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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

“Sleeping,” sleeping, and Cronic sleeping.

Three recent cases involving lawyers alleged to have been sleeping during trial (actually only two about sleeping lawyers, one about a lawyer pretending to sleep) leave me feeling like there has to be the germ of a worthwhile point to be made in there somewhere, but after drafting and redrafting this post in spare moments the last couple of days, I’m not sure any longer that had a point to be made but here we are, and I’m pot committed, so …

Those of us who primarily handle civil litigation tend to think that the stakes we deal with are high, and our clients certainly think so and expect us to treat their cases in that fashion.  Those responsibilities can end up keeping lawyers up at night.  Yet, in criminal cases, there are typically more significant repercussions for the participants that can flow from a lawyer’s mistake.  Jail time, capital punishment, etc.

Falling asleep during trial would be universally recognized as a pretty significant error for an attorney make.  Yet, pretending to be asleep during trial could, of course, be a strategic ploy.  The three cases decided in 2016 so far that got me thinking on this topic manage to cover the spectrum of the “slumbering lawyer” problem.

Back on Groundhog Day of this year, a prosecutor in Maine was chided by that state’s highest court for conduct described as “sophomoric, unprofessional and a poor reflection on the prosecutor’s office.”  Specifically, the conduct was pretending to sleep during the defense’s closing argument in a murder trial.  The court determined, however, that neither that conduct, nor other conduct by the prosecutor that the court found problematic, was enough to find prejudicial error to the defendant sufficient to justify reversing the homicide conviction in the case.  The stage craft of pretending to sleep could, as with other kinds of stagecraft, be viewed as amounting to a violation of RPC 4.4(a) on the part of the prosecutor.  Maine’s RPC 4.4(a), like the ABA Model Rule, prohibits a lawyer representing a client from “us[ing] means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person….”

Moving on from fake sleeping, but also back in February 2016, the 11th Circuit affirmed a lower district court’s ruling that a criminal defendant was not prejudiced by his slumbering counsel because the lawyer alleged to have fallen asleep only did so during a non-critical stage of the trial.  Specifically, defense counsel fell asleep while a recorded interview of an accomplice – spanning 71 pages in transcript length – was played to the jury.  The 11th Circuit agreed with the district court’s ruling that the standard for ineffective assistance under Strickland v. Washington and not U.S. v. Cronic was correct and that the trial court did not unreasonably apply Strickland.

The 11th Circuit opinion presents a very dry read including very little detail (even the lawyer involved never has his name mentioned).  From the opinion though, it appears the only actual proof mentioned of an instance of sleeping was the lawyer’s own statement made after cross-examining the witness and in response to the prosecutor asking for a break while defense counsel was cross-examining the law enforcement officer who had authenticated the recording:  “I need to take a break; I fell asleep a couple of times.”  Whether a sleeping lawyer is viewed as providing incompetent representation in violation of RPC 1.1, or acting in a manner not sufficiently diligent under RPC 1.3, or simply not in a position to effectively communicate with the client during trial under RPC 1.4, one would think that, if the lapse into unconsciousness could actually be proven, that the potential would exist for a finding of a disciplinary violation.  Yet, I would be very surprised if discipline ever came to pass.

In contrast, just last week, the Fourth Circuit reversed the conviction and thirty-year sentence of a defendant whose counsel also fell asleep during trial.  The Fourth Circuit case, as with the 11th Circuit case, involved a Section 2255 proceeding, but the difference in this situation being fairly described as one of degree and of the resulting legal standard to be applied.  Everyone who testified during the evidentiary hearing proceedings — except for the lawyer in question — testified to having witnessed the lawyer asleep at least once during trial.  The lawyer’s client after first alleging his lawyer fell asleep twice, eventually testified that his lawyer had slept for as many as 10 minutes a stretch some 10 to 20 times during the trial.  Counsel for other co-defendants each testified that despite now having a direct view of him at all times, they had noticed at least one bout of snoozing.  Perhaps, most damningly, a juror testified that the lawyer was asleep for at least a half an hour almost every day of trial and that the sleeping lawyer had been a topic of discussion during deliberations.  The lawyer, in question, in testimony not lost on the appellate court, said he couldn’t recall sleeping during the trial.

The Fourth Circuit, in what was a first impression matter for it, joined several other circuits in indicating that the Cronic standard — permitting the presumption of prejudice — and not Strickland applies when a lawyer is asleep for a substantial part of the trial.  The Fourth Circuit, however, also explained in a footnote that its ruling should not be treated as meaning only “the most egregious instances of slumber” will serve to trigger the need for the Cronic standard, indicating that being asleep for a critical part of the trial alone could also be sufficient.  Thus, the same fact pattern in the 11th Circuit matter might suffice in the Fourth Circuit if the nap had come not during the paying of an audiotape of a repetitive witness statement but during a critical time in the trial.

The same set of ethics rules mentioned above as to the one-time-napper are, of course, also implicated by repeated siestas during trial, but the odds of such a proceeding being pursued and discipline imposed inherently should be more likely as to the lawyer in the Fourth Circuit case.  Given the pretty broad conspiracy that would be necessary for the lawyer to prove his public explanation that this was a political dirty trick mounted against him because he had run for public office, such a case would likely be difficult to defend.

[P.S. While his other response, equating the allegations against him as an insult to the federal judge who presided over trial, the logistics of the courtroom described in the Fourth Circuit opinion that could explain why the trial court wouldn’t necessarily have seen the sleeping no matter how frequent and the Fourth Circuit’s own pretty strong rebuke of the district judge’s discounting of the witness testimony — “[T]he district court utterly failed to consider the likely possibility that each was saw [the lawyer] asleep or nodding off on different occasions.  Had the court done so, it would have reached the conclusion that [the lawyer] could have been asleep on at least six or seven different occasions.” — that approach isn’t likely as elegant a way of defending himself as it might seem at first glance.]

 

Digital assets and ethical issues – good news from the Tennessee legislature

Last week the Chattanooga Estate Planning Council was kind enough to have me come to speak to them about ethical issues arising from the uncertain world of the law regarding digital assets.  They were gracious hosts and, to the extent there were important ethics issues to really discuss, we managed to cover that most, if not all, such isssues stemmed from the fact that it is incredibly difficult for those working in estate planning to try to accomplish client objectives as to digital assets in Tennessee because we lack legislation to address it.  For that reason, it seemed to me that the two most prominent ethical concerns for lawyers working in that arena are the duty of competence under RPC 1.1 and the duty under RPC 1.4(b) to communicate about what their clients need to know to make fully informed decisions about the representation.

What’s necessary to address the duty of competence is difficult to pare down beyond recognizing that you have to be as fully up to speed on what Tennessee law does, and does not, address to understand the uncertainty and about how federal law (including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Stored Communications Act) permits service providers to deny requests for access to online information after users and subscribers have passed away.

The most difficult part about the duty of communication under RPC 1.4 is figuring out how to warn a client that no matter how well thought out their estate plan might be on the subject of distribution of digital assets, the client could, by accepting online terms and conditions for use (or updated and revised terms and conditions of use), thwart the plan by ceding ownership of digital assets or authorize service providers or online entities to refuse to honor the contents of such plans.

This week the Tennessee legislature passed legislation so that the time period of such uncertainty now has an end date — July 1, 2016.  Effective at that time, Tennessee attorneys will be able to count on a version of the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act that solves many problems intrinsic to this area of the law.  You can access the version that will go into effect by downloading the PDFs from this post at the TBA Law Blog here.  It will be codified as Tenn. Code Ann.  35-51-101 et seq.  And if you are interested in seeing all of the areas where it differs from the Revised Uniform Act, you can see the full Revised Uniform Act here.

For those that don’t have the time (or the inclination) to go study the Tennessee Act, among the many important and helpful things it accomplishes, there are three I want to highlight.

First, the term “digital asset” will have a clear definition.

[A]n electronic record in which an individual has a right or interest.  ‘Digital asset’ does not include an underlying asset or liability unless the asset or liability is itself an electronic record.

Thus, for example, my URL and this blog should be recognized as a digital asset of mine under state law.  If you have gone green and only receive your bank statements in digital form, then those statements would be a digital asset even though the money in your bank account that they document would not.  If you’re invested in Bitcoin on the other hand, then the value of your holdings in Bitcoin would be digital assets under the Tennessee Act.

Second, the Tennessee Act generally establishes a hierarchy that puts something called an “online tool” at the top, estate planning documents next, and general terms of service agreements last when it comes to directions to online service providers/custodians about post-death disclosure of digital assets.  Section 5 of the Tennessee Act explains:

(a)  A user may use an online tool to direct the custodian to disclose or not to disclose some or all of the user’s digital assets, including the content of electronic communications.  If the online tool allows the user to modify or delete a direction at all times, a direction regarding disclosure using an online tool overrides a contrary direction by the user in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other dispositive or nominative instrument.

(b)  If a user has not used an online tool to give direction under subsection (a) or if the custodian has not provided an online tool, the user may allow or prohibit in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other dispositive or nominative instrument, disclosure to a fiduciary of some or all of the user’s digital assets, including the content of electronic communications sent or received by the user.

(c)  A user’s direction under subsection (a) or (b) overrides a contrary provision in a terms-of-service agreement that does not require the user to act affirmatively and distinctly from the user’s assent to the terms of service.

Online tool, is also a defined term under the Tennessee Act.  “An electronic service provided by a custodian that allows the user, in an agreement distinct from the terms-of-service agreement between the custodian and user, to provide directions for disclosure or nondisclosure of digital assets to a third person.”  I’m not sure, as a frequent user of the Internet, that I have encountered one of these items yet.

Third, while this legislation goes a long way toward reducing uncertainty for estate planning lawyers in Tennessee, it does not change the fact that lawyers will still have to have cogent discussions with their clients when the topic of providing for distribution of digital assets in their estate planning documents arises.  This is in no small part because blithe acceptance of online terms of service agreements will still have consequences in Tennessee as Section 6 of the Tennessee Act makes clear that the underlying rights of users are still going to be limited to whatever is created in a terms-of-service agreement in the first place.  Thus, there will still be lots of confusion on the part of clients who may think, for example, that they actually own and can leave behind that digital library of e-books they possess, yet the terms-of-service they may have agreed to without reading could indicate that they do not actually own any of those items but possess only a lifetime license to use.

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

 

South Carolina adopts first of its kind* rule on cognitive impairment.

My paternal grandfather succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease.  As someone who makes a living (such as it is) using his mind (and is pretty certain that he could not feed his family if forced to use his hands for a living), the loss of my mental faculties is one of my greatest fears.  In that regard, I suspect I am quite like a plethora of other lawyers throughout the United States.

Dealing with lawyers on the tail end of their career, and any declining mental acuity that inevitably accompanies the aging process for many human beings, is a troubling issue for law firms of any size, but particularly for smaller firms.  I’m moderating a panel at the AON Law Firm Risk Symposium in Phoenix in October that will be focusing on the ethics, employment, and loss prevention issues associated with the “graying” of the profession.

For all of these reasons, a development out of South Carolina this week is particularly noteworthy to me.  The South Carolina Supreme Court has adopted what, to my knowledge, is a first of its kind (and the reason for the asterisk in the title is that it is possible there is a rule out there like this somewhere but I’m entirely unaware of it) package of rules focused on the issue of lawyers and the onset of “cognitive impairment.”  The measures adopted by South Carolina in this order dated August 24 do three separate, but obviously interrelated things.

First, SC established a new rule, SCACR 428 entitled “Intervention to Protect Clients,” giving authority for the Executive Director of the South Carolina Bar — SC has a unified bar association so that person, unlike say in Tennessee, is a government actor (an important distinction as I discussed in another context here) — to be able, upon receipt of information from someone “expressing concern about cognitive impairment of another lawyer” to appoint “Attorneys to Intervene,” who would in turn have the authority to attempt to meet with the lawyer in question and potentially propose a course of conduct, including actions such as making referral to the “Commission on Lawyer Conduct.”

Second, SC revised its RPC 5.1 to add a new subsection:

(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.

Along with that subsection, a new Comment [9] was adopted stressing that the new rule “expresses a principle of responsibility to the clients of the law firm.”

Third, SC imposed an ethical obligation upon judges to take certain steps when they reach a conclusion that a lawyer practicing before them is suffering from this kind of measurable mental decline through adoption of a new Rule 501(G) in the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Whether this will be the start of a trend among states remains to be seen.  It is worth noting that whether specialized rules are adopted or not, in jurisdictions tracking the ABA Model Rules, there are ethical rules already implicated by the situation, not just for the lawyer whose skills are waning, but also for those lawyers who practice with him in a firm or even as co-counsel.  It is, for example, not much of a stretch to read the duties owed by lawyers under RPC 1.1, RPC 1.4, RPC 1.16(a), and RPC 5.1(b) and (c) to perhaps have obligations roughly similar to the new obligations being delineated in South Carolina’s RPC 5.1(d).

It is also well worth keeping in mind that given the economic climate — both market calamities several years ago and things that seem like current market calamities — there is no reason to think that the phenomenon of aging lawyers being reluctant to retire is likely to go away any time soon.  Thus, whether jurisdictions seek to carve out specialized requirements and rules as has South Carolina or not, I feel pretty safe saying these issues will continue to challenge lawyers and law firms for the rest of my lifetime.

 

 

Another wrinkle from that malpractice insurance coverage opinion

Earlier this week, I wrote about the scariness that can come with understanding another way that lawyers’ fates are tied together when they practice law in the same firm: one lawyer failing to disclose a known problem on a malpractice renewal application could lead to loss of coverage for all of the other lawyers in the firm.

Another interesting aspect of the Illinois State Bar Ass’n Mutual Ins. Co. opinion is how it sheds light on the potential futility of enacting an ethics rule (or other court rule) requiring lawyers to disclose whether they have malpractice insurance.  According to the chart maintained by the ABA, 7 states mandate lawyers make a disclosure directly to the client regarding whether they have malpractice insurance.  If such a requirement is ever to be imposed, that certainly seems like the preferred option, even if it overlooks that lawyers already are required by RPC 1.4 to communicate important information to clients regarding their matters and a number of different ethics rules (RPC 7.1, RPC 8.4(c)) would be violated by a lawyer not truthfully answering a question from a client or prospective client about whether the lawyer has coverage.  The ABA chart reflects, however, another 17 states mandate that lawyers disclose whether they have coverage or not on their annual registration statement (and most of those states also require the information from the annual registration statement be made available to the public).

Illinois is one of the 17 states requiring disclosure on an annual registration statement and that makes the information available for review on a public website.  Among the concerns expressed by the dissent over permitting ISBA Mutual to rescind the Tuzzolino & Terpinas firm’s policy is that not only would the “innocent” lawyer in this situation have been acting in reliance upon the idea that he had coverage and disclosed the existence of such coverage to comply with his obligations under the rules, but the clients of his law firm could have relied upon the regulatory regime in place — and the fact that the public information would indicate he had coverage — to mean that they were dealing with a lawyer with malpractice insurance.   After the rescission of the policy based on one lawyers’ lack of disclosure, however, the clients were not dealing with lawyers who had coverage after all.

Tennessee has not, to date, ever gotten very far down a path toward serious consideration of adopting such a disclosure requirement.  Telling consumers that they can go look on a state supreme court website to know if the lawyer they are dealing with has insurance coverage provides information only about a fixed point in time, of course.  There are a number of principled grounds for opposition to such efforts.   One is that since most malpractice policies are “claims-made” policies rather than occurrence policies making the existence of a policy less important for a client then knowledge of whether a notice of claim was timely provided.  Another involves the various ethics rules a lawyer would violate if a client, who cared about the topic enough to ask, was lied to by the lawyer.  It seems to me that the ISBA Mut. Ins. Co. case demonstrates another example of a way in which rules that require disclosure of coverage on an annual registration statement and publication of that information publicly could, despite the best of intentions, end up misleading consumers of legal services.