An ode (of sorts) to RPC 1.18 (but only as an example)

Today’s entry is something of a dodge in a way (I sort of wanted to pile on about this and make the point that it is a much sounder development than this was) and something of knocking down a hastily-created strawman in another respect. But what it mostly amounts to is pursuing a not-yet-fully-formed thesis that has been kicking around my brain for a bit.

The quick and dirty description of the thesis is: Ethics rules are tools; having the right one for the right situation saves a lot of time and effort, but it also protects lawyers and clients alike by providing certainty.

I keep coming back to this thesis of late because of a few instances of things arising in my practice (about which I can’t elaborate of course) as well as discussions I’ve been privy to at ethics conferences and presentations that have particularly focused on issues of civility in the practice of law and whether more should be done to establish rules to punish lawyers for conduct many (perhaps most) but certainly not all lawyers would view as uncivil.

In the discussions of civility, I keep returning to the notion that we already have certain specific rules that prohibit conduct of an uncivil nature and ought to focus on enforcing those rather than layering on other proposed solutions outside of the rules. Those rules are Model Rule 4.4(a) and Model Rule 8.4(d). Admittedly, 4.4(a) is much more supportive of my thesis as it is very clear about what it prohibits: a lawyer, who is representing a client, cannot “use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person.” I am usually hard-pressed to hear of a situation that a lawyer is complaining of under the category of “incivility” that is both clearly deserving of punishment and not already prohibited by 4.4(a).

Offering even stronger support for exploring my thesis though is this recent ethics opinion from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. Opinion 691 addresses this question: “Under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, when may a lawyer represent a client adverse to a former prospective client of the lawyer or another lawyer in the lawyer’s firm.” Examining that question, the opinion spends almost 5 pages to get to its four-paragraph conclusion.

Many of you reading this, likely are asking yourselves the same question I did when I saw news about the issuance of the opinion: Why is this a live question in Texas and why does it take so many pages to answer?

Because Texas has not adopted Model Rule 1.18, or any other specific rule, addressing a lawyer’s duties owed to prospective clients.

Fascinatingly, this Texas opinion ultimately offers an analysis that can still be distilled down to look a good bit like Model Rule 1.18 with really only one important difference: no non-consensual screening to avoid imputed disqualification. If this opinion is correct about how things should work in Texas, then Texas could just have adopted (and now could adopt) a rule that if I understand their fun numbering would be 1.17:

Duties to Prospective Client.

(a) A person who consults with a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client.

(b) Even when no client-lawyer relationship ensues, a lawyer who has learned information from a prospective client shall not use or reveal that information except as Rule 1.05 would permit.

(c) A lawyer subject to paragraph (b) shall not represent a client with interests materially adverse to those of a prospective client in the same or a substantially related matter if the lawyer received information from the prospective client that could be significantly harmful to that person in the matter. If a lawyer is disqualified from representation under this paragraph, no lawyer in a firm with which that lawyer is associated may knowingly undertake or continue representation in such a matter.

And if Texas had just done that, then lawyers and prospective clients would be able to know clearly what is to be expected. Instead, lawyers and prospective clients (and others) will be left to wonder whether this opinion accurately describes what the other rules mean.

The world needs a “healthy dose” of lots of things.

Frankly, civil behavior by lawyers toward other lawyers certainly is on the list of things the world needs a healthy dose of, but, well, let’s just say maybe it’s not a top-10 item on the list.

So, the point of today’s post is not to be the guy who claims that lawyers shouldn’t have to be civil to each other. I am not that guy. Civility is a net positive in the profession.

What I do want to write a bit about though, because discussions about the need for increased civility in the legal profession are all the rage right now (and, in fact, I’m going to be part of a panel discussion later this month on the topic, the difference between reminding lawyers of the need to treat human beings with respect and “weaponizing” the idea of civility to hamstring the ability of a lawyer to pursue a client’s claims and rights, particularly when that can tend to unfairly prejudice the “Davids” of the world in favor of the already-favored “Goliaths.”

I also want to stress the fact that there is already a rule of professional conduct that is sufficient to address those aspects of incivility that should be treated as unethical.

Let’s talk in varying degrees of detail about three of the most recent news items driving the civility discussion and identify which one of them I have some real problems with.

The quote in the title of today’s post comes from this ABA Journal article about remarks made by the Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court in connection with that court’s proposal to amend the attorney oath of office to better mandate civility.

Much more media attention rightly has been focused upon this ruling from the D.C. District Court admonishing a high-profile Big Law attorney (who actually had to step away from a Presidential appointment in the new administration because of this matter) for her characterizations of the conduct and demeanor of opposing counsel during a deposition, a videotaped deposition. Whether this ruling is correct in terms of the application of Rule 11 is not something I want to spend any time discussing. Whether this ruling properly points out the kind of things a lawyer shouldn’t do is.

The core description of the situation can be understood from the court’s opinion itself which indicated that each of the following were statements made by lawyers in the record about the conduct of their opposing counsel during the deposition but for which the Court could find no support in viewing the videotape of the deposition: opposing counsel was “agitated and combative,” opposing counsel “lashed out at the witness,” opposing counsel “became unhinged … and repeatedly attacked and baselessly threatened to seek sanctions against the witness and counsel,” opposing counsel engaged in “browbeating and disrespectful behavior,” opposing counsel was “indignant and adversarial,” “agitated and aggressive,” and opposing counsel “demonstrated a general lack of respect towards a professional adversary.”

Mischaracterizing the way another lawyer has behaved is certainly troubling conduct. While perhaps some of the descriptors are entirely subjective, not all of them are. The fact that, as the court points out, the deposition in question was videotaped also makes it pretty hard to feel any sympathy for the lawyer who ended up sanctioned after they persisted in trying to say that the descriptions of the other lawyer, which everyone else seems to agree were not reflected on the videotape, were somehow justified.

But I also want to be clear about what the case did not involve which is an even more toxic approach to mischaracterizing the behavior of another lawyer but which only “works” if the deposition isn’t being videotaped. We likely all have encountered a lawyer who, back in the days when videotaping depositions was a much less frequent experience, would make statements and assertions about events to make a “record” on paper of something happening that was not actually going on. Statements such as “please stop raising your voice at the witness,” or “you need to calm down, you’re way too worked up,” “I’d ask you to stop rolling your eyes at the witness’s answers,” or “what was that gesture? No one appreciates that” and the like can be a “go to” approach for trying to gaslight later readers of an otherwise dry deposition transcript.

Now, contrast the D.C. case with this ruling from a district court judge in Florida demanding that attorneys representing both sides in a lawsuit against a cruise line refile past filings after removing all of the language that the judge found inappropriate. (Former APRL President Jan Jacobowitz has written a bit about this ruling here.)

In the Florida case, the court explained its concerns as follows:

The Florida Bar Oath of Admission, which every attorney
licensed in the state of Florida swears to obey, states in part,

To opposing parties and their counsel, I pledge
fairness, integrity, and civility, not only in court,
but also in all written and oral communications. I will
abstain from all offensive personality and advance no
fact prejudicial to the honor or reputation of a party
or witness, unless required by the justice of the cause
with which I am charged.

The Florida Bar’s Creed of Professionalism provides further
clarity on the manner in which attorneys should conduct themselves
in the practice of law. It states, in part, “I will abstain from
all rude, disruptive, disrespectful, and abusive behavior and will
at all times act with dignity, decency, and courtesy.”


Upon review of the record and the parties’ filings, this Court
notes that the conduct displayed by counsel for both Plaintiffs
and Defendant runs afoul of the tenets of professionalism set forth
by the Florida Bar.

The problem, of course, comes in reading further the examples that the court cites which almost exclusively do not involve the lawyers denigrating or being uncivil to each other, but rather involve characterizations by lawyers of the conduct of the opposing party itself. For example, the Florida judge took umbrage at:

First, Plaintiffs dedicate an entire section of their Motion
for Partial Summary Judgment to what they entitled “ROYAL
CARIBBEAN’S EGREGIOUS POST-INCIDENT CONDUCT.” They accuse the
Defendant of “lying to authorities,” “attempting to deceive this
Honorable Court,” and engaging in, “corporate misconduct [which]…
appears to know no bounds” [D.E. 128]. Plaintiffs further accuses
Defendant’s Captain of lying to the U.S. Coast Guard, and state
that the Defendant “doubled down on the Captain’s lie to the Coast
Guard by again lying to a United States Federal District Court.”
Plaintiffs further claim that Defendant’s ‘lies’ were “the genesis
of the Puerto Rican authorities ultimately pressing (baseless)
criminal charges against Mr. Anello,” and ultimately accuse the
Defendant of making “merciless efforts to frame an innocent man,
intentionally destroy evidence, and mislead this Honorable Court
(and the U.S. Coast Guard and the Puerto Rican authorities).”

The problem with most of the language that this court found problematic is that the court seems unwilling to acknowledge that there is fundamentally a difference between saying that lawyers should generally treat other lawyers, as well as other people involved in proceedings, with civility and essentially hamstringing a lawyer from being able to pursue a client’s case. Now, admittedly, I have no insight into any of the players in the case nor any reason to know if anyone was not telling the truth, but, fundamentally, the notion of civility must not be used to prevent lawyers from being able to point out when an adverse party is actually lying.

There are, in short, very few ways to inform a court that you believe that your client’s litigation adversary is lying in a way that is guaranteed to be viewed as “civil.” There is no doubt that accusations of lying are made far too casually by members of our profession, but that does not mean that there are not instances when litigants are, in fact, lying and lawyers must be free to plainly and directly say so when their client needs them to do so.

And it is for that reason that I tend to be wary of efforts to expand existing ethical prohibitions, or adopt new rules, in the name of encouraging civility. I tend to think that the rules already address what needs to be prohibited through Model Rule 4.4(a)’s prohibition that in representing a client “a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person….”

Any jurisdiction that has that version of RPC 4.4(a) has what it needs to get at the kind of uncivil behavior that should be curtailed.

Abuse of “Iowa nice” leads to rare Dubuque rebuke.

Readers of this space know that a large part of my practice involves representing lawyers in disciplinary proceedings. Disciplinary proceedings are difficult for all that are involved, but rarely can anyone involved question that they don’t know the stakes. They are what they are and they have their own rules and procedures.

Today’s post involves a story of a lawyer getting actual discipline in Iowa, in the form of a public reprimand, not through Iowa’s disciplinary system, but imposed by a federal district judge in Iowa through a sanctions-style set of proceedings deemed “informal disciplinary proceedings.”

And, as a lawyer who does a great deal of disciplinary defense but who also does still have a “normal” litigation practice as well, I’m quite torn. Based on the story that the federal court opinion tells, the Los Angeles lawyer absolutely deserves to be on the receiving end of discipline. And the court is a bit kind when it refers to the situation as being a “he said/he said” sort of dispute when, in fact, it was a “he said/he said and this other he said and then this other he said and this she said and this other he said” dispute.

The toxic approach to litigation the Los Angeles lawyer seems to embrace is something that a handful of lawyers in my state do as well, and they almost always manage to skate through without ever being sanctioned for their conduct because, when you are dealing with them, it’s always in your client’s best interest to just try to limit the amount of time you have to deal with them rather than increase it by pursuing discipline against them for their conduct. I’m confident Tennessee is not exceptional and that there are a handful or two of these folks in just about every state. Yet, given that there exists a system for pursuing discipline rather than monetary sanctions in Iowa, no matter how bad the conduct was it feels like the federal judge should have just made a referral to the Iowa disciplinary authorities instead of imposing discipline directly.

I’m also a bit torn that the only ethics rule upon which the court premised its punishment was RPC 8.4(d) – the notion that the conduct of the lawyer was prejudicial to the administration of justice. And, throughout, the extent of the analysis is not far from saying that just about anything improper that multiples or complicates litigation proceedings to make them unnecessarily protracted or unpleasant is the same thing as being prejudicial to the administration of justice. That is something of a slippery slope under normal circumstances but also problematic when there exists a separate remedy in federal court, under 28 U.S.C. 1927, for handling litigation tactics that unreasonably and vexatiously multiply proceedings.

Yet, here, all of the misconduct found to have happened would also have run afoul of RPC 4.4(a) — ” In representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person….” — so part of me thinks, at least as to the particular situation, that this falls into a “much harm, no foul” category. But the idea that the “wrong” ethics rule was also used to get to what was likely the right outcome is just further fuel for the fire that the better path would have been to refer the matter to disciplinary authorities.

You can go read the full opinion and draw your own conclusions about whether it was the right manner for imposing discipline by clicking on the download button below.

And a word of thanks to Todd Presnell for spotting this case and sending it my way as fodder for discussion. If you aren’t reading Presnell on Privileges, well, under normal circumstances I’d chide you and say you should, but we’re all doing what we can to hold things together these days so … what I’ll say instead is, if you’ve got the mental bandwidth to add it to your reading list, it’s really good.

ABA Confirms that Model Rule 1.15 Should Solve What Model Rule 4.4 Doesn’t

So, I am certain you have heard by now that a little under a week ago the ABA issued a new Formal Ethics Opinion to address the ethical obligations of lawyers in the aftermath of a cyber-attack or an electronic data breach.  ABA Opinion 483 makes for a good read and provides good guidance about how the ethics rules work on the subject.

There are lots of decent summaries out there already of this ethics opinion if you want to try the tl:dr approach and just read secondary sources.  I am not going to repeat those summaries here.  Instead, I want to focus on what is, to me and perhaps only me, the most important development that ought to come from this opinion — the recognition by the ABA that “property” in Model Rule 1.15 has to also include digital property.

In the latest ABA Opinion, this issue is addressed with an eye toward thinking about electronic copies of client files, specifically as follows:

An open question exists whether Model Rule 1.15’s reference to “property” includes information stored in electronic form.  Comment [1] uses as examples “securities” and “property” that should be kept separate from the lawyer’s “business and personal property.”  That language suggests Rule 1.15 is limited to tangible property which can be physically segregated.  On the other hand, many courts have moved to electronic filing and law firms routinely use email and electronic document formats to image or transfer information.  Reading Rule 1.15’s safeguarding obligation to apply to hard copy client files but not electronic client files is not a reasonable reading of the Rule.

Now, why is this such an important takeaway to me?  Well, myopia often flows from the egocentric nature of people and I am no exception.  This is an important takeaway to me because I’ve been trying to make this point in an entirely different context – and to little avail — since 2010 when I co-authored an article entitled: “Model Rule 1.15: The Elegant Solution to the Problem of Purloined Documents” published in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct.  Now that article – which you can still find here — was itself an excerpt of part of a chapter of a book I was also fortunate enough to co-author with Doug Richmond that came out in 2011.  The “Elegant Solution” article explained that the lack of guidance offered by Model Rule 4.4(b) on what a lawyer must do if they receive stolen documents (whether on paper or electronically) should be resolved by application of Model Rule 1.15 and the obligations lawyers have under subsections (d) and (e) of that rule.

There are likely lots of reasons why that article has been largely ignored – and when not ignored treated as offering a controversial view to be shunned — but the primary one is that Model Rule 4.4(b) becomes a bit unnecessary as a rule if such questions could have been resolved under Model Rule 1.15.

Model Rule 4.4(b) reads:

A lawyer who receives a document or electronically stored information relating to the representation of the lawyer’s client and knows or reasonably should know that the document or electronically stored information was inadvertently sent shall promptly notify the sender.

Model Rule 4.4(b) only addresses information that a lawyer receives that is known to have been inadvertently sent and only requires the receiving lawyer to give notice to the sending lawyer of what has happened.  It does not address information sent purposely but without authorization, and it punts on what comes next.

In the “Elegant Solution” article, we explained why Rule 1.15 provided answers to the questions Model Rule 4.4(b) won’t address and, particularly in light of this latest ethics opinion recognizing the need for Model Rule 1.15 to apply to digital information, I think our explanation is worth repeating to close out this post:

The Model Rules do, in fact, appear to offer an elegant answer for lawyers who question
their professional responsibilities when they receive documents that may have been purloined or otherwise improperly obtained from another. The answer lies in Model Rule 1.15 and its provisions establishing lawyers’ obligations with respect to ‘‘safekeeping property.’’ See Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 1.15 (2010).  Although lawyers are generally familiar with Rule 1.15 in the trust account context, the scope of the rule is clearly not so limited, as amply evidenced by its repeated references not just to funds or fees or expenses, but also to ‘‘property.’’

Model Rule 1.15(a) declares that ‘‘[a] lawyer shall hold property of clients or third persons that is in the lawyer’s possession in connection with a representation separate from the lawyer’s own property.’’ Id. R. 1.15(a) (emphasis added). Model Rule 1.15(d) further requires that ‘‘[u]pon receiving funds or other property in which a client or third person has an interest, a lawyer shall promptly notify the client or third person.’’ Id. R. 1.15(d) (emphasis added). Finally, Model Rule 1.15(e) mandates that ‘‘[w]hen in the course of the representation
a lawyer is in possession of property in which two or more persons (one of whom may be the lawyer)
claim interests, the property shall be kept separate by the lawyer until the dispute is resolved.’’ Id. R. 1.15(e) (emphasis added).

Analysis of over-the-transom deliveries through the lens of Rule 1.15 establishes that a lawyer, upon receiving purloined documents (or if not clearly purloined at least clearly reflecting privileged or confidential information belonging to someone other than the person who delivered the documents), is obligated to hold those documents separate from the rest of the lawyer’s documents, promptly notify the person from whom the documents were taken, and, if the lawyer is going to refuse to return the documents to that person (and thereby claim either that the lawyer or the lawyer’s client has an interest in them), continue to keep those documents segregated from the rest of the lawyer’s property until the dispute over the documents is resolved,
presumably through a ruling by a tribunal. This approach places no meaningful burden on the receiving lawyer and respects the rights of the party to whom the materials belong.

The ethics of putting together an unenforceable contract.

It is still astounding (as well as deeply dispiriting) that the context of the discussion I’m about to launch is the work of White House Counsel but this is the world we currently occupy.  You may very well have read this fascinating The Washington Post article by now released in connection with the ongoing news story of a former White House staffer who repeatedly secretly taped conversations – including her own firing in The Situation Room — inside The White House and what those recordings may reveal about whether that person says even more outrageous things in private than the outrageous things he says in public, as well as whether that person is suffering from a decline in his mental faculties.

Because tackling the notion of the ethics of representing a client with diminished capacity if that client happens to be – at least theoretically – the most powerful politician on the planet – is too depressing to tackle, I’m not writing about that today.  If you want to delve into those issues, your starting point is ABA Model Rule 1.14.

Instead I want to talk about [as the title of the post telegraphed] what can be a thorny ethics issue even in much more pedestrian contexts: is it ethical for a lawyer to draft and create a contract for a client’s use that the lawyer knows to be unenforceable?

As the topic du jour the context of the question is requiring staff at The White House – public employees — to sign non-disclosure agreements including provisions that would prohibit them from disparaging the 45th President of the United States.  Seemingly everyone acknowledges that given the nature of public employment, democracy, the at-least-still-for-the-time-being cherished concept of transparency in government, and numerous other federal laws such an agreement is obviously and undisputedly unenforceable.  The article describes what the media has been told about the events:

A number of White House aides were urged to sign NDAs in early 2017 by White House Counsel Donald McGahn, according to current and former aides, who requested anonymity to discuss internal West Wing deliberations. Trump was obsessed with leaks to the news media and repeatedly demanded that McGahn draft the agreement, the aides said.

Initially, McGahn told Trump he would not draft or give aides the NDAs because they were not enforceable, White House officials said. But in the end, McGahn created a document that said aides would not divulge any confidential or nonpublic information to any person outside the building at any time, according to three people who signed it.

Other media outlets have reported that McGahn may have convinced people to actually sign the document by reassuring them that it was unenforceable.  One of the reasons the question is important ethically is that if you create a contract for a client that you know is unenforceable, they will likely still try to use that contract in the future against people and cause them harm (at the very least economic harm and inconvenience associated with defending a lawsuit seeking to claim a breach of the unenforceable contract).  Media reports today indicate that something like this is now being undertaken – although admittedly apparently based on an NDA that was required by the campaign and not the actual government.

My opinion about the answer to the question of whether any such conduct by a lawyer is unethical is, unfortunately, less than equivocal.  At heart, it will have to turn on a situation-by-situation analysis.  Using the Model Rules to explain, this is because there is not exactly a specific rule outside of the litigation context that flatly prohibits a lawyer from assisting a client in pursuing a frivolous position in negotiation of a document in the same way that there is such a rule prohibiting the pursuit of frivolous claims in litigation.

What is available is a collection of rules that would need to be sifted through and applied to the circumstances to reach a conclusion about the lawyer’s role in assisting a client in getting someone to agree to a provision in a contract (or an entire contract) that is known to be unenforceable.  Those rules are:

RPC 1.2(d):  A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent, but a lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client and may counsel or assist a client to make a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law.

RPC 1.16(a):  … a lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if: (1) the representation will result in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law ….

RPC 4.1:  In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall not knowingly: (a) make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person; or (b) fail to disclose a material fact when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client, unless disclosure is prohibited by Rule 1.6.

RPC 4.3:  In dealing on behalf of a client with a person who is not represented by counsel, a lawyer shall not state or imply that the lawyer is disinterested. . . . The lawyer shall not give legal advice to an unrepresented person, other than the advice to secure counsel, if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the interests of such a person are or have a reasonable possibility of being in conflict with the interests of the client.

RPC 4.4(a):  In representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person ….

RPC 8.4(d):  It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to … engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Assuming that, at all times in dealing with the members of staff being asked to sign the contracts, White House counsel was truthful about the situation, then the most troublesome provisions from the list above would be RPC 4.4(a) as there seems no “substantial” purpose other than to burden these people to seek to have them agree to an unenforceable contract — particularly where one of the grounds of unenforceability in this scenario is a constitutional issue.

In other circumstances, for example, where the unenforceable piece of the contract puzzle is just one part of an otherwise enforceable contract or, on the other extreme, where the contract itself is unenforceable because its purpose is inherently criminal or illegal, then the interweaving of these rules may provide a clearer outcome.

Idaho why I insist on punny titles.

So, those familiar with this space may remember I have written a bit from time-to-time about Tennessee’s proposed rule revision to adopt a modified version of ABA Model Rule 8.4(g).  The future of the proposal is still up in the air and the public comment period continues to run until March 21, 2018.  If you want to, you can go read those comments that have been submitted so far at this link.  The Court regularly updates the contents of the PDF at that link as new comments are submitted.  (Spoiler alert:  quite a few lawyers are pointing to their religious beliefs as being under attack if an ethics rule is adopted that would prohibit them from harassing or discriminating against people and, in the process in my opinion, overlooking the vast chasm that exists between proclaiming one’s personal beliefs but still treating all people with respect and conduct that involves harassing or discriminating against someone.)

The purpose of this post is not exactly to provide an update on Tennessee’s proposal.  Instead, the reason for writing is to share another approach to the topic that I learned of recently when I was getting fully up-to-speed on Idaho’s rules.

Although it was only tangentially relevant to my presentation to the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association, I learned that not only does Idaho have the same RPC 8.4(d) and Comment [3] approach as Tennessee [both patterned after the older ABA Model Rule approach] but, in addition to that, Idaho has additional language targeting lawyer conduct motivated by discrimination in its RPC 4.4.

In Tennessee, for example, RPC 4.4(a)(1) prohibits the following sort of conduct:

(a)       In representing a client, a lawyer shall not: (1) use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person….

Idaho’s version of this rule, however, adds something extra by way of an example of what is included:

(a) In representing a client, a lawyer shall not: (1) use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person, including conduct intended to appeal to or engender bias against a person on account of that person’s
gender, race, religion, national origin, or sexual preference, whether that bias is directed to other counsel, court personnel, witnesses, parties, jurors, judges, judicial officers, or any other participants….

It is an interesting approach because I have found myself, in some discussions at seminars in Tennessee where I’ve discussed my support for the proposed rule responding to examples of things lawyers say could become fodder for a bar complaint if the rule were revised, pointing to the fact that the conduct being described could very well be pursued as a violation of RPC 4.4(a).  I think that’s likely true in a number of litigation-related examples of sexual harassment or usage of racial and other kinds of epithets directed at others involved in the process, but would only cover issues related to when a lawyer is representing a client.  I happen to think that’s likely true in any jurisdiction that has language like Tennessee’s RPC 4.4(a) even without going to the trouble of elaborating on the point as Idaho has in its rule.

But, Idaho’s approach is certainly an interesting one as something of a belt-and-suspenders approach to trying to stop such conduct by lawyers, but only when they are representing clients.

A rare example of the perfect application of RPC 8.4(c)

I’ve written in the past about issues associated with RPC 8.4(c) and how its potential application to any act of dishonesty on the part of a lawyer — no matter how trivial or unrelated to the practice of law it might be — makes it a problematic ethics rule.  A disciplinary proceeding presently being pursued against an Illinois lawyer offers an example of a situation to which RPC 8.4(c) applies perfectly.

The Illinois lawyer has been in the news within the last few weeks for the repercussions of his harassment of a fellow Illinois lawyer.  The primary focus of the media coverage has been on the creation of a fake Match.com profile for the purpose of embarrassing and disparaging a female lawyer.  It was that conduct that got the lawyer — Drew Quitschau — fired from the law firm in Illinois where he had been a partner since 2012.  A Law.com story dipped its toe into the waters of some of the other online misconduct involved, mentioning that he signed the other lawyer up for a membership in the Obesity Action Coalition and in Pig International..  The ABA Journal story was a bit more comprehensive in identifying the multiple membership or subscription organizations involved in Quitschau’s abuse which also included registrations/unwanted signups for Diabetic Living and Auto Trader.

But, the full picture of the extent of Quitschau’s attack occurring from June 2016 to December 2016 is best taken in through a read of the petition for discipline filed against him last month by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.  There also were other acts of deception and fraudulent online activity that went beyond personal attacks into professional attacks as well.

The petition explains that Quitschau created a false negative review of the female lawyer on each of www.martindale.com and www.lawyers.com, and created a false Facebook account for the sole purpose of then using that persona to post a negative review of the female lawyer’s law firm.

Based on the timing of events, it appears to be efforts at professional harm was what Quitschau first tried against the female lawyer and only thereafter did he move on to harassment that was purely personal in nature.  That conduct isn’t “worse” in any true sense of the word as the other purely personal attacks are pretty vile, but the expanded activity that focused the deception and harassment on the female lawyer’s own reputation as a lawyer certainly comes closer to being conduct that might actually also be prosecuted as violations of other ethics rules and not just RPC 8.4(c) because the female lawyer and Quitschau had been opposing counsel in seven matters during an 8-month stretch of time during his course of conduct.  .

If the Illinois board could prove any connection between this conduct and Quitschau’s representation of any of those clients, then a rule like RPC 4.4(a) — which declares that “[i]n representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person, or use methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of such a person” — could also come into play.

Regardless, the ability to pursue inexcusable conduct of the sort Mr. Quitschau undertook should be universally agreed to be a fitting use of RPC 8.4(c).

Learn something new every day. Or two things. Or three things. I’m not your boss.

About a week or so ago, I learned something new about South Carolina’s ethics rules – thanks to the law-student-powered blog of the University of Miami (FL) School of Law, Legal Ethics in Motion.  They wrote about a South Carolina federal court case in which a motion to disqualify premised on South Carolina Rule 1.18 was denied.  I learned a second new thing about South Carolina’s ethics rules in reading that opinion.

The first new thing I learned about South Carolina was that it has a weird-ish wrinkle in its Rule 1.18(a).

Most jurisdictions, including Tennessee, follow the lead of ABA Model Rules and have a version of Rule 1.18(a) that defines a “prospective client” as someone who “consults with” or “discusses with” a lawyer the “possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter.”

South Carolina, however, takes a different approach.  Its RPC 1.18(a) reads as follows:

A person with whom a lawyer discusses the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form a relationship.

Now, that “only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form a relationship” language can have some obvious benefits in avoiding having to deal with certain situations where most folks would agree that the array of protections afforded to a person as a prospective client under RPC 1.18 just shouldn’t come into existence.  Like, if the only reason someone is reaching out is to get a lawyer disqualified – usually just dealt with through language in the Comment — this language should suffice to prevent RPC 1.18 protection from coming to pass.  Likewise, if say a person a lawyer has never met before calls out of the blue and starts running on at the mouth about their case before the lawyer could get a word – like “stop” – in edgewise, this rule’s “reasonable expectation” and “likely to form” language would be a very good tool for shutting down any RPC 1.18 argument.

But, even having only just learned of the existence of such language, I was still surprised to then learn what the federal court in South Carolina thought it meant.  Instead of resolving a disqualification motion on the basis that there didn’t seem to be any “significantly harmful” information that was ever transmitted, the court concluded that a series of events spanning a voice mail message, a telephone conference about a possible engagement, and an email exchange thereafter with a South Carolina lawyer was not sufficient to ever create the existence of a prospective client at all.

The court’s own description of the events is really all that should be needed to understand my surprise:

On July 7, 2016, Plaintiff’s attorney Jay Wolman (Wolman) called and left a voice mail for Wyche attorney Tally Parham Casey (Casey) about a possible engagement in a case.  Wolman and Casey discussed the possibility of Wyche’s serving as local counsel for Plaintiff in this matter in a telephone conference on July 11, 2016.  Wolman subsequently emailed Casey on July 11, 2016, and provided Plaintiff’s and Gari’s names “[f]or conflict purposes” and requested a fee agreement “[i]f there is no conflict.”  Casey responded on that same day with applicable hourly rates and stated, “I hope we get the opportunity to work together.”  On July 12, 2016, however, Casey sent Wolman an email stating, “I’m afraid we have a conflict and will not be able to assist you with this matter.”

Pardon the wordplay and all, but I’m not sure it is “likely” that a multitude of judges would agree with how that particular line was drawn on the RPC 1.18(a) front in this particular South Carolina decision.

While I am on the subject of South Carolina and its ethics rules, one other development is worthy of mention here.   South Carolina’s Supreme Court has issued a public censure against an Arkansas lawyer for his role regarding using investigators to “pose as customers in an effort to obtain evidence to prove that the defendant was violating the intellectual property rights of the plaintiffs.”  The Court explained that the Arkansas lawyer’s investigators “made false statements to the defendant’s employees and used tactics designed to prod the employees into making statements about the product,” and also “tape-recorded these conversations without notice to the employees.”

Many, many moons ago (2012), I wrote an article for an ABA publication called Landslide about the ethical problems for lawyers stemming from investigations relying on pretext in intellectual property matters.  I don’t think I’m bragging when I say that billions of people never read that article.  While it is probably a pretty safe bet to guess that this Arkansas lawyer was among the billions of people who didn’t read it, I can’t actually call that something I truly learned today because the conduct for which he is now being punished in 2017 with that public reprimand actually took place back in 2009.

Thus, if I’m flailing around trying to add one more thing to my list of nuggets learned today, it would have to be this, the South Carolina Court was actually a bit kind to this Arkansas lawyer in terms of how it described the problems.  It pointed out, in issuing a public reprimand against the lawyer in question, that the lawyer was “unaware that secret tape-recording, pretexting, and dissembling were in violation of the South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct.”   Had it wanted to be a bit more damning in its explanation of events, it could have pointed out that the South Carolina rules upon which the discipline against the Arkansas lawyer rested (RPC 4.4(a) and RPC 8.4) say the same thing that Arkansas’s own version of those rules say and, thus, that it probably would not be a stretch to say that Arkansas’s ethics rules are also violated by (at least) pretexting and dissembling.

 

 

Texas Ethics Opinion Offers Stellar Example of Why You Ought to Have a Rule About This.

I’ve mentioned in the past the fact that Tennessee has a version of RPC 4.4(b) that directly addresses, and provides what I happen to think is the correct outcome, for what a lawyer is supposed to do about the receipt of someone else’s confidential information either inadvertently or via someone who isn’t authorized to have it in the first place.  Our RPC 4.4(b) goes further than the ABA Model Rule in two respects on this front in that: (1) it doesn’t just require notice as to inadvertently received information but makes clear that the lawyer has to either abide by any instructions as to what to do with the information or has to refrain from doing anything further with it until a court ruling can be obtained; and (2) we apply the same standard to information received unauthorizedly, e.g. a purloined document.  (Of course, I’ve also mentioned … repeatedly I admit … that the ABA Model Rules ought to be construed via Model Rule 1.15 to fill the gap on that second point, but … leading horses… and drinking water… and all that.

Earlier this month the State Bar of Texas Professional Ethics Committee issued Opinion 664 which “addresses” the following two questions:

1. Do lawyers violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct if they fail to notify an opposing party or its counsel that they are in possession of confidential information taken from the opposing party without the opposing party’s knowledge or consent?

2.  Do lawyers violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct if they fail to notify an opposing party or its counsel that they have inadvertently received confidential information of the opposing party?

In a relatively short opinion that discusses almost exclusively the first question, the Texas Committee ultimately says, “hey look, we don’t have a rule on any of this… so you are kind of on your own.”  That’s not really a quote from the opinion, of course.  The real quote from the opinion is longer but the gist is pretty much exactly the same as my fake quote.

The opinion then goes on to hold out the possibility that if you have this fact scenario plus something more than maybe one or more other rules could be violated — like Texas’s equivalents of Model Rule 1.2(d) or or Model Rule 3.3(a) or Model Rule 4.1 or Model Rule 8.4(d).  Quoting the opinion this time for real:

It is possible that under some circumstances the failure to provide notice to opposing counsel, or take other action upon receipt of an opponent’s confidential information, might violate one or more of the Texas Disciplinary Rules requiring lawyers to be truthful and to avoid assisting or condoning criminal or fraudulent acts or denigrating the justice system or subverting the litigation process.

The opinion also reminds readers that the lawyer’s course of conduct in such circumstances must be well thought through because the risk of disqualification still lurks, but in the end the opinion largely concludes with something that is mostly a restatement of the problem for Texas lawyers (and of my general inability to get horses standing so close to water to drink since Texas does have a version of ABA Model Rule 1.15  and confidential information certainly is “property”):

The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct do not prescribe a specific course of conduct a lawyer must follow upon the unauthorized or inadvertent receipt of another party’s confidential information outside the normal course of discovery.

The insistence on referencing discovery and, thus, making it seem like this is solely a problem for litigators rather than all lawyers is also a bit unfortunate.

Both the java fight and the nut dispute are kind of bananas.

If you spend any time on social media these days, you may have noticed how irritable folks are.  There are lots of reasons for it, of course.  We live in stressful times.  Practicing law has always been a high-stress endeavor as far as professions go; thus, cries for more civility in the practice of law have been going on for many years and likely will continue to go on for many more years to come.

I’ve offered before on this blog my overarching “don’t be an ass” theory as it relates to practicing law but lawyers are people and people are people, so … sometimes people don’t get along.

There have been two relatively recent examples of lawyers not getting along, actually getting into dust-ups that have become pretty high-profile (or at least they were a few weeks ago) and that seem pretty hard to believe all involved wouldn’t wish for a chance at a simple do over.

One of them was talked about most frequently as being a coffee fight, but reads more like something that was already in the problem range before the hurling of coffee ever came into the picture.  The dispute happened during a deposition so in addition to the he said/she said aspects of what went down, there was a court reporter present.  The court reporter’s version of events grabs parts of each of the competing stories and likely gets the closest to the accurate version of events — the coffee was iced coffee and it likely was hurled at the other lawyer.  Doesn’t change the fact that it’s really bad behavior but at least it makes it much less likely that anyone was at risk of burns from scalding coffee.  You can read about all the various filings and back and forth here, here, here, and here if you’d like.

The other dispute that got lumped into my reading pile with the java jousting is both more and less bizarre at the same time.  As it all appears to turn over false allegations about how one lawyer acted upon learning about the existence of a nut allergy on the part of another lawyer’s paralegal.  You can read a bit more about that weirdness here.

Interestingly (although maybe that’s the wrong choice of word), assuming away any criminality in any of the conduct), the ethics rules that often come into play in dust-ups of these sorts are RPC 3.4 (at least as to the parts of them that relate to battles over obstructionist discovery tactics and the like), RPC 4.4(a)’s prohibition on using means when representing a client “that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass … or burden a third person,” and RPC 8.4(d) prohibition on conduct “prejudicial to the administration of justice.”  Interestingly (and here it is definitely the apt word), the coffee fight at least contains some undertones of issues that might be in the wheelhouse of the ABA’s new RPC 8.4(g),

Speaking of disputes, but not disputes between lawyers and not disputes involving the weaponizing of any ingestible foodstuffs, I will be doing a national teleseminar tomorrow along with Sue Friedberg who serves as Associate General Counsel of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney on “Ethics and Disputes With Clients.”  You can sign up for it through a number of different channels (check with your local bar for example) like through this link in Oregon or this link in Nebraska or this one in Missouri.