Pursuing a popular cause? Crowdsourcing payment of your fees may be an option for your client.

Some time ago, I wrote a bit about how existing ethics rules make attempting to use Kickstarter to launch a law firm not a viable option.  The primary problem with using crowdsourcing to raise funds to start a law practice is the prohibition in the ethics rules on nonlawyer ownership or investment in law firms.

Having someone other than a client pay the fees and expenses of an attorney, however, is a concept that the ethics rules have long acknowledged, permitted, and embraced as long as certain safeguards are in place — primarily measures to make certain the attorney does not permit the person paying the fees to call the shots or impact the lawyer’s independent professional judgment.

Thus, it should come as no surprise to hear that the use of crowdsourcing platforms to raise money to pay for attorney fees is permitted by the ethics rules as long as the same kinds of safeguards are in place.  Yet, given that new technologies can sometimes lead bodies that draft ethics opinions to lose sight of the “old wine in a new bottle” aspect of some questions, it is always refreshing to read a well-written ethics opinion that gets the answer to such a question correct.

And that is exactly what the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Professional Guidance Committee offers in Opinion 2015-6.  And to make matters even better, Opinion 2015-6 does so in the context of educating the lawyer who made the initial inquiry that s/he can accomplish the goal but not in a fashion different from what s/he initially contemplated.

Opinion 2015-6 starts out answering an inquiry from a lawyer who is contemplating representing a client who cannot afford to pay a fee in pursuit of litigation against a government entity on a cause of action that would not include damages but where the possibility exists for a statutory attorney fee award.  The lawyer’s proposal in requesting the opinion was:

to solicit compensation for his or her work on a crowdfunding platform, an internet site that enables users to post information about a project and solicit financial contributions from persons who believe the project to be a worthy cause.  The inquirer would publicize the anticipated litigation on such a website and solicit contributions to serve as his or her fee.

The lawyer’s inquiry also explained that any contract with the client would make clear that money obtained from crowdfunding would belong to the lawyer under any circumstances.  Before working through the ethical issues implicated by, and the one real flaw associated with, the specific proposal, Opinion 2015-6 offered highly practical, and ultimately helpful, advice about the existence of an alternative that should work much better under the guidance the rest of the opinion will provide:

It is possible to raise funds on a crowdfunding site to support litigation, either by paying lawyers’ fees or expenses or both, but to hold the funds raised in some sort of trust arrangement and pay them out only as earned or incurred.

After teeing up the existence of this alternative, to which it returns in its discussion about the ethical requirement for reasonableness of fees, the opinion works through the traditional concept under the ethics rules permitting someone other than the client to pay an attorney’s fees as long as the safeguards imposed by RPC 1.8(f) are met.  The opinion then addresses the reality that, in order to avoid violating RPC 1.6, the client will have to give consent to any disclosures about the case that would be made in connection with seeking to raise funds from public supporters on any such site.

The longest portion of the opinion, however, involves working through why having the money raised be the property of the lawyer creates ethical problems — and simultaneously why the contrasting alternative approach where the funds raised belong to the client (or even to a separate entity created on the client’s behalf) — is a much sounder ethical approach for lawyers.

We suspect that the inquirer anticipates that the amount raised will total far less than he would expect to be paid if the matter takes as long as he or she now anticipates, he or she spends the total number of hours now anticipated and if those hours were compensated at average rates of pay in the area.  However, it may not turn out that way…. The litigation could end quickly, either favorably or not; before the litigation’s end the inquirer may seek to withdraw or the client may wish to discharge him; or the inquire may or may not succeed in seeking the payment of fees and expenses under an applicable fee shifting statute…. Without knowing how much was raised, it would therefore be difficult to determine whether or not the fees would be clearly excessive….

Opinion 2015-6 then proceeds to explain the kind of agreement attorney should enter into with client to pursue such an endeavor so as to avoid the RPC 1.5 concerns:

First, the fee arrangement should include terms which describe the lawyer’s obligations including the lawyer’s obligation to remain in the case, assuming the client wishes him to do so, until its conclusion or until some other point at which retention of the total fees paid would not constitute an excessive fee.  For example, the fee arrangement with the client could state that the inquirer is obligated to remain in the representation until the time expended reaches a total figure such that the total fee paid is reasonable in light of that time expended.

Second, the arrangement should require that the amount raised be placed in a trust account established under Rule 1.15 until those amounts are earned in accordance with the terms of the final fee agreement.  Until such time that it is determined that the fee is actually earned, the monies raised constitute Rule 1.15 funds and should be held separate from the lawyer’s own property.

The best part of the Philadelphia committee’s willingness to proffer such guidance is that it makes this kind of crowdfunding endeavor practically much more viable in terms of fundraising.  One would anticipate that the average person would be more likely to throw some money toward an impecunious client than a lawyer representing that client.  But even if the client in question would not qualify as impecunious, having the person who is the face of whatever cause is being pursued as the person making the plea for funds that can be used to pay an attorney seems like a rich vein of opportunity.  Particularly so, given how divided the public is on so many polarizing issues and how fervently each side feels on a variety of issues, such that the number of “causes” that could be popular enough to generate ample fundraising is likely larger than you might otherwise think.

And, I’m certainly no tax lawyer, but depending on the nature of the cause to be pursued, I would guess the possibilities exist for the creation not only of entities separate from the client who would be the recipient of the funds raised and then paid on the client’s behalf to an attorney but also of even entities that might qualify as non-profits in terms of the “mission” of the litigation.

(One caveat worth referencing is that in any jurisdiction in which the mostly outdated concepts of champerty, maintenance, or barratry are still alive and kicking, an attorney would be wise to assist a client in working through whether any of those common law doctrines might offer some risk to an otherwise potentially successful crowdfunding endeavor.)

[Edited to add: Crowdsourcing also works for editing purposes.  Thank you kind reader for catching my significant error which is now corrected above.]

Traps for the Unwary – nonrefundable fees and retainers

For my last post of 2015, some thoughts on a frequent source of trouble for lawyers in certain practice areas where efforts are often made to charge nonrefundable fees.  In Tennessee, back in 2011, our rules were revised to specifically acknowledge the legitimacy of the concept of a nonrefundable fee but also to impose certain strict requirements on its use.

Specifically, Tennessee enacted RPC 1.5(f) that reads as follows:

A fee that is nonrefundable in whole or in part shall be agreed to in a writing, signed by the client, that explains the intent of the parties as to the nature and amount of the nonrefundable fee.

We also enacted language in the Comment to the Rule to provide further guidance about this type of fee arrangement:

[4a]  A nonrefundable fee is one that is paid in advance and earned by the lawyer when paid.  Nonrefundable fees, like any other fees, are subject to the reasonableness standard of paragraph (a) of this Rule.  In determining whether a particular nonrefundable fee is reasonable, or whether it is reasonable to charge a nonrefundable fee at all, a lawyer must consider the factors that are relevant to the circumstances.  Recognized examples of appropriate nonrefundable fees include a nonrefundable retainer paid to compensate the lawyer for being available to represent the client in one or more matters or where the client agrees to pay to the lawyer at the outset of the representation a reasonable fixed fee for the representation.  Such fees are earned fees so long as the lawyer remains available to provide the services called for by the retainer or for which the fixed fee was charged.  RPC 1.5(f) requires a writing signed by the client to make certain that lawyers take special care to assure that clients understand the implications of agreeing to pay a nonrefundable fee.

At the same time that Tennessee adopted this new rule, we also adopted revised language in the Comment to RPC 1.15 to help lawyers focus on the earned/unearned distinction, rather than other nomenclature, for making a proper determination about whether money paid to the lawyer by the client should go into the client trust account or somewhere else:

[10] Whether a fee that is prepaid by a client should be placed in the client trust account depends on when the fee is earned by the lawyer.  An advance payment of funds upon which the lawyer may draw for payment of the lawyer’s fee when it is earned or for reimbursement of the lawyer for expenses when they are incurred must be placed in the client trust account.  When the lawyer earns the fee, the funds shall be promptly withdrawn from the client trust account, and timely notice of the withdrawal of funds should be provided to the client.

The Comment goes on to explain, as do other aspects of the Comment accompanying RPC 1.5, that advance fees not earned must be refunded but a reasonable nonrefundable fee does not have to be returned to a client.

Therein lies the rub, of course, or at least one of the two peskier rubs.  The reasonableness requirement that applies over and above the technical/procedural requirements of RPC 1.5(f) can still create real issues.

Just as a 60% contingent fee agreement with a client is subject to challenge as unreasonable even if the client had signed a written agreement otherwise satisfying all the procedural requirements of RPC 1.5(c), a nonrefundable fee agreement remains subject to challenge even if RPC 1.5(f) could otherwise be shown to be satisfied if the amount is unreasonable.

The other pesky rub for lawyers comes when they properly document something with their client as one thing, but then deposit it into the wrong account.  For example, being scrupulous in papering up a fee as nonrefundable and thus earned by the lawyer at the time of payment, but not having faith in the arrangement and depositing the fee into trust “out of an abundance of caution.”  Down that road lies commingling no matter how good the lawyer’s intentions.

Earlier this week, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued a new opinion involving the suspension of a lawyer (who just so happens to be the lawyer whose constitutional challenge argument on behalf of another lawyer was characterized by the Tennessee Supreme Court as “rambling and bordering on incoherent”) for multiple offenses, including charging an unreasonable nonrefundable fee.

Reading the opinion, the lawyer seems to have only attempted to treat the fee as nonrefundable after she was discharged by her client.  The opinion indicates that she believes she deposited the $10,000 into trust and then withdrew amounts from trust as billed.  And her fee agreement, as described, does not seem to have involved an effort to satisfy the language of RPC 1.5(f).   (In fact, rather than make an effort to reference that rule, the agreement referenced instead a 1992 Formal Ethics Opinion that interpreted pre-2003 versions of the ethics rules.)

Nevertheless, even if the lawyer had a well-documented agreement making the $10,000 payment a nonrefundable fee, the facts as they played out were ones in which I suspect most lawyers in Tennessee would likely end up agreeing to refund a substantial amount of the difference between the $10,000 paid up front and the roughly $2,000 worth of work performed at hourly rates before the client discharged the lawyer.  Questions certainly exist in Tennessee about how RPC 1.5(f) will be interpreted with respect to the timing of how to determine reasonableness and whether you only evaluate it prospectively, or retrospectively, or a little of both, but I don’t think many lawyers would want these kinds of facts to be involved in any test case addressing those issues.

Fortunately, the Court did take this opportunity to stress the earned/unearned distinction now spelled out in the Comments to our rules with a reference to one of the best sources of discussion for the distinctions to be drawn among the three arrangements lawyers manage to call “retainers” these days, a law review article by my friend Doug Richmond.

Thus, to the extent that lawyers in Tennessee may continue to focus on what they call a fee when trying to figure out where it should be deposited, our Court considers a “classic” or “true” retainer — a payment to ensure lawyer availability — as earned when paid.  Likewise, “advance fee retainers” are considered to be synonymous with “fixed” or “flat” fees, and also earned when paid.  Thus, both of these types of “retainers” should not go into a client trust account.  The third type of “retainer,” the “security retainer” — the type of advance fee payment that you draw down from as you perform work (i.e. what the $10,000 paid to this now-suspended lawyer actually was — goes into the trust account because at the time it it paid it is not yet earned.

TN issues formal ethics opinion on client files that’s bad in a very sneaky way.

Many moons ago at this point, I wrote a post here with some criticism about ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 471  and the various questions important to client file issues on which it punted.  Back then I also wrote about how our effort in Tennessee to get an ethics rule adopted (it would have RPC 1.19 in Tennessee) that would identify specifics for client file materials issues was unsuccessful.

Earlier this week, the BPR in Tennessee (our disciplinary authority) published a formal ethics opinion that certainly goes further than the ABA opinion in terms of answering questions, but now makes me wish I had not criticized the ABA opinion as much for punting questions.  Our BPR, in an apparently earnest effort to be helpful (at least I hope that is what it was), has managed to create a minimum 5-year requirement for retaining all client files out of whole cloth.

Formal Ethics Opinion 2015-F-160 upon a quick read seemed like a decent client file opinion.  Only in writing about the opinion did I come to understand how seriously flawed it is in a very important respect.

You can go read the full 8-page version of the BPR opinion here.  2015-F-160 addresses three questions: (1) how long should client file materials be retained by lawyers after matters are completed; (2) who owns the materials in the client file; and (3) what are the responsibilities that a retiring lawyer has with respect to client files?

As to the second question, the BPR adopts the “entire file” approach rather than the “end product” approach and says the client owns the entire file.  As to the third question, the BPR does a good job of pointing out that just because you retire doesn’t end your responsibility as to files and distinguishes between what that burden means for a lawyer who was a solo practitioner versus one who practiced in a firm.

But it is the portion of the opinion that addresses how long client file materials must be retained that will prove to be highly controversial and deserves real scrutiny.

When I first read it, I thought all the opinion was trying to say was that the only guidance that could be found in the ethics rules was that RPC 1.15(b) required trust accounting records had to be kept for at least five years after a representation was over.  But, no, the opinion through some questionable use of ellipses actually stakes out a position that because client files are property of the client, RPC 1.15(b) mandates that all client files must be retained for at least five years from the end of the representation.  Imposing a five-year retention period for client files might be a good idea and might be something that even would be worth putting into our ethics rules somewhere, but to act like it is already in there strikes me as a very disingenuous approach.


Here is how the BPR has gone about the process of justifying a claim that the five year requirement applies to client files as a whole (all ellipses below are theirs not mine):

Tennessee Rule of Professional Conduct 1.15 is the foundation for the lawyer’s obligation to maintain client records, which states in pertinent part:

(a)  A lawyer shall hold property and funds of clients or third persons that are in a lawyer’s possession in connection with a representation separate from the lawyer’s own property and funds.

(b) …. property shall be identified as such and appropriately safeguarded.  Complete records of such … property shall be kept by the lawyer and shall be preserved for a period of five years after termination of the representation.

(d) … Except as stated in this Rule or otherwise permitted by law or by agreement with the client, a lawyer shall promptly deliver to the client … any property that the client … is entitled to received and, upon request by the client …, shall promptly render a full accounting regarding such … property.

I think you would be hard pressed to find lawyers in Tennessee, who prior to the issuance of this opinion, would ever have taken the position that the five year requirement in RPC 1.15(b) applied to anything other than bank records or safety deposit box records.  Hopefully, you the reader, will understand why when I give you the versions of (b) and (d) sans ellipses:

(b)  Funds belonging to clients or third persons shall be deposited in a separate account maintained in an FDIC member depository institution having a deposit-accepting office located in the state where the lawyer’s office is situated (or elsewhere with the consent of the client or third person) and which participates in the required overdraft notification program as required by Supreme Court Rule 9, Section 29.1.  A lawyer may deposit the lawyer’s own funds in such an account for the sole purpose of paying financial institution service charges or fees on that account, but only in an amount reasonably necessary for that purpose.  Other property shall be identified as such and appropriately safeguarded.  Complete records of such funds and other property shall be kept by the lawyer and shall be preserved for a period of five years after termination of the representation.

(d)  Upon receiving funds or other property in which a client or third person has an interest, a lawyer shall promptly notify the client or third person.  Except as stated in this Rule or otherwise permitted by law or by agreement with the client, a lawyer shall promptly deliver to the client or third person any funds or other property that the client or third person is entitled to receive and, upon request by the client or third person, shall promptly render a full accounting regarding such funds or other property.

Reads a lot different with the gaps filled in, doesn’t it.  It sure doesn’t read like a rule that contemplates the client file as being the type of property being referred to that has to be kept separate.  Under this approach, I guess, if you are on a plane and you put a book you own to read on the plane into the same accordion file folder holding the client file you are also going to read on the flight, then you’ve just engaged in unethical commingling.  Right?

And, in case the intention of (b) as not being about client files wasn’t otherwise clear, Comment [2] to our RPC 1.15 states as follows:  “Paragraph (b) of this Rule contains the fundamental requirement that a lawyer maintain funds of clients and third parties in a separate trust account.  All such accounts, including IOLTA accounts, must be part of the overdraft notification program established under Supreme Court Rule 9, Section 29.1.”

I can’t say I’m speechless because I just wrote 1000 words about this, but …


First, trust but verify. Second, trust until verified.

Lawyers need to be able to trust some people to do their jobs.  These people might be support staff, colleagues, or sometimes even opposing counsel.

When it comes to trust accounting though, situation after situation demonstrates that no matter how much a lawyer trusts an employee with access to or some control over trust account funds, the lawyer always has to take a “trust but verify” approach to the situation.

A recent disciplinary decision out of Louisiana provides yet another example of the risk to lawyers in not actively supervising employees with access to and control over trust funds.  In this instance, a long-trusted employee of the lawyer (and someone who had in fact previously worked for the lawyer’s own father) started stealing funds from the settlement of the lawyer’s cases and continued to do so for a period of about five years.  The total amount of the theft appears to have been unclear to all involved for quite some time.  Even the ex-employee ultimately was unsure exactly how much she had stolen.

The opinion makes clear that the lawyer did not do anything to verify the employee’s handling of funds and also makes clear that, if that had been all there was to the story, that negligent supervision alone would likely have been sufficient to result in discipline to the lawyer even though what the employee did was criminal.  (RPC 5.3(b) in Louisiana and elsewhere requires that lawyers having direct supervisory authority over nonlawyers “shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligation of the lawyer.”)  The opinion also reads pretty clearly though that, if that had been all that was in the mix, the lawyer likely would have only ended up walking away with a public reprimand.

The disciplinary consequences, however, ended up being a 30-day suspension because, in addition to not verifying the handling of funds done by the trusted employee in the first place, he didn’t do the correct thing with funds received after the crime.  The ex-employee was able to swing a loan from a relative and, after she had been reported to the police, repaid $39,312.35 to the lawyer.  Unfortunately, he didn’t put all of those funds in trust and wait until after he was able to completely verify how many clients or third parties funds were missing (and exactly how much) before treating any of the restitution money as his own.

Instead, as the opinion indicates, he had the ex-employee pay the restitution in the form of three separate, simultaneous checks – one for $19,612.35 that went into his trust account; another for $9,700 that went to his operating account, and then a third for $10,000 that went to his personal account.  In the disciplinary proceedings, he claimed that this approach was not provably wrong because he did not know that the amount being put into trust would not be sufficient.  The problem though was that, at that time, he had not yet had any audit performed on his accounts and only after depositing those three checks did he have a a CPA perform an audit of his trust account going back five years.  At the end of that audit though, the CPA determined that the $19,612.35 in trust was not the correct amount and that it should have been $22,330.96.  The lawyer immediately put his own personal funds in to make up the difference.

Unfortunately, the lawyer did not have his CPA also audit his operating account at that time.  The lawyer didn’t help his cause by testifying that he didn’t give access to the operating account, in part, out of a fear that it would be determined that the ex-employee paid back too much and was now actually owed money by the lawyer.

Subsequently, an audit performed by a different CPA retained by disciplinary counsel’s office, looking at both operating account records and trust account records, found that more trust funds were missing and that the balance in trust should have been something north of $34,000.  As a result, he was disciplined more harshly because he was viewed, in the best light, as having put his own personal financial interests ahead of the interests of clients and third parties who were harmed by his ex-employee’s criminal conduct and, in the worst light, of having twice violated RPC 1.15 with respect to the deposit of two of the three checks written by his ex-employee.

The practical lesson from all of this should be — in addition to the incredible importance of the “trust but verify” construct as to those with access to the trust account in the first place — if you are a lawyer victimized by an employee’s criminal conduct, and fortunate enough to be able to get that person to make restitution, you need to deposit the entirety of such funds into your trust account until you can completely verify just how much damage has been done and to whom.  RPC 1.15(a) in most jurisdictions, including in Louisiana, provides for the ability to hold both funds known to belong to clients and funds belonging to third parties together in the same trust account, it is just the lawyer’s own money that must be kept separate.  This Louisiana lawyer absolutely should have had the entire $39,312.35 deposited into his trust account and only moved any of it into his own personal account or his operating account once he was absolutely certain that the money was truly his.

Remember my conversation with the SuperShuttle driver?

A while back I wrote a piece about a relatively deep conversation I had about right and wrong and why lawyers do some really bad things with a SuperShuttle driver in Phoenix.  If you missed it, you can read it here.  But one of the things I didn’t say during that conversation was that there are some people out there who are:  just.the.worst.  Some of them end up lawyers.  And when they do, hoo boy.

I imagine if I asked the driver to paint the picture of someone who he would consider the worst possible lawyer of any of the truly rotten apples,then he’d probably say it would be someone who steals money, lies, is disrespectful, rude, vindictive, a bully, and maybe even something of a racist/misognynist/homophobe.  It is probably less likely that the driver would even think to also say that he blabs about privileged communications, but maybe he’d think to make that point as well.  Well, this Indiana lawyer who just got disbarred the first day of this month reads like he came straight out of central casting for the part.

I bet lots of people will be writing about this character, or already have written about him ( I promise I’m not lying when I say I haven’t gone looking for or read anybody’s take on this guy yet beyond the ABA Journal story here that got it on my radar screen).

I’m writing about him right now because I’m lazy.  My seminar season is about to kick into gear starting tomorrow with an hour of ethics I am looking forward to doing for the Memphis Bar Association Labor & Employment section here in Memphis.  Between actual work and seminar season, I’m going to have to be highly efficient with content for the blog this month.

Go read the order in all its gory detail if you can manage it, or I can give you a pretty good feel for it with this snippet of the Court’s order:

The seriousness, scope, and sheer brazenness of Respondent’s misconduct is outrageous.  He stole approximately $150,000 from his clients, threatened and intimidated his staff, disparaged and mocked virtually everyone around him, lied to all comers, and obstructed the Commission’s investigation.  Perhaps most disturbingly, Respondent repeatedly and fundamentally breached the duty of confidentiality that lies at the heart of the attorney-client relationship.  Respondent recorded privileged conversations and shared those recordings with others for his own amusement, he solicited his office staff to do the same, and he posted client confidences and falsehoods on a legal marketing website in order to “punish” certain clients and inflate Respondent’s own website ranking.

There are some nuances to the guy’s situation – like manipulating online reviews and whether opinions like that New York one from earlier this year tempt that kind of behavior – that could merit some thoughtful exploration, but it doesn’t deserve to be done in the context of someone who appears to just be a horrible human being.

2 out of 3 ain’t bad – NC releases a threesome of ethics opinions on the same day

In a lot of jurisdictions, mine included, formal ethics opinions from the governing disciplinary body are issued, if not rarely, then on a “few and far between” kind of time frame.  In North Carolina, on October 23, 2015, 3 were released in one day.

Two of them provide overall good advice.  One of those two is particularly timely for lawyers given growing concerns about hacking and phishing concerns.  The other offers a very well-reasoned, and appropriately terse, approach to an ethics issue rarely made the subject of ethics opinions.  The third… well let’s hold off saying anything about the third until the end.

NC Formal Ethics Opinion 2015-6 addresses an array of questions that all emanate (more or less) from the same general scenario:  what are the professional responsibilities of a lawyer who, through no fault of his own, has been the victim of crime or fraud that depletes money in the trust account to a level in which all obligations can no longer be satisfied?  2015-6 is a pretty faithful application of the principles underlying RPC 5.1 and RPC 5.3 and reaches the conclusion, over and over again, that a lawyer who gets ripped off despite having in place reasonable measures to give reasonable assurance of compliance with the ethics rules by the other lawyers and nonlawyers in the firm, is not to be held responsible as an ethical matter for making payment of the amount lost as a result of the wrong doing of the third party.  The North Carolina State Bar stresses, as it should, that it is not opining about the potential for civil liability as between attorney and client (or third party who has entrusted funds in the attorney’s trust account) for the lost funds but is limiting itself just to questions of ethical responsibility.

The opinion gives what would serve as a good answer to almost all questions in this general area with its first answer — addressing a scenario where a third party has made counterfeit checks designed to look like they are for the lawyer’s trust account and used those checks to commit theft from the account:

If Lawyer has managed the trust account in substantial compliance with the requirements of the Rules of Professional Conduct… but, nevertheless, is victimized by a third party theft, Lawyer is not required to replace the stolen funds.  If, however, Lawyer failed to follow the Rules of Professional Conduct on trust accounting and supervision of staff, and the failure is the proximate cause of theft from the trust account, Lawyer may be professionally obligated to replace the stolen funds. . . .

Under all circumstances, Lawyer must promptly investigate the matter and take steps to prevent further thefts of entrusted funds.

The opinion essentially applies this same rubric to provide good answers to successive questions, such as whether the lawyer is liable if a hacker gains access to the lawyer’s computer system and causes an authorized electronic funds transfer to take place, and how the lawyer’s duty of reasonable care can require a lawyer to be wary of an email “spoofing” situation designed to result in causing the lawyer to think they are wiring funds to their client but actually wiring funds to someone else.  The opinion even offers practical guidance that, while perhaps not supportable under a strict reading of the ethics rules, makes good sense from a loss prevention standpoint and when we let ourselves remember that the ethics rules are rules of reason and should be construed as such.  Specifically, the opinion indicates that while the lawyer is pursuing and investigating other remedies for clients affected by a theft, the lawyer is permitted, despite the prohibition on commingling in RPC 1.15, to deposit his own funds into the trust account to replace stolen funds.

The second opinion, Formal Ethics Opinion 2015-7, addresses a variation of a question I’ve often been asked by lawyers: do “prior professional relationships” you’ve had outside of the practice of law count to permit in-person solicitation that would otherwise be prohibited by RPC 7.3?  The North Carolina State Bar explains that yes they do.  Specifically, the questioner in 2015-7 can so characterize her relationship with a health care professional someone with whom she developed a business relationship while working as a health care consultant.  In so doing, the opinion succinctly focuses on the heart of the issue — the reason justifying such a prohibition on in-person solicitation at all.   The prohibition exists to “prevent undue influence, intimidation, and over-reaching by the lawyer.”  Thus, certain types of prior relationships are exempted because it is considered “unlikely that a lawyer will engage in abusive practices” when they have those kinds of prior relationships.  The opinion acknowledges that the term “prior professional relationship” is “not limited to prior client-lawyer relationships” and finds the questioner’s situation to qualify.  (Historically, I have made this same point but more expansively by noting that the language of the rules knows how to say “former client” when it means to impose that limitation, as well as how to use other words that would carve out a more narrow exception than what is intended by “prior professional relationship.”

The third opinion, Formal Ethics Opinion 2015-5, actually gives the correct answer, but justifies its response using what I believe is clearly the wrong rule.  In so doing, it fails to even reference the rule that does justify the outcome.  The question the opinion addresses is:

Lawyer A is appointed to represent a criminal defendant in an appellate matter.  Subsequently, Lawyer A withdraws from the representation of the client and Lawyer B is appointed successor appellate counsel.

Must Lawyer A obtain the former client’s consent prior to discussing the client’s case with Lawyer B or prior to turning over the former client’s file to Lawyer B?

The opinion concludes that the answer is no — unless the client had previously specifically instructed Lawyer A to not speak with Lawyer B — but rests its conclusion on the concept that RPC 1.6(a) permits a lawyer to make disclosure of confidential information when “the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation.”  The problem, however, is that the question makes clear that the first lawyer has already withdrawn from representing the client.  Thus, from the first lawyer’s perspective, there is no representation to carry out much less any disclosure that can be argued to be impliedly authorized for the purpose of carrying out the representation.

There is a justification in the ethics rules for the answer “no.”  RPC 1.16(d) addresses steps a lawyer must still perform after the termination of a representation.  The NC version of the rule tracks the ABA Model Rule in stating generally that:  “Upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall take steps to the extent reasonably practicable to protect a client’s interests….”  In Tennessee, we make the utlility of RPC 1.16(d)  as the answer to this question more obvious by providing a numbered list of six items that may be included, depending on the circumstances, in “protecting the client’s interests.”  The third item being “cooperating with successor counsel engaged by the client.”  Yet, even without that specific language, the NC rule’s general requirement of taking reasonably practicable steps to protect the client’s interest  is a much more justifiable way of validating the answer to the question presented in Formal Ethics Opinion 2015-5.

Coming to praise rather than to bury (Part 1 of 2)

For a change of pace, I write today about a very well constructed ethics opinion out of New York.  (To keep this positivity train chugging along for at least one more day, my plan for tomorrow is to discuss a federal court decision out of Florida impacting attorney ethics that is also praiseworthy and that should be fodder for challenging a similar prohibition on how lawyers can market themselves in my state.)

Last month, the New York City Bar released Formal Opinion 2015-6, addressing several unpleasant issues relating to duties to clients that a lawyer must wrestle with in already difficult circumstances, where an accident or disaster has destroyed a client’s file or where an accident or disaster has compromised the security of the client’s confidential information.  The opinion makes reference to a particular relatively recent event as an example of how this could happen – a February 2015 fire in a Brooklyn warehouse (presumably this one), that destroyed some attorney files among other private materials.  The committee also offers other examples where the loss of client files seems more like an afterthought compared to human tragedy involved, such as hurricanes and terrorist attacks.  In addition to offering guidance for (1) when a lawyer has to notify a current or former client about files being destroyed and (2) what a lawyer has to do after it has happened in terms of attempting reconstruction of a file, Formal Opinion 2015-6 also discusses the lawyer’s duty to notify about potential compromise of confidential information in such circumstances.

In a 2010 opinion, this same NYC Bar committee addressed when a lawyer could ethically destroy file materials after a case ended.  That opinion divided the world of a lawyer’s client file into 3 categories of documents: (1) documents having “intrinsic value” or that “directly affect property rights;” (2) documents the lawyer “knows or should know may still be necessary or useful to the client, perhaps in the assertion of a defense in a matter for which the applicable limitations period has not expired;” and (3)  documents that “furnish no useful purpose in serving the client’s present needs for legal advice.”

Echoing the treatment of the answer to “when can you destroy?” provided in the 2010 opinion, Formal Opinion 2015-6 says that as to Category 1 documents, absent a contrary earlier agreement between lawyer and client, the lawyer will have an affirmative obligation to notify the client about the destruction of such documents.  As to Category 3, the answer is as simple, albeit flipped – unless prior agreement to the contrary, no duty to notify.  Recognizing that most of the analysis about duty to notify flows one way or another from RPC 1.4 on a lawyer’s obligations to communicate with clients, the committee reminds that, if a client asks about their file in the wake of such an event, the lawyer’s ethical duty to respond to reasonable requests for information would entail promptly responding to the client to let them know of the inadvertent destruction even of such documents of “relatively little importance” as Category 3 materials.

As to Category 2 documents, Formal Opinion 2015-6 rightly recognizes that the blueprint provided in the 2010 opinion about post-representation destruction cannot be readily applied to a situation where such materials are destroyed during an ongoing client engagement.  Thus, if the client’s matter is still active, then the lawyer is going to have a duty to notify the client about destruction of Category 2 documents.  If the accident or disaster only has hit files for a closed matter, then the rubric from the 2010 opinion works and the lawyer has to undertake a determination about whether the “client foreseeably may need” the documents to decide what to do.  The committee, smartly, also makes the practical and prudent point that the safest route on Category 2 documents will always be to go ahead and notify the client of the inadvertent destruction.

Turning to any duty to reconstruct the file, the committee explains that the lawyer will have to first assess whether any of the files destroyed are still “needed to continue providing competent and diligent representation on open matters” and, if the answer is yes, then “the lawyer must make reasonable efforts to reconstruct the destroyed file.”  By, for example, trying to get copies of documents that would have been in the file from the court, co-counsel, opposing counsel, or the client herself, or some combination of those or similar sources.  Formal Opinion 2015-6 then indicates that when the duty to attempt to reconstruct has been triggered, a lawyer who is unable to do so sufficiently to be able to continue to provide competent and diligent representation would be obligated to notify the client of that inability.

If I can quibble with the committee in just one respect it would be that this would have been a good place to expand upon the relationship between notifying about the destruction and performing the reconstruction and the timing of those events.  For example, if the lawyer reasonably believes that they can almost fully reconstruct the file, can they get that accomplished first, quickly, and then provide notice to the client simultaneously of the prior destruction and the believed-to-be-successful reconstruction?  Or does the committee mean to say truly that the timing is such that the lawyer must inform of the destruction before the lawyer will know of any chance of success in reconstructing to be able to continue the representation appropriately?

Finally, Formal Opinion 2015-6 correctly answers the question about a lawyer’s duty to notify clients of the potential compromise of confidential information in the wake of such an accident or disaster.  Returning again to the Brooklyn warehouse fire example, and the clear visual impression of various papers scattered about around the fire scene such a scenario provides, the committee explains that when the duty to notify of destruction would arise so too will the lawyer face a duty to notify clients that confidential information may have been compromised.  If I am permitted to quibble with just two items, this would be the second one.  The committee appears to imply that the duty to notify of compromise confidential information wouldn’t apply to Category 3 documents, but I’m dubious that any differentiation on categories would be as justifiable on the question of potential exposure of confidential information to third parties.

While addressing only accidents and disasters, it is not difficult to see how this opinion’s analysis of the duty to notify of compromise of confidentiality would be the same if the question instead was one of digital disaster — an electronic data breach at a law firm.  And, along those lines, another question that the committee leaves unaddressed as beyond the scope of its current effort — “the extent of a lawyer’s duty to take affirmative steps to protect confidential information in anticipation of a disaster” — is even more challenging to contemplate as to data breach.  Formal Opinion 2015-6 at least hints in fn 3 at possible ways to anticipate and protect against physical destruction of file through accidents or disasters – off-site storage of backup tapes and cloud storage.  The answer to what will come to be expected of lawyers and law firms in trying to anticipate and protect against data breaches will, no doubt, be addressed by this or another committee (or twelve).

Hopefully, a consensus will develop around an acknowledgment that while it is generally quite true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, it is equally if not more correct that:

Sometimes there is nothing you can do. – Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere


Your IT pro is your best friend, but can’t always protect you from fraud.

Last week I was confronted with another example of how valuable excellent IT professionals can be for practicing lawyers.  As routinely happens, our firm’s spam filter trapped a significant number of emails last Wednesday. Because legitimate email sometimes gets wrongly blocked or filtered, our IT folks also review what gets caught in the filters.  Last Wednesday, our IT gurus noticed an email that, if given the benefit of the doubt, could potentially be a legitimate effort by a lawyer in another state to share with me a document through a well-known online document sharing service.

I was asked by our IT department if I recognized the sender and whether the email address being used was legit.  I did and it was, but there were still enough peculiarities about the details of the email that the IT folks were skeptical about whether it was legitimate or the result of hacking or spoofing.  Although this lawyer might very well have a reason to be in touch with me (I do have a blog read regularly by perhaps a dozen people after all), I had to admit that I wasn’t expecting to hear from this lawyer.  I agreed to send a new email to the person explaining what had transpired on our end and asking “did you mean to send me some documents through [high-profile service],” fairly quickly, a response came back from the person’s email address that was short and sweet:  “Yes i did.”

Now I was distracted by other aspects of what I was doing along with dealing with this issue and I really had not focused on the fact it was a little early in this person’s part of the world for them to be sending the first email and the fact that the response email was a little too pithy to be consistent with their personality, but the folks who handle IT for a living at our firm have a much more singular focus and not only weren’t distracted but were still quite concerned about details of the email and, most particularly, that one of the links in the email appeared to be pointing to an IP address in French Polynesia rather than to anything affiliated with the document sharing service.  Relying on that person’s expertise, it was easy for me to agree that it was more likely that the intruder who had hacked into this person’s email was sufficiently in control to be drafting replies sent to the email account then than (edit: and thx to a loyal reader for catching the error) that the lawyer had really tried to share a document with me using a file sharing service.

I’m relatively tech savvy and would like to think that, even without the involvement of the IT professional, I would never have clicked on a link that when hovered over didn’t look right, but having such high-quality IT folks in my corner made sure that I never even had the opportunity to make that mistake.

Unfortunately, not every situation is one where your IT folks can protect you from falling victim to fraud.

Much has been written online about financial scams targeting lawyers.  A few better pieces available online discussing various aspects of these issues can be found here, here, and here.  Gone are the days when such scams were as easy to see through as the Nigerian Prince emails.  Instead, common current scams involve contacts from companies that on paper actually exist  and that want to hire you to pursue litigation against someone who owes them money or to pay you to defend them in a case where they are accused of owing someone else money.  Once you agree to be hired, the case then quickly settles and the settlement proceeds flow through your trust account and you are instructed to quickly send the proceeds, minus payment for yourself of course, to the party owed the money under the settlement agreement whether that is your client or the other party (depending on the variation of the scam being deployed).  Any lawyer that acts too quickly, however, comes to find out that the funds were no good – money orders forged or wires reversed or checks bounce – and the lawyer is left holding the bag and trying to get out from under a hellish trust account deficit and inquiries from disciplinary counsel about RPC 1.15 compliance.

One iteration of this scheme involving forged money orders, shell companies on both sides controlled by the fraudsters, and with an interesting twist also involving hacking and spoofing of law firm email accounts can be studied in this story today from the ABA Journal and the indictment of a Texas lawyer who was on the criminal side (rather than the victim side) of such an endeavor.

In the unforgettable words of Roy Trenneman from The IT Crowd: “People.  What a bunch of bastards.”

Death and disbarment

Returning to the office from the holiday weekend, I noticed these two sad and weird stories of lawyers doing inexcusable things that seem to have common threads of death and disbarment running through them.  Many years ago I wrote a humor column for young lawyers. and you can find some of those columns still floating around the interwebs, like here (starting at p. 12) and here (starting at p. 18).  This blog will not stray from its purpose and attempt to be a humor column.  I promise.  Bleak stories do require some willingness sometimes to attempt to find humor in making serious points.  This is one of those times.

The first story involves a variation on a circumstance that many of us have experienced (or at least strongly suspected we might have experienced but were too kind to ever try to investigate lest we be wrong and come out looking like a horrible human being):  the opposing counsel who claims an illness or death in the family in order to get out from under some missed deadline or hearing we suspect they just aren’t ready to handle.  This now-former attorney has resigned or been disbarred by consent from two states on the basis of having lied in two cases.  One case involved the lawyer lying about having been in the ER diagnosed with “double pneumonia” to get a hearing on a summary judgment motion rescheduled.  In the other case, the lawyer lied about his mother having died as an explanation offered to avoid sanctions based on missed discovery deadlines.  His own billing records showed in the one case that he billed his client for time spent preparing for the hearing on the day of his claimed ER trip.  As to the second matter, while I generally agree with Judge John Hodgman that specificity is the soul of narrative, this lawyer likely didn’t help himself with the specificity he used when lying about his mother, who was quite demonstrably still alive, saying she died “in a violent car accident in the state of Colorado” and that the cause of death was “the fire and smoke inhalation from the resulting conflagration.”

The second story involves a now-former DC lawyer who unsuccessfully argued that the death of his aggrieved client during the disciplinary proceedings should prevent the lawyer from being disbarred.  The key misconduct in the case was that the lawyer had, while on disability inactive status, taken $1,500 from a police officer for legal services never provided and then refused to return the money to the client.  During the many, many years of the proceedings, the lawyer tried to have the charges against him dismissed on five separate occasions.  Many of the arguments put more stress on the “criminal” part of the “quasi-criminal” nature of disciplinary proceedings rather than recognizing the importance of “quasi.”  The DC lawyer unsuccessfully argued that he had a constitutional right to a speedy trial which was violated by the lengthy proceedings; and that his being suspended during the proceedings mooted the case for disbarment.  Most brazen, however, was his argument that the death of the aggrieved client in January 2012 meant that the case against him should be dismissed.  For support of that argument, the lawyer relied on cases in which a criminal defendant died during the prosecution of the case against him.  These arguments were not wieners (a play on words that only makes sense if you’ve visited the link and learned the lawyer’s name) and the lawyer has been disbarred.