So, yesterday, I started writing about the potential ramifications for lawyers of the adoption by the Department of Labor of its final “persuader” rule which will become effective on April 25, 2016, but will only be applicable to agreements entered into on and after July 1, 2016. You can catch up on part 1 here.
I promised that I’d lay out my thoughts based on a full dive into the actual final rule itself to try to address whether, despite the DOL’s rhetoric, the rule really will require disclosure of information that ought to be protected by the attorney-client privilege — so, here I go.
Having read through all (or least almost all) of the final “Persuader” rule, my “executive summary” takeaway is that the DOL sure seems to be willing to go to the wall on the idea that trying to help an employer make a more persuasive argument against the formation of an union is not “legal services.” I happen to think that’s wrong but, I guess for the most part, that’s a policy call to be made by people who win elections. I also think it is a position that is fundamentally in contrast to lots of other areas where conclusions are drawn that when a lawyer does certain things that aren’t the practice of law when done by nonlawyers, the lawyer is still engaged in the practice of law when doing those things. I also think, though, as wrong as it may be, it seems to be a manageable situation and that lawyers and law firms can protect against the adverse consequences through building better (or at least more redactable agreements). What seems to be a much worse possible outcome is the issue the DOL dodges by saying it isn’t at issue in the present rulemaking — the kinds of information that would now have to be reported on Form LM-21 that the ABA warned about a a good bit in its 2011 public comment.
There are many places in the Final Rule itself (page references below are to the Federal Register Vol 81. No. 57) that leave little room for a conclusion other than that the Department adamantly contends that “persuader activities” simply aren’t legal services and, as a result, communications about “persuader activities” aren’t entitled to be treated as advice or as privileged communications. Stated another way, it seems the Department’s view that the only thing that a lawyer exists to do in this aspect of the labor law arena is provide advice to ensure the legality of her clients’ conduct.
In fact, the Department appears to be make this interpretative position abundantly clear in multiple places:
Agreements under which a consultant exclusively provides legal services or representation in court or in collective bargaining negotiations are not to be reported. “Advice” does not include persuader activities, i.e. actions, conduct, or communications by a consultant on behalf of an employer that are undertaken with an object, directly or indirectly, to persuade employees concerning their rights to organize or bargain collectively. If the consultant engages in both advice and persuader activities, however, the entire agreement or arrangement must be reported. (p. 15937)
While a lawyer who exclusively counsel an employer-client may provide examples or descriptions of statements found by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to be lawful, this differs from the attorney or other consultant affirmatively drafting or otherwise providing to the employer a communication tailored to the employer’s employees and intended for distribution to them. The latter is reportable, the former is not. (p. 15938)
A lawyer or other consultant who exclusively counsels employer representatives on what they may lawfully say to employees, ensures a client’s compliance with the law, offers guidance on employer personnel policies and best practices, or provides guidance on NLRB or National Mediation Board (NMB) practice or precedent is providing “advice.” (p. 15939)
Indeed, this rule exempts from reporting agreements involving exclusively the following activities: . . . legal services (as distinct from persuader activities undertaken by a lawyer). (p. 15952)
The reporting requirements in Form LM-20 . . . are designed to identify the specific persuader activities undertaken, not the legal advice provided. In other words, if an employer retains a law firm with the purpose to persuade, directly or indirectly, its employees not to unionize, that retention is not privileged because it is not done with a purpose of obtaining a legal opinion, legal services, or assistance in a legal proceeding. (p. 15996)
Now, at just a common sense level, it seems implausible for anyone at all familiar with what lawyers do to say that anything other than advice isn’t legal services. If an attorney communicating to a client about how to use more persuasive language to advance its legal rights isn’t the provision of legal services, why? It certainly seems like legal services to me. The conversation also presents for me another reminder about the fact that RPC 2.1 is almost never discussed when it ought to be with respect to the role lawyers play, and are supposed to play, in going beyond just giving legal advice.
I will admit that, at first blush, it was difficult for me to figure out how the Department, in requiring this Section 203(c) reporting, could just disregard the fact that Section 204 indicates that “attorney-client communications” are exempt from reporting where such communications are defined as “information which was lawfully communicated to [an] attorney by any of his clients in the course of a legitimate attorney-client relationship.” But, having digested the whole rule, I understand that there is some mixture of interpretive history and judicial decisions lurking behind the scenes on which the Department of Labor rests its positions:
[T]he Department notes that — consistent with the interpretation that section 204 has received from the courts — it always has construed section 204 as roughly equivalent to the limited attorney-client privilege under the common law. The Department has never embraced the view that section 204 creates a broad, separate exemption for attorneys that supplants 203(c). p. 15953
The Department’s interpretation in that respect does find support in a Sixth Circuit case, Humphreys, Hutcheson and Moseley v. Donovan, 755 F.2d 1211 (6th Cir. 1985). Humphreys determined that Section 204 was intended to provide the same scope of protection against disclosure of information as is provided for under federal common law attorney-client privilege. That case, and another even older case from the Fourth Circuit (Douglas v. Wirtz, 353 F.2d 30 (4th Cir. 1965)), are things the Department points to for their claim that “Congress recognized that the ordinary practice of labor law does not encompass persuader activities.” (p. 15996)
What I’m also very troubled by, and not just intellectually, but practically, is the DOL’s position that language in an attorney-client engagement agreement about the scope and nature of services provided is not protected by the attorney-client privilege. The Department uses this position to brush aside concerns expressed in a variety of the comments it received during the public comment period about requiring the law firm’s engagement agreement with the employer client to be made public and to have to provide information through checking boxes about what activities were performed. The Department maintains that the same Humphreys decision out of my circuit, the Sixth Circuit, supports that conclusion as well. I’m not entirely certain that the Department isn’t stretching the language of Humphreys too far especially when it also is willing to contend, with respect to an engagement agreement that: “information that may reveal client motives regarding exclusively legal advice or representation sought would generally be redactable, but information concerning client motives related to the persuasion of employees is not privileged and would remain reportable.” (p. 15995)
The one aspect of attorney-client confidential communications that the DOL does seem to get right is the non-absolute nature of confidentiality protection under the ethics rules where states have adopted rules similar to ABA Model Rule 1.6. So, if the “persuader” rule adopted by the DOL ends up being treated as within its powers so as to be recognized as “other law,” then nothing about RPC 1.6 will serve to prevent reporting of the required items. The privilege dilemma, however, will remain.
Thus, the practical takeaway for law firms worried about this issue — i.e. practicing in this sphere — would seem to be to get accustomed to either entering into two separate engagement agreements with their clients, one that would be bare-bones to cover anything that would be done that might stray into “persuader activities,” so that one is the only one that has to be attached to the Form LM-20 or (2) get very accustomed to crafting engagement letters that can be readily redacted to protect privileged communications within the text. The final “persuader” rule, for its flaws, at least does acknowledge the ability of lawyers and law firms to redact the agreements it submits; though even on that front, there is troubling language in the rule that would appear to set up points of skirmish over the details of when that is done as well.
Given the effective dates of this, there is certainly time between now and July 1 to figure out how to do so.
Of course, given the fact that it would appear litigation to challenge the rule is in the offing, who knows if it will ever come to pass.