Bad ethics opinion or the worst ethics opinion? Rhode Island 2017-02

I have perused a lot of ethics opinions over the years.  Whether a kind of scenario presents a conflict is a frequent subject of ethics opinions.  I don’t think I’ve read many that address whether a particular conflict of interest is fairly treated as a consentable conflict, however.  Having now read Rhode Island Ethics Advisory Panel Op. 2017-02, which does address that topic, I wish it hadn’t.

It is an extremely short opinion, but it gets a remarkable amount wrong in a limited amount of space.

The short version of the question it tackles is:

ISSUE PRESENTED

The inquiring attorney asks whether the law firm may represent the buyer and the seller, two current clients of the firm, in the sale of a division of the seller’s business to the buyer.

The additional factual details that you need, at minimum, to begin to wrap your head around the astoundingly bad conclusion reached in the opinion are:

  • The buyer is a manager of a division of the seller’s business.
  • The buyer will now be purchasing assets of that division from the seller.
  • The buyer will then also have to work out a lease arrangement with the seller for the premises where the division currently operates.
  • The buyer has been represented by one attorney in the firm on a number of matters unrelated to this business – that attorney has no relationship with the seller or any knowledge of work done for the seller by his/her firm.
  • The seller has been represented by a different attorney in the firm on a number of matters, including matters related to the operation of the seller’s business  – that attorney has no relationship with the buyer or any knowledge of work done for the buyer by his/her firm.
  • Both the buyer and the seller want the firm to represent them as to negotiations and drafting of necessary documents.
  • The firm, if it moves forward, intends to erect an ethics wall/screen (i.e. locked drawers for hard copy materials and limits on electronic access to files) as to the two matters so that there would be no flow of confidential information between the two sides of the proposed representation.

On those facts, the Rhode Island opinion reaches a conclusion that the conflict is so severe that the clients cannot be allowed to give their consent to it.  Now, maybe I have left out the facts that the ethics opinion treats as apparently the most important of all – the distinction between the experience level of the seller and the buyer:

The inquiring attorney states that the seller is experienced in business, including the ownership, purchase, and sale of businesses.  He/she states that the buyer is sophisticated in the industry of the division, but has never owned, purchased, or sold a business.

Well, there you go.  The seller is super sophisticated whereas the buyer is just merely sophisticated.  Seriously.

And, no there is nothing unique or unusual about Rhode Island’s version of RPC 1.7 that would explain the conclusion that this conflict is not consentable.  Rhode Island’s RPC 1.7(b) looks just like the ABA Model version, as it reads:

(b) Notwithstanding the existence of a concurrent conflict of interest under paragraph (a), a lawyer may represent a client if:

(1) the lawyer reasonably believes that the lawyer will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client;

(2) the representation is not prohibited by law;

(3)  the representation does not involve the assertion of a claim by one client against another client represented by the lawyer in the same litigation or other proceeding before a tribunal; and

(4) each affected client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.

On the facts set out above, the Rhode Island opinion concludes that there is no way that each lawyer could “reasonably believe that they will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to the buyer and to the seller in this business transaction.”

And, if that weren’t problematic enough (it is), the opinion also does further disservice to readers with its discussion of screening, stating:

The Rules of Professional Conduct permit screening in only three situations, none of which is presented in the facts of this inquiry: screening for lateral hires under Rule 1.10, screening for former government officers and employees under Rule 1.11, and screening for former judges, arbitrators and mediators under Rule 1.12.

The omission of the modifier “nonconsensual” before screening in that quote is an important one.

It’s important because it means that the Rhode Island opinion writers either failed to understand altogether, or simply chose to ignore, the difference between aspects of the ethics rules that permit a firm to erect a “nonconsensual screen” to address a conflict even over a client’s or former client’s objection and the constant ability of a firm to erect a consensual screen if it is part of what is deemed necessary or desirable in order for one or more clients to agree to give informed consent to waive a conflict.

On the whole, this is just an astoundingly poor ethics opinion and one that reaches a result that rings contrary to the client-friendly position that I’m certain the authors thought they were taking.

As a matter of fact, yes, this potato is still hot. Why do you ask?

In October of this year, I’ll have the honor of again getting to serve as a moderator for a panel discussion at Aon’s Law Firm Symposium.  This year’s event will take place in D.C.  The topic of the panel I get to be a part of will be something of a DQ motion boot camp.  It is still months away, my guess is that we will be focusing on aspects of disqualification motion proceedings that will be harder to predict than the outcome of this case out of Mississippi should have been.

If you know a little something about conflicts, then you are probably have passing familiarity with all of the core concepts necessary to immediately predict the outcome of the scenario that was involved in McLain v. Allstate decided in the S.D. Miss.  I’ll succinctly describe the scenario for you:

Lawyer has had a long term relationship with an insurance company client.  That relationship is not as robust as it used to be as the lawyer is continuing to handle quite a few matters for them but has come to notice that no new matters have been coming from the company for quite a while.  Lawyer is contacted by a potential client who has a matter that would be adverse to this insurance company client.  Lawyer goes ahead and decides to take on the new representation but also terminate the ongoing representation of the insurance company client.  Insurance company brings motion to disqualify, and lawyer argues that insurance company client should be treated as former client and disqualification should occur only if new matter is substantially related to prior matters.

How will lawyer fare?

I have no doubt you answered this correctly.  Not well, the lawyer will not fare well.  The lawyer will get disqualified.  The court will explain that a lawyer cannot drop one client like a “hot potato” in order to transform them into a former client so that you can take on representation of a new client.

Thus, for you Dear Reader, almost all of the contents of the seven-page order disqualifying this lawyer will come as no surprise.

What might come as a surprise to you – it certainly surprised me — is that the federal judge who ordered disqualification actually included a sentence praising the lawyer involved for how he handled the situation. Specifically:

[Lawyer] undertook commendable efforts to insulate himself from a conflict of interest by declining to discuss or investigate McLain’s claims until after [Lawyer] promptly and formally terminated the firm’s relationship with Allstate.

I know people often accuse me of being stingy in terms of doling out praise, but that sentence just leaps off the page as trying too hard to find something nice to say.  Commendable seems a stretch.  Particularly so given that when you work your way back earlier in the opinion itself where it lays out the chronology of events, you will find that the lawyer in question had the new client sign a contract with his firm on October 11, 2016 and, then, on October 12, 2016 sent the letter that attempted to drop Allstate like a tuber of elevated-temperature.

If any aspect of the lawyer’s effort is commendable (and I’m still stretching the utility of the word itself), it would be the whole not-being-very-Machiavellian about it angle.  A truly Machiavellian type would have done more to attempt to manipulate the timeline of events.  Perhaps, having the new client execute an engagement letter, only after the lawyer had time to send the letter to terminate the current client relationship.  I’m not sure that not doing that qualifies as “commendable” exactly.  But it’s something.  As long as it was very close in time, the potato would still be hot and the outcome unchanged, but … like I said it would be something.

Lateral moves can be hard. One type in particular is harder than the rest.

In 2017, a lawyer moving from one law firm to another is a pretty common place occurrence.  Anyone who has been through the process knows how personally difficult and stressful the ordeal can be no matter how excited you are about your next destination.  The emotional and personal components alone can be trying, but the pressures imposed by the ethics rules are often overlooked … even though they shouldn’t be.

One area where the requirements of the ethics rules can make a potential lateral move nearly impossible is if a lawyer is looking to join a firm that is on the other side of an ongoing legal matter.  A well-done, quite succinct ethics opinion out of North Carolina issued near the end of January 2017 explains what the ethics rules actually require in order for such a move to be possible.   (And, important note to add, we’re only talking about if the lawyer looking to lateral is looking at moving from one private practice position to another private practice position.  Moves into and out of government employment are different and governed by different rules.) North Carolina Formal Ethics Op. 2016-3, titled “Negotiating Private Employment With Opposing Counsel,” lays out the sticking point that make this kind of lateral move more difficult than others — there comes a point in time when any such discussions have become serious enough — even though there is not yet any done deal — that both sets of clients have to give their informed consent for the negotiations/discussions to continue.

The ethics risk that mandates this result is the “material limitation” conflict that arises from the personal interests of the lawyers involved requiring consent under Rule 1.7(a)(2).  In laying this out, the North Carolina opinion echoes sentiments previously expressed in (1) an ABA Formal Opinion from 1996, (2) The Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers, and (3) a Kentucky ethics opinion issued in 1998.

The North Carolina opinion also provides a similar description as did those other authorities of the moment in time that matters in terms of triggering the need to obtain the client’s consent: when the discussions become “substantive.”  The opinion also describes, in practical terms, what is necessary for each side of the potential lateral discussion to seek out and obtain consent from its respective client:

To obtain the client’s informed consent, the job-seeking lawyer must explain to the client the current posture of the case, including what, if any, additional legal work is required, and whether another firm lawyer is available to take over the representation should the lawyer seek to withdraw.  If the client declines to consent, the job-seeking lawyer must either cease the employment negotiations until the client’s matter is resolved or withdraw from the representation but only if the withdrawal can be accomplished without material adverse effect on the interests of the client.  Rule 1.16(b)(1).  Because personal conflicts of interests are not imputed to other lawyers in the firm, another lawyer in the firm may continue to represent the client.  Rule 1.10(a).

Similarly, the hiring law firm must not engage in substantive employment negotiations with opposing counsel unless its own client consents.  If the client does not consent, the firm must cease the employment negotiations or withdraw from the representation.  The firm may only withdraw if the withdrawal can be accomplished without material adverse effect on the interests of the client.  Rule 1.16(b)(1).

Most lawyers like to think of themselves as being risk averse as a general matter.  Interestingly enough, when the depths of the details are fully mined, the notion of doing what the North Carolina opinion indicates is required might seem riskier than not saying anything at all.  The situation gets more difficult for some lawyers to work through because it can be viewed as something of a modified prisoner’s dilemma situation — each side of the potential employment discussion may be making its own independent decisions about whether the situation has escalated to a point of seriousness where client notification and consent is required, and each side has its own thoughts about what is the right answer for each side (stop talking or withdraw) if the affected clients won’t consent.  While the two parties to the discussions might seemingly be in harmony about the potential move otherwise, they may very well have starkly different views in terms of balancing how important they value the business of the affected client versus the business that could be gained from the lateral move.

As a result, I have long suspected that most such moves that actually come to fruition are the products of one side or the other not strictly complying with their ethical requirements.  No, that is probably too cynical a thing to say and certainly a bit of an exaggeration of my view.

Some percentage of the moves that actually work out are the product of something less than strict compliance.  Probably not the majority, however.

The majority of them likely either involved matters for clients who are so incredibly important to the economics of the deal that there is a need to know sooner rather than later whether the impacted clients will consent or matters for clients who are of such little economic significance that all of the lawyers involved would be happy to jettison their matter if consent is not forthcoming.

An even more important factor in play that likely can be dispositive about whether such a move can be made is whether the jurisdiction involved permits the use of nonconsensual screening to avoid imputation of a disqualifying conflict.  No mention is made of this topic in the North Carolina opinion because North Carolina does not have any language in its version of Rule 1.10 to permit such screening.

In Tennessee, scenarios involving lawyers who aren’t litigators are potentially much more viable lateral moves because of our weirdish rule that treats “side switching” situations in litigation differently than in other contexts.  In Tennessee, whether a nonconsensual ethics wall can be erected to avoid disqualification from a lateral move can have a different answer depending on whether the matter is a litigation matter or not.

Our RPC 1.10 reads in relevant part:

(c) Except with respect to paragraph (d) below, if a lawyer is personally disqualified from representing a person with interests adverse to a client of a law firm with which the lawyer was formerly associated, other lawyers currently associated in a firm with the personally disqualified lawyer may represent the person, notwithstanding paragraph (a) above, if both the personally disqualified lawyer and the lawyers who will represent the person on behalf of the firm act reasonably to:

(1) identify that the personally disqualified lawyer is prohibited from participating in the representation of the current client; and

(2) determine that no lawyer representing the current client has acquired any information from the personally disqualified lawyer that is material to the current matter and is protected by RPC 1.9(c);

(3) promptly implement screening procedures to effectively prevent the flow of information about the matter between the personally disqualified lawyer and the other lawyers in the firm; and

(4) advise the former client in writing of the circumstances that warranted the implementation of the screening procedures required by this Rule and of the actions that have been taken to comply with this Rule.

(d) The procedures set forth in paragraph (c) may not be used to avoid imputed disqualification of the firm, if:

(1) the disqualified lawyer was substantially involved in the representation of a former client; and

(2) the lawyer’s representation of the former client was in connection with an adjudicative proceeding that is directly adverse to the interests of a current client of the firm; and

(3) the proceeding between the firm’s current client and the lawyer’s former client is still pending at the time the lawyer changes firms.

Thus, a Tennessee lawyer could make a move from one side of the table to the other in the middle of a $50 million real estate deal but could not make the same move if it involved moving from one side of the “v” to the other in a $10,000 automobile accident lawsuit.

The need for speed is always in conflict with the need to run conflicts. Choose speed and you might pay the price.

Even the largest and the most prominent of law firms can get themselves crosswise with clients over conflicts.  In fact, at some level, it is the largest and most prominent law firms that are most at risk of the negative ramifications that can come from conflicts of interest.

Last week, the world’s largest law firm — Dentons — which has had some past public issues associated with the conscious positions it takes on whether it has a conflict or not, found itself on the end of some further bad publicity over conflicts, but not as the result of a conscious evaluation of a conflict.  Rather, it came about in a way that can happen to almost any but the smallest of law firms — one or more lawyers in the firm moved too fast and took action before ever completing the process of checking conflicts.

The fact that the circumstances involved some extremely high-profile work — it involved a letter to threaten a prominent media outlet with a potential defamation claim on behalf of a member of Congress who is trying to be confirmed to a cabinet position in the Trump administration is a wrinkle I find intriguing for a number of reasons – even setting aside the inherent irony – because earlier in my career I frequently represented media entities on such questions.

Stories written about the letter that demanded a retraction and threatened potential action in the nature of defamation shed light on how the substance of the letter actually just served to confirm the basic accuracy of the reporting, but that wasn’t really the problem for Dentons.  Dentons’ problem was that the media outlet in question, CNN, is a firm client on other ongoing matters.  That is the kind of conflict that a basic conflicts check would easily find and avoid.

Thankfully, as soon as the left hand and right hand at Dentons figured out the situation, Dentons did exactly the right thing, sending a letter apologizing for the error and withdrawing the letter.

Media entities can tend to be pretty gracious clients, particularly when it comes to recognizing human frailty and mistakes that can come from trying to move too quickly, so my guess is that in the long run Dentons will continue to be able to have a good relationship with CNN.

Time will tell whether the public officials they aligned with to rattle a defamation saber about a story where the allegedly wrongfully excluded details would only make things worse for the official will be as gracious about the situation.  Given that one of the immediate responses of the administration advocating for the member of Congress to be confirmed was to issue a statement ambiguously saying that the letter from Dentons was “not authentic,” I wouldn’t be too optimistic.

ABA Ethics 20/20 revisions. New York adopts some; Tennessee proposal still pending.

Roy Simon, the Chair of the NY State Bar Association Committee on Standards on Attorney Conduct, was kind enough to include me on an email last week and, as a result, I learned that New York’s proposed adoption of certain aspects of the ABA Ethics 20/20 revisions was approved, effective January 1, 2017.  Back in 2015, New York adopted certain revisions to Comments to the Rules consistent with Ethics 20/20, but the proposal to change the rules themselves required Court action.  You can read the details of the revisions that were adopted in this PDF: order-adopting-black-letter-amendments-to-part-1200-eff-jan-1-2017.  As with many jurisdictions, New York has picked up the move to a black letter duty in Rule 1.6 to “make reasonable efforts” to safeguard confidential information but not adopted several of the other Ethics 20/20 black-letter revisions  For example, New York has not adopted the Ethics 20/20 revision to acknowledge in Rule 1.6 the need to disclose certain information in connection with lateral moves and mergers in order to comply with the concomitant duty to avoid conflicts under Rule 1.7.  The Comments adopted in 2015 in New York did pick up the Ethics 20/20 revisions to the Comment to Rule 1.6 on that topic, however.

The Comments adopted back in 2015 also included the new paragraphs in Rule 1.1 that are touted by many as establishing a duty of technological competence for lawyers.

I wrote back in the late part of the summer about the TBA’s petition to the Tennessee Supreme Court proposing that Tennessee adopt almost all of the ABA Ethics 20/20 revisions.  The deadline for public comments expired in November 2016, but not before our disciplinary body, the Board of Professional Responsibility, filed comments proposing a number of additional amendments to be layered upon the TBA proposal.  Several of the BPR proposals, all of which you can read here (starting at page 2 of the linked PDF), are puzzling.

The TBA filed a response/reply to the BPR’s comment arguing against the majority of the BPR proposals.  The TBA’s response is not yet up at the Court’s website, but as I was one of the signers of it, I happen to have a copy, and you can read it at this link:  petition-bpr-comment-response

This situation regarding the pending proposal is one of the 12 developments I’ll be covering, including a detailed discussion of some of the puzzling pieces of the BPR proposal, during this year’s Ethics Roadshow.

The first stop is this morning in Memphis, and I’ll be doing it again tomorrow in Nashville.

 

California offers opportunity for a word (or 1,000) on the topic of sex with clients.

So, many moons ago I wrote a post about the fact that California was working through the process of trying to overhaul its ethics rules.  I said I’d get back to that topic, but never really did.  So, today, I am.  Kind of.  But not really.

In the news within the last 24-36 hours are articles about a split of opinion on whether California’s proposed revised rules should follow the ABA Model Rules to impose a ban on lawyers having sex with clients.  You can check out the short ABA Journal online snippet here.  You can read the original article referenced here.

Here is how the ABA Model Rule, Rule 1.8(j) reads:

A lawyer shall not have sexual relations with a client unless a consensual sexual relationship existed between them when the client-lawyer relationship commenced.

Pretty simple and straightforward admittedly.   At present, the articles explain that California rules only prohibit lawyers from coercing sex with a client or demanding sex in exchange for legal representation.  (That’s not really much to prohibit when you think about the fact that both such acts would already be prohibited under other ABA Model Rules.  For example, the latter essentially being prostitution and thus likely a violation of Model Rule 8.4(b).)

The news articles grab quotes and thoughts from lawyers on either side of the argument in California which mostly boil down to — the relationship between attorney and client is so close that the injection of sex into the mix will always result in imbalance v. consenting adults should be permitted to do as they please even if one of them is the other’s attorney.

There is little I can say on this subject definitively, but I do feel pretty strongly that the term “a blanket sex ban” used in the article is the wrong one as it can be read to be far too narrow a restriction (as opposed to “a blanket ban on sex”), and it is one where I read it and can’t help but hear Sterling Archer, in my head, immediately say: “Phrasing.”

My reason for writing though is not just to be able to make that Archer reference, I swear.  My reason for writing is to advocate for my belief that the Tennessee approach to this issue in the ethics rules really gets it right and ought to be emulated by California and anywhere else that is in need of a rules fix on this front.

In Tennessee, we did not adopt Model Rule 1.8(j) but in large part because it is too narrow rather than because it is too broad.

The Model Rule, for example, doesn’t cover a lot of ground that is problematic.  Imagine the context of a divorce case in which the lawyer for the wife is having sex with the husband.  Or imagine a criminal defense lawyer who is representing a jailed husband but having sex with the husband’s wife.  Or imagine an even less conventional arrangement where there are three people in a room and sexual relationships are present but at no point does the attorney in the room engage in sexual conduct with the person in the room who happens to be the attorney’s client.

Those are all real conflict of interest problems for the lawyers in question but the approach taken by the ABA Model Rules wouldn’t prohibit any of them.   (They also each have really happened and been the subject of publicity but I’m not going to dig up and provide links so as not to open any old wounds for anybody involved.)

In Tennessee, we recognized (and in so doing we largely followed the lead of D.C. if memory serves) that the only approach to the issue of conflicts created for lawyers by sexual relationships that goes as far as it needs to but that also still provides for the ability, in rare circumstances, for a lawyer and a client to have a mutually-consented-to sexual relationship (perhaps say if they were married) is an approach that treats the issue as just one variety of “personal interest” conflict of a lawyer that can result in a material limitation conflict under RPC 1.7(a)(2).

Thus, our rules address the topic through three paragraphs of Comment to RPC 1.7 as follows:

[12]  The relationship between lawyer and client is  fiduciary one in which the lawyer occupies the highest position of trust and confidence.  Because of this fiduciary duty to clients, combing a professional relationship with any intimate personal relationship may raise concerns about conflict of interest, impairment of judgment of both lawyer and client, and preservation of attorney-client privilege.  These concerns may be particularly acute when a lawyer has a sexual relationship with a client.  Such a relationship may create a conflict of interest under paragraph (a)(2) or violate other disciplinary rules, and it generally is imprudent even in the absence of an actual violation of these Rules.

[12a]  Especially when the client is an individual, the client’s dependence on the lawyer’s knowledge of the law is likely to make the relationship between the lawyer and client unequal.  A sexual relationship between lawyer and client can involve unfair exploitation of the lawyer’s fiduciary role and thereby violate the lawyer’s basic obligation not to use the trust of the client to the client’s disadvantage.  In addition, such a relationship presents a significant risk that the lawyer’s emotional involvement will impair the lawyer’s professional judgment.  Moreover, a blurred line between the professional and personal relationships may make it difficult to predict the extent to which communications will be protected by the privilege, because communications are protected by the privilege only when they are imparted in the context of the client-lawyer relationship.  The client’s own emotional involvement may make it impossible for the client to give informed consent to these risks.

[12b]  Sexual relationships with the representative of an organizational client may not present the same questions of inherent inequality as the relationship with an individual client.  Nonetheless, impairment of the lawyer’s independent professional judgment and protection of the attorney-client privilege are still of concern, particularly if outside counsel has a sexual relationship with a representative of the organization who supervises, directs, or regularly consults with an outside lawyer concerning the organization’s legal matters.  An in-house employee in an intimate personal relationship with outside counsel may not be able to assess and waive any conflict of interest for the organization because of the employee’s personal involvement, and another representative of the organization may be required to determine whether to give informed consent to a waiver.  The lawyer should consider not only the disciplinary rules but also the organization’s personnel policies regarding sexual relationships (for example, prohibiting such relationships between supervisors and subordinates).

I happen to think these three paragraphs cover the waterfront quite ably when it comes to running such an issue through the “material limitation” conflict spectrum as a personal interest of the lawyer that can impact the representation.

To the extent we stole this good idea from D.C., California ought to feel free to steal it from us should it wish.

DC Ethics Opinion 370 – Y’all knew I wouldn’t be able to resist

So, the D.C. Bar has come out with a far-reaching, sort of two-part ethics opinion addressing lawyers and social media usage.  Opinion 370 (Part 1) can be grabbed here.  Opinion 371 (Part 2) from here.  Opinion 370 has lots of really good parts, but much of the publicity it has received to date revolves around something it throws out for lawyers to bear in mind and be wary of that hasn’t really been said by opinion-writing entities before.

Here’s how the ABA Journal online headline treated it – “beware” of “social media statements on legal issues.”  Other aspects of the reporting I have seen described it as warning lawyers who offer opinions online of the potential for creating an “issue” conflict.  There’s a reason, I think, this topic hasn’t been explored much by other opinion-writing bodies:  it is a relatively silly and irresponsible take.  Regardless, given the minimal treatment of the issue that the opinion offers, even if you think there were merit to flagging the issue for consideration, the portion of Opinion 370 that “addresses” it still would be better left on the cutting room floor.

Here, in its entirety, is the analysis of this issue as a risk for lawyers from the DC Opinion:

Caution should be exercised when stating positions on issues, as those stated positions could be adverse to an interest of a client, thus inadvertently creating a conflict. Rule 1.7(b)(4) states that an attorney shall not represent a client with respect to a matter if “the lawyer’s professional judgment on behalf of the client will be or reasonably may be adversely affected by . . . the lawyer’s own financial, business, property or personal interests,” unless the conflict is resolved in accordance with Rule 1.7(c). Content of social media posts made by attorneys may contain evidence of such conflicts.

Now, to help get your bearings straight if you aren’t a D.C. lawyer, D.C.’s Rule 1.7(b)(4) is different from what is set out in the ABA Model Rules and, thus, different from what we have here in Tennessee (for example) in the closest equivalent rule, RPC 1.7(a)(2).  Our RPC 1.7(a)(2), just like the ABA Model, establishes a conflict of interest — albeit a potentially consentable one — where “there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer.”

In a (stop-me-if-you-heard-this-one-before) well-done story by Samson Habte with the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct, some quotes are gathered from folks pointing out that the concept of an “issue” or “positional” conflict of interest necessarily involves or requires taking contrasting positions in front of one or more tribunals and, thus, a lawyer’s public statements of opinion about a legal question couldn’t create a positional or issue conflict.

In Tennessee, for example, we address issue/positional conflicts of interests in Paragraph [24] of our Comment to RPC 1.7.  While incapable of being that kind of conflict, supporters of the D.C. Opinion warning might argue that it is still a risky endeavor to express opinions about a legal issue because the lawyer might then have a “personal interest” in how something is resolved that would materially limit the ability to represent a client.

To me, that kind of approach to the topic not only misunderstands what it means to be a lawyer representing a client but also what the rules say in a variety of places it means to be a lawyer at all.  I’ll stick for now to just the Tennessee rules though I’d venture a guess that similar principals are laid out in D.C.’s rules.

In the Preamble to our Rules, in the second paragraph, we lay out a list of things that a “lawyer” is and, included among them, is “a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”  In the seventh paragraph of the Preamble to the Rules we say:

As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice, and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.  As a member of a learned profession, a lawyer should cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients, employ that knowledge in reform of the law; and work to strengthen legal education.

Further, we have a rule, RPC 6.4, patterned after ABA Model Rule 6.4, that specifically makes the point that lawyers can ethically undertake service in connection with entities that seek to reform the law or its administration even though such efforts could detrimentally affect the interests of a client of the lawyer.  If a Tennessee lawyer can engage in organized efforts to reform the law even though those efforts, if successful, might detrimentally affect the interests of one of the lawyer’s clients, then absolutely they can make public statements about what the law should be without violating the ethics rules.

Now, might a client decide not to hire a lawyer who has already indicated a personal belief contrary to the client’s position.  Sure, and they’d have every right to make that decision.  But they might also make a different decision and think that, if the lawyer is willing to take on and argue their position despite past public statements to the contrary, it would make their arguments stronger.

To my knowledge. opinion-writing entities have never warned lawyers about writing learned treatises or books on legal subjects or discouraged lawyers from speaking at Continuing Legal Education events or seminars (which are these days often videotaped and archived) because of some notion that expressing an opinion about a legal issue could create an ethical conflict for the lawyer.  Seems to me that the same “logic” that drove the almost offhand reference by the DC Bar in the Ethics Opinion could be applied to tell lawyers to “beware” of such other activities as well.

One thing I hope everyone could agree upon though is: if you are going to go to the trouble of injecting this issue into what is otherwise an extremely lengthy ethics opinion, then you should have done a better job of tackling the issue comprehensively rather than simply throwing out a half-baked statement that could serve to dissuade lawyers from speaking out.

Yet another decision coming out of Washington that complicates life.

Nope.  This too is not a post having anything to do with the recent election.  The Washington in the title is the State of Washington, and the decision is the controversial 5-4 decision issued by the Washington Supreme Court in Newman v. Highland Sch. Dist. back on October 20, 2016.  The Washington court, over a strenuous dissent, ruled that the attorney-client privilege did not apply to protect a lawyer’s communications with a former employee of the lawyer’s corporate client.

You can read the entirety of the opinion, if you’d like, here.  But, I’d suggest that you’d do just as well to read the wonderful treatment of the opinion, and the interviews obtained from prominent folks about it, in this piece put out by Joan Rogers with the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct.  Joan, as always, does a great job with a pretty deep dive into the issues raised.  [And, see, this is proof that I don’t only praise the ABA/BNA reporters when they quote me in a story.  ; ) ]

I find myself in agreement with the dissent and those interviewed by Joan that are critical of the opinion, but not only for the way that the ruling takes a crabbed view of the privilege in the corporate context and seems to fail (or be unwilling) to grasp that people who have certain important information belonging to the corporation that the attorney needs to know may very well have moved on to a different place of employment by the time the corporation’s lawyer needs to speak with them.

The other concern I have about this sort of outcome on privilege is that it can serve to drive lawyers, as a workaround, to decide to take on representation of the former corporate employee in what becomes a joint representation with the corporation in the matter in order to be able to secure application of the privilege to communications.

There is nothing inherently wrong with such an approach, but it does create real potential for claims to be raised by adversary counsel that the undertaking is intended solely to restrict them under the relevant analog to Model Rule 4.2 from being able to communicate with the former employee.  (Of course, depending on the particular language of the jurisdictions RPC 4.2 and accompanying comments, there hopefully already exists an argument for the lawyer involved that the person was treated as off-limits under RPC 4.2, but I digress a bit.)

From my experience, the more fundamental problem is that lawyers pursuing such a course — often with a blindered focus on privilege issues — do not always take the time to think through all of the other angles that can come into play by taking on this second client in the matter.

The concept of an “accommodation” client is one that some prominent minds in the legal ethics community consider to be at least highly controversial if not altogether antithetical to the premise of an attorney-client relationship.  Nevertheless, it is a recognized concept and a lawyer can lay out the concept in an engagement letter with this former employee to indicate that if something goes wrong and the interests of the lawyer’s primary client and the former employee’s interest diverge that the lawyer will be permitted to simply withdraw from representing the former employee while continuing to represent the corporation.  There is also the available structure of a limited scope representation under RPC 1.2(c), to make clear that the added representation will be limited in scope and duration so as to decrease the likelihood that the interests of the original client and this former employee will become cross-wise during the time period in which both clients are being represented.

Another for the annals of ethics opinions of questionable origin

I want to quickly discuss an ethics opinion out of New York state.  No, not that one.  I’m not going to delve into the brouhaha over the one from March 2016 that only got publicity in August 2016 that involves saying it is ethical for a firm to charge clients for work performed by unpaid interns as long as it is all disclosed to the client.

Not going to delve into it to discuss it because of course it is ethical as long as the amount that is being charged isn’t so high as to be unreasonable under RPC 1.5.  After all, say a firm fires an associate for cause and doesn’t ever end up paying the associate any of the last month of their salary.  Does that mean the firm can’t bill the clients for which that associate worked at the agreed upon hourly rates for that same time period?  Of course not.

Whether it is moral or right to take on unpaid interns and then bill clients for the time those unpaid interns spend on client matters is another question altogether, and it is also an interesting federal labor law question but., in my opinion, it isn’t a very difficult legal ethics question.  It is an ethics question that I can understand why someone would ask for guidance because doing it might make a lawyer feel queasy, but it isn’t all that difficult an ethics question in the end.

That is not at all true about the New York state ethics opinion I do want to discuss, NYSBA Op. 1103 from July 2016 that answered the following inquiry:

May a lawyer undertake to represent a client, Corporation B, in litigation with Corporation X, where it is in the economic interest of a former client, Corporation A, for Corporation B to lose the litigation?

Seriously?  There are some truly difficult conflicts questions that lawyers have to navigate, but this one ought not make it into a top 50 list.  And, the reason the answer is easy isn’t at all counter-intuitive, so why ask?  If this kind of thing were even a close call, then there would be no difference in treatment under the ethics rules between clients and former clients.

The more fleshed out facts that the opinion leads off with are as follows:

Corporation A and Corporation B are competitors.  They are engaged in the same industry, in the same geographic area, providing similar services to the same customer base.  The inquirer previously represented Corporation A in a matter than has been concluded (“Matter 1”).  The inquirer now proposes to represent Corporation B in litigation with Corporation X (“Matter 2”).  The inquirer states, and we assume for purposes of this opinion, that Matter 1 and Matter 2 are not factually related.  However, if Corporation B is unsuccessful in this suit, it might be forced to cease operations, which would benefit Corporation A.

In case the point passes by in quick reading, here is a less generic version of the same inquiry with a fun, familiar fictional scenario.  (At least fun for me.)

Mr. Plow and Plow King both provide snow removal services to the town of Springfield.  Lionel Hutz represented Mr. Plow in the past in connection with a piece of employment litigation.   (Maybe a former employee, Bart, sued Mr. Plow for failing to pay him overtime and Mr. Plow defended by explaining that you can’t employ children and, therefore, it would be illegal to pay him.)  That matter concluded and Hutz no longer represents Mr. Plow.  Now Hutz is being asked to represent Plow King in connection with litigation being brought by Moe’s Tavern.  Moe’s Tavern contends that Plow King failed to properly remove snow from their parking lot and the result was that Nick Riviera crashed his car into the building wiping out the taps at Moe’s Tavern for a month and is suing Plow King for $2 million dollars.  If Plow King loses the suit, it likely will go bankrupt and go out of business.

So the question would be whether, since Mr. Plow would love it for Plow King to go out of business,  does that mean that it would be unethical for Hutz to represent Plow King?  This again falls into that category for me of — how did anyone decide that this was a question that needed to be asked?

Of course it wouldn’t be unethical for Hutz to take on the Plow King representation.  Mr. Plow is just a former client.  It wouldn’t even truly be ethically prohibited if Mr. Plow were still a current client.  Might be a representation his firm wouldn’t undertake for business reasons, but it wouldn’t be an ethical issue in terms of an RPC 1.7 conflict.  So when Mr. Plow is but a former client, this isn’t something that ought to take more than five seconds of analysis in terms of working through RPC 1.9 to get to the right result.

Thankfully the opinion gets the analysis on this issue absolutely correct.  It makes the point that — perhaps in other circumstances would be crucial to get right, that “market rivalry” doesn’t rise to the level of causing a matter for a new client to be considered materially adverse to a former client.  But it also drives home the other overriding point – when we’re talking about a former client after all — that makes this such an unnecessarily posed question in the first place.  The scenario being inquired about isn’t one where the two matters are at all the same or substantially related, so it wouldn’t be precluded by RPC 1.9 even if it did involve doing something “materially adverse” to the former client.

So, in the end, it is a fine opinion as far as the analysis goes, it is just a bit silly that this kind of question was posed at all.  But, it did give me the chance to write a little Simpsons fan fiction so… a festive Labor Day to all.

Proposal to adopt Ethics 20/20 Revisions in Tennessee Put Out For Public Comment

Back in August 2012, the ABA House of Delegates approved revisions to the ABA Model Rules proposed by the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission.  Very few of the proposed revisions included in the ABA Ethics 20/20 package are earth-shaking revisions, as many of them only involve change to language in the Comment accompanying certain rules.

The overall bent of the revisions, however, are to address aspects of the impact that technology has on modern law practice, highlight for lawyers their duty to, at the very least, keep abreast of and be competent regarding the types of technologies they use in their practice, and address a few other issues with good guidance regarding how aspects of globalization and the increased use of outsourcing interact with our ethical obligations.

More than twenty-five states have now adopted all or significant parts of the Ethics 20/20 package of changes.  Most recently Washington state has done this, with its revisions to become effective September 1, 2016.  Here in Tennessee, the TBA has filed a petition proposing adoption of almost all of those rule changes, and our Court has now put the TBA petition out for public comment with a November 17, 2016 comment deadline.  (There is also an Errata that the TBA put out to fix a redlining error made by the stupid Chair of the TBA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility when it was pointed out that we’d forgotten to pick up some changes to our RPC 5.5 that went into effect back in January 1, 2016.)

In my opinion, the most important, and most helpful, part of the Ethics 20/20 revisions takes place in RPC 1.6 by explicitly acknowledging the need to reconcile the duty of confidentiality with the duty to avoid conflicts of interest and the fact that, in reality, this means that lawyers need to be able to disclose some otherwise confidential information when looking at moving law firms or when firms are looking at proposed mergers in order to make sure to identify and address potential conflicts of interest under RPC 1.7.

The Tennessee proposed revisions would pick that change up.  Thus, if adopted, like the ABA Model, our RPC 1.6(b)(6) would now provide an exception to RPC 1.6(a) confidentilaity:

(6) to detect and resolve conflicts of interest arising from the lawyer’s change of employment or from changes in the composition or ownership of a firm, but only if the revealed information would not compromise the attorney-client privilege or otherwise prejudice the client.

If adopted, the TBA’s proposed revisions would also move the language about duties of safeguarding confidential information from the Comment to RPC 1.6 up into the black-letter of the rule itself.  Although our version of that rule would be place into a new RPC 1.6(d), instead of Rule 1.6(c) as in the ABA Model Rules because we already have a RPC 1.6(c) that deviates from the ABA Model Rules approach by imposing certain duties of mandatory disclosure of confidential information.

What we do not propose to pick up, however, are certain aspects of the Ethics 20/20 changes that were made to ABA Model Rule 4.4.  This is because, in Tennessee, we have a more robustly detailed version of  the rule that specifically addresses the duties of lawyers when they receive confidential information that they know or should reasonably know was inadvertently transmitted to them or that they know or should reasonably know was provided to them by someone not authorized to have the information in the first place.

Based on the November 2016 comment deadline, there is reason to be hopeful that these proposed revisions might become effective in Tennessee as early as January 1, 2017.  But, stay tuned.