Withdrawing a guilty plea is notary-ly easy thing to do.

The pun was, of course, inevitable.  It was also fully intended.  In fact, it is, at least for me, repetitive as back in 2013 I was asked to do a seminar on the ethics of being a notary public — they have their own ethics code — and I called it “Notary-ly Common Topic: The Intersection of Lawyer and Notary Public Ethics.”

I’m writing today about a relatively straightforward criminal case arising out of federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands but that has at least four interesting lawyer ethics percolating under the surface of it.  The decision also has one of the most elegant and timeless statements penned by the district judge authoring the opinion that I’ve read in a federal court opinion.  It is either one of the most useful statements of insight into the human condition or one of the best pieces of universal (but indirect) advice to offer to anyone – including lawyers — or possibly both.

In case you want to stop reading at this point, I’ll just share with you the district judge’s statement which, for many reasons (no matter when you manage to read this) will be timely:

Probably every adult feels that there is some important decision she has made that she wishes she could do over.  But that does not mean she did not make that decision voluntarily and did not know what she was doing at the time.

To be exceedingly candid, I’m also writing this post about this case because an incredible lawyer, and a giant in the field of legal ethics issues, Bill Freivogel, brought the case to my attention and encouraged to me to think I might have something to say about it that would be worth reading.

The case is U.S. v. Li and you can grab the PDF of it here: United States v. Li (D. N.Mariana Is., 2018).  In sum, Li was a notary public.  He managed to mess up a document he was notarizing for a passport application for a minor child, and the application was rejected for that discrepancy.  When folks reassembled to try to fix it and reapply, the father had already flown back home to China.  Despite the fact that it was contrary to the ethics code for a notary public, and despite the fact that the form was requiring him to speak under oath, Li signed the form misrepresenting under oath that the father was physically present the second time when he was not.

It seems clear that Li did this thinking that it was his own mistake that created the problem and that this would fix the error.  How the falsehood came to light is much less clear, but it did and Li was charged with two federal criminal counts related to false statements on a passport application.

A week before the case was set for trial, the parties submitted a plea agreement and proceeded to a change of plea hearing.  At that hearing, Li’s attorney – Holmes – was present as was a more senior attorney from Holmes’ law firm.  The opinion walks through the fairly detailed line of questioning the federal judge presented to Li designed to ensure that the record was crystal clear about the voluntariness of the guilty plea.  These questions solicited many clear answers demonstrating voluntary and knowing decision-making, including Li’s statements that he was fully satisfied with his attorney’s advice and legal representation.

Two months after the guilty plea was entered and about two months before the date set for sentencing, a new lawyer for Li filed a notice of appearance.  About 45 days later, Holmes moved to withdraw from representing Li citing “professional reasons.”  That motion was denied without prejudice based on failure to demonstrate good cause.

Two things then occurred right about a week before sentencing: Li, through the new counsel, filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea and Holmes renewed the motion to withdraw now pointing to statements in a pre-sentence report that were alleged to create a conflict between her firm and Li.  This renewed motion to withdraw was granted.  (The opinion does not provide a ready explanation or insight into what the nugget was in that pre-sentence report that Holmes was forced to surface in order to be let out of the case.)

The order then details what Li argued as his grounds for seeking now to withdraw his guilty plea – it largely involved accusations that his attorneys would not listen to him and coerced him – through time pressures, denigrating his chances at trial, and hammering the potential of a prison sentence of more than a year, even allegedly going so far as to tell Li that he would be sexually assaulted if he had to do prison time.

The district court, however, was entirely unconvinced by Li’s allegations and walked through an objective view of what the attorney time records, and other underlying documents, showed about the events that occurred surrounding the plea negotiations.

Three of ethics issues here are, I think, readily recognizable.

The case is at least an indirect reminder for attorneys that RPC 1.2 doesn’t provide crystal clear guidance on all decision-making as between clients and attorneys but leaves no room for doubt that the decision whether to plead guilty in a criminal matter is always the client’s to make.

The case also is a good, indirect reminder to attorneys who have support staff who are notaries that your obligations under RPC 5.3 can be considered to include having some measures in place to provide reasonable assurance that they know how important complying with the law and their own code of ethics as to notarizing documents can be.  (For the record, there was no indication in the opinion itself that Li had any employment situation where he was working for an attorney.)

Also, the case reveals how sometimes – despite the best efforts of the drafters of the rules – the guidance given to attorneys seeking to withdraw from representation doesn’t always work as designed.  ABA Model Rule 1.16 cmt. [3] tries to provide guidance to attorneys about situations when they should begin by stating only that “professional considerations” require withdrawal and indicating the hope that courts will accept that “statement as sufficient,” but courts do not always go along and end up putting attorneys into a situation where they have to disclose information the client might rather not have aired.

The fourth ethics issue, however, is not as obvious but is, I think, the most interesting and compelling.  The district judge, without explicitly saying so, made clear that if the lawyers had scared Li into pleading guilty “by conjuring the nightmare of sexual assault in prison,” that would have been the kind of thing that could have “put their bar license on the line.”  I’m torn on that front.  Obviously, if the lawyers had actually threatened to cause that to happen or otherwise crossed lines into coercing someone against their will to plead guilty, then I’d agree wholeheartedly.  But, if a lawyer representing someone facing potential jail time, and knowing their client had the chance to take a plea that was likely to result in no jail time at all, engaged their client in discussions about the possibility of going to prison and the realities of the problems in the U.S. prison system including the statistics on violence and sexual assault that happens there on a daily basis, would that really be unethical conduct?

I tend to think the exact opposite.  I think that a lawyer would certainly be entitled under Model Rule 2.1 to discuss as “other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation.”  In fact, depending on the client and the likely prison in play, a lawyer might well be ethically obligated to discuss such issues under Model Rule 1.4(b)’s obligation “to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”

The ethics of putting together an unenforceable contract.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s been a while.

Today I’m going to splice together two short discussions about topics that I haven’t mentioned in a while.  (And, for any fans of the podcast U Talking U2 to Me that are out there, you do have to read the title of this post to sound like the first words of this remake right here.)

I have not written in a while of an instance of a lawyer getting into disciplinary trouble over saying too much in the process of withdrawing from a client representation.  But it’s happened again, so it’s worth reminding people not to do that.

A week ago, the Ohio Supreme Court issued its opinion affirming a recommended one-year suspension (but with all of the suspension stayed) for a divorce lawyer who paired an affidavit with his motion to withdraw from a client’s matter.  The Ohio court succinctly laid out the problematic contents of the affidavit:

In the affidavit, he recounted communications he had had with
[the client] about the scope of his representation and his compensation, accused her of refusing to pay his agreed-upon fees “without cause,” and disclosed legal advice that he had given her. He also described [the client]’s discharge of him as “retaliatory” and alleged that it had “occurred because of [his] advice to her
concerning her objectionable and potentially illegal actions” relating to her ex-husband, which he characterized as “a problem similar to the one [he] experienced in [his] previous representation of her.”

The Ohio opinion not only cogently walks through why the lawyer’s attempted arguments that such disclosures were permitted to be made under exceptions set out in Ohio’s Rule 1.6(b) weren’t triggered, but also stresses another point too often overlooked by lawyers even when they might have justification to make certain disclosures:

Finally, even if [the lawyer] had reasonably believed that Prof.Cond.R. 1.6(b) permitted him to disclose [the client]’s allegedly fraudulent conduct, the means by which he chose to do so were improper. The comments to Prof.Cond.R. 1.6 clarify that when a lawyer believes that disclosure of client information is
necessary, the lawyer should first seek to persuade the client to take suitable action to obviate the need for the attorney’s disclosure and that a disclosure adverse to the client’s interest should be no greater than necessary to accomplish the purpose. Prof.Cond.R. 1.6, Comment 16. And “[i]f the disclosure will be made in connection with a judicial proceeding, the disclosure should be made in a manner that limits access to the information to the tribunal or other persons having a need to know it and appropriate protective orders or other arrangements should be sought by the lawyer to the fullest extent possible.” Id. Here, [the lawyer] failed to notify or communicate with [the client] about the allegations in his affidavit prior to filing it, and he did not attempt to limit public access to the document.

Another topic I haven’t mentioned in a while is ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) and how it’s playing in various states.  You will recall on at least one occasion when I did write about it, I mentioned how one of the ABA’s talking points was that somewhere north of 20 states already had black-letter rules in one form or fashion making acts of discrimination unethical.

About three weeks ago, one of those states, Vermont, just decided to scrap its version of such a rule and replace it with a Rule 8.4(g) that is substantially equivalent to the ABA Model Rule.  You can read the order of the Vermont Supreme Court adopting such a rule which will become effective on September 18, 2017 here.

A weird-ish ethics opinion out of New York.

I have written a few times about the ABA’s adoption of a new Model Rule 8.4(g).  One point that was brought up in the run-up to that rule actually finally being adopted was that some more than 20 jurisdictions already had an anti-discrimination rule in place in the black letter of their rules in one form or another.

One of those jurisdictions is New York, and the New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics issued an ethics opinion back in January of this year that says it addresses an interpretation of NY’s Rule 8.4(g) and whether it prohibits a lawyer from refusing to accept a representation because of a lawyer’s own religious affiliation.

Specifically, the scenario addressed in NYSBA Ethics Opinion 1111 is this:

A lawyer has been requested to represent a person desiring to bring a childhood sex abuse claim against a religious institution.  The lawyer is of the same religion as the institution against which the claim is to be made.  Because of this religious affiliation, the lawyer is unwilling to represent the claimant against the institution.

The opinion, ultimately, doesn’t really answer the question of whether refusal to accept under those facts would be illegal discrimination.  Instead, the opinion first provides reassurance (at least of the rhetorical variety) that lawyers do not have any ethical obligation to accept every request for representation that they receive.  Then, though, it mostly punts on how to reconcile that fact with the fact that lawyers cannot engage in conduct that would violate a federal, state, or local anti-discrimination statute.  The opinion references New York case law which addresses certain kinds of professional services as being “place[s] of public accommodation” and directly admits that New York’s 8.4(g) contains language acknowledging that law could limit a lawyer’s ability to freely choose to decline a representation, but, despite the fact that the very rule itself that New York chose to adopt requires for its enforcement a conclusion about “unlawful discrimination,” just punts on whether the facts trigger such a conclusion.

At some level I get why the opinion goes that route as typically bodies providing ethics opinion have refrained from ruling on questions of law as being outside the scope of the rules.  But it does seem to me like once you adopt a rule that envelops the need for such a legal determination into the enforcement of the rule, you lose some of the ability to credibly punt on such an issue.

For context, here is the language of the rule New York has in place providing that a lawyer shall not:

(g) unlawfully discriminate in the practice of law, including in hiring, promoting or otherwise determining conditions of employment on the basis of age, race, creed, color, national origin, sex, disability, marital status or sexual orientation. Where there is a tribunal with jurisdiction to hear a complaint, if timely brought, other than a Departmental Disciplinary Committee, a complaint based on unlawful discrimination shall be brought before such tribunal in the first instance. A certified copy of a determination by such a tribunal, which has become final and enforceable and as to which the right to judicial or appellate review has been exhausted, finding that the lawyer has engaged in an unlawful discriminatory practice shall constitute prima facie evidence of professional misconduct in a disciplinary proceeding….

For what it is worth, you would think that the body issuing the opinion could — at least on this particular inquiry – have been able to comfortably say that since the facts presented did not even involve a lawyer turning down a potential client because of the potential client’s religious affiliation that it would be safe to say that it is highly, highly unlikely that a credible case of unlawful discrimination could be made out against the lawyer.

One thing that this opinion does help sharpen in terms of a salient point is that ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) appears to be a better drafted approach to this issue given its explicit terms protecting decisions on whether to take on the representation of a client.  Unlike the New York version of the rule, the ABA Model — in addition to not having all the language about the need for a ruling by a tribunal to be a condition precedent in certain instances — includes this sentence in the black-letter of the rule:  “This paragraph does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16.”

Jurisdictions adopting a version of Rule 8.4(g) with that kind of language would appear to be much better positioned to actually address questions like the one raised in the New York opinion by providing the lawyer with assurance about the ability to simply choose not to take on the representation of a client where doing so would require them to sue their own church.

 

Arkansas and Wisconsin weigh in on client files in different ways and on different sides.

The need for clarity with respect to what makes up the “client file” has been an issue I have tried to stay up to date on dating back to our unsuccessful efforts back in 2009 to convince the Tennessee Supreme Court to adopt a rule – what would have been RPC 1.19 — to address the issues.  As I’ve explained before, our unsuccessful RPC 1.19 was patterned largely after North Dakota’s Rule 1.19.  There is no ABA Model Rule addressing client files and, as recently as last year, the ABA’s guidance as to client files still leaves many questions open so states navigate these waters pretty much on their own using only the language about lawyers’ obligations to “surrender papers and property of the client” in their versions of Model Rule 1.16.

As you may recall from a couple of posts I wrote last year, some seven years later we’ve obtained some real clarity in Tennessee on a few fronts as to client files through two Formal Ethics Opinions issued by our Board of Professional Responsibility.  Particularly, we now have clear guidance that we are an “entire file” jurisdiction rather than an “end product” jurisdiction regarding what are the contents of the client file.

Late last year, Arkansas adopted its own RPC 1.19 addressing client file issues but although they went with an approach that adopts a black letter rule to address the matter, they’ve gone in the opposite direction from us as Arkansas RPC 1.19 opts for an “end product” approach.  Technically, Arkansas has been an “end product” jurisdiction for more than seven years dating back to a 2009 opinion of the Arkansas Supreme Court – Travis v. Committee on Professional Conduct.  You can read the Arkansas Supreme Court order with the full text of RPC 1.19 and its comments here.

The architecture of this new Arkansas rule tackles client file questions in two parts.

RPC 1.19(a) defines what makes up the contents of the client file both positively [(a)(1) identifies items that are in] and negatively [(a)(2) identifies items that are excluded] .  The most important exceptions being “the lawyer’s work product,” “internal memoranda,” and “legal research” materials.  It appears though that (a)(2)(E) serves to override any attempt to view (a)(1) as a comprehensive identification of what is included as that subpart explains that anything that isn’t listed as excluded in (a)(2)(A-D) are things that “shall be considered to be part of the client file to which the client is entitled.”  RPC 1.19(a) also addresses the need to honor requests by the client for delivery of file and when a lawyer may charge costs of copying or retain a copy for their own purposes.  Smartly, the rule also expressly clarifies that a lawyer and client can address all of those issues regarding copy costs and delivery costs in a fashion they prefer by contract as part of the engagement agreement.

RPC 1.19(b) addresses the length of the obligation to retain client file records and under what circumstances a lawyer can destroy client files in his possession.  Five years is the default length of time chosen for retention in Arkansas, and any time after that the lawyer is free to destroy the file materials.  RPC 1.19(b)(3) also makes clear that these time frames can be varied by contract between attorney and client.  RPC 1.19(b)(4) takes certain criminal matters out of the general rules of retention and destruction, however, and instead requires the lawyer to maintain the client’s file for the life of the client in those particular situations.

Another jurisdiction has weighed in recently but differs from what Arkansas has done both structurally and substantively.  Wisconsin recently put out an ethics opinion to further clarify the obligations lawyers have to clients in terms of turning over files at the end of the representation.  Wisconsin, like Pennsylvania, denies public access to its ethics opinions, but you can read a well-written article about Wisconsin Formal Ethics Op. EF-16-03 here.

The primary focus of the formal opinion appears to be clarifying that lawyers can neither try to leverage retaining the client file in order to obtain payment nor condition turning the file over upon the execution of a release of malpractice liability.  (Both things you might be surprised to hear about how often lawyers attempt to do despite the perils.)

But Wisconsin’s latest opinion on the subject matter also addresses some of the same vital issues that are at the heart of resolving situations involving disputes between attorneys and clients over who is entitled to what.  Unlike Arkansas, Wisconsin takes an approach more in keeping with the “entire file” approach to the question as several items carved out from the file in Arkansas are not in Wisconsin.  The Wisconsin opinion specifically identifies “legal research and drafts of documents that are relevant to the matter” as being included in the client file as well as “[a]ny materials for which the client has been billed, either directly or through lawyer or staff time.”

Yet, the Wisconsin opinion does limit certain categories of items as being allowed to be withheld from the client — including two items that were at the heart of the battles that doomed our effort in Tennessee to adopt an RPC 1.19 of our own — “materials containing information, which, if released, could endanger the health, safety, or welfare of the client or others,” and “materials that could be used to perpetrate a crime or fraud.”  Interestingly, however, the Wisconsin opinion also crafts an exclusion for materials that seems pretty antithetical to the idea that the guidance is really consistent with Wisconsin being an “entire file” jurisdiction:

Materials containing the lawyer’s assessment of the client, such as personal impressions and comments relating to the business of representing the client.  If a lawyer’s notes contain both factual information and personal impressions, the notes may be redacted or summarized to protect the interests of both the lawyer and the client.

The Wisconsin opinion also addresses the inability of the lawyer to hold the file hostage as a way to first receive payment and provides a clear answer that a lawyer cannot refuse to provide the entire file at the end of the representation based on an argument that lawyer provided everything to the client along the way during the life of the representation.  The Wisconsin opinion also offers insight on when the lawyer has to provide a client with an electronic copy of a file and stresses that while a lawyer can retain a copy of the file, the lawyer cannot charge for that expense because that is being done for the lawyer’s own benefit.

Another interesting wrinkle of the Wisconsin opinion is that it gives a nod to a scenario that is rarely discussed in such opinions — though it does come up in discussions of “red flags” of new client intake matters — but that is an exceedingly difficult situation to deal with:  “There may be unusual circumstances where a client has specifically instructed a lawyer not to surrender a file to a successor counsel, and the lawyer must abide by those instructions.”

In the end though, both the Wisconsin opinion and, in part, the Arkansas rule, offer guidance that furthers what ought to be the primary, practical guidance for lawyers given the disparities that exist on this issue from jurisdiction to jurisdiction — the more focus can be given to these issues in an engagement agreement such that you can have a contractual agreement between lawyer and client on just what will be provided, how, and when (and at whose cost) the better off all involved will be.

 

Two smart, practical ABA Ethics Opinions in a row. (And a bonus “beg to differ”.)

So, this week the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued Formal Op. 476 addressing the need to protect client confidentiality when a lawyer seeks to withdraw for reasons involving the client’s failure to pay.  As explained below, it is a solid, practical opinion touching on a subject often overlooked by lawyers who are just trying to get out of a case with as little additional wasted time and expense.

It comes on the heels of an opinion from earlier this month about a lawyer’s obligation to hold fees to be shared with a lawyer from another firm separate from the lawyer’s own funds, ABA Formal Op. 475, which — despite what this solo and small-firm centric blogger wrote recently — is also a practical, well-constructed, and correct opinion.  I have to beg to differ with the My Shingle piece because it misses the boat on the primary type of situation the ABA Formal Op. 475 is vital to addressing — where lawyers in different firms are sharing fees in a contingency case.  When you come at the question from that perspective as a starting point, the answer offered in the opinion is clearly the only answer that can be correctly offered.  The My Shingle complaints are readily resolved by simply working out a better front-end arrangement with a client about payment to multiple lawyers.

(N.B. – it can’t just be coincidence that these two opinions appear to be the first two in which my friend, Doug Richmond, shows up as a member of the committee involved in the issuance.  Doug is an excellent lawyer – as of course are all the lawyers on the committee — but Doug also has a flair for delivering practical advice through clear, straightforward written work product that leaves the reader with an abiding sense that the conclusion reached was inescapable.)

ABA Formal Op. 476 also does a nice job in tackling and acknowledging the interplay between trial court and lawyer in these circumstances.  The opinion truly can be well summed up if you lack the time or wherewithal to read it in full by simply quoting its “Conclusion,” section:

In moving to withdraw as counsel in a civil proceeding based on a client’s failure to pay fees, a lawyer must consider the duty of confidentiality under Rule 1.6 and seek to reconcile that duty with the court’s need for sufficient information upon which to rule on the motion.  Similarly, in entertaining such a motion, a judge should consider the right of the movant’s client to confidentiality.  This requires cooperation between lawyers and judges.  If required by the court to support the motion with facts relating to the representation, a lawyer may, pursuant to Rule 1.6(b)(5), disclose only such confidential information as is reasonably necessary for the court to make an informed decision on the motion.

As it stands, I really only have one item of criticism regarding Formal Op. 476 at all.  Yet it feels almost like nitpickery … in that I would have liked to see the opinion manage more clearly to stress that the need for protecting client confidences and discretion in any disclosure to a court regarding withdrawal applies to more withdrawal situations than merely not being paid.  Far too many times than I care to count have I been sitting in a courtroom and listened to a lawyer in the context of seeking withdrawal in some matter on the docket ahead of my case say too much, unprompted about their communications (or lack thereof) with the client.  The opinion says it is limiting itself to the deadbeat client situation because in other situations other rules and principles may apply, but I think there would have been value in exploring the commonalities.

The only other thing I’d like to use ABA Formal Op. 476 as a springboard to say involves highlighting an aspect of the rule we have here in Tennessee and how it provides a very helpful, practical mechanism for doing what the ABA Opinion actually encourages when it says:  “Of course, where practicable, a lawyer should first seek to persuade the client to take suitable action to remove the need for the lawyer’s disclosure.”  In the context of the ABA Formal Op. that would appear to be either: (1) pay the lawyer; (2) hire other counsel that can substitute in lieu of withdrawal, or perhaps (3) fire the lawyer so that withdrawal becomes mandatory.

In Tennessee, we offer another option as our RPC 1.16(b) also lists as a trigger for discretionary ability to withdraw merely that the client has provided informed consent confirmed in writing to withdrawal by the lawyer.  Such a clear escape valve in the rule permits a lawyer – even in a situation in which the client has become a deadbeat – to be able to counsel the client and explain that if the client will go ahead and provide informed consent to withdrawal, and show that consent by signing the motion itself, it can go an exceedingly long way in eliminating the risk that the lawyer will have to say anything about the client’s failure to pay in response to an inquiry from the court.

My 200th post: Living in a “post-fact” world?

So, not a milestone for some, but, for me, it feels like an achievement to have made it to my 200th post.  And because I’m a sucker for wordplay, I’ll use a “post” milestone to talk about an issue I’ve written about a good bit before but with a twist that also involves the word “post” but as a prefix.

If you’ve been paying attention at all to U.S. politics, you may have seen some discussion about how we seem to be living in a “post-fact” world and lots of accompanying criticism about how the media has played a large role in making it easy for prominent people to simply refuse to acknowledge facts and then inculcate beliefs in those who support them or identify with them that such facts are not actually facts.

Well, here’s something of an example — but in the world of legal ethics — of just how easily it is for that kind of thing to seem to happen.

So, in late October, the Montana Supreme Court put an order out for public comment about potentially adopting the new ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) addressing harassment and discrimination by lawyers in conduct related to the practice of law.  The Montana Supreme Court has floated adopting the entirety of the ABA Model Rule black-letter language such that if adopted, Montana’s 8.4(g):

would provide that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law. This paragraph does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16. This paragraph does not preclude legitimate advice or advocacy consistent with these Rules.

You can read the Montana Supreme Court order here.  The deadline for public comments is actually today and, within the last few days, there was some publicity in Montana about the proposal.

This story is what has prompted me to write.  The reporter has included a quote from a law professor at a Montana law school who stakes out the position that the rule would suppress free speech and who is quoted as saying:

“There’s a wide variety of attorneys from a wide variety of backgrounds that are opposing this proposed rule, not necessarily on faith based reasons, but on the ability to ask questions in depositions and determining who should be seated on a jury. So it’s raised concerns amongst all types of attorneys.”

But, you might say to yourself, I just read that the proposed rule, if adopted, would have a sentence that says: “This paragraph does not preclude legitimate advice or advocacy consistent with these Rules.”  And, also since you read the blog, it probably means you keep up enough with these issues to know that the ABA Model Rule, at least, has specific language in an accompanying comment even addressing peremptory challenges, but that even if Montana isn’t also looking at adopting the comments, as long as what the lawyer does in jury selection is “legitimate advocacy,” it ought to be protected.  Yet, the news article contains no push back against the law professor’s statement and not even a competing quote from someone saying the actual rule would raise no such issues.

How can that be?  Well, there is a fairly easy and revealing answer that is pertinent to a number of much larger issues going on in the world around us these days (in my opinion).  The news article, describing the rule for the public, merely says this about the content of the proposed rule:

Proposed rule 8.4 (g) states: It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law.

So, the news report simply omits two of the sentences of the proposed rule including the one that contradicts the law professor’s stated concerns.  Thus, regular folks would have no idea of the rest of the content of the proposed rule when reading the story and certainly no reason to question why the law professor would be willing to make claims that appear to be contrary to clear language in the rule.

Sigh.

(And, if you are in Chattanooga or Knoxville, I’ll be doing those stops on the Ethics Roadshow next week and ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) is one of the topics on the menu for discussion.  It’s not too late to register and attend if you are so inclined.)

Bad ethics opinion or the worst ethics opinion? Tenn. FEO 2016-F-161 edition

I haven’t rolled a post out with this title in a while, but the more truthful title when it comes to an ethics opinion, issued here in Tennessee on September 9, 2016 would be: “More bad than worthless or more worthless than bad?”

First, the good news.  Tenn. Formal Ethics Op. 2016-F-161 is short.  It won’t take you but maybe five minutes to read it in full.  You’ll never get those 5 minutes back, but…

Now, the not-so-good news … Formal Ethics Opinion 2016-F-161 could have been a whole lot shorter, maybe only a paragraph — in fact, the first paragraph with the heading “OPINION” probably would have sufficed.  It states a premise that isn’t necessarily incorrect — a settlement agreement that would require an attorney to return work product violates RPC 5.6(b) if it restricts the lawyers ability to represent other clients– but it doesn’t do anything more than that.

To the extent it does, it isn’t exactly helpful because it works from a premise that doesn’t involve something that clearly involves work-product, and not surprisingly (given that it treats something as if it were work-product when that is less than clear) it doesn’t really explain why one thing might be okay and the other not.

If you were looking for a jumping off point to make the point that a demand for relinquishing work-product as part of a settlement agreement could violate RPC 5.6, I’m not sure this is the premise to pick:

Plaintiff’s counsel received from Defendant 541,927 pages in image form and had to electronically covert every single page to a pdf document.  Plaintiff’s counsel then processed the 541,927 pages with optical character recognition to make each document searchable.  The documents were then organized by relevant subtopics and incorporated into demonstrative exhibits.  Creating this work product was the only way to understand the complex issues in the case, articulated the product defects, depose experts, present claims, and ultimately reach a successful settlement for the client.  Plaintiff’s counsel relied on the produced materials to cut a full-size vehicle into parts for use in explaining complex engineering, vehicle dynamics, and safety mechanisms to the jury.  This demonstrative evidence is useless without the underlying work product.

In addition to the way in which that description reads like the inquiring attorney wrote it, did you catch the part there where things went askew?  Of course, you did.  It was that moment where they wrote “Creating this work product…” despite not having referenced any creation of work product.

What they described was the production of materials by the other side in discovery.  Converting TIFFs to PDFs doesn’t turn the other side’s document production into your work product.  OCR’ing those PDFs doesn’t do that either.  The incorporation of certain aspects of the discovery into demonstrative exhibits might rise to the level of the creation of work product, but the demonstrative exhibits would be the work product not the source material that was added to them as a component part.  But even giving the Board the benefit of doubt, the opinion doesn’t exactly tackle whether (or how) the request to return discovery materials also requires the return of additional things — work product — that incorporate parts of the discovery materials.

The opinion also doesn’t clearly indicate that the settlement agreement being examined requires anything to be returned besides discovery documents produced.  What is says is this: “The parties agreed on a settlement amount, and as a condition precedent to signing the settlement agreement Defendant demanded return of all documents produced….”  Now the opinion then says “… which included Plaintiff’s counsel’s work product,” but I don’t know how to take that because “documents produced” on its own wouldn’t support a reading that work-product must be returned.

Otherwise, the TN opinion to bolster the premise that requiring return of work product could be a problem spends a bit of time trying to (sort of) adopt the rationale of a North Dakota ethics opinion from 1997.  This part of that North Dakota opinion is fine: “Whether providing the opposing side access to or losing his or her own access to work product materials would restrict the attorney’s representation of other clients is a factual question the attorney must decide based on the documents involved and the facts and circumstances of the case.”

But, there is a key deficiency in the North Dakota opinion too , at least as described by the TN opinion, there is a seeming failure to recognize that if a client pays an attorney for work product the attorney creates, that work product also belongs to the client.  Remember, in this context RPC 1.16(d), which only provides the slimmest of windows for a lawyer to refuse to turn over work-product that a client hasn’t paid for, upon the termination of the representation.

So, when the Tennessee opinion quotes the North Dakota opinion to say: “Under 5.6(b) an attorney may not agree — even at a client’s request: To turn over to opposing party or counsel documents protected by the attorney work product doctrine if that action would restrict the attorney’s representation of other clients….,” it overlooks the fundamental concept that the client, not the attorney, makes the decision whether to settle a matter.  (RPC 1.2)  And, if the condition on settlement is that the attorney relinquish work product that now would belong to the client because the attorney’s fee will be paid, then… well, it’s pretty dangerous for an attorney to seek to blow up that settlement on the basis that the work product is the attorney’s alone to do with as she sees fit.

 

Another development on impaired lawyers, Virginia drafts an ethics opinion

Almost a year ago, I wrote a little bit about what was a first-of-its-kind rule adopted by South Carolina to address the obligations of lawyers in a law firm when a lawyer within their midst was becoming impaired as a result of aging.  South Carolina’s adoption of a new RPC 5.1(d) aimed at that specific situation was part of a package 3 court rules but the language of SC’s RPC 5.1(d) specifically provides:

(d) Partners and lawyers with comparable managerial authority who reasonably believe that a lawyer in the law firm may be suffering from a significant impairment of that lawyer’s cognitive function shall take action to address the concern with the lawyer and may seek assistance by reporting the circumstances of concern pursuant to Rule 428, SCACR.

I have admittedly not scoured the landscape since SC adopted that rule, but I am not aware of any jurisdiction that has acted similarly.

Earlier this month, Virginia put out for public comment a draft ethics opinion that, at least, touches on the issue of what lawyers are supposed to do in dealing with an aging lawyer on the decline.  The draft of Virginia’s LEO 1886, titled “Duty of Partners and Supervisory Lawyers in a Law Firm When Another Lawyer in the Firm Suffers from Significant Impairment,” can be viewed here.

The opinion offers two hypothetical situations – one involving an associate with a drug problem and the other involving a 60-year old lawyer suspected to be having declining mental faculties.  This hypothetical reads as follows:

George is a sixty-year old partner in a small, two lawyer firm.  He has been honored many times for his lifelong dedication to family law and his expertise in domestic violence protective order cases.  He has suffered a number of medical issues in the past several years and has been advised by his doctor to slow down, but George loves the pressure and excitement of being in the courtroom regularly.  Recently, Rachelle, his long-time law partner, has noticed some lapses of memory and confusion that are not at all typical for George.  He has started to forget her name, calling her Mary (his ex-wife’s name), and mixing up details of the many cases he is currently handling.  Rachelle is on very friendly terms with the [juvenile and domestic relations] court clerk, and has heard that George’s behavior in court is increasingly erratic and sometimes just plain odd.  Rachelle sees some other signs of what she thinks might be dementia in George, but hesitates to “diagnose” him and ruin his reputation as an extraordinarily dedicated attorney.  Maybe he will decide to retire before things get any worse, she hopes.

The overwhelming majority of the proposed VA opinion focuses however on impairment caused by drug or alcohol abuse – the other lengthy hypo set out in the proposed opinion.  This focus is likely because of the recent wave of publicity focusing upon the high rates of depression and substance abuse among members of our profession.  In fact, the proposed opinion right out of the gate references the 2016 report in the Journal of Addiction Medicine that reported that our rate was “2 to 3 times the general population.”  The opinion does a fine job in elaborating on that scenario, but it reads in the end as if it were treating the aging lawyer question as something of an afterthought.  In fact, the only specific guidance the opinion offers on the second hypothetical comes in its last 8 lines:

In the second hypothetical, it is not clear that George has committed any violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.  Obviously, George’s impairment, unaccompanied by any professional misconduct, does not require any report to the bar under Rule 8.3(a).  Yet, his mental condition, as observed by his partner, Mary, would require that Mary make reasonable efforts to ensure that George does not violate his ethical obligations to his clients or violate any Rules of Professional Conduct.  This would include, as an initial step, Mary or someone else having a confidential and candid conversation with George about his condition and persuading him to seek evaluation and treatment.

Offering just this, and only this, as guidance is a bit of a shame given just how stark and troublesome the facts of the second hypothetical are and how heart-wrenching you could imagine the circumstances in the hypo being for Mary when we’re told they practice in just a two-lawyer firm.

Who exactly would be the “someone else” if not Mary in that situation who could have the confidential and candid conversation with George?  Admittedly, it isn’t quite ethics guidance but it would also be helpful for Virginia lawyers in the future role of Mary in the hypothetical to hear that how wrongheaded and counterproductive Mary’s thinking as to what might ruin George’s reputation is.  Mary’s act of confronting George privately about her concerns is not the thing that would “ruin his reputation as an extraordinarily dedicated attorney.”  Allowing the situation to go unaddressed is much more likely to lead to outcomes in cases — again when we are talking about a two lawyer firm where it simply isn’t possible to think that Mary can keep track of and cover for anything that goes wrong in George’s practice —  is the much more likely route to ruination of an otherwise stellar reputation.

It will be interesting to see whether the public comment period will result in Virginia trying to elaborate a bit more on the much more difficult of the two hypos.  Here’s hoping.

 

Today – Ethical Issues When Changing Law Firms.

There probably has been news this week about a set of departures of lawyers from one prominent firm to another or efforts that firms are taking to disincentivize their lawyers from taking their clients and moving on to a new destinaton.  As I indicated on Monday, I’m not actually around at the moment so this post was prepared and scheduled in advance so I won’t pretend that I’m doing anything other than guessing.  (As the McElroy Brothers would say, I’m sort of parting the kimono at this moment.)  But it is still that time of year, and just last week there were stories such as this one and this one and this one about such topics.

Today, if you are in any of the states where it is being broadcast today, including Alabama and North Carolina, you can sign up to hear me talk for an hour on Ethical Issues When Changing Law Firms.  In addition to getting necessary CLE credit, you’ll hear me discuss aspects of RPC 5.6 and RPC 1.16, as well as talk a bit about the relatively recent revisions to ABA Model Rule 1.6 to permit disclosure of client confidential information for purposes of running conflict checks when looking at making a lateral move.

Although in my practice I have advised and counseled both lawyers moving firms and firms being left behind, today’s seminar will have as its primary focus the perspective of a lawyer making a move and practical tips and approaches having an eye toward avoiding grass stains in your search for greener pastures.