A tale as old as time.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one … it’s about a lawyer getting into trouble for overbilling … where there are examples of the lawyer even trying to claim to have billed more than 24 hours in a day.

You probably stopped me somewhere in there because you have heard it before.  The legal profession is filled with people who bill their time fastidiously and honestly.  The legal profession also has among its ranks some folks who don’t.  A West Virginia lawyer subjected to a two-year suspension from practice is among the “don’t” and, remarkably, almost got a much lesser suspension, in part, simply because he was not among the worst overbillers that a West Virginia agency – Public Defender Services – was dealing with.

That context is actually part of what makes this particular incident really worth writing about because it is another unfortunate example of discipline for overbilling coming up in a context where some people can often try to argue it away as being somehow more understandable — lawyers who are trying to make a living off of court-appointed work at unfairly low hourly rates.  The problem, of course, is that not only is that still not a particularly good excuse for deceptive billing practices but it also is counter-productive to how much more difficult it makes it for people who want to advocate for better compensation arrangements for such lawyers to gain traction.

I tend to think the frequency with which lawyers get caught for over-billing in connection with court-appointed work isn’t necessarily a matter of those lawyers being more prone to doing so as much as it is that they are more prone to getting caught because there is effectively one “client” able to see all of their time records and, literally, do the math that the clients of lawyers in private practice serving a variety of clients aren’t as readily positioned to do.

Overbilling was not the only ethical flaw of the West Virginia lawyer made the subject of this 40-page opinion of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals — interestingly enough his other problems involved missing deadlines and neglecting client matters and even includes an interesting side excursion into his suffering from low testosterone which manages to make the inflated billable numbers from prior years seem even more . . . nope, I’m not going to go for blue humor.  At least not today.

For those who don’t want to read a 40-page opinion about this kind of conduct, just a few of the highlights in terms of both the egregious nature of the billing practice and the really pretty remarkable testimony about how he stacked up compared to other lawyers in terms of Cooke-ing the books (We know while I may shrink at going blue I always rise to the opportunity for word play.)

First, here are the lawyer’s overbilling highlights uncovered by the Executive Director of West Virginia’s Public Defender Services:

  • “found to have exceeded fifteen billable hours a day on thirty-one dates from mid-January, 2014 to mid-September, 2014.” (NB: the lawyer’s claimed low testosterone problems were stated to be during and around August 2014 and the West Virginia court most certainly paid attention to that time line to point out that it was interesting that he claimed to be sleeping 10 to 16 hours a day when he couldn’t meet certain deadlines so that, at most, during the relevant time period he couldn’t bill more than 8 to 14 hours a day.)
  • “on four dates he submitted vouchers for twenty-three or greater billable hours and on two dates he submitted vouchers for greater than twenty-four hours” (including billing 27 hours on December 26)
  • “billed 2,568.5 hours, 2,279.3 hours, 2,671.2 hours, and 3,259.46 hours for the years 2011-2014, respectively. These billable hours equate to an average daily billable rate of 7 hours, 6.2 hours, 7.3 hours, and 8.9 hours, for 365 days.”
  • “rarely billed activity at less than .2 hours (12 minutes); the only .1 (6 minutes) entries are attempted phone calls and, occasionally, a hearing. Review of any and all documentation or correspondence, including email, is billed at a minimum .2 hours. Virtually every hearing entails billing .3 hours for “waiting in court,” which affords a higher hourly rate.”
  • “On April 17, based on Cooke’s accounting of his time utilizing his schedule and the court’s docket, in the two-hour window from 1:00 p.m. until a 3:00 meeting at the jail, he billed a cumulative 4.3 hours of “actual time”; the activity billed all consisted of travel, waiting in court, and attending hearings. Similarly, on August 18, Cooke’s incourt schedule shows hearings at 9:00, 9:30, and 10:30 with the docket resuming at 1:00. The matters which were scheduled in the three-hour window from 9:00 a.m. until noon, were billed at a cumulative 6.1 hours. Additionally, matters beginning at 1:15 p.m. on that date were billed at additional 7.2 hours and consisted solely of waiting in court, reviewing “court summaries” while waiting, and attending hearings.”
  • when first called on to explain certain aspects of his billing, he said he couldn’t do so because Public Defender Services hadn’t provided him the information he needed and ” his own time-keeping system would not permit him to retrieve that information.”

As to the chilling notion that this lawyer was not as bad as others, the Executive Director testified:

I still hold firm that we were billed for duplicate—we were billed several times for the same trip, that we were billed several times from the same period of waiting in court. In other words, if he had three hearings, let’s say he waited in 17 court for one hearing while he was actually doing another hearing. That’s not properly [sic] billing. That’s billing the same period of time. So I firmly believe that that had happened, but in looking through the vouchers and everything else, it appeared to be less frequent than I had seen with other counsel. 25 The only perceived fraud or deception that still exists in my mind is the fact that he may have been value billing, that is, billing a .2 for an activity that should’ve only been a .1 or a .4 when it should’ve been a .2. However, he wasn’t billing me 3.0 for these things and he was—and he was saying 12 minutes as opposed to 240 minutes. . . . I just did not see in his case the overt deception that existed with many other attorneys. . . . He was unable to exonerate himself completely in this situation because he had failed to comply with that time requirement, but that, overall, I believe that he was zealously representing his clients and he was providing the actual services that were described even though the time allotted to them may have been—may not have been the actual time.

and he also:

gave the example of one attorney who “rubber-stamped” the same time for each day and one attorney who billed 900 hours of travel in a three-month period.

As a way of further bolstering the problem this creates for those working hard to try to get better, fairer hourly rate reimbursements in place, the Executive Director of the West Virginia program also:

explained that PDS is paying $25 million a year to court-appointed counsel that are, in his opinion, undercompensated at $45/hour for “out of court” time and $65/hour for “in court” time.14 He indicated that when requesting an hourly increase at the Legislature he was typically confronted with the fact that many attorneys were making greater than $100,000.00 a year in court-appointed work and that the legislators took a dim view of an hourly rate increase when, in their opinion, the court-appointed attorneys had given themselves a “raise” by overbilling.

Well, anyway, get back to work I guess.

A weird-ish ethics opinion out of New York.

I have written a few times about the ABA’s adoption of a new Model Rule 8.4(g).  One point that was brought up in the run-up to that rule actually finally being adopted was that some more than 20 jurisdictions already had an anti-discrimination rule in place in the black letter of their rules in one form or another.

One of those jurisdictions is New York, and the New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics issued an ethics opinion back in January of this year that says it addresses an interpretation of NY’s Rule 8.4(g) and whether it prohibits a lawyer from refusing to accept a representation because of a lawyer’s own religious affiliation.

Specifically, the scenario addressed in NYSBA Ethics Opinion 1111 is this:

A lawyer has been requested to represent a person desiring to bring a childhood sex abuse claim against a religious institution.  The lawyer is of the same religion as the institution against which the claim is to be made.  Because of this religious affiliation, the lawyer is unwilling to represent the claimant against the institution.

The opinion, ultimately, doesn’t really answer the question of whether refusal to accept under those facts would be illegal discrimination.  Instead, the opinion first provides reassurance (at least of the rhetorical variety) that lawyers do not have any ethical obligation to accept every request for representation that they receive.  Then, though, it mostly punts on how to reconcile that fact with the fact that lawyers cannot engage in conduct that would violate a federal, state, or local anti-discrimination statute.  The opinion references New York case law which addresses certain kinds of professional services as being “place[s] of public accommodation” and directly admits that New York’s 8.4(g) contains language acknowledging that law could limit a lawyer’s ability to freely choose to decline a representation, but, despite the fact that the very rule itself that New York chose to adopt requires for its enforcement a conclusion about “unlawful discrimination,” just punts on whether the facts trigger such a conclusion.

At some level I get why the opinion goes that route as typically bodies providing ethics opinion have refrained from ruling on questions of law as being outside the scope of the rules.  But it does seem to me like once you adopt a rule that envelops the need for such a legal determination into the enforcement of the rule, you lose some of the ability to credibly punt on such an issue.

For context, here is the language of the rule New York has in place providing that a lawyer shall not:

(g) unlawfully discriminate in the practice of law, including in hiring, promoting or otherwise determining conditions of employment on the basis of age, race, creed, color, national origin, sex, disability, marital status or sexual orientation. Where there is a tribunal with jurisdiction to hear a complaint, if timely brought, other than a Departmental Disciplinary Committee, a complaint based on unlawful discrimination shall be brought before such tribunal in the first instance. A certified copy of a determination by such a tribunal, which has become final and enforceable and as to which the right to judicial or appellate review has been exhausted, finding that the lawyer has engaged in an unlawful discriminatory practice shall constitute prima facie evidence of professional misconduct in a disciplinary proceeding….

For what it is worth, you would think that the body issuing the opinion could — at least on this particular inquiry – have been able to comfortably say that since the facts presented did not even involve a lawyer turning down a potential client because of the potential client’s religious affiliation that it would be safe to say that it is highly, highly unlikely that a credible case of unlawful discrimination could be made out against the lawyer.

One thing that this opinion does help sharpen in terms of a salient point is that ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) appears to be a better drafted approach to this issue given its explicit terms protecting decisions on whether to take on the representation of a client.  Unlike the New York version of the rule, the ABA Model — in addition to not having all the language about the need for a ruling by a tribunal to be a condition precedent in certain instances — includes this sentence in the black-letter of the rule:  “This paragraph does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16.”

Jurisdictions adopting a version of Rule 8.4(g) with that kind of language would appear to be much better positioned to actually address questions like the one raised in the New York opinion by providing the lawyer with assurance about the ability to simply choose not to take on the representation of a client where doing so would require them to sue their own church.

 

Theater of the absurd.

This is something of a stretch from what I normally write about, but sometimes you simply have to write about something and simply ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

Recently, an article made the rounds written by Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker who posited that two recent events were the clearest sign yet that we were living in a computer simulation and that someone was trying to make the programming so absurd that we would become self-aware.  The two events were the outcome of the recent Presidential election in the United States and the ending of the Oscars (which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago).

If you’d like to go read the article, and haven’t already, you can go read it here.  It is a fun read, but I have a hard time taking any of it seriously.  Gopnik, of course, as even he admits, is just riffing off of the thoughts of a philosopher at NYU – David Chalmers – who has written more extensively about the whole idea that we aren’t really what we think we are.

Perhaps it is purely out of a need for self-preservation and the kind of ego for which lawyers are notorious, but again I say that I can’t really take seriously the idea that we are but simulacrum.  But then, there came this story.

A criminal defense lawyer representing a man accused of arson had his pants catch fire in court.  In Florida.  I mean . . . how “on the nose” can a situation get, right?  When I first saw the headline, “lawyer’s pants catch fire during arson trial” – I mean, lawyer’s pants catch fire during arson trial?!  That alone was enough to just for the splittest of split seconds to remember and briefly rethink my reaction to the Gopnik story.

Actually, the details of the story indicate that the situation was a lot less over-the-top than the headline reports.  The lawyer in question apparently had 2 or 3 e-cigarette batteries in his pocket, and they started to smoke but he quickly got himself out of the courtroom.  The real question that bears asking — and that the lawyer in press reports certainly understands will be people’s suspicion — is whether the whole event itself was staged.

The lawyer vigorously denies that it was purposefully staged, and he should deny that because “stagecraft” has been the kind of thing that can get a lawyer into ethical trouble.  (Look at me just barely getting a hook into this to make it a passably ethics-based post.)  This is true even though fictional lawyers such as Perry Mason have been permitted to do such things in the name of the truth and even though legendary stories about the antics of Clarence Darrow involve conduct that under modern ethics rules would be problematic.

One of my favorite examples of this kind of misguided approach, involving twins, was written about by Jack Marshall at his site many years ago, and you can read about it here.

And to make this post officially and well and truly about ethics and lawyering, the issue with the kind of stagecraft that was put in place by the lawyer that Marshall wrote about is that it runs afoul of several rules in place in jurisdictions that have rules patterned after the ABA Model Rules.  Those rules include, at least, Rule 8.4(c) prohibiting lawyers from “engag[ing] in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation;” and Rule 3.3(a) which prohibits lawyers from making false statements of fact to a tribunal.

That’s not a Rule 8.4(c) violation. THAT’s a Rule 8.4(c) violation.

In February 2017, more than a dozen law professors filed an ethics complaint against Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, alleging that she violated the attorney ethics rules applicable in D.C. through several false public statement she made — most notably, her repetitive statements about a terrorist incident that never actually occurred – the “Bowling Green Massacre.”  Now, many people were not aware of the fact that Ms. Conway is an attorney — she doesn’t work as an attorney in the present administration.  (In fact, her D.C. law license is already administratively suspended.)  The core rule that the professors contend Ms. Conway violated is Rule 8.4(c) which makes it a violation for a lawyer to “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”

Unlike many other ethics rules, Rule 8.4 does not contain language limiting its scope to when “representing a client.”  While I am not a fan of Ms. Conway, I very much disagree with the notion that her public statements in her political role are the kind of conduct to which Rule 8.4(c) should be applied.  A reporter with The Blaze was kind of enough to let me comment in an article about the ethics complaint against Conway where I elaborate more fully on why I disagreed.  You can read the article with, including my extensive comments, here.

Now, I feel compelled in fairness, instead of just knocking something down the opinion of others, to try to offer a good example of lawyer conduct that I think would fit as a Rule 8.4(c) violation but that doesn’t involve representing a client.

So, let me try a scenario.

Say you are a lawyer, and you are undergoing a job interview.  If you lie in response to questions that are important to whether or not you get the job, that would be fodder for a Rule 8.4(c) violation.  Or, maybe to make the violation even more palpable (if not clearer), let’s say you are seeking a public job.  Perhaps, a really high-profile one, involving the government.  And you lie during your job interview or on the application you have to submit for the position as part of a background check.  That would definitely trigger Rule 8.4(c) in my view.

Heck, while I am just freewheeling on this whole scenario, let’s really ramp up the stakes.  Let’s go with an attorney position in the federal government where your appointment has to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.  And, let’s say you lie in response to written questions posed to you by a Senator or you give a false and misleading response to a Senator’s question during a confirmation hearing or, gosh, maybe you do even both of those things.  That would definitely be a Rule 8.4(c) violation.  And, given that there would be also be lying under oath involved and lying to Congress involved, Rule 8.4(b) would actually come into play as well.  That’s the rule that prohibits a lawyer from “commit[ting] a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.”

So, yes, that would to me be a very solid foundation for multiple Rule 8.4 violations.  And, in my scenario, the lawyer engaged in dishonesty, deceit, and misrepresentations would not even have to have been undergoing the job interview to be the Attorney General of the United States, but if it helps to put flesh on the bones of the hypothetical to think I was talking the whole time about the current U.S. Attorney General then, well, have at it.

[And, as to the title of this post, you’re going to have to read that title in a Paul Hogan as “Crocodile Dundee” Australian accent.  And if you aren’t familiar with him or that movie, it was a lot more popular back in 1999 when Mr. Sessions said this to explain his vote to impeach a different President of the United States.]

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.

 

 

Friday installment of “I beg to differ.”

It has been a long time since I have had reason to strongly disagree with the insights offered by Karen Rubin and company over at their excellent blog – The Law for Lawyers Today – but here we are again.

Karen has written a thought-provoking piece about a criminal defense lawyer with a parody Twitter account and his role in the insanity that is the delusional Pizzagate conspiracy theory that led to a man going into a pizza parlor and firing shots.  She shakes out of a belief that the lawyer in question ought to be pursued for violation of the ethics rules in Florida — specifically that state’s version of RPC 8.4(c).  I think interpreting that rule to apply to circumstances where a lawyer is engaged in parody and satire is dangerous and unwise.

Admittedly, such an interpretation is not as dangerous and unwise as riling up stupid people to do stupid violent things in aid of trying to investigate a stupid conspiracy theory which is what the Florida lawyer may have been a part of, but still dangerous and unwise.

I manage to talk a good bit about RPC 8.4(c) when I speak at seminars, and, in fact, I brought it up again this year during my tour of the state for the 2016 Ethics Roadshow.  The rule, as written, fascinates me because all reasonable lawyers have to agree it doesn’t mean 100% of what it says.  It reads: “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to . . . engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”  Now Karen is absolutely correct that the rule applies to lawyers even when they are not being lawyers, but it also can’t literally mean what it says.  Otherwise, as I always have fun pointing out to large-ish crowds, it would mean that lawyers could essentially never play poker (even when doing so is legal and not illegal gambling) because we would not be allowed to bluff.  Deceit.  Also, and particularly salient for the time of year, it would mean that those of us who are parents would have to tell the truth to our children about Jolly Old St. Nick the first time we are asked/confronted because to do otherwise would be engaging in conduct involving dishonesty.

We all know that the rule could never be enforced in such a manner and that no one would ever try to discipline a lawyer for such conduct.  Thus, the rule can’t be read 100% literally.  Figuring out exactly where the line is between untenable applications of its prohibition and reasonable applications is the hard part though.

A good example of conduct it definitely was intended to address was a relatively recent situation where a law school dean got suspended for his role in fudging the law school’s statistics.  You can go back and read about that here.

Taking the position that it can be applied to a lawyer’s parody account on Twitter to me is on the wrong side of the line, and so I beg to differ with Karen on this one.

(P.S. If you are really looking for someone who truly deserves scorn for his role in pushing the ridiculously stupid conspiracy theory on the ridiculously gullible people who bought into it (and perhaps still do), this guy deserves heaps of scorn even though he’s not a lawyer.)

 

My 200th post: Living in a “post-fact” world?

So, not a milestone for some, but, for me, it feels like an achievement to have made it to my 200th post.  And because I’m a sucker for wordplay, I’ll use a “post” milestone to talk about an issue I’ve written about a good bit before but with a twist that also involves the word “post” but as a prefix.

If you’ve been paying attention at all to U.S. politics, you may have seen some discussion about how we seem to be living in a “post-fact” world and lots of accompanying criticism about how the media has played a large role in making it easy for prominent people to simply refuse to acknowledge facts and then inculcate beliefs in those who support them or identify with them that such facts are not actually facts.

Well, here’s something of an example — but in the world of legal ethics — of just how easily it is for that kind of thing to seem to happen.

So, in late October, the Montana Supreme Court put an order out for public comment about potentially adopting the new ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) addressing harassment and discrimination by lawyers in conduct related to the practice of law.  The Montana Supreme Court has floated adopting the entirety of the ABA Model Rule black-letter language such that if adopted, Montana’s 8.4(g):

would provide that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law. This paragraph does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16. This paragraph does not preclude legitimate advice or advocacy consistent with these Rules.

You can read the Montana Supreme Court order here.  The deadline for public comments is actually today and, within the last few days, there was some publicity in Montana about the proposal.

This story is what has prompted me to write.  The reporter has included a quote from a law professor at a Montana law school who stakes out the position that the rule would suppress free speech and who is quoted as saying:

“There’s a wide variety of attorneys from a wide variety of backgrounds that are opposing this proposed rule, not necessarily on faith based reasons, but on the ability to ask questions in depositions and determining who should be seated on a jury. So it’s raised concerns amongst all types of attorneys.”

But, you might say to yourself, I just read that the proposed rule, if adopted, would have a sentence that says: “This paragraph does not preclude legitimate advice or advocacy consistent with these Rules.”  And, also since you read the blog, it probably means you keep up enough with these issues to know that the ABA Model Rule, at least, has specific language in an accompanying comment even addressing peremptory challenges, but that even if Montana isn’t also looking at adopting the comments, as long as what the lawyer does in jury selection is “legitimate advocacy,” it ought to be protected.  Yet, the news article contains no push back against the law professor’s statement and not even a competing quote from someone saying the actual rule would raise no such issues.

How can that be?  Well, there is a fairly easy and revealing answer that is pertinent to a number of much larger issues going on in the world around us these days (in my opinion).  The news article, describing the rule for the public, merely says this about the content of the proposed rule:

Proposed rule 8.4 (g) states: It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law.

So, the news report simply omits two of the sentences of the proposed rule including the one that contradicts the law professor’s stated concerns.  Thus, regular folks would have no idea of the rest of the content of the proposed rule when reading the story and certainly no reason to question why the law professor would be willing to make claims that appear to be contrary to clear language in the rule.

Sigh.

(And, if you are in Chattanooga or Knoxville, I’ll be doing those stops on the Ethics Roadshow next week and ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) is one of the topics on the menu for discussion.  It’s not too late to register and attend if you are so inclined.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alaska you a question about read receipts.

Sorry, bad and lazy pun for a title.  As loyal readers of the site know, I like to write from time-to-time about formal ethics opinions issued by state regulatory bodies.  A recent one caught my attention at first for its — “I cannot believe someone even had to ask feel.”  But, ultimately after I read it all the way through, it intrigued me as a gateway to raise another, related and I happen to think a bit more interesting question.

With that as prologue, on October 26, 2016, the Alaska Bar Association Board of Governors approved Ethics Opinion 2016-1 for release.  The opinion tackles the following question:

Is it ethically permissible for a lawyer to use a “web bug” or other tracking device to track the location and use of emails and documents sent to opposing counsel?

The opinion gets the answer to that question undoubtedly correct by saying that, no, it isn’t and that doing something like that violates Alaska’s RPC 8.4 on generally deceptive conduct and is also problematic because it can undercut the receiving lawyer’s ability to comply with her own obligations under RPC 1.6 to attempt to protect information related to her representation of her client as confidential.

To give a better sense of the kind of technology being discussed, the Opinion explains:

One commercial provider of this web bug service advertises that users may track emails “invisibly” (i.e., without the recipient’s knowledge) and may also track, among other details:

  • when the email was opened;
  • how long the email was reviewed (including whether it was in the foreground or background while the user worked on other activities);
  • how many times the email was opened;
  • whether the recipient opened attachments to the email;
  • how long the attachment (or a page of the attachment) was reviewed;
  • whether and when the subject email or attachment was forwarded; and
  • the rough geographical location of the recipient.

Yikes, right.  That’s a pretty dogged little bug and one that would provide a significant, surreptitious window into the work of the lawyer on the other side.  When I saw the headlines at places like the ABA Journal online about the issuance of this opinion, I jumped to the incorrect conclusion that the lawyer requesting the opinion was a lawyer looking to use this kind of software feature.  At that point, I was surprised anyone would need to ask to know that you couldn’t do this, but the Opinion explains that the request actually came from someone who received an email with one of these “web bugs.”  Thus, the request for a definitive opinion of the wrongful nature of the conduct makes more sense.  (And, for those immediately wondering, apparently some email providers do have countermeasures in place that notify you about some of these “webbugs” and that has to be how the receiving lawyer knew what had transpired.)

I think the opinion is pretty well done and reaches the obvious and correct solution.  It offers some interesting discussion about how, even if the webbug were not surreptitious but actually announced itself, the use of it by the sending lawyer could still be problematic as invasive on the attorney-client relationship through, among other things, potentially revealing otherwise work-product protected information and even endangering the whereabouts of clients who are trying to stay hidden.

What intrigued me enough to write this piece though was a tangential topic that is raised a bit in a footnote to the Opinion, the ethical issues surrounding generic “read receipts” on emails.  Specifically, in footnote 6, the Opinion says:

The use of “delivery receipts” and “read receipts” through Outlook and similar email services does not intrude upon the attorney’s work product or track the use of a document, and therefore is not at issue here.  Those types of receipts are functionally comparable to the receipt one may receive from the use of certified mail.

That last part may well be true — that these are digitally the functional equivalents of a return receipts on certified mail — but I have a slightly different view on this topic.  I certainly do not contend it is unethical for attorneys to send emails to other attorneys that include a request for a “read receipt,” but I uniformly refuse to comply when I get such “read receipt” requests, and I do so because of my obligations under the ethics rules.

If I’m getting an email only because I am an attorney representing a client, then information about when I read that email – how close to when you sent it to me or how far away from when you sent it to me – is “information related to the representation of my client,” and I see no need to do anything other than act to reasonably safeguard that information and decline the read receipt request.

I doubt anyone would ever get disciplined for doing otherwise as a violation of RPC 1.6, but I’m curious as to whether there are others reading this who conduct themselves the same way and have the same view of the “read receipt” issue.

 

Going from “easiest” to “most difficult” in three weeks.

It is Election Day, but neither the title nor the subject-matter of this post have anything to do with that.

Later this week, November 11, I will be fortunate enough to present at the annual meeting of the Tennessee Association of Construction Counsel in Nashville and have billed my topic as “The Easiest Hour of Ethics You’ll Ever Learn.”  Unlike my normal seminars, I don’t plan to push the audience to participate at all, but (and this is a warning for those who are planning to attend and reading this post… here be SPOILERS and if you want to stay surprised you should read no further…)

Okay.

That should be enough hard returns and buffers for those who are trying to hit the back tab.

As most of you won’t be there, let me continue.  My plan is to essentially provide an “everything you ever wanted to know about the disciplinary process in Tennessee but were afraid to ask” presentation.  Far too few lawyer truly understand how the process works – and no one wants to learn about it for the first time when dealing with a disciplinary complaint filed against them, so hopefully it should be informative and a bit enjoyable.

Exactly three weeks later though, we’re going down the opposite path as I’m going to present at the Memphis Bar Association Labor and Employment Law section’s annual seminar in Memphis and my presentation is titled:  “The Most Difficult Ethics Hour You’ve Ever Earned – An Open Discussion of New ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) and What Comes Next.”  That one is going to be almost entirely interactive and given that the folks in the room will be employment and labor lawyers… I expect an opinionated bunch with thoughts on the relative merits of turning an employment law issue into an ethics and disciplinary issue.

I’ve written on this blog three times previously about the ABA Model Rule and won’t repeat myself today.  But I did want to briefly discuss a development along these lines.  Specifically, it comes from the Philadelphia Bar Association which, on October 26, 2016, passed a Resolution urging the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania:

to adopt the amendment to Rule 8.4 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct which adds section (g) making it an ethical violation to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law.

It will be interesting to see if this spurs any action from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, or not, particularly given the negative publicity that various justices have brought upon that court over the last few years.