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

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

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

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

So, let me try a scenario.

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

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

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

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

Can lawyers learn anything from the ending of the Academy Awards?

Well, of course, they can.  Or at least that is the conceit I’m going to stick to in order to write this post about a lawyer’s obligation to talk to their client about mistakes and make it seem topical and culturally relevant.

By now, unless you live a very, very cloistered life you’ve at least heard about the unprecedented and crazy ending to this year’s Oscars.  Many of you, like me, were watching it as the event unfolded with Bonnie and Clyde as the presenters for the Best Picture award to end the night, Clyde opening the envelope, noticing something wasn’t right, being reluctant to say anything, and then showing to Bonnie… who then blurted out La La Land.  After that all of the folks associated with that film, made their way up to the stage and one of them began giving an acceptance speech.

Meanwhile, in the background on stage, people associated with the broadcast in some fashion are disseminating information somewhat frantically and, quickly, it falls upon one of the members of the La La Land team — incredibly graciously — to speak out and let the people responsible for the film Moonlight, that they have actually won Best Picture and not the film that was announced.  It is then stated out loud by one of the La La Land contingent that this is not a joke and the card reflecting Moonlight as the Best Picture winner is revealed.

As the Moonlight folks make their way to the stage, Clyde then proceeds to explain what had happened, that he had noticed something was wrong, wasn’t trying to be funny, but then when he showed to Bonnie, Bonnie announced La La Land as the winner of Best Picture.

The folks on behalf of Moonlight then did get to make an acceptance speech and then the host of the program, Jimmy Kimmel, said words to the effect that “he knew he’d screw this show up” and that they wouldn’t have to invite him back.

While it was a pretty atrocious moment for all involved, it made for really amazing television.  We have all now learned through media reports and from its own statement to the press that the most culpable in the creation of the mistake were folks with the accounting firm which tabulates the votes, keeps the results confidential, and distributes the votes.  We’ve also now learned that a two-envelope system that actually makes some pretty good logistical sense with all the “stage right” and “stage left” of the theater created an entirely unnecessary risk in terms of handing over a wrong envelope.

But, and here I go with the conceit, this incredibly high-profile event also teaches several great lessons about mistakes that anyone can take to heart, including lawyers — ways to be more likely to avoid mistakes, ways to deal with mistakes once made, and lessons not limited to being about mistakes — but before laying those lessons out, it is important to stress something about when a client is negatively impacted by a lawyer’s mistake.

Under the most reasonable reading of the rules of ethics, a lawyer in any jurisdiction that has a rule analogous to ABA Model Rule 1.4 has an ethical obligation — when a mistake of real significance has been made by the lawyer in a matter –to communicate what has transpired to the client.  Lawyers who don’t realize the ethical obligation though can have self-interested reasons for promptly telling a client about a mistake — to establish a clear time-frame for a statute of limitations on any claim against the lawyer by a client to begin running.  This is a particularly prudent course to take in a jurisdiction like Tennessee where there is a relatively-short statutory period and where precedent establishes that the time for a suit is not tolled merely because the lawyer continues to represent the client.  Thus, in addition to being a requirement of the rules, a lawyer who has committed an error in the handling of the case could most certainly see her way to figuring out that communicating about it quickly to the client, particularly if a simultaneous reasonable plan for correction can be communicated as well, is the right thing to do from a purely personal, selfish standpoint.

The lessons for lawyers?  I think there are, at least, six of them that can be learned from Sunday night.

One.  How to acknowledge a mistake:  The accounting firm did it exactly the right way – complete candor, no hedging, and with a true sense of contrition.  Here was the first statement made early the morning after the Oscars:

“We sincerely apologize to ‘Moonlight,’ ‘La La Land,’ Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for best picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.

“We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, ABC, and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.”

In subsequent media communications explaining the two-envelope procedure and who was where and did what, the United States Chairman of the accounting firm has continued to give accounts that are straight-forward and apologetic without attempting to deflect any blame.  (Lawyers should remember though that you are going to need to make sure you have the client’s permission to speak publicly if that becomes necessary about your mistake because of the constraints of client confidentiality under Rule 1.6.)

Two.  Don’t be the guy publicly throwing someone under the bus:  Clyde.  The whole “let me further interrupt these poor people from getting to have their moment by making sure everyone knows that as between me and Bonnie, Bonnie deserves the blame” is a bad look.

Three.  Make sure you’ve actually made a mistake before saying you screwed up:  It is particularly important for lawyers not to do what Jimmy Kimmel did and start taking responsibility for an error if you truly weren’t involved. Kimmel was surely trying to be gracious in the situation, but lawyers can be quick to describe things they’ve done in an overly critical way — and if they do so publicly or hastily in an email — those words can come back to haunt in a deposition even if the self-castigation was unwarranted.

Four.  Trust your gut instincts:  Clyde’s gut was actually correct.  He was smart enough to know that “Emma Stone” is not the name of a movie, but he didn’t trust his instinct enough to make more control of the situation than he did by saying out loud that he had been given the wrong envelope.  Had he done that, so much of this could have been avoided.

Five.  Think before you act:  Looking at you Bonnie.

Six.  How to be more likely to avoid mistakes in the first place?  Pay attention – the job of an attorney is important.  This lesson comes about as the pieces have been better put together and it appears that the particular employee of the accounting firm that handed over the wrong envelope had pretty closely in time before that screw up been taking a photo of Emma Stone after she won Best Picture.  And posting it to his Twitter.  A Tweet which he subsequently deleted, but which others got a screen capture of and saved so it can still be viewed on the Internet. 

Friday follow up: DC Bar counsel’s weird priorities

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

Last post of 2016 – Why lawyers need lawyers.

2016 was a year marked with quite a number of unexpected (at least to me) developments.  2017 likely will have its share of unexpected events as well.

To wrap up the year, I wanted to use what little platform I have to pursue something that is both driven by blatant self-interest and is in the interests of the overall “good.”  That something is to muse in hopefully a relatively pithy fashion on my general philosophy about why even lawyers need other lawyers.

I truly cannot remember if the way I tend to state this is in such a fashion that it is cribbed from one or more other lawyers or if it has something of an nearly-original genesis but whether it should be footnoted to avoid plagiarism or written freely without worry of attribution, I think it is compellingly accurate as a philosophy:

Lawyers need lawyers because lawyers are great at solving other people’s problems, but horrible at solving their own problems.

I’ve encountered quite a few excellent lawyers who, in aid of their own personal situations, have done and said things they would never do or say if they were acting on behalf of a client other than themselves and who, if you could stop them and pose to them what they were doing as a hypothetical act of a client of theirs, would not merely counsel a client other than themselves against such behavior but would likely woodshed any of their clients who were foolhardy enough to so act.

I suspect you can think of an example or two you have come across as well.

And, if the philosophical concept is true, and even excellent lawyers — lawyers who are great at solving other people’s problems — need lawyers., then the need for lawyers is even greater when the lawyer in question is not so great even at solving other people’s problems.

There are any number of ways that these thoughts could have been prompted today.  For the record, they were prompted by this story.

(And, I am not the only one to have written such a piece in the past and you can find lots of such articles online and in paper format, but I have written in the past about the fact that lawyers can be surprised to find that they have coverage to be reimbursed for hiring attorneys to handle things other than malpractice cases under their malpractice policies.  My piece in that oeuvre can be found here.)

Pre-holidays Friday installment of “I beg to differ.”

So, it seems like I am begging to differ all over the place during the last week or so, but here comes another instance.

About a month ago, the Tennessee Supreme Court granted permission to appeal in a legal malpractice case, Story v. Bunstein, in which the plaintiff(s) suit against their lawyer was dismissed based on expiration of the one-year statute of limitations.  In Tennessee, our case law has long established – unlike some other jurisdictions – that the statute is not tolled for continuous representation.

There’s a law firm in Nashville – primarily focused on criminal defense matters – that operates a blog called the “Hot List” that weighs in with thoughts and predictions about what the Court will do on cases granted.  Here’s a link on what they have to say about this particular legal malpractice suit.

If you look at the link, you’ll see that they’ve offered this prediction on this case:

Ben thinks the Supreme Court will reverse. It would be bad policy to require clients to have to sue their lawyers while the underlying case is ongoing.

From the way that prediction is worded, it is unclear to me whether Ben has managed to read the Tennessee Supreme Court’s opinion in Carvell v. Bottoms.  Carvell dates back to 1995 and was cited in the Bunstein decision.  Via Carvell our state’s highest court already established its public policy decision that it is not bad policy to require clients to do exactly that.  Instead, the Court explained that the correct answer is to file the suit and then seek to have it stayed until the underlying matter is resolved.  In the words of former Chief Justice Drowota:

 Although we conclude that the rule [judicial estoppel] is not technically applicable, we nevertheless realize that having to maintain inconsistent positions in different lawsuits is somewhat anomalous. Therefore, we agree with the New Jersey Supreme Court that clients can avoid the “discomfort of maintaining inconsistent positions,” see Grunwald v. Bronkesh, 131 N.J. 483, 621 A.2d 459, 467 (1993), by filing a malpractice action against the attorney and requesting that the trial court stay that action until the underlying proceedings are concluded. See e.g., Grunwald, 621 A.2d at 466-67; Knight v. Furlow, 553 A.2d 1232, 1236 (D.C.App.1989). In this manner clients can, without conflict, continue to assert their interests in the underlying lawsuit, while preserving any malpractice action they may have against their attorneys.

Admittedly, being a lawyer who defends other lawyers in legal malpractice cases and I have successfully used Carvell to get cases dismissed for my clients on the basis of expiration of the statute of limitations, I have some bias on how this should play out.  In light of this well-established policy for more than two decades, I have to beg to differ on this one.  In addition to the ability to follow the procedure laid out in Carvell, clients also can negotiate tolling agreements if the lawyer doesn’t want the suit to be filed, stayed, and hanging over her head.  So, I don’t see the need to change policy at this point and while I’m not in the court predictions game would hope that the Court does not overturn Carvell.

And, as a completely unsolicited writing tip, if my assumption is incorrect and Ben has read Carvell then it would be advisable to say something more like “Ben thinks the Supreme Court will reverse.  Ben thinks the Court will decide to change its view on the existing policy requiring filing suit and then having the litigation stayed and will instead announce a belief that clients shouldn’t have to sue their lawyers while the underlying case is ongoing.”

Even if Ben had written it that way, I’d still beg to differ on the outcome, but at least if written in that fashion the prediction would read like the author knew exactly what they were weighing in on in rather than running the risk of sounding like they didn’t realize the scope of existing precedent.

(N.B.  This will be my last post before the holidays so, whatever you celebrate, I hope it brings you great joy!)

DC Ethics Opinion 370 – Y’all knew I wouldn’t be able to resist

So, the D.C. Bar has come out with a far-reaching, sort of two-part ethics opinion addressing lawyers and social media usage.  Opinion 370 (Part 1) can be grabbed here.  Opinion 371 (Part 2) from here.  Opinion 370 has lots of really good parts, but much of the publicity it has received to date revolves around something it throws out for lawyers to bear in mind and be wary of that hasn’t really been said by opinion-writing entities before.

Here’s how the ABA Journal online headline treated it – “beware” of “social media statements on legal issues.”  Other aspects of the reporting I have seen described it as warning lawyers who offer opinions online of the potential for creating an “issue” conflict.  There’s a reason, I think, this topic hasn’t been explored much by other opinion-writing bodies:  it is a relatively silly and irresponsible take.  Regardless, given the minimal treatment of the issue that the opinion offers, even if you think there were merit to flagging the issue for consideration, the portion of Opinion 370 that “addresses” it still would be better left on the cutting room floor.

Here, in its entirety, is the analysis of this issue as a risk for lawyers from the DC Opinion:

Caution should be exercised when stating positions on issues, as those stated positions could be adverse to an interest of a client, thus inadvertently creating a conflict. Rule 1.7(b)(4) states that an attorney shall not represent a client with respect to a matter if “the lawyer’s professional judgment on behalf of the client will be or reasonably may be adversely affected by . . . the lawyer’s own financial, business, property or personal interests,” unless the conflict is resolved in accordance with Rule 1.7(c). Content of social media posts made by attorneys may contain evidence of such conflicts.

Now, to help get your bearings straight if you aren’t a D.C. lawyer, D.C.’s Rule 1.7(b)(4) is different from what is set out in the ABA Model Rules and, thus, different from what we have here in Tennessee (for example) in the closest equivalent rule, RPC 1.7(a)(2).  Our RPC 1.7(a)(2), just like the ABA Model, establishes a conflict of interest — albeit a potentially consentable one — where “there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer.”

In a (stop-me-if-you-heard-this-one-before) well-done story by Samson Habte with the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct, some quotes are gathered from folks pointing out that the concept of an “issue” or “positional” conflict of interest necessarily involves or requires taking contrasting positions in front of one or more tribunals and, thus, a lawyer’s public statements of opinion about a legal question couldn’t create a positional or issue conflict.

In Tennessee, for example, we address issue/positional conflicts of interests in Paragraph [24] of our Comment to RPC 1.7.  While incapable of being that kind of conflict, supporters of the D.C. Opinion warning might argue that it is still a risky endeavor to express opinions about a legal issue because the lawyer might then have a “personal interest” in how something is resolved that would materially limit the ability to represent a client.

To me, that kind of approach to the topic not only misunderstands what it means to be a lawyer representing a client but also what the rules say in a variety of places it means to be a lawyer at all.  I’ll stick for now to just the Tennessee rules though I’d venture a guess that similar principals are laid out in D.C.’s rules.

In the Preamble to our Rules, in the second paragraph, we lay out a list of things that a “lawyer” is and, included among them, is “a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”  In the seventh paragraph of the Preamble to the Rules we say:

As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice, and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.  As a member of a learned profession, a lawyer should cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients, employ that knowledge in reform of the law; and work to strengthen legal education.

Further, we have a rule, RPC 6.4, patterned after ABA Model Rule 6.4, that specifically makes the point that lawyers can ethically undertake service in connection with entities that seek to reform the law or its administration even though such efforts could detrimentally affect the interests of a client of the lawyer.  If a Tennessee lawyer can engage in organized efforts to reform the law even though those efforts, if successful, might detrimentally affect the interests of one of the lawyer’s clients, then absolutely they can make public statements about what the law should be without violating the ethics rules.

Now, might a client decide not to hire a lawyer who has already indicated a personal belief contrary to the client’s position.  Sure, and they’d have every right to make that decision.  But they might also make a different decision and think that, if the lawyer is willing to take on and argue their position despite past public statements to the contrary, it would make their arguments stronger.

To my knowledge. opinion-writing entities have never warned lawyers about writing learned treatises or books on legal subjects or discouraged lawyers from speaking at Continuing Legal Education events or seminars (which are these days often videotaped and archived) because of some notion that expressing an opinion about a legal issue could create an ethical conflict for the lawyer.  Seems to me that the same “logic” that drove the almost offhand reference by the DC Bar in the Ethics Opinion could be applied to tell lawyers to “beware” of such other activities as well.

One thing I hope everyone could agree upon though is: if you are going to go to the trouble of injecting this issue into what is otherwise an extremely lengthy ethics opinion, then you should have done a better job of tackling the issue comprehensively rather than simply throwing out a half-baked statement that could serve to dissuade lawyers from speaking out.

“Troubling and counterproductive” – yep

One of the more archaic aspects of lawyer regulation is the heavy-handed approach to UPL.  And, I’m not referring to UPL in the sense of something done that involves the practice of law by a person who isn’t a lawyer anywhere.  I’m referring to regulatory efforts involving UPL that are brandished against someone who is a lawyer somewhere but not licensed in the jurisdiction that happens to be doing the regulating.

Admittedly, a heavy-handed approach almost inevitably follows from the fact that our profession continues to embrace a model in which each state’s law is treated as being of such unique character in all respects that a lawyer in Wyoming cannot be considered competent to practice law in Wisconsin absent obtaining a Wisconsin law license in addition to the Wyoming law license.

The adoption of ABA Model Rule 5.5 — which has been embraced by many U.S. jurisdictions — was supposed to go a long way toward making the realities of cross-border practice a safer proposition for modern-day lawyers.  Unfortunately, a recent private admonition imposed in Minnesota on a Colorado lawyer offers a pretty good example of just how archaic and heavy handed the regulation of UPL continues to be despite such efforts.  Almost the only positive that I can bring myself to say about the matter at all is that Minnesota, at least, has truly private discipline and, therefore, the name of the lawyer disciplined is not obvious and public, which is why the case is styled In re Charges of Unprofessional Conduct.

Here’s the quick and dirty description of the scenario:  son-in-law, a Colorado lawyer, is contacted by his mother-in-law and father-in-law about a small judgment (less than $2500) entered against them and trying to help negotiate a better outcome as to its satisfaction.  In-laws live in Minnesota, owe money to a creditor who got the judgment in Minnesota, and the creditor is being represented by a Minnesota lawyer.  Colorado lawyer agrees to handle and then proceeds to have relatively extensive email communication with the Minnesota lawyer for the judgment holder.

Eventually, that Minnesota lawyer filed a bar complaint against the Colorado lawyer, and the Colorado lawyer was found to have engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in violation of Minnesota RPC 5.5(a).  Minnesota’s version of that rule looks pretty much like the ABA Model so the explanation doesn’t lie in some local variation.  Instead the explanation is mostly that this was regulation for regulation’s sake.

If you want to read the rationale of the Minnesota court, you can read the full opinion, at the link above.  There was a dissent – which is the source of the quoted language in the title of the post.  I can find fault with much of what the majority opinion offers as analysis, but what I’d rather talk for a moment about is how this outcome feels emblematic of a much larger problem in terms of the approach to regulation of this issue.

The Colorado lawyer argued that a number of the various exceptions set out in Minnesota’s RPC 5.5 ought to serve to protect what he did from being a violation but he also, quite understandably, argued that he was not practicing law in Minnesota at all because he was sitting in Colorado at all times.  The Minnesota court was having none of it as to that argument because the clients being represented were in Minnesota, and the matter was characterized as a Minnesota matter.  And there is some logic to that conclusion.

But, here’s the thing, I suspect Minnesota pursues a “cake and eat it too” approach on this issue.  When the facts are flipped around a bit, I worry that Minnesota wouldn’t hesitate to also conclude that a Colorado lawyer would be engaged in unauthorized practice in Minnesota if, while working out of an office in Minnesota, the Colorado lawyer only engaged in representation of Colorado clients in Colorado litigation.  Now, if it were just a temporary situation, like say a week-long vacation to the Mall of America or to visit his in-laws, then there probably would be no problem for the Colorado lawyer.

But, if the Colorado lawyer had moved to Minnesota because his spouse got a new job there because she wanted to be closer to her parents, then I’d venture a guess that Minnesota regulatory bodies would be willing to impose discipline against the Colorado lawyer premised on the notion the Colorado lawyer could not have that kind of systematic, continuous presence in Minnesota for the practice of law and that it would not matter that the Colorado lawyer was only handling matters remotely in a jurisdiction in which he fully licensed.

And that, at least to me, is emblematic of the scope of the problem.  I tend to think that neither situation should be treated as unethical UPL.  I acknowledge reasonable minds can differ on that opinion.  I’m not as inclined to offer up a reasonable minds can disagree approach though to the idea that a state should be able to conclude that both versions are a problem.  At most, a state should have to choose only one of them as being out of bounds.

Thoughts only partly relevant to California’s roll out for public comment of rules revisions.

One mistake.  What should be the price of one mistake?  To some extent, the answer to those questions for lawyers and lawyer discipline matters ought to be foreordained in two consecutive paragraphs of the Scope portion of the ABA Model Rules:

[19] ….the rules presuppose that whether or not discipline should be imposed for a violation … depend on all the circumstances, such as the willfulness and seriousness of the violation….

[20]  Violation of a Rule should not itself give rise to a cause of action against a lawyer nor should it create any presumption in such a case that a legal duty has been breached.  In addition, violation of a Rule does not necessarily warrant any other nondisciplinary remedy …. Nevertheless, since the Rules do establish standards of conduct by lawyers, a lawyer’s violation of a Rule may be evidence of breach of the applicable standard of conduct.

Most folks who practice in any area where the ethics rules and substantive causes of action may intersect, such as legal malpractice matters, are quite familiar with their state’s version of the language above from [20] that attempts to navigate a thorny path between what the standard of care requires of a lawyer versus what it takes to commit an ethical violation.  The language I’ve excerpted in [19] is, I think, less commonly thought of but is highly important as it indicates an acknowledgement in the ethics rules themselves that conduct can both simultaneously amount to an ethical violation but be of such a low-level nature as to warrant no discipline whatsoever.

For what it is worth, I tend to think that the principle acknowledged in [19] is even more supportable by common sense than the path threaded by the language in [20] is.

An area where all of these concepts intertwine, and that serves as an easy -to-digest example, is an instance in which a lawyer makes a solitary mistake that can also be argued to violate an ethics rule.  Pick your favorite poison, whether it is the missing of a statute of limitations or other deadline for a client or . . . actually those two tend to be the most readily explainable and the most likely to involve facts that also generate litigation over the error.  Assuming that the affected client can satisfy the relevant jurisdiction’s case-within-a-case elements of proof, then the error will likely be actionable as a claim for legal malpractice.  Such an error can also be viewed through the lens of the ethics rules as being in violation of RPC 1.1 – not providing competent representation to the affected client — or RPC 1.3 — not acting with reasonable diligence and promptness for the client — or both.  Yet, even if viewed through that lens, it wouldn’t be unusual for such a matter to be addressed and remedied only through civil litigation or a settlement and not through the pursuit of any disciplinary proceedings.

Related to these thoughts, or at least explanatory of why they would result in the creation of a post, is the fact that California has now taken the long-awaited action of rolling out proposed revisions to its ethics rules that would replace its existing lawyer ethics rules with a set of rules that look more like the ABA Model Rules.  If you want to go read the entirety of the proposed rules, you can go get them at this link.  The public comment deadline on the California proposal is September 27, 2016.

There are a lot of interesting aspects of what California has proposed to adopt (as well as some of the rules they expressly have rejected adopting), and with any luck I’ll manage to dedicate at least one more post on the topic at a later time, but for today the point is to note that California as to proposed versions of Rule 1.1 and 1.3 offer up deviations from the ABA Model Rule language that are quite pertinent to the thought exercise about what should be the price of one mistake.

In both of proposed Rules 1.1 and 1.3, California would have the language of its rules read to rule out the idea that one instance of simple negligence could be an ethical violation of those rules at all.  As proposed, California’s 1.1(a) would read:

A lawyer shall not intentionally, recklessly, with gross negligence, or repeatedly fail to perform legal services with competence.

Likewise, proposed Rule 1.3(a) would read:

A lawyer shall not intentionally, recklessly, with gross negligence, or repeatedly fail to act with reasonable diligence in representing a client.

If you’re writing on a clean slate, that sure seems like a good way to address these issues.

 

If it ever will come to pass, the states will have to serve as the laboratories.

Two weeks ago, I offered some thoughts on the latest flare-up in the long-running off-and-on ABA exploration of the third-rail of the practice of law: potential non-lawyer ownership/investment in law firms.  This time around, before I could even manage to finish reading all of the comments and try to write some thoughts about the comments, the effort has already died.  The ultimate end is not really surprising, though the alacrity this time around is a bit surprising.

The overwhelming majority of the comments submitted were negative and antagonistic.  Many of the comments in opposition to considering the idea were long on rhetoric and short on efforts at making persuasive arguments.  Many others expressed outrage — these were particularly from state bar associations and entities within the ABA — at the fact that the issue had even been floated again so soon on the heels of past unsuccessful efforts.  A few of the comments in opposition were extremely thoughtful in the way they tackled the questions.

The two comments that I had found myself most wanting to explore in a written piece, however, all share one important aspect in common, an expressed familiarity with what consequences there have or have not been in D.C.  One of them were written by a lawyer with asserted substantial experience working with and advising law firms and other business entities in Washington, D.C., the one U.S. jurisdiction that permits some nonlawyer ownership in law firms.  One of them — on the opposing side — was written by someone [it is labeled at the Comment site as having been submitted anonymously] claiming to be very familiar with a problematic underbelly of D.C.’s approach.

If nothing else is clear from this latest unsuccessful trial balloon from the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services, it should be that if any change is going to occur on this front, it will be because one or more states take it upon themselves to expand the list of jurisdictions from just D.C. to some larger but still small number.  And, then either there will be very deleterious consequences for the profession, or there won’t be.  But, unless that happens, then probably about 5 years from now another ABA entity will float the idea and . . . lather, rinse, and repeat.

Any state that might be inclined to consider amending their RPC 5.4 to permit the kind of things that D.C. permits — whether out of a spirit of innovation or perhaps even a highly selfish economic interest to see if perhaps they could drive investment and business expansion into their jurisdiction — ought to give a thorough reading to this comment that was filed by a lawyer with the Zuckerman Spaeder firm about the lack of issues as a result of RPC 5.4 efforts in D.C.  But also ought to give a thorough read to this anonymous comment raising issues about what is claimed to be the problems stemming from D.C.’s provision, including a cottage injury of unsavory, shell-company like practices claimed to be going on in D.C. as well.

In the meantime, other things will continue to happen that aren’t much different in some respects from outside ownership as workarounds.  Things like this story about developments in litigation funding.  Though it is a bit misleading to call this a “new” focus, it may be a new focus for Burford Capital but there have been other companies out there that have engaged in contingent funding of lawyers and law firms, rather than individual cases, for nearly a decade on the plaintiffs’ side of the aisle.

And, people who continue to explore this topic ought to give some thought to trying to answer the following question:  is the legal profession trying to claim there is something unique about us or about the rules that govern us?  If it is the latter, then the follow up question I’d offer that is worth thinking about is why couldn’t the application of those same strictures to folks without a law degree as long as they have an ownership stake in a law firm serve to protect the public just as well?

Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, and Seeing If I Can Put a Dent In Figuring Out What Is Next for Law.

When you allow yourself to ponder just how quickly technological advances have changed the daily life of a lawyer, it becomes pretty easy to speculate about just how foreign the daily life of a lawyer 10 years from now will be when compared to what it is today.  When I stop to think about the fact that some of the biggest law firms in not just the United States, but the world, are directly involved in various efforts that will help reshape the landscape, it makes me wonder whether that actually makes it more likely, or less likely, to happen quicker than it might otherwise.  I’m almost positive I don’t know the answer to that question at all, but I think it is worth asking and whatever the actual answer turns out to be should be interesting.

I’ve written about Dentons in the past but, at the time, focused only on their at-least-arguably-controversial-stance on conflicts of interest flowing (or not) from their organization as a Swiss verein.  Despite its massive size as the globe’s largest law firm (or perhaps because of it), Dentons seems to be pretty heavily invested in a number of innovative efforts that have the potential to impact what the practice of law looks like in a few years.

There was an event in Nashville last month — a symposium at Vanderbilt Law School called Watson Esq. – Will Your Next Lawyer Be A Machine? focused on the current and potential role of artificial intelligence in the practice of law.  I’ve also mentioned at least once before that I happen to be serving on a special committee of the Tennessee Bar Association focusing on the Evolving Legal Market.  Several members of the special committee were able to attend, I was not among them.  One of the topics that was discussed at length was Ross – Aaron Arruda with Ross Intelligence was a speaker, a particular artificial intelligence research product, that itself uses aspects of IBM’s Watson technology to try to be, for lack of a more sophisticated description, a robot attorney..  A subsidiary of Dentons, NextLaw Labs, has been reported as having been very involved in assisting with the training and development of Ross.

This week it was announced that an entirely different law firm, Baker Hostetler (an extremely large law firm compared to many but not when compared to Dentons — the Ross Intelligence press release includes the information that Baker Hostetler has 940 attorneys in 14 offices) announced that it had agreed to license the Ross AI product from Ross Intelligence for use in connection with segments of its bankruptcy practice.  As the ABA Journal online piece explains, Ross really does sound like a scrappy young associate – one that is not at all concerned about work-life balance by the way:

Ross responds to lawyers’ questions in natural language by reading through the law, gathering evidence and drawing inferences.  The program learns from the lawyers who use it to refine its search results.  It also monitors the law and notifies users of new, relevant court decisions.

The other interesting piece of news involving (much more directly) the world’s largest law firm was its announcement that another of Dentons’ subsidiaries is jumping into the realm of lawyer referral services/referral networks.  This story offers some explanation for what is intended.   At some level, the NextLaw Global Referral Network could really be nothing more than just a variation on the affiliated law firm network concepts like Meritas or State Capital or ALFA —  arrangements which have tried, with varying degrees of success, to leverage mutual interests of firms to encourage reciprocal referrals of work.  The new Dentons-backed network attempts to distinguish its arrangement from other arrangements as being both free to join and not limited to one firm in a particular market.

The hook beyond just the sheer size of Dentons (it touts itself as having more than 7400 lawyers in more than 125 offices in 50+ countries and that Dentons already has 1000 firms it has referred matters to and 500 firms that have referred matters to it), although not elaborated upon in incredible detail in the ABA Journal story, seems to be the notion that something about its network will use “new technology that promotes reciprocal repeat referrals.”

I have no idea how that would actually work — or what that technology would have to encompass — the Dentons’ press release describes it as being a combination of transparency and an “algorithm,” but realistically it sounds like it would be the transparency and accompanying pressure — what the FAQs acknowledge as a “tracking system” — against “free riding,” that would do the trick.

Given the existence of rules like Tennessee’s RPC 7.2(c)  prohibiting the giving of anything of value to someone in exchange for recommending or publicizing a lawyer’s services, actual outright agreements to engage in reciprocal referrals are viewed as prohibited conduct because the quid acts as something of value for the quo and vice versa.

Time will tell whether Dentons will, as the headline of its press release touts, actually “disrupt any pay to play legal referral industry.”  The NextLaw network will have its own separate CEO and a dive into the Terms of Use of the network indicates that NextLaw Global Referral Network is itself organized as an LLC.  (Presumably NextLaw Global Referral Network LLC is, like NextLaw Labs, a subsidiary of Dentons.)

From the press release, it also appears clear that while Dentons and firms like Baker Hostetler may find themselves licensing the same AI software from Ross Intelligence some day, Dentons is much less interested in firms of that size and scope being a part of this global referral network.  The firms its looking for are:

primarily … small to mid-sized law firms, and firms of any size that are in one location, country or region, or that specialize in one practice area or industry sector.

A question I’d love to figure out the answer to is whether NextLaw Labs assistance in training and developing Ross also played a role in the development of whatever algorithm NextLaw Global Referral Network plans to use to encourage and increase repeated reciprocal referrals?

And, finally, although it is a round-about way to get there, the other topic a conversation like this brings me back around to is — when you are talking about giant law firms that already have subsidiaries that are pushing the notions of law-related services arrangements under RPC 5.7 to its very boundaries, how much actual difference would allowing outside investment in law firms really have on where the legal marketplace is headed?