It’s still a good ethics opinion, even if the rule itself may need rethinking

Not quite 5 months ago, I wrote a bit of a shorter post about my view as to why ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 480 counted as a good ethics opinion.  For those that may not be remembering the opinion off the top of the head, it was the one that reminded lawyers – primarily in the context of social media — that RPC 1.6 governing confidentiality does not have an exception for “generally known” information nor an exception that says it is okay to discuss just because it is a matter of public record.

This opinion has been the subject of some renewed criticism — particularly a very well done column by Bill Wernz in the Minnesota Lawyer which (if you have a subscription you can read here) — and has been (in no small part because of Bill’s influential column) the topic of some spirited debate on an ethics listserv to which I am privileged to be a part.  (Loyal readers may recall an earlier effort on my part to address a first wave of criticism directed at this particular ABA opinion here.)

The summarized version of the criticism generally is that it feels increasingly illogical for confidentiality under the ethics rules to extend to information known or knowable by scads of other people.  An example that has been bandied about is a hypothetical of an attorney who has just secured a helpful published appellate opinion in case on a Wednesday and would like to argue and make reference to that case on Thursday for a different client and whether the restriction in RPC 1.6 means they cannot without the express permission of the client in the appellate case.

A few years back in Tennessee we accomplished a revision to our version of RPC 1.6 that provides some help for hypothesized conundrums such as these with the adoption of a Comment [3b] that reads:

Information made confidential by this Rule does not include what a lawyer learns about the law, legal institutions such as courts and administrative agencies, and similar public matters in the course of representing clients.  For example, during legal research of an issue while representing a client, a lawyer may discover a particularly important precedent, devise a novel legal approach, or learn the preferable way to frame an argument before a particular judge that is useful both in the immediate matter and in other representation.  Such information is part of the general fund of information available to the lawyer.

Other aspects of the renewed criticism keep coming back to the argument that the meaning of the word “reveal” in RPC 1.6 continues to be overlooked in efforts to interpret the rule.  I continue to believe that ABA Formal Opinion 480 and opinions like it are good opinions because I don’t think the people that put so much weight in their argument on the idea that “reveal” is something you cannot do as to already public information are as correct about that as they think they are.  If you didn’t know something until I tell it to you, I think it is entirely fair to say I “revealed” it to you even if it was already public.  It is not the greatest analogy in the world but harken back to your worst experience of someone spoiling for you the shocking twist of a film before you could see it.  In discussing that with someone and explaining your dismay in having the surprise revealed to you without warning, I don’t think you’d think much of someone claiming that millions of people already knew it so telling you about it didn’t really “reveal” anything.

While we obtained the language for Comment [3b] in Tennessee, there was another proposed revision to RPC 1.6 that was not successful but that I still believe would make the rule better and that, ideally, would be a decent fix to the Model Rule as well.  We had proposed adding a piece to RPC 1.6(a) – that would have required adding some numbering to make express consent of a client reason number (1) and implied authority to carry out the representation reason number (2) — where a third reason where revealing RPC 1.6 would be allowable where:  “the disclosure is limited to information relating to the representation of a client which has already been made public and the disclosure is made in such a way that there is no reasonable likelihood of adverse effect to the client.”  Our Court rejected that proposal, but I think an amendment to the Model Rule and other rules patterned on it along those lines would address many of the criticisms of the scope of RPC 1.6 while still protecting against disclosures that it makes sense as a matter of public policy to prohibit lawyers from making — like that one offered in my most-assuredly-unopened open letter post.

 

A tale of two ethics opinions.

So, I’ve made something of a habit of writing about ethics opinions.  Bad ones and good ones.  Mostly bad ones though.

As the trite – almost hackish – title of this post telegraphs, today I want to compare and contrast two recently released ethics opinions that manage to demonstrate the good that can come from a well done ethics opinion on the kind of issue that cries out for guidance in the form of an ethics opinion and the harm that can come from the kind of ethics opinion that likely should not be issued at all.

First, the good – an opinion issued out of Texas (which Karen Rubin has already written some about) that tackles a thorny problem that can confront a lawyer who has been retained by an insurance company to represent one of the company’s insureds in a piece of litigation.

The particular question addressed in Texas Opinion 669 is this:

Under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, may a lawyer retained by an insurance company notify the insurance company that the insured client he was assigned to represent is not cooperating in the defense of the client’s lawsuit?

The answer the Texas opinion provides, as difficult as it might be for insurance defense lawyers to hear, is “no.”  And, that answer is the correct one in any jurisdiction where the way the “tripartite” relationship is structured is that the lawyer’s only client is the insured and the insurance company is merely someone who is permitted to pay the lawyer’s bills as long as the lawyer complies with the state’s version of Model Rules 1.8(f) and 5.4(c).

In Tennessee, for example, RPC 1.8(f) specifically states one of the requirements for permitting the lawyer to accept compensation or direction from someone other than the client as being that “information relating to representation of a client is protected as required by RPC 1.6.” (Interestingly, the Texas opinion makes no mention of, or reference to, any of those kinds of rules but simply uses only its confidentiality rule to justify its analysis.)

The unfortunate opinion comes out of Virginia.  Virginia, you might recall, recently made a great leap forward in streamlining its rules on attorney advertising by revising its rules to look very much like the proposal circulated by APRL.  After adoption of those revisions, which became effective on July 1, 2017, Virginia’s ethical restrictions on advertising were largely capable of being described as simply prohibiting false or misleading communications.

Unfortunately, with the issuance of Legal Ethics Opinion 1750, Virginia manages less than a year later to undermine much of its progress by simply re-issuing and updating a lengthy opinion it has released on multiple past occasions that attempts, in advance and not in response to evaluating any particular real advertisement, to provide “guidance” about what kinds of advertising practices should still be avoided because of the potential to be considered to be misleading.

Unlike the Texas opinion, which answered a real dilemma that lawyers can face and for which definitive guidance can be provided, the Virginia opinion is the kind of ethics opinion designed almost exclusively to chill commercial speech.  Even if the guidance it gave on all of the topics it unilaterally decided to address were correct, it would still be the type of opinion that ought not be issued.

Certainly, it says some things that are undoubtedly true and fun to read about ways that a lawyer could engage in truthful advertising that would still be a problem because it would be misleading by omission.  I’ve spoken at seminars before where I’ve tried to make this point by saying that a lawyer whose ad truthfully proclaimed “I’ve never lost a jury trial,” but fails to also mention, for context, that they’ve never actually been involved in a jury trial is going to be at risk under any fair set of ethics rules.  The Virginia opinion grabs a slightly different version of this rich vein by explaining that a lawyer truthfully crowing that “They secured a $1 million jury verdict in case,” but not mentioning that it came only after turning down a $2 million settlement offer before trial would have disseminated a misleading advertisement.

But, even that guidance is something that really ought not be opined about unless there were an actual lawyer seeking actual guidance about just that sort of advertisement.

So many other pieces of the opinion are even worse, however.   Cautions about using actors in ads, hand-wringing over “no recovery, no fee” statements, and subtle digs at the use of testimonials by actual clients in the opinion appear to be rolled back out for no real reason other than to undermine the progress on lawyer regulation of advertising that had appeared to be achieved by streamlining the rules themselves.

On wellness: An indirect explanation of last week’s lack of content

Content is a hungry beast.  I starved it last week.  Apologies.

It was really a bit of a rough week to let things get away from me and not be able to write anything because there were actually quite a few things worth delving into that happened.  Perhaps the biggest piece of news actually came the same day that I had a speaking engagement at a CLE for in-house counsel here in Memphis.  There were California in-house lawyers with the hosting corporation who were attending remotely and I apologized at the outset for the fact that the differences between their rules and Tennesssee’s were going to make their next hour of time pretty wasted and, also, mentioned that they were certainly striving to change their rules but then saying that we all strive toward lots of things …  implying that they’d never manage to adopt rules that look like the ABA Model Rules.  That very same day California was able to announce that, after 17 years of effort to get there, rules patterned after the Model Rules are being adopted and will become effective in November 2018.  I can’t write much more about that in any meaningful way because I haven’t had time to study any of it, so I won’t.  You can read the first wave of information about what those rules will look like here.

I’m also not going to “write” today about any other ethics topic of interest.  But, I do want to ask for 6 minutes of your time today in the name of the important issue of attorney well-being to watch the clip you can get at the link I’m posting below. (I promise this is not me trying to “pivot to video.”)

The last 12 minutes of the 2017 Ethics Roadshow

I shared this story about me for the first time during last year’s Ethics Roadshow after staying quiet about it for more than 7 years.  If you didn’t attend, or you didn’t stay for the last 12 minutes, then you won’t have seen it.  It offers an indirect window into why there was no new content offered here last week.  (Also, I know I said I’m only asking for 6 minutes of your time.  My personal story starts at the 6 minute mark on the clip.)

All things considered, I remain very lucky.  Client obligations and family obligations come first in terms of what gets accomplished.  After that, speaking engagements and all that entails comes next.  Pretty much everything else, including this blog, ends up third on the depth chart.  Sometimes I’m not deep enough to get that far down in the chart.

A short post-mortem for Tennessee’s proposed RPC 8.4(g)

With the flood of comments in opposition, and particularly the fact that the Attorney General of our state felt the need to file not just one but two comments in opposition, the unsuccessful end of the effort to convince the Tennessee Supreme Court to adopt a version of RPC 8.4(g) has felt inevitable for the last month or so.

Yesterday, the inevitable end came in the form of this one-page order from the Tennessee Supreme Court rejecting the petition.

I’m personally very grateful for the handful of entities that lent their support to the TBA/BPR petition which included not just specialty bar associations such as The Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association and the Association for Women Attorneys, but also the Memphis Bar Association, the Knoxville Bar Association, and the Lawrence County Bar Association.

I’m not inclined to spend much space here discussing just how deeply disappointed I am in the outcome.  Given that I’m not likely to be the victim of any of the harassment and discrimination we were really aiming to protect against with this proposal, my disappointment is, at best, vicarious.  There are other lawyers in Tennessee who this impacts more directly.  Lawyers who have been told by many of those who filed comments that they are fair targets for disparagement as long as the lawyer disparaging them is not representing a client.

I wrote more than an 18 months ago about how skeptical I was that a state like Tennessee would adopt a black-letter rule addressing harassment and discrimination.  Admittedly, I let myself get a bit too optimistic along the way.  I remain convinced that the sentiments expressed by the most strident lawyers (mostly male, and nearly entirely Caucasian) who submitted comments opposing the proposal do not represent the future of our profession in this state even though they prevailed in the present.

If you have the stomach for plowing through knowing that some of them truly serve as only a forum for attorneys who look like me to sound off with typo-filled paeans to a Limbaugh-esque worldview, I will again state that reading through the comments is an educational experience.

If you’d rather not, I can sum up alot of them with the following TL/dr:

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” – original source to quote a bit unknown as explained here.

 

The intersection of the First Amendment and the Ethics Rules

So, I don’t know if any of you have ever played HQ Trivia.  In any session, they have between 500,000 and almost 2 million players, so statistically speaking, I guess there is a chance you have.  While it has nothing to do with legal ethics, in order to understand the context of what follows, let me give you a quick primer.

It is something that would have been 5 years ago the stuff of science fiction or an even an episode of Black Mirror.  It is an app on your phone through which you can play trivia in real-time answering questions read by a human being host.  Each question is presented with three multiple-choice answers and you have 10 seconds from when the host starts reading the question to click your answer.  If you answer correctly, you get to move on to the next question.  If you don’t, you are eliminated.  In the standard format, the quiz consists of 12 questions and, if you answer all the questions correctly, you win or split the pot with any other players who have done so.  (When the largest pots are offered they increase the number of questions to 15 or, quite recently, they have experimented with as many questions as is necessary to narrow down to just winner in a winner-take-all format.)

The dollar amount of the prize varies.  It is typically $2,500 but, as it appears they are closer to whatever plan they have in place for monetizing the app approaches, they have recently offered a pot as large as $100,0o0.  Reportedly, tonight they will be offering a $250,000 pot.  I have won the game on one occasion and, of course, when I did there were so many other winners that my share came to just shy of $2.  (I also know there are other companies doing similar games and some of those are competing against HQ on the basis of how awful one particular financial backer of HQ reportedly is, so I’m not going to link or provide publicity to the game, but it is the one I play [for better or worse] so if you decide to sign up for it and put in my user name – bsfaughnan- as a referral code then I will get some extra lives.)

Now all that is background for today’s topic – which is the intersection and overlap of the ethics rules and what they prohibit members of our profession from doing and the First Amendment.  This topic is frequently one I spend time thinking about because for many years my practice has also involved representing clients on First Amendment issues and, in fact, though I continue to not be listed in Best Lawyerfor Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility, in addition to being listed for Appellate Law, I am listed for Litigation-First Amendment.  It is also a topic that I have been thinkng about frequently because of various events that have worked their way into my line of sight either directly or indirectly.  Those three events are: (1) the outpouring of comments from particular portions of the bar in Tennessee arguing that the proposed RPC 8.4(g) in Tennessee is an assault on their First Amendment rights; (2) the latest post from Avvo’s GC criticizing ABA Formal Op. 480; and (3) the head of a prominent law firm speaking out publicly to indicate that a star lawyer of his firm turned down the opportunity to represent the current occupant of The White House.

So, here’s the HQ-style question and, remember, there is only one correct answer.  You won’t be limited to 10 seconds to answer from the time you start reading the question however:

Which of these presents the most compelling case for finding that discipline against a lawyer would violate the lawyer’s First Amendment rights?

  • A lawyer tweets – without client permission – about a jury verdict she obtained in order to advertise the successful outcome.
  • A lawyer, during a CLE or bar association social event, decides to lecture everyone in the room about why he considers marriage between two persons of the same gender to be an abomination.
  • A lawyer, consulted by a politician who she finds to be vile, or have views she finds to be vile, holds a press conference or tweets that she refused to represent that politician because she disagrees with everything he stands for.

 

 

Outside counsel guidelines and term limits

While I am on something of a short streak of writing about people much more famous and influential than I am, it seems as good a time as any to offer my thoughts about the article that two very fine lawyers with Hinshaw & Culbertson wrote for The Professional Lawyer in 2017 about even more aspects of the growing problems outside counsel guidelines are creating for lawyers in private practice.  (These same two authors did an earlier article that talked about the problems with indemnity provisions in such guidelines – you can go read that here if you’d like.)  The more recent article was titled The New Battle Over Conflicts of Interest: Should Professional Regulators–or Clients–Decide What is a Conflict?

If you don’t know the article of which I speak, or it has been a while since you read it, you can go read it (again) here.

It is difficult to contest the point being made by the authors in this article, and the earlier one, that increasingly frequent provisions in OCGs are creating real problems for lawyers in private practice.  Particularly so, those pieces of OCGs that feel like they are overreaching related to who must be treated as clients for purposes of determining conflicts.

The authors summarize the nature of these issues quite well as involving clients using OCGs to “expand[] the definition of who is the client (far beyond the bounds of prevailing case law);” “limit[] the universe of other clients from whom lawyers and their firms may accept work;” and to “expand[] the definition of ‘interest’ and ‘positional’ conflicts in order to prevent lawyers and firms from undertaking or continuing to work for other clients that may take public positions on issues that the client unilaterally—and often ex post facto—deems adverse to its own interests.”

What I do disagree with, however, is the authors’ proposal for how to fix this problem.  The authors propose that states amend their versions of Model Rule 5.6 to make it unethical for lawyers to propose or agree to restrictions on their right to practice in connection with being hired by a client, just as is now the case for employment agreements or as terms for resolving a client’s matter.

Under the proposed revision, Rule 5.6 would read as follows (the bold and italicized piece being the new stuff):

A lawyer shall not participate in offering or making:

(a) a partnership, shareholders, operating, employment, or other similar type of agreement that restricts the right of a lawyer to practice after termination of the relationship, except an agreement
concerning benefits upon retirement; or

(b) an agreement in which a restriction on the lawyer’s right to practice is part of the terms of engagement of a lawyer by a client or of the settlement of a client controversy.

My immediate reaction to reading that proposal was to think of the problems I have whenever people argue for imposing term limits on their elected representatives.  You get the opportunity to vote people out every time they come up for re-election.  You shouldn’t need a law that limits the number of terms they can serve because you can always simply just vote them out of office in the regular course of things.

The solution to overreaching in outside counsel guidelines is equally simple: lawyers and firms should reject OCGs that go too far and refuse to agree to terms that unreasonably define who must be treated as the client or that become tantamount to restrictions on the right to practice.

The counterargument for that position is about the same as the counter-argument when the discussion involves term limits — the deck is typically too stacked in favor of incumbents so that the balance of power is truly off and that simply saying “you can vote them out” is naive.

The nature of present day demands on lawyers and law firms means that most firms and lawyers won’t be willing enough to turn work away to push back on outside counsel guidelines that are unreasonable and amount to overreaching.  Any firm that really wants to take a stand will have too much economic pressure on it to do so.  I hear the point, but, while that might be a pretty bad basis for enacting term limits and preventing some truly effective politicians from serving for as long as their constituents might like, it’s an extraordinarily bad basis for revising an ethics rule.

In particular, it is a bad basis for revising an ethics rule when there are already one or more ethics rules that lawyers can point to as being breached by aspects of the very OCGs being complained about.  For example, the authors point out that OCGs, in order to enforce their expansive requirements about what is a conflict, also impose obligations on the lawyer to tell the client about matters they are contemplating undertaking.  In so doing, these OCGs are demanding that lawyers agree to disclose information that they are obligated to treat as confidential under RPC 1.18 (assuming they have that provision in their state).

A lawyer who wants to refuse to agree to outside counsel guidelines of that type would have a strong, persuasive argument to offer not only about that violation but the potential risk that an in-house lawyer would have – if insisting that it remain in the agreement – of being considered to have violated their state’s version of Model Rule 8.4(a) which, in most places, makes it a disciplinary violation for a lawyer to “knowingly … induce” another lawyer to violate the ethics rules.

It also seems to me be a bridge too far for lawyers and firm to be able to demand that clients be permitted to agree to advance conflict waivers and similar contractual provisions which would serve to narrow the scope of conflicts but also demand that clients should not be able to propose that the lawyer agree to treat requirements of conflicts even more broadly.

The authors also offer an alternative to their own proposed revised language – perhaps to avoid issues associated with when a restriction would be made a term of engagement or not, by suggesting that Rule 5.6 could otherwise be revised simply in (b) to prohibit “an agreement containing a restriction on the lawyer’s right to practice.”  There would be significant problems — perhaps in the nature of unintended consequences – that would come from that alternate revised Rule 5.6 proposal.

If someone is being hired as an in-house lawyer, their corporate employer should be permitted to require that they restrict their practice to only representing the corporate employer and not represent any other clients while employed in-house.  Technically speaking, the second version of the revised Rule 5.6 wouldn’t permit that.  And, even if you are a private practice lawyer and one client wants to provide you with enough work that they also want to have you agree that you won’t work on any other matters for any other clients, why shouldn’t that be okay?

There are examples out there of such lawyers other than just Tom Hagen, the lawyer in The Godfather.

And, coincidentally, Hagen’s also a pretty good example of a lawyer who should have simply turned down a proposed client engagement rather than allowing economic benefits to sway his decision.

 

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.

Friday follow up. Good news and bad news.

I seem to be trending toward this model of one new/fresh substantive post early in the week and one of these “FFU” posts at the end of the week, but I’m not sure if this is a rut or my script going forward.  A very intelligent and thoughtful lawyer asked me while I was in Vancouver what my publishing schedule was, and I had to embarrassingly admit that a fixed schedule was not something I had.  I told him what I’d tell you – if you asked — I try my best to at least post twice a week, but the days varies and some weeks I am better at this than I am other weeks.  Not the kind of consistent excellence that builds a readership, I readily admit.

So, oh year.  The follow ups.  Good news and bad news.

First, the good news.  The Oregon Supreme Court has approved the revision to RPC 7.3 in that state that I wrote a bit about recently.  You can read the Oregon court’s order . . . eventually (I can’t find it yet online) [updated 2/10/18 – Thanks to Amber Hollister, you can now see the order hereAmended SCO 18-005 Amending RPC 7-3 and 8-3 signed 2-7-18], but you can get your confirmation that I’m not lying to you here.

Second (also last), the bad news.  D.C. has now officially issued a 60-day suspension (with potential for it to be much longer) for the former G.E. in-house counsel that I wrote some about quite a few moons ago.  One of the panel presentations I had the chance to sit through in Vancouver touched on issues of lawyer whistleblowers.  You can reach your own conclusions about whether we currently live in a world in which lawyers should be encouraged to be whistleblowers (particularly, for example, in-house lawyers in Washington, D.C. these days), but the only conclusion that can be drawn from this D.C. outcome is that anyone who learns about the punishment that was sanctioned will be a whole lot less willing to do so than they would otherwise be.

I remain particularly skeptical of the treatment afforded Ms. Koeck by the D.C. bar given the fact – as discussed way back when (which was itself a FFU almost a year ago so…) – that they also decided to punish the lawyers who gave Ms. Koeck advice and guidance along the way.  Which is, as far as these things go, even a more chilling wrinkle.  You can read a National Law Journal piece on the news out of D.C. here.

If racism is disqualifying for a juror, why not for an aspiring lawyer?

Nothing like the day after a holiday weekend to pose a difficult, potentially controversial, question, right?  But when the holiday weekend in question is one to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this particular question is certainly topical.

This is a post I have had rattling around inside of my head since this I read this weighty article from The Huffington Post.  Now, I know, for many, HP is not thought of as a place for weighty articles, but this one really fits the bill.

The article’s title is “Should White Supremacists Be Allowed to Practice Law?”  The article delves into the nature of the question and elaborates a bit on the underlying concept that people who wish to be admitted to the bar in any given state not only have to demonstrate competence in the law but also must satisfy “character and fitness” requirements to be issued a law license at all.

The HP article does an effective job of examining the thorny, and obviously problematic, nature of the problem with staking out a position that someone’s ideas or thoughts alone should prohibit them from being permitted to pursue a chosen profession – a profession for which they have otherwise demonstrated qualifications by passing the required tests and satisfying the objective criteria.  But — given that fundamental principles of white supremacy (for example) can be shown to go beyond mere beliefs and into promised actions and conduct that are at least inherently discriminatory and taken to the logical conclusion of the movement are even genocidal — the slope being argued over does not sound all that slippery in such a context.

Further, the slope our profession has to wrestle with on such a question is inherently slippery because of how subjective the admission standards are as to character and fitness as a concept — the idea that existing lawyers will evaluate the candidacy of applicants for admission to see if they have the requisite “character” and “fitness” to be a member of the profession.  Moreover, as someone who has represented quite a few folks in bar admission proceedings, I can tell you that the admissions process often creates seemingly ridiculous barriers to entry labelled as character and fitness matters.  Traffic offenses and underage drinking as just a few common examples where law school graduates frequently find themselves having to respond to orders to show cause why they shouldn’t be denied admission.

The notion that an avowed white supremacist would be deemed to be an acceptable candidate to practice law from a character standpoint when a person who struggled with a “lead foot” throughout college gets extra scrutiny seems laughable.

For a little more context, here are the admission standards in Tennessee from which character and fitness questions spring:

Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 7 requires the Board of Law Examiners to decide that an applicant

has demonstrated the reputation and character that in the opinion of the Board indicates no reasonable basis for substantial doubts that the applicant will adhere to the standards of conduct  required of attorneys in this State.  (Section 1.03(d))

The same rule elaborates in more detail what this means:

(a) An applicant shall not be admitted if in the judgment of the Board there is reasonable doubt as to that applicant’s honesty, respect for the rights of others, and adherence to and obedience to the Constitution and laws of Tennessee and the United States as to justify the conclusion that such applicant is not likely to adhere to the duties and standards of conduct imposed on attorneys in this State. Any conduct which would constitute grounds for discipline if engaged in by an attorney in this State shall be considered by the Board in making its evaluation of the character of an applicant.  (Section 6.01)

If espousing an inherent belief that one race is inherently superior to other races and that certain races are so inferior that the world would be better off if they were eliminated from society is not something that would “justify a conclusion that such applicant is not likely to adhere to the duties and standards of conduct imposed on attorneys,” then what exactly is the point of referencing “respect for the rights of others” in such a standard?

And, if even you are inclined to agree that would move the needle in the direction of being unfit, then you probably still might have more difficulty agreeing with the idea that racism is not inherently as bad as white supremacy and is more just an idea or state of mind that should not be regulated and, thus, there can be no cogent argument made that just being a racist should prevent someone from being issued a law license.  After all, as noted above, in Tennessee, the standard requires the Board of Law Examiners to only look to conduct of an applicant which – if undertaken by someone who is already a lawyer could trigger discipline.  You would be hard pressed to find many instances of lawyer discipline imposed against a lawyer merely for holding dear to a belief system, no matter how ignorant or odious.

And, yet, quite recently, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Tharpe v. Sellers that reversed and remanded a case over a certificate of appealability in a death penalty case that turns on whether racist statements made by one of the jurors who voted for death could justify the reopening of habeas corpus proceedings premised upon arguments that improper racial animus infected the jury deliberations.

Although the analogy is admittedly not a perfect one, it seems very difficult to feel very comfortable with the idea that racism on the part of a member of the jury is unacceptable but that letting someone with the same views become a lawyer and, thus, be in the position of getting to routinely strike citizens from being selected to be on juries because of the color of their skin is just part of the system.

And, no this is not intended to be an advocacy piece for the proposed rule revision in Tennesee that I’ve written about before, because these questions are extremely ripe ones in my jurisdiction and other jurisdictions under even existing ethics rules.  In Tennessee and elsewhere, the rules already prohibit lawyers, regardless whether they are representing clients or not at the time, from engaging in conduct that is prejudical to the administration of justice.  (RPC 8.4.)

So, I guess the true question to struggle with is this:  Does empowering a racist by conferring a license to practice law on them something that is inherently prejudicial to the administration of justice?

Change is hard. Even where it appears to be wanted.

I have been meaning to do this and am long overdue in getting to it, but you might recall back in the summer of 2017 when I wrote pretty extensively about the contents of the Oregon Futures Task Force Report, and its positive proposed changes to the ethics rules.  If you don’t, you can read those posts here and here.

In November 2017, the chair of the Legal Ethics Committee in Oregon who also was a member of the Futures Task Force was kind enough to drop me a line and update on how those proposed rules revisions were progressing.

Initially the Board of Governors of the Oregon State Bar approved the proposed revisions to RPC 5.4, 7.2, and 7.3 for discussion and voting by its House of Delegates.

After the process in the House of Delegates, in which there was quite a significant amount of debate and discussion as I am told, the proposed revisions to RPC 5.4 and 7.2 were referred back to the Board of Governors to a study committee, but the proposed revision to RPC 7.3 was passed and has been submitted to the Oregon Supreme Court so it can decide whether to adopt it or not.

While in my prior postings I discussed the RPC 5.4 proposed revision at some length, I did not provide any real detail of the RPC 7.3 change Oregon was considering beyond the fact that it would involve allowing in-person or real-time electronic solicitation, with limited exceptions.  For the record, this is what the Oregon Supreme Court now has in front of it for consideration:

RULE 7.3 SOLICITATION OF CLIENTS
A lawyer shall not solicit professional employment by any means if:

(a) the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the physical, emotional or mental state of the person who is the target of the solicitation is such that the person could not exercise reasonable judgment in employing a lawyer;
(b) the [person who is the] target of the solicitation has made known to the lawyer a desire not to be solicited by the lawyer; or
(c) the solicitation involves coercion, duress or harassment.

Now, you know what I know on this topic.