Tennessee has adopted the Ethics 20/20 changes effective immediately.

I’ve written a couple of times in the past about the status of the Tennessee Bar Association’s petition seeking to have the Tennessee Supreme Court adopt essentially all of the ABA Ethics 20/20 changes.  Yesterday, the Tennessee Supreme Court entered an order doing just that – effective immediately — which now adds Tennessee to the list of jurisdictions that have adopted that package of ABA Model Rule changes focused on updating certain aspects of the rules to address technology and the role it plays in modern law practice.

I’m pleased to be able to report that as to the issues where our Board of Professional Responsibility had offered counter proposals to certain aspects that would both be contrary to the Ethics 20/20 language and for which the TBA expressed a level of disquietude with the proposals, the Court opted to stick with what the TBA was proposing.

You can read the Court order and the black-line of the changes made to those rules impacted at this link.  As a result of the order, effective immediately, Tennessee now has:

  • a definition of “writing” in RPC 1.0 that refers to “electronic communications” rather than just “e-mail”
  • paragraphs in the Comment to RPC 1.1 that provide more guidance about the need to obtain informed consent from a client before involving lawyers from outside the lawyer’s own firm in a client matter
  • language in the Comment to RPC 1.1 that makes clear that the lawyer’s duty to “keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice” includes “the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology”
  • more modern language in the Comment to RPC 1.4 making clear that not just telephone calls from clients but all modern forms of communication by clients need to be responded to or acknowledged promptly
  • a specific discretionary exception to confidentiality under RPC 1.6(b) for disclosing information “to detect and resolve conflicts of interest arising from the lawyer’s change of employment or from changes in composition orr ownership of a firm”
  • black-letter treatment in RPC 1.6(d) of the duty to “make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client”
  • a little clearer, and more focused, guidance in RPC 1.18 about what kinds of communications will suffice to trigger a lawyer’s obligations to someone as a prospective client
  • important distinctions described in the Comment to RPC 5.3 as to a lawyer’s supervisory obligations as to nonlawyer assistants within and outside of the lawyer’s firm
  • important guidance in the advertising rules about the appropriateness of working with certain companies providing lead-generation services

In addition to adopting the ABA Ethics 20/20 changes, the black-line materials also reflect some housekeeping revisions we had proposed to catch a few items that needed changing in terms of cross-references from other Tennessee Supreme Court rules that had changed over the last few years.

That’s not a Rule 8.4(c) violation. THAT’s a Rule 8.4(c) violation.

In February 2017, more than a dozen law professors filed an ethics complaint against Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, alleging that she violated the attorney ethics rules applicable in D.C. through several false public statement she made — most notably, her repetitive statements about a terrorist incident that never actually occurred – the “Bowling Green Massacre.”  Now, many people were not aware of the fact that Ms. Conway is an attorney — she doesn’t work as an attorney in the present administration.  (In fact, her D.C. law license is already administratively suspended.)  The core rule that the professors contend Ms. Conway violated is Rule 8.4(c) which makes it a violation for a lawyer to “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”

Unlike many other ethics rules, Rule 8.4 does not contain language limiting its scope to when “representing a client.”  While I am not a fan of Ms. Conway, I very much disagree with the notion that her public statements in her political role are the kind of conduct to which Rule 8.4(c) should be applied.  A reporter with The Blaze was kind of enough to let me comment in an article about the ethics complaint against Conway where I elaborate more fully on why I disagreed.  You can read the article with, including my extensive comments, here.

Now, I feel compelled in fairness, instead of just knocking something down the opinion of others, to try to offer a good example of lawyer conduct that I think would fit as a Rule 8.4(c) violation but that doesn’t involve representing a client.

So, let me try a scenario.

Say you are a lawyer, and you are undergoing a job interview.  If you lie in response to questions that are important to whether or not you get the job, that would be fodder for a Rule 8.4(c) violation.  Or, maybe to make the violation even more palpable (if not clearer), let’s say you are seeking a public job.  Perhaps, a really high-profile one, involving the government.  And you lie during your job interview or on the application you have to submit for the position as part of a background check.  That would definitely trigger Rule 8.4(c) in my view.

Heck, while I am just freewheeling on this whole scenario, let’s really ramp up the stakes.  Let’s go with an attorney position in the federal government where your appointment has to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.  And, let’s say you lie in response to written questions posed to you by a Senator or you give a false and misleading response to a Senator’s question during a confirmation hearing or, gosh, maybe you do even both of those things.  That would definitely be a Rule 8.4(c) violation.  And, given that there would be also be lying under oath involved and lying to Congress involved, Rule 8.4(b) would actually come into play as well.  That’s the rule that prohibits a lawyer from “commit[ting] a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.”

So, yes, that would to me be a very solid foundation for multiple Rule 8.4 violations.  And, in my scenario, the lawyer engaged in dishonesty, deceit, and misrepresentations would not even have to have been undergoing the job interview to be the Attorney General of the United States, but if it helps to put flesh on the bones of the hypothetical to think I was talking the whole time about the current U.S. Attorney General then, well, have at it.

[And, as to the title of this post, you’re going to have to read that title in a Paul Hogan as “Crocodile Dundee” Australian accent.  And if you aren’t familiar with him or that movie, it was a lot more popular back in 1999 when Mr. Sessions said this to explain his vote to impeach a different President of the United States.]

Dear ABA – Embrace reform of the lawyer advertising rules. Please.

I have written in the past about the APRL white papers providing the rationale for, and data supporting the need to, reform the way lawyer advertising is regulated in the United States by state bar entities.  You can read those prior posts here and here if you are so inclined.

Jayne Reardon, the Executive Director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, over at the 2Civility blog has posted a very thorough report on events that transpired in Miami earlier this month and that reminds folks that the deadline put together by the ABA working group looking at whether to back APRL’s proposals is March 1, 2017.

I am a proud member of APRL – actually presently I’m even fortunate enough to serve as a member of its Board of Directors – but was not able to make it down to Miami for our meeting and the ABA meetings this year.  If you are a reader of this blog, you know that my view is that the only advertising rule that ought to be necessary is a version of RPC 7.1 that states, as does the ABA Model:

A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.  A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.

Period.  Full stop.

Now Jayne’s report from the ground mentions that some folks criticized or complained about APRL’s proposal because it would not apply only to advertisements by lawyers.  To me that is a feature, not a bug.  As I’ve also written and spoken about, RPC 7.1 is violated when a lawyer sends a fraudulent bill to a client saying they spent more time on something than they really did and that’s a good thing.  It also, for example, applies to lawyers who lie on their resumes as we saw with this recent instance of lawyer misconduct.

The concern expressed by someone that it could result in discipline against a lawyer politician (presumably one who would have to have lied about some aspect of their personal history I guess) does not give me much pause because if it were so applied it would likely fail First Amendment scrutiny because of the higher standards afforded to protect political speech rather than constitutional speech.

While I think RPC 7.1 ideally is the only rule that ought to exist, I recognize that people are going to insist there be some restriction on in-person solicitation so I also support APRL’s proposed approach to having an additional rule, over and above RPC 7.1, to address that.  As I’ve said before, my only quibble with APRL’s proposal on that front is as to how it defines a sophisticated user of legal services:

If I had one criticism of the APRL proposal, it is with the way it defines a sophisticated user of legal services.  The second part about regular retention of legal services for business purposes is likely where it should have stopped, as the first portion of the definition is pretty amorphous and subject to manipulation.  For example, would a recidivist offender who has gone through repeated jury trials and spent many years in prison someone who would qualify as having had significant dealings with the legal profession?  Seems like a pretty clear argument could be made that the answer would be yes.

I’m going to send this post in to the ABA working committee as my own personal comment.  If you have a viewpoint on these issues (whether it jibes with mine or not), I’d encourage you to send your thoughts as well to them at this email address: modelruleamend@americanbar.org.  (Unless you don’t think lawyer advertising rules are strict enough already.  Then I’d encourage you to stay busy doing other things.  Kidding, just kidding.  But more like Al Franken’s kidding on the square actually.)

Learn something new every day. Or two things. Or three things. I’m not your boss.

About a week or so ago, I learned something new about South Carolina’s ethics rules – thanks to the law-student-powered blog of the University of Miami (FL) School of Law, Legal Ethics in Motion.  They wrote about a South Carolina federal court case in which a motion to disqualify premised on South Carolina Rule 1.18 was denied.  I learned a second new thing about South Carolina’s ethics rules in reading that opinion.

The first new thing I learned about South Carolina was that it has a weird-ish wrinkle in its Rule 1.18(a).

Most jurisdictions, including Tennessee, follow the lead of ABA Model Rules and have a version of Rule 1.18(a) that defines a “prospective client” as someone who “consults with” or “discusses with” a lawyer the “possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter.”

South Carolina, however, takes a different approach.  Its RPC 1.18(a) reads as follows:

A person with whom a lawyer discusses the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form a relationship.

Now, that “only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form a relationship” language can have some obvious benefits in avoiding having to deal with certain situations where most folks would agree that the array of protections afforded to a person as a prospective client under RPC 1.18 just shouldn’t come into existence.  Like, if the only reason someone is reaching out is to get a lawyer disqualified – usually just dealt with through language in the Comment — this language should suffice to prevent RPC 1.18 protection from coming to pass.  Likewise, if say a person a lawyer has never met before calls out of the blue and starts running on at the mouth about their case before the lawyer could get a word – like “stop” – in edgewise, this rule’s “reasonable expectation” and “likely to form” language would be a very good tool for shutting down any RPC 1.18 argument.

But, even having only just learned of the existence of such language, I was still surprised to then learn what the federal court in South Carolina thought it meant.  Instead of resolving a disqualification motion on the basis that there didn’t seem to be any “significantly harmful” information that was ever transmitted, the court concluded that a series of events spanning a voice mail message, a telephone conference about a possible engagement, and an email exchange thereafter with a South Carolina lawyer was not sufficient to ever create the existence of a prospective client at all.

The court’s own description of the events is really all that should be needed to understand my surprise:

On July 7, 2016, Plaintiff’s attorney Jay Wolman (Wolman) called and left a voice mail for Wyche attorney Tally Parham Casey (Casey) about a possible engagement in a case.  Wolman and Casey discussed the possibility of Wyche’s serving as local counsel for Plaintiff in this matter in a telephone conference on July 11, 2016.  Wolman subsequently emailed Casey on July 11, 2016, and provided Plaintiff’s and Gari’s names “[f]or conflict purposes” and requested a fee agreement “[i]f there is no conflict.”  Casey responded on that same day with applicable hourly rates and stated, “I hope we get the opportunity to work together.”  On July 12, 2016, however, Casey sent Wolman an email stating, “I’m afraid we have a conflict and will not be able to assist you with this matter.”

Pardon the wordplay and all, but I’m not sure it is “likely” that a multitude of judges would agree with how that particular line was drawn on the RPC 1.18(a) front in this particular South Carolina decision.

While I am on the subject of South Carolina and its ethics rules, one other development is worthy of mention here.   South Carolina’s Supreme Court has issued a public censure against an Arkansas lawyer for his role regarding using investigators to “pose as customers in an effort to obtain evidence to prove that the defendant was violating the intellectual property rights of the plaintiffs.”  The Court explained that the Arkansas lawyer’s investigators “made false statements to the defendant’s employees and used tactics designed to prod the employees into making statements about the product,” and also “tape-recorded these conversations without notice to the employees.”

Many, many moons ago (2012), I wrote an article for an ABA publication called Landslide about the ethical problems for lawyers stemming from investigations relying on pretext in intellectual property matters.  I don’t think I’m bragging when I say that billions of people never read that article.  While it is probably a pretty safe bet to guess that this Arkansas lawyer was among the billions of people who didn’t read it, I can’t actually call that something I truly learned today because the conduct for which he is now being punished in 2017 with that public reprimand actually took place back in 2009.

Thus, if I’m flailing around trying to add one more thing to my list of nuggets learned today, it would have to be this, the South Carolina Court was actually a bit kind to this Arkansas lawyer in terms of how it described the problems.  It pointed out, in issuing a public reprimand against the lawyer in question, that the lawyer was “unaware that secret tape-recording, pretexting, and dissembling were in violation of the South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct.”   Had it wanted to be a bit more damning in its explanation of events, it could have pointed out that the South Carolina rules upon which the discipline against the Arkansas lawyer rested (RPC 4.4(a) and RPC 8.4) say the same thing that Arkansas’s own version of those rules say and, thus, that it probably would not be a stretch to say that Arkansas’s ethics rules are also violated by (at least) pretexting and dissembling.

 

 

Friday follow up: DC Bar counsel’s weird priorities

So (finally) I’ve made myself read a bit more into the DC situation — that for many people is now ancient history but was news to me — about what seems like something that definitely got some play in the news but ought to be a more nationally discussed scandal.  The weird penchant that DC Bar Counsel has displayed in recent years of going after not just lawyer whistleblowers but lawyers who provide advice and counsel to such lawyers.

When I started down this path originally, it was in connection with noting the discipline that was imposed against Adrianna Koeck over her sharing of certain documents she took with her upon leaving her position as in-house counsel for GE and sharing them with the media.  I’ve now had the chance to track down and read the admonition issued against Koeck’s former professor – Robert Blakey — and the recommended findings/charges against Koeck’s lawyer – Lynne Bernabei.  Having done so, I’m still left shaking my head and thinking the priorities demonstrated are bananas.

The Report and Recommendation of the Ad Hoc Hearing Committee contains information that can be referenced to succinctly distill the underlying scenario:

In her position with GE, Koeck served “as the interface between legal issues happening in Latin America, Brazil, Argentina, Chile…and the broader businesses spread across the globe….

[snip]

When Koeck joined [GE] in 2006, Koeck’s supervisor … brief her about [an investigation involving questions regarding value added tax issues in Brazil] and gave her the file concerning the matter.  Resolving these discrepancies [the VAT issues] became one of the “big issues” on Koeck’s plate….

In mid-November 2006, after eleven months of her working for GE… Human Resources advised Koeck that [her supervisor] did not want her to either stay with the company or move to another GE business.

Koeck was to be discharged at a November 29, 2006 meeting scheduled with a GE Human Resource employee, but immediately before that meeting, Koeck emailed the GE corporate Ombudsman… claiming, among other things, that she was being retaliated against “for participating in and reporting illegal activity engaged in by [GE] personnel.”  She alleged that, in the course of her compliance investigations, she had discovered tax fraud that GE had been perpetrating in Brazil.  She claimed that she was being terminated for raising concerns about the fraud to her supervisors.

[snip]

In late August 2007, Koeck sought the legal advice of her former Notre Dame Law School professor, G. Robert Blakey.  Koeck provided Blakey with some of the confidential documents that she had copied from her GE computer.  Blakey advised Koeck, “that the documents and information she had were not covered by the attorney-client relationship, because they fell within the crime/fraud exception.”

[snip]

Blakey confined his advice to Koeck to disclosures she would make to protect herself against potential criminal liability, and he recommended that she retain an additional attorney with expertise in employment law and whistleblower complaints.  Blakely gave Koeck the names of two firms, one of which was Bernabei & Wachtel, PLLC.

[snip]

On November 27, 2007, Koeck formally retained Bernabei’s firm to handle the SOX matter before the Department of Labor.

[snip]

After Koeck retained Bernabei on November 27, 2007, she and Blakey met and agreed that Koeck should inform the press about GE’s activities in Brazil.  Beginning in December 2007, Bernabei spoke with Koeck about having a press strategy and talking to the press.

[snip]

At some point in the fall of 2007, David Cay Johnston, a New York Times reporter at the time, received a telephone call from Blakey who asked if Johnson “might be interested in material about a long-running series of felonies committed by General Electric in another country.”  Thereafter, Johnson received “hundreds of pages of documents” from Blakey or Koeck.  Subsequently in January 2008, Johnston interviewed Koeck about the alleged tax fraud in Brazil and she provided additional documents in her possession regarding GE’s activities there.

Now as to Koeck and Bernabei, an interesting wrinkle learned from reading the source documents is that because the SOX proceedings were before the Department of Labor, the disciplinary body looked to the ABA Model Rules to apply to some extent, but entirely ignored any evaluation of Model Rule 3.6 on trial publicity that would appear, arguably, to permit disclosure of aspects of the proceedings to the media.  In my earlier post, I had noted that DC does not have a trial publicity rule that extends as far as the Model Rule, but this wrinkle, to me, further undermines the outcome in these matters.

But it is the details of Professor Blakey’s situation though that are laid out in his admonition letter – that bar counsel was aware of and took into account and yet still thought discipline was warranted that most astound me and leave me sticking to my guns about this all being bananas:

Ms. Koeck told you that she was concerned that GE had not and was not taking any action to stop the alleged ongoing fraud and that she was afraid that she might be personally liable for the activity because Brazilian law holds individuals, and not corporations, liable for tax fraud and criminal activity.  Ms. Koeck also said that she knew of money-laundering activities and described instances in which GE employees in South America had been murdered.  Based on your conversations with her, you were under the mistaken impression that Ms. Koeck was residing in Brazil.  You believed that she faced possible criminal liability if she did not report the alleged illegal and fraudulent activity.  You also believed that her physical safety was in danger.

[snip]

In advising Ms. Koeck to provide information and copies of GE’s documents to Mr. Johnston, you had in mind the evidentiary crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege, but you did not give adequate consideration to the terms of Rule 1.6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Now setting aside the fact that D.C.’s Rule 1.6(d) does provide a lawyer with an exception to permit disclosure that would at least have been arguably available to cover Koeck’s circumstances, they are managing to discipline a very distinguished lawyer on a basis of saying he assisted another lawyer in violating her ethical obligations rather than attempt to prove that the lawyer’s allegedly “bad advice” rose to a level of incompetence to justify discipline under Rule 1.1.

As a lawyer who represents lawyers, I find that to be a really quite scary turn of events.

My view on the whole situation isn’t exactly made any better after tooling around a bit on the Web regarding the disciplinary counsel involved in pursuing this matter, Hamilton P. Fox, III.  Mr. Fox appears to be the same gentleman who was on the wrong side of the exercise of abusive and over-the-top enforcement powers recently as well.  You can read about the saga involved in his arrest and his wife’s detention stemming from Mr. Fox being parked in a place he shouldn’t have been parked in. and the D.C. police appearing to significantly overreact to the situation presented here.  Assuming he is the same person, and I admit it is possible that there are two separate Hamilton P. Fox, III in D.C., but assuming he’s the same person and I think I’m on solid ground about that as other people have laid out before, you’d think the experience he went through would make him more sympathetic to wielding power irresponsibly and trying to only target those who deserve punishment, but apparently not.

As a lawyer who represents lawyers, I’ll try for now just to look on the bright side of things that I don’t practice in the District of Columbia instead of dwelling on just how chilling the actions of D.C. Bar Counsel might be on lawyers who do.

Bad ethics opinion or the worst ethics opinion? New York State Bar Ethics Opinion 1110 edition

Again, not fair actually.  This NY ethics opinion isn’t in the running for being the worst ethics opinion and isn’t even truly bad and actually, I guess, not even wrong.  But it does point out a really bad flaw with respect to the language of the particular NY rule it applies.

What seems like an exceedingly long time ago now, I was first inspired to title a post with this “Bad or Worst” title.  I did so when I wrote about what I thought truly was a woeful ethics opinion — and one that I cannot believe anyone even asked about in the first place — in which the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct imposed some ridiculous limitations on the ability of a lawyer to communicate with attendees at a seminar or continuing legal education presentation.

The subject matter of NY State Bar Ethics Opinion 1110 is similar – whether New York’s ethics rules on advertising, and derivatively solicitation, apply to a situation in which an attorney wishes to invite people to come to a seminar that he would put on regarding intellectual property issues.  As the opinion explains:

The inquirer, an intellectual property lawyer practicing in New York, plans to conduct online webinars and live seminars on topics within his principal fields of practice for persons who may have a business interest in those topics and a need for legal services.  Inquirer contemplates identifying persons fitting that description by use of commercially available business listings, including such listings on government agency web sites, such as business entity lists.  Admission to the webinars and seminars may be free or may be for a fee.

The opinion then lists a litany of questions it has to resolve to determine whether this can be done, but the core question is whether the seminars would be advertisements and, if so, whether they would be solicitations.  Now the opinion goes on at some length about ways that the lawyer could limit what is said or done at any such presentation so that it would not even qualify as an advertisement, but, eventually, it does the practical thing and assumes that the lawyer would likely during the seminar say things that would amount to talking about his “skills or reputation” sufficient to make the seminar an advertisement.

Assuming it is an advertisement, the opinion then also quickly gets to the conclusion that the seminar would be a solicitation — and that it would be an in-person solicitation, and, thus, the attendees would have to be limited to “close friends, relatives, former client(s), or existing client(s).”

This is the moment where, inside my head, there is the sound of screaming.

It is one thing to have an ethics rule that imposes strict prohibitions on in-person solicitations.  That’s fine.  It is also fine to have an ethics rule that requires, as to written solicitations, certain requirements about those.  I often disagree with the details of what states require as to disclaimers or font sizes, but I can be swayed not to get up in arms about the requirements.  It is another thing to have a rule that creates such a strict definition of solicitation to justify writing an ethics opinion that would say that someone who accepts an invitation to attend a seminar is being subjected to a solicitation at the seminar they could have just chosen not to attend.

The closest that New York’s RPC 7.3(b) gets to carving out communications that are initiated by a person who isn’t a lawyer from being a solicitation is the language that states that solicitation . . . “does not include a proposal or other writing prepared and delivered in response to a specific request of a prospective client.”

But the inanity of the outcome articulated by this ethics opinion is pretty epically demonstrated by analogy to an actual written solicitation letter to a targeted potential client.  Assume that a lawyer sends one of those, and complies with all the bells and whistles in such a written communication as to what the envelope cannot say, the font size, the disclaimers at the beginning, and mandatory language, but the recipient then decides — “hey, I’m interested in hearing what a lawyer could do for me” and proceeds to go to the lawyer’s office to ask for a meeting.  Everything that happens then is.not.a.solicitation.

The rules regarding in-person solicitation seek to protect potential consumers of legal services from overreaching by lawyers.  That is the espoused rationale.  I often, with tongue-in-cheek, will explain at seminars that such rules exist because when we graduate law school we have been imbued with superpowers as to persuasion that allow us to convince mere mortals to do things that they otherwise would never do but for our incredible superpowers.  (I can often then use the exception to the rules against solicitation for lawyer-on-lawyer solicitation to explain that since both sides have equal superpowers there is no need for the protection.)

But, in the conceptual situation evaluated by this formal ethics opinion, if the recipient of the invitation to the seminar doesn’t want to be in a room where a lawyer is speaking about the area of law in which they practice, they.can.just.not.go.to.where.the.seminar.is.happening.

What is missing from the text of New York’s rule to prevent this sort of result is the language that we have here in Tennessee in RPC 7.3(a)(3) indicating that an in-person or real-time solicitation of professional employment from a potential client is not prohibited if “the person contacted . . . has initiated a contact with the lawyer.”

Arkansas and Wisconsin weigh in on client files in different ways and on different sides.

The need for clarity with respect to what makes up the “client file” has been an issue I have tried to stay up to date on dating back to our unsuccessful efforts back in 2009 to convince the Tennessee Supreme Court to adopt a rule – what would have been RPC 1.19 — to address the issues.  As I’ve explained before, our unsuccessful RPC 1.19 was patterned largely after North Dakota’s Rule 1.19.  There is no ABA Model Rule addressing client files and, as recently as last year, the ABA’s guidance as to client files still leaves many questions open so states navigate these waters pretty much on their own using only the language about lawyers’ obligations to “surrender papers and property of the client” in their versions of Model Rule 1.16.

As you may recall from a couple of posts I wrote last year, some seven years later we’ve obtained some real clarity in Tennessee on a few fronts as to client files through two Formal Ethics Opinions issued by our Board of Professional Responsibility.  Particularly, we now have clear guidance that we are an “entire file” jurisdiction rather than an “end product” jurisdiction regarding what are the contents of the client file.

Late last year, Arkansas adopted its own RPC 1.19 addressing client file issues but although they went with an approach that adopts a black letter rule to address the matter, they’ve gone in the opposite direction from us as Arkansas RPC 1.19 opts for an “end product” approach.  Technically, Arkansas has been an “end product” jurisdiction for more than seven years dating back to a 2009 opinion of the Arkansas Supreme Court – Travis v. Committee on Professional Conduct.  You can read the Arkansas Supreme Court order with the full text of RPC 1.19 and its comments here.

The architecture of this new Arkansas rule tackles client file questions in two parts.

RPC 1.19(a) defines what makes up the contents of the client file both positively [(a)(1) identifies items that are in] and negatively [(a)(2) identifies items that are excluded] .  The most important exceptions being “the lawyer’s work product,” “internal memoranda,” and “legal research” materials.  It appears though that (a)(2)(E) serves to override any attempt to view (a)(1) as a comprehensive identification of what is included as that subpart explains that anything that isn’t listed as excluded in (a)(2)(A-D) are things that “shall be considered to be part of the client file to which the client is entitled.”  RPC 1.19(a) also addresses the need to honor requests by the client for delivery of file and when a lawyer may charge costs of copying or retain a copy for their own purposes.  Smartly, the rule also expressly clarifies that a lawyer and client can address all of those issues regarding copy costs and delivery costs in a fashion they prefer by contract as part of the engagement agreement.

RPC 1.19(b) addresses the length of the obligation to retain client file records and under what circumstances a lawyer can destroy client files in his possession.  Five years is the default length of time chosen for retention in Arkansas, and any time after that the lawyer is free to destroy the file materials.  RPC 1.19(b)(3) also makes clear that these time frames can be varied by contract between attorney and client.  RPC 1.19(b)(4) takes certain criminal matters out of the general rules of retention and destruction, however, and instead requires the lawyer to maintain the client’s file for the life of the client in those particular situations.

Another jurisdiction has weighed in recently but differs from what Arkansas has done both structurally and substantively.  Wisconsin recently put out an ethics opinion to further clarify the obligations lawyers have to clients in terms of turning over files at the end of the representation.  Wisconsin, like Pennsylvania, denies public access to its ethics opinions, but you can read a well-written article about Wisconsin Formal Ethics Op. EF-16-03 here.

The primary focus of the formal opinion appears to be clarifying that lawyers can neither try to leverage retaining the client file in order to obtain payment nor condition turning the file over upon the execution of a release of malpractice liability.  (Both things you might be surprised to hear about how often lawyers attempt to do despite the perils.)

But Wisconsin’s latest opinion on the subject matter also addresses some of the same vital issues that are at the heart of resolving situations involving disputes between attorneys and clients over who is entitled to what.  Unlike Arkansas, Wisconsin takes an approach more in keeping with the “entire file” approach to the question as several items carved out from the file in Arkansas are not in Wisconsin.  The Wisconsin opinion specifically identifies “legal research and drafts of documents that are relevant to the matter” as being included in the client file as well as “[a]ny materials for which the client has been billed, either directly or through lawyer or staff time.”

Yet, the Wisconsin opinion does limit certain categories of items as being allowed to be withheld from the client — including two items that were at the heart of the battles that doomed our effort in Tennessee to adopt an RPC 1.19 of our own — “materials containing information, which, if released, could endanger the health, safety, or welfare of the client or others,” and “materials that could be used to perpetrate a crime or fraud.”  Interestingly, however, the Wisconsin opinion also crafts an exclusion for materials that seems pretty antithetical to the idea that the guidance is really consistent with Wisconsin being an “entire file” jurisdiction:

Materials containing the lawyer’s assessment of the client, such as personal impressions and comments relating to the business of representing the client.  If a lawyer’s notes contain both factual information and personal impressions, the notes may be redacted or summarized to protect the interests of both the lawyer and the client.

The Wisconsin opinion also addresses the inability of the lawyer to hold the file hostage as a way to first receive payment and provides a clear answer that a lawyer cannot refuse to provide the entire file at the end of the representation based on an argument that lawyer provided everything to the client along the way during the life of the representation.  The Wisconsin opinion also offers insight on when the lawyer has to provide a client with an electronic copy of a file and stresses that while a lawyer can retain a copy of the file, the lawyer cannot charge for that expense because that is being done for the lawyer’s own benefit.

Another interesting wrinkle of the Wisconsin opinion is that it gives a nod to a scenario that is rarely discussed in such opinions — though it does come up in discussions of “red flags” of new client intake matters — but that is an exceedingly difficult situation to deal with:  “There may be unusual circumstances where a client has specifically instructed a lawyer not to surrender a file to a successor counsel, and the lawyer must abide by those instructions.”

In the end though, both the Wisconsin opinion and, in part, the Arkansas rule, offer guidance that furthers what ought to be the primary, practical guidance for lawyers given the disparities that exist on this issue from jurisdiction to jurisdiction — the more focus can be given to these issues in an engagement agreement such that you can have a contractual agreement between lawyer and client on just what will be provided, how, and when (and at whose cost) the better off all involved will be.

 

The need for speed is always in conflict with the need to run conflicts. Choose speed and you might pay the price.

Even the largest and the most prominent of law firms can get themselves crosswise with clients over conflicts.  In fact, at some level, it is the largest and most prominent law firms that are most at risk of the negative ramifications that can come from conflicts of interest.

Last week, the world’s largest law firm — Dentons — which has had some past public issues associated with the conscious positions it takes on whether it has a conflict or not, found itself on the end of some further bad publicity over conflicts, but not as the result of a conscious evaluation of a conflict.  Rather, it came about in a way that can happen to almost any but the smallest of law firms — one or more lawyers in the firm moved too fast and took action before ever completing the process of checking conflicts.

The fact that the circumstances involved some extremely high-profile work — it involved a letter to threaten a prominent media outlet with a potential defamation claim on behalf of a member of Congress who is trying to be confirmed to a cabinet position in the Trump administration is a wrinkle I find intriguing for a number of reasons – even setting aside the inherent irony – because earlier in my career I frequently represented media entities on such questions.

Stories written about the letter that demanded a retraction and threatened potential action in the nature of defamation shed light on how the substance of the letter actually just served to confirm the basic accuracy of the reporting, but that wasn’t really the problem for Dentons.  Dentons’ problem was that the media outlet in question, CNN, is a firm client on other ongoing matters.  That is the kind of conflict that a basic conflicts check would easily find and avoid.

Thankfully, as soon as the left hand and right hand at Dentons figured out the situation, Dentons did exactly the right thing, sending a letter apologizing for the error and withdrawing the letter.

Media entities can tend to be pretty gracious clients, particularly when it comes to recognizing human frailty and mistakes that can come from trying to move too quickly, so my guess is that in the long run Dentons will continue to be able to have a good relationship with CNN.

Time will tell whether the public officials they aligned with to rattle a defamation saber about a story where the allegedly wrongfully excluded details would only make things worse for the official will be as gracious about the situation.  Given that one of the immediate responses of the administration advocating for the member of Congress to be confirmed was to issue a statement ambiguously saying that the letter from Dentons was “not authentic,” I wouldn’t be too optimistic.

Two quick technology takes – texting and more on email “bugs”

Not too long ago, I weighed in on an Alaska Ethics Opinion about the ethics of lawyers using email “bugs” that surreptitiously track what happens to an email after it has been sent.  There is a new, interesting read on the “legal or not” aspect of this technology in the ABA/BNA Lawyers Manual on Professional Conduct authored by Chad Gilles, a former lawyer who is now involved with customer strategy and legal affairs with a company called MailControl.net.  It certainly makes for an interesting and informative read, and I appreciate the short mention of a snippet of what I said here on my blog.  I was surprised in the Gilles article to read that Professor Dane Ciolino of Loyola University New Orleans had espoused a belief that it was ethical to use such technology if you were a sending lawyer and, for what it is worth, I’ve now gone and read Ciolino for myself on the issue  and … well, color me still unconvinced.

For what it is worth, the notion that Gilles explains that the jury is out on whether the conduct — using mail bugs — also runs afoul of one or more federal statutes (think the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) leaves me more confident that my conclusion that the conduct is unethical is on the right side of things.

On an unrelated note — other than being related by way of the broadly encompassing “technology” category — Thomas Spahn and I will be doing a teleseminar on January 20, 2017 focusing specifically on a variety of ethical issues that can arise in connection with lawyers using text messaging to communicate with clients and each other.  I haven’t been fortunate enough to do a seminar with Tom in a few years and am looking forward to discussing this topic with him.

I’ve also spent a little bit of time — unsuccessfully — trying to re-find a case/situation that was reported on within the last couple of years involving a lawyer who saw part of the contents of a text sent to a judge because the judge’s phone was laying out on the bench and it lit up and the first part of the message was viewable.  I can’t remember if it was the lawyer who got in trouble for the snooping or the judge because of what was on the text, but I remember it happening.  It serves as a great teaching tool for thinking about turning off the “preview” function for texts on your smart phone, but only if I can properly reference it.

If anyone reading this, recalls it or is more proficient at finding it before January 20, I’d appreciate you shooting me a message of where to find it.  And, either way, if you have the time please feel free to sign up for our teleseminar — it is being offered through a variety of bar entities so you should be able to find it with a google search, but here’s a link to one state bar where you can sign up for it.