Fettered is almost always better for lawyers.

Fettered is a fun word on a number of levels. It is a word lawyers are usually familiar with when it has a prefix attached to it and gets used when we talk about disclosures or access as being “unfettered.” But, it is also a word that literally means “to be restrained with chains,” so it would not be an entirely incorrect usage of “fettered” to describe being physically handcuffed … although it usually involves chains or manacles around the ankles rather than handcuffs.

The connection created by that word and its meanings is truly the only thing that prompted me to link the following two stories of interest for lawyers.

One involves a very thoughtful court ruling that provides a road map for the way lawyers should go about avoiding unfettered disclosure of client confidences even when they have the right to defend themselves.

The other involves a lawyer who so flagrantly went about things the wrong way that her lateral move ended with her in actual handcuffs for a couple of days, not to mention likely financial handcuffs for many years to come.

I’ve often spoken with lawyers about how the right to disclose confidential client information to defend your conduct is clearly acknowledged by the ethics rules, but also still an endeavor not entirely free of risk given the limits imposed under those same ethics rules. Model Rule 1.6(b) and its accompanying paragraphs of Comment actually combine to do a very good job of explaining to lawyers how they still have to go to some pains to try to protect information, even in the face of unreasonable conduct by clients (or former clients) behaving incredibly unfairly.

The two biggest components of those “pains” are: (1) that you cannot simply unleash and disclose everything you know that might be damaging to your former client but have to make measured disclosures that are only what is reasonably necessary to defeat the allegations against you, and (2) that you likely also must make some effort to see if the Court will allow you to file what you have to say under seal or under some other form of protective order to prevent far and wide dissemination of the information you are disclosing. But, what happens a fair percentage of the time is that lawyers read the rule but not necessarily the explanatory comments.

In connection with a criminal case in federal court in West Virginia involving accusations of ineffective assistance, a U.S. Magistrate Judge issued a very well structured and thoughtful opinion that essentially follows the guidance of the rule and its comment in a way that provides a good model for letting a lawyer defend their conduct while properly imposing safeguards to avoid unfettered disclosures. Thus, the full opinion is now another place to point lawyers to beyond just the Comments where they can read the preferred way this needs to work. As a bonus, it also provides an excellent gloss on a now-decade-old ABA Formal Ethics Opinion that some folks believed went a bit too far.

As to the lawyer who likely thought she was seeking greener pastures but ended up in handcuffs, the easiest place to succinctly describe Chelsea Merta’s conduct is a paragraph or two of the Confession of Judgment and Consent Permanent Injunction Ms. Merta entered in state court in St. Louis, Missouri around 10 days ago:

3. On or about February 2, 2018, seven days prior to her resignation, Merta transferred approximately 22,000 data files from SLF [her then firm] onto a portable USB flash drive without authorization from SLF. The data files that were transferred to the portable USB flash drive included files from SLF’s clients and SLF. Merta took the flash drive containing these files and, upon her resignation (despite representations to the contrary during her exit interview with SLF), retained the files. Many of those files were later found to be contained on [her and her new firm’s] MacBook Pro computers and cloud storage accounts.

4. Prior to her resignation and without authorization from SLF, Merta tampered with, deleted, and wiped her SLF computer, her SLF-issued smart phone, and other storage locations of all data, including data related to SLF’s clients and SLF, and also informed three clients of her imminent departure from SLF. Thereafter, following the submission of her notice of resignation, but prior to it becoming effective, Merta contacted a number of clients to inform them of her resignation and inform them that they could transfer their file to her new law firm.

In that confession of judgment, Merta agreed that the damages caused to her former firm were in excess of $550,000. The consent judgment also references the Court having already awarded damages against her for more than $200,000 over conduct involving contempt of court.

It was the contemptuous conduct – which itself at heart was continued refusal to relinquish the improperly taken files and continued misrepresentations to the Court about those facts – that also resulted in her spending two nights in jail until she purged the contempt. You can read all about the contemptuous conduct in this earlier order here.

Merta’s behavior when leaving to start a new firm, I sadly believe, happens a lot more often than you might think. It usually does not come to light for a variety of reasons, such as the dynamic associated with the pros and cons for the firm that has been wronged of ever pursuing the wrongdoing because of potential adverse effects for the firm and for continued discomfort on the part of its current and former clients. The reason that lawyers can tend to get away with this kind of conduct though is not that the departing conduct can’t be proven as the order lays bare. Technology these days makes it very difficult to not leave behind the kind of digital trail that Merta left.

Nevertheless, the tendency to engage in the conduct on the way out the door is fundamentally puzzling because it is antithetical to what lawyers usually are — risk adverse. It will likely come as no surprise to hear that this particular lawyer also has been pursuing bankruptcy proceedings. Thus, this case demonstrates just how significant the financial and professional risk of doing this can be in those cases where the firm that is wronged does make the decision to plow forward with proving it.


Shimkonicity (shim-ko-nis-a-tee)

When I first read some reporting about this decision from Ohio involving the indefinite suspension of a lawyer, I expected it to come across very much as an obvious case of a lawyer’s third strike leading to a steep punishment. But, the coming together of so many things with respect to this lawyer’s situation actually offers quite a story from which a lot of lawyers can learn a few things (or at least be reminded of some things they already knew). Thus, showing my age again, I’ve gone with The Police album rip-off title for this post.

So, yes, at the straightforward level, if you read this opinion, you will digest the story of a lawyer getting hit with his third strike. About nine years ago, Mr. Shimko engaged in some financial chicanery with some clients leading to a public censure in Ohio that was imposed as reciprocal discipline after Arizona had first done the same. Three years or so after that, he received a one-year suspension (but it was all stayed so he continued to practice) for disparaging a judge. Now, he’s received an indefinite suspension after he appealed a recommended two-year suspension for charging an excessive fee to a client and then unnecessarily disclosing confidential information about the client in connection with suing the client for the excessive fee amount (along with a bit of unsavory threatening to disclose the information in order to try to get the client to settle).

Most of his story is routine stuff that all lawyers know (or should know) they should not do. The last seven-or-so-pages of the opinion also offer a tangible example of why trying to throw every potential appellate argument into a mix — particularly in a disciplinary case — is not a very good strategy. But along the way, there are two real teachable nuggets here of things that a surprising number of lawyers sometimes don’t know, and there is also one big topic that the Court simply fails to mention which also is pretty important (and which it could have used to further skewer the lawyer’s scattershot allegations of error on appeal.)

Much the way my son tackles fast food; first we will tackle the nuggets:

Nugget #1: You just can’t bill your clients for time you spend drafting what amounts to your engagement letter. If it is a good engagement letter, you are substantially creating it for your own benefit and protection. At most, it is documentation that is partially being created for the client’s benefit. Don’t try to charge the client for that time.

Nugget #2: There is a second-level of consideration when a lawyer is proceeding under a self-defense exception to restrictions on the disclosure of confidential information. Not only do you have to be able to demonstrate that one of the specific exceptions under RPC 1.6(b) can be satisfied, which you can do if you are trying to pursue payment from the client as an example. But you also have to remember that the disclosures you make need to be no more than is reasonably necessary AND in a lot of circumstances you still have to make efforts to try to limit the number of people to whom the disclosure is made. The comments to RPC 1.6 lay out guidance about this in most jurisdictions in a very clear and helpful fashion. If you are litigating a fee dispute with a client, even though you can disclose confidential information to the Court in order to prevail on your claim or defeat the claim of your client/former client, you may very well have to also seek the entry of a protective order to try to prevent the information you are disclosing from becoming fully available to the public.

And the thing that was missing? Any discussion by the Court of why this Ohio lawyer’s arguments about how he was entitled to do what he did because the client was committing insurance fraud using his services are very hard to reconcile with one or two other ethics rules in Ohio (and elsewhere) – RPC 3.3 and RPC 4.1.

If the lawyer’s version of events regarding what the client had told him in advance of the examination under oath was to be believed, then under RPC 4.1 what the lawyer was required to do, at minimum, was to withdraw from the representation so as not to assist with the fraud. If representing someone in a pending insurance dispute during an examination under oath is somehow treated as a representation to a tribunal under Ohio law (which I would suspect is not the case), then RPC 3.3 in Ohio — patterned after the Model Rule — would have required the lawyer to speak up during the EUO about what was happening not after the fact.

The Court likely didn’t address those issues because it did not need to since the earlier rulings had found the lawyer’s assertions not to be credible, but even a footnote highlighting this issue for lawyers might have been a worthwhile piece of dicta.

Asking in South Carolina and definitely not receiving.

This development in South Carolina happened last month and I saw some folks getting a little worked up about it but am only getting around to writing a little about it now. (In fairness, last month only became last month around 80 hours or so ago.) But for some people getting worked up about it, it wouldn’t actually be all that noteworthy given that all South Carolina did was adopt a comment that made plain what the rule already truly required.

Nevertheless, it makes for an interesting subject not only because of the reaction it garnered but how it came about… in response to a petition seeking to change South Carolina’s Rule 1.6 in an entirely different direction.

But, I’ve managed to get way ahead of myself with the textual throat-clearing and have started in on all of this like you know what I am talking about.

In June 2019, the South Carolina Supreme Court entered an order that rejected an attempt by the South Carolina Bar to seek to have RPC 1.6 revised to permit lawyers to make reference to published court decisions in their advertising without having to get their client’s informed consent. And, to be clear, what the bar was asking for was a very incremental level of permission. They were seeking to have the rule allow a lawyer to make reference to the citation of a published case, not the details of it, just the citation.

Now I suspect many lawyers would assume that no such revision was even necessary on the basis that they simply think that public information is public information and can be used in whatever fashion is desired. In fact, this Bloomberg article quotes someone from a law firm I used to work for saying something along those lines. That might well be a common sense approach but it is simply an entirely incorrect statement when it comes to how the ethics rule on confidentiality works.

As I’ve written about in the past (probably more times than you care to remember but most recently in August 2018), RPC 1.6 continues to impose confidentiality obligations on lawyers as to information related to representation of a client even as to the most public of events. And, what that means is, when you work through the rule and its various provisions authorizing disclosure of such information . . . there simply isn’t a provision that justifies use of the information in commercial advertising endeavors without the consent of the client.

The South Carolina Supreme Court was not interested in what the Bar was seeking. Instead, it opted to adopt a new comment to RPC 1.6 to drive the point home about what the text of RPC 1.6 already requires.

Specifically, the Court added the following new Comment [7] to its RPC 1.6:

[7] Disclosure of information related to the representation of a client for the purpose of marketing or advertising the lawyer’s services is not impliedly authorized because the disclosure is being made to promote the lawyer or law firm rather than to carry out the representation of a client. Although other Rules govern whether and how lawyers may communicate the availability of their services, paragraph (a) requires that a lawyer obtain informed consent from a current or former client if an advertisement reveals information relating to the representation. This restriction applies regardless of whether the information is contained in court filings or has become generally known. See Comment [3]. It is important the client understand any material risks related to the lawyer revealing information when the lawyer seeks informed consent in accordance with Rule 1.0(g). A number of factors may affect a client’s decision to provide informed consent, including the client’s level of sophistication, the content of any lawyer advertisement and the timing of the request. General, open-ended consent is not sufficient.

Of course, the South Carolina Supreme Court is not wrong about this. And, at a practical level, requiring client consent is not truly that onerous.

However, given the connection to lawyer advertising generally that this development has, it is worth pointing out that South Carolina is still a generally bad jurisdiction when it comes to that topic. Partly, this is because it still refuses to recognize at a fundamental level what the purpose of advertising actually is by having this kind of requirement in its RPC 7.2(a):

All advertisements shall be predominately informational such that, in both quantity and quality, the communication of factual information rationally related to the need for and selection of a lawyer predominates and the communication includes only a minimal amount of content designed to attract attention to and create interest in the communication.

Nevada provides lawyers yet another reason not to blow their own horn online.

I have beaten the drum for many, many years now about lawyers not understanding the true scope of their obligation of confidentiality under rules patterned after ABA Model Rule 1.6.  The ability to quickly share information far and wide online has not been helpful to lawyers who lack that understanding.  I remain astounded at how lawyers do not seem to recognize the unnecessary risk they are taking on by touting achievements in particular cases online.

Now, of course, I’m not privy to discussions between those attorneys and their clients in advance of such efforts so, perhaps, everything I see is kosher because every time I see a lawyer engage in such conduct they have gotten their client’s consent to do so in advance.

Based on my experience over the past 20 years though, I’m highly skeptical of that.  What I think is much more likely is that because these sorts of things usually never amount to any disciplinary proceedings much less instances of public discipline, this just continues to be something that many lawyers do either on the basis that the risk is minimal compared to the perceived reward or on the basis that they don’t see any risk at all.

For some lawyers, it is the misunderstanding about how confidentiality functions that can be the problem as they either aren’t aware (or simply don’t care) about the counter-intuitive fact that a public jury verdict is still RPC 1.6 confidential information as far as the lawyer is concerned.  Those transgressions can likely be forgiven by most, if not all, involved.  But, particularly when the self-congratulatory efforts in question go beyond just providing information about a jury verdict and also opt to reveal information about pre-trial settlement negotiations, the egregious nature of the breach of confidentiality is nearly impossible to forgive.  And, thanks to the way the Internet works, it is certainly impossible to forget.

Just this week, I saw one of these posts from lawyers with whom I use to practice law blowing their own horn about a very large jury verdict and revealing what the settlement offer from the defense was before trial.  I hope that they were operating with the consent of their clients or, if they happen to be reading this, that they go and at least get retroactive consent from the client involved which is better than having never gotten consent at all.

As if the risk of discipline (even if perceived to be a small risk) wasn’t enough to discourage lawyers from self-congratulatory social media postings (and if you spend any time on social media you know that it isn’t enough to discourage most), the Nevada Supreme Court provides a new opinion in a piece of defamation litigation that ought to give lawyers another reason to think very, very carefully about blowing their own horn online.

In Patin v. Lee, the Nevada Supreme Court rejected the effort of a lawyer and a law firm to stop a defamation case brought against them by a dentist.  The dentist had been one of the opposing parties of the firm’s client in a dental malpractice case.  The lawyer and law firm tried through exercise of an anti-SLAPP motion to bring the defamation case to a quick end.  They were unsuccessful though as Nevada adopted California’s approach to determining whether something written online can be considered “in direct connection with an issue under consideration by a judicial body.”  If you aren’t familiar with the general concept of anti-SLAPP statutes, then such language is likely meaningless to you.  But, if you read the opinion it will give you a pretty efficient primer on the concept of anti-SLAPP statutes (SLAPP being an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). You can read that opinion right here

From a loss prevention standpoint, let me drill down on what is readily understandable in terms of the problematic conduct by the lawyer and law firm.  The lawyer represented a plaintiff in a dental malpractice lawsuit against three defendants – a dental group and two individual dentists.  The lawyer obtained a $3.4 million verdict in favor of the client against the dental group and one of the two individual dentists.  The jury verdict against the other dentist was one finding no liability.

There was some appellate wrangling in the malpractice case after the jury verdict but because the ultimate outcome on appeal did not change, that wrangling matters much less than what the lawyer and law firm decided to post on their website to tout their success in the case:

DENTAL MALPRACTICE/WRONGFUL DEATH – PLAINTIFF’S VERDICT $3.4M, 2014 Description; Singletary v. Ton Vinh Lee, DDS et al.

A dental malpractice-based wrongful death action that arose out of the death of Decedent Reginald Singletary following the extraction of the No. 32 wisdom tooth by Defendants on or about April 16, 2011.  Plaintiff sued the dental office, Summerlin Smiles, the owner, Ton Vinh Lee, DDS, and the treating dentists, Florida Traivai, DMD and Jai Park, DDS, on behalf of the Estate, herself and minor son.

The problem with this self-congratulatory post on the firm’s website — separate and apart from the normal questions that might be asked about whether the clients were consulted and consented before the post was made — is that it doesn’t mention that Dr. Lee — the person named in the caption headline and in the body of the update — was the individual dentist found by the jury to have no liability.  That dentist, in turn, is who sued the lawyer and law firm for defamation because a reader of the post in question would reasonably think that Dr. Lee had been on the wrong end of a $3.4 million jury verdict.

Those that know me know that I am not much for dropping Bible quotes but, even I have to say that this would be a pretty good place to drop Proverbs 27:2 – “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth….”

“Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up.”

Serial, perhaps the best known podcast of all podcasts, has recently launched its third season and like one of the REM songs off of Life’s Rich Pageant it focuses on Cuyahoga – but not the river but the County in Ohio – more particularly, it focuses on what goes on inside the Justice Center in Cuyahoga County.  Yet, much like the song was according to Peter Buck, the podcast also may just really be about America and its lost promises too.

So far the first three episodes have dropped, and they are particularly good.  Good, of course, in a troubling way for what they show with respect to the inner workings of the justice system.  Admittedly, all this season of Serial can truly do is show problems in just one particular courthouse in one particular location, but we all know there are universal themes that recur in many other similar venues in the nation.

The first three episodes alone have also given fodder for discussions of legal ethics for those so inclined.  The first episode follows an unfortunate and unfair bar fight through the court system.  The host, Sara Koenig, is given extensive access to the criminal defense lawyer involved.  (The series so far reveals that she was given nearly free rein in the building altogether.)  Even though there is one spot in which Koenig explains that had to be excluded from a meeting between the lawyer and his client in order to protect the attorney-client relationship while they talked, those familiar with the duty of client confidentiality still know that given how incredibly much is actually revealed by the lawyer about the case he is handling, how he is handling it, what he and his client have discussed, that surely there must have been a thorough and clear consent provided by the client for there to be no breach of the lawyer’s duty under Ohio’s version of RPC 1.6.

The second of the first three episodes introduces you to a judge who almost certainly needs to be made the subject of multiple judicial ethics complaints and who seems to have no business sitting in judgment of other people.  But the judge it introduces you to is likely a character-type that will sound very familiar to you in many respects no matter whether you’ve ever been in Cuyahoga County, Ohio or not.

The third episode tackles the very relevant topic of police brutality, the intricacies that can arise when one situation results in intertwining civil and criminal matters, and, for true ethics nerds, raises (at least indirectly) issues associated with a lawyer who swaps places in the system later in their career as well as problematic issues regarding where the line is in court proceedings between advocacy and assisting someone with manipulating evidence and testimony to assure an end result that may be believed to be just.

Anyway, your mileage may vary, but I find myself hooked.  I also find myself really wishing that Karen Rubin over at The Law For Lawyers Today might be able to weigh in at some point on her take on how the show portrays things, but, because she practices in Cleveland, I’m guessing that she is likely too close to the courts and the lawyers involved to be able to comfortably weigh in.

The fourth episode should be out tomorrow.  You should check it out.  (And, yes, I’m a guy with a pretty decent sense of humor and I see the hilarity in me encouraging the few hundred or so people who read this blog to go check out something that has millions upon millions of downloads.)

It’s still a good ethics opinion, even if the rule itself may need rethinking

Not quite 5 months ago, I wrote a bit of a shorter post about my view as to why ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 480 counted as a good ethics opinion.  For those that may not be remembering the opinion off the top of the head, it was the one that reminded lawyers – primarily in the context of social media — that RPC 1.6 governing confidentiality does not have an exception for “generally known” information nor an exception that says it is okay to discuss just because it is a matter of public record.

This opinion has been the subject of some renewed criticism — particularly a very well done column by Bill Wernz in the Minnesota Lawyer which (if you have a subscription you can read here) — and has been (in no small part because of Bill’s influential column) the topic of some spirited debate on an ethics listserv to which I am privileged to be a part.  (Loyal readers may recall an earlier effort on my part to address a first wave of criticism directed at this particular ABA opinion here.)

The summarized version of the criticism generally is that it feels increasingly illogical for confidentiality under the ethics rules to extend to information known or knowable by scads of other people.  An example that has been bandied about is a hypothetical of an attorney who has just secured a helpful published appellate opinion in case on a Wednesday and would like to argue and make reference to that case on Thursday for a different client and whether the restriction in RPC 1.6 means they cannot without the express permission of the client in the appellate case.

A few years back in Tennessee we accomplished a revision to our version of RPC 1.6 that provides some help for hypothesized conundrums such as these with the adoption of a Comment [3b] that reads:

Information made confidential by this Rule does not include what a lawyer learns about the law, legal institutions such as courts and administrative agencies, and similar public matters in the course of representing clients.  For example, during legal research of an issue while representing a client, a lawyer may discover a particularly important precedent, devise a novel legal approach, or learn the preferable way to frame an argument before a particular judge that is useful both in the immediate matter and in other representation.  Such information is part of the general fund of information available to the lawyer.

Other aspects of the renewed criticism keep coming back to the argument that the meaning of the word “reveal” in RPC 1.6 continues to be overlooked in efforts to interpret the rule.  I continue to believe that ABA Formal Opinion 480 and opinions like it are good opinions because I don’t think the people that put so much weight in their argument on the idea that “reveal” is something you cannot do as to already public information are as correct about that as they think they are.  If you didn’t know something until I tell it to you, I think it is entirely fair to say I “revealed” it to you even if it was already public.  It is not the greatest analogy in the world but harken back to your worst experience of someone spoiling for you the shocking twist of a film before you could see it.  In discussing that with someone and explaining your dismay in having the surprise revealed to you without warning, I don’t think you’d think much of someone claiming that millions of people already knew it so telling you about it didn’t really “reveal” anything.

While we obtained the language for Comment [3b] in Tennessee, there was another proposed revision to RPC 1.6 that was not successful but that I still believe would make the rule better and that, ideally, would be a decent fix to the Model Rule as well.  We had proposed adding a piece to RPC 1.6(a) – that would have required adding some numbering to make express consent of a client reason number (1) and implied authority to carry out the representation reason number (2) — where a third reason where revealing RPC 1.6 would be allowable where:  “the disclosure is limited to information relating to the representation of a client which has already been made public and the disclosure is made in such a way that there is no reasonable likelihood of adverse effect to the client.”  Our Court rejected that proposal, but I think an amendment to the Model Rule and other rules patterned on it along those lines would address many of the criticisms of the scope of RPC 1.6 while still protecting against disclosures that it makes sense as a matter of public policy to prohibit lawyers from making — like that one offered in my most-assuredly-unopened open letter post.

 

Traps for the Unwary – Married lawyers edition.

Within the last week, there was an interesting Law.com article (subscription required) on a topic that has been something of a pet . . . well not really “peeve” of mine, and not really a pet project of mine, but a topic that I feel like is somewhat uniquely overlooked by the people to whom it should be most relevant — spouses/significant others who are both lawyers but who work different places.

The article discusses an Ohio disciplinary case that is ongoing and that involves something that – based on anecdotal evidence over the course of my career — is an extremely frequent occurrence:  the sharing of information about cases and matters between spouses and significant others who both are lawyers but who aren’t both representing the client in question.

Although (as indicated above – unless you are particularly wily about how you use the Internet and various search engines ability to “cache” content — you need a subscription to read the article, here’s a snippet to give you a flavor of the fact pattern involved.

The Ohio high court is set to review a proposed disciplinary sanction against two education law attorneys, ThomasHolmes and Ashleigh Kerr, who are engaged to one another and admitted to exchanging emails that included work product and confidential client information.

Although Holmes and Kerr focus on similar types of law—namely the representation of public school districts—they have never shared clients and they worked at different firm. Holmes practiced most recently at [a firm] in …Ohio, and Kerr practiced at [a different firm] in … Ohio.

In a disciplinary complaint lodged in December against the couple, the Ohio Supreme Court’s board of professional conduct said the two have lived together since October 2015 and became engaged in November of that year. From January 2015 to November 2016, the disciplinary complaint alleged, the two exchanged information related to their client representations on more than a dozen occasions.

“Generally,” the board alleged, “Kerr forwarded Holmes an email exchange with her client in which her client requested a legal document (i.e. a contract, waiver or opinion). In response, Holmes forwarded Kerr an email exchange with his client which attached a similar legal document that he had drafted for his client. More often than not, Holmes ultimately completed Kerr’s work relative to her particular client.”

If you want more of the detail, you can access the disciplinary complaint here.  And you can go read the pending recommendation of the Ohio board as to the discipline — which has been agreed to by each of the lawyers here.

The proposed, agreed discipline is a six-month suspension from the practice of law for each lawyer (but with the suspension fully stayed/probated.)

I suspect the outcome of that matter – and perhaps even the fact of disciplinary proceedings at all — will come as a huge surprise to many lawyers.  But the simple fact is that the underlying practice — sharing information about cases in order to try to get your spouse or significant other to help you — despite how much it may seem consistent with human nature is almost always going to be undeniably a violation of the ethics rules.  It is possible that one of the lawyers could get the client to consent to the arrangement, but beyond that approach there are very few ways to avoid the simple fact that RPC 1.6 in almost any jurisdiction won’t permit doing this.

I also strongly believe that most lawyers who do this kind of thing — if they think about it from an ethics standpoint – believe that the risk is quite low of ever being found out because of the marital privilege.  But not only because of some of the inherent limits on how far that may take you, but also because of the increasing frequency in which we all do everything digitally… this case demonstrates that there are a number of ways that the communications can surface into the light without anyone ever having a spouse voluntarily provide information any marital privilege notwithstanding.

A tale of two ethics opinions.

So, I’ve made something of a habit of writing about ethics opinions.  Bad ones and good ones.  Mostly bad ones though.

As the trite – almost hackish – title of this post telegraphs, today I want to compare and contrast two recently released ethics opinions that manage to demonstrate the good that can come from a well done ethics opinion on the kind of issue that cries out for guidance in the form of an ethics opinion and the harm that can come from the kind of ethics opinion that likely should not be issued at all.

First, the good – an opinion issued out of Texas (which Karen Rubin has already written some about) that tackles a thorny problem that can confront a lawyer who has been retained by an insurance company to represent one of the company’s insureds in a piece of litigation.

The particular question addressed in Texas Opinion 669 is this:

Under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, may a lawyer retained by an insurance company notify the insurance company that the insured client he was assigned to represent is not cooperating in the defense of the client’s lawsuit?

The answer the Texas opinion provides, as difficult as it might be for insurance defense lawyers to hear, is “no.”  And, that answer is the correct one in any jurisdiction where the way the “tripartite” relationship is structured is that the lawyer’s only client is the insured and the insurance company is merely someone who is permitted to pay the lawyer’s bills as long as the lawyer complies with the state’s version of Model Rules 1.8(f) and 5.4(c).

In Tennessee, for example, RPC 1.8(f) specifically states one of the requirements for permitting the lawyer to accept compensation or direction from someone other than the client as being that “information relating to representation of a client is protected as required by RPC 1.6.” (Interestingly, the Texas opinion makes no mention of, or reference to, any of those kinds of rules but simply uses only its confidentiality rule to justify its analysis.)

The unfortunate opinion comes out of Virginia.  Virginia, you might recall, recently made a great leap forward in streamlining its rules on attorney advertising by revising its rules to look very much like the proposal circulated by APRL.  After adoption of those revisions, which became effective on July 1, 2017, Virginia’s ethical restrictions on advertising were largely capable of being described as simply prohibiting false or misleading communications.

Unfortunately, with the issuance of Legal Ethics Opinion 1750, Virginia manages less than a year later to undermine much of its progress by simply re-issuing and updating a lengthy opinion it has released on multiple past occasions that attempts, in advance and not in response to evaluating any particular real advertisement, to provide “guidance” about what kinds of advertising practices should still be avoided because of the potential to be considered to be misleading.

Unlike the Texas opinion, which answered a real dilemma that lawyers can face and for which definitive guidance can be provided, the Virginia opinion is the kind of ethics opinion designed almost exclusively to chill commercial speech.  Even if the guidance it gave on all of the topics it unilaterally decided to address were correct, it would still be the type of opinion that ought not be issued.

Certainly, it says some things that are undoubtedly true and fun to read about ways that a lawyer could engage in truthful advertising that would still be a problem because it would be misleading by omission.  I’ve spoken at seminars before where I’ve tried to make this point by saying that a lawyer whose ad truthfully proclaimed “I’ve never lost a jury trial,” but fails to also mention, for context, that they’ve never actually been involved in a jury trial is going to be at risk under any fair set of ethics rules.  The Virginia opinion grabs a slightly different version of this rich vein by explaining that a lawyer truthfully crowing that “They secured a $1 million jury verdict in case,” but not mentioning that it came only after turning down a $2 million settlement offer before trial would have disseminated a misleading advertisement.

But, even that guidance is something that really ought not be opined about unless there were an actual lawyer seeking actual guidance about just that sort of advertisement.

So many other pieces of the opinion are even worse, however.   Cautions about using actors in ads, hand-wringing over “no recovery, no fee” statements, and subtle digs at the use of testimonials by actual clients in the opinion appear to be rolled back out for no real reason other than to undermine the progress on lawyer regulation of advertising that had appeared to be achieved by streamlining the rules themselves.

Client Number Three – Seven lessons learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The intersection of the First Amendment and the Ethics Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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