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.

 

 

An object lesson about “staying in your lane.”

Prominent technology blogger, Robert Ambrogi, has taken to Above the Law to criticize the latest ABA Formal Ethics Opinion.  In addition to attempting to savage it over being somehow untimely since lawyers have been blogging for almost 20 years, his primary substantive criticism of the opinion is that it makes no sense for an ethics rule to prohibit a lawyer from speaking or writing (or blogging or Tweeting) publicly about information that is already in the public record.

Ambrogi’s criticism is a bland (and perhaps satisfying at a surface level) kind of thing to say, but it reveals that the author is not someone who has spent a bunch of time working with, or thinking about, the ethics rules.

In the nature and spirit of “open letters to people who are unlikely to read them,” I offer this primer to Mr. Ambrogi on why our profession has crafted an ethics rule that does, in fact, err on the side of prohibiting lawyers from further discussing things even that are public record without our client’s consent or the need to do so to further the representation.

Dear Mr. Ambrogi:

Let’s pretend that I was currently representing a prominent legal technology blogger in a divorce proceeding.  This is, admittedly, a hard thing to pretend as I don’t do family law, but we’ll push on nonetheless.

In order to secure the desired divorce for the blogger, and because of the truly toxic nature of the blogger’s relationship with their significant other, I end up having to share a lot of deeply personal, highly intimate, and potentially quite embarrassing information in the complaint for divorce not only about the blogger but about the blogger’s significant other and that person’s various other romantic partners.

Now that happens in a state where it is very difficult to establish the need for court filings to be sealed, thus the complaint for divorce is a public record upon filing.  It also occurs in a state where, while it is true that court records are public records, they are not well-organized online and are not all that easy to locate.

Thus, my client knows that what is in the complaint is a matter of public record, but they are certainly hopeful that the information will not be widely disseminated and that these intimate and embarrassing items are only ever learned and read by people directly associated with the court process.

Now, if your approach to the ethics rule on confidentiality were what our profession had adopted, then I’d be free at a cocktail party, or on a blog, or in a Tweet to share the wild information about my client’s personal life because it was a matter of public record, and I could do so simply to entertain those around me.

I would hope at this point we would both agree that would be a bad approach for the ethics rules governing our profession to take.

Thus, to protect against that kind of ability to disclose information, the rules are crafted to start from the premise that lawyers ought not to talk publicly about their client’s matters unless they have the client’s consent or some legitimate reason to do so.  (This includes not only further communications impliedly authorized to carry out the representation but situations where it becomes necessary to make disclosures, for example, for the lawyer to defend themselves in other proceedings.  If the blogger’s significant other turned around and filed a defamation lawsuit against me over the publication in the complaint about the intimate details of that person’s life, the ethics rules would allow me to disclose information reasonably necessary to defend myself.)

So, as that ends my rant, I will conclude by saying that I still stand by (another writing that you are unlikely to read) my prior take that Formal Opinion 480 is a good one.

 

Another good opinion from the ABA SCEPR

This was not what I originally planned to write about today, but … here we are all the same.

Today, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility released a new opinion and, because it relates to social media, it is generating a good deal of discussion online.  It is being rolled out and discussed as being of interest to lawyers who blog or tweet or otherwise participate in social media, but it actually is yet another opinion sending a message that all lawyers need to remember.  That is because it is another opinion from this body – in a relatively short period of time – emphasizing how broad the scope of client confidentiality is under Model Rule 1.6.

The key piece of the opinion worth knowing (mostly because it applies to lawyer communications in just about any forum or medium of any sort ranging from cocktail parties, to CLEs, to social media) is this:

The salient point is that when a lawyer participates in public commentary that includes client information, if the lawyer has not secured the client’s informed consent or the disclosure is not otherwise impliedly authorized to carry out the representation, then the lawyer violates Rule 1.6(a). Rule 1.6 does not provide an exception for information that is “generally known” or
contained in a “public record.” Accordingly, if a lawyer wants to publicly reveal client information, the lawyer must comply with Rule 1.6(a).

From my experience, this is a point about which lawyers cannot be reminded nearly enough.  And, it most certainly is not just a social media issue.  Though I have, in the past and far-too-snarkily written about the problem as it crops up on social media.

Interestingly, I spent most of my day today sitting through CLE programming and, perhaps coincidentally, it was the first time in a long time that I actually heard a presenter acknowledge before telling a story about a case that they had actually obtained their client’s permission to talk about the case.

Far too often, I hear lawyer presenters relate information about something they are working on at a CLE by providing so much detail about a situation that it would not take much effort at all to immediately figure out who they are actually talking about.  This latest ABA Formal Opinion also offers a helpful refresher on the problem with doing that:

A violation of Rule 1.6(a) is not avoided by describing public commentary as a“hypothetical” if there is a reasonable likelihood that a third party may ascertain the identity or situation of the client from the facts set forth in the hypothetical. Hence, if a lawyer uses a hypothetical when offering public commentary, the hypothetical should be constructed so that there is no such likelihood.

Safeguarding confidential information, border searches, and your devices

In February, I will have the opportunity to be part of a panel discussion in Vancouver, Canada at the mid-year meeting of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers focused on privacy and client confidentiality issues.

We will discuss quite a few interesting topics, including something that likely isn’t on the radar of as many U.S. lawyers as it should be — the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation which will become effective on May 25, 2018.  I plan to find some time on another day to write a bit more about that, but for today I just want to offer up a short-ish update on something talked about here before (and that we will also discuss in Vancouver) – concerns for lawyers when crossing the border back into the United States if Customs and Border Patrol demand access to electronic devices.

With a thankful tip of the hat to Wendy Chang with Hinshaw & Culbertson who alerted me to its existence, I can possibly alert you to the fact that CBP put out a new Directive on the topic of border searches of electronic devices on January 4, 2018.  You can go read the full document here.

The piece of it I want to spend just a moment or two elaborating on is the new guidance it provides in Section 5.2 “Review and Handling of Privileged or Other Sensitive Material.”

Before doing so though it makes sense to lay out for you what CBP’s prior directive on this topic indicated – which was dated August 20, 2009 and can be found here.  Section 5.2.1 of that directive provided as follows:

Officers may encounter materials that appear to be legal in nature, or an individual may assert that certain information is protected by attorney-client or attorney work product privilege.  Legal materials are not necessarily exempt from a border search, but they may be subject to the following special handling procedures:  If an Officer suspects that the content of such a material may constitute evidence of a crime or otherwise pertain to a determination within the jurisdiction of CBP, the Officer must seek advice from the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel before conducting a search of the material, and this consultation shall be noted in appropriate CBP systems of records.  CBP counsel will coordinate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as appropriate.

Now, assuming that meant what it implied, that seems to paint the guidance as being in the nature of:  if an attorney tells you that something you want to look at is a problem because it is privileged information, then you don’t proceed further with trying to look at it unless you suspect that it might be evidence of a crime or otherwise something that impacts CBP’s jurisdiction (i.e. you really think that maybe the person shouldn’t be let into the country unless you can read what that is).  And, if so, you first have to start talking with a lawyer for the CBP about whether to do so.

Now compare that to the much more extensive language on this issue in the new directive.   (Spoiler alert:  it appears to me to be more extensive but less friendly to traveling lawyers.)

5.2.1  Officers encountering information they identify as, or that is asserted to be, protected by the attorney-client privilege or attorney work product doctrine shall adhere to the following procedures.

5.2.1.1  The Officer shall seek clarification, if practicable in writing, from the individual asserting this privilege as to specific files, file types, folders, categories of files, attorney or client names, email addresses, phone numbers, or other particulars that may assist CBP in identifying privileged information.

5.2.1.2  Prior to any border search of files or other materials over which a privilege has been asserted, the Officer will contact the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel office.  In coordination with the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel office, which will coordinate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as needed, Officers will ensure the segregation of any privileged material from other information examined during a border search to ensure that any privileged material is handled appropriately while also ensuring that CBP accomplishes its critical border security mission.  This segregation process will occur through the establishment and employment of a Filter Team composed of legal and operational representatives, or through another appropriate measure with written concurrence of the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel office.

5.2.1.3  At the completion of the CBP review, unless any materials are identified that indicate an imminent threat to homeland security, copies of materials maintained by CBP and determined to be privileged will be destroyed, except for any copy maintained in coordination with the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel office solely for purposes of complying with a litigation hold or other requirement of law.

So, it does seem to me that this more extensive guidance is likely good for protecting privileged materials from improper use if actually reviewed and held and does seem to be clearer guidance about how CBP could go about, for example, reviewing some information on an electronic device but segregating items asserted to be privileged or work-product.  But it also seems to me that this guidance does not move the needle in a helpful direction for lawyers who want to attempt to protect review of their client’s information at all by asserting privilege as it both (1) imposes a more onerous process on the lawyer to do so (including the potential for demanding something in writing akin to a privilege log) and (2) appears to drop what was at least the implication of the prior directive that the assertion alone is likely enough to move the burden over to CBP to justify trying to do something further.

Which also makes me think that any attorney put in this situation is, at the very least, not going to be making any connecting flight if they seek to protect client materials from review.

Of course, neither the older directive nor this directive even mentions things that attorneys have to treat as confidential under their ethical obligations even though not privileged, which remains unfortunate.  But I am interested in hearing from anyone wanting to weigh in about whether you think I am misreading this guidance and that this directive is better for lawyers than the 2009 directive.

 

A kind note from a satisfied client

Since I’m seeing quite a few of these notes from satisfied clients on LinkedIn, Facebook, and other places in various formats, it seems like a good time to share a touching one I received recently.

Brian,

Thank you very much for the really great work and the successful outcome.  I really appreciate you and all that you do.  I’m sure I don’t even need to say this, but I’m certainly hopeful that you have the common sense not to try to publicly share my kind, private remarks to you about my case on any social media or anywhere else.  I figure you probably know not to do this without my consent because … well, you have that obligation of client confidentiality under RPC 1.6 and posting this as some sort of “atta-boy pat-on-the-back” which is really just a kind-of-but-not-really-all-that-subtle effort at marketing and touting your excellent work and client satisfaction certainly isn’t something that would be impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation.

Plus, if you did that, it would be just kind of … I don’t know … crass (gauche?).  The mere act of sharing it to crow is one thing I guess, but then the way social media works you’re just crying out for people to comment and say, yeah you’re great and your clients are lucky to have you, or to “like” it and provide you further validation which certainly wasn’t why I sent you this kind note.   And even if the reason I’m so excited and grateful about your work is that the matter is over and now I’m just a former client, you still have confidentiality obligations to me under RPC 1.9 and if this had become generally known as would be necessary at that point, then you probably don’t need to do this because if you are going to get accolades they would come more naturally (right?), so, I mean, again.  How about you just not with the sharing this?

I mean I guess you could try to strip down any information anyone might use from my message to you to be able to figure out who I am or what the matter was, (because remember the Comment to RPC 1.6 talks about how even disclosures that don’t directly disclose confidential information are prohibited if the disclosures “could reasonably lead to the discovery of such information by a thid person”) but once you’ve done that it truly becomes so impersonal that it doesn’t really have the impact you were hoping for, and depending on the format you use, it might even look like you’ve maybe just made the whole thing up.

And, if you don’t do something like that, then you really are placing my confidentiality rights at risk because maybe you did remove everything you needed to in order to protect anyone in your network or circle of connections from being able to figure out who it was that would have sent this, but maybe you didn’t.  If you didn’t, I’m potentially not going to be very happy about that.  Plus, you might in your introductory paragraph of your social meda “update” say something about time and place or circumstances that actually does — combined with this note — let the cat out of the bag.

So, anyway, thanks for getting me that extension of time.  Sorry for being such a scold.

[name redacted]

These are the kind of messages that make being a lawyer worth it all.

Happy Friday!

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.