An ode (of sorts) to RPC 1.18 (but only as an example)

Today’s entry is something of a dodge in a way (I sort of wanted to pile on about this and make the point that it is a much sounder development than this was) and something of knocking down a hastily-created strawman in another respect. But what it mostly amounts to is pursuing a not-yet-fully-formed thesis that has been kicking around my brain for a bit.

The quick and dirty description of the thesis is: Ethics rules are tools; having the right one for the right situation saves a lot of time and effort, but it also protects lawyers and clients alike by providing certainty.

I keep coming back to this thesis of late because of a few instances of things arising in my practice (about which I can’t elaborate of course) as well as discussions I’ve been privy to at ethics conferences and presentations that have particularly focused on issues of civility in the practice of law and whether more should be done to establish rules to punish lawyers for conduct many (perhaps most) but certainly not all lawyers would view as uncivil.

In the discussions of civility, I keep returning to the notion that we already have certain specific rules that prohibit conduct of an uncivil nature and ought to focus on enforcing those rather than layering on other proposed solutions outside of the rules. Those rules are Model Rule 4.4(a) and Model Rule 8.4(d). Admittedly, 4.4(a) is much more supportive of my thesis as it is very clear about what it prohibits: a lawyer, who is representing a client, cannot “use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person.” I am usually hard-pressed to hear of a situation that a lawyer is complaining of under the category of “incivility” that is both clearly deserving of punishment and not already prohibited by 4.4(a).

Offering even stronger support for exploring my thesis though is this recent ethics opinion from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. Opinion 691 addresses this question: “Under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, when may a lawyer represent a client adverse to a former prospective client of the lawyer or another lawyer in the lawyer’s firm.” Examining that question, the opinion spends almost 5 pages to get to its four-paragraph conclusion.

Many of you reading this, likely are asking yourselves the same question I did when I saw news about the issuance of the opinion: Why is this a live question in Texas and why does it take so many pages to answer?

Because Texas has not adopted Model Rule 1.18, or any other specific rule, addressing a lawyer’s duties owed to prospective clients.

Fascinatingly, this Texas opinion ultimately offers an analysis that can still be distilled down to look a good bit like Model Rule 1.18 with really only one important difference: no non-consensual screening to avoid imputed disqualification. If this opinion is correct about how things should work in Texas, then Texas could just have adopted (and now could adopt) a rule that if I understand their fun numbering would be 1.17:

Duties to Prospective Client.

(a) A person who consults with a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client.

(b) Even when no client-lawyer relationship ensues, a lawyer who has learned information from a prospective client shall not use or reveal that information except as Rule 1.05 would permit.

(c) A lawyer subject to paragraph (b) shall not represent a client with interests materially adverse to those of a prospective client in the same or a substantially related matter if the lawyer received information from the prospective client that could be significantly harmful to that person in the matter. If a lawyer is disqualified from representation under this paragraph, no lawyer in a firm with which that lawyer is associated may knowingly undertake or continue representation in such a matter.

And if Texas had just done that, then lawyers and prospective clients would be able to know clearly what is to be expected. Instead, lawyers and prospective clients (and others) will be left to wonder whether this opinion accurately describes what the other rules mean.

“Here’s a new post.” (cleaned up)

I have tried for the better part of a week to convince myself that I needed to write something about the most recent ABA Formal Ethics Opinion which was released in February 2021 and which attempts to explain what “materially adverse” means in the context of ABA Model Rule 1.9 (and Model Rule 1.18). I really have. But – and I’m probably wrong – I just can’t manage to feel like Formal Opinion 497 merits an entire post as it all just reads like an effort to continue to try to justify something that was just a mistake – an easily understandable mistake to have made but a mistake all the same.

Model Rule 1.9 really shouldn’t say “materially adverse” if what it means is just the same thing as directly adverse. As the opinion explains in footnote 8, during a past process of revising the rules, someone figured this out but that only ended up with a sentence or two being deleted that the ABA had relied upon in the past instead of some affirmative effort to explain in the comment what it actually means in terms of things in addition to direct adversity. This opinion offers up a lot of words but never really manages to identify some way of truly understanding what would be materially adverse but that wouldn’t also be directly adverse. Worse yet, the opinion is even more frustrating for me in Tennessee because our rules define “material or materially” to mean something specific and something that specifically doesn’t work so well as a modifier for the word “adverse.” RPC 1.0(o) in Tennessee reads:

“Material” or “materially” denotes something that a reasonable person would consider important in assessing or determining how to act in a matter.

So, instead of trying to make a whole post about that, let’s add an entirely different topic into the mix. A topic that speaks to a version of me that died a long time ago, the citation format nerd. (1995-2005. RIP)

You may have heard a little bit of discussion among lawyers of the big news coming out of a recent United States Supreme Court opinion authored by Justice Thomas. No, it wasn’t who won and who lost the case which involved aspects of the Federal Tort Claims Act. The big news was that the Court embraced an upstart approach to parenthetical citation, the use of “(cleaned up)” to replace the tedious combination of items such as internal citations omitted and emphasis added or similar items required to be said when you are quoting language from a case that is also quoting language from one or more other cases and also possibly citing to some other authority and that prior authority might also have been referring to some other precedent. [If you really want more insight into the history of the “(cleaned up)” movement you can go here.]

Justice Thomas cemented his legacy as decidedly not an originalist when it comes to legal citation by writing the following in the unanimous opinion issued by the Court in Brownback v. King:

Under that doctrine as it existed in 1946, a judgment is “on
the merits” if the underlying decision “actually passes directly on the substance of a particular claim before the
court.” Id., at 501–502 (cleaned up).

So why do I even think this works at all as fodder for ethical discussion? Well, ellipses have long been recognized as an appropriate way of omitting words from a quote in terms of citations. And, at some point, a lawyer thought it was okay to manipulate a quotation in a case cite to make the citation seem favorable when it wasn’t by omitting one or more words that changed the meaning and using ellipses. Bad idea all the time. And the kind of thing you will get admonished or disciplined for when you get caught.

So, you know it is going to happen, right?

A lawyer is going to try to use (cleaned up) to make a quote seem different and more favorable for their position than is the reality of the quoted authority.

Please don’t be that lawyer.

(P.S. I’m just a week or so away from the Sixth Anniversary of this here blog and about 10 days away from my quarantineversary. As to the blog, I’m looking forward to many more years. As to the pandemic, I’m really ready for this to be over.)

Client Number Three – Seven lessons learned

I can’t believe I’m doing this as neither of these people deserve any benefit of the doubt or serious treatment afforded for their contentions.  But, based on spending time on the web reading comments (despite the always-spot-on advice “don’t read the comments”), there are so incredibly many people who do not understand these concepts and, thus, yesterday’s events do present a good teachable moment about privilege and confidentiality.

Lesson the 1st – it can never be said too many times that the concept of, and the scope of, attorney-client privilege and the ethical duty of client confidentiality are different.  Attorney-client privilege is an evidentiary concept and a privilege with respect to testimony and compelled production of communications in connection with litigation.  Client confidentiality is an ethical duty that imposes shackles on lawyers with respect to voluntary disclosure of information about clients or information about the representation of clients.  If you are familiar with Venn diagrams, then you can think of attorney-client privilege as a smaller circle within the much larger circle that is confidential client information under Model Rule 1.6 and its state analogs.  Client confidentiality is also different because while it imposes real restrictions on attorneys voluntarily disclosing information, it can fall to a court order requiring disclosure.  (See, for example, Model Rule 1.6(b)(6)).

Lesson the 2nd – both privilege and confidentiality will adhere to communications between an attorney and a prospective client during conversations or written communications while deciding whether or not to form a relationship.  Under the ethics rules, most states have adopted a specific rule to drive this point home patterned after Model Rule 1.18.  New York’s version of that rule reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

(a) Except as provided in Rule 1.18(e), a person who consults with a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client.
(b) Even when no client-lawyer relationship ensues, a lawyer who has learned information from a prospective client shall not use or reveal that information, except as Rule 1.9 would permit with respect to information of a former client.

Lesson the 3rd – the identity of a client, though rarely a piece of information that is itself privileged, is always confidential information under the ethics rules.

Lesson the 4th – if a prospective client communicates with an attorney in order to see if they might want to form an attorney-client relationship, those communications should not involve the actual giving of legal advice to the prospective client.  If they do, then the person is not a prospective client anymore because they have now become your client even if only for a limited time period.  If a person asks you for legal advice, and you have given them the legal advice they asked for, then they are your client.  (A much more pedestrian way this can be a problem for lawyers is along these lines:  A lawyer who decides not to take on a plaintiff’s case because the lawyer has concluded that the statute of limitations on the claim has run and the lawyer tells the plaintiff that conclusion.  The lawyer turns out to be wrong about that conclusion, but the plaintiff relies on the advice, later realizes that it was wrong, and then sues the lawyer for malpractice.  Lawyer is going to be unable to defend the malpractice claim on the basis that they were not the plaintiff’s lawyer because they gave the plaintiff legal advice.)

Lesson the 5th – you don’t have to pay a lawyer any money at all to be a client.  Communications can be protected by the attorney-client privilege without respect to whether any money ever changes hands.  And, most certainly, client confidentiality adheres without regard to payment to the lawyer.

(NB: Here endeth the legal ethics lessons.  These two bonus lessons are not about legal ethics.)

Lesson the 6th – there is no point in discussing journalistic ethics when talking about Client Number Three.  He ain’t a journalist.

Lesson the 7th – if a lawyer with only two clients takes on a third client and the common subject-matter of representation of the other two clients involves facilitating hush money payments regarding sexual improprieties, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to begin to think you know the kind of services the third client was seeking.

 

 

The intersection of the First Amendment and the Ethics Rules

So, I don’t know if any of you have ever played HQ Trivia.  In any session, they have between 500,000 and almost 2 million players, so statistically speaking, I guess there is a chance you have.  While it has nothing to do with legal ethics, in order to understand the context of what follows, let me give you a quick primer.

It is something that would have been 5 years ago the stuff of science fiction or an even an episode of Black Mirror.  It is an app on your phone through which you can play trivia in real-time answering questions read by a human being host.  Each question is presented with three multiple-choice answers and you have 10 seconds from when the host starts reading the question to click your answer.  If you answer correctly, you get to move on to the next question.  If you don’t, you are eliminated.  In the standard format, the quiz consists of 12 questions and, if you answer all the questions correctly, you win or split the pot with any other players who have done so.  (When the largest pots are offered they increase the number of questions to 15 or, quite recently, they have experimented with as many questions as is necessary to narrow down to just winner in a winner-take-all format.)

The dollar amount of the prize varies.  It is typically $2,500 but, as it appears they are closer to whatever plan they have in place for monetizing the app approaches, they have recently offered a pot as large as $100,0o0.  Reportedly, tonight they will be offering a $250,000 pot.  I have won the game on one occasion and, of course, when I did there were so many other winners that my share came to just shy of $2.  (I also know there are other companies doing similar games and some of those are competing against HQ on the basis of how awful one particular financial backer of HQ reportedly is, so I’m not going to link or provide publicity to the game, but it is the one I play [for better or worse] so if you decide to sign up for it and put in my user name – bsfaughnan- as a referral code then I will get some extra lives.)

Now all that is background for today’s topic – which is the intersection and overlap of the ethics rules and what they prohibit members of our profession from doing and the First Amendment.  This topic is frequently one I spend time thinking about because for many years my practice has also involved representing clients on First Amendment issues and, in fact, though I continue to not be listed in Best Lawyerfor Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility, in addition to being listed for Appellate Law, I am listed for Litigation-First Amendment.  It is also a topic that I have been thinkng about frequently because of various events that have worked their way into my line of sight either directly or indirectly.  Those three events are: (1) the outpouring of comments from particular portions of the bar in Tennessee arguing that the proposed RPC 8.4(g) in Tennessee is an assault on their First Amendment rights; (2) the latest post from Avvo’s GC criticizing ABA Formal Op. 480; and (3) the head of a prominent law firm speaking out publicly to indicate that a star lawyer of his firm turned down the opportunity to represent the current occupant of The White House.

So, here’s the HQ-style question and, remember, there is only one correct answer.  You won’t be limited to 10 seconds to answer from the time you start reading the question however:

Which of these presents the most compelling case for finding that discipline against a lawyer would violate the lawyer’s First Amendment rights?

  • A lawyer tweets – without client permission – about a jury verdict she obtained in order to advertise the successful outcome.
  • A lawyer, during a CLE or bar association social event, decides to lecture everyone in the room about why he considers marriage between two persons of the same gender to be an abomination.
  • A lawyer, consulted by a politician who she finds to be vile, or have views she finds to be vile, holds a press conference or tweets that she refused to represent that politician because she disagrees with everything he stands for.

 

 

Tennessee has adopted the Ethics 20/20 changes effective immediately.

I’ve written a couple of times in the past about the status of the Tennessee Bar Association’s petition seeking to have the Tennessee Supreme Court adopt essentially all of the ABA Ethics 20/20 changes.  Yesterday, the Tennessee Supreme Court entered an order doing just that – effective immediately — which now adds Tennessee to the list of jurisdictions that have adopted that package of ABA Model Rule changes focused on updating certain aspects of the rules to address technology and the role it plays in modern law practice.

I’m pleased to be able to report that as to the issues where our Board of Professional Responsibility had offered counter proposals to certain aspects that would both be contrary to the Ethics 20/20 language and for which the TBA expressed a level of disquietude with the proposals, the Court opted to stick with what the TBA was proposing.

You can read the Court order and the black-line of the changes made to those rules impacted at this link.  As a result of the order, effective immediately, Tennessee now has:

  • a definition of “writing” in RPC 1.0 that refers to “electronic communications” rather than just “e-mail”
  • paragraphs in the Comment to RPC 1.1 that provide more guidance about the need to obtain informed consent from a client before involving lawyers from outside the lawyer’s own firm in a client matter
  • language in the Comment to RPC 1.1 that makes clear that the lawyer’s duty to “keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice” includes “the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology”
  • more modern language in the Comment to RPC 1.4 making clear that not just telephone calls from clients but all modern forms of communication by clients need to be responded to or acknowledged promptly
  • a specific discretionary exception to confidentiality under RPC 1.6(b) for disclosing information “to detect and resolve conflicts of interest arising from the lawyer’s change of employment or from changes in composition orr ownership of a firm”
  • black-letter treatment in RPC 1.6(d) of the duty to “make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client”
  • a little clearer, and more focused, guidance in RPC 1.18 about what kinds of communications will suffice to trigger a lawyer’s obligations to someone as a prospective client
  • important distinctions described in the Comment to RPC 5.3 as to a lawyer’s supervisory obligations as to nonlawyer assistants within and outside of the lawyer’s firm
  • important guidance in the advertising rules about the appropriateness of working with certain companies providing lead-generation services

In addition to adopting the ABA Ethics 20/20 changes, the black-line materials also reflect some housekeeping revisions we had proposed to catch a few items that needed changing in terms of cross-references from other Tennessee Supreme Court rules that had changed over the last few years.

Learn something new every day. Or two things. Or three things. I’m not your boss.

About a week or so ago, I learned something new about South Carolina’s ethics rules – thanks to the law-student-powered blog of the University of Miami (FL) School of Law, Legal Ethics in Motion.  They wrote about a South Carolina federal court case in which a motion to disqualify premised on South Carolina Rule 1.18 was denied.  I learned a second new thing about South Carolina’s ethics rules in reading that opinion.

The first new thing I learned about South Carolina was that it has a weird-ish wrinkle in its Rule 1.18(a).

Most jurisdictions, including Tennessee, follow the lead of ABA Model Rules and have a version of Rule 1.18(a) that defines a “prospective client” as someone who “consults with” or “discusses with” a lawyer the “possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter.”

South Carolina, however, takes a different approach.  Its RPC 1.18(a) reads as follows:

A person with whom a lawyer discusses the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form a relationship.

Now, that “only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form a relationship” language can have some obvious benefits in avoiding having to deal with certain situations where most folks would agree that the array of protections afforded to a person as a prospective client under RPC 1.18 just shouldn’t come into existence.  Like, if the only reason someone is reaching out is to get a lawyer disqualified – usually just dealt with through language in the Comment — this language should suffice to prevent RPC 1.18 protection from coming to pass.  Likewise, if say a person a lawyer has never met before calls out of the blue and starts running on at the mouth about their case before the lawyer could get a word – like “stop” – in edgewise, this rule’s “reasonable expectation” and “likely to form” language would be a very good tool for shutting down any RPC 1.18 argument.

But, even having only just learned of the existence of such language, I was still surprised to then learn what the federal court in South Carolina thought it meant.  Instead of resolving a disqualification motion on the basis that there didn’t seem to be any “significantly harmful” information that was ever transmitted, the court concluded that a series of events spanning a voice mail message, a telephone conference about a possible engagement, and an email exchange thereafter with a South Carolina lawyer was not sufficient to ever create the existence of a prospective client at all.

The court’s own description of the events is really all that should be needed to understand my surprise:

On July 7, 2016, Plaintiff’s attorney Jay Wolman (Wolman) called and left a voice mail for Wyche attorney Tally Parham Casey (Casey) about a possible engagement in a case.  Wolman and Casey discussed the possibility of Wyche’s serving as local counsel for Plaintiff in this matter in a telephone conference on July 11, 2016.  Wolman subsequently emailed Casey on July 11, 2016, and provided Plaintiff’s and Gari’s names “[f]or conflict purposes” and requested a fee agreement “[i]f there is no conflict.”  Casey responded on that same day with applicable hourly rates and stated, “I hope we get the opportunity to work together.”  On July 12, 2016, however, Casey sent Wolman an email stating, “I’m afraid we have a conflict and will not be able to assist you with this matter.”

Pardon the wordplay and all, but I’m not sure it is “likely” that a multitude of judges would agree with how that particular line was drawn on the RPC 1.18(a) front in this particular South Carolina decision.

While I am on the subject of South Carolina and its ethics rules, one other development is worthy of mention here.   South Carolina’s Supreme Court has issued a public censure against an Arkansas lawyer for his role regarding using investigators to “pose as customers in an effort to obtain evidence to prove that the defendant was violating the intellectual property rights of the plaintiffs.”  The Court explained that the Arkansas lawyer’s investigators “made false statements to the defendant’s employees and used tactics designed to prod the employees into making statements about the product,” and also “tape-recorded these conversations without notice to the employees.”

Many, many moons ago (2012), I wrote an article for an ABA publication called Landslide about the ethical problems for lawyers stemming from investigations relying on pretext in intellectual property matters.  I don’t think I’m bragging when I say that billions of people never read that article.  While it is probably a pretty safe bet to guess that this Arkansas lawyer was among the billions of people who didn’t read it, I can’t actually call that something I truly learned today because the conduct for which he is now being punished in 2017 with that public reprimand actually took place back in 2009.

Thus, if I’m flailing around trying to add one more thing to my list of nuggets learned today, it would have to be this, the South Carolina Court was actually a bit kind to this Arkansas lawyer in terms of how it described the problems.  It pointed out, in issuing a public reprimand against the lawyer in question, that the lawyer was “unaware that secret tape-recording, pretexting, and dissembling were in violation of the South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct.”   Had it wanted to be a bit more damning in its explanation of events, it could have pointed out that the South Carolina rules upon which the discipline against the Arkansas lawyer rested (RPC 4.4(a) and RPC 8.4) say the same thing that Arkansas’s own version of those rules say and, thus, that it probably would not be a stretch to say that Arkansas’s ethics rules are also violated by (at least) pretexting and dissembling.