Gambling with RPC 1.8(a) is always risky.

It is not often that you get decisions out of any of the second highest courts in the land that turn on application of an attorney ethics rule, so it can be important to highlight when such events occur.

Given how many lawyers and law firms overlook the interrelationship between RPC 1.5 and RPC 1.8(a), it is very important to highlight the Fifth Circuit’s ruling last week in Wiener, Weiss & Madison v. Fox. In Fox, the Fifth Circuit ruled that because a contingency fee agreement between the firm and its client violated Louisiana’s version of RPC 1.8(a), it was unenforceable.

The full opinion is a good read for most any lawyer or firm that dabbles in contingency fee work.

For readers here, there is only some bare-bones background necessary to understand what ended up being the court’s straightforward result:

  • The firm’s representation of Fox started on an hourly rate basis in connection with Fox’s ex-husband’s bankruptcy proceedings, but because of tied up assets the firm agreed to seek those fees from the court paid out of the bankruptcy estate
  • The firm actually got paid, on application with the court, an attorney fee in the amount of more than $1 million.
  • There was more work to be done for Fox and the firm did not think the bankruptcy court would ever approve more fees, so the firm proposed a contingency fee agreement with Fox that the firm would get up to a 35% interest in Fox’s claims against the estate or as an equity owner in certain gambling entities tied up in the bankruptcy estate. Fox signed that agreement.
  • The bankruptcy court approved a plan of reorganization and gave Fox 100% interest in a holding company coming out of the estate.
  • Firm then claimed work was done and, if their client wanted them to continue, the client would have to sign a new contingency agreement that upped the percentage to 40%. Fox signed that agreement as well.
  • A few years later, the firm decided it thought the existing agreement was “unwieldy” and asked Fox to execute a new one. This time, for the first time, the firm advised Fox to seek independent counsel about whether to enter into the agreement.
  • She did, the independent counsel advised she shouldn’t sign, apparently also advised her that the earlier agreements were in violation of the rules, and the firm eventually sued Fox for breach of contract.

The Fifth Circuit, joined the analysis of a number of other courts in concluding that the 40% agreement was unenforceable because it provided the firm with a contingent interest in property owned by Fox and was, therefore, a business transaction with a client. Because the firm did not comply with RPC 1.8(a) as to that agreement, it was void.

Interestingly though, the Fifth Circuit should have been able to get to that conclusion without having to focus even one bit on the question of the property interest piece. This is because any renegotiation of a fee agreement with an existing client where the goal of the renegotiation is to improve the financial stake of the lawyer or law firm is a business transaction with a client requiring compliance with RPC 1.8(a).

In Tennessee, we make this clear in a comment to our version of RPC 1.8(a):

[1] …. It also applies when a lawyer seeks to renegotiate the terms of the fee agreement with the client after representation begins in order to reach a new agreement that is more advantageous to the lawyer than the original agreement….

Louisiana famously has adopted the ABA Model Rules but adopted no comments to those rules, The comment language to the ABA Model Rule does not spell out the answer on renegotiation the way that Tennessee’s does so the answer to this question under Louisiana’s rules required focusing on the property interest because the comment to the ABA Model Rules does include a reference to that concept.

The reason it is so important for lawyers to see these situations when they arise for what they are is that evaluation of a contingent attorney fee agreement becomes even more strict under RPC 1.8(a) than it would be under RPC 1.5(c). Not only does there become a hard-and-fast requirement of encouraging the client to seek out independent counsel for advice, but the rule requires that the new terms to be fair and reasonable from the perspective of the client. That sometimes can mean something different than merely being a reasonable contingency fee under RPC 1.5(c) and RPC 1.5(a).

Opposite ends but still the same spectrum (mostly).

Lawyers can get into significant amounts of ethical trouble over money issues. They can put their licenses at real risk by messing up their trust accounting obligations, they can get in trouble for overbilling clients, and, often, if they end up suing a client for failure to pay bills that are appropriately due, they will get a counterclaim for legal malpractice filed in response.

Over the last week, two items popped up on the radar screen that demonstrate even more ways that lawyers can run afoul of the ethics rules on topics involving money.

The first is a classic example of things that lawyers cannot do – because of the dishonesty involved – even if the end result is that their clients are not actually harmed by what transpired.

This story involves a lawyer in Pennsylvania who has been suspended for four years for making payments from his own personal funds to clients and misleading them about the outcomes of the handling of their matters. As happens pretty frequently, I saw this story thanks to an ABA Journal online article, but here is a link to the full order of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which really comes about by way of a consent agreement for the level of discipline.

Interestingly, as far as these things go, his suspension was made retroactive all the way back to February 25, 2016 when the lawyer was temporarily suspended on an emergency basis over the misconduct. So, by the time the ultimately suspension order was issued, he has already served the full amount of the suspension and can, presumably, seek reinstatement in Pennsylvania.

More interestingly, his downfall came about as a result of falling down, quite literally. He experienced a vasovagal syncope and collapsed in such a way that he broke his face very severely. While hospitalized, others at his firm tried to cover on his matters and learned of what the lawyer had been doing.

As the filings with the Pennsylvania court detail, what he had been doing was paying clients out of pocket on their cases and telling him that these were settlements obtained for them in their cases, when, in reality, he had failed to file their matters. (There were even more clients identified where he was stringing them along about the status but had not yet gotten to the point of paying them.)

There were, as you might expect, lots of other deceptions the lawyer had to engage in to cover up the trail of what he was doing. The filings also lay out that, as often is the case when something like this takes place, the lawyer’s conduct came along despite a clean prior disciplinary history after he began experiencing problems of anxiety and depression. And that aspect of the tale makes it a little easier to attempt to be sympathetic, right up until you focus on the amounts involved.

The amounts involved amounted to in excess of $500,000, including a $424,000 payment to one of the four clients. Yes, you read those numbers right.

If I happened to have a half a million lying around that I could easily part with, I’m pretty confident I would not still be practicing law in the first place.

Shifting to the related topic that is easier to invoke sympathy, one of the things that the ethics rules in nearly every jurisdiction do is bar lawyers from providing funds to clients in order to help those clients meet their day-to-day needs. Instead, the only things that lawyers can do by way of advancing expenses to clients for which no repayment would be required is if the expenses are litigation expenses related to a matter the lawyer is handling for the client.

Last week, in connection with its first ever virtual annual meeting, the ABA House of Delegates was reportedly going to consider a resolution revising Model Rule 1.8(e) to allow for a “humanitarian” exception to this ethical prohibition. A proposal was recently enacted in New York to do likewise. I thought I had read somewhere that the ABA proposal had passed, but I cannot find anywhere online to confirm that. The resolution and report that was to be considered can be obtained from the download button link below.

Historically, the primary concern (as I understand it) that has always driven this prohibition is that, without it, deep pocketed lawyers would be able to obtain business simply by being able to pay clients directly to keep their cases.

Given the continued economic struggles being created as the pandemic rages on, it will be interesting to see what sort of traction, if any, such measures get moving forward.

Two more ethics opinions explore restrictions on lawyers’ ability to enter (or even offer) certain contracts.

First, this is not being titled as a “Friday Follow Up” post because, like the rest of you, I have no idea what day of the week it is at this point.

Second, there is way much more important events afoot in the world and if you want to know my thoughts about those you can go find me on Twitter. Given the complete lack of even a fig leaf to connect to legal ethics on that front, I’m sticking to sports here.

Third, two ethics opinions from two different states came out late last year addressing two different variations on ways that the ethics rules makes lawyers “special” when it comes to the right to contract. Because states like mine have been engaged in the issuance of ethics opinions really pushing the boundaries of this concept (at least as to the scope of RPC 5.6), it seems worth mentioning these two opinions albeit each for slightly different reasons.

The first of the two is almost entirely straightforward in addressing something that I certainly think is undoubtedly clear from the Comment to the ABA Model Rule — whether the scope of RPC 5.6 is somehow different for in-house counsel. Nevada, in Formal Op. 56, has made plain that the scope is not different, explaining that an in-house counsel cannot accept a stock award agreement that is made contingent upon agreeing to a one-year covenant not to compete. It somewhat helps to understand why Nevada would have to issue an ethics opinion on this question to know that Nevada has no Comments adopted along with its rules. Instead, Nevada’s Supreme Court has offered that both the preamble and the comments to the ABA Model Rules are something that “may be consulted for guidance in interpreting and applying the Nevada Rules of Professional Conduct.”

Here in Tennessee, we actually have our own Comment identical to the ABA Model Rule version so an ethics opinion wouldn’t really be necessary to cover the fact that the Comment specifically says it applies to organizational employers as well as private firms. One nuance that the opinion introduces but does not explore in any real depth is that an in-house counsel could agree to a non-compete that would only apply to the performance of business functions, rather than legal services, at a competitor. Thus, an in-house lawyer serving as both General Counsel and Executive Vice President at one corporate employer could be required to agree as part of a stock bonus not to take any similar employment with a competing company in the future by focusing only on the executive portion of the existing job.

The Nevada opinion also delves a bit into a way that a confidentiality agreement as part of such a stock award could also run afoul of RPC 5.6 by extending beyond the requirements of RPC 1.6 and RPC 1.9 under the ethics rules.

The other opinion I wanted to touch on comes from Los Angeles. LA County Bar Op. 532 tackles a question that does not require application of RPC 5.6 to resolve but that is not entirely unrelated to that rule — whether a lawyer can agree to indemnify the adverse party as a condition of a settlement. The LA County opinion correctly reaches the conclusion that the lawyer cannot do so because of the conflict that creates between the personal interests of the attorney and the client’s interests. It is an uncontroversial conclusion as the opinion admits because there are some 20+ other jurisdictions, including here in Tennessee, that have likewise made such a settlement provision improper.

Two other aspects of the opinion are much more interesting, however. One is that the primary ground on which the opinion nixes the possibility is that doing so would be the lawyer improperly paying the client’s business or personal expenses in violation of California’s RPC 1.8(b)(5). The other is that the opinion also involves RPC 8.4(a) to create the same dynamic that is in play when RPC 5.6 is triggered – it is unethical for a lawyer to propose such an agreement to the plaintiff’s lawyer because it would be unethical for the plaintiff’s lawyer to agree to it. While RPC 5.6 states plainly that it is an unethical for a lawyer to “participate in offering or making” the kind of agreement addressed by Nevada as discussed above, the potential reach of RPC 8.4(a) when it comes to negotiating contracts is often overlooked. California’s rule, like the ABA Model, makes it a disciplinary violation for a lawyer to “knowingly … induce another” lawyer to violate the ethics rules.

A modest proposal (about NYC Bar Op. 2019-5)

I have made a living (well not actually a living since no one compensates me in any form of currency, whether crypto or otherwise, for my writings here) writing about problematic ethics opinions. July 11, 2019 brings what might be the most practically useless ethics opinion ever released. If it were only just practically useless, then it might not be worth writing about. But it adds into the mix the fact that it appears, without discussion, to significantly expand the scope of the rule being interpreted as well.

It comes from the New York City Bar, and it addresses cryptocurrency. Well, that’s not fair exactly. Nebraska opinion 17-03 which I wrote about almost two years ago can be described as an ethics opinion that addresses cryptocurrency. This opinion from the New York City Bar addresses a highly speculative question related to cryptocurrency. It asks “what if…a lawyer entered into an agreement with a client that would require the client to pay the lawyer in cryptocurrency?” Not kidding. That is literally the overriding premise. Now, admittedly, Memphis is a long way from New York City, but is this really a potential fee contract provision with relevance to more than a handful of lawyers?

If it is relevant to you, then you could go read the full opinion at this link. Before you decide whether that is how you wish to spend your time though, here is an excerpt from the opinion that literally identifies the three variations of possible fee agreements it considers:

  1. The lawyer agrees to provide legal services for a flat fee of X units of cryptocurrency, or for an hourly fee of Y units of cryptocurrency.
  2. The lawyer agrees to provide legal services at an hourly rate of $X dollars to be paid in cryptocurrency.
  3. The lawyer agrees to provide legal services at an hourly rate of $X dollars, which the client may, but need not, pay in cryptocurrency in an amount equivalent to U.S. Dollars at the time of payment.

If those questions cry out to you as needing answers, then by all means do go read the full opinion.

But, if those questions don’t sound like they are relevant to you and your practice (and the opinion itself even acknowledges that the first scenario is “perhaps-unrealistic” and the second scenario is only “perhaps more realistic”), then here’s my modest proposal.

Let’s pretend that NYC Bar Op. 2019-5 starts at roughly p. 12 and just includes the rest…. because (1) those four pages of analysis are a pretty good overview of how you work through RPC 1.8 in most jurisdictions in order to evaluate the business transaction with a client issue, and (2) it reminds the reader of the two significant ways that New York’s version of RPC 1.8(a) differs from the ABA Model Rule.

New York’s version differs from the ABA Model by making the scope of its RPC 1.8(a) less broad in two different ways. It mandates that the rule only applies to transactions where the lawyer and client have “differing interests” in the transaction and where the client expects the lawyer to be exercising professional judgment on behalf of the client.

Nevertheless, the last four pages of the opinion give sound guidance of what a lawyer has to be concerned about with respect to a business transaction with a client:

First, the lawyer must ensure that the transaction is “fair and reasonable to the client” and must disclose the terms of the transaction in writing and “in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client.”

[snip]

Second, the lawyer must advise the client, in writing, about the desirability of seeking separate counsel and must then give the client a reasonable opportunity to consult separate counsel.

[snip]

Third, the client must understand and agree to “the essential terms of the transaction, and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction.”

One added benefit of my modest proposal is that it will also avoid the Pandora’s Box this opinion appears to wish to open. As long as the full version of this opinion exists, then lawyers will need to pay very close attention to what happens on page 4. That is when the opinion blithely sticks the words “(or prospective client)” in without discussion. Given the text of the rule, this reference would appear to entirely transform RPC 1.8(a) from a rule that only applies to a business transaction with someone who has already become your client into a rule that now applies to contracts to form an attorney-client relationship.

While the NYC Bar Opinion does cite to Professor Simon’s annotated version of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct (not surprisingly in the four pages at the end which should stay), my admittedly quick review of what Professor Simon offers in the annotations to RPC 1.8(a) doesn’t appear to indicate that the rule is as expansive as this opinion seems to indicate. Many of those annotations certainly read like the transaction in question can’t be the one that creates the attorney-client relationship itself. That seems like a pretty big thing to parenthetically speak into existence in this ethics opinion.

Tennessee transparency update

Recently I wrote a bit about the latest Formal Ethics Opinion adopted in Tennessee including a bit of additional content focused on the enactment of this opinion as the maiden voyage of the new process involving the seeking of public comment on the FEO in draft form. If you missed those, you might want to read the two links above first in order to get up to speed.

One looming question was whether the BPR was going to be making the public comments it received before adopting the opinion actually public.

I learned today that the Board has addressed that question formally by adding a mechanism for doing so as part of its process and has posted the comments that were received regarding this particular proposed FEO here.

Having had the chance to read them, it did turn out that the only public comment received that criticized the draft opinion was the letter prepared by my colleagues. They also appear to be the only lawyers focused on the defense of products cases who submitted public comments at all. Many of the eight other comments received appear to have been submitted by plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The comments make for interesting reading as it appears that a recurring theme contained therein is how the Board got the answer correct from a public policy perspective. Making public policy, of course, is not exactly the role of the Board when it comes to issuing formal ethics opinions. At least one of the comments manages to heighten the point with respect to the conflicts presented by the interest of the lawyer and the client in ways that are not exactly addressed in the FEO. Not many of the comments make any real effort to address how it would be that destruction of the product would amount to a restriction on the lawyer’s right to practice.

Nevertheless, it is still heartening to know that (1) the Board’s approach to this new policy will include making public comments available publicly; and (2) this was not a situation where the Board received a significant amount of negative feedback and moved forward despite that fact.

You take the good, you take the bad…

You take them both and there you have … the news about Tenn. Formal Ethics Opinion 2019-F-167 (draft).

First, the good. I cannot give sincere and strong enough kudos to the Tennessee BPR for implementing a new policy to release draft Formal Ethics Opinions to the public for comment before deciding to actually adopt and issue them. That is a wonderful development for Tennessee lawyers and should ultimately lead to Tennessee having some of the best and most helpful ethics opinions of any state in the nation.

Now, the bad. 2019-F-167 in draft form ain’t one. This proposed FEO is yet another one seeking to weigh in on the topic of what kinds of provisions in settlement agreements might run afoul of a lawyer’s obligations under RPC 5.6 not to agree to restrictions on their practice as part of resolving a client matter. This time the underlying question is a provision in the settlement of an automobile products liability case that would require destruction of the allegedly defective vehicle.

The summary of the BPR’s conclusion is: “It is improper for an attorney to propose or accept a provision in a settlement agreement, in a products liability case, that requires destruction of the subject vehicle alleged to be defective if that action will restrict the attorney’s representation of other clients.”

Working from high-level problems first all the way down to problems at the level of details, here (for what it is worth) is what is wrong with this draft opinion:

  • The original intention of the rule, RPC 5.6, is to prevent an attorney from being put in a position where they have to agree that they will never again be adverse to someone as a condition for settling a particular client’s case. That is a policy decision made to try to protect the public’s general right to counsel despite the fact that the ethics rules (RPC 1.2) expressly provide that whether or not to settle a case is, and has to be, the ultimate decision of the client and not the lawyer. Every step down paths that are more remote from the original purpose of the restriction is one more step to making the rule tilt in the wrong direction of putting the lawyer’s future interests ahead of the current client’s right to settle their case.
  • Opinions that interpret a rule that says ” don’t do X” but that offer a conclusion of this other thing Y is wrong if Y also manages to “do X” aren’t all that helpful unless you provide really insightful guidance about when something would or would not also manage to “do X.” If you cannot articulate what things would or would not in a way that is, as a practical matter, helpful, then maybe you shouldn’t be issuing an opinion on the question.
  • The opinion goes to great lengths to explain how important the future possession of an arguably defective automobile is for the lawyer/firm making the inquiry and, in so doing, makes the following assertion as if it was the gospel truth: “The most compelling evidence when establishing the existence of a defect in a vehicle is the existence of other similar incidents.” But, it’s not. I’m not an expert in products liability litigation, though I have handled some cases over the years (admittedly, always on the defense side). If I need to prove that a particular vehicle that caused some particular person harm, then I need to prove that particular vehicle was defective. I don’t have to prove that any other vehicle at any other time was defective. Just that one. But also… that one. If I prove that other vehicles in other situations were defective and caused harm to other people, that isn’t actually going to correlate in any direct fashion to whether this particular vehicle that caused this particular harm was defective.
  • After doing that, the opinion explains a lot about the ways that the firm goes about purchasing the vehicle to have possession of it and talks about how “[i]t is the firm’s practice at the end of the case to request from the client that the firm be allowed to retain ownership and possession of the vehicle.” It does not, at any point in the opinion, provide any guidance on whether the firm has to comply with RPC 1.8(a) – business transaction with a client – in doing so; nor does it discuss whether such a policy on that firm’s part is a problem under RPC 1.8(i) – not acquiring a proprietary interest in a cause of action or subject matter of litigation that the lawyer is handling for a client.
  • The opinion does contain a discussion of RPC 3.4(a) and concerns of spoliation but makes another statement as if it were gospel truth that is actually simply not even close to 100% correct: “Clearly, in the context of a product liability case, the alleged defective product is key evidence in other current or subsequent cases of a similar defect.” It is bordering on irresponsible to put the imprimatur of the BPR on a position that the destruction of a particular physical piece of evidence at the conclusion of a particular piece of litigation would clearly put a lawyer at risk of being accused of spoliation of evidence in some future piece of litigation that does not yet even exist.
  • The opinion includes a discussion about the firm’s right to retain file materials and how that is important in terms of the ability to defend themselves in a subsequent legal malpractice action. That is a good issue to address. However, the sentence: “Without the ability to review the most important piece of evidence in the underlying products liability suit, the law firm would be left essentially defenseless if a former client brought a professional malpractice claim.” is another one of those bridge-too-far moments. The firm will have and retain copies of its expert reports from inspections of the vehicle and can even have and retain copious photographic and video evidence of the vehicle. There are many ways that it can satisfy its need to protect itself without having to have possession of the actual vehicle.
  • The opinion then ends with the BPR taking it upon itself to declare that the “ability for plaintiffs’ firms to act as industry watchdogs is both good public policy and was specifically addressed as a vested responsibility during Congress’s enactment of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. It doesn’t seem wise to me for the BPR to be in the business of taking positions on public policy issues that are not absolutely necessary in order to provide guidance under the ethics rules. This doesn’t seem like that kind of situation, but, as the opinion cross-references, the BPR already did that with this exact same language in Formal Ethics Op. 2018-F-166, so the horse is already out of that particular barn.

So, I would say that this one needs to go back into the shop for some much needed repairs if not taken off the street altogether.

Speaking of which, the opinion’s reference to the firm’s willingness to assure the settling defendant that the vehicle will not be placed back on the road is actually the key point of all of this. The only real reason – to my knowledge – that a defendant ever seeks to include a destruction provision in settlement is a matter of safety in terms of making certain that the same vehicle does not go back in use to put anyone else at risk of harm and, of course, to put the defendant at risk of not having to get sued again over the same defective item injuring a different person. If the assurance that is offered to be provided by the firm can be done in a manner that is actually enforceable, then that should always likely suffice to resolve the situation. An re-drafted opinion that puts more emphasis on that and that spots other issues that could create problems with an eye toward getting to the right practical result would certainly seem more like helpful guidance than this draft.

The deadline for submitting public comments to the BPR on this opinion, should you be so inclined, is April 10, 2019. The document immediately below provides instructions on how you can do that.

Utahlking Ethics Opinions to Me? (Also Texas)

I’m interested in writing today about two recent ethics opinions that manage to go together quite nicely.  Utah Ethics Adv. Op. 18-04 and Texas Professional Ethics Committee Op. 679.  Both involve RPC 1.8 (or at least both should).  And, not only does neither opinion do a very good job with the subject matter it tackles but both tackle subjects where lawyers need to tread very carefully and could use really good advice.

But, as just a quick aside before doing so, I wanted to express some gratitude from last week and point you to a very important story worth reading.  As the culmination of a many-months-long project, I had the chance to share the stage last week at the ABA Forum on Franchising with two excellent lawyers – Shannon McCarthy Associate General Counsel for Chihuly, Inc. and Kevin Kennedy, General Counsel of Wiggin and Dana in Connecticut — and talk about a tricky and delicate topic – lawyers and obligations to report other lawyers with a particular emphasis on issues involving harassment and other toxic behavior.  I was really fortunate to get to work with them both.  For a story that offers something of a how-not-to manual offered by the experience of one of the world’s largest law firms, you can go read up here.

Now, back to regularly-scheduled programming…

While I missed it around the time it came out, the Utah State Bar put out an interesting ethics opinion explaining to lawyers a way they might be able ethically to mitigate their risk exposure in the event of third-party claims against the lawyer based on the client’s conduct.

The opinion declares that “[a]n attorney may include an indemnification provision in a retainer agreement at the commencement of representation that requires the client to indemnify the attorney and related entities against claims that arise from the client’s behavior or negligence.”

In explaining this outcome, the Utah opinion points out that nothing about RPC 1.8(h) directly prohibits it.  However, it doesn’t just stop there, it goes on to explain … just kidding actually.  It stops there on that issue.

As a practical matter, that is sort of a shame because lawyers ought to be cautioned a bit about the problems associated with starting the relationship with a client off with that sort of provision — particularly because if you are that concerned about that risk of liability from the client’s conduct, then maybe a rethink about whether to take them on is in order.  But, if one is going to do it, the beginning of the relationship is certainly more viable than mid-stream.

Speaking of which, that brings me to the Texas opinion, which tasked itself with answering this question:

May a lawyer renegotiate his fixed, flat fee for representing a client in litigation after the litigation is underway if the matter turns out to be greater in scope and complexity than the lawyer and client contemplated?

If Texas was interested in doing this right, it would recognize that the answer lies in application of its version of Model Rule 1.8(a) because that situation is a business transaction between lawyer and client.  Instead, Texas actually announced that its version of that rule does not apply to a mid-stream renegotiation of a fee.

Instead, the opinion points out that Texas courts have considered the issue and have said that it can occur but that there is a “presumption of unfairness.”  Rejecting the opportunity to apply Rule 1.8 to these circumstances is all the more baffling because — providing guidance to interpret ethics rules is the kind of thing ethics opinion writing bodies are supposed to do, rather than providing guidance about what court decisions mean.

In the end though, I’m likely being too harsh on the Texas opinion because it, at least, summarizes pretty nicely the analysis of the dynamic from the lawyer side of things and why, in most situations, effectuating an enforceable renegotiation will be unlikely:

The fundamental nature of a flat or fixed fee is that there is risk to the lawyer that the legal work and time required may exceed what the lawyer might have earned if the lawyer instead billed by the hour.  The client knows with certain that the total fee charged, no matter how much lawyer time or effort is involved, will not exceed the fixed amount.  The client’s risk in a flat or fixed fee agreement is the possibility of paying more than the client would have paid under an hourly billing agreement if the lawyer is able to complete the representation is [sic] less time than originally expected.  Because the lawyer is better able to anticipate the time and legal work required, the lawyer should be mindful that he knowingly assumed the risk — and should not unreasonably seek to change the fee agreement simply because the lawyer agreed to a fixed fee that, in hindsight, is no longer adequate.

(emphasis added).  And, also, amen to that.

 

 

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.

An incredibly unhelpful ethics opinion from Colorado

Were you looking for something that is very well-written but entirely unhelpful to your needs as a lawyer?  Well, you’ve come to the right place today.

Wait, I now see how that paragraph could be misconstrued in an entirely unflattering way and as an inadvertent passing of judgment on this whole blog.  Obviously, I didn’t mean that.  After all, I said “well-written.”

Anyway, what I’m actually intending to refer to is Colorado Formal Ethics Opinion 134 which was enacted in January 2018 but which was brought to my attention by a loyal reader of this space.  It likely came into his path because of some treatment in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual which I admittedly have not read beyond their headline and lead sentence, which is as follows:

Advance Agreements on Joint Settlement OK, Colorado Bar Says

A lawyer who represents multiple clients in a case can prepare for them, with informed consent, an agreement stating that a majority vote controls for settlement offers, a recent Colorado bar ethics opinion says.

That is one way to spin the Colorado opinion and draw peoples attention, but studying the opinon itself reveals that the picture being painted is far too rosy because a more fair introduction to the opinion would be:

Advance Agreements on Joint Settlement OK to Memorialize But Lawyer Can’t Enforce It in the Future, Colorado Bar Says

A lawyer who represents multiple clients in a case can prepare for them, with informed consent, an agreement stating that a majority vote controls for settlement offers, a recent Colorado bar ethics opinion says, but what would be the point?  The same opinion explains that if any of the clients later rejects the settlement and refuses to abide by the majority vote then the lawyer doesn’t have settlement authority and can’t continue to represent everybody.

I’m not kidding.  That is the TL/DR version of Colorado Formal Opinion 134.  Don’t believe me, go read it for yourself.

Now, Colorado may feel like it has given a helpful opinion because it distinguishes its opinion from some others by saying it is perfectly ethical for a lawyer to participate in preparing an agreement along these lines for jointly represented clients and explaining how Rule 1.8(g) is not triggered until some future point when a settlement is on the table for consideration.  But . . . geez.  From a practical perspective, it’s an exercise in navel-gazing because of this paragraph of the opinion:

If multiple clients agree in advance on a majority-decision rule for how they will respond to an aggregate settlement proposal, but one client in the future refuses to follow the majority’s decision, the dissenting client might be in breach of that agreement.  The other clients might have claims against the dissenting client.  This circumstance creates an unwaivable conflict for their joint lawyer due to the dispute between in the dissenting client and the other clients.  The lawyer may not take sides in the dispute, and may not seek to enforce the agreement againts the dissenting client, on behalf of the majority clients, by compelling the dissenting client to settle.  The lawyer might need to withdraw from the joint representation entirely.

Because of that, it seems hard to understand how any good Colorado lawyer armed with this opinion could ever respond to an inquiry by joint clients about putting together a majority-rule agreement with any advice other than:

Yeah, you don’t want me to go through all of that.  If anyone changes their mind later, I can’t enforce it and you probably just end up in additional litigation maybe over breaching the contract and you all just end up having to hire more and different lawyers.  So, let’s just wait until we have something in front of us to think about on settlement some day and then work it out if and when that day ever comes around.

 

 

 

My 300th Post. The shady “Stormy” story gets shadier.

If you had told me back in March 2015 when I started this blog that my 300th blogpost would struggle with trying to decide which angle of a statement to The New York Times made by a personal attorney for the 45th President of the United States about paying $130,000 to a porn star to apparently buy silence regarding that porn star’s past affair with the President at a time that was within months of the President’s third wife giving birth to his fifth child would be worst legal ethics bit, then I … well, I don’t even know what I would have begun to have thought, much less said.

But this is the reality of the world in which we now live.  So, here we are.  Let’s get this over with.

You’ve certainly likely already reports from yesterday either The New York Times article itself, or the thoughts of other folks online about the story which are too numerous to try to link to at this point.  The very short version is Michael Cohen, a New York lawyer who has been the private, personal attorney of the current occupant of The White House and who was, in the recent past, something of an in-house attorney for the 45th President’s family corporate organization has now provided a statement to one of the largest newspapers in the nation — that he says echoes substantively what he has told the Federal Election Commission — that he personally paid $130,000 to a woman, who goes professionally by the name, Stormy Daniels, and was not reimbursed directly or indirectly by the current President’s campaign or his family corporate organization.

I am a lawyer – I may have mentioned that on one or more occasions.  For anyone who might be reading this and wondering what it is like to be a lawyer, Mr. Cohen’s experience as he describes it is definitely not what lawyers do.  The best of our profession often times think of ourselves as, and even describe ourselves, as problem solvers.  But we traditionally are not allowed to solve problems for people simply by throwing our own money at the problem.  That aspect is just one of the ways in which this incident, and how the statement describes it, raises a whole host of immediate, problematic ethics issues for discussion.

Those include:

(a) If Cohen’s statement about the transaction is true, it might have been a violation of New York’s ethics rules on business transactions with clients or not providing financial assistance to a client regarding litigation or certainly otherwise a scenario that creates a serious, personal interest conflict of interest for the attorney.  (b) The making of the statement itself is not something a lawyer should likely be doing unless he’s been instructed to by the client because it just made things worse for the lawyer’s client because the porn star who had been worried she was still under an NDA now believes she is free to speak out about the affair and actually confirm other media reports rather than being coy about the whole situation. (c) It also is quite likely that Cohen’s version of the events is probably not 100% the truth, key details have been omitted, and it could very well, if nothing else, be a violation of a rule such as RPC 8.4(c).

Now, in trying to discuss such topics at length, I could repeat what other fine lawyers on the ground in New York and who are well versed in ethics have now already said in a story in The ABA Journal online about the likely violation of New York RPC 1.8(e), but I won’t.  You can read what they say at this link instead.  (Plus, I quite recently wrote about a somewhat similar kind of situation involving a much less crazy overall scenario and so it seems like it isn’t necessary to write more about the “doing a financial favor for a client” piece of the puzzle.)

I could also spend some time complaining about the fact that much of what I first read online posted by journalists about Cohen’s statement was how everybody kept claiming that Cohen had said he’d paid the money to Ms. Daniels “out of his own pocket,” which he never actually said apparently.  But, instead you can go read a good take on that aspect of the situation here.

I also could focus on the fact that, without respect to the shadiness of the whole transaction and how problematic that is for a lawyer to be near, the decision to give a statement to The New York Times appears likely to damage his client as Ms. Daniels is now signaling through the media that she can tell all because Cohen’s public statement confirming the payment is a breach of the NDA she signed.  But, there is already a better article about that development you can read here.

Instead, I want to point out my own opinion, given the way a certain someone is known to operate, about how this likely went down:

Cohen is likely telling the truth about paying with funds of his for which no one reimbursed him, but omitting the most salient detail.  He probably wasn’t “reimbursed” by anyone after making the payment because he was probably provided those funds, pretty much immediately in advance of the transaction, as some sort of bonus or even a “gift” with the tacit understanding about what he was expected to do with those funds — purchase Ms. Daniels’s silence.

So, under that theory, if Cohen’s conduct is unethical, then it is probably because it either is, or might very well be akin to, money laundering or money laundering in reverse. . . if that’s a thing.