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.

Practicing law like it’s espionage. NYC Bar Formal Op. 2017-5

This week the New York City Bar has put out a very important, and I think very helpful, ethics opinion to address a real, practical concern for lawyers: what, if anything, can be done to protect confidential client information when traveling and crossing the border into the U.S.?

NY City Bar Formal Op. 2017-5 lays out the issue as follows:

An attorney traveling abroad with an electronic device (such as a smartphone, portable hard drive, USB “thumb drive,” or laptop) that contains clients’ confidential information plans to travel through a U.S. customs checkpoint or border crossing. During the crossing, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) agent claiming lawful authority demands that the attorney “unlock” the
device and hand it to the agent so that it may be searched. The attorney has not obtained informed consent from each client whose information may be disclosed in this situation.

The opinion makes the point that with the change of administration such searches of travelers and their data has increased exponentially:

In recent years, searches of cell phones, laptop computers, and other electronic devices at border crossings into the U.S. have become increasingly frequent. According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 5,000 devices were searched by
CBP agents in February 2017 alone. By way of comparison, that is about as many U.S. border searches of electronic devices as were undertaken in all of 2015, and just under a quarter of the
approximately 23,877 U.S. border searches of such devices undertaken in 2016.

The entirety of the opinion is worth a read to see how it offers its guidance about things a lawyer might do at the time of demanded search to protect client confidential information, and to hear its additional important message that lawyers have an obligation under RPC 1.4 to contact all affected clients after such a search takes place.

The aspect of it that I want to focus on, however, is to expand on some of the practical advice it offers as to things a lawyer could do before going through customs at the border to lower risk of disclosure.  Particularly, this passage:

The simplest option with the lowest risk is not to carry any confidential information across the border. One method of avoiding the electronic transportation of clients’ confidences involves using a blank “burner” phone or laptop, or otherwise removing confidential information from one’s carried device by deleting confidential files using software designed to securely delete information, turning off syncing of cloud services, signing out of web-based services, and/or uninstalling applications that provide local or remote access to confidential information prior
crossing to the border.  This is not to say that attorneys traveling with electronic devices must remove all electronically stored information. Some electronic information, including many
work-related emails, may contain no confidential information protected by Rule 1.6(a). Even when emails contain confidential information, the obligation to remove these emails from the
portable device before crossing the border depends on what is reasonable. As previously discussed, this turns on the ease or inconvenience of avoiding possession of confidential
information; the need to maintain access to the particular information and its sensitivity; the risk of a border inspection; and any other relevant considerations.

Now, as to that sentence about some work-related emails may not contain confidential information protected by RPC 1.6(a), it is worth remembering that New York has a different RPC 1.6(a) than most jurisdictions as it comes closer to retaining the old “confidences and secrets” regime.  In most other jurisdictions, where RPC 1.6(a) covers any information related to representation of a client, then it is difficult to imagine any work-related email involving client matters that wouldn’t be protected as confidential under RPC 1.6(a).

And, for that reason, when I’ve had to help people try to work through this question, my advice has been consistent with what the New York City opinion is saying albeit perhaps stated more succinctly – delete the mail application from your smart phone until you get through the border.  Then reinstall it.  As long as your work email is stored on a server somewhere, then you should have no loss of data at all.

The only inconvenience caused is that for the time between deleting it and crossing through the border, you will have no access to email. Using the balancing factors compared to the risk of the violation of client confidences, this seems like a small inconvenience.  Simply deleting the mail application for a period of time also has the benefit of not placing the lawyer in the position of trying to “reason” with customs officials and argue with them over whether they need to be doing what they are doing.

As to other kinds of electronic data, the solutions are not as simple as with email.  Text messages are particularly concerning as deleting those or removing access to those from your device for even a short period of time would result in the loss of that data.  Generally speaking, the New York City opinion does a good job at explaining some of a lawyer’s options.  One option that the opinion doesn’t exactly spend a lot of time discussing is obtaining the consent of clients in advance.  One potential way of doing so could be standardizing provisions into engagement letters with clients to address this topic.

This unfortunately appears to be a topic that will only become more difficult to deal with for lawyers who travel frequently.  As an example, within the last month there have been stories in the media that Homeland Security is contemplating requiring all reading material be removed from carry on and put in bins for the purpose of potential review by TSA agents.  Travel is already a stressful endeavor, but as a lawyer if that were to come to pass there would be almost no way to take anything on a flight to have or review without running a real risk of loss of client confidentiality.

Two short updates for a Tuesday

Late last month, I focused a post on a West Virginia lawyer who ended up staring down a 2-year suspension over chronic over-billing.  If you missed that post, you can read it here.  If you read it, you will recall that one of the items discussed was that the Executive Director of the West Virginia Public Defender Services agency had indicated that particular lawyer was not even among the worst offenders.

The ABA Journal online has a piece up that is apparently about one such even worse offender who has skipped out on bail regarding the criminal charges he is facing over his rampant over-billing (including billing more than 24 hours on 17 different days) and is suspected to be a fugitive in a much more temperate part of the world than West Virginia.

Over a larger time period and with a bit more frequency, I’ve written a little bit about the ABA Ethics 20/20 revisions to the Model Rules — admittedly through the lens that those revisions were being considered and then adopted here in my home state of Tennessee.  If you’ve been looking for a really good window into what the technology-focused aspects of the Ethics 20/20 revisions mean for your law practice, you are in luck because the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has now put out Formal Ethics Op. 477 which pretty much provides exactly that.

It is a good opinion – it’s getting a lot of attention in the legal media for establishing new standards but that’s not quite right.  It doesn’t really establish anything new but it does do a really good job of focusing lawyers’ attention upon the logical repercussions of the Ethics 20/20 revisions and the risks that lawyers need to be acutely aware of when communicating with clients.

It is also worth noting — particularly given the last few days of ransom ware news (and one other high-profile instance of information that was promised to be kept secret being disseminated under questionable circumstances) that user error continues to be a leading cause of unintended disclosure of (or complete loss of access to) confidential information whether technology is involved or not.

It should go without saying that there is only so much a lawyer can do to try to guard against those kinds of risks.

Wisconsin rightly says no to name dropping without consent.

Earlier this week I criticized what I consider to be a pretty bad ethics opinion that was issued by Rhode Island.  To balance things out a bit, I want to write about an ethics opinion out of Wisconsin that gives the correct answer to its query – Wisconsin Formal Ethics Opinion EF-17-02.  That opinion correctly explains that because of the broad swath of confidentiality created by Rule 1.6, even the names of clients qualify as confidential information and, therefore, a lawyer can only disclose the name of a client if in advertisements or materials circulated for marketing or any other personal purpose if the client has given informed consent to the disclosure or some other exception within Rule 1.6 applies.

In issuing this opinion, Wisconsin had to withdraw an older opinion that provided guidance that the names of clients were not confidential information, Wisconsin Ethics Op. E-93-5.

Lots of lawyers (not just in Wisconsin) do not immediately grasp that this is the correct result — that the identity of a lawyer’s clients is itself confidential information.  A lot of times they don’t do so because doing so requires recognizing that there are a lot of things lawyers do that they really shouldn’t without getting their clients approval.   The Wisconsin opinion uses the example of talking about the fact of a representation as a cocktail party as an example, but there are less obvious ways this issue crops up.  Lawyers often don’t think twice about providing information about the details of their prior representations as part of responding to requests for proposals from insurance carriers as part of trying to become approved as panel counsel, for example.  Some lawyers will rationalize their approach on the basis that they are only disclosing information that can already be found in public records, but the Wisconsin opinion rightly makes the point that Rule 1.6 doesn’t remove the obligation of confidentiality for the lawyer merely because the information is available in a public record.

I’ve often attempted to explain the policy choice that Rule 1.6 enshrines for lawyers along these lines.  Imagine you are a family law attorney.  Now in order to file a divorce complaint for a particular client you are going to have to disclose in the filing a lot of details about your client’s life that they really hope no one finds out about.  Members of the public certainly could go down to the courthouse or go online if the court has electronic records and read all of the sordid details, but the client definitely hopes people don’t.  The ethics rules stake out a position – at least jurisdictions that have the ABA Model Rule version of Rule 1.6 do — that even though the lawyer has to put those things in the public complaint, lawyers are going to be charged with not talking about those things without the client’s consent to do so.  I then often ask lawyers to think about how a conversation would go if you called your client and asked them for permission to offer up the interesting anecdote about their situation.

The ramification of that policy choice ends up being that the rule errs on the side of confidential treatment even for things that many clients might not even expect could be confidential and that’s the reason, for example, that firms who circulate materials about representative clients, whether on their website or elsewhere, need to get client permission to do so.

While Wisconsin’s opinion is praiseworthy on its substance, Wisconsin should still get criticized for its insistence on shielding its formal ethics opinions from the public and providing access to them only for members of the Wisconsin Bar.  That’s a silly and outdated approach.

As a Tennessee lawyer, I only know about what the new Wisconsin opinion says because the fine folks at ABA/BNA reported on it.  Presumably, as they always do, they did a good job and, thus, if you go read their article here then you, like me, can know what Wisconsin had to say in construing its ABA Model Rule-based ethics rule on confidentiality.

Coming full circle, while I can’t stand the substantive outcome offered up by that Rhode Island opinion discussed earlier this week, at least Rhode Island allows for public access to the ethics opinions it issues.  For as long as there continue to be jurisdictions like Wisconsin that shield theirs from view, then offering public access will continue to deserve praise in Rhode Island and elsewhere.

Traps for the Unwary – Employer email systems

I like to think I am “warier” than the average attorney.  But a recent attorney-client privilege opinion out of New York was a good reminder that being “wary” can be much like being “woke.”  Even if you think you are, you probably aren’t as much as you think you are, and you can always be a bit more.

I’ve spoken and written in the past about the risk for lawyers’ clients to using an email system provided by an employer to communicate with them but my focus in doing so has largely involved assumptions about ways in which the nature of the representation could be one in which the client wouldn’t actually want to the employer to be able to access the communications.  For example, where the client and the employer would actually have contrary interests.

That type of scenario was the focus of the kind of warning ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 11-459 provided to lawyers who handle employment law matters:

This opinion addresses this question in the following hypothetical situation.
An employee has a computer assigned for her exclusive use in the course of her employment. The company’s written internal policy provides that the company has a right of access to all employees’ computers and e-mail files, including those relating to employees’ personal matters. Notwithstanding this policy, employees sometimes make personal use of their computers, including for the purpose of sending personal e-mail messages from their personal or office e-mail accounts. Recently, the employee retained a lawyer to give advice about a potential claim against her employer. When the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the employee may use a workplace device or system to communicate with the lawyer, does the lawyer have an ethical duty to warn the employee about the risks this practice entails?

[snip]

The situation in the above hypothetical is a clear example of where failing to warn the client about the risks of e-mailing communications on the employer’s device can harm the client, because the employment dispute would give the employer a significant incentive to access the employee’s workplace e-mail and the employer’s internal policy would provide a justification for doing so. The obligation arises once the lawyer has reason to believe that there is a significant risk that the client will conduct e-mail communications with the lawyer using a workplace computer or other business device or via the employer’s e-mail account. This possibility ordinarily would be known, or reasonably should be known, at the outset of the representation. Given the nature of the representation–an employment dispute–the lawyer is on notice that the employer may search the client’s electronic correspondence. Therefore, the lawyer must ascertain, unless the answer is already obvious, whether there is a significant risk that the client will use a business e-mail address for personal communications or whether the employee’s position entails using an employer’s device.

With hindsight it certainly seems an obvious extension of the same point to be worried that the privilege is in jeopardy even when the underlying matter is not one in which client and the employer are adverse, yet I’ll admit that I was initially surprised to hear about through this (as always) quite good write up in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct and then dig in and read the Peerenboom v. Marvel Entertainment opinion itself (which is remarkable for its brevity) which found that Marvel’s CEO’s emails to his personal attorney on Marvel’s email system could not be shielded from discovery by a third party pursuing litigation against Marvel based on attorney-client privilege.  (Simultaneously also saying that no marital privilege existed either.)

The New York court explained that Marvel’s email policy provided that it “‘owned’ all emails on its system, and that the emails were ‘subject to all Company rules, policies, and conduct statements.’ Marvel ‘reserve[d] the right to audit networks and systems on a periodic basis to ensure [employees’] compliance’ with its email policies. It also ‘reserve[d] the right to access, review, copy and delete any messages or content,’ and ‘to disclose such messages to any party (inside or outside the Company).'”  Based on that, the court considered it easy to conclude that the CEO had no reasonable expectation of privacy in email communications to others using his Marvel email address.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the opinion does not reference or discuss in any fashion whether the CEO’s lawyer would still be obligated to treat all of the communications as confidential under the relevant ethics rules in New York(spoiler alert: he would).

Since I’ve got your webcam turned on remotely, show of hands if you’ve 100% of the time been making sure your clients’ email communications with you are only happening on a platform provided by someone other than their employer – like gmail, Yahoo, Bellsouth, or Comcast, or some other personal source of email access.

Yeah, me neither.

It certainly feels like a harsh result — particularly when you stop and think about how much email traffic takes place on email platforms that are company provided to all involved — but it can be a difficult outcome to argue against given the traditional strict construction of the privilege and how readily it can be waived as a result of exposure to anyone who is a stranger to the relationship.

The Peerenboom opinion also serves, however, as a good reminder of just how different the attorney-client privilege and the attorney work-product doctrine are and how differently they are waived.

Given the lack of evidence that Marvel viewed any of Perlmutter’s personal emails, and the lack of evidence of any other actual disclosure to a third party, Perlmutter’s use of Marvel’s email for personal purposes does not, standing alone, constitute a waiver of attorney work product protections (see People v Kozlowski . . .898 N.E.2d 891 . . . .

That point is one I’ve always found easiest to explain to lawyers with reference to another New York case (albeit one in federal court) involving a different very famous brand, Martha Stewart, United States v. Stewart, 287 F. Supp. 2d 461 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).  That was the case in which a New York federal court explained the different ramifications as to privilege waiver versus work product waiver flowing from Martha Stewart sharing her lawyer’s communications with her daughter.  While, because she was a stranger to the attorney-client relationship Stewart had with her lawyer and thus eviscerated the attorney-client privilege, as to work product:

By forwarding the e-mail to a family member, Stewart did not substantially increase the risk that the Government would gain access to materials prepared in anticipation of litigation. Martha Stewart stated in her affidavit that “Alexis is the closest person in the world to me. She is a valued confidante and counselor to me. In sharing the e-mail with her, I knew that she would keep its content strictly confidential.” Martha Stewart Aff. ¶ 6. Alexis Stewart stated that while she did not recall receiving the June 24 e-mail, she “never would have disclosed its contents.” Alexis Stewart Aff. ¶ 2. The disclosure affected neither side’s interests in this litigation: it did not evince an intent on Stewart’s part to relinquish work product immunity for the document, and it did not prejudice the Government by offering Stewart some litigation-based advantage. Accordingly, I hold that Stewart did not waive work product protection over the June 23 and 24 e-mails.

And, it seems fair to say that the more robust ability of the work-product doctrine to withstand waiver in a world in which people use their work email for a lot of things, allow me to echo Ms. Stewart to say.

That’s a good thing.

North Carolina – Good intentions leading to a pretty seemingly bad rule.

So North Carolina has got quite a bit going on these days.  Last night UNC won the NCAA Men’s Basketball championship.  A few days ago, its general assembly kind of, sort of, repealed the bathroom bill that brought it much negative publicity and cost it some sporting events.  And, in March 2017, it adopted a first-of-its-kind ethics rule that seeks to require all lawyers — not just prosecutors — to reveal any evidence of the innocence of someone that comes into their possession after the person has been convicted.

Tennessee, I am proud to say, is among the “Sweet Sixteen” of other states that have adopted the ABA Model Rule 3.8(g) and (h) language that imposes this kind of duty upon prosecutors, but North Carolina’s act of going further to say that all attorneys have this obligation — at a mandatory level and when not doing so could somehow lead to discipline — seems very misguided to me.

Now because this is being written on the Internet, and because taking things out of context and ascribing intents and beliefs not intended to things written on the Internet is pretty much a sporting event itself these days, I feel beholden to make the point that — obviously I am not in favor of anyone being convicted of a crime they didn’t commit and I very much count myself in the category of folks who agree with the “it’s better that 10 guilty people be set free than 1 innocent person be imprisoned” line of thinking.  Also, I absolutely think that if an attorney comes across solid evidence that would indicate someone has been convicted of something they didn’t do, then an attorney ought to be encouraged to try to do something about that.

Nevertheless, I am not at all a fan of the idea of constructing an ethics rule that would require a lawyer to do so on pain of discipline.  Not even in the abstract because the architecture of such a rule would have to weigh in the balance too many other ethical obligations a lawyer might have that would compete.  I’m also not a fan of North Carolina’s specific effort to do so — North Carolina RPC 8.6 — which actually does attempt to  balance those competing obligations and in so doing, I think, actually proves the inherent pointlessness of this line of proposed rulemaking.

So, step by step, here is black-letter of North Carolina’s Rule 8.6.  The first paragraph establishes the initial scope of the duty.

(a) Subject to paragraph (b), when a lawyer knows of credible evidence or information, including evidence or information otherwise protected by Rule 1.6, that creates a reasonable likelihood that a defendant did not commit the offense for which the defendant was convicted, the lawyer shall promptly disclose that evidence or information to the prosecutorial authority for the jurisdiction in which the defendant was convicted and to North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services or, if appropriate, the federal public defender for the district of conviction.

So, as a starting point, this duty would override obligations of client confidentiality that would otherwise require a lawyer to remain quiet.  But obviously that creates some problems.  So, the next paragraph carves out exceptions to the obligation.

(b) Notwithstanding paragraph (a), a lawyer shall not disclose evidence or information if:

(1) the evidence or information is protected from disclosure by law, court order, or 27 N.C. Admin. Code Ch. 1B §.0129;

(2) disclosure would criminally implicate a current or former client or otherwise substantially prejudice a current or former client’s interests; or

(3) disclosure would violate the attorney-client privilege applicable to communications between the lawyer and a current or former client.

So, the exceptions still do not allow Rule 1.6 concerns to prevent disclosure (unless, I guess, breaching certain 1.6 client confidences would be considered “otherwise substantially prejudic[ing] a current… client’s interests”), but the exceptions to protect the subset of Rule 1.6 communications that would also be protected as attorney-client privilege and protect a lawyer in the event that complying with Rule 8.6(a) would require them to put one of their own clients or former clients in jeopardy of criminal prosecution.  Thus, Rule 8.6(b) essentially makes certain that Rule 8.6(a) will not apply to the most reasonably likely scenarios in which any lawyer who isn’t a prosecutor is going to learn of information indicating that someone has been wrongfully convicted.

The next paragraph, for good measure, also provides the same kind of “good faith”/exercise of professional judgment safeguard in place for private lawyers that Rule 3.8 provides for prosecutors:

(c) A lawyer who in good faith concludes that information is not subject to disclosure under this rule does not violate the rule even if that conclusion is subsequently determined to be erroneous.

The final paragraph then proceeds to make clear that no duty to disclose arises when the lawyer knows that the right people essentially already know.

(d) This rule does not require disclosure if the lawyer knows an appropriate governmental authority, the convicted defendant, or the defendant’s lawyer already possesses the information.

So, in the end, and as Professor Bruce Green is quoted as saying in a few of the news articles about the development, “it carves out so much that it’s hard to known when it will apply.”  I think that’s a kinder way of saying:  Other than whatever encouraging effect it might have on some small set of lawyers who wouldn’t otherwise step up and do the right thing to let authorities know about something if doing so wouldn’t violate their duty to another client or former client, this rule is not really going to accomplish much and is probably largely unenforceable.

And while that encouraging effect might be a laudable goal, pursuing it through this kind of rule seems the wrong way to go about it.  If you are truly going to insist on something like this in a jurisdiction, it would be better pursued as a purely aspirational rule.  We already have one of those with respect to the obligation to do pro bono.

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. 

Friday follow up: DC Bar counsel’s weird priorities

So (finally) I’ve made myself read a bit more into the DC situation — that for many people is now ancient history but was news to me — about what seems like something that definitely got some play in the news but ought to be a more nationally discussed scandal.  The weird penchant that DC Bar Counsel has displayed in recent years of going after not just lawyer whistleblowers but lawyers who provide advice and counsel to such lawyers.

When I started down this path originally, it was in connection with noting the discipline that was imposed against Adrianna Koeck over her sharing of certain documents she took with her upon leaving her position as in-house counsel for GE and sharing them with the media.  I’ve now had the chance to track down and read the admonition issued against Koeck’s former professor – Robert Blakey — and the recommended findings/charges against Koeck’s lawyer – Lynne Bernabei.  Having done so, I’m still left shaking my head and thinking the priorities demonstrated are bananas.

The Report and Recommendation of the Ad Hoc Hearing Committee contains information that can be referenced to succinctly distill the underlying scenario:

In her position with GE, Koeck served “as the interface between legal issues happening in Latin America, Brazil, Argentina, Chile…and the broader businesses spread across the globe….

[snip]

When Koeck joined [GE] in 2006, Koeck’s supervisor … brief her about [an investigation involving questions regarding value added tax issues in Brazil] and gave her the file concerning the matter.  Resolving these discrepancies [the VAT issues] became one of the “big issues” on Koeck’s plate….

In mid-November 2006, after eleven months of her working for GE… Human Resources advised Koeck that [her supervisor] did not want her to either stay with the company or move to another GE business.

Koeck was to be discharged at a November 29, 2006 meeting scheduled with a GE Human Resource employee, but immediately before that meeting, Koeck emailed the GE corporate Ombudsman… claiming, among other things, that she was being retaliated against “for participating in and reporting illegal activity engaged in by [GE] personnel.”  She alleged that, in the course of her compliance investigations, she had discovered tax fraud that GE had been perpetrating in Brazil.  She claimed that she was being terminated for raising concerns about the fraud to her supervisors.

[snip]

In late August 2007, Koeck sought the legal advice of her former Notre Dame Law School professor, G. Robert Blakey.  Koeck provided Blakey with some of the confidential documents that she had copied from her GE computer.  Blakey advised Koeck, “that the documents and information she had were not covered by the attorney-client relationship, because they fell within the crime/fraud exception.”

[snip]

Blakey confined his advice to Koeck to disclosures she would make to protect herself against potential criminal liability, and he recommended that she retain an additional attorney with expertise in employment law and whistleblower complaints.  Blakely gave Koeck the names of two firms, one of which was Bernabei & Wachtel, PLLC.

[snip]

On November 27, 2007, Koeck formally retained Bernabei’s firm to handle the SOX matter before the Department of Labor.

[snip]

After Koeck retained Bernabei on November 27, 2007, she and Blakey met and agreed that Koeck should inform the press about GE’s activities in Brazil.  Beginning in December 2007, Bernabei spoke with Koeck about having a press strategy and talking to the press.

[snip]

At some point in the fall of 2007, David Cay Johnston, a New York Times reporter at the time, received a telephone call from Blakey who asked if Johnson “might be interested in material about a long-running series of felonies committed by General Electric in another country.”  Thereafter, Johnson received “hundreds of pages of documents” from Blakey or Koeck.  Subsequently in January 2008, Johnston interviewed Koeck about the alleged tax fraud in Brazil and she provided additional documents in her possession regarding GE’s activities there.

Now as to Koeck and Bernabei, an interesting wrinkle learned from reading the source documents is that because the SOX proceedings were before the Department of Labor, the disciplinary body looked to the ABA Model Rules to apply to some extent, but entirely ignored any evaluation of Model Rule 3.6 on trial publicity that would appear, arguably, to permit disclosure of aspects of the proceedings to the media.  In my earlier post, I had noted that DC does not have a trial publicity rule that extends as far as the Model Rule, but this wrinkle, to me, further undermines the outcome in these matters.

But it is the details of Professor Blakey’s situation though that are laid out in his admonition letter – that bar counsel was aware of and took into account and yet still thought discipline was warranted that most astound me and leave me sticking to my guns about this all being bananas:

Ms. Koeck told you that she was concerned that GE had not and was not taking any action to stop the alleged ongoing fraud and that she was afraid that she might be personally liable for the activity because Brazilian law holds individuals, and not corporations, liable for tax fraud and criminal activity.  Ms. Koeck also said that she knew of money-laundering activities and described instances in which GE employees in South America had been murdered.  Based on your conversations with her, you were under the mistaken impression that Ms. Koeck was residing in Brazil.  You believed that she faced possible criminal liability if she did not report the alleged illegal and fraudulent activity.  You also believed that her physical safety was in danger.

[snip]

In advising Ms. Koeck to provide information and copies of GE’s documents to Mr. Johnston, you had in mind the evidentiary crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege, but you did not give adequate consideration to the terms of Rule 1.6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Now setting aside the fact that D.C.’s Rule 1.6(d) does provide a lawyer with an exception to permit disclosure that would at least have been arguably available to cover Koeck’s circumstances, they are managing to discipline a very distinguished lawyer on a basis of saying he assisted another lawyer in violating her ethical obligations rather than attempt to prove that the lawyer’s allegedly “bad advice” rose to a level of incompetence to justify discipline under Rule 1.1.

As a lawyer who represents lawyers, I find that to be a really quite scary turn of events.

My view on the whole situation isn’t exactly made any better after tooling around a bit on the Web regarding the disciplinary counsel involved in pursuing this matter, Hamilton P. Fox, III.  Mr. Fox appears to be the same gentleman who was on the wrong side of the exercise of abusive and over-the-top enforcement powers recently as well.  You can read about the saga involved in his arrest and his wife’s detention stemming from Mr. Fox being parked in a place he shouldn’t have been parked in. and the D.C. police appearing to significantly overreact to the situation presented here.  Assuming he is the same person, and I admit it is possible that there are two separate Hamilton P. Fox, III in D.C., but assuming he’s the same person and I think I’m on solid ground about that as other people have laid out before, you’d think the experience he went through would make him more sympathetic to wielding power irresponsibly and trying to only target those who deserve punishment, but apparently not.

As a lawyer who represents lawyers, I’ll try for now just to look on the bright side of things that I don’t practice in the District of Columbia instead of dwelling on just how chilling the actions of D.C. Bar Counsel might be on lawyers who do.

Bad blogger doubles up on topics.

I had every intention of posting twice this week, but events, including being under the weather with general ick much of the week, undermined my intent.  So, this mediocre post will briefly hit two items.  And, with any luck, tie the two together in a way that makes this seem, in hindsight, the correct way to approach these topics.

The first, which is a potentially really big deal with respect to lawyer ethics rules and confidentiality, is a California decision expressly concluding that Sarbanes-Oxley preempts California’s ethics rule on confidentiality to the extent that California’s rule would prohibit an in-house counsel from disclosing confidential client information to pursue a wrongful discharge/retaliation claim.  California’s ethics rule on confidentiality is admittedly something of an odd duck as it is much more stringent than other jurisdictions and often appears to make it seem like California lawyers have to deal with disputes with their clients while having both hands tied behind their back.

The Bio-Rad Laboratories decision has fortunately been written about extensively already by a more prominent blogger who focuses on privilege issues.  You can read the discussion of Bio-Rad put together at Presnell on Privileges here.

Given all of the ways in which the corporate client had already waived privilege and confidentiality as discussed in the first 30 or so pages of the Bio-Rad opinion, the California court really didn’t need to weigh in on the preemption question, but the SEC filed an amicus to make clear its position and, being a district court decision, it isn’t surprising that the judge would offer up all the grounds to support its ruling.

The second is an Ohio advisory ethics opinion from early December 2016 that addressed issues associated with interpretation of RPC 5.5 and correctly explains why a lawyer not admitted in Ohio is not engaged in UPL, even if they are officed in Ohio, if pursuing an exclusively federal practice.  You can read Ohio Advisory Opinion 2016-9 here.  The Ohio opinion recognizes that the application of supremacy principles requires this conclusion.  There are, of course, a limited number of areas of law that a lawyer can practice that are exclusively federal, but they do exist.

The way these two items go together?  I’m not going to hold my breath, but Congress could address, through federal legislation, the problems associated with many aspects of the antiquated way in which various state bar or state regulatory entities address temporary practice in, or handling of matters touching on other state laws, under RPC 5.5 by treating things as unethical that really shouldn’t be in modern law practice — remember, for example, the silliness of the reprimand issued against a Colorado attorney by the Minnesota Supreme Court.