make clear that the Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 30 Media Guidelines ought to govern media coverage of such proceedings.  Such a clarification would be important so that hearing panels in Tennessee understand that the attorneys of record in a case are entitled to know of a request for media coverage so that counsel can then proceed to make a timely motion to seek to prohibit such coverage under the terms of Rule 30.

Suffice it to say, this does not always happen.

You can read the BPR Petition Filed to Amend Tenn Sup Ct R 9 § 32 at the link.

Dear ABA – Embrace reform of the lawyer advertising rules. Please.

I have written in the past about the APRL white papers providing the rationale for, and data supporting the need to, reform the way lawyer advertising is regulated in the United States by state bar entities.  You can read those prior posts here and here if you are so inclined.

Jayne Reardon, the Executive Director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, over at the 2Civility blog has posted a very thorough report on events that transpired in Miami earlier this month and that reminds folks that the deadline put together by the ABA working group looking at whether to back APRL’s proposals is March 1, 2017.

I am a proud member of APRL – actually presently I’m even fortunate enough to serve as a member of its Board of Directors – but was not able to make it down to Miami for our meeting and the ABA meetings this year.  If you are a reader of this blog, you know that my view is that the only advertising rule that ought to be necessary is a version of RPC 7.1 that states, as does the ABA Model:

A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.  A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.

Period.  Full stop.

Now Jayne’s report from the ground mentions that some folks criticized or complained about APRL’s proposal because it would not apply only to advertisements by lawyers.  To me that is a feature, not a bug.  As I’ve also written and spoken about, RPC 7.1 is violated when a lawyer sends a fraudulent bill to a client saying they spent more time on something than they really did and that’s a good thing.  It also, for example, applies to lawyers who lie on their resumes as we saw with this recent instance of lawyer misconduct.

The concern expressed by someone that it could result in discipline against a lawyer politician (presumably one who would have to have lied about some aspect of their personal history I guess) does not give me much pause because if it were so applied it would likely fail First Amendment scrutiny because of the higher standards afforded to protect political speech rather than constitutional speech.

While I think RPC 7.1 ideally is the only rule that ought to exist, I recognize that people are going to insist there be some restriction on in-person solicitation so I also support APRL’s proposed approach to having an additional rule, over and above RPC 7.1, to address that.  As I’ve said before, my only quibble with APRL’s proposal on that front is as to how it defines a sophisticated user of legal services:

If I had one criticism of the APRL proposal, it is with the way it defines a sophisticated user of legal services.  The second part about regular retention of legal services for business purposes is likely where it should have stopped, as the first portion of the definition is pretty amorphous and subject to manipulation.  For example, would a recidivist offender who has gone through repeated jury trials and spent many years in prison someone who would qualify as having had significant dealings with the legal profession?  Seems like a pretty clear argument could be made that the answer would be yes.

I’m going to send this post in to the ABA working committee as my own personal comment.  If you have a viewpoint on these issues (whether it jibes with mine or not), I’d encourage you to send your thoughts as well to them at this email address: modelruleamend@americanbar.org.  (Unless you don’t think lawyer advertising rules are strict enough already.  Then I’d encourage you to stay busy doing other things.  Kidding, just kidding.  But more like Al Franken’s kidding on the square actually.)

My 200th post: Living in a “post-fact” world?

So, not a milestone for some, but, for me, it feels like an achievement to have made it to my 200th post.  And because I’m a sucker for wordplay, I’ll use a “post” milestone to talk about an issue I’ve written about a good bit before but with a twist that also involves the word “post” but as a prefix.

If you’ve been paying attention at all to U.S. politics, you may have seen some discussion about how we seem to be living in a “post-fact” world and lots of accompanying criticism about how the media has played a large role in making it easy for prominent people to simply refuse to acknowledge facts and then inculcate beliefs in those who support them or identify with them that such facts are not actually facts.

Well, here’s something of an example — but in the world of legal ethics — of just how easily it is for that kind of thing to seem to happen.

So, in late October, the Montana Supreme Court put an order out for public comment about potentially adopting the new ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) addressing harassment and discrimination by lawyers in conduct related to the practice of law.  The Montana Supreme Court has floated adopting the entirety of the ABA Model Rule black-letter language such that if adopted, Montana’s 8.4(g):

would provide that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law. This paragraph does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16. This paragraph does not preclude legitimate advice or advocacy consistent with these Rules.

You can read the Montana Supreme Court order here.  The deadline for public comments is actually today and, within the last few days, there was some publicity in Montana about the proposal.

This story is what has prompted me to write.  The reporter has included a quote from a law professor at a Montana law school who stakes out the position that the rule would suppress free speech and who is quoted as saying:

“There’s a wide variety of attorneys from a wide variety of backgrounds that are opposing this proposed rule, not necessarily on faith based reasons, but on the ability to ask questions in depositions and determining who should be seated on a jury. So it’s raised concerns amongst all types of attorneys.”

But, you might say to yourself, I just read that the proposed rule, if adopted, would have a sentence that says: “This paragraph does not preclude legitimate advice or advocacy consistent with these Rules.”  And, also since you read the blog, it probably means you keep up enough with these issues to know that the ABA Model Rule, at least, has specific language in an accompanying comment even addressing peremptory challenges, but that even if Montana isn’t also looking at adopting the comments, as long as what the lawyer does in jury selection is “legitimate advocacy,” it ought to be protected.  Yet, the news article contains no push back against the law professor’s statement and not even a competing quote from someone saying the actual rule would raise no such issues.

How can that be?  Well, there is a fairly easy and revealing answer that is pertinent to a number of much larger issues going on in the world around us these days (in my opinion).  The news article, describing the rule for the public, merely says this about the content of the proposed rule:

Proposed rule 8.4 (g) states: It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law.

So, the news report simply omits two of the sentences of the proposed rule including the one that contradicts the law professor’s stated concerns.  Thus, regular folks would have no idea of the rest of the content of the proposed rule when reading the story and certainly no reason to question why the law professor would be willing to make claims that appear to be contrary to clear language in the rule.

Sigh.

(And, if you are in Chattanooga or Knoxville, I’ll be doing those stops on the Ethics Roadshow next week and ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) is one of the topics on the menu for discussion.  It’s not too late to register and attend if you are so inclined.)

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.