Just the normal scrutiny.

I need something fun in my life at the moment to help deal with some of the insanity that is all around us all.

So, let’s tell something of a non-linear story about how haphazardly the disciplinary rules can be enforced as against lawyers. (Okay, so maybe you and I see “fun” differently.) Typically, many folks who do what I do for a living will tell you that the biggest divide in disciplinary enforcement is between how solo practitioners and lawyers in very small firms are more often singled out and disciplined than are lawyers who practice in large firms.

But this is a story of someone who now appears to be a solo practitioner, and who, as we will now discuss, is engaging in something of a speed-run through the rules of ethics to see if he can violate all of them in one 2-3 week period. But this solo practitioner, I’d be willing to bet (were I a betting man) will not face the consequences for his conduct that any other solo practitioner might face.

This is a story that, I think, reveals that the real imbalance in rules enforcement is between those who are powerful and those who are not. Yes, dear reader, this is a story about the absolute trainwreck of a lawyer who is the personal attorney to the outgoing President of the United States.

If you are truly a glutton for punishment, you can go listen to the complete audio recording of the hearing on November 17, 2020, during which this attorney demonstrated ignorance of enough important legal concepts to raise questions about compliance with Rule 1.1 regarding competence, but, more troublingly, also made quite a few statements to the court that could trigger discipline for untruthfulness under Rule 3.3 and Rule 8.4(c) and all in the pursuit of claims and contentions that are so unmeritorious as to run afoul of Rule 3.1.

But, perhaps even more remarkably, this attorney’s participation at the hearing only came about, at least in part, because he was willing to make false statements in his pro hac vice motion for permission to appear.

(As a side note, literally as I’m trying to write this post, this lawyer is holding a press conference, sweating his hair dye down both sides of his face, and continuing with just objectively, provably false statements that would also seem to trigger real ethical issues under Rule 3.6 if his client wasn’t also hastily withdrawing lawsuit after lawsuit through voluntary dismissals. )

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(Now, a different lawyer, part of the same team, is engaged in rhetoric that appears to be inciting militias to take the election outcome into their own hands. She was followed by another, different lawyer, accusing unnamed election officials of committing fraud. Again, all of these are statements being made that fly directly in the face of actual evidence. The hair dye sweat image is funny, but turns out nothing else about this is fun.)

In making his application for pro hac admission in a federal court case in Pennsylvania, and thus deciding to appear in federal court again for the first time in 30 years, this lawyer filed a motion that indicated that he was licensed and in good standing in a number of different jurisdictions, including D.C. But as this article walks you through, a number of people have confirmed that the attorney is actually current administratively suspended in D.C. for failure to pay certain fees.

That’s not how these things are supposed to work and falsely representing one’s status to a federal court to gain pro hac admission would expose regular lawyers to a significant risk of discipline. Among other rules implicated by that kind of conduct, RPC 7.1 requires lawyers to refrain from making false statements about themselves or their services.

And to keep to my commitment that this post be a non-linear story, I will close by saying that the press conference mentioned above will likely go down in history as being most memorable for the “My Cousin Vinny” reference, but that little anecdote itself was in furtherance of just the titanic levels of mendacity on display from this lawyer. The anecdote involved reference to the portion of the movie where Joe Pesci’s character impeaches the credibility of an eyewitness during cross-examination and pointing out how her version of events was unbelievable once she demonstrated that from a similar distance she could not tell how many fingers Joe Pesci’s character was holding up. Yet, the only way the story was at all germane was because this lawyer was trying to use it in aid of lying about how far away ballot count observers were when allowed to observe the counting of ballots.

Will any of this end up in the imposition of any discipline or consequences? I’m highly cynical. Candidly, given the lengths he is willing to go, and the lengths his client is willing to go, to subvert democracy, the United States will be lucky if this lawyer just continues to be subjected to public ridicule and derision.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

This is not a post about politics in the United States, though the title of the post might make it seem like it could be.

This is instead a post that has to be written because I saw a headline and thought, “well that has to be fodder for a post,” and then it turned out to be a new story about someone I wrote about previously.

(NB: I could have titled this post, “Turns out it was a story about two men named Brady” but that would have been both too deep of a deep cut if you are a new reader, and a pretty unacceptable level of punnery even for a Friday post.)

Having now “cleared my throat” on screen more than sufficiently, I’ll actually deliver some content… this is a quick hit follow up on a story I wrote about back in the before-times… July 2019.

Christopher Brady used to be a Florida lawyer. He got disbarred for some Hollywood (California not Florida) style breaking and entering to steal a computer server from his former law firm.

I got pulled into writing about his story originally because the ABA Journal online ran a headline about how he got disbarred over punctuation which was, at best, partially correct. (He created a new law firm that had the same name as the firm that had terminated him but that added periods to the abbreviation part of the law firm name, so that his former employer was Barak Law Group, PA but his new firm was Barak Law Group, P.A.)

(Barak. Like a misspelled version of the first name of the most-recent prior President of the United States. Barack Obama. You remember him, right. A man who would have never responded to a question about whether there would be a peaceful transition of power in the United States in a chilling fashion.)

So, why am I rehashing this guy’s story? Well, because the ABA Journal got me with a headline again, but this time it appears the headline was 100% accurate:

Disbarred lawyer is convicted even though twin took responsibility for the crime.

I mean, come on. Now that I know this guy had a twin brother, how in the world was that not more integral to the defense of the disciplinary proceedings?

“No, I’m not the guy you see on that video recording tying a rope from that truck to the front door of the Barak Law Group law firm and then moving the truck so that the door rips open. . . No, sir, not me. Also, I’m not one of the two guys on that tape who go inside and take out a safe and a computer server. No, sir. I’ve got a twin. That has to be the work of my twin!”

(The above is, of course, entirely fictional dialogue I just made up out of whole cloth.)

The twin defense didn’t exactly work in the latest criminal case, of course, but still. “Feels” like this should have been mentioned earlier.

The criminal case that captured the ABA Journal’s attention this week involves a crime that has much more of a “Better Call Saul” flavor rather than the “Breaking Bad” style of the truck-door-computer server heist. The criminal act was the faking of a court order impacting child custody for the benefit of the lawyer’s twin brother. The fake order, which indicated it was filed on a day the court clerk’s office wasn’t open for business and which included misspellings such as “habeus” and “honerable,” commanded the twin brother’s ex-wife to deliver custody of the child to the twin brother. According to the news reports of the trial, the former lawyer was convicted for the forgery even though the twin brother testified that he was the one who committed the act.

Interestingly, these events all occurred earlier in time than the server heist. The events leading to this conviction actually did involve the Florida lawyer acting as a lawyer because he was representing his twin brother in the child custody proceedings and was still permitted to practice law during the events. Representing family is often a bad idea for lawyers. The reasons typically are more subtle than the issues presented by the Brady twins.

If you’re looking for photos of the twins (identical not fraternal), rest assured they do have the “Florida man” flavor you might expect and you can get them at this link to some local Florida media.

The era of permanent disbarment in TN has begun.

What now seems like an eternity ago, because it was written in the before-times, I wrote about Tennessee’s change to its disciplinary procedural rules resulting in implementation of permanent disbarment. I questioned exactly why the change was needed and what it would mean given that it was being paired with changes to extend the maximum length of suspensions from 5 years to 10 years.

As with a lot of things I have written, it amounted to nothing more than screaming into the void as the changes went forward and became effective as disbarments entered on or after July 1, 2020. (Also, “Screaming into the Void” sounds like a very good high school yearbook theme for 2020-2021.)

Earlier this month, the first two permanent disbarments were entered in Tennessee under the new procedural rules. An attorney practicing in middle Tennessee was disbarred forever on September 10, 2020. The charges against him stemmed from having pled guilty in federal court in 2019 to wire fraud, identity theft, and tax fraud. The underlying conduct involved misappropriations of funds in trust belonging to a minor and misappropriating other funds in a probate case.

The second permanent disbarment order was entered a day later involving a Tennessee lawyer based in Alabama. Her case has few similarities to the first beyond the ultimate outcome. She essentially took on clients in immigration matters (6) and failed to provide services despite being paid, dumped the clients, and retained the fees. She apparently did this in the process of abandoning her practice. Once a disciplinary investigation began, she did not respond to the Board, was then temporarily suspended (did not comply with the requirements for providing clients notice after such a suspension), and then consented to the permanent disbarment ruling against her.

So, what we can learn from this with respect to how permanent disbarment might be used? Not much, I guess. Neither of these lawyers have very sympathetic stories, one of the two consented to being disbarred forever and the other is likely in federal prison for essentially stealing money. That doesn’t mean that neither might have been able to trod a path to redemption under the prior procedure, but neither presents the kind of case that would make anyone want to even online browse for, much less go to, any mattresses.

But there are two things still worth thinking about.

The first is the capriciousness of timing. As mentioned in my ancient posts, the rule change implementation was not one that was going to apply only to new cases arising after a certain date but to orders of disbarment entered after a certain date. To drive that point home, on June 26, 2020, a lawyer in Washington County, Tennessee consented to disbarment over conduct that is not publicly clarified in any respect other than with reference to rules (RPC 8.4(a)(b)(c)(d) and (e), which would imply the situation would have involved some sort of criminal conduct and some sort of dishonesty. But, because the order was entered before July 1, 2020, that lawyer has the glimmer of hope for redemption because they can apply for readmission to the bar on or after June 27, 2025.

The second is an administrative issue that probably does not matter in the two permanent disbarments so far but that might be worth some further scrutiny in the future. Both of the September 2020 permanent disbarment orders end with the statement that the former lawyers must also comply with the portions of the rules applying to disbarred attorneys with respect to notifying clients and others of the disbarment. Now that disbarments are permanent in Tennessee, that’s a pretty pointless requirement. There is no hammer to force compliance and now no longer any carrot to incentivize compliance. In the past, whether a lawyer complied with those notice requirements would play a role in any future efforts to be reinstated.

But now? If not a purely aspirational requirement to maintain, it is practically, entirely toothless.

Three for Thursday?

Can that be a thing?

I’ve fallen down on the job of being a reliable blogger and I’m not sure I’m getting up any time soon.

I think I’ve continued to manage to be a decent lawyer, pretty good expert witness, okay husband, mediocre father, and generally non-evil human being. But I’m failing as a blogger lately.

I have decent intentions. I can’t prove that, but you’ll just have to trust me. But when I try to carve out the time, I stray to the world of constant information of the Internet and wallow in the notion that 150,000 people in the United States have died now and so, so, so very many of them did not have to if we had even halfway decent leadership in our nation. And, it doesn’t look like it is getting better any time soon.

So, here’s three short entries about three topics I’ve written about in the past and that are back in the consciousness of, at least me, but also I think the legal news world.

Remember when, as lawyers in the United States, we were worried about protecting client information in connection with international travel?

Hey, remember when lawyers in the United States could travel internationally?

Yeah, good times.

Well, very briefly to reset the discussion to back in the before-times, things were maybe looking up and it looked like privileged and confidential information possessed by lawyers might be protected in connection with border crossings. Here’s a link to an ABA Journal story that indicates that things may not actually be looking up really at all. At least not as long as the current regime remains in charge.

So, topic the second, states are still trying to figure out how to allow the law school graduates of 2020 to demonstrate that they can be admitted into the practice of law. I wrote some about what Tennessee was going to do, and chided a little bit about how signs were pointing toward trying to go to diploma privilege was probably a better answer. Since then, Tennessee has cancelled its rescheduled in-person bar exam and instead will have an online only exam in October 2020. Better. Still not willing to allow for diploma privilege as the answer though.

On a not unrelated point, Michigan was one of the first states pursuing the online only bar exam option to move forward this week, and it did not go very well. Tech problems. Caused apparently by a DDOS attack. Good thing there is no reason to think those might happen in other states. Oh, also, Indiana has been trying to do one online and announced it will instead have an emailed bar exam.

And, finally, the ABA recently issued a Formal Ethics Opinion designed to try to lay to rest ongoing concerns about what the scope of ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) is and what it does and does not restrict. You might recall 8.4(g) which was adopted almost exactly 4 years ago by the ABA and has been adopted almost nowhere else since. (You might recall it from when I used to write about it Hamilton-style (“non stop“).) It is a good advocacy piece. Probably better than the advocacy pieces that the ABA had available when it first passed the rule. It is not a good ethics opinion exactly though because it doesn’t really do any of the things you would expect an ethics opinion to do. You can read it here.

But, I mean, have you looked at the world around us?

I don’t think a well-reasoned explanation of why states could adopt ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) and not be concerned that they would somehow be restricting cherished liberties is going to gain much traction whether it looks like a traditional ethics opinion or an outright advocacy piece.

So, I mean, why not just try an advocacy piece, I guess?

Sigh.

(P.S. Given that the only prior Taylor Swift album I liked was the one Ryan Adams did as a cover… I never expected I’d be saying how incredibly good a Taylor Swift album is, but here we are. folklore is fantastic. And it isn’t fantastic just because I love The National and Bon Iver. Ms. Swift’s got incredible talent, a very lovely voice, and wrote some really good and poignant lyrics.)

(P.P.S. It is a really good, really good album as is. But I also can totally imagine every single song (except Exile [for obvious reasons]) also being excellent if sung by Matt Berninger. I’m thinking that’s a feature not a bug.)

A tale of two signature issues.

There are certain things that ought to be ingrained in lawyers that they know they cannot do. Maybe we could reach agreement on all of what should be on that list of things, but that task is far too ambitious for any Friday, much less this Friday.

I would hope we could agree that an item on that list though is not to sign someone else’s name to something and claim that they were the one who actually signed it. In a lot of circumstances, this is called… and I’m going to use the technical term here, “forgery.” (Fun fact: this is also something that people who are not lawyers really shouldn’t do as well. This includes if you were [hypothetically-speaking] an 18-year old filling out a permission form that they think their parents would likely have signed.)

Now, admittedly, lawyers in collegial litigation practice settings certainly will, on many occasions during their professional career, end up signing opposing counsel’s name to an order for entry with the Court. But, the key of course in doing so is that the lawyer (a) always indicates that it is being done with the other lawyer’s permission; and (b) doesn’t try to make the signature look at all like that lawyer’s actual signature.

Earlier this week, a lawyer in Kansas has been visited with a weighty suspension from practice, in part, for signing names of folks for whom she should not have been doing that. Unfortunately, examples involved falsifying the signature of a judge on a court filing as well as a separate instance of a court clerk’s signature. Although it was the aspect that garnered the media attention, forging signatures was just really the tip of the iceberg regarding the findings of misconduct against that lawyer. Many others involving misrepresentations to other lawyers and clients and neglect of several different matters. A full read of the order imposing a two-year suspension also reveals that, as is often true of lawyers who make very bad decisions, the lawyer suffered from severe depression and anxiety.

But, also recently and in my own backyard, there was an instance of what turned out to be a much grayer area of a lawyer’s ability to sign someone else’s name to something that resulted, after prolonged disciplinary proceedings, in a determination that the lawyer did not commit any professional misconduct. If you are not at all familiar with the concept of a “conformed signature,” then reading the case will provide you with a bit of an education on that front.

But, the short version to walk away from that case though I think is still that the lawyer really should have gone about things in a markedly different fashion. Perhaps it is only true with hindsight, but I tend to think that even in real time, a lawyer would think that doing something more to clearly denote when placing a “/s [someone else’s name]” onto a document to then be used in litigation exactly what the lawyer is doing. For that particular lawyer, doing it the way they did certainly did not ultimately result in actual discipline, but it certainly ended up costing an awful lot of time and money to have to get all the way through the process to the Tennessee Supreme Court before being fully exonerated.

(P.S. Tomorrow is the 5th anniversary of this blog. In celebration, go treat yourself to something nice. It’s on you.)

Rule revision roundup.

That title is probably a thing somewhere else on the interwebs already, but I’m just lazy enough to not look it up at the moment.

So, it’s been a minute since I have written anything about the progress (or lack thereof) of jurisdictions adopting ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) and since I have written anything (other than indirectly) about whether any progress has been made on adopting the revised, modernized approach to lawyer advertising rules seen in the APRL-inspired, ABA Model Rules revision from last year.

In overlooking those stories in favor of writing about more radical proposed changes to the ethics landscape (some of which have thrown modernized advertising proposals into the stew), I’ve been highlighting a lot of activity in the western United States. But spending a bit of time on these other two topics, gives me a chance to write about happenings in the New England region of the United States.

Specifically, earlier this year (more than five months ago in fact), Maine became the second U.S. jurisdiction to adopt a version of ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) to seek to address harassment and discrimination related to the practice of law. A neighboring state, Vermont, is the only other state to have done so. Unlike Vermont, however, Maine did not adopt an exact version of the ABA Model Rule. Instead, Maine tweaked it in a few significant ways: (1) the Maine version does not include “marital” or “socioeconomic” status among the grounds for which discrimination is off-limits; (2) the Maine version does not include bar activities or professional social functions within what counts as “related to the practice of law,” and (3) it provides more detailed examples of what amounts to “harassment” and what amounts to “discrimination” under the rule. You may recall that an effort to adopt a modified version of Rule 8.4(g) here in my state of Tennessee failed miserably in 2018.

A bit more recently (only just three months ago), Connecticut became the first state to adopt the ABA revisions to the Model Rules related to lawyer advertising. You may recall that Virginia actually overhauled its rules even before the ABA took action by adopting the original APRL proposal back in 2017. In so doing, Connecticut (for the most part) has stripped its advertising regulations down to just three rules — patterned on ABA Model Rules 7.1, 7.2, and 7.3. Connecticut does still keep a couple of its additional bells and whistles (though it can be hard at first blush to know for certain because they used [brackets] to indicate deletions rather than strike-through text). One deviation that it kept was its 40-day off limits provision for people involved in accidents. Another deviation is that they have a three-year record retention requirement in their version of these rules. A few other deviations made it through as well.

If I could take issue with one choice Connecticut has made (well, technically two — seriously, don’t do the brackets thing ever again), it would be the level of unnecessary detail in the following provision about record retention:

An electronic communication regarding the lawyer’s services shall be copied once every three months on a compact disc or similar technology and kept for three years after its last dissemination.

The problem with this is … well there are several. In 2019, a whole lot of computers don’t even have CD-ROM drives any longer, but also the level of specificity and detail is both micromanagement of an unneeded degree and entirely unlikely to actually accomplish anything. As to micromanagement, just require that an electronic record be retained for the three year period – if they want to store it in a server or in the cloud or wherever, it won’t matter as long as they retain it so that if you ever need to examine it you get it from them.

And also, every three months? Both micromanagement and ineffectual, a lawyer who wants to game that system just changes an electronic communication to be shady in the middle of the three month window and changes it back in time to make the every three-month copy.

Except, of course not really, because the stories about Connecticut’s adoption of the ABA Model Rules on advertising, including this story, all buried the lede — Connecticut still requires lawyers who advertise in public media to file a copy of the advertisement in the form it is distributed with the Statewide Grievance Committee. Sigh. While this is not a “prior restraint,” it is a “prior pain-in-the-ass” (TM, TM, TM, TM) that serves little to no purpose other than imposing additional expenses and red tape on lawyer advertising.

To have both such a filing requirement and a three-year record retention requirement is among the worst sort of “belt and suspenders” arrangements.

In the end, I guess that’s part of why it took so long to actually write this post. Between reading the headlines and being a bit excited and actually studying what Connecticut did, I ended up feeling like I just got nutmegged.

A companion piece.

As I inch ever closer to my 400th blogpost here, today’s offering is something of a companion piece to a post I wrote almost exactly 13 months ago that demonstrates what should be an obvious point, what is a very important point in the world of disciplinary defense but much less obvious, and at least one highly curious one.

This post involves, Sherri Jefferson, a Georgia lawyer who has now been disbarred over what was largely the same sort of conduct that got the Pennsylvania lawyer in trouble who was the subject of that earlier post.

I’ll let the headline from The ABA Journal online article – which is what first caught my eye – explain: “Lawyer disbarred after she’s accused of having romantic involvement with client and hiring detective to spy on him.”

It’s a pretty good headline but it omits, as headlines sometimes must for space reasons, the important thing that happened between romance and spying – the client stopped being a client and started dating another woman. This paragraph of the disbarment order gives the expanded details but still in a pretty succinct fashion:

Jefferson represented an individual from 2008 to 2010 in a custody modification action; during the representation, Jefferson and that individual were romantically involved. This relationship led to the filing of a disciplinary matter against Jefferson, but the matter was subsequently dismissed by this Court in 2014. During the pendency of that disciplinary matter, Jefferson’s former client began dating another woman and, following the dismissal of that matter, Jefferson hired a private investigator to conduct an investigation including surreptitious surveillance of the former client, his son, and the other woman. Additionally, Jefferson falsely disparaged the other woman to the woman’s employer, including making false and misleading statements about the custody proceeding.

The important, and obvious, point here being that bad ethical conduct from lawyers driven by jealousy is not exclusively the province of male lawyers. Jefferson also did not make matters any better for herself thereafter by making a number of provably false statements during criminal proceedings that arose after criminal warrants for stalking and defamation were filed against her.

Jefferson also made a strategic decision in the defense of her disciplinary case that tees up discussion of the other important, but less obvious, point, she pled the Fifth.

Now, sometimes that truly is the best (if not the only) option when the conduct is also potentially criminal conduct, but it almost always has damning consequences on the disciplinary side. The order of disbarment discusses in a couple of footnotes how taking the Fifth justified an adverse inference that the disciplinary allegations were essentially true. (These were relegated to footnotes because, by being uncooperative in certain aspects of the proceedings, Jefferson also was the subject of a sanctions order that essentially acted as a default judgment against her.)

Although much ink has been spilled in the past about what it means for disciplinary cases to be “quasi-criminal” in nature when it comes to Fifth Amendment rights, as a practical matter the “quasi” always does more work in that description than “criminal” does and lawyers who sit in judgment of other lawyers tend not to hesitate to draw negative conclusions about a lawyer who invokes the Fifth Amendment in proceedings about lawyer discipline.

And the final point, injected into the mix purely for the curiosity factor is that she apparently has also attempted to draw parallels to how she has been treated to events occurring on the national stage in a way that, I’m just guessing, probably will not carry the kind of weight she thinks.

That same ABA Journal article concludes with a quote from her – that apparently is made in a filing Jefferson has made to seek to stay and vacate the order of disbarment — “Akin to the Russian probe, this case is marred by abuse of prosecutorial misconduct, abuse of discretion and acts of complete denial of due process.”

Akin to the Russian probe … sigh.

Two Arkansas items involving rare procedural developments

As I attempt this week to get back into the saddle, two items – each relatively unusual and each involving Arkansas – grabbed my attention. One involves a judge and the other a lawyer.

Although Fridays are usually reserved for standard “follow ups,” the first item is in the nature of follow-up because I wrote previously about when this Arkansas judge was hit with disciplinary charges over his involvement in a protest against the death penalty around about the same time he was ruling on issues related to the death penalty in a case. The ABA Journal now has a story about the charges against the judge being dismissed by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The reason for dismissal? The delay in the pursuit of the charges against him. The article notes that the charges were first filed against the judge back in April 2017. While both judges and lawyers alike subjected to disciplinary cases often feel like the process goes on longer than it should, and often times if you pay attention to the timelines in disciplinary opinions you see how extended the time frames often are between the opening of the case and the ultimate resolution, it is rare to see delay in disciplinary proceedings resulting in the outright dismissal of the charges. Twenty-six months would certainly be a long time if nothing at all was transpiring in the matter.

Of note, the article also mentions that the related ethics cases against six of seven justices on the Arkansas Supreme Court related to their treatment of the Arkansas judge in question (also discussed in my long-ago post) were also dismissed in November 2018 but the reasons for that dismissal are not mentioned.

On the lawyer side, a daily publication from the Tennessee Bar Association has started including disciplinary orders in its coverage of court opinions and, on Friday, it included the kind of order not seen every day on a number of fronts.

It is an order commencing a disciplinary case (or maybe not actually even truly doing that) against a Tennessee lawyer for having been convicted of a DUI offense in Arkansas. It’s unusual in a couple of respects in as much as historically there have not been many instances of any public discipline against Tennessee lawyers for criminal conduct involving drunk driving. While this order is certainly public in nature and can, itself, be something of a public censure for the lawyer involved, the order does not technically actually require the Board of Professional Responsibility in Tennessee to do anything about the situation.

The specific language of the order from the Tennessee Supreme Court reads:

This matter shall be referred to the Board for whatever action the Board may deem warranted.

Whether or not anything does come of it is unclear, the only provision that can be triggered by a DUI offense is RPC 8.4(b) and will turn on whether this particular criminal act is treated as one that “reflects adversely on the lawyer’s … fitness as a lawyer in other respects.” For what it may be worth, the lawyer in question does not have any past disciplinary history in terms of public discipline, but the Board’s website does reflect a pending petition against him that has been open since April 2018 so it would seem likely to be entirely unrelated to this offense which involved a traffic citation/arrest occurring in October 2018.

Disbarrment time in D.C.?

Today’s a pretty big day for the future of democracy in the United States. Not just because it is Law Day, but because Law Day is being commemorated pretty ironically as the man with a very checkered past currently serving as the Attorney General of the United States testifies to Congress about why he didn’t mean the things he said to get the job and why, apparently, the current occupant of the White House should be free to obstruct justice if he is frustrated.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a rare situation in which a corporation sued its former GC for what was essentially a legal malpractice claim and mentioned that, if nothing else, it served as a good reminder for lawyers who represent organizations that it is the entity, and not the CEO or its other officers, that are the client.

Many moons ago when I thought that Jeff Sessions might end up being the worst AG we were going to get under the current administration I wrote about the fact that the AG always needs to remember that the President is not the client.

The fact that we now have an AG who appears to be even worse is certainly proof of the small and meaningless nature of my voice, but also still more proof of how important the distinction between who is the client and who is not should be.

Of course, as an exchange with Atrios that I’ve had today on Twitter bears out, rampant lying by the person who is arguably the most prominent lawyer in the nation is – in addition to being an existential threat to democracy in this instance – not a good look for our profession as a whole.

So, happy Law Day, I guess.

Lawyers engaging in criminal conduct. Big love for immunity in Texas.

Let me offer a word or two or probably 1,000 about two recent items of interest having the issue of lawyers involved in crimes as their common thread. One comes from the Fifth Circuit and the other comes from an ABA Journal article about a situation in Utah.

First, the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in Troice v. Greenberg Traurig, LLP handed down on April 17, 2019. That case is one of many pieces of litigation involving the Allen Stanford Ponzi scheme. Specifically, this case involved a potential class action involved claims against Greenberg Traurig under a vicarious liability theory alleging that an attorney at Greenberg Traurig conspired with Stanford to further his scheme.

I am a big believer that the scope of immunity for civil liability to third parties for lawyers in connection with their acts in the representation of clients should be very broad. The most widely known version of this kind of immunity for lawyers is often referred to as the litigation privilege.

A readily-understandable example of which is this: a lawyer is representing a client and files a lawsuit for the client against a company alleging that the company’s products are defective and unsafe, according to the litigation privilege as a form of immunity, the company shouldn’t be able to sue the lawyer for defamation over those allegations.

As a proponent for this immunity to be broad in scope, I was not surprised to see the Fifth Circuit rule that Texas law would provide immunity even with respect to matters outside of litigation as long as they occurred within the scope of the representation of a client. What I was initially puzzled by, however, was the Fifth Circuit’s conclusion that a lawyer could even be immune from civil liability to a third party for criminal conduct.

My immediate reaction flowed from thinking about the fact that the ethics rules [RPC 1.2(d)] specifically delineate that “[a] lawyer shall not … assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is criminal.” Thus, there might be a logical basis for arguing that a lawyer using her representation to assist a client in committing a crime should not be treated as acting within the scope of a representation for purposes of civil immunity but would be treated as something outside of the scope of a legitimate representation.

Of course, the problem with that logic is how I had to insert “legitimate” in as a modifier for “representation.” Such an approach would raise questions about an array of other ways that a lawyer might violate the ethics rules during representation of a client and whether those acts should also trigger a loss of immunity from liability to third parties.

Although the opinion did not really get into any discussion of ethics rules, the Fifth Circuit was confronted by a similar argument from the plaintiffs — that criminal conduct by a lawyer is necessarily outside the scope of normal representation:

The plaintiffs also argue “attorneys are not immune from suit when they engage in criminal conduct.” Their contention is not that criminal conduct is an exception to the general rule immunizing behavior in the scope of representation but rather that criminal acts are categorically never within” that scope.

The Fifth Circuit, applying and interpreting/predicting Texas law, walked through how the Texas courts look at the issue not based on the nature of the attorney’s alleged conduct (i.e. criminal or not) but on the type of conduct (i.e. does it look like something that amounts to legal services to a client or not). Given that fact, it was easy for the Fifth Circuit to say that even alleged criminal conduct by a lawyer can be in the scope of a representation for purposes of evaluating civil immunity.

The prospect of civil immunity even for allegedly criminal conduct, however, likely does not change the fact such conduct is sufficiently dis-incentivized in other respects.

It can still subject the lawyer to potential criminal liability. And, of course, lawyers also still face the risk of professional discipline for most criminal behavior.

Most, but not all.

Which brings us to the Utah story and whether or not lawyers should face discipline for criminal conduct, if the criminal conduct in question involves polygamy. Utah apparently has a criminal statute that makes involvement in a polygamous relationship subject to as much as fifteen years in prison. The short ABA Journal piece discusses the background – a complaint has been brought by a former member of something called the Davis County Cooperative Society where polygamy is pervasive headed up by a lawyer leader — and stressing that Utah’s relevant ethics rule – like most – only addresses criminal conduct that “reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness” as a lawyer.

In most instances, one would think that an attorney would have a hard time pulling off a polygamous relationship without engaging in some acts of dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation but perhaps not here. Given the lawyer’s role as a leader of the Davis County Cooperative Society it sounds like the conduct is occurring out in the open so that deception is not part of the picture. Thus, the only way for RPC 8.4 to come into play would be for someone to try to argue that polygamy is a crime that reflects adversely on fitness as a lawyer.

As there are far too many jokes that could be made with that set up, I’ll refrain and, instead, focus on the original point about civil immunity. If Utah’s approach, was the same as the Fifth Circuit said Texas’s was, then it should mean that a lawyer could have potential civil liability to a third party for a polygamous relationship itself but a lawyer who, for example, represents clients in drafting up contracts related to a polygamous relationship, should be entitled to immunity.