Everything is arbitrable in New Jersey. (Sort of)

Lawyers and law firms have long struggled – at least during the length of my career – with whether they can, or should, include a provision in their contracts with clients that would require arbitration of some, or all, kinds of disputes.

In situations where a local or state bar association offers a free, voluntary fee dispute arbitration forum, the decision to put something into an engagement letter requiring participation in such a tribunal upon demand tends to be an easier call.

Seeking to have clients agree to arbitrate fee disputes and only fee disputes also tends to be an easier call even in the absence of bar association provided venues.

Whether a lawyer can, or should, seek to have a client agree to arbitrate all claims or disputes, is much trickier stuff. Many jurisdictions do not offer much in the way of formal ethics guidance beyond making clear that you cannot avoid having to take a trip through your state’s disciplinary process by trying to claim that an agreement to arbitrate disputes would include preventing a client from pursuing a grievance against the lawyer’s license. (In fact, in some places, simply trying to do that could get you into disciplinary trouble.) Another issue that exists in this realm but is often not fully focused upon is any impact that federal law, and specifically the Federal Arbitration Act, would have on enforceability in that it can be difficult for a client to try to argue that the nature of a legal matter does not affect interstate commerce. If the FAA is recognized as applying, then obstacles to enforcing an arbitration agreement with a client should be significantly reduced.

In advising lawyers on the topic, I have tried to be practical about the risk associated with such provisions and the need to be exceedingly clear and transparent about how any such provision is explained to a client. (I also make an effort to strongly suggest that the lawyer communicate with their professional liability insurance carrier as those folks tend to have strong opinions about whether arbitration is a good forum for resolving a legal malpractice claim or whether it is more likely to result in a “split-the-baby” outcome.) I have not actually written anything about this topic here in more than five years though.

Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued a thorough, and pretty good, opinion navigating the waters of how an attorney may balance their ethical duties of communication with obtaining an enforceable arbitration agreement from a client. Unfortunately, for the law firm in question that was involved in the litigation, the decision is only applicable on a going-forward basis. In that regard, it is helpful to know that the nature of the dispute in question was an engagement agreement between a lawyer and a sophisticated business client, a fee dispute was being arbitrated and the client then brought a lawsuit for legal malpractice. The engagement agreement established arbitration through JAMS and included a hyperlink in the engagement agreement where the 33-pages of JAMS rules were available, but the lawyer did not provide the actual JAMS rules to the client at that time.

One can certainly quibble with the New Jersey court’s analysis of application of the FAA given that it still clearly treats a contract between a lawyer and a client differently from other commercial contracts. The New Jersey court doesn’t actually confront the fact that it is treating an arbitration provision in an attorney-client contract differently from one in another type of contract. Instead, it compares arbitration provisions in an attorney-client contract with all other provisions in an attorney-client contract and says:

“When viewed through the lens of the RPCs, arbitration provisions are not treated differently from other provisions in a retainer agreement. Requiring attorneys to explain to a client the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration so that the client can make an informed decision whether to arbitrate a future fee dispute or legal malpractice claim against the firm does not single out a retainer agreement’s arbitration provision for disparate treatment and therefore does not run afoul of the FAA or NJAA. See Snow, 176 A.3d at 739; see also Hodges, 103 So. 3d at 1077.”

One can also argue about the fact that the opinion makes no effort to address the notion that a person who hasn’t yet signed an engagement agreement isn’t a client of the lawyer and so all of the arguments about fiduciary duties attorneys owe to clients and ethical obligations to clients are not actually on point unless you assume and agree that the law should treat a potential client as a client during the process of negotiating a fee agreement.

For lawyers generally though, even if you are not in New Jersey, the opinion provides pretty safe guidance to look to follow if you want to head down the path of pursuing such a provision.

You can access and read the full opinion here, but I’ll close by offering what I think are the two best excerpts:

We now hold that, for an arbitration provision in a retainer agreement to be enforceable, an attorney must generally explain to a client the benefits and disadvantages of arbitrating a prospective dispute between the attorney and client. Such an explanation is necessary because, to make an informed decision, the client must have a basic understanding of the fundamental differences between an arbitral forum and a judicial forum in resolving a future fee dispute or malpractice action. See RPC 1.4(c).
An arbitration provision in a retainer agreement is an acknowledgement that the lawyer and client may be future adversaries. That the retainer agreement envisions a potential future adverse relationship between the attorney and client — and seeks to control the dispute-resolution forum and its procedures — raises the specter of conflicting interests. An arbitral forum and judicial forum, and their accompanying procedures, are significantly different.
We do not make any value judgment about whether an arbitral or a
judicial forum would be more beneficial to a client if the client and attorney part as adversaries. We conclude, however, that an attorney’s fiduciary obligation mandates the disclosure of the essential pros and cons of the arbitration provision so that the client can make an informed decision whether arbitration is to the client’s advantage. See RPC 1.4(c). That obligation is in keeping with an attorney’s basic responsibility to explain provisions of a retainer agreement that may not be clear on their face. Accordingly, the disclosures required of an attorney in explaining an arbitration provision in a retainer agreement stand on an equal footing with the disclosures required in explaining other material provisions in the agreement. Such comparable treatment does not offend the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C. §§ 1 to 16, or the New Jersey Arbitration Act (NJAA), N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-1 to -36.

and

Consistent with ABA Formal Opinion 02-425, the weight of authority as
expressed in professional advisory opinions and judicial case law in other jurisdictions, and this Court’s interpretation of its own RPCs, we hold that attorneys who insert provisions in their retainer agreements to arbitrate future fee disputes or legal malpractice claims must explain the advantages and disadvantages of the arbitral and judicial forums. Attorneys can fulfill that requirement in writing or orally — or by both means.
Attorneys may explain, for example, that in arbitration the client will not have a trial before a jury in a courtroom open to the public; the outcome of the arbitration will not be appealable and will remain confidential; the client may be responsible, in part, for the costs of the arbitration proceedings, including payments to the arbitrator; and the discovery available in arbitration may be
more limited than in a judicial forum.
Additionally, a lawyer who drafts a retainer agreement that channels any future legal malpractice action into an arbitral forum must say so directly in the written agreement. The client should not be left to discern the meaning of language that is clothed in ambiguity.

The New Jersey Supreme Court also referred the topic to the state bar’s Advisory Committee on Ethics for the issuance of any further ethical guidance deemed appropriate about the obligations of disclosure for New Jersey attorneys.

A lawsuit about a lawsuit that touches on everything about 2019?

If time capsules were still a thing (are they still a thing?), and someone wanted to capture issues facing the legal profession in 2019 for a time capsule to be buried… what sort of topics would you choose to include?

Outside of the legal dynamics at play in the political landscape of the nation (which I’m excluding for today just for purposes of sanity), a quick effort to sketch things out on scratch paper might find you listing:

  • Risks of the flow of information involving modern technology
  • Financial pressures placed on lawyers and law firms
  • Continuing difficulties in achieving and maintaining diversity in law firms
  • How #metoo and problems of power and sexual misconduct in the workplace play out in law firms.
  • The role of businesses other than law firms in the delivery of legal services and what that means for the profession.

I’m probably leaving something out, but those bullet points comprise a pretty good overview of the legal landscape, right? Surely, you couldn’t find one document that would touch all of that to throw into the time capsule?

Well, thanks to a new lawsuit filed in California in May about another lawsuit filed in New York in May, you can now fill your time capsule with just one complaint plus its Exhibit A.

You may already have read any of the stories about this lawsuit that have run at the ABA Journal or in Bloomberg Law or even this Harvard Law School and snark-centric one at Above the Law.

If you want to read the entirety of what would go in the time capsule, you can read the lawsuit filed by Pierce Bainbridge against Donald Lewis (which attaches the suit Lewis filed against Pierce Bainbridge as an exhibit) by downloading the PDF below.

The two documents combined span more than 110 pages, so here’s a summary.

Lewis joined Pierce Bainbridge as a partner in June of 2018 but ended up working there for only 4 or 5 months. He was terminated by the firm in November 2018. Both sides agree that during the five months he was there A LOT happened. They disagree pretty vehemently on exactly what though.

Lewis filed a lawsuit in New York on May 15, 2019 alleging that he was wrongly terminated as a retaliatory matter because Lewis had become aware of financial wrongdoing by Pierce Bainbridge involving misrepresentations about the value of cases to a third-party litigation funding company. Lewis’s lawsuit sought $65 million in total damages with $50 million of those being claimed punitive damages.

In support of his allegations against the firm and his claims that it is a toxic environment for those who work there, Lewis’s lawsuit publicly discloses a litany of internal Pierce Bainbridge communications including what would appear to be not just emails and text messages but some that are indicated as being from the firm’s use of the Slack messaging platform.

That same day, May 15, 2019, Pierce Bainbridge filed a lawsuit against Lewis in California alleging that pre-suit sharing of a draft of the lawsuit with certain people was actionable defamation by Lewis and that by seeking a multi-million settlement to avoid filing the lawsuit, Lewis was engaged in extortion. The firm’s lawsuit also pursues claims of negligent and intentional interference with contractual relations and prospective economic advantage on the theory that Lewis’s effort to spread false information about the firm and its partners is an effort to damage the firm’s relationship with the third-party funding company and its clients and potential future clients.

Pierce Bainbridge contends that Lewis was the subject of credible allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and retaliation leveled against him by an employee of the law firm and that he attempted to obstruct the firm’s internal investigation of those allegations and was terminated on that basis. The firm’s lawsuit paints a portrait of a lateral hire alleged to have “immediately bec[ome] a corrosive presence” at the firm.

The firm alleges that on the same day Lewis was appointed to be an “assigning partner” a legal assistant made a report about an alleged event that would have occurred in June, fewer than 2 months after Lewis arrived, and that involves Lewis doing his best impression of what might happen if Louis C.K. and Matt Lauer were collaborators on a workplace project. In response to the allegations, the firm put Lewis on administrative leave and hired an outside law firm to investigate. While on leave, the firm alleges that Lewis sent an email to many at the firm airing his allegations (many of which apparently ended up the subject of his lawsuit). For that, the firm says they terminated his employment. The firm contends that their outside counsel concluded that the allegations against Lewis were credible.

Lewis, for his part in his lawsuit which spans 486 numbered paragraphs and was not filed pro se, takes issue with the propriety of that investigation as well and alleges that another partner at the firm was terminated after voicing an opinion that Lewis had gotten “a raw deal” from the firm

Using history as a guide, I’m prepared to declare that neither side will win this lawsuit. As a teaching tool, this lawsuit of course is an easy opportunity to repeat a point I’ve made many times before (here and elsewhere) about why so many law firm disputes and lawyer departures ultimately shouldn’t end up in litigation if there is any way to avoid it. The likelihood almost always is that no one “wins.” Everyone loses. And most prominently among the losers are the clients of the law firms/lawyers who don’t want to directly or even indirectly be harmed by the battle and, if they are at all risk averse, have to find themselves wondering whether they want anything to do with any of the players.

Lawyers engaging in criminal conduct. Big love for immunity in Texas.

Let me offer a word or two or probably 1,000 about two recent items of interest having the issue of lawyers involved in crimes as their common thread. One comes from the Fifth Circuit and the other comes from an ABA Journal article about a situation in Utah.

First, the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in Troice v. Greenberg Traurig, LLP handed down on April 17, 2019. That case is one of many pieces of litigation involving the Allen Stanford Ponzi scheme. Specifically, this case involved a potential class action involved claims against Greenberg Traurig under a vicarious liability theory alleging that an attorney at Greenberg Traurig conspired with Stanford to further his scheme.

I am a big believer that the scope of immunity for civil liability to third parties for lawyers in connection with their acts in the representation of clients should be very broad. The most widely known version of this kind of immunity for lawyers is often referred to as the litigation privilege.

A readily-understandable example of which is this: a lawyer is representing a client and files a lawsuit for the client against a company alleging that the company’s products are defective and unsafe, according to the litigation privilege as a form of immunity, the company shouldn’t be able to sue the lawyer for defamation over those allegations.

As a proponent for this immunity to be broad in scope, I was not surprised to see the Fifth Circuit rule that Texas law would provide immunity even with respect to matters outside of litigation as long as they occurred within the scope of the representation of a client. What I was initially puzzled by, however, was the Fifth Circuit’s conclusion that a lawyer could even be immune from civil liability to a third party for criminal conduct.

My immediate reaction flowed from thinking about the fact that the ethics rules [RPC 1.2(d)] specifically delineate that “[a] lawyer shall not … assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is criminal.” Thus, there might be a logical basis for arguing that a lawyer using her representation to assist a client in committing a crime should not be treated as acting within the scope of a representation for purposes of civil immunity but would be treated as something outside of the scope of a legitimate representation.

Of course, the problem with that logic is how I had to insert “legitimate” in as a modifier for “representation.” Such an approach would raise questions about an array of other ways that a lawyer might violate the ethics rules during representation of a client and whether those acts should also trigger a loss of immunity from liability to third parties.

Although the opinion did not really get into any discussion of ethics rules, the Fifth Circuit was confronted by a similar argument from the plaintiffs — that criminal conduct by a lawyer is necessarily outside the scope of normal representation:

The plaintiffs also argue “attorneys are not immune from suit when they engage in criminal conduct.” Their contention is not that criminal conduct is an exception to the general rule immunizing behavior in the scope of representation but rather that criminal acts are categorically never within” that scope.

The Fifth Circuit, applying and interpreting/predicting Texas law, walked through how the Texas courts look at the issue not based on the nature of the attorney’s alleged conduct (i.e. criminal or not) but on the type of conduct (i.e. does it look like something that amounts to legal services to a client or not). Given that fact, it was easy for the Fifth Circuit to say that even alleged criminal conduct by a lawyer can be in the scope of a representation for purposes of evaluating civil immunity.

The prospect of civil immunity even for allegedly criminal conduct, however, likely does not change the fact such conduct is sufficiently dis-incentivized in other respects.

It can still subject the lawyer to potential criminal liability. And, of course, lawyers also still face the risk of professional discipline for most criminal behavior.

Most, but not all.

Which brings us to the Utah story and whether or not lawyers should face discipline for criminal conduct, if the criminal conduct in question involves polygamy. Utah apparently has a criminal statute that makes involvement in a polygamous relationship subject to as much as fifteen years in prison. The short ABA Journal piece discusses the background – a complaint has been brought by a former member of something called the Davis County Cooperative Society where polygamy is pervasive headed up by a lawyer leader — and stressing that Utah’s relevant ethics rule – like most – only addresses criminal conduct that “reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness” as a lawyer.

In most instances, one would think that an attorney would have a hard time pulling off a polygamous relationship without engaging in some acts of dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation but perhaps not here. Given the lawyer’s role as a leader of the Davis County Cooperative Society it sounds like the conduct is occurring out in the open so that deception is not part of the picture. Thus, the only way for RPC 8.4 to come into play would be for someone to try to argue that polygamy is a crime that reflects adversely on fitness as a lawyer.

As there are far too many jokes that could be made with that set up, I’ll refrain and, instead, focus on the original point about civil immunity. If Utah’s approach, was the same as the Fifth Circuit said Texas’s was, then it should mean that a lawyer could have potential civil liability to a third party for a polygamous relationship itself but a lawyer who, for example, represents clients in drafting up contracts related to a polygamous relationship, should be entitled to immunity.

Rarer than rare

I could try to open this post with references to song lyrics from either Toad the Wet Sprocket or Arctic Monkeys, but, either way, I’d likely lose most of you from the jump. (I could also try to claim knowledge of the Glenn Miller song that uses the exact phrase but while I may look it I’m just not old enough to know that reference.)

So, instead, we’ll go straight into the situation referenced by the title of the post. I’ve written in the past about the rare nature of instances of departures from law firms actually resulting in litigation and the rare nature of law firms suing other law firms over advertising practices. But what we discuss today is much rarer than either of those things, a corporation filing suit against its former general counsel for what is the equivalent of a claim for legal malpractice .

In the last few weeks there has been discussion in the legal press of a $70 million lawsuit filed by Hertz against three of its former high-level executives. One of those three defendants is Hertz’s former General Counsel. (He was also an EVP and Secretary but the lawsuit focuses only on his status as General Counsel so we shall do the same.)

So, what’s the deal? Well, Hertz has had some trouble over the years with the SEC where it ended up having to restate its financials for fiscal years 2011, 2012, and 2013. The restatement filing was made with the SEC in 2015 and amounted to a $231 million reduction in Hertz’s net income. The restatement was attributed to “material weaknesses” in Hertz’s internal controls which the lawsuit is claiming were either caused or made worse by the mismanagement of the company by the three defendants being sued, including the former General Counsel.

If you want to read a good summary treatment of the suit, you can grab one here or here. It certainly details a story of significant corporate turmoil and upheaval and paints a very unflattering picture of the former CEO (who is one of the three named defendants) and his management style. If you are interested in reading the full lawsuit filed in federal court in New Jersey, you can get it here.

If you want to get a clear flavor of the kinds of allegations involved without getting fully into the weeds – and in particular the almost “ride-along” nature of the case against the General Counsel – paragraph 6 of the Complaint is a pretty good landing point. (Frissora was the CEO; Douglas was the CFO; and Zimmerman is the General Counsel in question.)

Upon learning that Hertz might miss a financial target, Frissora would demand mandatory team-wide calls and continuous weekend meetings, and would repeatedly berate subordinates who did not come up with a sufficient number of “paradigm-busting” accounting strategies to fill the gaps between Hertz’s actual and expected performance, accusing them of not being team players if they would not play his game. Defendants Douglas and Zimmerman – Frissora’s right-hand subordinates who were entrusted with effectuating his orders — failed to stop, effectively counterbalance, or otherwise offset or report to Hertz’s board of directors . . . Frissora’s inappropriately forceful tone, in breach of their duties owed to Hertz.

The suit seeks to claw-back somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million in incentive-based payments that were made to the three including significant amounts of money paid to each on their way out the door after they resigned and the financial problems had become known – payments that the lawsuit itself tags with the shorthand reference “Golden Parachutes.”

Paragraph 21 of the Complaint goes into the most details in terms of the allegations against the General Counsel. It does not, of course, reference the ethical duties that a lawyer to an organizational entity owed under RPC 1.13 but, at its heart, the dynamic that is discussed in that rule in most jurisdictions is exactly what this lawsuit is all about: the allegation that if Zimmerman wasn’t able to stop Frissora from engaging in wrongdoing he should have informed the Board of Directors of Hertz about what was going on.

Based on not much more than a very surface-level read, it is an extremely interesting story where I’d love to learn what the other side of it looks like. Given how rare this kind of lawsuit is, it would not be at all surprising for it to get resolved in a way that does not end up shedding light on whether the former general counsel’s story is one where he’s joined at the hip with the former CEO in a belief that everyone was trying to do the best thing for Hertz or if his story is one in which he wasn’t comfortable with what was going on but didn’t think he could rock any boats or somewhere in between. (One note of curiosity about the litigation and the dynamic, one of the two articles linked above goes into details about how the defendants in the New Jersey federal court suit have become plaintiffs in a suit filed in Delaware to seek to make Hertz pay them for the costs incurred in defending the suit Hertz has brought.)

At this point at least, and regardless of how any of it plays out further, the situation offers a ready highlight for lawyers who represent entities, and particularly in-house counsel, about how important it is to always remember that it is the entity that is the client – and not any particular officer – and how big the stakes can be when it comes to trying to figure out whether the person giving you instructions is acting in the best interest of that entity or not.

Asking for a conflict waiver is a step that is hard to take back.

Look, I understand too little too late
I realize there are things you say and do
You can never take back
But what would you be if you didn’t even try
You have to try
So after a lot of thought
I’d like to reconsider
Please
If it’s not too late
Make it a cheeseburger

– Lyle Lovett

Working though questions of conflicts of interest can certainly be challenging for lawyers.  The initial phases of figuring out whether a conflict exists are highly important.

From a loss prevention standpoint, you want to get it right as you certainly do not want to take something on that you shouldn’t because you had a conflict that you simply couldn’t even ask to be waived or for which you strongly suspected you’d never be able to get a waiver from those from whom a waiver would be needed.

It is also important to get right, however, so that you don’t treat something as a conflict that isn’t a conflict.  Once you start down the path of asking someone for a conflict waiver, you empower them to tell you “no” and you potentially reduce your choices about what to do in such event pretty severely.  It is not impossible to change course after unsuccessfully asking for a conflict waiver and begin to claim that the waiver wasn’t needed in the first place.  But it is certainly difficult.  Thus, it isn’t just the case that you don’t want to treat something as a conflict that isn’t a conflict; you also might want to think long and hard about treating something as a conflict if you intend to contend it isn’t a conflict.

An interesting story touching on just how difficult unwinding such a situation can be was written about by The American Lawyer earlier this week.  It involves an effort – seldom used (for reasons that ought to be a bit obvious) — to file a separate lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that something was not a conflict in the first place and an injunction to allow the lawyer to start working for a new firm.

You can read the full article here, but the short version is this: a Houston lawyer who was looking to change firms has been unable to do so because a corporate entity much in the news of late – USA Gymnastics — refused to provide a conflict waiver requested by the lawyer.  USA Gymnastics is a client of the lawyer’s former firm.  The firm to which the lawyer had hoped to move currently represents a number of individuals who have sued USA Gymnastics over the sordid situation involving Larry Nassar.

Typically, conflicts of interest get litigated through motions to disqualify.  Although firms and clients do not like to have to deal with those for obvious reasons, at least in those proceedings the firms and clients have the ability to argue that the party moving for disqualification has the burden of proof.  Even that procedural tool can be lost when the lawyer or firm is the one bringing the action to ask a court for a ruling that they have no conflict.

A quote from the story itself taken from the managing partner of the firm to which the lawyer wanted to go to work provides a helpful bit of transition:

The law as we understand it is that if a person worked at a law firm and doesn’t work on a case, and goes to work for another law firm that has that case and [the lawyer] is shielded from the case … there’s no conflict.

Now, if this were being governed by Tennessee law, I could readily delve into whether that statement would be correct or incorrect assertion of the state of play here, but these are events that involve other states and different rules.

But, to repeat the larger point, if that is what the relevant law or rules set out, then the lawyer and his new firm should never have sought the waiver in the first place.

Litigating your own work product – a tricky (at best) topic.

So, first things first, I am thoroughly surprised and incredibly honored to have made it into the ABA Journal’s 2018 Web 100.  If you are here for the first time because this happened, thanks for reading and feel free to look around as there is 3+ years of content you can read while you are on hold with customer support.  If you are a long-time reader here out of habit, I cherish you and you can rest easy knowing that you are still going to receive the same not-exactly-regularly-scheduled-mostly-maybe-twice-a-week-but-sometimes-only-once-a-week content you have come to expect.

Second things second:  I truly and profoundly recognize the irony that this post leads off crowing about the Web 100 honor after literally just talking about how lawyers shouldn’t blow their own horn online six days ago.  But I’m going to just blow past that irony and move on to today’s offering which comes up more than you might imagine in real-world consultations and that is on the radar screen for today because of two recent developments — a recent ethics opinion from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and an order denying disqualification out of a Pittsburgh federal court.  If you are a Law360 subscriber you can read some about the Pennsylvania decision and even download the order now here.

Both the ethics opinion and the Pennsylvania decision grapple with what Bill Freivogel refers to on his site as the “Underlying Work” Problem. Bill has written a very good overview at that link of the problem for law firms when they decide to take on the litigation of a matter where its earlier work for the client involved will be at issue and, if history is any guide, will likely have a good summary of that case up relatively soon.

The short version of the order denying disqualification goes like this:  A visiting senior district judge denied a motion to disqualify the lawyer representing a company sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The nature of the claim is that the employee was wrongfully denied extra breaks to deal with her anxiety issues.  The genesis of the disqualification dispute was that the lawyer in question was also the lawyer who gave the company the legal advice that it could deny the employee’s request for this accommodation.

The longer version of understanding how that might not be the outcome you’d expect is best laid out by discussing the recent, really-good, Texas opinion.

In Opinion 682, the Texas Committee explains how its version of the “advocate-witness” rule works under these facts:

A Texas lawyer assisted a client in drafting and negotiating a contract with another party represented by separate counsel.  A lawsuit arose concerning the meaning of certain provisions in the contract.  The lawyer drafted and negotiated those provisions.  The lawyer’s client wants the lawyer and a trial lawyer in the same firm to represent her in the lawsuit.  Both lawyers are attempting to ascertain whether they may do so, and if so, under what conditions, if any.

The opinion does a nice job of explaining the different analysis required for the individual attorney at the firm versus other attorneys at the same firm who were not actually involved in doing the underlying work.  The fundamental difference if it has to be cliff-noted is simply that the confusion involved in the dual role of witness and advocate is severely obviated when a different lawyer is doing the advocating.  The opinion also does a decent job of emphasizing a point that judges sometimes overlook when ruling on disqualification motions — that the disqualification for the witness-lawyer generally does not actually come into play until the trial – not during discovery or even pre-trial motion practice, just at the trial.

As Texas lawyers know, the numbering of the Texas ethics rules is a bit off from the ABA Model Rules even where the substance may be roughly the same.  So, while lawyers normally think of the ethics rule addressing lawyers as witnesses as being Rule 3.7, in Texas it is housed in Rule 3.08.  Although I think the Texas opinion provides the structural narrative for getting to the correct analysis even under the language of Model Rule 3.7, I think it is worth highlighting two pieces of Texas Rule 3.08 that likely are a real improvement on the Model Rule.

First, the rule includes an exception that seems obviously correct but is not actually addressed in the text of the Model Rule.  Texas’s rule makes plain that if the lawyer happens to be a party to the lawsuit and acting pro se, then the prohibition does not arise.  (I have a long history of trying [both for altruistic and pecuniary reasons]to discourage lawyers from acting pro se but it still happens and opposing counsel should not be able to try to use Model Rule 3.7 as a cudgel in such situations.)

Second, and more universally important, the Texas rule goes further in terms of requiring disclosure in two respects that I think are positive.  Like the Model Rule, the Texas rule acknowledges that “substantial hardship” for the client involved can provide an exception to the lawyer’s disqualification if they also have to be a witness.  Unlike the Model Rule, the Texas rule requires the lawyer who will be traveling under that exception to “promptly notif[y] opposing counsel that the lawyer expects to testify in the matter and disqualification of the lawyer would work substantial hardship on the client.”  The Texas rule also requires more disclosure to the client when the lawyer’s firm intends to handle the case by taking advantage of imputation of the witness-lawyer’s conflict not working its way to other lawyers at the firm by explicitly conditioning the ability to have some other lawyer at the firm handle upon “the client’s informed consent.”  I think that is a vital piece of the puzzle from a loss prevention standpoint for any firm in such a situation as fully discussing with the client on the front end what the plan is and the risk associated with additional expense in the form of motions to disqualify goes a long way to avoiding grief.

 

 

 

Nevada provides lawyers yet another reason not to blow their own horn online.

I have beaten the drum for many, many years now about lawyers not understanding the true scope of their obligation of confidentiality under rules patterned after ABA Model Rule 1.6.  The ability to quickly share information far and wide online has not been helpful to lawyers who lack that understanding.  I remain astounded at how lawyers do not seem to recognize the unnecessary risk they are taking on by touting achievements in particular cases online.

Now, of course, I’m not privy to discussions between those attorneys and their clients in advance of such efforts so, perhaps, everything I see is kosher because every time I see a lawyer engage in such conduct they have gotten their client’s consent to do so in advance.

Based on my experience over the past 20 years though, I’m highly skeptical of that.  What I think is much more likely is that because these sorts of things usually never amount to any disciplinary proceedings much less instances of public discipline, this just continues to be something that many lawyers do either on the basis that the risk is minimal compared to the perceived reward or on the basis that they don’t see any risk at all.

For some lawyers, it is the misunderstanding about how confidentiality functions that can be the problem as they either aren’t aware (or simply don’t care) about the counter-intuitive fact that a public jury verdict is still RPC 1.6 confidential information as far as the lawyer is concerned.  Those transgressions can likely be forgiven by most, if not all, involved.  But, particularly when the self-congratulatory efforts in question go beyond just providing information about a jury verdict and also opt to reveal information about pre-trial settlement negotiations, the egregious nature of the breach of confidentiality is nearly impossible to forgive.  And, thanks to the way the Internet works, it is certainly impossible to forget.

Just this week, I saw one of these posts from lawyers with whom I use to practice law blowing their own horn about a very large jury verdict and revealing what the settlement offer from the defense was before trial.  I hope that they were operating with the consent of their clients or, if they happen to be reading this, that they go and at least get retroactive consent from the client involved which is better than having never gotten consent at all.

As if the risk of discipline (even if perceived to be a small risk) wasn’t enough to discourage lawyers from self-congratulatory social media postings (and if you spend any time on social media you know that it isn’t enough to discourage most), the Nevada Supreme Court provides a new opinion in a piece of defamation litigation that ought to give lawyers another reason to think very, very carefully about blowing their own horn online.

In Patin v. Lee, the Nevada Supreme Court rejected the effort of a lawyer and a law firm to stop a defamation case brought against them by a dentist.  The dentist had been one of the opposing parties of the firm’s client in a dental malpractice case.  The lawyer and law firm tried through exercise of an anti-SLAPP motion to bring the defamation case to a quick end.  They were unsuccessful though as Nevada adopted California’s approach to determining whether something written online can be considered “in direct connection with an issue under consideration by a judicial body.”  If you aren’t familiar with the general concept of anti-SLAPP statutes, then such language is likely meaningless to you.  But, if you read the opinion it will give you a pretty efficient primer on the concept of anti-SLAPP statutes (SLAPP being an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). You can read that opinion right here

From a loss prevention standpoint, let me drill down on what is readily understandable in terms of the problematic conduct by the lawyer and law firm.  The lawyer represented a plaintiff in a dental malpractice lawsuit against three defendants – a dental group and two individual dentists.  The lawyer obtained a $3.4 million verdict in favor of the client against the dental group and one of the two individual dentists.  The jury verdict against the other dentist was one finding no liability.

There was some appellate wrangling in the malpractice case after the jury verdict but because the ultimate outcome on appeal did not change, that wrangling matters much less than what the lawyer and law firm decided to post on their website to tout their success in the case:

DENTAL MALPRACTICE/WRONGFUL DEATH – PLAINTIFF’S VERDICT $3.4M, 2014 Description; Singletary v. Ton Vinh Lee, DDS et al.

A dental malpractice-based wrongful death action that arose out of the death of Decedent Reginald Singletary following the extraction of the No. 32 wisdom tooth by Defendants on or about April 16, 2011.  Plaintiff sued the dental office, Summerlin Smiles, the owner, Ton Vinh Lee, DDS, and the treating dentists, Florida Traivai, DMD and Jai Park, DDS, on behalf of the Estate, herself and minor son.

The problem with this self-congratulatory post on the firm’s website — separate and apart from the normal questions that might be asked about whether the clients were consulted and consented before the post was made — is that it doesn’t mention that Dr. Lee — the person named in the caption headline and in the body of the update — was the individual dentist found by the jury to have no liability.  That dentist, in turn, is who sued the lawyer and law firm for defamation because a reader of the post in question would reasonably think that Dr. Lee had been on the wrong end of a $3.4 million jury verdict.

Those that know me know that I am not much for dropping Bible quotes but, even I have to say that this would be a pretty good place to drop Proverbs 27:2 – “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth….”

ABA Confirms that Model Rule 1.15 Should Solve What Model Rule 4.4 Doesn’t

So, I am certain you have heard by now that a little under a week ago the ABA issued a new Formal Ethics Opinion to address the ethical obligations of lawyers in the aftermath of a cyber-attack or an electronic data breach.  ABA Opinion 483 makes for a good read and provides good guidance about how the ethics rules work on the subject.

There are lots of decent summaries out there already of this ethics opinion if you want to try the tl:dr approach and just read secondary sources.  I am not going to repeat those summaries here.  Instead, I want to focus on what is, to me and perhaps only me, the most important development that ought to come from this opinion — the recognition by the ABA that “property” in Model Rule 1.15 has to also include digital property.

In the latest ABA Opinion, this issue is addressed with an eye toward thinking about electronic copies of client files, specifically as follows:

An open question exists whether Model Rule 1.15’s reference to “property” includes information stored in electronic form.  Comment [1] uses as examples “securities” and “property” that should be kept separate from the lawyer’s “business and personal property.”  That language suggests Rule 1.15 is limited to tangible property which can be physically segregated.  On the other hand, many courts have moved to electronic filing and law firms routinely use email and electronic document formats to image or transfer information.  Reading Rule 1.15’s safeguarding obligation to apply to hard copy client files but not electronic client files is not a reasonable reading of the Rule.

Now, why is this such an important takeaway to me?  Well, myopia often flows from the egocentric nature of people and I am no exception.  This is an important takeaway to me because I’ve been trying to make this point in an entirely different context – and to little avail — since 2010 when I co-authored an article entitled: “Model Rule 1.15: The Elegant Solution to the Problem of Purloined Documents” published in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct.  Now that article – which you can still find here — was itself an excerpt of part of a chapter of a book I was also fortunate enough to co-author with Doug Richmond that came out in 2011.  The “Elegant Solution” article explained that the lack of guidance offered by Model Rule 4.4(b) on what a lawyer must do if they receive stolen documents (whether on paper or electronically) should be resolved by application of Model Rule 1.15 and the obligations lawyers have under subsections (d) and (e) of that rule.

There are likely lots of reasons why that article has been largely ignored – and when not ignored treated as offering a controversial view to be shunned — but the primary one is that Model Rule 4.4(b) becomes a bit unnecessary as a rule if such questions could have been resolved under Model Rule 1.15.

Model Rule 4.4(b) reads:

A lawyer who receives a document or electronically stored information relating to the representation of the lawyer’s client and knows or reasonably should know that the document or electronically stored information was inadvertently sent shall promptly notify the sender.

Model Rule 4.4(b) only addresses information that a lawyer receives that is known to have been inadvertently sent and only requires the receiving lawyer to give notice to the sending lawyer of what has happened.  It does not address information sent purposely but without authorization, and it punts on what comes next.

In the “Elegant Solution” article, we explained why Rule 1.15 provided answers to the questions Model Rule 4.4(b) won’t address and, particularly in light of this latest ethics opinion recognizing the need for Model Rule 1.15 to apply to digital information, I think our explanation is worth repeating to close out this post:

The Model Rules do, in fact, appear to offer an elegant answer for lawyers who question
their professional responsibilities when they receive documents that may have been purloined or otherwise improperly obtained from another. The answer lies in Model Rule 1.15 and its provisions establishing lawyers’ obligations with respect to ‘‘safekeeping property.’’ See Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 1.15 (2010).  Although lawyers are generally familiar with Rule 1.15 in the trust account context, the scope of the rule is clearly not so limited, as amply evidenced by its repeated references not just to funds or fees or expenses, but also to ‘‘property.’’

Model Rule 1.15(a) declares that ‘‘[a] lawyer shall hold property of clients or third persons that is in the lawyer’s possession in connection with a representation separate from the lawyer’s own property.’’ Id. R. 1.15(a) (emphasis added). Model Rule 1.15(d) further requires that ‘‘[u]pon receiving funds or other property in which a client or third person has an interest, a lawyer shall promptly notify the client or third person.’’ Id. R. 1.15(d) (emphasis added). Finally, Model Rule 1.15(e) mandates that ‘‘[w]hen in the course of the representation
a lawyer is in possession of property in which two or more persons (one of whom may be the lawyer)
claim interests, the property shall be kept separate by the lawyer until the dispute is resolved.’’ Id. R. 1.15(e) (emphasis added).

Analysis of over-the-transom deliveries through the lens of Rule 1.15 establishes that a lawyer, upon receiving purloined documents (or if not clearly purloined at least clearly reflecting privileged or confidential information belonging to someone other than the person who delivered the documents), is obligated to hold those documents separate from the rest of the lawyer’s documents, promptly notify the person from whom the documents were taken, and, if the lawyer is going to refuse to return the documents to that person (and thereby claim either that the lawyer or the lawyer’s client has an interest in them), continue to keep those documents segregated from the rest of the lawyer’s property until the dispute over the documents is resolved,
presumably through a ruling by a tribunal. This approach places no meaningful burden on the receiving lawyer and respects the rights of the party to whom the materials belong.

Utahlking Ethics Opinions to Me? (Also Texas)

I’m interested in writing today about two recent ethics opinions that manage to go together quite nicely.  Utah Ethics Adv. Op. 18-04 and Texas Professional Ethics Committee Op. 679.  Both involve RPC 1.8 (or at least both should).  And, not only does neither opinion do a very good job with the subject matter it tackles but both tackle subjects where lawyers need to tread very carefully and could use really good advice.

But, as just a quick aside before doing so, I wanted to express some gratitude from last week and point you to a very important story worth reading.  As the culmination of a many-months-long project, I had the chance to share the stage last week at the ABA Forum on Franchising with two excellent lawyers – Shannon McCarthy Associate General Counsel for Chihuly, Inc. and Kevin Kennedy, General Counsel of Wiggin and Dana in Connecticut — and talk about a tricky and delicate topic – lawyers and obligations to report other lawyers with a particular emphasis on issues involving harassment and other toxic behavior.  I was really fortunate to get to work with them both.  For a story that offers something of a how-not-to manual offered by the experience of one of the world’s largest law firms, you can go read up here.

Now, back to regularly-scheduled programming…

While I missed it around the time it came out, the Utah State Bar put out an interesting ethics opinion explaining to lawyers a way they might be able ethically to mitigate their risk exposure in the event of third-party claims against the lawyer based on the client’s conduct.

The opinion declares that “[a]n attorney may include an indemnification provision in a retainer agreement at the commencement of representation that requires the client to indemnify the attorney and related entities against claims that arise from the client’s behavior or negligence.”

In explaining this outcome, the Utah opinion points out that nothing about RPC 1.8(h) directly prohibits it.  However, it doesn’t just stop there, it goes on to explain … just kidding actually.  It stops there on that issue.

As a practical matter, that is sort of a shame because lawyers ought to be cautioned a bit about the problems associated with starting the relationship with a client off with that sort of provision — particularly because if you are that concerned about that risk of liability from the client’s conduct, then maybe a rethink about whether to take them on is in order.  But, if one is going to do it, the beginning of the relationship is certainly more viable than mid-stream.

Speaking of which, that brings me to the Texas opinion, which tasked itself with answering this question:

May a lawyer renegotiate his fixed, flat fee for representing a client in litigation after the litigation is underway if the matter turns out to be greater in scope and complexity than the lawyer and client contemplated?

If Texas was interested in doing this right, it would recognize that the answer lies in application of its version of Model Rule 1.8(a) because that situation is a business transaction between lawyer and client.  Instead, Texas actually announced that its version of that rule does not apply to a mid-stream renegotiation of a fee.

Instead, the opinion points out that Texas courts have considered the issue and have said that it can occur but that there is a “presumption of unfairness.”  Rejecting the opportunity to apply Rule 1.8 to these circumstances is all the more baffling because — providing guidance to interpret ethics rules is the kind of thing ethics opinion writing bodies are supposed to do, rather than providing guidance about what court decisions mean.

In the end though, I’m likely being too harsh on the Texas opinion because it, at least, summarizes pretty nicely the analysis of the dynamic from the lawyer side of things and why, in most situations, effectuating an enforceable renegotiation will be unlikely:

The fundamental nature of a flat or fixed fee is that there is risk to the lawyer that the legal work and time required may exceed what the lawyer might have earned if the lawyer instead billed by the hour.  The client knows with certain that the total fee charged, no matter how much lawyer time or effort is involved, will not exceed the fixed amount.  The client’s risk in a flat or fixed fee agreement is the possibility of paying more than the client would have paid under an hourly billing agreement if the lawyer is able to complete the representation is [sic] less time than originally expected.  Because the lawyer is better able to anticipate the time and legal work required, the lawyer should be mindful that he knowingly assumed the risk — and should not unreasonably seek to change the fee agreement simply because the lawyer agreed to a fixed fee that, in hindsight, is no longer adequate.

(emphasis added).  And, also, amen to that.

 

 

Withdrawing a guilty plea is notary-ly easy thing to do.

The pun was, of course, inevitable.  It was also fully intended.  In fact, it is, at least for me, repetitive as back in 2013 I was asked to do a seminar on the ethics of being a notary public — they have their own ethics code — and I called it “Notary-ly Common Topic: The Intersection of Lawyer and Notary Public Ethics.”

I’m writing today about a relatively straightforward criminal case arising out of federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands but that has at least four interesting lawyer ethics percolating under the surface of it.  The decision also has one of the most elegant and timeless statements penned by the district judge authoring the opinion that I’ve read in a federal court opinion.  It is either one of the most useful statements of insight into the human condition or one of the best pieces of universal (but indirect) advice to offer to anyone – including lawyers — or possibly both.

In case you want to stop reading at this point, I’ll just share with you the district judge’s statement which, for many reasons (no matter when you manage to read this) will be timely:

Probably every adult feels that there is some important decision she has made that she wishes she could do over.  But that does not mean she did not make that decision voluntarily and did not know what she was doing at the time.

To be exceedingly candid, I’m also writing this post about this case because an incredible lawyer, and a giant in the field of legal ethics issues, Bill Freivogel, brought the case to my attention and encouraged to me to think I might have something to say about it that would be worth reading.

The case is U.S. v. Li and you can grab the PDF of it here: United States v. Li (D. N.Mariana Is., 2018).  In sum, Li was a notary public.  He managed to mess up a document he was notarizing for a passport application for a minor child, and the application was rejected for that discrepancy.  When folks reassembled to try to fix it and reapply, the father had already flown back home to China.  Despite the fact that it was contrary to the ethics code for a notary public, and despite the fact that the form was requiring him to speak under oath, Li signed the form misrepresenting under oath that the father was physically present the second time when he was not.

It seems clear that Li did this thinking that it was his own mistake that created the problem and that this would fix the error.  How the falsehood came to light is much less clear, but it did and Li was charged with two federal criminal counts related to false statements on a passport application.

A week before the case was set for trial, the parties submitted a plea agreement and proceeded to a change of plea hearing.  At that hearing, Li’s attorney – Holmes – was present as was a more senior attorney from Holmes’ law firm.  The opinion walks through the fairly detailed line of questioning the federal judge presented to Li designed to ensure that the record was crystal clear about the voluntariness of the guilty plea.  These questions solicited many clear answers demonstrating voluntary and knowing decision-making, including Li’s statements that he was fully satisfied with his attorney’s advice and legal representation.

Two months after the guilty plea was entered and about two months before the date set for sentencing, a new lawyer for Li filed a notice of appearance.  About 45 days later, Holmes moved to withdraw from representing Li citing “professional reasons.”  That motion was denied without prejudice based on failure to demonstrate good cause.

Two things then occurred right about a week before sentencing: Li, through the new counsel, filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea and Holmes renewed the motion to withdraw now pointing to statements in a pre-sentence report that were alleged to create a conflict between her firm and Li.  This renewed motion to withdraw was granted.  (The opinion does not provide a ready explanation or insight into what the nugget was in that pre-sentence report that Holmes was forced to surface in order to be let out of the case.)

The order then details what Li argued as his grounds for seeking now to withdraw his guilty plea – it largely involved accusations that his attorneys would not listen to him and coerced him – through time pressures, denigrating his chances at trial, and hammering the potential of a prison sentence of more than a year, even allegedly going so far as to tell Li that he would be sexually assaulted if he had to do prison time.

The district court, however, was entirely unconvinced by Li’s allegations and walked through an objective view of what the attorney time records, and other underlying documents, showed about the events that occurred surrounding the plea negotiations.

Three of ethics issues here are, I think, readily recognizable.

The case is at least an indirect reminder for attorneys that RPC 1.2 doesn’t provide crystal clear guidance on all decision-making as between clients and attorneys but leaves no room for doubt that the decision whether to plead guilty in a criminal matter is always the client’s to make.

The case also is a good, indirect reminder to attorneys who have support staff who are notaries that your obligations under RPC 5.3 can be considered to include having some measures in place to provide reasonable assurance that they know how important complying with the law and their own code of ethics as to notarizing documents can be.  (For the record, there was no indication in the opinion itself that Li had any employment situation where he was working for an attorney.)

Also, the case reveals how sometimes – despite the best efforts of the drafters of the rules – the guidance given to attorneys seeking to withdraw from representation doesn’t always work as designed.  ABA Model Rule 1.16 cmt. [3] tries to provide guidance to attorneys about situations when they should begin by stating only that “professional considerations” require withdrawal and indicating the hope that courts will accept that “statement as sufficient,” but courts do not always go along and end up putting attorneys into a situation where they have to disclose information the client might rather not have aired.

The fourth ethics issue, however, is not as obvious but is, I think, the most interesting and compelling.  The district judge, without explicitly saying so, made clear that if the lawyers had scared Li into pleading guilty “by conjuring the nightmare of sexual assault in prison,” that would have been the kind of thing that could have “put their bar license on the line.”  I’m torn on that front.  Obviously, if the lawyers had actually threatened to cause that to happen or otherwise crossed lines into coercing someone against their will to plead guilty, then I’d agree wholeheartedly.  But, if a lawyer representing someone facing potential jail time, and knowing their client had the chance to take a plea that was likely to result in no jail time at all, engaged their client in discussions about the possibility of going to prison and the realities of the problems in the U.S. prison system including the statistics on violence and sexual assault that happens there on a daily basis, would that really be unethical conduct?

I tend to think the exact opposite.  I think that a lawyer would certainly be entitled under Model Rule 2.1 to discuss as “other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation.”  In fact, depending on the client and the likely prison in play, a lawyer might well be ethically obligated to discuss such issues under Model Rule 1.4(b)’s obligation “to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”