Following up despite it not being Friday – Tennessee advertising changes

So, sort of as promised, or at least in substantial compliance with a prior promise, I wanted to elaborate a bit more on the news out of Tennessee that we have adopted revisions to our lawyer advertising rules and talk a bit about what is now a new, pending proposal put out directly by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

As to the changes that were adopted, I scooped my own blog by articulating most of those more detailed thoughts in this piece for Bloomberg Law put together by Melissa Heelan.

The one topic I didn’t really mention in that interaction was the fact that the revisions also create a new exception to allow in-person solicitation directed at “a person who routinely uses for business purposes the type of legal services offered by the lawyer.” This is a category slightly different than what the TBA had proposed to the Court but still an improvement on the existing rule.

As to the Court’s new, separate proposal for how to revise Tennessee’s treatment of “intermediary organizations,” the TBA had proposed a “surgical” revision that simply would have removed a “catch all” category from how the concept of an “intermediary organization” is defined. The TBA did not seek to propose any changes to any other aspect of the regulatory structure that requires such organizations to register with the Court.

The Court now has. It has proposed for public comment a revision that would delete Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 44 in its entirety and that would make some significant revisions to RPC 7.6 itself but that would still leave something of a “catch all” in the definition, though not as broad as the current rule and a few other revisions to the ethics rule portions. Importantly, because the proposal removes the requirements of registration and some other obstacles, what it leaves is a rule that largely places the burden on individual lawyers to make certain they are only doing business with entities that conduct themselves in a fashion that is consistent with the lawyer’s own ethical obligations. The proposed revised rule also requires transparency from the intermediary organization in terms of the furnishing of information to those who might use its services to find a lawyer. Speaking of transparency, the proposal is transparently inspired by a similar proposal recently adopted in North Carolina. You can read the full court proposal at the link below.

Given the removal of the more onerous requirements of Rule 44, this proposal seems worthy of public support as it would seem to make it much more likely that entities that can offer “matching” services that Tennessee lawyers and consumers of legal services alike are interested in using will do so in an open, above-board fashion.

In sum, the proposed revised version of RPC 7.6, paired with the deletion of Rule 44, would appear to be a rule more likely to be complied with rather than ignored.

If you are interested in submitting any public comment to the Court, you have until November 30, 2021 to do so.

Federal court releases crackin’ sanctions ruling

I will not seek pardon for the pun. I will also try not to prolong the nature of this post because the opinion that is the subject matter for today is a very good read, worthy of the limelight.

I have written on several occasions about the problematic efforts of two particular members of my profession who so thoroughly hitched their wagons to the idea that the former guy was somehow robbed of a second term in office that it would seem un-thorough of me not to make the time to write about the most significant ruling against them to date.

So, here it is.

Judge Parker, a Michigan federal district judge, has issued today a 110-page order sanctioning Lin Wood, Sidney Powell, and others for their filing, and continued pursuit, of a particular federal lawsuit that was part of the overall effort of lawyers on behalf of the former guy to gaslight the nation. You can read the full opinion here.

For you “bottom line” types, most of the lawyers most egregiously involved in this gaslighting litigation will have to pay the attorney fees of the defendants, will have to get 12 hours of additional CLE (6 of which will be focused on pleading standards and 6 of which will be focused on election law – good luck finding classes that focus on “pleading standards” that is the stuff of law school courses), and are being referred to various state bars for potential disciplinary proceedings.

Until such time as it is reviewed by the Sixth Circuit, which inevitably will happen, this opinion from the Michigan district court could serve as something of a “short-form treatise” on the concept of sanctions and the filing, and continued pursuit, of bogus litigation. In fact, if there were ever to be a Fourth Edition of the book I’ve been honored to co-author over the last decade, this case would likely be a real frontrunner for new content in Chapter 1, the chapter on the investigation necessary to pursue a case to begin with.

We could have a lot of fun pulling quotes from the opinion that demonstrate how irreparably round-the-bend these “Kraken” lawyers were and how they managed to step on rake-after-rake by continuing to say incredibly stupid things online while their case was being decided, but that’s not really all that interesting.

What strikes me as an interesting exercise though (and maybe it only strikes me that way) is if it were possible to boil down the most instructive pieces of wisdom in the 110-page opinion to give a short talk that might be educational to brand new lawyers about how to avoid filing a lawsuit that could get you sanctioned.

So, here goes nothing. (And so that this effort is perfectly clear, everything that follows this sentence shall be excerpts verbatim from the opinion combined into one excerpt – snips and reshuffles are omitted. Reproduction of this excerpt is something for which you could seek the express permission of Major League Baseball, but they will look at you funny when you do.)

[A]ttorneys have an obligation to the judiciary, their profession, and the public (i) to conduct some degree of due diligence before presenting allegations as truth; (ii) to advance only tenable claims; and (iii) to proceed with a lawsuit in good faith and based on a proper purpose. Attorneys also have an obligation to dismiss a lawsuit when it becomes clear that the requested relief is unavailable.

For purposes of Rule 11, an attorney who is knowingly listed as counsel on a
pleading, written motion, or other paper “expressly authorize[d] the signing, filing,
submitting or later advocating of the offending paper” and “shares responsibility
with the signer, filer, submitter, or advocate.” In this age of electronic filing, it is frivolous to argue that an electronic signature on a pleading or motion is insufficient to subject the attorney to the court’s jurisdiction if the attorney violates the jurisdiction’s rules of professional conduct or a federal rule or statute establishing the standards of practice.

Even if there are sanctions available under statutes or specific federal rules of procedure, . . . the ‘inherent authority’ of the court is an independent basis for sanctioning bad faith conduct in litigation. To award attorneys’ fees under this “bad faith exception,” a district court must find that (i) “the claims advanced were meritless”; (ii) “counsel knew or should have known this”; and (iii) “the motive for filing the suit was for an improper purpose such as harassment.” When invoking its inherent authority to sanction, “[a] court must, of course, . . . comply with the mandates of due process, both in determining that the requisite bad faith exists and in assessing fees.”

[L]itigants and attorneys cannot come to federal court asserting that certain acts violate the law based only upon an opportunity for—or counsel and the litigant’s suspicions of—a violation. The rule[s] continues to require litigants to ‘stop-and-think’ before initially making legal or factual contentions.

[A]n “empty-head” but “pure-heart” does not justify lodging patently unsupported factual assertions. And the good or bad faith nature of actions or submissions is not what determines whether sanctions are warranted under Rule 11(b)(3). Inferences must be reasonable and come from facts proven, not speculation or conjecture. Pursuant to their duties as officers of the court, attorneys typically do not offer factual allegations that have no hope of passing as evidentiary support at any stage of the litigation. Substituting another lawyer’s judgment for one’s own does not constitute reasonable inquiry.”

As an initial matter, an affiant’s subjective belief that an event occurred does not constitute evidence that the event in fact occurred. Plaintiffs are not entitled to rely on the discovery process to mine for evidence that never existed in the first instance. Attorneys are not journalists. It is not acceptable to support a lawsuit with opinions, which counsel herself claims no reasonable person would accept as fact and which were “inexact,” “exaggerate[ed],” and “hyperbole.” Nor is it acceptable to use the federal judiciary as a political forum to satisfy one’s political agenda. Such behavior by an attorney in a court of law has consequences.

An attorney’s right to free speech while litigating an action “is extremely circumscribed.” Something does not become plausible simply because it is repeated many times by many people. An attorney who willingly continues to assert claims doomed to fail . . . must be deemed to be acting with an improper motive.

The nation’s courts . . . are reserved for hearing legitimate causes of action. Individuals may have a right (within certain bounds) to disseminate allegations of fraud unsupported by law or fact in the public sphere. But attorneys cannot exploit their privilege and access to the judicial process to do the same. And when an attorney has done so, sanctions are in order. Here’s why. America’s civil litigation system affords individuals the privilege to file a lawsuit to allege a violation of law. Individuals, however, must litigate within the established parameters for filing a claim. Such parameters are set forth in statutes, rules of civil procedure, local court rules, and professional rules of responsibility and ethics. Every attorney who files a claim on behalf of a client is charged with the obligation to know these statutes and rules, as well as the law allegedly violated.

Labors of love.

Today has been a very weird sort of day.

My morning was consumed by handling a reinstatement proceeding where my client was someone who is inarguably a better human being, spouse, parent, and member of the community than I am. This person’s contributions to the community while they have been suspended from the practice of law far exceed mine to the point where my contributions cannot even see his contributions they are so far apart.

My afternoon has involved succeeding someone as President of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers who is pretty clearly also a better human being, spouse, and parent than I am.

I do steadfastly believe though that I am a pretty decent lawyer. So, I hope for the best outcome for my client who I truly believe is incredibly deserving of a second chance to expand the playing field of his contributions to include contributions to our profession. Based on that steadfast belief of being a pretty decent lawyer, I also hope that I will make APRL proud in the year I get to serve as its 32nd President.

If you are dead set on getting some ethics content out of today’s post, I would point you in the direction of reading up on just how perilous it can be for a lawyer to give a second chance to a nonlawyer staff member with access to trust funds and who has already once intentionally transgressed.

If you are willing to be more flexible in terms of content let me point you to two external resources that have nothing in common other than that they are labors of love.

First, if you are a frequent reader of this space and you are not already a member of APRL. Please give some real thought to joining. No organization is perfect but APRL is a very good organization. It is made up of about 400 or so people who, like me, are ethics nerds. We are a collection of lawyers all over the United States who represent other lawyers in disciplinary proceedings, legal malpractice cases, or related matters or who are academics focusing on legal ethics or work on bar admission matters or who serve a risk management function for their law firm.  Annual membership is only $175. If you are inclined to check us out, our website is here. If you are already convinced and just want to join, you can go directly to registration here.

Second, if you aren’t interested in APRL or you are back to this page after just joining, and you are a huge fan of good television and movies as well as the implementation of awesome ideas, well please, please, please go check out Nestflix. I don’t think I’ve ever put as much time and thought into anything as the person who came up with and implemented that idea.

You will lose your entire weekend navigating that website, but you won’t regret a moment of the time.

A cautionary tale of sorts for solos

It was many, many years ago (almost exactly 5 years ago) that I wrote a bit about how important it can be for lawyers who have solo practices to have contingency plans in place in case something suddenly happens to them in order to provide a way for their clients to be protected.

As we are in the middle of a pandemic that seems like it may never end (though I guess it may not even be accurate to say “middle” when the duration seems unknowable), it seems as good a time as any to remind folks about the need for this kind of planning.

And because it is often easier to learn from actual stories that happened, and because this is a story that seems to have occurred before the pandemic and is one I can indirectly make “personal” because of a common surname, I’ll offer this one.

(Obviously, when you go look at the documents, you will see when I say “common” surname I do not mean that the surname is a common one. It is very uncommon, but it is one that I have in common with the former Florida lawyer. Given that fact, it is highly likely that we are related in some degree.)

This story, which unfortunately will double as a story of how disciplinary proceedings can go from bad to worse if not handled appropriately, involves a Florida lawyer who became seriously ill, quite suddenly in January 2018, and left Florida to move to New York to be cared for by family. This former lawyer also was plagued by additional health issues including cancer further contributing to the inability to work.

She entered into a consent judgment in Florida which was accepted by the Florida Supreme Court in January 2020 to be suspended from practice for 90 days. Because of her sudden illness, having become bedridden and unable to talk, she abandoned a litigation matter she was handling for a pro bono client. The consent judgment lays out a more complicated story — a story in which readers could conclude that the pro bono client in question had already been failed prior to any health issues as the client’s case had apparently languished with no activity for nearly two years prior to January 2018.

Nevertheless, and despite the fact that the consent judgment included the lawyer acknowledging she was likely never going to be able to resume practice, the suspension order did not become effective for 30 days in order to give her time to do what she had failed to do originally, notify clients and make arrangements, etc. That order even went so far as to say: “If Respondent notifies this Court in writing that she is no longer practicing and does not need the thirty days to protect existing clients, this Court will enter an order making the suspension effective immediately.”

Unfortunately, the lawyer either did not do that or, if she had no other clients to notify, did not make arrangements to file the necessary paperwork to notify Florida and, thus, she was subsequently found in contempt and suspended for 91 days in August 2020. Again, even in that order, the lawyer was given 30 days until it would take effect. That order also again stated: “If Respondent notifies this Court in writing that she is no longer practicing and does not need the thirty days to protect existing clients, this Court will enter an order making the suspension effective immediately.”

Unfortunately, the lawyer again did not do any of those things. As a result, last month, the Florida Supreme Court entered an order disbarring them on July 22, 2021. That order, unlike the ones that preceded it, was made immediately effective.

If you practice law in a firm of sufficient size, you can get away with procrastination when it comes to thinking about your own morbidity or mortality because someone else at your firm will likely step in to save your, and the firm’s clients’, bacon. If you practice law by yourself, the risk of failing to plan is much more severe.

If you are a solo practitioner in Tennessee, and you have not already put a plan together for what will happen to your clients should something suddenly prevent you from continuing to practice law, do make the time to go familiarize yourself with the provisions in Section 29 of Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9 that allow for the appointment of receiver attorneys. While many lawyers have heard of this concept, many only know that affords courts with the ability to appoint someone to step in when a lawyer has become unable to practice. What is even more important though is that the rule blesses, in Section 29.9, advanced planning efforts to accomplish the same purpose:

29.9.  Advance Designation of a Receiver or Successor Attorney.  An attorney may designate in advance another attorney by contract, appointment, or other arrangement to handle or assist in the continued operation, sale, or closing of the attorney’s law practice in the event of such attorney’s death, incapacity or unavailability. In the event an attorney to whom this rule applies has made adequate provision for the protection of his or her clients, such provision shall govern to the extent consistent with this Rule unless the trial court or the Court determines, upon a showing of good cause, that the provisions for the appointment of a receiver attorney under this Rule should be invoked.  

Such contracts need not be unwieldy or overly complicated, and they can not only serve the public good by protecting your clients, but also having one might just play a big role in having your story (should something happen to you from which you can recover) be one of temporary troubles rather than a downward spiral to disbarment.

The Greening of New York

As promised, though just under the wire, I am following up to write more about one of the stories I didn’t write about in July, the issuance of N.Y. State Bar Ass’n Committee on Prof’l Ethics Op. 1225.

One of the downsides of publicly announcing you will write about something in the future is the risk that other folks will do it sooner and better. I understand that two of my favorite legal ethics sites have done so, but I’ve made the personal sacrifice to not read any of those folks until I can manage to commit my own thoughts into the ether.

So, let’s start with where we left off… Op. 1225 gives the ethical “green”light to lawyers both to advise businesses on how to comply with New York’s new law legalizing marijuana for recreational use and to personally use marijuana and grow the limited amounts authorized for personal use.

In getting to that conclusion, the NY Committee wasn’t starting from scratch but building on a foundation it had established in earlier opinions addressing a lawyer’s ability to provide advice to clients at an earlier time when New York only had legalized marijuana for medical use.

This opinion is noteworthy still, however, for several reasons.

First, I believe this to be the first ethics opinion clearly stating that a lawyer in a jurisdiction where recreational marijuana has been made legal can partake just as any other citizen of the state and that prohibitions in the ethics rules on personal conduct that is illegal should not change the outcome despite the fact that use of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. (I could be wrong about it being the first, but my memory is that other jurisdictions that have been willing to say that a lawyer can advise a client about the kind of business have still been unwilling to take the next logical step and say that the lawyer can partake.) It also makes the point that the now near full decade of federal forbearance on attempting to enforce federal law prohibiting marijuana use in states where it has been legalized could provide a lawyer with a good faith argument that no valid obligation exists to comply with the federal law in the face of the state legislative action.

On that front, however, it is worth knowing that the persuasiveness of the rationale likely could turn on what is the exact language of any particular jurisdiction’s version of Rule 8.4(b), the language of its accompanying comments, and what the ruling body considers to impact a lawyer’s “fitness.” For that matter, opening the door to the defiance of federal law by lawyers based on a claimed good faith belief of no valid obligation can itself be the stuff of slippery slopes.

Second, this opinion offers a very thorough explanation of why Rule 1.2(d) simply should not be interpreted in a fashion that would prohibit lawyers from offering businesses the assistance they would need to navigate the commercial endeavors that will be allowed. And it does so without feeling like any revision to the rule or comment is needed unlike some other jurisdictions have approached matters. A fundamental truth about the modern United States is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to navigate any regulated business without the assistance of lawyers.

More generally, in a complex regulatory system where cultivation, distribution, possession, sale and use of a product are tightly regulated, legal advice and guidance has immense value. Without the aid of lawyers, the recreational marijuana regulatory system would, in our view, likely break down or grind to a halt. The participation of attorneys thus secures the benefits of the Recreational Marijuana Law for the public at large, as well promotes the interests of the private and public sector clients more directly involved in the law’s implementation.

Unlike New York’s common sense acknowledgement of the overall public good, the Georgia Supreme Court just issued guidance turning a blind-eye to those concepts and declaring that lawyers that help clients do business in selling medical marijuana oil, despite that being legal, can be sanction for violations of the disciplinary rules because of the illegality under federal law.

Third, in delving into the attorney’s other question about accepting an equity interest in a marijuana business client, the committee opinion provides excellent guidance that would be useful for any attorney addressing the question with respect to any business client — an analysis of Rule 1.8 regarding business transactions and Rule 1.7 regarding conflicts of interest– which is a nice change of pace.

Now, off to go read the other folks, possibly better takes…

10 Things I Thought I Would Write About This July, But Didn’t.

So, anyone I might have hooked into caring about this site in May and June 2021 likely stopped checking for July content 1 or 2 weeks ago. Longer-term, repeatedly neglected, readers are likely still hanging in there (and forever earning my esteem).

There have been a bunch of times that I thought I was going to bust something out on here this month, but life, and work, and doom-scrolling, and an honest-to-goodness vacation have gotten in the way. On the doom-scrolling front, we’re back to having to do a bunch of that because the people out there with access to the vaccine but who are refusing to take it are really doing all they can to ruin this for everyone else. In states like Tennessee, the problematic Republicans that run things are actively trying to stop young teenagers from getting this vaccine by going so far as to try to stop the dissemination of information to teenagers about any vaccines of any sort. Sigh.

So, this won’t quite make up for the dry spell, but here are quick entries on the 10 things I thought I would write about this July, but didn’t.

(1) The Florida Supreme Court earlier this year did some rule-making that has resulted in Florida lawyers being unable to get CLE credit for any CLE sponsored by the ABA. Sounds absurd, right? It is. I am very proud to say that, among the many public comments filed by lawyers and groups of lawyers attempting to explain to the Florida Supreme Court why it should rescind its new rule, is one from the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers. . You can read that comment here. If you are interested in reading all of the comments – which are overwhelmingly opposed to the Court’s actions, you can get access to them here.

(2) Speaking of Florida, backwards as it can be in a number of respects (looking mostly at you Governor DeSantis), it has dipped its toe in the water of joining the ranks of Utah and Arizona in potentially bringing about drastic change in the legal landscape by allowing for nonlawyer ownership of providers of legal services to operate through a “sandbox” approach. You can read more here.

(3) Speaking of Utah and Arizona, we have statistics about the kinds of entities that have been approved in those states for performing legal services either through Utah’s sandbox or just generally in Arizona. A very good article providing an overview of the happenings in those two states can be found here.

(4) Staying out West, but angling a bit northward, the Oregon Supreme Court has issued a good new opinion on whether a lawyer can rely upon RPC 1.6 to attempt to disclose client confidential information to respond to online criticism. Spoiler alert: still a no-no.

(5) One of the things that we’ve discussed here before that a lawyer can do in response to unfair online criticism is to file a lawsuit about it. I’ve pretty steadfastly made the point that doing so likely will only make things worse. Speaking of making things worse by filing a lawsuit because you are mad about how you are being treated online, the twice-impeached former President of the United States filed a class action lawsuit against each of Facebook and Twitter claiming that their decision to ban him from their platforms was unconstitutional. Remarkably, Trump found even more lawyers to be willing to debase themselves and threaten any reputation that might have otherwise established to make highly frivolous arguments in a lawsuit – this time trying to argue that Facebook and Twitter are essentially the government and should have to comply with the First Amendment.

(6) Speaking of lawyers debasing themselves for Donald Trump of all people (and that’s still at many times the most staggering part of all of this, him? This is the guy that so many people are so willing to burn it all down for?), a raft full of lawyers involved in the “Kraken” lawsuits in Michigan had their sanctions evidentiary hearing and, based on all the reports you can go read, it went about as well for them as everything else has gone in the Kraken lawsuit. Then, of all things, one of the most prominent of the lawyers in the cross-hairs went and posted a portion of the video pf the proceedings in violation of the court’s explicit order not to do so. This has led to a follow-up show cause order regarding contempt. Most recently, the judge issued an order declining to find contempt but asking for an explanation for why discipline should not be imposed. I’ve written in the past about why we shouldn’t just be okay with the notion that courts are saying these public proceedings cannot be taped and re-broadcast but there’s a time and a place for most things. When you are already staring down the barrel of the kind of sanctions these lawyers might get, that certainly wasn’t the time.

(7) Sticking to stories with a political twist, President Biden has signed an omnibus Executive Order that attempts to do an awful lot of things.. One of the things it does is impose some prohibitions on requiring employees to sign non-compete agreements. I was among several lawyers quoted in a Law360 Pulse story about how that portion of the EO could impact the legal profession. Here is a link to the article itself, but you have to be a subscriber to see it. For the rest of you, I’ll just say that, for my part, I said the following:

The direct and immediate impact seems to be minimal because, as you already know, lawyers are ethically restricted from agreeing to noncompetes, and even prohibited from trying to ask a lawyer-hire to agree to them.

When President Biden says something like “the era of it being difficult for someone licensed to do something in one state to get a license in another state needs to come to an end,” why shouldn’t that apply to lawyers too? There are significant discussions going on in the profession about how to better connect willing lawyers and interested potential clients when consumers are going unrepresented and lawyers are out there who don’t have enough work.

(8) A month or two ago, I wrote a bit on how New York and D.C. were putting out some proposed revised approaches to a rule that would help address harassment and discrimination by lawyers, but that are trying to be designed to avoid the “alleged” problems of ABA Model Rule 8.4(g). I neglected at the time to say anything about the fact that Connecticut was working on something in that regard as well. In June 2021, the Connecticut Supreme Court has adopted the proposed revision, and a new Rule 8.4(7) will go into effect in the Nutmeg State on January 1, 2022. You can check out the full language of the rule here.

(9) Big news was made recently in Texas with a decision from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals finding that mandatory bar membership in Texas was unconstitutional, in the current form of the Texas Bar, because of how the Texas Bar uses some of the dues of members to undertake political activity. I’ve written a few times over the years about the important distinctions that exist between states with unified bars, where membership is mandatory, and states where the bar association is just a voluntary membership organization. More recently, the Sixth Circuit wasn’t as friendly to an Ohio lawyer’s attempt to challenge mandatory membership in the Ohio bar. An ultimate ruling on the issue from the U.S. Supreme Court seems inevitable at this point. Given the current make-up of the Court, the era of mandatory bar associations is likely coming to an end.

(10) Remember three paragraphs ago when I said there was a time and a place for most things? When it comes to lawyers and using marijuana, the New York State Bar Association has released a new opinion that says the time is now and the place is New York.

So, those were 10 things I thought I was going to write about in July but I didn’t. Or did I?

(N.B. I will return before the month ends, and I will write a little bit more about that last item.)

Someone finally faces consequences for gaslighting all of us.

So, if you’re here at any point today or tomorrow, you are likely someone who has already heard the news of Rudy Giuliani, attorney for the former POTUS, being suspended from the practice of law in New York. A copy of the 30+ page opinion imposing an interim suspension on Mr. Giuliani is available at the link below.

I’ve previously written a bit on the topic of Rudy’s descent into madness and will not repeat all of that. I will say that many folks who do what I do are very surprised with this news – particularly because of the type of suspension. These kinds of suspensions are usually imposed against lawyers who have been convicted of a crime, stolen client funds, or abandoned their practices. That being said, and as I’ve written about in variations in the recent past, all of those things get pursued because they fall under the general category of being a threat to the public.

It is rare that I can manage a blogpost that is almost exclusively a quote from a court opinion, but the opinion itself makes the case about as well as anyone could why this suspension is justified on the grounds that this lawyer is a public threat:

The seriousness of respondent’s uncontroverted misconduct cannot be overstated. This country is being torn apart by continued attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 election and of our current president, Joseph R. Biden.13 The hallmark of our democracy is predicated on free and fair elections. False statements intended to foment
a loss of confidence in our elections and resulting loss of confidence in government generally damage the proper functioning of a free society. When those false statements are made by an attorney, it also erodes the public’s confidence in the integrity of attorneys admitted to our bar and damages the profession’s role as a crucial source of
reliable information (Matter of Nearing, 16 AD2d at 516). It tarnishes the reputation of the entire legal profession and its mandate to act as a trusted and essential part of the machinery of justice (Ohralik v Ohio State Bar Assn, 436 US at 447). Where, as here, the false statements are being made by respondent, acting with the authority of being an attorney, and using his large megaphone, the harm is magnified. One only has to look at the ongoing present public discord over the 2020 election, which erupted into violence, insurrection and death on January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol, to understand the extent of the damage that can be done when the public is misled by false information about the elections. The AGC contends that respondent’s misconduct directly inflamed tensions
that bubbled over into the events of January 6, 2021 in this nation’s Capitol. Respondent’s response is that no causal nexus can be shown between his conduct and those events. We need not decide any issue of “causal nexus” to understand that the falsehoods themselves cause harm.14 This event only emphasizes the larger point that
the broad dissemination of false statements, casting doubt on the legitimacy of thousands of validly cast votes, is corrosive to the public’s trust in our most important democratic institutions.

Before Judge Brann in the Boockvar case, respondent himself stated: “I don’t know what’s more serious than being denied your right to vote in a democracy.” We agree. It is the very reason why espousing false factual information to large segments of the public as a means of discrediting the rights of legitimate voters is so immediately
harmful to it and warrants interim suspension from the practice of law.

The two footnotes cited within that portion of the Court’s opinion involve reference to (1) a May national poll reflecting that 53% of Republicans in the United States believe that Trump won the election and should still rightly be POTUS; and (2) the fact that Mr. Giuliani is also a defendant in litigation seeking to hold him responsible for the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

It is, very often, anti-social media.

You may recall that not too long ago I wrote a bit about a Tennessee Supreme Court opinion that I thought was a bit wrongly-framed from its opening sentence. It was the one that was really about why lawyers shouldn’t help people try to plan and cover up crimes but started:

“This case is a cautionary tale on the ethical problems that can befall lawyers on social media.”

To drive my point about the wrongness of the Tennessee court framing that situation that way, here is a development out of South Carolina that more rightly would deserve that kind of dramatic introduction in the opinion. Instead, the South Carolina Supreme Court opens its opinion issued today in In re Traywick in a more prosaic fashion:

Beginning in June 2020, ODC received complaints from forty-six separate individuals regarding statements Respondent made on his Facebook page. At that time, Respondent maintained a personal Facebook account with a privacy setting of “public,” meaning his posts were visible to anyone, not just his Facebook “friends,” and even if the person did not have a Facebook account. In his Facebook profile, Respondent identified himself as a lawyer and referenced his law firm.

For the conduct that the Court goes on to describe in this opinion, the lawyer was placed pretty immediately on an interim suspension on June 12, 2020. So, as of this month, he’s essentially already been suspended for a year. That becomes important to know because the opinion details that the lawyer was consenting to a six-month suspension to resolve the matter. Thus, with the suspension being made retroactive, the lawyer appears to be immediately available to resume practicing.

But the Court also imposed a number of additional requirements on the lawyer that will continue for up to a year from the issuance of the opinion. Before exploring those, let’s address what it was that the lawyer posted on Facebook that led to this result.

Apparently there were 12 instances of writing really offensive and inflammatory stuff. A reader of the opinion though will only learn about 2 of them because the Court announces that the two instances alone sufficiently justify the 6-month suspension.

I’m not going to post what the lawyer actually wrote because… well, life’s too short and the internet is filled with enough toxic stuff to have to read already.

The two instances range from apparently a very strong opinion about what it means if people have a tattoo to writing insensitive, inhumane, and pretty-hard-to-see-as-anything-other-than-racist thoughts about the value of George Floyd’s life. You can go read the opinion if you really want to know, but, while it isn’t near the worst stuff you can go read on the internet, it’s still bad.

The opinion also stresses that the respondent disclaimed any interest in making a First Amendment defense to the disciplinary proceedings, which I know will have lots of folks asking questions about why someone in that position would do that. I don’t have any real insight, but one guess would be that if you were trying to distance yourself from what you said – perhaps attempting to chalk it up to being in altered state of mind and saying the views aren’t ones you actually hold – then trying to argue these were protected expressions of your opinion wouldn’t actually be something that would interest you.

As mentioned at the outset, whether this lawyer actually is this kind of person or was this kind of person or only plays at being so offensive of a fellow online, his suspension is purely an “own goal.” Not only because the lawyer was weighing in on things that nobody really was looking for him to tell them about (of course, that is sort of the sine qua non of social media participation…) but also because he didn’t have the minimum level of commonsense to use some privacy settings on his Facebook page so that only his “friends” would see what he wrote.

In addition to having been suspended, the lawyer’s self-inflicted wounds now include the following:

  • complete at least an hour of diversity education by June 2022
  • complete “a comprehensive anger management assessment with a licensed mental health doctor or therapists” within the next 3 months
  • be evaluated by South Carolina’s LAP-type program within the next 3 months and comply until June 2022 with whatever that organization recommends he do based on the assessment
  • provide the Court with periodic reports confirming he’s doing these things as well as a final report from his providers with assessments by June 2022

The last point worth mentioning is that the opinion does not discuss any ethics rule at all and, instead, the discipline is imposed for violating the Lawyer’s Oath in South Carolina as well as a disciplinary enforcement rule that allows discipline for “conduct tending to bring the courts or the legal profession into disrepute.”

Honestly, transparency is all that we need.

This week I was fortunate enough to be included as part of a presentation on debating issues of regulatory reform in a Plenary at the ABA National Conference on Professional Responsibility

I recorded my 3-minute presentation a couple of months ago and spent a lot of time looking forward to how it would be received. Unfortunately, it went down in a way that “felt” less than ideal. There were some communications problems with a shift in online platforms from the prior day to the day of this content and I was lucky enough to both have mine get teed up first when people were still trying to figure out how to make things work and was one of two presenters that never managed to actually get introduced so, unless you recognized my face (if so, I’m so sorry for that) you didn’t know it was me.

So, in the interest of self-care and to possibly double the number of people who ever hear what I had to say on my subject matter, I’m taking the liberty of repackaging it here into a blogpost.

Without further dwelling in this quagmire of self-pity, here were my remarks in their entirety:

I’ve been given the opportunity to be the “pro” side of the argument on why many of the current ethics rules restricting business development should be jettisoned.

I think I can do it in 5-10 seconds, “Honestly, transparency is all that we need.”  But since I get 3 minutes, let me elaborate.

Our rules, in Rule 2.1, already require us to “exercise independent professional judgement” in representing a client.  Our rules, in Rule 7.1 already require us not to make any false statements about ourselves or our services.  Our rules, in Rule 7.3, already prohibit any solicitation that “involves coercion, duress, or harassment.”  Our rules in Rule 8.4(a) already prohibit lawyers from doing any of those things through the acts of another. 

So, given that we have consumers who aren’t finding lawyers for assistance at a price point they are willing to pay, and we have lots of lawyers without enough to do … why do we need rules – under the guise of prohibiting fee sharing or prohibiting paying people for referrals to protect consumers?

Honestly, transparency is all that we need.

Consumers care about what the total cost of a lawyer is to them.  They don’t care who the lawyer shares that money with.  If they do, transparency about the situation will let them say “no”

Honestly, transparency is all that we need.

Consumers care about whether they can find a lawyer who is willing to handle their matter.  They don’t care about the fact that a particular matching service might only be offering 3 lawyers out of 20 that might be out there and willing.  They’re happy to know about the 3.  And if they do care, then transparency about the situation and the business arrangements will let them say “no.”

If you’re with me, say it with me … Honestly, transparency is all that we need.

And, if you disagree because you are convinced that no matter what the other rules say, you believe that if we let third-parties with financial interests direct clients to particular lawyers based on a relationship rather than their qualification, then the lawyer’s exercise of independent professional judgment will be impacted … wait until you learn about insurance companies and panel counsel arrangements and billing and reporting guidelines.

Main(e)ly an excuse for book promotion.

So, before offering up the actual ethics content, if like me you know you’re not quite hitting on all cylinders but you are functional and you haven’t already read that New York Times article that made the rounds about “languishing.” I’d recommend it. You can still get to the article at this link. You might read through it and walk away very much saying “It Me.” If so, samesies. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet figured out yet what the recipe is for moving on from languishing to something more like – if not thriving then … well something.

Now, on to something with an actual clear solution, the answer to an ethics question. More specifically, I wanted to give a nod to a recent ethics opinion put out into the world that actually is a really good one. Really good in that it does the kind of thing that an ethics opinion can do to be really valuable — gives the correct answer to a practical question that can really matter to a lawyer and involving a situation that (while it doesn’t arise with abundant frequency) can still arise more frequently than once in a blue moon.

What we are discussing is Opinion #224 issued by the Professional Ethics Commission of the Board of Overseers of the Bar, State of Maine. But henceforth we’re just going to call it Maine Op. 224. Maine Op. 224 answers the question:

Can a lawyer pay a non-expert witness for time spent testifying at a deposition or a trial, preparing for such testimony, and other related costs?

Now, I know from experience dealing with lawyers that, when posed this sort of issue in real life, many lawyers immediate, visceral reaction is that surely this must be verboten. If they are able to draw a rule to mind to give shape to their reaction, they will point to RPC 3.4 and its prohibition on a lawyer offering inducements to witnesses that are prohibited by law.

In Tennessee, we’ve written our rules to be exceedingly clear about how this can be done rather than rely only on the ABA Model Rule language. Our RPC 3.4(h) has this additional language:

A lawyer may advance, guarantee, or acquiesce in the payment of

(1) expenses reasonably incurred by a witness in attending or testifying;

(2) reasonable compensation to a witness for that witness’s loss of time in attending or testifying; or

(3) a reasonable fee for the professional services of an expert witness.

But such compensation is not verboten even in jurisdictions that just have Model Rule language. As long as the amounts provided as compensation are reasonable with respect to the value of the witness’s time and the compensation is not at all dependent on the content of the testimony, then the answer is that a lawyer may do this.

And Maine Op. 224 gets that right.

A lawyer may advance court costs and litigation expenses without running afoul of the Maine Rules of Professional Conduct, including paying a non–expert witness’s lost wages, expenses, and other costs related to preparing and providing testimony or otherwise assisting counsel, so long as the payment is reasonable and not conditioned on the content of the witness’s testimony.

Moreover, Maine Op. 224 provides a number of helpful points of elaboration. It manages to stress that the fundamental reason that the lawyer can do so is because the client has the right to do so and, thus, a lawyer can, acting on behalf of the client, advance those litigation expenses similar to other litigation expenses. It also, albeit in a footnote, gives practical guidance that the lawyer also has to be very careful about the likely need for the arrangement to be fully disclosed during discovery in the litigation itself. It also, again in a footnote, acknowledges that there could well be disputes over whether a particular amount of compensation is, in fact, reasonable and opines that the place for litigating such a question should be in the litigation itself.

Now, we are heaping a bit of praise on Maine for getting it right, but reaching the right conclusion on this question is not a Herculean task as the ABA, almost a full 25 years ago now, already gave this similar correct guidance in ABA Formal Op. 96-402 and Maine Op. 224 cribs from that opinion liberally.

What Maine Op. 224 does not do is go beyond the guidance the ABA Opinion offered about how to figure out whether requested compensation for a fact witness is reasonable. One good place to look for such guidance is in Chapter 5 of the Second Edition of Professional Responsibility in Litigation where Doug Richmond, Mike Matula, and I offer eight practical tips to litigators when addressing this issue. Respecting the adages of cows and free milk, I’ll offer you only three of those practical tips here: (a) lawyers ought to wait for a witness to ask for compensation rather than offering it; (b) the closer the lawyer can come to providing an amount that approximates the witness’s direct loss of income the safe the arrangement; and (c) lawyers should refrain from ever providing such compensation to someone who is a former employee of the litigation adversary.

Oh, and by the way, speaking of Professional Responsibility in Litigation, the Third Edition is going to be coming out very, very soon. So, stay tuned.