“No. No you’re not.”

So, you may recall back in October 2017 I had an itch and intended to write about a lawsuit in Pennsylvania that would fit in with the recent (seemingly) increased willingness of lawyers to sue other lawyers over their ads, but since I was beaten to the punch, instead I gave you a pointer to a very good piece somewhere else about it.

If that doesn’t ring bells, you can go see that again here.

I bring that lawsuit against a firm with a significant presence here in Memphis, Morgan & Morgan, again because there has been a new development.  And, particularly, a new development that talks about something that has always bounced around my brain when I hear a particular advertisement in that firm’s stable.

First, the recent development in that lawsuit, where a local Pennsylvania law firm sued Morgan & Morgan saying that its advertising was false and deceptive because, among other things, Morgan & Morgan only has one lawyer located in Philadelphia who is claimed by the plaintiff in the suit to have little experience handling personal injury litigation.  The federal district court has declined to dismiss one aspect of the lawsuit – the allegation that the founder of Morgan & Morgan, John Morgan, is lying when he says in an advertisement that he is “your lawyer.”

Now, why this strikes me in a way I find so interesting.  Nearly every time I have heard the line in a particular radio advertisement it has struck me as such an unwise, and unnecessary, thing to say from a legal ethics standpoint.

The line is this:  “Remember this, I’m not just a lawyer.  I’m your lawyer.”

It’s a nearly Pavlovian reaction for me at this point – I hear that, and I say (out loud if I’m alone or just in my head if there are people around):

“No.  No, you’re not.”

And, then, my mind wanders a bit down the path of mulling why that statement in that advertisement feels like such an unnecessary, “own goal” kind of thing to do to yourself.

Your firm has a giant plaintiff’s practice.  Your firm is going to have lots of people make appointments and undergo consultations, and your firm is going to turn a lot of those people away.  Sometimes it might be for conflicts reasons, sometimes it might be because you don’t think they have a case worth your time.  But, either way, you’ve unnecessarily opened yourself up to, at the very least, a disciplinary complaint from someone who claims you broke your promise and violated RPC 7.1 since you actually said you were their lawyer.

Admittedly, that isn’t the exact line of thought used by the federal judge in the Pennsylvania litigation — rather, it is the notion that . . . well, let me simply quote the Court instead of interpreting:

Rosenbaum alleges John Morgan, an attorney with Morgan & Morgan, appears in advertisements stating “I’m your lawyer” and describing “himself to the consumer as a trial lawyer with over thirty years of experience” which “convey[s]” the message John Morgan and Morgan & Morgan will handle the prospective clients’ claim.  Rosenbaum alleges, in reality, John Morgan is not licensed to practice law or to legally represent clients in Pennsylvania but the advertisements do not advise prospective clients of this fact….

Accepting as true Rosenbaum’s allegations, John Morgan’s statement “I’m your lawyer” may be literally false or have the tendency to mislead viewers into believing John Morgan, himself, will represent them….

If you’d like to read the full opinion which dismisses much of the Lanham claims, you can read it here.

That part is interesting and could, of course, be argued over and thoroughly parsed since the principals of imputation of conflicts and other matters would make the statement arguably truthful in the event that someone hires the firm, at least.

But, my qualm is the importance of that italicized language right up there.  My qualm remains true even for jurisdictions in which the lawyer making the claim is licensed.   I remember doing quite a few seminars many years ago that were focused on trying to help lawyer not accidentally end up with client they didn’t want because they were not clear enough in communicating to someone that they were not their lawyer.  (There is even a now-quite-long-ago law review piece on the topic that is very good called “Accidental Clients” written by Susan Martyn.)

Admittedly, I’m not an expert in legal marketing but it still strikes me as such an unnecessarily dangerous and damaging statement that is far-too-readily capable of being characterized as false and misleading to a consumer of legal services and far-too-difficult to characterize as the kind of “puffing” that should be treated as meaningless.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

 

Where are we when even ABA Ethics Opinions are marketed with a “clickbait” approach?

So, as promised (and even though there have been even further developments down in Florida), today I am writing about the latest ABA Ethics Opinion and whether it might provide any solace and protection for a lawyer who is being dragged by a former client online and wanting to defend herself by responding online to try to set the “record” straight.

The ABA Ethics Opinion in question is Formal Op. 479, and the answer is “no, no it doesn’t.”

Before I elaborate on that, I really do want to vent a bit (hopefully without sounding too much like Andy Rooney because I’m only 44) about the way people rolled out the release of this ethics opinion.

The ABA Journal online gave it a headline reading: “Can news on social media be ‘generally known’?  ABA Opinion considers confidentiality exception”

This then was, of course, picked up in other places, Law360 went with “Social Media Can Create Confidentiality Exception, ABA Says.”

Then I saw some lawyers on social media (lawyers who certainly should know better since they were actually involved in the opinion itself) teasing the opinion in a similar fashion.

If you actually read the opinion, you wonder what in the world anyone was even talking about.  The term “social media” does appear in the opinion.  Once.  On p. 5, in this sentence, “Information may become widely recognized and thus generally known as a result of publicity through traditional media sources, such as newspapers, magazines, radio, or television; through publication on internet web sites; or through social media.”

That is not a groundbreaking statement of any sort.  It’s common sense.  It also is nowhere near the actual, helpful or relevant, takeaway of the opinion.

The takeaway of the opinion is clearly the following (forceful) reminder about how stark the obligation of lawyers to protect confidential information about even a former client is:

Unless information has become widely recognized by the public (for example by having achieved public notoriety), or within the former client’s industry, profession, or trade, the fact that the information may have been discussed in open court, or may be available in court records, in public libraries, or in other public repositories does not, standing alone, mean that the information is generally known for Model Rule 1.9(c)(1) purposes.  Information that is publicly available is not necessarily generally known.  Certainly, if information is publicly available but requires specialized knowledge or expertise to locate, it is not generally known within the meaning of Model Rule 1.9(c)(1).

Don’t get me wrong.  It is actually a really good ethics opinion, and it gives timely advice that lawyers need to take to heart to make sure they stay in compliance with their obligations.  It’s just a shame it was rolled out with a “click-bait and switch” message.  We’d all have been better off if it had been rolled out with the headline:  “ABA Opinion reminds lawyers that just because information about a former client has been publicized doesn’t mean it is ‘generally known.'”

And, to actually deliver on my promised topic, here’s why nothing about this opinion is going to help any lawyer who finds herself in a situation where a former client has posted something, somewhere disparaging the lawyer in a way that the lawyer thinks is unfair and she wants to respond to clear up the record by disclosing other information about the representation that puts it in context: the details that the lawyer wants to reveal to provide context won’t have been disclosed by the former client and, thus, even if the lawyer could try to claim that what the former client has said is now “generally known,” the bits he hasn’t said most certainly are not.

Thus, unless and until some exception is created in the ethics rules to allow responses to online criticism under Rule 1.6 (which I’m not necessarily advocating for), lawyers who opt to get into it with former clients (or even clients) online will need to be very careful about what they say.  Otherwise, they will find themselves in trouble – as did this South Carolina lawyer who was brought to my attention by the always wonderful Roy Simon  (Admittedly, the SC lawyer had more problems than loose lips online, but that was one of the problems all the same.)

(And, so as not to be accused of my own “bait and switch” situation, I will take a stab at juxtaposing this opinion with Opinion 478 which also came out recently.  If the treatment of the two opinions was consistent, 478 would have been rolled out by the ABA Journal with the headline:  “ABA Ethics Opinion tells judges not to go online.”

“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.

 

Advocating for attorney advertising.

So, back in August, I mentioned that I was going to have the opportunity to debate issues of lawyer advertising before an audience of top-notch Canadian lawyers in November.  This post is something of a coda to that post as I want to, very briefly, say a word or two about that talk.

It was, as I anticipated, a highly rewarding experience and all of the attorneys affiliated with The Advocates’ Society with whom I had the opportunity to meet and speak were delightful.

During the presentation, my job was to be the one to give voice to things that those assembled might not want to hear.  So, to start things off, I broke the news to them all that we don’t pronounce Hermitage, as in The Hermitage Hotel, in the fancy manner they were wont to do.  After having dealt that disappointing blow, I gave my pitch about what regulation of lawyer advertising should be, and what it shouldn’t be.

I tried to do so with a focus on things beyond just the protections afforded under our First Amendment for commercial speech because they don’t have anything quite the same under their nation’s law.

Those points – which I will happily repeat as many times as anyone ever gives me the chance to do so — are:

  • Ethical restrictions on lawyer advertising ought to pretty much start and end with prohibiting statements that are false or actually misleading.
  • It is pretty much a universal truth that the only people who complain about lawyer advertisements are other lawyers.
  • Those tasked with regulating attorney conduct don’t particularly like spending time adjudicating squabbles between lawyers about ads.
  • Consumers don’t get worked up about lawyer advertising at least in part because they get it.  If you are paying to advertise something, you are going to emphasize its good points.
  • But consumers also don’t get worked up about it because they don’t view it the way lawyers do.  There are still people out there who simply did not know they could hire a lawyer without having to pay money or who don’t know their problem might be something a lawyer could even help them with at all.
  • Some times the way those people learn this information is because they see some kind of lawyer advertisement in one place or another and, when they do, they don’t particularly think about whether or not it is something that you would think is “dignified.”
  • If you are motivated to want to impose stricter regulations on lawyer advertisements because of a concern that there is not enough public respect for our profession and advertisements that you think should be “beneath” lawyers fosters such disrespect, then I have a suggestion of how you could better direct your energies.
  • Imagine how much more could be done to foster better respect for our profession and what we do if we all focused our energies on encouraging communication of what it is that lawyers do, the role we play in society, and what we bring to the table that can help people in times of need for legal services, including helping educate them that their problem is one that could be helped by the work of a lawyer?

(In)Famous Attorney Violates the First Rule of Holes

Rules of Holes.  Rule the First.  When you are in one, stop digging.

Now two things worth saying by way of preface, I guess, before further explanation.

First, I’ve dealt with my share of problematic lawyers over the years (so too probably have you), including the type that doesn’t know when to say when, so the subject of this post could theoretically be about lots of lawyers but it happens to be about a lawyer I have certainly never met before.  He is (in)famous though and if you’d like to know more about his background than just what you can glean from the scathing opinion of the Ninth Circuit we’re about to discuss, you could try his Wikipedia page.

Second, I’ve never been denied pro hac vice admission before so I can’t definitively say it would be easy for me to live with such an outcome.  It’s the kind of thing you have to disclose on all sorts of forms for the rest of your legal career, but I’d like to think that I’d navigate the situation better than the story about to be told.

With that out of the way, attorney Larry Klayman, having already been denied pro hac vice admission in federal district court in Nevada and having already unsuccessfully appealed that ruling to the Ninth Circuit (840 F.3d 1034 (9th Cir. 2016)) and having unsuccessfully asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in, is back in the limelight with a new ruling from the Ninth Circuit on March 30, 2017, denying his “emergency” petition for a writ of mandamus to be permitted to represent Cliven Bundy, a pretty infamous character himself.

Literally, one week after the Supreme Court opted not to hear him, Mr. Klayman filed an emergency writ – ostensibly contending that he was speaking for Bundy — saying there were “fundamentally changed circumstances that underscore [his] compelling need to have a full legal defense team, including Klayman, ready and able to represent him at trial.”  The first part of how irregular this would be is immediately explained by the Ninth Circuit as follows:

First, Klayman purports to be representing Bundy in his request for a writ of mandamus,  Bundy has counsel of record, Nevada attorney, Bret O. Whipple.  Whipple, however, did not sign the motion, file an affidavit, or otherwise join in any way Bundy’s latest motion.  Indeed, Bundy, in his reply filed on March 23, explains that his current attorney refused to file a new pro hac vice application on behalf of Klayman because Whipple did not want to “tarnish his reputation.”

That’s kind of a record-scratch moment for most attorneys.  If your local counsel believes that participating in your efforts would tarnish their reputation . . . well, some soul-searching would seem to be in order.

The Ninth Circuit pointed out an additional procedural problem with claiming that there were new emergency circumstances but not first going back to the district court thus recognizing that the writ of mandamus is effectively requesting relief because the district court did not sua sponte decide to change its mind on Klayman’s admission, but then quickly proceeds to the “merits” of the motion in a blistering example of laconic understatement:

So construing Bundy’s motion, and because the district court and government filed answers to the petition, we will proceed to the merits.

There are no merits.

I mean, ouch.  Right?  The Ninth Circuit did go forward though to explain in more detail that none of the three claims of supposed “changed circumstances,” were anything of the sort.

Along the way, the Ninth Circuit said a few further things that, I think, actually do justify focusing on this ruling as being something other than piling on the lawyer at the heart of it.

Among the reasons Klayman offered as being the emergency requiring mandamus was that Bundy’s existing Nevada counsel of record somehow did not have any federal trial experience.  The short version of the Ninth Circuit’s rejoinder to that allegation was:

The assertions made by Bundy about his counsel are demonstrably false.  Either Klayman has failed to ascertain the facts by, for example, talking with Whipple or looking at Whipple’s website, or he has deliberately misled this court.  Neither option paints Klayman in a good light.  At best, Klayman has shown such a casual acquaintance with the facts that he is guilty of at least gross negligence in his representation to this court.

The Ninth Circuit went on to explain succinctly, but positively, the extensive federal criminal experience of Mr. Whipple.  In so doing, it dropped in a footnote one of the points that makes this whole endeavor worth writing about.  A point that lawyers need to bear in mind when they think about the role of technological competence in their practice:

This court had little difficulty confirming most of these facts from Whipple’s website, his LinkedIn account, and PACER. . . .That Klayman, evidently, failed to use the most primitive modern tools to verify his serious accusations that counsel of record was not qualified is inexcusable.

When websites and LinkedIn accounts are referred to by a federal Court of Appeals as among “the most primitive modern tools,” lawyers need to take note about what that can mean for their practice in a variety of respects.

The second point that is worth noting over and above how it relates to Mr. Klayman himself is the interplay between the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the ability to impose rules on pro hac vice admission.  One member of the Ninth Circuit did dissent from this ruling, on the same grounds for dissent from the prior appeal of the pro hac vice denial – Bundy’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel.  This point is addressed by the Ninth Circuit in a footnote as well and that seems hard to argue with:

We do not evaluate constitutional rights in a vacuum.  Bundy may add whatever counsel he wishes so long as they satisfy Nevada’s minimal pro hac vice rules.  Klayman has not satisfied those rules, so Bundy will have to look to other Nevada-qualified counsel to aid his defense.

 

 

Friday Flashback – Folks still forgetting The Streisand Effect

In my early days (If a blog that has only been around for just a smidge over 2 years can be characterized as having early days.), I wrote a post with a reference to “The Streisand Effect” and the need for lawyers and law firms who are thinking about trying to take actions to shut down unfair criticism online to give real thought to whether they are just amplifying the negative publicity.  If you are interested in reading that post, you can get there from this link.

My guess is that reminding people about the concept of The Streisand Effect will never get old.  This time though, to save people a step, I’ll simply share the quote from the Wikipedia entry itself rather than making you click a link to see what we mean when we refer to The Streisand Effect:

The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet. It is an example of psychological reactance, wherein once people are aware something is being kept from them, their motivation to access and spread the information is increased.

It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose 2003 attempt to suppress photographs of her residence in Malibu, California, inadvertently drew further public attention to it. Similar attempts have been made, for example, in cease-and-desist letters to suppress numbers, files, and websites. Instead of being suppressed, the information receives extensive publicity and media extensions such as videos and spoof songs, often being widely mirrored across the Internet or distributed on file-sharing networks.

In this story at The American Lawyer (which it seems almost entirely unnecessary to state has a significantly larger readership than this here little blog), a reader will probably learn a few things.

First, the existence of a four lawyer construction firm in Houston, Texas named The Cromeens Law Firm.

Second, the existence of a negative review of the firm on Yelp as well as some others on Google.  Which armed with that first piece of new information and the second piece of new information becomes really easy to find and read.

Third, that the four-lawyer firm is worried enough about these reviews that it is willing to spend some part of its time not focused on matters for its clients but rather in pursuing a lawsuit against unknown defendants to try to make the reviews go away.

Your mileage may vary, but my view on such matters continue to be that: (a) more people will read the reviews now than they ever would have before; (b) the lawsuit is very unlikely to succeed in making the reviews disappear; and (c) contractors and subcontractors who might be making decisions in and around Houston about whether to retain these construction lawyers probably weren’t likely to be all that influenced but unless the goal of this suit is to make stories about it end up being pretty high on the list of things that turn up in an online search about your law firm, this probably doesn’t end up being a net positive.

Now, in fairness, if the negative reviews you are trying to get to go away are at the very top of what people see if they search for you online, then a suit like this might accomplish the rare “reverse Streisand” by replacing those with higher results referencing the lawsuit at least, but when I checked today several of the first hits for this law firm’s name were good ones, so . . .

 

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. 

Whistling about where you work.

We appear to be living now in an era in which whistle blowers are going to be in the news (and perhaps be the news) more than ever.

Many who know me, know that I hold a pretty controversial opinion — Arrested Development is potentially the greatest television show in history.  For many years when I needed a fictional lawyer for my hypos at seminars, Barry Zuckerkorn, Bob Loblaw, and Wayne Jarvis were my go-to choices.  I could drop this blog and write a blog just about the genius of that show but (perhaps) even fewer people would read that, much like it never got its fair share of viewers.  One example of the simple brilliance of its writing though was its treatment of the issue of whistle blowers from the 20th episode of the first season, “Whistler’s Mother”:

Mr. Jordan: Listen, you’ve got the money now and you know my price. You don’t need a whistle blower around here.

Michael: Interesting choice of words, Mr. Jordan. He’s right, we don’t need a whistle blower. We need a building full of whistle blowers. Okay? Whistles. I want this place to be honest. That’s exactly why I had these made up for us. When you see something wrong…

[Whistle blows]

Michael: There you go. I want you to report it. I want you to…

[Whistle blows]

Michael: Exactly. Just like that. I want us to police ourselves vigilantly… Let’s wait till something’s actually happens, though.

[Whistles blowing]

Michael: All right… Good fun… Enough!

[twenty minutes later…]

Michael: 45, 46, 47…

Michael: Okay, there’s still three whistles left out there. Who’s got the whistles?

[Whistle blows]

Board Member #1: He kept one.

Michael: There’s a good example of whistle blowing, okay, but you’ve kept yours, so it’s hurting your case.

Board Member #1: I was in the bathroom when you asked for it back.

[Whistle blows]

Board Member #2: No, he wasn’t.

When lawyers (or those that work closely with lawyers) claim to be whistle blowers, the stakes tend to be even higher and the ethical issues for those lawyers and even for the lawyers that represent those lawyers are almost always complicated.  Even when answers seem straightforward, the tensions that exist between the public interest in preventing wrongdoing and the private interest in protecting confidentiality can lead to second-guessing as to where the right lines should be drawn.  When the traditional right of a client to fire their attorney for any reason or even no reason at all is wound into the mix, sometimes that readily clarifies how the tension is resolved  but not always.  It is a pretty good explanation for why there aren’t really many instances of outside counsel to companies or government entities serving as whistle blowers.  When the lawyer seeking to blow the whistle though is an in-house counsel, that absolute right to fire your attorney can be made to yield to public policy since the client is also the lawyer’s employer.

In the last couple of weeks, there have been three stories of interest making the rounds involving three high-profile cases – two of them in California and one in D.C. — where the classic tensions are playing out in differing ways.  The D.C. case is the longest running of the three and was actually pretty much believed to be over back in 2008 when the a former in-house counsel for GE’s Sarbanes-Oxley suit — which she supported using her former client’s confidential information — was dismissed as untimely filed.  The matter got renewed attention with a recent development of a disciplinary suspension recommendation against her.  One of the California matters is part of a roiling and unseemly dispute between the State Bar of California and the Chief Disciplinary Counsel that it fired within the last year.  The other California matter is currently in the middle of trial proceedings and involves the former General Counsel of Bio-Rad, Sanford Wadler, who filed suit back in 2015 alleging he was fired because he blew the whistle on his former employer’s violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The weird mess involving the California State Bar has been back in the news twice in succession.  First, there was a story that the former assistant to the former Executive Director, Joe Dunn, would not be permitted to use information she took with her on her laptop to pursue her claim that she too was fired in retaliation because of her knowledge of the same kinds of violations for which her boss has said he was terminated.  Then, even more recently, word came down that Dunn’s suit, which had previously been forced into arbitration, has been dismissed by the arbitrator.  The  former Bio-Rad General Counsel recently received a favorable ruling about his ability to use confidential client information to seek to prove his case despite what would otherwise be his ethical obligations of confidentiality.

At a primary level, the developments in the three cases underscore a few points.  One, none of them involve outside counsel.  Two, lawyers who claim to be terminated for whistleblowing are almost always going to be met with counter-allegations that that they just simply were bad at their job and were terminated for poor performance.  Three, the obligations lawyers owe to clients in terms of confidentiality not only complicate matters and raise the stakes but almost always create satellite disputes within the litigation about use of information that will make or break the case.

Rather than try to re-tread all of the details of the three matters (because you might care about all, none, or just some of them), I’m pretty sure through the links I have provided and a little Googling, you can immerse yourself as much as you want in available information about any of the three.

One piece of one of the matters though really piqued my interest and deserves a brief separate discussion — the detail of why the former GE attorney, Adriana Koeck, appears headed for a 30-day suspension and a lawyer representing her is also getting punished — going beyond the use of the confidential client information to support allegations in the complaint but providing some of that same information to the press.   One of the reasons the matter piqued my interest originally was that, here in TN, we have a version of RPC 3.6 on trial publicity that allows communications about the media regarding the contents of a complaint, for example.  D.C. has a much different version of that rule.

But, further digging is what further made me curious because D.C. really is a weird place, I guess.  Admittedly, at this point I have only read the Law360 article, but it seems bananas that a D.C. lawyer who assisted, Koeck, in providing documents referenced in her complaint to news reporters is being disciplined for doing so.  Koeck’s 30-day suspension seems to be explainable by the fact that she didn’t participate in the proceedings having already agreed to be suspended from practice by consent.  But punishing a lawyer for that lawyer seems Draconian.  Yet, and somehow I missed reading about this back in 2015, but even the prominent law professor who gave Koeck advice that the crime-fraud exception would apply to the documents also received disciplinary punishment for doing so — that seems even more Draconian.

In fairness, I’ll have to dig a bit further to educate myself on those proceedings to see if I can better explain all of that.

In the meantime, it does appear like Season 5 of Arrested Development is going to happen.  So yay for that.

 

Maybe the weirdest proof of the old adage about “a lawyer who represents himself…”

Over the last year or so, I have repeatedly said in a number of contexts that with the rapid changes occurring in the modern practice of law, the lawyers who will survive and thrive will be those who can demonstrate that the value that they bring is that of the “trusted advisor.”  The lawyers who consistently demonstrate the ability to exercise very sound judgment and wisdom, provide practical answers, and leave their clients feeling like the person should be part of their “brain trust.”  I don’t claim to be unique in that viewpoint by any means, but I do hope that is what I am able to accomplish during the next decade of my practice or I fear I will have to go do something else to scratch out a living, and I have said so at least one before at this blog.

All of this is prologue to justify a brief mention of a Mississippi lawyer who managed to just demonstrate that, if my speculative musings are correct, he will not be a practicing lawyer all that much longer.  I noticed this case on the ABA Journal online today, and now that I also went and read the complaint — I think it will be hard for folks to think he’s likely to fit the bill of the wise counselor possessing sound judgment.

The gentleman filed a lawsuit, representing himself, against a popular provider of Louisiana-style cajun chicken.  If you were a  client, in the market for a probate and tax attorney which this person apparently is at the moment, here are the four paragraphs of the lawsuit that would probably be all you would need to read to know that you might want to think twice:

11.  In the drive-through line, plaintiff Newton ordered, received and paid for two chicken breasts, and [sic] order of red beans and rice, a biscuit, and a soft drink.  Newton’s order was delivered to him in a bag which included the napkins, salt and pepper, and the utensil deemed necessary for consumption of his order.

12.  Plaintiff Newton drove directly to his business office [snip] and began to consume his meal.  The sole utensil accompanying the order was a plastic “spork,” which is a combination fork and spoon, which Newton used to consume the red beans and rice.

13.  Because Newton’s order did not include a plastic knife, plaintiff Newton’s only option for consumption of the chicken breasts was to hold a chicken breast in his hands and to tear off pieces thereof with his teeth.

14.  During his consumption of his meal, plaintiff Newton became [sic] choked on a portion of chicken which lodged in his throat and other neck areas, and was unable to swallow the bite, or to spit or cough the bite out.

(emphasis added).

Whether or not you happen to “love that chicken from Popeyes,” my guess is, if you are a lawyer, you’d love to have the defense of Popeyes on this one.  And, again, if you aren’t a lawyer and you read the complaint ever, my guess is that you are also going to want a probate or tax lawyer who might be able to have recognized at least one other option in that situation.

I know I said I wouldn’t write any more about it but…

Here I am, because it is hard not to write something about the news last week that Brendan Dassey’s conviction was overturned.  Dassey, for those of who you did not watch Netflix documentary Making a Murderer and are willing to take me at my word as to what you would have concluded if you did watch the show, is the only one of the two criminal defendants featured in the documentary who you could walk away from the show just absolutely certain that he did not do what he was convicted of doing.  Dassey will be released from prison in a little less than three months if there is no appeal by the State.

Articles since Friday that I’ve seen discussing the development in Dassey’s case manage to work into the headline that the court (quite rightly of course) called out the conduct of Dassey’s former lawyer, the now infamous Len Kachinsky, as inexcusable.  But, Kachinsky’s epic failings as a lawyer were not actually the justification for overturning the conviction — mostly it appears because Dassey’s current lawyers managed to miss the correct argument to make on that front.

Instead, it was the even more stomach-churning conduct of the police officers in obtaining the “confession” from Dassey that justified the federal court’s action.  You can read the entirety of the 91 page order here if you’d like – though it is infuriating to relive the interrogation even in textual form.

But because Kachinsky really cannot get publicly lambasted enough for his conduct – after all he so very clearly wanted this case to make him famous and he’s gotten his wish though more in the manner that you see in dirty jokes involving genies in lamps with quite mischievous minds — I’ m doing my part by pasting below the pertinent parts of the opinion relating to discussion of just how far off the rails Kachinsky was in his handling of the matter (skipping a part that is really more about the equally vile Michael O’Kelley and his role).  I’ve also edited out the internal citations to cut the length a bit.

C. Leonard Kachinsky, Pre-Trial Counsel for Brendan Dassey

1. Media Interviews

On March 7, 2006, attorney Leonard Kachinsky was appointed to represent Dassey. Kachinsky was excited to be involved in Dassey’s case because by then it had garnered significant local and national attention.  Essentially immediately after his appointment Kachinsky began giving media interviews in which he discussed the case.

Kachinsky first met with Dassey on March 10, 2006. Dassey told Kachinsky that what was in the criminal complaint was not true and that he wanted to take a polygraph test to prove his innocence. After this initial meeting, local media reported Kachinsky as having described Dassey as sad, remorseful, and overwhelmed.  The media reported that Kachinsky blamed Avery for “leading [Dassey] down the criminal path” and said that he had not ruled out a plea deal.  Kachinsky later said that one of his reasons for speaking to the media was to communicate to both Dassey and to his family so that he could get them “accustomed to the idea that Brendan might take a legal option that they don’t like ….”

Over the next few days nearly all of Kachinsky’s work on Dassey’s case involved communicating with local and national media outlets.  On March 17 Kachinsky appeared on Nancy Grace’s national television show.  During that appearance Kachinsky said that, if the recording of Dassey’s statement was accurate and admissible, “there is, quite frankly, no defense.”  Kachinsky later said that he was merely “stating the obvious.”  However, Kachinsky had not yet watched the March 1 recorded interview. All he had seen was the criminal complaint.

In subsequent media interviews Kachinsky referred to the techniques the investigators used in questioning Dassey as “pretty standard” and “quite legitimate.”  One local news broadcast included Kachinsky’s response to statements Avery had made to the media. Avery had said that he knew that Dassey’s confession must have been coerced because there was no physical evidence to support what Dassey had said.  Kachinsky responded that he had reviewed the recorded statement and it did not appear that the investigators were putting words in Dassey’s mouth.  Kachinsky also publicly refuted Avery’s statement that Dassey was not very smart and that it would be easy for law enforcement to coerce him.

In another interview Kachinsky said that, although he believed Dassey had some intellectual deficits, he also believed Dassey had a reasonably good ability to recall the events he participated in. Over the roughly three weeks  following his appointment Kachinsky spent about one hour with Dassey and at least 10 hours communicating with the press.

Kachinsky met with Dassey again on April 3, at which time Dassey again professed his innocence and asked to take a polygraph examination.  Kachinsky hired Michael O’Kelly, with whom he was not familiar, to conduct a polygraph exam.  O’Kelly held himself out as a private investigator and polygraph examiner. Kachinsky informed Dassey of the upcoming polygraph examination in a letter, stating, “the videotape is pretty convincing that you were being truthful on March 1,” and encouraging Dassey not to cover up for Avery.  Shortly before the polygraph examination, the prosecutor sent an email to Kachinsky expressing concern about the pretrial publicity that Kachinsky was engaging in and referring him to the relevant rule of attorney ethics governing such publicity.

2. Defense Investigator Michael O’Kelly

O’Kelly conducted a polygraph examination of Dassey, the results of which were inconclusive. Nonetheless, O’Kelly described Dassey to Kachinsky as “a kid without a conscience” or something similar.  Notwithstanding O’Kelly’s opinion of Dassey, Kachinsky hired him as the defense investigator in the case.

Despite Dassey’s claims of innocence, both O’Kelly and Kachinsky proceeded on the assumption that Dassey would cooperate with the prosecution and become the key witness against Avery. O’Kelly’s primary goal was to uncover information that would bolster the prosecution’s case.  To this end he purportedly developed information as to the possible location of certain evidence.  Kachinsky provided this information to the prosecutor and a lead investigator and informed them that they may wish to speak to O’Kelly.  Although the information led to a search warrant being issued, the search warrant did not yield any additional evidence against Dassey.

Kachinsky decided that he wanted O’Kelly to re-interview Dassey to get him once again to admit to his involvement in the rape, murder, and mutilation of Halbach. Kachinsky wanted to make it clear to Dassey that, based upon the evidence, a jury was going to find him guilty.  Toward that end, he chose May 12 as the date for O’Kelly to interview Dassey—the date a decision on Dassey’s motion to suppress his March 1 confession was scheduled to be rendered.  Kachinsky expected to lose the motion to suppress and believed that the effect of losing such a crucial motion would leave Dassey vulnerable.

Shortly before meeting with Dassey, in an email to Kachinsky O’Kelly expressed contempt for the Avery family. He referred to the Avery family as “criminals” and asserted that family members engaged in incestuous sexual conduct and had a history of stalking women.  He continued, “This is truly where the devil resides in comfort. I can find no good in any member. These people are pure evil.” O’Kelly quoted a friend as having said, “This is a one branch family tree. Cut this tree down. We need to end the gene pool here.”  O’Kelly thought that Dassey’s denial of his confession was an “unrealistic” “fantasy” that was influenced by his family.  On O’Kelly’s recommendation, Kachinsky canceled a planned visit with Dassey because Dassey “needs to be alone.”  O’Kelly said, “He needs to trust me and the direction that I steer him into.”

[snip]

After the interview was concluded, Kachinsky understood from O’Kelly that Dassey was now “on board with cooperating in the Avery prosecution and, ultimately, entering a plea agreement.” However, Kachinsky had not watched O’Kelly’s interview of Dassey.  Nevertheless, he approved of O’Kelly communicating the substance of his taped interview of Dassey to the prosecution’s investigating agents.

3. May 13, 2006 Interrogation

Following the O’Kelly interview, Kachinsky arranged for the state’s investigators to interrogate Dassey again.  Kachinsky did not attend the interrogation. The state had not made any offer of immunity or prosecutorial consideration.  Kachinsky did not prepare Dassey for the interrogation, trusting O’Kelly to do so.  The plan was to have O’Kelly watch Dassey’s interrogation from a separate monitoring room. Kachinsky instructed O’Kelly not to interrupt unless Dassey asked to speak with Kachinsky or otherwise asked to stop.

[snip]

Although it probably does not need to be stated, it will be: Kachinsky’s conduct was inexcusable both tactically and ethically. It is one thing for an attorney to point out to a client how deep of a hole the client is in. But to assist the prosecution in digging that hole deeper is an affront to the principles of justice that underlie a defense attorney’s vital role in the adversarial system. That said, Dassey’s attempt to characterize Kachinsky’s misconduct as a conflict of interest under Sullivan is misplaced.

And, of course, Kachinsky has now weighed in with the media about his thoughts on the reversal.  Unbelievably, he’s going with trying to take a little credit for it and claim it vindicates his efforts:

 “In the sense that [the confession] was an instance that I preserved for appeal, before I was off the case, I was in sense gratified because the fact that that was the basis for magistrate judge Duffin’s decision, it shows that I did my job,” Kachinsky said. “Without a confession, the state didn’t really have anything of a case. It was an issue that was clearly available to appeal.”

And, in excellent news for residents of Appleton, Wisconsin – he’s still licensed and in good standing.