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.

 

Frustrations with Formal Ethics Opinion 2017-F-164

Recently (and one of the frustrations I have with this opinion I am now writing about is, that “recently” is about as specific as I can pin things down in terms of the date of issuance), the Board of Professional Responsibility in Tennessee issued a Formal Ethics Opinion giving some guidance on the ability of a Tennessee lawyer to be a part of a multi-state law firm using a trade name.

It is, on the whole, an adequate ethics opinion in that it essentially gets the answers to the questions it raises correct, but it is more frustrating than it is adequate given how it addresses the issues and, as hinted at above, how it was surfaced by the Board as having even been issued.

First, here are my frustrations with the substance.  Here are the questions FEO 2017-F-164 tackles:

I. Do the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct allow a partnership between a Tennessee Professional Services Corporation and a Florida Professional Services Corporation?

II. Can the partnership ethically use a trade name?

III. Can the Florida office of the partnership ethically lease space from SETCO Services, a title company?

Admittedly, the Board gets the answers to each of these questions correct.  Those answers are, of course, “yes,” “yes,” and “yes.”  But the opinion does not do the best job of showing its work as to some of the answers, completely ignores the fact that the questions being answered also can’t be addressed without taking a look at Florida’s analogous ethics rules, and, as to the third question, misrepresents to an extent how RPC 5.7 actually works in Tennessee, appears to assume more facts beyond the facts indicated in the opinion.

As further background to understand my griping, here is the entirety of the facts provided by the Board about the request that has been directed to them:

The requesting lawyer proposes a 50%-50% partnership between a Tennessee Professional Services Corporation (PA) and a Florida Professional Services Corporation (PA) that will operate under a trade name, SETCO Law. The Florida PA will lease space from SETCO Services, a title company, for which the requesting lawyer is in-house counsel, in Destin, Florida. The Tennessee PA will lease space from another law firm, Brannon Law, located in Memphis, TN.

The proposed Firm will have a separate computer system, including secure email system, apart from SETCO Services and can only be accessed by employees of the Firm. The Firm will have its own logo which will be conspicuous within the building. All clients, before engagement with the Firm, will be provided with a written engagement letter that provides in detail that SETCO Law is an entity separate and apart from SETCO Services and Brannon Law and that engagement with the Firm is in no way tied to any affiliation with SETCO services or any services provided therefrom.

The first two questions are readily capable of dispatch under Tennessee’s rules given that we are very reasonable on questions of trade names and, of course, do not present any unreasonable barriers to lawyers being part of a multi-state law firm.  However, it is exceedingly unhelpful for this opinion to be issued and make no reference to the fact that a lawyer seeking guidance about the second question needs to take a look at Florida’s ethics rules as well and that makes no reference at all to the fact the lawyer ought to also be educated about RPC 8.5 and how that rule provides for choice of law determinations when more than one jurisdiction’s ethics rules may be applicable to the conduct of a lawyer.

The method of addressing the third question though presents the most frustrating piece from a substantive standpoint.  This is because the third question only asks whether or not the law firm’s Florida office can lease space from a title company.  The answer to that question is: of course they can.  The first paragraph of that part of the opinion gets the answer exactly right:

No ethical rules restrict the location of the office of a lawyer. Nothing prevents a lawyer from entering into a landlord-tenant relationship and having an office in the same building as a land title company.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with those two sentences but instead offers further advice and guidance about RPC 5.7 with respect to law related services.  That advice and guidance is fine – in a vacuum but this opinion isn’t in a vacuum – but the opinion reads as certain things being mandatory in order to be able to lease the space, rather than being explained as being important in evaluating whether or not acts undertaken by a lawyer affiliated with the title company can be treated as providing services that are separately distinct from the delivery of legal services so that only some, but not all, of the Tennessee ethics rules apply to that conduct.  Nothing about RPC 5.7 requires a lawyer to do any of those things simply to be able to lease office space from someone.

And that would be bad enough but, again, the opinion completely overlooks or ignores that the office space lease question involves the office in Florida and so there is no compelling analysis given why it would be Tennessee’s RPC 5.7 that would govern at all, rather than Florida’s version of any such rule.

Having now unburdened myself on the substantive flaws, I’d like to offer a quick word about the frustrating problem with the process.  For whatever reason, the Board of Professional Responsibility did not publicize the issuance of this opinion until they happened to insert it in a regular quarterly publication that is a much larger document.  And even then what has been published is an unsigned, undated version of the opinion.  Seems very difficult to understand why that approach was undertaken.

Should you want to go read for yourself the undated, unsigned Formal Ethics Opinion 2017-f-164, you can do so at that link.

Perfect timing.

(Edited – Dec. 8, 2017 to fix very embarrassing mistakes as to the company name of Atrium.)

On the heels of my posting earlier this week about my failure to understand how the Atrium law firm backed by the Atrium tech company is something that complies with California’s ethics rules (much less ethics rules in other states besides D.C. that are based on the Model Rules should it attempt to expand as it plans), news comes now at the end of the week that one of the Big 4 accounting firms is launching its first law firm in the United States.

As this ABA Journal story explains, PwC is opening ILC Legal but, importantly for my discussion purposes, it is doing so in D.C.  As noted when I discussed the Atrium deal, D.C. is currently the only U.S. jurisdiction that permits the kind of non-lawyer ownership in a law firm that is prohibited everywhere else in the country.  Now, interestingly, the PwC spokesperson quoted in the story indicates that isn’t the reason D.C. was picked.  There may be many more details in the AmLaw story referenced by the ABA Journal but I am not a subscriber to that publication so I can’t get to it to read.  Not sure what details could be in there though that would change the fact that I’m skeptical that any structural separation PwC may have come up with for this law firm will comport with any ethics rules other than D.C.’s at this moment in time.

In my Atrium post, I asked readers to envision whether if a bank were doing what the tech company was doing, anyone would have any qualms at all about saying that it didn’t appear to comply in any way with the pertinent ethics rules.  I could just have easily used an accounting firm as an example instead of a bank.

So, bottom line for this Friday is, whatever your reaction might be to the PwC news (assuming it is one of concern), you ought to have the same – and even stronger — reaction to the Atrium situation.  Atrium isn’t even starting in D.C. where it could arguably be compliant.

(And, thanks to David Carr – a California ethics attorney – for the comment he posted to my earlier story with some further thoughts about the situation in California for Atrium.  Boiled down though, those thoughts seem to me to indicate that Atrium’s approach doesn’t comply with California’s rules as I suspected and that their only hope is that their own clients won’t complain about them and, apparently, that if anyone else does it won’t gain any traction with regulators.)

 

Things I don’t understand… Atrium LLP

You may, by now, have read an article or two about the launch of a “technology-focused law firm” by the name of Atrium LLP.  Its headquarters are in California.  Having now read several articles about it – and how it has come to be and how it will operate – I simply don’t understand it.

I get what a technology-focused law firm might be, of course.  What I don’t get is how in the world any of the lawyers involved with the venture can think that they can do this and comply with the ethics rules.

I kept reading more and more about it to figure out what I was missing that would not cause this arrangement to be a violation of the rules prohibiting sharing of fees with nonlawyers and prohibiting investment by non-lawyers in law firms.  I could still be missing the explanation, but I haven’t found it yet.

Here – through a series of snippets – is the situation as it has been reported.

Let’s start with information from an ABA Journal article as a base:

With $10.5 million, serial entrepreneur Justin Kan is about to take on Big Law….Atrium LLP will compliment, but is separate from, Atrium Legal Technology Services, also operated by Kan. Atrium LTS will develop the technologies and processes that automate repetitive tasks and manage the firm’s operations….While Kan is not an attorney, the firm’s founding partners are. Augie Rakow is a former partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, while Bebe Chueh is an attorney and founded AttorneyFee.com, which sold to LegalZoom in 2014. The other co-founder and Atrium LTS chief technology officer, Chris Smoak, is a serial entrepreneur and software engineer. Kan is the founder of live-streaming sites Justin.tv and Twitch.tv, selling the latter to Amazon for nearly $1 billion in 2014.

[snip]

While separate entities, the financial relationship between Atrium LTS and Atrium LLP is inextricable. Atrium LTS provided the firm a loan to cover all startup costs, and Atrium attorneys are being paid through options in Atrium LTS or a salary for advising the technology company.

[snip]

In June, Atrium LTS closed a Series A funding round worth $10.5 million, which was led by General Catalyst, a venture capital firm focused on early stage investments.

Let’s sprinkle in a few more salient details from Bob Ambrogi’s interview and post with affiliated folks at his Law Sites blog:

What is launching today is a law firm, Atrium LLP, that is separate and apart from Kan’s technology company Atrium LTS, but that is symbiotically connected to it. Atrium’s lawyers will focus exclusively on practicing law, while Atrium LTS (the LTS is for Legal Technology Services) will handle all operations for the firm, even including marketing, and develop and operate software to streamline the firm’s workflows.

[snip]

Atrium LTS is paying all the start-up costs for the law firm, structured as a loan. Atrium attorneys receive stock or options in Atrium LTS and some receive salaries from Atrium LTS for serving as advisors.

Now, a bit more from the Atrium website itself:

To solve this, Augie teamed up with successful lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Bebe Chueh to found Atrium, a technology-first law firm. They partnered with Justin and Chris Smoak to also create Legal Technology Services, a legal technology company with a world-class engineering team to build tools for that firm.

Strikingly absent from anything I have been able to find and read about the rollout of Atrium is how it isn’t just outright flouting California’s ethics rules that prohibit non-lawyer ownership in law firms and that prohibit people who aren’t lawyers from being partners in a law firms.  Although California does not yet have rules tracking the Model Rules in many areas (so they don’t for example have all of the provisions of ABA Model Rule 5.4), it does have Rule 1-310 that pretty much tracks Model Rule 5.4(b).

Rule 1-310 Forming a partnership With a Non-Lawyer

A member shall not form a partnership with a person who is not a lawyer if any of the activities of that partnership consist of the practice of law.

Discussion:

Rule 1-310 is not intended to govern members’ activities which cannot be considered to constitute the practice of law. It is intended solely to preclude a member from being involved in the practice of law with a person who is not a lawyer.

It also has a rule that imposes other restrictions on sharing fees with nonlawyers, Rule 1-320

Now, I noticed from one of the articles the idea that Atrium LTS (the tech company) is only “loaning” the start up costs to Atrium.  I mean there are lots of places where that concept seems vulnerable to analysis, but throw in the point that the way the attorneys for the Atrium law firm are getting paid is either stock or stock options in Atrium the tech company or salaries paid by Atrium the tech company for being advisors to the tech company and … just … come on. That really doesn’t pass any laugh test.  Does it?

So, really, what am I missing about this?  Assume the things being done by Atrium the tech company as part of launching Atrium the law firm were being done by an actual bank, wouldn’t everyone immediately recognize that the lawyers involved were violating the ethics rules?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge believer in the benefits of moving away from the billable hour and innovation in the delivery of legal services and embracing technology, but the Atrium model sounds very much like something that can only be done in California (or just about any other U.S. jurisdiction besides D.C.) if, first, the ethics rules are revised to permit it.

Is this just an effort by an entity with lots of resources to do it and dare someone to stop them?

“DoNotPay” Becomes HelpYouSue

I had another idea for a blogpost in mind at this stage of the week, but between travel and this story, this was the thing that had to be acknowledged today.  Yesterday’s big technology news for lawyers (sort of lost in the Apple event revealing a brand new version of what will likely become Ted Cruz’s new favorite device for viewing images he likes) is this story.

I’ve written a little bit in the past about the leading chatbot – DoNotPay.  This story  at The Washington Post details what will (I’m guessing) be something of a watershed moment in the development of the functionality of chatbots and what they can, and truly will, mean for lawyering in the near future.

In the wake of the Equifax data breach, the makers of DoNotPay launched a chatbot yesterday to allow people with just a few simple clicks to file suit in the small claims court in their home jurisdiction against Equifax over the data breach.

I usually like to think that I can add my own profound insight on an issue to make it worth reading over and above the underlying story.  Today though I’m going to primarily just point readers to the source material and then ask you to allow your own minds to ponder the possibilities this raises.  The Washington Post story was written at a time when the chatbot would only be available for suits in California and New York, but it was quickly modified to render availability nationwide, as explained in this Yahoo! article.

Once you’ve done that, check back in with me for just a moment or two.  I’ll wait right here.

Ok.  First, undoubtedly a lot of the people that will use this chatbot to file this suit would otherwise never take on this kind of matter at all.  For many others, if they pursued it at all, they wouldn’t ever hire a lawyer and would try to handle it themselves .  To that end, this is a net win in terms of access to justice (at least for everyone except Equifax).  (To the extent that these kinds of cases might get resolved before any class action suits that have already been filed and will be filed, they certainly might not be a net win for such class action lawyers.)

Second, the continuing development of chatbots in this direction will still leave plenty of work for lawyers (and create some work for lawyers that might not otherwise exist) – and not just in the form of lawyers who, for example, will show up to represent Equifax in thousands of small claims suits.

Part of this is because of the inherent differences that still exist from jurisdiction to jurisdiction over access to and proceedings in small claims court.

As one example, here in Tennessee our civil small claims court is called General Sessions Court.  There are a number of ways that it works differently from the general features described in the articles as to other states small claims courts.  We have a jurisdictional limit of under $25,000.  In our general sessions courts, you certainly are entitled to have a lawyer represent you in that court and, in fact, if you are a corporate or business entity of any kind seeking to pursue suit or defend suit, you have to be represented by an attorney.  Further, both parties to a general sessions judgment (even the prevailing party) have an absolute right to appeal the outcome and, if they do, it goes up to our regular state trial level court for de novo proceedings.  Thus, in a way, nothing that happens in our General Sessions court matters unless everyone involved agrees it mattered.

In addition to simply demonstrating how fast things are moving on these fronts, this evolution of the use of the DoNotPay bot also adds another wrinkle about how an attorney could at some point co-opt such technologies in situations where they may have a potential client with a looming timing issue in the form of a statute of limitations about to expire.  Specifically, it is not difficult to imagine a near future in which this kind of chatbot could permit the filing of suits involving other issues where a lawyer could point a brand new client -with a time sensitive matter- toward such a chatbot to get a suit filed before a statute expires and then come in, take over, and amend pleadings once the lawyer has more time to get involved.