The ethics of putting together an unenforceable contract.

It is still astounding (as well as deeply dispiriting) that the context of the discussion I’m about to launch is the work of White House Counsel but this is the world we currently occupy.  You may very well have read this fascinating The Washington Post article by now released in connection with the ongoing news story of a former White House staffer who repeatedly secretly taped conversations – including her own firing in The Situation Room — inside The White House and what those recordings may reveal about whether that person says even more outrageous things in private than the outrageous things he says in public, as well as whether that person is suffering from a decline in his mental faculties.

Because tackling the notion of the ethics of representing a client with diminished capacity if that client happens to be – at least theoretically – the most powerful politician on the planet – is too depressing to tackle, I’m not writing about that today.  If you want to delve into those issues, your starting point is ABA Model Rule 1.14.

Instead I want to talk about [as the title of the post telegraphed] what can be a thorny ethics issue even in much more pedestrian contexts: is it ethical for a lawyer to draft and create a contract for a client’s use that the lawyer knows to be unenforceable?

As the topic du jour the context of the question is requiring staff at The White House – public employees — to sign non-disclosure agreements including provisions that would prohibit them from disparaging the 45th President of the United States.  Seemingly everyone acknowledges that given the nature of public employment, democracy, the at-least-still-for-the-time-being cherished concept of transparency in government, and numerous other federal laws such an agreement is obviously and undisputedly unenforceable.  The article describes what the media has been told about the events:

A number of White House aides were urged to sign NDAs in early 2017 by White House Counsel Donald McGahn, according to current and former aides, who requested anonymity to discuss internal West Wing deliberations. Trump was obsessed with leaks to the news media and repeatedly demanded that McGahn draft the agreement, the aides said.

Initially, McGahn told Trump he would not draft or give aides the NDAs because they were not enforceable, White House officials said. But in the end, McGahn created a document that said aides would not divulge any confidential or nonpublic information to any person outside the building at any time, according to three people who signed it.

Other media outlets have reported that McGahn may have convinced people to actually sign the document by reassuring them that it was unenforceable.  One of the reasons the question is important ethically is that if you create a contract for a client that you know is unenforceable, they will likely still try to use that contract in the future against people and cause them harm (at the very least economic harm and inconvenience associated with defending a lawsuit seeking to claim a breach of the unenforceable contract).  Media reports today indicate that something like this is now being undertaken – although admittedly apparently based on an NDA that was required by the campaign and not the actual government.

My opinion about the answer to the question of whether any such conduct by a lawyer is unethical is, unfortunately, less than equivocal.  At heart, it will have to turn on a situation-by-situation analysis.  Using the Model Rules to explain, this is because there is not exactly a specific rule outside of the litigation context that flatly prohibits a lawyer from assisting a client in pursuing a frivolous position in negotiation of a document in the same way that there is such a rule prohibiting the pursuit of frivolous claims in litigation.

What is available is a collection of rules that would need to be sifted through and applied to the circumstances to reach a conclusion about the lawyer’s role in assisting a client in getting someone to agree to a provision in a contract (or an entire contract) that is known to be unenforceable.  Those rules are:

RPC 1.2(d):  A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent, but a lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client and may counsel or assist a client to make a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law.

RPC 1.16(a):  … a lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if: (1) the representation will result in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law ….

RPC 4.1:  In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall not knowingly: (a) make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person; or (b) fail to disclose a material fact when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client, unless disclosure is prohibited by Rule 1.6.

RPC 4.3:  In dealing on behalf of a client with a person who is not represented by counsel, a lawyer shall not state or imply that the lawyer is disinterested. . . . The lawyer shall not give legal advice to an unrepresented person, other than the advice to secure counsel, if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the interests of such a person are or have a reasonable possibility of being in conflict with the interests of the client.

RPC 4.4(a):  In representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person ….

RPC 8.4(d):  It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to … engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Assuming that, at all times in dealing with the members of staff being asked to sign the contracts, White House counsel was truthful about the situation, then the most troublesome provisions from the list above would be RPC 4.4(a) as there seems no “substantial” purpose other than to burden these people to seek to have them agree to an unenforceable contract — particularly where one of the grounds of unenforceability in this scenario is a constitutional issue.

In other circumstances, for example, where the unenforceable piece of the contract puzzle is just one part of an otherwise enforceable contract or, on the other extreme, where the contract itself is unenforceable because its purpose is inherently criminal or illegal, then the interweaving of these rules may provide a clearer outcome.

Awesome post. Except for the part that isn’t.

There is an awful lot to like and agree with in this post from Dan Lear, one of the folks who have been the face of Avvo for quite some time.  But there is a piece of it that is just simply wrong, and while it would be hyperbole to say it is dangerously wrong, it certainly is wrong in a way that lawyers don’t need to have reinforced.  Lear writes:

Do the RPCs apply when an attorney isn’t working as a lawyer? First, bar associations don’t regulate endeavors that aren’t the practice of law, especially awesome ones. While a lawyer may choose to apply the RPCs outside of the practice of law, the bar doesn’t regulate lawyers as a landlord, an expert witness, or even a restaurant owner.

Even understanding the larger point Lear is attempting to make, this is utterly and simply wrong.  ABA Model Rule 8.4 – with language that is tracked in I believe pretty much every U.S. jurisdiction — does not limit itself to situations in which a lawyer is only representing a client and also does not draw a bright line around a lawyer “being a lawyer,”

The easiest, and most obvious, part of the rule that makes the point is RPC 8.4(b) which gets lawyers in ethical trouble for certain criminal acts even having nothing to do with, or not happening while, they are working as a lawyer.

But there are two other, more broadly problematic ways that RPC 8.4 does extend to, and actually govern, the conduct of people who happen to also be lawyers while they are doing things that they don’t think of as working as a lawyer know matter how much they may subjectively think they are being “awesome.”

Those two other pieces are RPC 8.4(a) and (c).  When combined those pieces of the rule read:

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to . . .

(a) violate or attempt to violate [the ethics rules], knowingly assist or induce another to do so, or do so through the acts of another . . . [or]

(c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation….

I’ve often joked about 8.4(c) as being the only ethics rule in the books that has to mean something other than what it actually says because, as written, it would make it professional misconduct for me to answer questions from children about Christmas presents or bluff while playing poker or dive to get a call while playing over-35 soccer on Monday nights.  I’ve also, once before and also in response to something written by a lawyer more famous than I, advocated that it shouldn’t apply to a lawyer operating a parody account on social media.   But there are aspects of how that rule truly does apply to dishonesty by lawyers, even when not acting as lawyers, which are quite serious.  Easy examples from the recent past involve deans and others affiliated with administrative positions at law schools lying about statistics to improve enrollment numbers and the like.

And, perhaps the most perplexing and concerning of the examples Lear offers of things a lawyer could do where they wouldn’t be bound by the ethics rules is serving as an expert witness.  I’ve been fortunate enough to serve as an expert on more than a handful of occasions in my career, and, suffice it to say, RPC 8.4 is not the only ethics rule that will still apply to the lawyer when serving in that capacity.

They got away with it, but that doesn’t make it worth trying.

Lawyers billing clients on the basis of time spent is less than ideal for all involved.  For lawyers, it isn’t the best proxy for value delivered in terms of service and incentivizes inefficiency.  For clients, it isn’t the best proxy of value received in terms of service and leaves clients feeling like the only way to cut corners on costs is to either demand limited time on a task or to just not agree for a lawyer to perform a particular task.  For clients and lawyers alike, it also creates distrust of lawyers with respect to second-guessing the amount of time they spend on tasks (or claim to have spend on tasks).  It also doesn’t give clients much of a sense that they are paying for results or accomplishments.  Lots of pieces have been written, over many, many years, about how the billable hour model is outdated or on its way out the door.  Yet, it persists.

This is not going to be one of those pieces today.  Rather, I want to write a few words about a case out of Wyoming that I would worry is going to send exactly the wrong message to lawyers.  That case is a ruling on fee dispute litigation out of the Wyoming Supreme Court, Manigault v. Daly & Sorenson, LLC.  You may have seen headlines of stories about it that are in the nature of: Court rules billing in 15-minute increments was not abusive.

All lawyers who bill by the hour end up having to pick some base line minimum increment for billing purposes.  I, and my firm, do so using 6-minute increments (.1) as the baseline.  It is certainly possible to measure time more accurately than that, but (I believe) that the standard minimum these days for keeping time is to carve time up into 6 minute blocks.  There was a time when the standard minimum for those blocks were 15 minute intervals, but technology has advanced, timekeeping has improved, and the time when minimum quarter-of-an-hour billing was acceptable (in my opinion) has passed.

In the Wyoming decision, the Court ultimately found that this particular law firm’s use of a 15-minute minimum increment with this particular client was ultimately reasonable.  Remarkably, it did so even when the firm did not have a written fee agreement with the client.  But there are a couple of things about the case that – to me – stand out as crucial to the particular result and also help drive home the point that this is not something that most lawyers could get away with and, thus, should not attempt to do.

The first, and I think the more outcome-determinative, is that the fee dispute was one that was with a very long time client of the firm and, thus, someone who, over time, would be much less sympathetic to be heard complaining about 15-minute billing increments as the minimum.  Since apparently that was how this client and that firm had interacted over the course of almost 100 prior matters over 15 years.

The second is that the record indicated that the firm was relatively diligent about aggregating tasks into the minimum increments so that the minimum increment was not used as a method of easily increasing the charge to the client.

The Wyoming Supreme Court explained quite cogently the difference between the situation it had before it this time and other, prior circumstances in which it took lawyers to task for how they used their 15-minute minimum billing increment approach:

Manigault likens the firm’s use of a fifteen-minute billing interval to that which was the subject of a disciplinary proceeding in Casper.  In that case, the attorney employed a number of unethical billing practices and admittedly misused her fifteen-minute minimum billing interval.  She billed fifteen minutes every time she signed a document, and several times she billed fifteen minutes for reviewing a one-page document.  She also billed fifteen minutes to review a short document and then billed the same amount of time again for signing it.

In Casper, this Court discussed the practice of billing according to minimum intervals of six, ten, and fifteen minutes. . . . we observed it would be abusive to bill two fifteen minute charges for two five-minute phone calls in the same fifteen-minute period.

Nothing approaching that sort of unreasonable or abusive billing is evident on this record.. . .

[snip]

What is not often discussed is this concept of the need to still attempt to hew toward composite accuracy in the amount of time billed regardless of what minimum increment is used.  “Composite accuracy” might not be the right phrase but what I’m using it to attempt to describe is that the ultimate measure for a lawyer who bills by the hour has to be that you don’t use it to bill clients for more time in the day than the total time you actually spend working.

The truly pernicious problem for lawyers who attempt to still use 15-minute increments as their method of billing is how easily that can lead them to bill a collection of clients for 8 hours of time while only putting in 3 or 4 hours of actual work.  Or, more likely, billing 14 or 15 hours for a day where 6 or 7 hours of actual time was spent performing work for clients.

The Wyoming case also, unfortunately, gave credence to a common attempted justification by lawyers confronted with trying to justify the 15-minute billing increment that – to me – involves a significant amount of disingenuity:  that billing a client 15 minutes of time for a phone call that they know full well may have taken only 5 minutes is justified because the 15 minute time period also captures the time associated with stopping one task, shifting to the client’s task, making a note in the file about the interaction, and then trying to get back into the mindset of whatever you were working on before.

In modern practice, however, there is one dominant form of communication that simply – and often unequivocally – undercuts any lawyer that tries to use that justification.  Email.  Find me a lawyer who wants to justify a 15-minute minimum increment based on that kind of rationalization, and I strongly suspect that I can show that lawyer, by way of a review of their email history, that they turned much more quickly from answering an email for one client, to crafting an email for another client, then on to responding to some other email.

What that means is, if a lawyer is out there trying to charge their clients for 15 minutes of time for reading and responding to an email, which may have only taken them 5 minutes, and then attempting to justify it based on other things that were done or time lost as part of that, then it will often be extremely easy to demonstrate that within the same 15 minute period they will have replied or sent other emails to other clients on other matters and, likely, they will have billed that client for a 15 minute block as well.  This quickly adds up and is how a lawyer could easily manage in only 20 minutes of actual working time to attempt to bill for an hour of work.

That fudging of the numbers, of course, can also happen using 6-minute increments of time, which raises the ultimate larger point that I fear escapes notice of far too many lawyers:  no matter the minimum increment you pick (unless you are recording and billing for your time truly down to the minute), you are supposed to still be using that system as a proxy toward attempting to best capture your actual time spent.

That means that even if you are billing in 6-minute increments, you are supposed to be trying to bundle smaller tasks during the course of the day together into one of the minimum increments.  If, for the same client, you respond to 2 and only 2 emails during the course of a day and each one took you only a couple of minutes to address, you are supposed to bill that client for one .1 time entry – because you spent a total of 4 minutes working for them that day and you have arranged to bill them at a minimum increment of 6 minutes.  You are not supposed to bill .2 (12 minutes) for that 4 minutes of working time.  When lawyers do both this and opt for the minimum 15 minute incremental block, then the problems with the arrangement increase in magnitude because the lawyer ends up billing the client for 30 minutes of time for 2 tasks that only took 4 minutes to perform.

An incredibly unhelpful ethics opinion from Colorado

Were you looking for something that is very well-written but entirely unhelpful to your needs as a lawyer?  Well, you’ve come to the right place today.

Wait, I now see how that paragraph could be misconstrued in an entirely unflattering way and as an inadvertent passing of judgment on this whole blog.  Obviously, I didn’t mean that.  After all, I said “well-written.”

Anyway, what I’m actually intending to refer to is Colorado Formal Ethics Opinion 134 which was enacted in January 2018 but which was brought to my attention by a loyal reader of this space.  It likely came into his path because of some treatment in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual which I admittedly have not read beyond their headline and lead sentence, which is as follows:

Advance Agreements on Joint Settlement OK, Colorado Bar Says

A lawyer who represents multiple clients in a case can prepare for them, with informed consent, an agreement stating that a majority vote controls for settlement offers, a recent Colorado bar ethics opinion says.

That is one way to spin the Colorado opinion and draw peoples attention, but studying the opinon itself reveals that the picture being painted is far too rosy because a more fair introduction to the opinion would be:

Advance Agreements on Joint Settlement OK to Memorialize But Lawyer Can’t Enforce It in the Future, Colorado Bar Says

A lawyer who represents multiple clients in a case can prepare for them, with informed consent, an agreement stating that a majority vote controls for settlement offers, a recent Colorado bar ethics opinion says, but what would be the point?  The same opinion explains that if any of the clients later rejects the settlement and refuses to abide by the majority vote then the lawyer doesn’t have settlement authority and can’t continue to represent everybody.

I’m not kidding.  That is the TL/DR version of Colorado Formal Opinion 134.  Don’t believe me, go read it for yourself.

Now, Colorado may feel like it has given a helpful opinion because it distinguishes its opinion from some others by saying it is perfectly ethical for a lawyer to participate in preparing an agreement along these lines for jointly represented clients and explaining how Rule 1.8(g) is not triggered until some future point when a settlement is on the table for consideration.  But . . . geez.  From a practical perspective, it’s an exercise in navel-gazing because of this paragraph of the opinion:

If multiple clients agree in advance on a majority-decision rule for how they will respond to an aggregate settlement proposal, but one client in the future refuses to follow the majority’s decision, the dissenting client might be in breach of that agreement.  The other clients might have claims against the dissenting client.  This circumstance creates an unwaivable conflict for their joint lawyer due to the dispute between in the dissenting client and the other clients.  The lawyer may not take sides in the dispute, and may not seek to enforce the agreement againts the dissenting client, on behalf of the majority clients, by compelling the dissenting client to settle.  The lawyer might need to withdraw from the joint representation entirely.

Because of that, it seems hard to understand how any good Colorado lawyer armed with this opinion could ever respond to an inquiry by joint clients about putting together a majority-rule agreement with any advice other than:

Yeah, you don’t want me to go through all of that.  If anyone changes their mind later, I can’t enforce it and you probably just end up in additional litigation maybe over breaching the contract and you all just end up having to hire more and different lawyers.  So, let’s just wait until we have something in front of us to think about on settlement some day and then work it out if and when that day ever comes around.

 

 

 

EVA(n) good things are complicated by ethical obligations.

So, this week’s biggest news in terms of the role of artificial intelligence in the practice of law is the rollout of a new, free AI product from ROSS Intelligence.  The product is called EVA, and you can read all about it here.

The short version of it is that when the other side files a brief in your lawsuit, you can upload the brief and EVA will analyze the cases being relied upon, alert you to other cases where those cases have been negatively treated, and point you to other relevant cases to fast track your research efforts.

It sounds great, and it probably is great.  But, me being me, I immediately started thinking about questions such as:

Will ROSS, through EVA, be keeping all of the data that is uploaded to it?

What are the terms and conditions lawyers have to agree to in order to use EVA?

Will those lawyers need their client’s permission to upload such documents into the EVA platform?

Here is a link to those terms and conditions so you can read them yourself should you be so inclined (at that link, you will need to click on the link titled Terms of Use to get those to popup on your screen), but I think the short version is that, almost always, a lawyer can safely make the decision to upload the other side’s brief into EVA without even talking to your client by relying upon the authority provided under Rule 1.6(a) to say that doing so is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation of your client.

It is, of course, interesting that what you are uploading is actually the work product of the other side and that the terms and conditions require you to say that you have all the necessary ownership rights to send the document through the EVA service.  Along those lines, I would imagine the weird instances of counsel attempting to claim trademark rights in briefs they file could complicate usage issues.  More realistically though, cases that are operating under protective orders and where briefs are filed under seal would seem to be the one area where lawyers could get themselves into trouble by using the free EVA service.

Husband can’t control his wife, gets disciplined.

Sometimes titles for posts are tough to come up with, sometimes they are far too easy.  This is one of the latter and is offered both with a spirit of tongue-in-cheek silliness and because it is a truly perfect seven-word summary of a recent disciplinary case of note.

It is, of note, at least for discussion purposes, because it appears to be: (1) the right outcome; and (2) a quintessential example of the harm that my state, Tennessee, seeks to prevent through the existence of a very specific, black-letter rule.  Despite that, I’d still like to explain why I happen to think that the Tennessee rule, in particular, is still too harsh and the wrong public policy approach.

The case comes out of Illinois and involves a public censure handed down earlier this month.  The ABA Journal online wrote an article about it a couple of days ago but here’s the pithier description of events published by the Illinois disciplinary authorities:

Mr. Niew, who was licensed in 1972, was censured. His wife, Kathleen Niew, an Illinois lawyer, was disbarred in 2013 for misappropriating $2.34 million belonging to a client who she represented in a real estate matter. After her disbarment, Mr. Niew failed to ensure that his wife no longer maintained a presence in their law office and he also failed to supervise his associate, to prevent that associate from aiding Ms. Niew in the unauthorized practice of law.

The ABA Journal piece points out a bit more detail, explaining that the wife was disbarred in November 2013 but kept coming into the law offfice she had shared with her husband multiple days a week until June 2014.  You can get the highly unfortunate details of the wife’s wrongdoing at the ABA Journal piece.  (Spoiler:  financial wrongdoing.)

The reason that the husband’s role in the wife continuing to come into the office was, itself, a disciplinary problem is that Illinois has a Supreme Court Rule, Rule 764b, that bars a lawyer who has been disbarred or suspended from the practice of law for at least six months from maintaining a presence in any office where law is practiced.  That Illinois rule also imposes a direct duty on other lawyers affiliated with the disbarred or suspended lawyer to stake steps to insure that the rule is complied with.

This kind of rule, which we also have in our ethics rules in Tennessee, is one that I and other Tennessee lawyers have described to people as a rule that means, if you’ve been disbarred or suspended, you can’t even push a broom in a law office as a way of trying to make a living.

In Tennessee, over the objections of the Tennessee Bar Association, our Supreme Court put such a prohibition housed in our rules as RPC 5.5(h).  It acts similarly to the Illinois rule by completely barring involvement in anything surrounding the practice of law for disbarred or suspended lawyers, but it is solely focused on the other lawyers involved and is actually even more harsh than the Illinois rule in two respects.

The Tennessee rule reads:

(h) A lawyer or law firm shall not employ or continue the employment of a disbarred or suspended lawyer as an attorney, legal consultant, law clerk, paralegel or in any other position of a quasi legal nature.

It is harsher than its Illinois counterpart, first, because it applies (on its face) with respect to a lawyer suspended for any period of time not just for six months or more.  Arguably even where a lawyer has been suspended for only 30 days or, possibly, even when they are subject to merely an administrative suspension.  Second, it is harsher because it is not just limited to a prohibition on being physically present in a law office but applies to any employment of such a person by a lawyer or law firm.

In Illinois, for example, the public policy objections I have to such a harsh rule might be less pointed beccause the ability to work from home or otherwise remotely be employed to perform certain tasks could be a saving grace against the otherwise absolute barrier to opportunities for lawyer rehabilitation.  But not so in Tennessee.

While the Niew Illinois case that has gotten some attention certainly appears to demonstrate the right outcome for its circumstances, I still think rules like Tennessee’s are far too harsh.  Problems posed by the classic scenarios that such rules seek to prohibit can otherwise be addressed through provisions in RPC 5.5 that make it unethical for a lawyer to assist someone else in the unauthorized practice of law.

It seems that there ought to be exceptions to such an absolute prohibition; exceptions that it would be hard for reasonable people to argue against.  One could readily construct a hypothetical involving a lawyer who gets herself suspended because of problems associated with the handling of client funds or other deficiencies in their ability to handle the business aspects of the practice of law, but who might be an incredibly gifted researcher and writer.  Seems unduly harsh to foreclose that person’s ability to continue to contribute and benefit clients of other lawyers through performing such work for other lawyers with no access to client funds or even to the clients in question while rehabilitating themselves on their deficiencies.

At present, there simply is not.  The only potential route to rehabilitiation that could be available in Tennessee, apropos if for no other reason than our being called “the Volunteer state,” is that it does look like a disbarred or suspended lawyer could take on such assignments for free.

If racism is disqualifying for a juror, why not for an aspiring lawyer?

Nothing like the day after a holiday weekend to pose a difficult, potentially controversial, question, right?  But when the holiday weekend in question is one to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this particular question is certainly topical.

This is a post I have had rattling around inside of my head since this I read this weighty article from The Huffington Post.  Now, I know, for many, HP is not thought of as a place for weighty articles, but this one really fits the bill.

The article’s title is “Should White Supremacists Be Allowed to Practice Law?”  The article delves into the nature of the question and elaborates a bit on the underlying concept that people who wish to be admitted to the bar in any given state not only have to demonstrate competence in the law but also must satisfy “character and fitness” requirements to be issued a law license at all.

The HP article does an effective job of examining the thorny, and obviously problematic, nature of the problem with staking out a position that someone’s ideas or thoughts alone should prohibit them from being permitted to pursue a chosen profession – a profession for which they have otherwise demonstrated qualifications by passing the required tests and satisfying the objective criteria.  But — given that fundamental principles of white supremacy (for example) can be shown to go beyond mere beliefs and into promised actions and conduct that are at least inherently discriminatory and taken to the logical conclusion of the movement are even genocidal — the slope being argued over does not sound all that slippery in such a context.

Further, the slope our profession has to wrestle with on such a question is inherently slippery because of how subjective the admission standards are as to character and fitness as a concept — the idea that existing lawyers will evaluate the candidacy of applicants for admission to see if they have the requisite “character” and “fitness” to be a member of the profession.  Moreover, as someone who has represented quite a few folks in bar admission proceedings, I can tell you that the admissions process often creates seemingly ridiculous barriers to entry labelled as character and fitness matters.  Traffic offenses and underage drinking as just a few common examples where law school graduates frequently find themselves having to respond to orders to show cause why they shouldn’t be denied admission.

The notion that an avowed white supremacist would be deemed to be an acceptable candidate to practice law from a character standpoint when a person who struggled with a “lead foot” throughout college gets extra scrutiny seems laughable.

For a little more context, here are the admission standards in Tennessee from which character and fitness questions spring:

Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 7 requires the Board of Law Examiners to decide that an applicant

has demonstrated the reputation and character that in the opinion of the Board indicates no reasonable basis for substantial doubts that the applicant will adhere to the standards of conduct  required of attorneys in this State.  (Section 1.03(d))

The same rule elaborates in more detail what this means:

(a) An applicant shall not be admitted if in the judgment of the Board there is reasonable doubt as to that applicant’s honesty, respect for the rights of others, and adherence to and obedience to the Constitution and laws of Tennessee and the United States as to justify the conclusion that such applicant is not likely to adhere to the duties and standards of conduct imposed on attorneys in this State. Any conduct which would constitute grounds for discipline if engaged in by an attorney in this State shall be considered by the Board in making its evaluation of the character of an applicant.  (Section 6.01)

If espousing an inherent belief that one race is inherently superior to other races and that certain races are so inferior that the world would be better off if they were eliminated from society is not something that would “justify a conclusion that such applicant is not likely to adhere to the duties and standards of conduct imposed on attorneys,” then what exactly is the point of referencing “respect for the rights of others” in such a standard?

And, if even you are inclined to agree that would move the needle in the direction of being unfit, then you probably still might have more difficulty agreeing with the idea that racism is not inherently as bad as white supremacy and is more just an idea or state of mind that should not be regulated and, thus, there can be no cogent argument made that just being a racist should prevent someone from being issued a law license.  After all, as noted above, in Tennessee, the standard requires the Board of Law Examiners to only look to conduct of an applicant which – if undertaken by someone who is already a lawyer could trigger discipline.  You would be hard pressed to find many instances of lawyer discipline imposed against a lawyer merely for holding dear to a belief system, no matter how ignorant or odious.

And, yet, quite recently, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Tharpe v. Sellers that reversed and remanded a case over a certificate of appealability in a death penalty case that turns on whether racist statements made by one of the jurors who voted for death could justify the reopening of habeas corpus proceedings premised upon arguments that improper racial animus infected the jury deliberations.

Although the analogy is admittedly not a perfect one, it seems very difficult to feel very comfortable with the idea that racism on the part of a member of the jury is unacceptable but that letting someone with the same views become a lawyer and, thus, be in the position of getting to routinely strike citizens from being selected to be on juries because of the color of their skin is just part of the system.

And, no this is not intended to be an advocacy piece for the proposed rule revision in Tennesee that I’ve written about before, because these questions are extremely ripe ones in my jurisdiction and other jurisdictions under even existing ethics rules.  In Tennessee and elsewhere, the rules already prohibit lawyers, regardless whether they are representing clients or not at the time, from engaging in conduct that is prejudical to the administration of justice.  (RPC 8.4.)

So, I guess the true question to struggle with is this:  Does empowering a racist by conferring a license to practice law on them something that is inherently prejudicial to the administration of justice?

Status quo prevails. A Tennessee update

I am still Roadshowing this week, among other things, so I will again offer some content but with a caveat about its brevity.  (And, again, if you are sitting in a highly-entertained crowd looking for the embedded Spotify playlist just keep scrolling and you’ll find it.)

In the before time, the long, long-ago at this space (right before Xmas 2016 actually), I previously mentioned how Tennessee is a jurisdiction that does not toll the statute of limitations for legal malpractice actions based on the continuing representation of counsel.  When I did so, I managed to offer a contradictory take from the “Hot List” folks in Tennessee in terms of predicting how the Tennessee Supreme Court would rule in the Story v. Bunstine case.  (Admittedly though, I did flagrantly misspell Bunstine in the process back then.)

For the uninitiated, that whole “continuous representation” concept of tolling  just means that the mere fact that a lawyer continues to represent a client does not mean that the client’s time frame for filing suit over alleged legal malpractice does not start running.  For more than 20 years in Tennessee, the way we have dealt with the accrual of the cause of action involves application of the widely-familiar “discovery rule” approach.

For more than 20 years, our state has also operated under guidance providing that, if for some reason [for example, the potential that a mistake or misstep in the underlying action might be fixable and, thus, what seems like a very damaging outcome in the present could be the kind of situation in the future that everyone involved might laugh about] it is awkward to pursue the legal malpractice lawsuit while the lawyer is still trying to remedy the error, then the manner of addressing the situation is to file the legal malpractice action in a timely fashion (within 1 year of the problem) and ask the Court to stay that lawsuit until the underlying suit is completed.

Yesterday, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in Story v. Bunstine in which the plaintiff’s counsel explicitly asked the Court to undo that long-settled approach in favor of either the tolling for continuous representation or even the “appeal tolling” doctrine.  I am happy to report in this space that the Court — in a very well-written and thorough opinion, rejected those calls for change and re-affirmed the status quo as to accrual of a cause of action for legal malpractice.

If I had to pick one portion to be the simplest portion of Justice Page’s opinion for the Court that drives home what matters, I’d go with this one:

Based on the foregoing, we conclude that our formulation of the discovery rule articulated in Carvell v. Bottoms, 900 S.W.2d 23 (Tenn. 1995), and again in John Kohl &
Co. P.C. v. Dearborn & Ewing, 977 S.W.2d 528 (Tenn. 1998), remains the appropriate analysis for determining when a claim of legal malpractice accrues. Accordingly, we decline to adopt the two tolling doctrines proposed by Plaintiffs—the continuing
representation rule and the appeal-tolling doctrine—and also decline to hold that a final judgment is required before there is an actual injury for purposes of accrual.

You can read the full opinion, should you so desire, at the link set out above.

RPC 8.4(g) – Tennessee is in play

I’m pleased to report that, yesterday, a joint petition was filed by the Tennessee Bar Association and the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to adopt an RPC 8.4(g) patterned after the ABA Model Rule.

As I’ve written here in the past, I’ve long been hopeful (not necessarily optimistic but certainly hopeful) that states like mine would take action to enshrine a prohibition on harassment and discrimination into our ethics rules.

You can read the petition filed yesterday by clicking on this link: (filed_tsc_rule_8_rpc_8.4_g .)  As you’ll see, in my capacity as Chair of the TBA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, I am one of the signatories on the petition.  I am certain that there will be some public comments filed in opposition to the petition, but I’d like to think that the fact that both the TBA and the BPR are behind this effort will make it more viable for the Court to grant the petition even in the face of some opposition.

More importantly, as a matter of principle, I think the petition is one that should be granted because the proposed rule is a good and necessary one.

We’ve made some very good additional revisions to the ABA Model Rule in our drafting process — additional revisions that even more clearly help delineate that the kind of conduct prohibited by this proposed rule is conduct that has no place in our profession but does not go so far as to infringe on important First Amendment rights of lawyers.

We made two prominent, and I think important, revisions in the new comment paragraphs that would elaborate on the new (g) provision.  Exhibit B to the petition offers a redline showing how what we have proposed differs from the language of the ABA Model Rule, but I will lay them out here because of the significance.

First, we have added the following final sentence to Comment [4]:

Legitimate advocacy protected by Section (g) includes advocacy in any conduct related to the practice of the law, including circumstances where a lawyer is not representing a client and outside traditional settings where a lawyer act as an advocate, such as litigation.

Second,  we have added a Comment [4a] not found in the Model Rule, that provides:

Section (g) does not restrict any speech or conduct not related to the practice of law, including speech or conduct protected by the First Amendment.  Thus, a lawyer’s speech or conduct unrelated to the practice of law cannot violate this Section.

I anticipate that our Court will likely put this proposed rule change out for public comment before the end of the year.

“Boies will be boys was never a good response” or “Advance waivers are still better than unwanted advances”

(I’ve apologized once before for a Bullwinkle-style title and here I am doing it again.  The underlying societal issues are not funny in the least but it’s been a hard week for many folks and a little bit of levity can help you make it through.)

If you are inclined to read this blog from time to time, then you likely already have read or heard something about the mess David Boies has found himself in related to his firm’s simultaneous representation of The New York Times and his efforts to assist another client Harvey Weinstein in working with a black-ops style investigation outfit to try to stop an NYT story about Weinstein.

If you haven’t read anything about it, there is a wave of reporting to catch up on.  You can start with this ABA Journal article which gives easy jumping off points to this article in The Atlantic, and this The New York Times article, and this further ABA Journal article addressing additional issues after the NYT fired Boies’s firm.

The whole situation weaves a tale more than worthy of a law school essay exam question.  I could likely manage to spend the full three hours of the Ethics Roadshow talking about the ethics issues raised in the scenario.  (I probably won’t, but you’ll never know for sure unless you attend in one of the six cities where it will be taking place.)

While there are quite a few angles ripe for discussion, I just want to talk a bit today about the advanced waiver angle involved.  As most of the articles discuss, in addition to minimizing his role in assisting Weinstein, Boies pointed to language in his firm’s engagement letter with the NYT as authorizing certain conflicts in advance.

The topic of whether and when a lawyer can obtain an advanced waiver from a client to a future conflict is still a surprisingly controversial one in ethics and lawyering circles.  There are some who ardently fight for the position that no conflict can be waived in advance, even by sophisticated clients.  I don’t count myself among their number and, instead, believe that the availability of advance conflicts waivers is an important part of modern law practice from an ethics standpoint.  Along those lines, I believe that Tennessee, and other states that have language in a Comment to RPC 1.7 patterned after the Model Rules get the ethical guidance on the situation correct.

Tennessee’s Comment [22] to RPC 1.7, for example, explains how things generally should work when a lawyer requests a client to waive conflicts that might arise in the future:

The effectiveness of such waivers is generally determined by the extent to which the client reasonably understands the material risks that the waiver entails.  The more comprehensive the explanation provided to the client of the types of future representations that might arise and the actual and reasonably foreseeable adverse consequences of those representations, the greater the likelihood that the client will have the requisite understanding.  Thus, if the client agrees to consent to a particular type of conflict with which the client is already familiar, then the consent ordinarily will be effective with regard to that type of conflict.  If the consent is general and open-ended, then the consent ordinarily will be ineffective, because it is not reasonably likely that the client will have understood the material risks involved.  Nevertheless, if the client is an experienced user of the legal services involved and is reasonably informed regarding the risk that a conflict may arise, such consent to a future conflict is more likely to be effective, particularly if, e.g., the client is independently represented by other counsel in giving consent and the consent is limited to future conflicts unrelated to the subject matter of the representation.

This Boies/Weinstein/NYT saga, however, isn’t particularly all that helpful in terms of providing guidance into the question of whether any advance conflict waiver obtained by Boies complied with New York’s ethics rules, but it is extremely helpful in reminding that whether or not an advance conflict waiver passes muster under the ethics rules is just one aspect of the situation that lawyers and law firms need to keep in mind (and though it is a bit sacrilegious to say it might not always be the most weighty aspect of the situation).

The Boies/Weinstein/NYT saga is extremely helpful as a reminder that whether to take on a representation that can only be justified to another client on the basis of an advance waiver is extremely tricky as a business decision.

Boies’s firm included an advance waiver in its engagement letter with the NYT undoubtedly to try to maximize the number of clients it could have has now managed to lose both the NYT and Weinstein as clients.

The loss of Weinstein under all the circumstances might be a net positive, but the loss of the NYT likely stings and would have stung even if it hadn’t ended up managing to say this publicly in the process of cutting ties with Boies:

We consider this intolerable conduct, a grave betrayal of trust, and a breach of the basic professional standards that all lawyers are required to observe. It is inexcusable and we will be pursuing appropriate remedies.

Whether or not an advance waiver is consistent with the ethics rules, an offended client can always still decide to drop the lawyer or his firm and what that mess might looks like if or when that comes to pass might be the most practical way for lawyers to think through these issues.