The thing about the re-regulation of the practice of law …

. . . is it really could go either way. It could make things better or it could make things worse. It truly depends on who ends up doing the re-regulation and what motivates them along the way.

What is prompting the need to say this sentiment out loud today exactly? Well, cynical types might say it is because there are these two things I want to write about and maybe it is the only thing they have in common. Less cynical types might say … well pretty much the same thing.

It also might come from the general feeling, shared by lots of folks out there I believe, that so many things in life sit on a knife’s edge at the moment and, depending on lots of variables, could pivot in one direction and start to get better or another direction and get even worse.

Recently, we revisited the state of things on the general topic of re-regulation to note that the Utah Supreme Court actually pulled the trigger on creating their regulatory sandbox to allow lawyers and others to collaborate more closely in the delivery of legal services. Frequent readers of this space will know that, in the past, posts about the happenings in Utah have always been in close proximity to the happenings in Arizona and will not be surprised to know it has happened again.

The Arizona Supreme Court has once again jumped ahead of Utah’s trailblazing by simply eradicating RPC 5.4 altogether (as well as eradicating any restrictions on solicitation by lawyers in the advertising rules) effective January 1, 2021. No sandbox or limited experiment, just full steam ahead.

My initial belief (which will also come as no surprise to readers) is that this is and will be a good thing for consumers of legal services. But there is no guarantee that it will be. Much will depend on who takes advantage of the changes. If Arizona sees an influx of interest by investors into lawyers and law firms that represent consumers, then the needle will almost undoubtedly move in the direction of greater access to both information about the availability of legal services and access to meaningful justice. If Arizona instead sees growth mainly in the delivery of business services or expansion by large accounting and consulting firms into the practice of law and outside investment in lawyers and law firms that defend wealthy clients, then things could actually get worse in terms of the balance between the haves and the have-nots.

The battle for the re-regulation of the practice of law, however, will not be fought only in changes to ethics rules that govern those who actually already have become lawyers. It will also be fought over how those who wish to become lawyers are evaluated before being admitted to practice. In terms of evaluation, I do mean both from an intellectual preparedness standpoint but also on the topic of character and fitness to be a lawyer.

As to the first, there are many, many stories to be read on the internet these days about the difficulties facing states all over the country in how to deal with bar examinations for law school graduates as we, as a nation, still struggle with COVID-19. Unfortunately, less than a handful states so far have pivoted to granting diploma privilege to the graduates caught in this professional limbo. Fortunately, only a few states insisted on simply plowing forward with in-person examinations. All of the other states have engaged in experiments in trying to deliver online examinations. The results have been mixed at best. (With luck I will have a bit more to say on this topic later today, but only over on Twitter so hit me up with a follow @bsfaughnan over there.)

As to the second, the process of evaluating the character and fitness of those who aspire to be lawyers is a significantly less-than-perfect process. The fact that the same process is also applied to lawyers who seek additional licenses from other state bars further reveals its flaws. That it is a process that often improperly seeks to force aspiring lawyers to provide information about receiving treatment for mental health unrelated to questionable conduct further invites strong criticism.

This week in an opinion out of federal court in Kentucky a judge managed to simultaneously strongly call out that state’s problematic and invasive approach in a way that is nearly impossible to disagree with on the merits but also to provide evidence that the ABA was correct when it concluded that he was not fit for the federal bench in the first place. The opinion is a particularly bittersweet ride given that, effective today, the judge in question is now being elevated to a set on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. (As to the appellate position, the ABA has concluded that he is qualified.)

If you’d like the short version of the opinion in question, you can check out this ABA Journal online article. A full copy of the opinion, however, can be obtained at the download button below.

In the opinion, the judge absolutely savages how Kentucky treats applicants for licensure and does so in circumstances involving a lawyer who had practiced, without incident, for many years in Florida before seeking to add a Kentucky license to her tool belt. The judge particularly focuses upon the invasive nature of Kentucky’s demands for disclosures about treatment for mental health conditions, demands unbounded by any relationship to any prior inappropriate conduct or any effort by the lawyer-applicant to explain such conduct as being caused by some prior untreated condition.

In the strongest and most emotionally charged language that tends to resonate with those of us who strongly believe that mental health issues in the profession need to be de-stigmatized, the judge closes his opinion out as follows:

Law school is hard. The stress, rigor, and competition can lead to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Many students who start school healthy are far from it by the time they graduate. Some kill themselves.

Aspiring lawyers should seek the health care they need. But if Kentucky continues to punish people who get help, many won’t. And one day, a law student will die after choosing self-help over medical care because he worried a Character and Fitness Committee would use that medical treatment against him — as Kentucky’s did against Jane Doe.

It is not a matter of if, but when.

The entire opinion, in fact, is filled with this kind of simple language that is compelling and easy for lawyers to understand. But 90% of the 18-page opinion is all dicta because the judge actually disposed of the lawsuit filed by the lawyer because they had now finally become a lawyer and no longer had standing to challenge the process they went through when they were an applicant. Only an applicant would have standing to bring the kinds of claims being sought – and, perhaps, not even then because of immunity issues associated with the decision-makers. It could have been a straightforward, nondescript, three- or four-page opinion.

Thus, what the opinion really reads like is an attack on what the judge “tags” as the “Bar Bureaucracy” and drips with the vindictiveness of someone whose credentials were challenged by the largest national association of lawyers in the United States, the ABA.

As someone who believes, on the facts laid out in the opinion, that the Florida lawyer was poorly treated by the Kentucky approach to such issues, reading the opinion is still a highly bittersweet experience. (A bit like watching a shark attack even your worst enemy — something you can’t take any pleasure in because at any point the shark might turn its attention to tearing into you.)

This is particularly true when you bear in mind that this judge – like many that have been installed on the federal courts during the last 4 years and that are career-long members of The Federalist Society — appears to have a very likely overall agenda that is not centered in the kind of empathy that he now expresses over issues of mental health in the legal profession.

Instead, this is a judge whose other prominent decisions during his short-lived tenure include attacking a mayor in Kentucky who was trying to deal with the pandemic as having “criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.” He is also a judge who, if given the opportunity, is likely to vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act and strip healthcare from millions in the middle of a pandemic. He is a judge in a mold of judges who will decry all that they do not like as “judicial activism,” but blithely engage in the kind of judicial activism that involves writing a scolding and self-righteous decision nearly 90% of which was unnecessary as dicta.

If the landscape surrounding entry into the practice of law is shaped and re-regulated by the kinds of judges that have been enshrined into power over this last Presidential term of office, then things might improve for the better or they could very well become much worse.

Three developments presented in decreasing order of importance.

Last week, the Utah Supreme Court officially approved the most “radical” change in any state’s ethics rules since DC adopted a limited approval for law firms to have partners who are not lawyers several decades ago.

The Utah Supreme Court announced its adoption of a package of reforms aimed at improving the access to justice gap in Utah as well as improving the availability of access to legal information generally. I’ve written about the Utah proposal in the past, but you can read the press release regarding approval of the reforms issued by the Utah Supreme Court here.

In addition to reforms to the advertising rules, the re-regulation effort revises Utah’s version of RPC 5.4 and 7.2 to allow people who are not lawyers to have ownership interests in law firms, allow lawyers and people who are not lawyers to work together in entities that will provide legal services and allow lawyers to compensate people who are not lawyers for bringing them work. As part and parcel of these efforts, Utah has formed a regulatory “sandbox” where entities can apply to take advantage of these provisions and deliver legal services and through which data can be gathered about the effectiveness of the revisions. The sandbox program will operate initially as a two-year program. You can read more takes online about this development here, here, and here.

Also, just shy of a month ago now, the Chicago Bar Association became the first voluntary bar association to have a task force report that also proposes altering aspects of the legal landscape to address these issues. You can read the full task force report from the Chicago Bar Association here if you’d like. What the Chicago Bar proposes does not go nearly as far as what Utah is undertaking – specifically the Chicago Bar was not willing to take on ownership restrictions — but it does propose significant reforms, including:

  • Removing restrictions on the ability of lawyers to work with intermediaries to deliver legal services
  • Creating a new category of licensed paralegal that could deliver certain limited legal services to consumers
  • Streamlining the Illinois ethics rules related to advertising

Finally (for today), the least important development of the three, but one I shamelessly will still write about… I am honored to report that on Friday of last week I was elected as President-Elect of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers. As a result, I will serve in that capacity from August 2020 to August 2021 and will then become President of APRL for a one-year term commencing in August 2021. I am very much looking forward to being able to serve APRL as the 32nd President in its history as an organization.

Two ethics opinions: one good, one bad, but both reveal systemic problems.

So, New York and Florida. Interestingly, those states have been bookends of our nation’s problems with COVID-19 and with fighting it. New York got hit very badly early, given the concentrated nature of its population centers, but then engaged in a very serious effort of taking the virus very seriously and managed to significantly flatten its curve. Florida’s government ignored and downplayed the situation, and now is experiencing horrible daily numbers and now has overall numbers of cases and deaths that are worse than New York’s. The two states contrasting efforts though still combine to tell a large part of the problem plaguing the United States when it comes to the pandemic — the lack of a coordinated national strategy because we have an incompetent and dysfunctional federal executive.

Two recent developments in ethics opinions from each state also offer contrasting approaches to issuing ethics opinions, contrasting results, and combine to tell part of the larger story of issues plaguing the profession as a whole.

First, let’s start with New York State Bar Association Op. 1200 which is good on procedure but bad on outcome. This opinion addresses application of New York’s RPC 5.7 and the combination of legal services and wealth management services. It was issued after what would appear to be the traditional, efficient, process of receiving a written request for an opinion, having a committee meet and deliberate, and then issuing a written opinion.

The answer it gives to the question whether the same lawyer can render legal services to a client and, through another entity, provide wealth management services to the same person is baffling. Despite the clear rationale for a why a rule like RPC 5.7 exists and, despite the fact that RPC 1.7 should provide for the ability for a waiver of such a conflict, the answer provided is that the conflict is so severe as to be unwaivable. And the only real explanation that is proffered for why is that the lawyer is simply going to be making too much more money from the provision of the wealth management services than from the provision of legal services. Maddening because of all that implies about not only evaluating the conflict rules but how it can justify other assumptions raising questions about a number of other ethics rules that operate under the assumption that lawyers can do the right thing in terms of representing their clients ethically even when it is in conflict with their own financial interests.

Next comes Florida where there exists a proposed ethics opinion waiting on action by the Florida Supreme Court. Technically, it isn’t an ethics opinion as it comes from the Florida Bar Standing Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, but given the relationship to RPC 5.5, that’s a bit of a tomato/tomahto situation.

Now, procedurally it is nightmarish. To get to the point of even issuing the opinion, they held what for all intents and purposes looks like the equivalent of a trial. Sworn witnesses and all. Even after that, it still has to be approved by someone else. Substantively, proposed Florida Advisory Op. 2019-4, would be good because it would conclude that a New Jersey-licensed lawyer who had retired from his job, moved to Florida, and then took a new job for a New Jersey company would not be engaged in UPL if he continued to reside and work in Florida (where he was not licensed) and advised the New Jersey employer about federal law issues.

Now, it is an opinion that shouldn’t be necessary at all for a few reasons, including that if all that is occurring is advising about federal law issues, then Model Rule 5.5(d)’s language should pretty straightforwardly and clearly allow that activity. Unfortunately, Florida curiously does not have that language in its rules and does not appear willing to facially admit the underpinnings of federalism and the Supremacy Clause that require that result. And, even if the question had been about general work for the New Jersey company remotely, it shouldn’t take the equivalent of a trial to figure out that the answer should be that no UPL takes place.

This may all have been less clear to the profession before the pandemic, but during (and if we ever get to a point of “post”) the pandemic it should be painfully clear that the physical presence alone of a lawyer in a particular location should not be dispositive of whether UPL is occurring.

For what it is worth, my proposal for a practical solution to the question of UPL in modern practice that would still allow for things that truly should be regulated to be regulated would be as follows:

There should be a uniformly used “totality of the circumstances/most substantial connection”-style test that evaluates:

  1. where the lawyer is located
  2. where the client is located
  3. if there is a contemplated legal proceeding (or other matter involved such as commercial transaction or closing) where that is located or expected to be located; and
  4. what state’s law would govern in such a proceeding (or other matter).

And, unless the majority of those factors involve a state where the lawyer is not licensed then it simply isn’t UPL.

If my math is correct that would mean that as long as any 2 of the factors touched the lawyer’s state of licensure, then the lawyer is free and clear (or stated differently, unless 3 of the 4 involve a state where the lawyer isn’t licensed, then the lawyer is free and clear).

And, there would still have to be a continued exception acknowledged for purely federal law situations.

Utahlking real reform? Yes, Utah absolutely is.

Infrequent readers will know this pun structure is one that I have no shame in running into the ground every time it is relevant.

Frequent readers will know I am far too willing to break the fourth wall here. So just for background I had resigned myself to writing a post on Friday about the New Jersey lawyer who could only get reinstated to practice if he could assure that his wife would not have any further access to their trust accounts and it was going to likely be unnecessarily preachy and riddled with hacky references to how hard that might be when everyone is trapped in their house. So, while you are only getting content a few days late, thanks to Utah you at least are spared that the content that could have been.)

Last Friday, Utah released for public comment the final version of its work product for an overhaul of significant parts of its ethics rules. If you need to get back up to speed on that issue and the pre-pandemic discussions of it, you can find prior posts about the rapid work of Utah’s task force here.

If you’d rather read the source materials put out for public comment on April 24, 2020 yourself, you can get to them all through this link.

If you’ll allow me to describe them to you in all of their relative glory, I’ll do so now.

I’d like to start with what ought to be the least controversial piece but a part that still really ought to be cherished for the elegant thing that it is, reducing the rules on lawyer advertising down to the core and nothing but the core.

  • The Utah Supreme Court’s proposal would eliminate RPCs 7.2, 7.3, 7.4, and 7.5 and, instead, revise RPC 7.1 to address the terrain by (a) prohibiting lawyers from making false and misleading claims about themselves or their services and (b) prohibiting lawyers from going about dealing with people in ways that involve coercion, duress, or harassment.

If any state were proposing to do this to their advertising rules, and only just this, it would be an exciting development toward important regulatory reform. But wait … there’s so much more to Utah’s proposal. As a result, comprehensive reform of the advertising rules is nearly just the icing.

The centerpiece of Utah’s proposed rule revisions though involves an overhaul of RPC 5.4 in the form of the creation of two rules, one 5.4A that will look a good bit like the current rule with one very significant change and another 5.4B that will look like nothing that has been actually implemented so far in the United States.

Under the proposal, RPC 5.4A will apply to lawyers who continue to operate in the traditional fashion (read, at least in its pre-pandemic context to mean working in a law firm owned and operated only by lawyers). That rule would carry forward existing restrictions on partnerships with non-lawyers and on operating in the form of any entity in which someone who is a not a lawyer has a financial interest but would permit lawyers in such conventional settings to be able to share fees with people other than lawyers as long as sufficient disclosure is made to the client (and anyone other than the client who is paying the fee) about the fact that such sharing is occurring/going to occur and with whom. The rule though is also refashioned to make clear that lawyers still can only do these things as long as there is no interference with their independent professional judgment, maintaining their loyalty to their client, and protecting client confidences.

(One other seemingly pedestrian item in its package of revisions is to remove the current restrictions on fee sharing between lawyers not in the same firm by deleting RPC 1.5(e) altogether. This makes a lot of sense on a standalone basis as a variety of jurisdictions already permit “naked” referrals between lawyers not in the same firm as long as there is a certain amount of disclosure, but if you are going to open the doors for lawyers to share fees with people who aren’t lawyers then you certainly have to drop the RPC 1.5(e) approach.)

RPC 5.4B would be a new thing altogether and would govern the conduct of lawyers that choose to practice in nontraditional structures as part of a legal regulatory Sandbox to be launched Utah. This proposed rule establishes an ability for lawyers to practice in ways that RPC 5.4A would prohibit as long as there is no interference with any of the lawyers duties that are also stressed in RPC 5.4A (independent professional judgment, loyalty, and confidentiality). Specifically, what it permits is best described using the proposed rule itself:

(b) A lawyer may practice law with nonlawyers, or in an organization, including a partnership, in which a financial interest is held or managerial authority is exercised by one or more persons who are nonlawyers, provided that the lawyer shall:

(1) before accepting a representation, provide written notice to a prospective client that one or more nonlawyers holds a financial interest in the organization in which the lawyer practices or that one or more nonlawyers exercises managerial authority over the lawyer; and

(2) set forth in writing to a client the financial and managerial structure of the organization in which the lawyer practices.

And to implement the Sandbox concept that RPC 5.4B will permit lawyers to participate in, and to make sure that there exists an entity that will have regulatory authority over those participants in the Sandbox who are not lawyers, the Utah Supreme Court has released a proposed Standing Order that would be the foundational document for establishing the relevant regulatory entity and the regulatory principles that will govern its work.

The relevant regulatory entity will be the Office of Legal Services Innovation and, for a pilot period of two years from whenever the effective date of the Standing Order comes to pass, this Innovation Office will “establish and administer a pilot legal regulatory sandbox (Sandbox) through which individuals and entities may be approved to offer nontraditional legal services to the public by nontraditional providers or traditional providers using novel approaches and means, including options not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct and other applicable rules.”

And, as for the relevant regulatory principles? Those will be as follows:

  1. Regulation should be based on the evaluation of risk to the consumer.
  2. Risk to the consumer should be evaluated relative to the current legal services options available.
  3. Regulation should establish probabilistic thresholds for acceptable levels of harm.
  4. Regulation should be empirically driven.
  5. Regulation should be guided by a market-based approach.

There is a 90-day comment period on the proposal which ends on July 23, 2020. That comment period is not only for Utahns. (And, yes, according to the Standing Order that is how to refer to a collection of residents of Utah. College football fans likely believed, and My Cousin Vinny fanatics would likely have been demanding, that Utes to be the official term.)

Essential? It depends.

So, I have now been exclusively working from home for . . . a number of days that … who am I kidding? Just like you, I barely can keep track of time at this point. March seems to have been 3 years long so far. It’s definitely been a while. And, importantly for context of this post, I’ve been doing it now for longer than the time that my firm’s office has now been closed.

My firm’s office, the Memphis office, of our multi-office firm, closed at 6pm on I think it was Tuesday of this past week. We did this because the “safer at home” order entered by the Mayor of Memphis went into effect at 6pm that day and it indicated that lawyers delivering legal services were only “essential services” exempt from the stay-at-home restrictions when we were delivering legal services necessary to the delivery of others who were providing essential services.

Our office had to go a different route than our Nashville office because Nashville’s “safer at home” order treated the delivery of legal services as essential services without exception.

This discrepancy from municipality to municipality in our state has prompted the Tennessee Bar Association to issue a public statement lobbying for the idea that lawyers should be treated as essential services under any such orders. Discrepancies elsewhere have also caused the American Bar Association to lobby for the same outcome: that any order requiring people to stay at home should include an exception for lawyers as essential services.

But, here’s the thing. In the context of orders for public safety designed to keep people in their homes for social distancing and prevent people from commuting to common spaces for the performance of work — most of us lawyers are not performing that kind of “essential services.”

Most of us with law licenses and an internet connection can do our jobs from the safety (both our own safety and the safety of others) of our home.

The taking of nuanced positions is difficult in normal times. It is incredibly difficult in the middle of a pandemic, but I feel obligated to say to both the TBA and the ABA that it is fundamentally irresponsible to stake out a non-nuanced position on this topic.

In the middle of a pandemic, certain things are undeniably essential services: healthcare, food, water, things related to infrastructure… the list is admittedly longer than that… but reasonable people should be able to agree that, in such circumstances, only certain lawyers in certain situations should qualify as essential services.

Lawyers representing criminal defendants? Absolutely. Lawyers working as prosecutors? Absolutely. Lawyers who somehow actually have a trial that is actually going forward despite the circumstances? Certainly. Lawyers representing juveniles defending themselves in delinquency proceedings where the juveniles could end up in prison? Yes.

But, the rest of us? No matter how important what we are doing is – and I’m NOT trying to gainsay the importance…I’m doing quite a few things that I would defy anyone to argue are not important right now (well, not “right now,” right now I’m just writing an incredibly unimportant blogpost) — but in the context of a discussion about whether we have to go to a business location, and require other staff members to do the same, the answer has to be simply no.

Lawyers are exceedingly important. But so many of us can do the things we do on a daily basis using only technology and so much of what we do can routinely be pushed off for 30 days at a time that, if the circumstances weren’t so grave, it would be almost laughable for us to be arguing so hard to be treated as exempt from stay-at-home requirements.

Change seems like it never comes … right up until it does.

So, I’m not a public health expert and I try to pride myself on not talking too much about conversations to which I am unable to meaningfully contribute. Thus, I’m not going to purport to speak directly to how to be dealing with the pandemic looming over everything. I’ve been doing what little I can to try to help “flatten the curve,” because I’m economically privileged enough and have robust access to technology to be able to do so. If you are in a similar situation, I hope you will do the same.

I’m going to instead focus on something much smaller … the disappointing news out of California yesterday that goes a long way toward kneecapping the efforts of the California ATILS task force. As mentioned in an earlier post, the ATILS task force itself had already scaled down its efforts but the California State Bar voted down significant aspects of even the watered-down proposal.

If you’d like to read the details, you can do so at this The American Lawyer article. If you’d like a sense of what comes next, you can read this Twitter thread from Andrew Arruda, a very irked member of the task force.

All I want to say for today is that I don’t think the California State Bar is going to have the last word on this, not by a long shot.

Beyond the fact that the post-pandemic world is going to be different, I’m not prepared to predict what different exactly looks like. But it seems clear already that, at least in the United States, we are learning quickly that a lot of things people have been told weren’t possible actually are.

Your job likely can be done remotely through telecommuting. The for-profit health system can make allowance to discount costs. A quality legal education can be obtained through online classes. Courts do not have to have as many in-person hearings in order to dispense justice.

The list is much, much longer.

It is hard not to think that there are going to be a variety of businesses, large and small (including law firms), that will not be able to survive in an environment where large swaths of the population do not venture out of their house for much of a 30 or 60 day period. It won’t all be businesses in the food and beverage delivery industry and businesses that otherwise require large groups to gather. Yet, given the legalistic nature of U.S. society today, the demand for people to be helped with their legal and contractual rights likely only increases.

Whether that translates to an increased demand for lawyers to do those things though is a lot less clear.

Innovations will likely happen out of necessity.

In the meantime, stay safe out there.

Late to the podcast party.

As a white male in my mid-forties, it was probably inevitable that I’d end up with an appearance on a podcast since an unfathomably high number of podcasts are showcases for my demographic to espouse their views on things. While I’m a bit late to the party (46), my turn has come around.

More seriously, I was grateful and honored to be a guest on The Podvocate, a podcast produced through the Loyola School of Law in Chicago. We talked about the future of legal ethics with an emphasis on the impetus for, and the state of play of, efforts to re-regulate the profession but also weaved into the discussion a slice of what’s going on in D.C. and whether lawyers are demonstrating reason to believe they value independence of professional judgment under our current system. You can give it a listen at this link: https//soundcloud.com/thepodvocate/season-2-episode-17. The host, Jim Alrutz, does a very fine job of steering the discussion and has a bright future.

If you’re looking to read the voice of someone who is not a white male in his forties on one of these topics, I’d recommend checking out this post from a friend who is a lawyer in Wisconsin at her blog: www.ethicking.com. The post is more than a month old at this point, but, if you haven’t read it, it’s still quite good.

ABA favors innovation but really stresses the “no” part.

Okay. Now that all of the problems with the erosion of the rule of law in our country have been solved, I can write that post about the onslaught of developments in the last little bit related to potential efforts to “re-regulate” the legal profession.

Just kidding. Rule of law is still ENTIRELY in jeopardy despite the fact that more than 2,000 former officials of the U.S. Department of Justice have co-signed a letter calling on the current Attorney General of the U.S. to resign.

Nevertheless, we are doing this long-contemplated post today. So, in just the first two months of 2020, there have been several developments demonstrating continued momentum for reform in the world of legal ethics and the delivery of legal services.

In Utah, that states rapidly-moving effort continues apace. Utah’s Implementation Task Force on Regulatory Reform is up and running. And its website is accepting inquiries about participation in its Legal Regulatory Sandbox at this link.

In Arizona, a petition was filed on January 30, 2020 seeking to have the Arizona Supreme Court, among other things, delete its RPC 5.4. The petition was filed by a member of the Arizona Task Force on the Delivery of Legal Services who serves as the Chair of one of its work groups. The petitioner also happens to be Administrative Director of the Arizona Administrative Office of Courts.

Even earlier during January 2020, the Global Legal Practice Committee of the D.C. Bar put out a formal request for public comment about a number of topics related to its existing RPC 5.4. In so doing, Washington, D.C., which has permitted a limited form of non-lawyer ownership opportunities in law firms since 1991 has now announced feedback on seven pretty-thorough bullet point requests, ending with: “If D.C.’s existing Rule 5.4 should not be changed, why not?”

News reports in January 2020 indicate that the Connecticut Bar has launched a task force called the State of the Legal Profession Task Force.

California has a crucial meeting of its Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services on tap for February 24, 2020. The agenda for that meeting lists seven report and recommendations and one clarifying statement up for consideration. Included in the list is not only what sounds like some minor amendments to California’s RPC 5.4 but also implementation of some form of regulatory sandbox focused on being a pilot program to gather data, and the study of a licensing program to allow people other than lawyers to provide certain kinds of limited legal services.

And, most recently, the ABA House of Delegates has adopted Resolution 115 to seek to encourage states (such as those mentioned above that are already far out in front of the ABA) to pursue innovation.

When originally circulated, ABA Resolution 115 was the kind of thing that read as short, to the point, and (particularly given all the task forces already in place in various states) seemingly not truly all that controversial:

RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association encourages U.S. jurisdictions to consider innovative approaches to the access to justice crisis in order to help the more than 80% of people below the poverty line and the majority of middle-income Americans who lack meaningful access to civil legal services.

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association encourages U.S. jurisdictions to consider regulatory innovations that have the potential to improve the accessibility, affordability, and quality of civil legal services, while also ensuring necessary and appropriate protections that best serve the public, including the provision of legal counsel for children facing essential civil legal matters, for anyone facing a possible loss of physical liberty, and for low income individuals in adversarial proceedings where basic human needs are at stake.

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association encourages U.S. jurisdictions to collect and assess data regarding regulatory innovations both before and after the adoption of any innovations to ensure that changes are effective in increasing access to legal services and are in the public interest.

And, yet, even that was a step-too-far in the world of ABA politics as a number of prominent slices of ABA membership, including the New York State Bar and the Solo and Small Firm section of the ABA, went on the attack against Resolution 115 as a radical proposal.

Perhaps thinking it would be hard to imagine how the reaction to a sort of milquetoast resolution encouraging the exploration of innovative ideas to engendering such vociferous opposition, far too many media outlets reported on the resolution as proposing significant changes to the Model Rules when, in fact, no rule revisions at all were actually included.

Thereafter, the forces in favor of Resolution 115 made amendments to try to provide reassurance to the clamor from a variety of groups. In so doing, what was already a “meh” proposal was watered down even further. Specifically, the resolution was revised to add an additional “Further resolved” paragraph at the end:

FURTHER RESOLVED, That nothing in this Resolution should be construed as altering any of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, including Rule 5.4, as they relate to nonlawyer ownership of law firms, the unauthorized practice of law, or any other subject.

The extensive and thorough report that accompanied the Resolution was also pared down to remove references to, and discussions of, a number of efforts at exploration that have occurred or are under consideration in various jurisdictions, including in the area of considering revisions to RPC 5.4 and to allowing non-lawyer ownership. As a result, the original nine-page report became a three-page report. And given that the addition of the third “Further Resolved” paragraph just reads as surplus of the silly sort, it is the defenestration of 2/3 of what the Report had to say originally that is the true loss.

Having been further watered down to the point where it was still a resolution encouraging innovation but strongly signaling that some innovations would be encouraged a lot less than others, Resolution 115, as amended, passed the ABA House of Delegates with overwhelming support.

I mean, “Yay!” … I guess. If a half of a loaf is better than no loaf at all, then so it follows as well that a quarter of a loaf is better than the complete absence of a loaf. But I still can’t help but think of the message of Resolution 115 as being a lot like one of my favorite moments from the show Reno 911:

And I tell you what, ma’am — We are gonna tell you that we are gonna try our best.

That’s what we’re gonna tell you. We’ll try our best. Thank you.

We aim to try. We aim to try — That’s our motto.

That’s what our motto is becoming.

The future of legal ethics?

What I’d like to write about is a series of stories that have been piling up on pretty important developments on various fronts touching on the efforts to re-regulate the legal profession and debates about whether and how to do that … and all of those things would seem to be very important. But I’m not writing about that today because other things are going on that raise a much more immediate, potentially much more alarming, issue — is there even a viable future for legal ethics that means anything at all?

Yesterday, a number of alarming things happened rapidly to raise real questions about whether efforts to try to re-regulate the profession and tackle subjects like law firm ownership, fee-sharing, and payments for referral or other marketing arrangements to make legal services more affordable for middle-class consumers and possibly increase overall access to justice is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The first thing you need to remember – in case it somehow slipped your mind — is that among the many people who have been convicted or plead guilty from within the President’s campaign circle is a man named Roger Stone. Stone was convicted for lying to Congress about his contacts with the Trump campaign and with WikiLeaks and for obstructing the Congressional probe into Russian influence in the 2016 election and for witness tampering. Prior to yesterday’s events, the federal prosecutors handling his case had filed paperwork with the court recommending that the appropriate sentence range for Stone would be between 7 and 9 years.

Then came yesterday. First, at about 1 a.m., the current occupant of The White House took to Twitter to complain that the sentencing recommendation made by the federal prosecutors handling the case against Roger Stone was too harsh. This was what he had to say:

Later that morning, the Department of Justice announced that it will be making a new recommendation for a shorter, less-harsh sentence, effectively overriding what federal prosecutors had already communicated to the court and certainly seeming to be in reaction to the tweet.

Later in the day, the third President in U.S. history to be impeached publicly stated that he had every right to tell the Department of Justice what to do. You can go see that video here.

By the end of the day, all four federal prosecutors who were counsel of record for the United States in the Stone case had filed papers to withdraw from the representation and one of those four also resigned altogether from their position as an AUSA and another resigned his position as a Special Assistant Attorney in DC while intending to keep his job as an AUSA in Baltimore. Then the media reports came out to indicate that the Attorney General of the United States was now personally taking on all of the cases that mattered to the guy who is likely, if the United States Congress is paying attention, to become the 1st President in United States history to be impeached twice. In addition to intervening in the Stone matter, the article indicates sources are relaying that Barr also was behind the change in the approach to sentencing for Michael Flynn another of Trump’s campaign comrades who pled guilty to lying to the FBI and is now, two years later, trying to withdraw his guilty plea.

I’ve written before about the fundamental problem under the ethics rules if not otherwise for the Attorney General of the United States to act as if he were the personal attorney for the President rather than the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. You can read that here.

But more importantly you can pretty quickly get up to speed on yesterday’s very troubling developments here, here, and here. Or if you want to go straight to the source to confirm what is going on, you can read this from this morning:

And, if you want some reference to the actual ethics rules to feel like this post somehow really counts as “on ethics,” let’s talk a bit about how the four AUSAs who are seeking to withdraw from the Stone case are – unlike their Attorney General — complying with their ethical obligations under the ethics rules.

They appear to have a keen awareness that, as lawyers representing the United States, the United States as an entity is their client and not the guy occupying the Oval Office. Both the Model Rules and state analogs, including D.C., uniformly make plain that when you represent an organization, the entity is your client. Both the Model Rules and state analogs, including D.C., pretty uniformly impose ethical obligations on a lawyer representing a governmental entity or other organization who comes to know that officers of the entity are acting in ways that violate the law.

Some state variations on RPC 1.13, including mine here in Tennessee (which admittedly has no bearing on any aspect of the Stone case) not only impose those requirements for reporting up the ladder in the organization but demand that “[i]f despite the lawyer’s efforts in accordance with paragraph (b) the highest authority that can act on behalf of the organization insists upon or fails to address in a timely and appropriate manner an action, or a refusal to act, that is clearly a violation of law, and is likely to result in substantial injury to the organization, the lawyer may withdraw in accordance with RPC 1.16….”

Please do go read the links. It is not really all that hyperbolic to describe this situation as truly jeopardizing the rule of law in our country. The fire may be spreading so rapidly that we’re about to be out of glass to try and break.

WhatsApp at Atrium? A lot, but also WhatsApp with you?

Now, I’m certain the 5 or 6 of you still left who haven’t been alienated by the long hiatus are a bit miffed about the lack of content over the last couple of weeks.

Fair, but technically there has been new content posted to the blog first on January 10 and then on January 12, just not by me. Two interesting comments on this post of mine about Atrium Law were left by someone who — other news sources tell me – may well have been one of the lawyers laid off by Atrium in the past few weeks.

Now I’m not really in the breaking of legal news business as much as the commenting on breaking legal news business so the fact that I life and work conspired to cause me to miss the opportunity to be among the first to speak on that development is not so bad. My delay allows me to instead point you to a number of good pieces that have been written about the goings on over at Atrium. Try here, here, and here.

For today, I want to try getting slightly out in front of a different issue that needs to be relevant to lawyers struggling with finding the right balance for how to engage in electronic communications with clients on various platforms. While “scary” is an overused term in a world as unstable as ours and where wealth is unevenly distributed and people all over the world truly live in scary conditions, concerns associated with the security of communications platforms can at least be “scary” at the “world of lawyering” level.

With WhatsApp being a pretty prominent texting platform, particularly for international organizations, the news of one or possibly two very prominent apparent hacks through use of that platform should make lawyers very cautious about using it to communicate with clients. The one that seems more concrete is the news regarding Amazon’s CEO having been hacked by a Saudi Arabian royal through the sending of a link through WhatsApp. You can read a good article about that trending story here. That article also helpfully reminds users of the fact that a similar-sounding vulnerability was acknowledged and patched by the app in November 2019.

The more speculative story making the rounds ties together these stories about potentially improper use of personal devices and apps to pursue official White House business and the known friendship Jared Kushner and the particular Saudi Arabian royal involved in the alleged Jeff Bezos hack.

Now, others have written long ago about reasons to be concerned about whether this particular app can be used ethically at all given other issues that are known risks, like this article that was in Above the Law more almost a year ago.

Prominent news stories such as these raise the specter of concern over less obvious risks of use. Such risks tied in with the fact that almost every state now has adopted some version of the “ethical duty of technical competence” concept through embrace of language in paragraph [8] of the Comment to ABA Model Rule 1.1 just adds more fodder for lawyers to be wary of the risks associated with third-party platforms when communicating with clients and to be deliberate about deciding whether to address such concerns in advance through language in engagement agreements.