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.”

Safeguarding confidential information, border searches, and your devices

In February, I will have the opportunity to be part of a panel discussion in Vancouver, Canada at the mid-year meeting of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers focused on privacy and client confidentiality issues.

We will discuss quite a few interesting topics, including something that likely isn’t on the radar of as many U.S. lawyers as it should be — the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation which will become effective on May 25, 2018.  I plan to find some time on another day to write a bit more about that, but for today I just want to offer up a short-ish update on something talked about here before (and that we will also discuss in Vancouver) – concerns for lawyers when crossing the border back into the United States if Customs and Border Patrol demand access to electronic devices.

With a thankful tip of the hat to Wendy Chang with Hinshaw & Culbertson who alerted me to its existence, I can possibly alert you to the fact that CBP put out a new Directive on the topic of border searches of electronic devices on January 4, 2018.  You can go read the full document here.

The piece of it I want to spend just a moment or two elaborating on is the new guidance it provides in Section 5.2 “Review and Handling of Privileged or Other Sensitive Material.”

Before doing so though it makes sense to lay out for you what CBP’s prior directive on this topic indicated – which was dated August 20, 2009 and can be found here.  Section 5.2.1 of that directive provided as follows:

Officers may encounter materials that appear to be legal in nature, or an individual may assert that certain information is protected by attorney-client or attorney work product privilege.  Legal materials are not necessarily exempt from a border search, but they may be subject to the following special handling procedures:  If an Officer suspects that the content of such a material may constitute evidence of a crime or otherwise pertain to a determination within the jurisdiction of CBP, the Officer must seek advice from the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel before conducting a search of the material, and this consultation shall be noted in appropriate CBP systems of records.  CBP counsel will coordinate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as appropriate.

Now, assuming that meant what it implied, that seems to paint the guidance as being in the nature of:  if an attorney tells you that something you want to look at is a problem because it is privileged information, then you don’t proceed further with trying to look at it unless you suspect that it might be evidence of a crime or otherwise something that impacts CBP’s jurisdiction (i.e. you really think that maybe the person shouldn’t be let into the country unless you can read what that is).  And, if so, you first have to start talking with a lawyer for the CBP about whether to do so.

Now compare that to the much more extensive language on this issue in the new directive.   (Spoiler alert:  it appears to me to be more extensive but less friendly to traveling lawyers.)

5.2.1  Officers encountering information they identify as, or that is asserted to be, protected by the attorney-client privilege or attorney work product doctrine shall adhere to the following procedures.

5.2.1.1  The Officer shall seek clarification, if practicable in writing, from the individual asserting this privilege as to specific files, file types, folders, categories of files, attorney or client names, email addresses, phone numbers, or other particulars that may assist CBP in identifying privileged information.

5.2.1.2  Prior to any border search of files or other materials over which a privilege has been asserted, the Officer will contact the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel office.  In coordination with the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel office, which will coordinate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as needed, Officers will ensure the segregation of any privileged material from other information examined during a border search to ensure that any privileged material is handled appropriately while also ensuring that CBP accomplishes its critical border security mission.  This segregation process will occur through the establishment and employment of a Filter Team composed of legal and operational representatives, or through another appropriate measure with written concurrence of the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel office.

5.2.1.3  At the completion of the CBP review, unless any materials are identified that indicate an imminent threat to homeland security, copies of materials maintained by CBP and determined to be privileged will be destroyed, except for any copy maintained in coordination with the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel office solely for purposes of complying with a litigation hold or other requirement of law.

So, it does seem to me that this more extensive guidance is likely good for protecting privileged materials from improper use if actually reviewed and held and does seem to be clearer guidance about how CBP could go about, for example, reviewing some information on an electronic device but segregating items asserted to be privileged or work-product.  But it also seems to me that this guidance does not move the needle in a helpful direction for lawyers who want to attempt to protect review of their client’s information at all by asserting privilege as it both (1) imposes a more onerous process on the lawyer to do so (including the potential for demanding something in writing akin to a privilege log) and (2) appears to drop what was at least the implication of the prior directive that the assertion alone is likely enough to move the burden over to CBP to justify trying to do something further.

Which also makes me think that any attorney put in this situation is, at the very least, not going to be making any connecting flight if they seek to protect client materials from review.

Of course, neither the older directive nor this directive even mentions things that attorneys have to treat as confidential under their ethical obligations even though not privileged, which remains unfortunate.  But I am interested in hearing from anyone wanting to weigh in about whether you think I am misreading this guidance and that this directive is better for lawyers than the 2009 directive.

 

“No. No you’re not.”

So, you may recall back in October 2017 I had an itch and intended to write about a lawsuit in Pennsylvania that would fit in with the recent (seemingly) increased willingness of lawyers to sue other lawyers over their ads, but since I was beaten to the punch, instead I gave you a pointer to a very good piece somewhere else about it.

If that doesn’t ring bells, you can go see that again here.

I bring that lawsuit against a firm with a significant presence here in Memphis, Morgan & Morgan, again because there has been a new development.  And, particularly, a new development that talks about something that has always bounced around my brain when I hear a particular advertisement in that firm’s stable.

First, the recent development in that lawsuit, where a local Pennsylvania law firm sued Morgan & Morgan saying that its advertising was false and deceptive because, among other things, Morgan & Morgan only has one lawyer located in Philadelphia who is claimed by the plaintiff in the suit to have little experience handling personal injury litigation.  The federal district court has declined to dismiss one aspect of the lawsuit – the allegation that the founder of Morgan & Morgan, John Morgan, is lying when he says in an advertisement that he is “your lawyer.”

Now, why this strikes me in a way I find so interesting.  Nearly every time I have heard the line in a particular radio advertisement it has struck me as such an unwise, and unnecessary, thing to say from a legal ethics standpoint.

The line is this:  “Remember this, I’m not just a lawyer.  I’m your lawyer.”

It’s a nearly Pavlovian reaction for me at this point – I hear that, and I say (out loud if I’m alone or just in my head if there are people around):

“No.  No, you’re not.”

And, then, my mind wanders a bit down the path of mulling why that statement in that advertisement feels like such an unnecessary, “own goal” kind of thing to do to yourself.

Your firm has a giant plaintiff’s practice.  Your firm is going to have lots of people make appointments and undergo consultations, and your firm is going to turn a lot of those people away.  Sometimes it might be for conflicts reasons, sometimes it might be because you don’t think they have a case worth your time.  But, either way, you’ve unnecessarily opened yourself up to, at the very least, a disciplinary complaint from someone who claims you broke your promise and violated RPC 7.1 since you actually said you were their lawyer.

Admittedly, that isn’t the exact line of thought used by the federal judge in the Pennsylvania litigation — rather, it is the notion that . . . well, let me simply quote the Court instead of interpreting:

Rosenbaum alleges John Morgan, an attorney with Morgan & Morgan, appears in advertisements stating “I’m your lawyer” and describing “himself to the consumer as a trial lawyer with over thirty years of experience” which “convey[s]” the message John Morgan and Morgan & Morgan will handle the prospective clients’ claim.  Rosenbaum alleges, in reality, John Morgan is not licensed to practice law or to legally represent clients in Pennsylvania but the advertisements do not advise prospective clients of this fact….

Accepting as true Rosenbaum’s allegations, John Morgan’s statement “I’m your lawyer” may be literally false or have the tendency to mislead viewers into believing John Morgan, himself, will represent them….

If you’d like to read the full opinion which dismisses much of the Lanham claims, you can read it here.

That part is interesting and could, of course, be argued over and thoroughly parsed since the principals of imputation of conflicts and other matters would make the statement arguably truthful in the event that someone hires the firm, at least.

But, my qualm is the importance of that italicized language right up there.  My qualm remains true even for jurisdictions in which the lawyer making the claim is licensed.   I remember doing quite a few seminars many years ago that were focused on trying to help lawyer not accidentally end up with client they didn’t want because they were not clear enough in communicating to someone that they were not their lawyer.  (There is even a now-quite-long-ago law review piece on the topic that is very good called “Accidental Clients” written by Susan Martyn.)

Admittedly, I’m not an expert in legal marketing but it still strikes me as such an unnecessarily dangerous and damaging statement that is far-too-readily capable of being characterized as false and misleading to a consumer of legal services and far-too-difficult to characterize as the kind of “puffing” that should be treated as meaningless.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

 

On second thought, “this” is the least discussed ethics rule.

Many moons ago (look at me and my topical thinly-veiled 8/21/17 Eclipse reference), I wrote a post about Model Rule 2.1 being perhaps the least discussed ethics rule and why maybe it shouldn’t be.  But, a recent news item about a relatively humdrum topic, a relatively large multi-state law firm (Husch Blackwell) announcing that it has named a new CEO who is not lawyer, got me thinking about another ethics rule that much more likely is, hands-down, the least discussed ethics rule.  That rule is Model Rule 5.4(b)(2).  Unlike Rule 2.1 though, Rule 5.4(b)(2) is deservedly never made the subject of discussion because if it were paid attention to, then one of two things would be true.  Either it is an essentially meaningless rule or it’s a rule that tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of lawyers throughout the U.S. violated by showing up to work today.

You probably might have some trouble thinking what the rule in question says so I’ll help you out.  It’s this one:

(d)  A lawyer shall not practice with or in the form of a professional corporation or association authorized to practice law for a profit, if:

(2) a nonlawyer is a corporate director or officer thereof or occupies the position of similar responsibility in any form of association other than a corporation.

We have this same language in Tennessee in our RPC 5.4(d)(2) and, odds are, you do too in whatever state where you happen to be reading this.  Now, if your law firm is organized as a corporation, then no worries under any circumstances because the “other than a corporation” language at the end there makes it clear that a corporation can have a nonlawyer in an officer position.

If you practice law in a firm that is organized as a professional limited liability company, or a limited liability partnership (for the record, Husch Blackwell happens to be an LLP) or some such similar entity, and you have someone – not a lawyer – in a position like a Chief Marketing Officer, or a Chief Financial Officer, or a Chief Operating Officer, or a CEO, then … well the existence of this rule is unfortunate, unless it can be said that none of those entities qualifies as a “form of association.”

If they don’t qualify, then what exactly is the purpose of this rule?  Why should only lawyers practicing in an “association of attorneys,” but not organized in one of these other formal business entity forms be prohibited from having a nonlawyer be an officer?

If such limited liability entities do qualify as associations under the rule, then what exactly is the reason for still having this rule on the books anywhere?  Particularly given that 5.4(d)(3) already effectively prohibits the actual harm by prohibiting practicing even in a firm that is a corporation if “a nonlawyer has the right to direct or control the professional judgment of a lawyer.”

There are a significant number of firms these days that have someone who isn’t a lawyer serving in one of those roles managerial roles as an officer, and I’m certainly not aware of any instances of any bar regulator seeking discipline against lawyers practicing with those firms on that basis.  (For what it is worth the ABA’s Annotated Model Rules of Professional Conduct that I have handy [Sixth Edition] declares that “Rule 5.4(d) prohibits a lawyer from practicing in any for-profit entity in which a nonlawyer has an ownership interest, a position of responsibility, or a right to direct the lawyer’s professional judgment.”)

So, like I said, probably for the best that this is the least discussed rule.

Traps for the Unwary – Employer email systems

I like to think I am “warier” than the average attorney.  But a recent attorney-client privilege opinion out of New York was a good reminder that being “wary” can be much like being “woke.”  Even if you think you are, you probably aren’t as much as you think you are, and you can always be a bit more.

I’ve spoken and written in the past about the risk for lawyers’ clients to using an email system provided by an employer to communicate with them but my focus in doing so has largely involved assumptions about ways in which the nature of the representation could be one in which the client wouldn’t actually want to the employer to be able to access the communications.  For example, where the client and the employer would actually have contrary interests.

That type of scenario was the focus of the kind of warning ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 11-459 provided to lawyers who handle employment law matters:

This opinion addresses this question in the following hypothetical situation.
An employee has a computer assigned for her exclusive use in the course of her employment. The company’s written internal policy provides that the company has a right of access to all employees’ computers and e-mail files, including those relating to employees’ personal matters. Notwithstanding this policy, employees sometimes make personal use of their computers, including for the purpose of sending personal e-mail messages from their personal or office e-mail accounts. Recently, the employee retained a lawyer to give advice about a potential claim against her employer. When the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the employee may use a workplace device or system to communicate with the lawyer, does the lawyer have an ethical duty to warn the employee about the risks this practice entails?

[snip]

The situation in the above hypothetical is a clear example of where failing to warn the client about the risks of e-mailing communications on the employer’s device can harm the client, because the employment dispute would give the employer a significant incentive to access the employee’s workplace e-mail and the employer’s internal policy would provide a justification for doing so. The obligation arises once the lawyer has reason to believe that there is a significant risk that the client will conduct e-mail communications with the lawyer using a workplace computer or other business device or via the employer’s e-mail account. This possibility ordinarily would be known, or reasonably should be known, at the outset of the representation. Given the nature of the representation–an employment dispute–the lawyer is on notice that the employer may search the client’s electronic correspondence. Therefore, the lawyer must ascertain, unless the answer is already obvious, whether there is a significant risk that the client will use a business e-mail address for personal communications or whether the employee’s position entails using an employer’s device.

With hindsight it certainly seems an obvious extension of the same point to be worried that the privilege is in jeopardy even when the underlying matter is not one in which client and the employer are adverse, yet I’ll admit that I was initially surprised to hear about through this (as always) quite good write up in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct and then dig in and read the Peerenboom v. Marvel Entertainment opinion itself (which is remarkable for its brevity) which found that Marvel’s CEO’s emails to his personal attorney on Marvel’s email system could not be shielded from discovery by a third party pursuing litigation against Marvel based on attorney-client privilege.  (Simultaneously also saying that no marital privilege existed either.)

The New York court explained that Marvel’s email policy provided that it “‘owned’ all emails on its system, and that the emails were ‘subject to all Company rules, policies, and conduct statements.’ Marvel ‘reserve[d] the right to audit networks and systems on a periodic basis to ensure [employees’] compliance’ with its email policies. It also ‘reserve[d] the right to access, review, copy and delete any messages or content,’ and ‘to disclose such messages to any party (inside or outside the Company).'”  Based on that, the court considered it easy to conclude that the CEO had no reasonable expectation of privacy in email communications to others using his Marvel email address.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the opinion does not reference or discuss in any fashion whether the CEO’s lawyer would still be obligated to treat all of the communications as confidential under the relevant ethics rules in New York(spoiler alert: he would).

Since I’ve got your webcam turned on remotely, show of hands if you’ve 100% of the time been making sure your clients’ email communications with you are only happening on a platform provided by someone other than their employer – like gmail, Yahoo, Bellsouth, or Comcast, or some other personal source of email access.

Yeah, me neither.

It certainly feels like a harsh result — particularly when you stop and think about how much email traffic takes place on email platforms that are company provided to all involved — but it can be a difficult outcome to argue against given the traditional strict construction of the privilege and how readily it can be waived as a result of exposure to anyone who is a stranger to the relationship.

The Peerenboom opinion also serves, however, as a good reminder of just how different the attorney-client privilege and the attorney work-product doctrine are and how differently they are waived.

Given the lack of evidence that Marvel viewed any of Perlmutter’s personal emails, and the lack of evidence of any other actual disclosure to a third party, Perlmutter’s use of Marvel’s email for personal purposes does not, standing alone, constitute a waiver of attorney work product protections (see People v Kozlowski . . .898 N.E.2d 891 . . . .

That point is one I’ve always found easiest to explain to lawyers with reference to another New York case (albeit one in federal court) involving a different very famous brand, Martha Stewart, United States v. Stewart, 287 F. Supp. 2d 461 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).  That was the case in which a New York federal court explained the different ramifications as to privilege waiver versus work product waiver flowing from Martha Stewart sharing her lawyer’s communications with her daughter.  While, because she was a stranger to the attorney-client relationship Stewart had with her lawyer and thus eviscerated the attorney-client privilege, as to work product:

By forwarding the e-mail to a family member, Stewart did not substantially increase the risk that the Government would gain access to materials prepared in anticipation of litigation. Martha Stewart stated in her affidavit that “Alexis is the closest person in the world to me. She is a valued confidante and counselor to me. In sharing the e-mail with her, I knew that she would keep its content strictly confidential.” Martha Stewart Aff. ¶ 6. Alexis Stewart stated that while she did not recall receiving the June 24 e-mail, she “never would have disclosed its contents.” Alexis Stewart Aff. ¶ 2. The disclosure affected neither side’s interests in this litigation: it did not evince an intent on Stewart’s part to relinquish work product immunity for the document, and it did not prejudice the Government by offering Stewart some litigation-based advantage. Accordingly, I hold that Stewart did not waive work product protection over the June 23 and 24 e-mails.

And, it seems fair to say that the more robust ability of the work-product doctrine to withstand waiver in a world in which people use their work email for a lot of things, allow me to echo Ms. Stewart to say.

That’s a good thing.

Last post of 2016 – Why lawyers need lawyers.

2016 was a year marked with quite a number of unexpected (at least to me) developments.  2017 likely will have its share of unexpected events as well.

To wrap up the year, I wanted to use what little platform I have to pursue something that is both driven by blatant self-interest and is in the interests of the overall “good.”  That something is to muse in hopefully a relatively pithy fashion on my general philosophy about why even lawyers need other lawyers.

I truly cannot remember if the way I tend to state this is in such a fashion that it is cribbed from one or more other lawyers or if it has something of an nearly-original genesis but whether it should be footnoted to avoid plagiarism or written freely without worry of attribution, I think it is compellingly accurate as a philosophy:

Lawyers need lawyers because lawyers are great at solving other people’s problems, but horrible at solving their own problems.

I’ve encountered quite a few excellent lawyers who, in aid of their own personal situations, have done and said things they would never do or say if they were acting on behalf of a client other than themselves and who, if you could stop them and pose to them what they were doing as a hypothetical act of a client of theirs, would not merely counsel a client other than themselves against such behavior but would likely woodshed any of their clients who were foolhardy enough to so act.

I suspect you can think of an example or two you have come across as well.

And, if the philosophical concept is true, and even excellent lawyers — lawyers who are great at solving other people’s problems — need lawyers., then the need for lawyers is even greater when the lawyer in question is not so great even at solving other people’s problems.

There are any number of ways that these thoughts could have been prompted today.  For the record, they were prompted by this story.

(And, I am not the only one to have written such a piece in the past and you can find lots of such articles online and in paper format, but I have written in the past about the fact that lawyers can be surprised to find that they have coverage to be reimbursed for hiring attorneys to handle things other than malpractice cases under their malpractice policies.  My piece in that oeuvre can be found here.)

Pre-holidays Friday installment of “I beg to differ.”

So, it seems like I am begging to differ all over the place during the last week or so, but here comes another instance.

About a month ago, the Tennessee Supreme Court granted permission to appeal in a legal malpractice case, Story v. Bunstein, in which the plaintiff(s) suit against their lawyer was dismissed based on expiration of the one-year statute of limitations.  In Tennessee, our case law has long established – unlike some other jurisdictions – that the statute is not tolled for continuous representation.

There’s a law firm in Nashville – primarily focused on criminal defense matters – that operates a blog called the “Hot List” that weighs in with thoughts and predictions about what the Court will do on cases granted.  Here’s a link on what they have to say about this particular legal malpractice suit.

If you look at the link, you’ll see that they’ve offered this prediction on this case:

Ben thinks the Supreme Court will reverse. It would be bad policy to require clients to have to sue their lawyers while the underlying case is ongoing.

From the way that prediction is worded, it is unclear to me whether Ben has managed to read the Tennessee Supreme Court’s opinion in Carvell v. Bottoms.  Carvell dates back to 1995 and was cited in the Bunstein decision.  Via Carvell our state’s highest court already established its public policy decision that it is not bad policy to require clients to do exactly that.  Instead, the Court explained that the correct answer is to file the suit and then seek to have it stayed until the underlying matter is resolved.  In the words of former Chief Justice Drowota:

 Although we conclude that the rule [judicial estoppel] is not technically applicable, we nevertheless realize that having to maintain inconsistent positions in different lawsuits is somewhat anomalous. Therefore, we agree with the New Jersey Supreme Court that clients can avoid the “discomfort of maintaining inconsistent positions,” see Grunwald v. Bronkesh, 131 N.J. 483, 621 A.2d 459, 467 (1993), by filing a malpractice action against the attorney and requesting that the trial court stay that action until the underlying proceedings are concluded. See e.g., Grunwald, 621 A.2d at 466-67; Knight v. Furlow, 553 A.2d 1232, 1236 (D.C.App.1989). In this manner clients can, without conflict, continue to assert their interests in the underlying lawsuit, while preserving any malpractice action they may have against their attorneys.

Admittedly, being a lawyer who defends other lawyers in legal malpractice cases and I have successfully used Carvell to get cases dismissed for my clients on the basis of expiration of the statute of limitations, I have some bias on how this should play out.  In light of this well-established policy for more than two decades, I have to beg to differ on this one.  In addition to the ability to follow the procedure laid out in Carvell, clients also can negotiate tolling agreements if the lawyer doesn’t want the suit to be filed, stayed, and hanging over her head.  So, I don’t see the need to change policy at this point and while I’m not in the court predictions game would hope that the Court does not overturn Carvell.

And, as a completely unsolicited writing tip, if my assumption is incorrect and Ben has read Carvell then it would be advisable to say something more like “Ben thinks the Supreme Court will reverse.  Ben thinks the Court will decide to change its view on the existing policy requiring filing suit and then having the litigation stayed and will instead announce a belief that clients shouldn’t have to sue their lawyers while the underlying case is ongoing.”

Even if Ben had written it that way, I’d still beg to differ on the outcome, but at least if written in that fashion the prediction would read like the author knew exactly what they were weighing in on in rather than running the risk of sounding like they didn’t realize the scope of existing precedent.

(N.B.  This will be my last post before the holidays so, whatever you celebrate, I hope it brings you great joy!)

A very Tennessee-specific discussion for this Friday.

Later today I will have the honor of speaking as part of a panel at the TBA Health Law Forum.  The other panelists are Sheree Wright, the Senior Associate General Counsel with Vanderbilt University and Bill Hannah a lawyer in Chattanooga with the Chambliss Bahner firm.  I’m fortunate enough to have both Sheree and Bill as members of the TBA Ethics Committee I chair and am very excited to spend a couple of hours talking with them and the crowd about ethics issues near and dear to Health Care lawyers.  We’ll be talking about “The Ethics of the Distracted Lawyer.”  If you happen to be in the Franklin/Cool Springs part of Tennessee, you probably still might be able to work your way into the venue to register and attend.

As indicated in the title of the post, the only other thing I’m going to discuss today also is a topic that really is relevant only to Tennessee lawyers (but to a larger segment of that group, then the people that might actually contemplate a last minute visit to the above-highlighted seminar.)

I’ve now gotten enough inquiries over the last several weeks about the revised state-of-play in Tennessee state court litigation when it comes to attorney’s conferring with deponents during breaks in a deposition that it likely makes sense to write about it to have another handy link to send to folks that ask for a recollection refresher.

Whether such arrangements are kosher or not is subject to significant variance in various jurisdictions.  Perhaps the original case staking out the notion that an attorney’s communication with a client/deponent  during a deposition was not a privileged communication is Hall v. Clifton Precision,150 F.R.D. 525 (E.D. Pa. 1993).  I’ve done quite  few CLEs over the years where I used one hypothetical or another to tease out the situation and to lead the audience into a discussion about whether the lawyer taking the deposition can successfully force disclosure of what was said to the witness by another lawyer during a break.  The general principle from which courts have concluded that no privilege applies and that the contents of such discussions can be explored is that depositions are supposed to take place in the same manner as if they were trial testimony.  Karen Rubin back in 2015 delved pretty thoroughly into the state of the law on this issue at her firm’s blog here.

Tennessee has, assuming the vehicle chosen actually does the trick, created a very clear answer to this question now for cases pending in our state courts. The answer, in effect as of July 1, 2016, makes communications with a deponent during a break in the deposition perfectly appropriate, as long as: (1) there is not a question pending; and (2) the lawyer’s communication with the deponent during the break does not cross any lines so as to amount to a violation of RPC 3.3 or 3.4.

The vehicle chosen for doing this is a 2016 Advisory Commission Comment to our rule of civil procedure addressed at depositions, Tenn. R. Civ. P. 30.03  The comment provides as follows:

Rule 30.03 provides that “[e]xamination and cross-examination of witnesses may proceed as permitted at the trial under the Tennessee Rules of Evidence.” This language does not imply that Tenn. R. Evid. 615 is applicable to depositions. Unless otherwise ordered by the court, a lawyer may communicate with a deponent about deposition procedure or the substance of deposition testimony before, during (unless a question is pending) or after the deposition; however, such communications are subject to the Rules of Professional Conduct including, but not limited to, Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 8, RPC 3.3 and RPC 3.4.

Now I don’t know exactly where an Advisory Commission Comment to a rule of procedure ranks in terms of authority and precedent as a technical matter, but there is no question that this is the latest word on this matter – words that our Court has bought into or they would have not approved the release – and, thus, a lawyer who wants to talk to their client during a deposition in our state court system no longer has to be worried about the client being forced to divulge the discussion on a claim that privilege does not apply.  At least as long as there wasn’t a pending question at the time of the break and the conversation.

What lawyers will still need to be concerned about – whether the deponent is their client or not — is communications that could be construed as amounting to violations of RPC 3.3 because they involve assisting a fraud on the tribunal or that could be construed as violating RPC 3.4.

The two most obvious pieces of RPC 3.4 that a lawyer could run afoul of through coaching a deponent during a break would be:

(a)       unlawfully obstruct another party’s access to evidence or unlawfully alter, destroy, or conceal a document or other material having potential evidentiary value.  A lawyer shall not counsel or assist another person to do any such act; or

(b)       falsify evidence, counsel or assist a witness to offer false or misleading testimony

So, still a topic that can be explored through interesting hypos at future seminars even in Tennessee.

A former lawyer of Donald Trump speaks … but shouldn’t have

A long while ago I wrote about a lawyer’s public interview that should never have happened.  Here is a lawyer’s op-ed piece that should never happened, you can read the op-ed if you haven’t already at  this link at The Huffington Post.  Now, because such a disclaimer seems to be in order and beneficial to some extent, I say this as someone who contributed to Senator Sanders campaign during the primary and who has contributed to Secretary of State Clinton’s campaign more recently, but here is a lawyer publicly saying everything people who think Trump’s candidacy represents an existential threat to democracy  should want to hear injected into our current political discourse — but the introductory portions of it, the things that the author attempts to use to give it credence and relevance as someone with real insight into the person being criticized, demonstrate that, at least in this version, the piece should never have been written at all.

Taken at face value, the writer is a former lawyer of Trump’s and he appears to be licensed in a jurisdiction, New Jersey, that (like most jurisdictions) provides for a continuing obligation of confidentiality owed to former clients.  New Jersey’s RPC 1.9(c) provides:

(c) A lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter or whose present or former firm has formerly represented a client in a matter shall not thereafter: (1) use information relating to the representation to the disadvantage of the former client except as these Rules would permit or require with respect to a client, or when the information has become generally known; or (2) reveal information relating to the representation except as these Rules would permit or require with respect to a client.

Thus, the first few paragraphs of the piece set this lawyer up for trouble in terms of allegations that what he is doing — and to some extent what he clearly does (the limo conversation and one or two other conversations) — is breaching his duty of confidentiality to a former client.  The statements about things his former client said to him are certain being used to the former client’s disadvantage and certainly are not generally known pieces of information.

This lawyer needed both a good editor and a good legal adviser who could have told him that with some massaging and editing at the outset he could have still written the lengthy 4,000 words or so about the 20 problems with a lead in that acknowledged that he was obligated by ethics rules not to disclose anything he learned during the representation and that everything he is writing about is information he worked hard to track down through publicly-available sources but ….

Actually, once you remove that piece of it – there is no more need for this gentleman’s voice in the public discourse (other than the stakes involved in the electoral process).  It particularly seems unwise for this lawyer to have taken on this risk, particularly given the well-known litigious nature of the target of the column — who actually, for example, had a lawyer send a letter to Trump’s co-author of The Art of the Deal demanding a return of all royalties now that the co-author is speaking out negatively about Trump despite the fact that book came out almost 30 years ago.

California (where this gentleman is not licensed) just put out a formal ethics opinion driving home the point that its confidentiality requirements adhere even to information that has been publicly disclosed.  Worth noting is even under that opinion, California would appear to signal that the rest of this piece, the just-one-more-voice detailing criticisms from publicly-available sources would not be a violation of duties to the former client, as the California opinion explains about the lawyer’s perhaps unnecessary and unwise but not unethical disclosures about a former client’s arrest for DUI at a time after the representation had ceased.  The New Jersey Supreme Court, earlier this month, refrained from disciplining a NJ lawyer over the disclosure of confidential facts of a current client representation that were already public, so maybe this guy will get a pass?

Three short technology stories for a Tuesday

Throwback Thursday is definitely a thing all over the World Wide Web it seems, but maybe Tech Tuesday ought to be a thing?  Though, I guess, for lawyers focusing on technology has to be an every day affair.

Like multitudes of others, I wrote a little bit recently about the Panama Papers and the Mossack Fonseca data breach fiasco.  Fortune now has an article online about a Wired U.K. story that casts a harsh light on the electronic security measures that the Panamanian firm had in place.  Blurbs like these

Mosseck Fonseca’s client portal, according to Wired, runs on a version of Drupal last updated in 2013, and vulnerable to an array of attacks, including one that would allow attackers to execute commands on the site. Another weakness allows access to the site’s back end just by guessing the right web address.

Just as bad is the firm’s webmail portal, which runs Microsoft Outlook Web Access, and hasn’t been updated since 2009. The firm also did not encrypt its emails. As one expert speaking to Wired put it, “They seem to have been caught in a time warp.”

sound very bad when you are talking about a firm that trafficked almost exclusively in “highly sensitive financial information.”  I suspect though that there are lots of other lawyers out there that are hopeful that their technology arrangements will never be subjected to even half as much scrutiny.

One lawyer who is in the middle of a highly public examination of their choices in technology is the lawyer at the heart of this story yesterday.  The lawyer has been sued by her former clients over a theft from them of $1.9 million resulting from hacking of the lawyer’s email account.  The couple had hired the attorney to represent them in the purchase of a nearly $20 million co-op apartment.  Luckily, it appears that the clients figured out what was going on even before the lawyer did and were able to recover almost all of the $1.9 million that was to be the down payment but was wired to the fraudsters.  The lawyer — and you ought to brace yourself here (though I admittedly know lawyers who still use this service) — was using an AOL email account for her real estate law practice.

The lawsuit contends that AOL accounts are particularly vulnerable to hacking and that the hacking was what let the cybercriminals know when certain transactions were going to take place, but as the article makes clear there were other opportunities for the lawyer to realize something was amiss:

It accuses Doran of forwarding bogus emails from the hackers — who were impersonating the seller of the apartment’s attorney — about payments from the Millards without confirming their authenticity last December. The name of the seller’s attorney was misspelled in the email which should have been a tip off that something was amiss.

Finally, the usually on-point Karen Rubin has a well-done post over at The Law For Lawyers Today about a relatively fortunate Oklahoma lawyer who managed to avoid full reciprocal discipline over his inability to figure out how to e-file in bankruptcy court.

The Oklahoma lawyer was permanently suspended by the Western District of Oklahoma bankruptcy court from ever practicing before it again, but the Oklahoma Supreme Court hit him only with a public censure.  Given the current rhetoric surrounding the practice of law and the demands everyone appears to assume lawyers absolutely must satisfy when it comes to using technology, it is pretty startling to read a state supreme court, in that case Oklahoma’s, issue an opinion in a lawyer discipline case that can be read to seem to minimize the obligation to be technologically competent.  But, in fairness, unless the Oklahoma Supreme Court was going to be willing to disbar the lawyer in question — which would seem supremely harsh — then any discipline imposed through reciprocal channels was going to be less than that meted out by the federal bankruptcy court and a public censure sounds about right to me.