The good and bad of social media on display

Today’s title refers to two developments worth writing about that caught my attention in the last little bit that only have the issue of social media in common.  I will try to let the reader decided which is which (or if both are both) in due course.

The first development is an example of a lawyer behaving badly who managed to get caught in a lie because of his own social media posts proving that he had not been truthful with a federal judge.  Now lying to a federal judge is never a good choice to make, but doing so and then providing the seeds through social media for someone to prove that you did is just… well… “sloppy” seems like the wrong sort of word given that it appears to imply a value judgment that the “wrong” here is not the falsehood, but the careless unwillingness to try to maintain the facade.  Nevertheless, that is the one of the takeaways of the short version of the story of how this New Jersey lawyer ended up in this situation.  In summary form, lawyer blew some important deadlines, told the court it was because of a family medical emergency, but posted on several occasions during the time period in question on Instagram pictures showing she was on vacation in Miami, traveling and sightseeing in New York City, and other places.  You can read the much longer version at the link.  In the end, it was the freedom (and accompanying folly) that robust use of social media can bring that brought the lawyer down but that also brought the truth to light.  As the story reveals, the lawyer now no longer represents the clients in question and, instead of learning the art of the Latergram has, at least, now managed to set her Instagram account to private.

The second is a new judicial ethics opinion issued out of Massachusetts that continues the process of taking Massachusetts down a path in which judges cannot have lawyers as “friends” on Facebook at all if those lawyers are likely to appear before the judge.  I learned about CJE Opinion No. 2018-03, and the earlier opinion on which it builds (Letter Opinion 2016-01), because it was circulated on a very robust (and very valued) listserv/forum that is available to members of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers.  (If you aren’t an APRL member, it is always a good time to explore the benefits of membership.)  This opinion talks about the obligation of judges to disclose to litigants whether they used to be Facebook friends with any of the lawyers appearing before them since the earlier opinion mandated that they delete lawyers as friends.  I normally like to proffer original content here, but, in this instance, I’ll simply restate the opinion I offered on that forum a few days ago.  (Repasting it seems particularly appropriate where loyal readers will recognize that the sentiment is pretty much repetitious of earlier content here anyway.]

Well, that’s a pretty silly add-on to an inherently silly underlying opinion.  The judicial ethics rules don’t prohibit judges from having friends who are attorneys.  If someone can be a friend IRL, then there is no reason they cannot appear as a friend on social media.  The fact that this entity had to issue this opinion about how long you have to disclose that you essentially tried to cover your tracks by deleting attorneys from your connections belies the point that allowing/encouraging judges to go about their normal friendships on social media is actually a good thing since it permits a way to “search up” information they might not disclose about relationships they have with the attorneys appearing before them.

In fact, the only thing that judicial ethics opinion writing bodies ought to be mandating is that judges make certain that they have their settings established in a way that lets the public have access to their list of friends/connections even if they put all of the rest of it into a “private” setting.

They got away with it, but that doesn’t make it worth trying.

Lawyers billing clients on the basis of time spent is less than ideal for all involved.  For lawyers, it isn’t the best proxy for value delivered in terms of service and incentivizes inefficiency.  For clients, it isn’t the best proxy of value received in terms of service and leaves clients feeling like the only way to cut corners on costs is to either demand limited time on a task or to just not agree for a lawyer to perform a particular task.  For clients and lawyers alike, it also creates distrust of lawyers with respect to second-guessing the amount of time they spend on tasks (or claim to have spend on tasks).  It also doesn’t give clients much of a sense that they are paying for results or accomplishments.  Lots of pieces have been written, over many, many years, about how the billable hour model is outdated or on its way out the door.  Yet, it persists.

This is not going to be one of those pieces today.  Rather, I want to write a few words about a case out of Wyoming that I would worry is going to send exactly the wrong message to lawyers.  That case is a ruling on fee dispute litigation out of the Wyoming Supreme Court, Manigault v. Daly & Sorenson, LLC.  You may have seen headlines of stories about it that are in the nature of: Court rules billing in 15-minute increments was not abusive.

All lawyers who bill by the hour end up having to pick some base line minimum increment for billing purposes.  I, and my firm, do so using 6-minute increments (.1) as the baseline.  It is certainly possible to measure time more accurately than that, but (I believe) that the standard minimum these days for keeping time is to carve time up into 6 minute blocks.  There was a time when the standard minimum for those blocks were 15 minute intervals, but technology has advanced, timekeeping has improved, and the time when minimum quarter-of-an-hour billing was acceptable (in my opinion) has passed.

In the Wyoming decision, the Court ultimately found that this particular law firm’s use of a 15-minute minimum increment with this particular client was ultimately reasonable.  Remarkably, it did so even when the firm did not have a written fee agreement with the client.  But there are a couple of things about the case that – to me – stand out as crucial to the particular result and also help drive home the point that this is not something that most lawyers could get away with and, thus, should not attempt to do.

The first, and I think the more outcome-determinative, is that the fee dispute was one that was with a very long time client of the firm and, thus, someone who, over time, would be much less sympathetic to be heard complaining about 15-minute billing increments as the minimum.  Since apparently that was how this client and that firm had interacted over the course of almost 100 prior matters over 15 years.

The second is that the record indicated that the firm was relatively diligent about aggregating tasks into the minimum increments so that the minimum increment was not used as a method of easily increasing the charge to the client.

The Wyoming Supreme Court explained quite cogently the difference between the situation it had before it this time and other, prior circumstances in which it took lawyers to task for how they used their 15-minute minimum billing increment approach:

Manigault likens the firm’s use of a fifteen-minute billing interval to that which was the subject of a disciplinary proceeding in Casper.  In that case, the attorney employed a number of unethical billing practices and admittedly misused her fifteen-minute minimum billing interval.  She billed fifteen minutes every time she signed a document, and several times she billed fifteen minutes for reviewing a one-page document.  She also billed fifteen minutes to review a short document and then billed the same amount of time again for signing it.

In Casper, this Court discussed the practice of billing according to minimum intervals of six, ten, and fifteen minutes. . . . we observed it would be abusive to bill two fifteen minute charges for two five-minute phone calls in the same fifteen-minute period.

Nothing approaching that sort of unreasonable or abusive billing is evident on this record.. . .

[snip]

What is not often discussed is this concept of the need to still attempt to hew toward composite accuracy in the amount of time billed regardless of what minimum increment is used.  “Composite accuracy” might not be the right phrase but what I’m using it to attempt to describe is that the ultimate measure for a lawyer who bills by the hour has to be that you don’t use it to bill clients for more time in the day than the total time you actually spend working.

The truly pernicious problem for lawyers who attempt to still use 15-minute increments as their method of billing is how easily that can lead them to bill a collection of clients for 8 hours of time while only putting in 3 or 4 hours of actual work.  Or, more likely, billing 14 or 15 hours for a day where 6 or 7 hours of actual time was spent performing work for clients.

The Wyoming case also, unfortunately, gave credence to a common attempted justification by lawyers confronted with trying to justify the 15-minute billing increment that – to me – involves a significant amount of disingenuity:  that billing a client 15 minutes of time for a phone call that they know full well may have taken only 5 minutes is justified because the 15 minute time period also captures the time associated with stopping one task, shifting to the client’s task, making a note in the file about the interaction, and then trying to get back into the mindset of whatever you were working on before.

In modern practice, however, there is one dominant form of communication that simply – and often unequivocally – undercuts any lawyer that tries to use that justification.  Email.  Find me a lawyer who wants to justify a 15-minute minimum increment based on that kind of rationalization, and I strongly suspect that I can show that lawyer, by way of a review of their email history, that they turned much more quickly from answering an email for one client, to crafting an email for another client, then on to responding to some other email.

What that means is, if a lawyer is out there trying to charge their clients for 15 minutes of time for reading and responding to an email, which may have only taken them 5 minutes, and then attempting to justify it based on other things that were done or time lost as part of that, then it will often be extremely easy to demonstrate that within the same 15 minute period they will have replied or sent other emails to other clients on other matters and, likely, they will have billed that client for a 15 minute block as well.  This quickly adds up and is how a lawyer could easily manage in only 20 minutes of actual working time to attempt to bill for an hour of work.

That fudging of the numbers, of course, can also happen using 6-minute increments of time, which raises the ultimate larger point that I fear escapes notice of far too many lawyers:  no matter the minimum increment you pick (unless you are recording and billing for your time truly down to the minute), you are supposed to still be using that system as a proxy toward attempting to best capture your actual time spent.

That means that even if you are billing in 6-minute increments, you are supposed to be trying to bundle smaller tasks during the course of the day together into one of the minimum increments.  If, for the same client, you respond to 2 and only 2 emails during the course of a day and each one took you only a couple of minutes to address, you are supposed to bill that client for one .1 time entry – because you spent a total of 4 minutes working for them that day and you have arranged to bill them at a minimum increment of 6 minutes.  You are not supposed to bill .2 (12 minutes) for that 4 minutes of working time.  When lawyers do both this and opt for the minimum 15 minute incremental block, then the problems with the arrangement increase in magnitude because the lawyer ends up billing the client for 30 minutes of time for 2 tasks that only took 4 minutes to perform.

An object lesson about “staying in your lane.”

Prominent technology blogger, Robert Ambrogi, has taken to Above the Law to criticize the latest ABA Formal Ethics Opinion.  In addition to attempting to savage it over being somehow untimely since lawyers have been blogging for almost 20 years, his primary substantive criticism of the opinion is that it makes no sense for an ethics rule to prohibit a lawyer from speaking or writing (or blogging or Tweeting) publicly about information that is already in the public record.

Ambrogi’s criticism is a bland (and perhaps satisfying at a surface level) kind of thing to say, but it reveals that the author is not someone who has spent a bunch of time working with, or thinking about, the ethics rules.

In the nature and spirit of “open letters to people who are unlikely to read them,” I offer this primer to Mr. Ambrogi on why our profession has crafted an ethics rule that does, in fact, err on the side of prohibiting lawyers from further discussing things even that are public record without our client’s consent or the need to do so to further the representation.

Dear Mr. Ambrogi:

Let’s pretend that I was currently representing a prominent legal technology blogger in a divorce proceeding.  This is, admittedly, a hard thing to pretend as I don’t do family law, but we’ll push on nonetheless.

In order to secure the desired divorce for the blogger, and because of the truly toxic nature of the blogger’s relationship with their significant other, I end up having to share a lot of deeply personal, highly intimate, and potentially quite embarrassing information in the complaint for divorce not only about the blogger but about the blogger’s significant other and that person’s various other romantic partners.

Now that happens in a state where it is very difficult to establish the need for court filings to be sealed, thus the complaint for divorce is a public record upon filing.  It also occurs in a state where, while it is true that court records are public records, they are not well-organized online and are not all that easy to locate.

Thus, my client knows that what is in the complaint is a matter of public record, but they are certainly hopeful that the information will not be widely disseminated and that these intimate and embarrassing items are only ever learned and read by people directly associated with the court process.

Now, if your approach to the ethics rule on confidentiality were what our profession had adopted, then I’d be free at a cocktail party, or on a blog, or in a Tweet to share the wild information about my client’s personal life because it was a matter of public record, and I could do so simply to entertain those around me.

I would hope at this point we would both agree that would be a bad approach for the ethics rules governing our profession to take.

Thus, to protect against that kind of ability to disclose information, the rules are crafted to start from the premise that lawyers ought not to talk publicly about their client’s matters unless they have the client’s consent or some legitimate reason to do so.  (This includes not only further communications impliedly authorized to carry out the representation but situations where it becomes necessary to make disclosures, for example, for the lawyer to defend themselves in other proceedings.  If the blogger’s significant other turned around and filed a defamation lawsuit against me over the publication in the complaint about the intimate details of that person’s life, the ethics rules would allow me to disclose information reasonably necessary to defend myself.)

So, as that ends my rant, I will conclude by saying that I still stand by (another writing that you are unlikely to read) my prior take that Formal Opinion 480 is a good one.

 

Another good opinion from the ABA SCEPR

This was not what I originally planned to write about today, but … here we are all the same.

Today, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility released a new opinion and, because it relates to social media, it is generating a good deal of discussion online.  It is being rolled out and discussed as being of interest to lawyers who blog or tweet or otherwise participate in social media, but it actually is yet another opinion sending a message that all lawyers need to remember.  That is because it is another opinion from this body – in a relatively short period of time – emphasizing how broad the scope of client confidentiality is under Model Rule 1.6.

The key piece of the opinion worth knowing (mostly because it applies to lawyer communications in just about any forum or medium of any sort ranging from cocktail parties, to CLEs, to social media) is this:

The salient point is that when a lawyer participates in public commentary that includes client information, if the lawyer has not secured the client’s informed consent or the disclosure is not otherwise impliedly authorized to carry out the representation, then the lawyer violates Rule 1.6(a). Rule 1.6 does not provide an exception for information that is “generally known” or
contained in a “public record.” Accordingly, if a lawyer wants to publicly reveal client information, the lawyer must comply with Rule 1.6(a).

From my experience, this is a point about which lawyers cannot be reminded nearly enough.  And, it most certainly is not just a social media issue.  Though I have, in the past and far-too-snarkily written about the problem as it crops up on social media.

Interestingly, I spent most of my day today sitting through CLE programming and, perhaps coincidentally, it was the first time in a long time that I actually heard a presenter acknowledge before telling a story about a case that they had actually obtained their client’s permission to talk about the case.

Far too often, I hear lawyer presenters relate information about something they are working on at a CLE by providing so much detail about a situation that it would not take much effort at all to immediately figure out who they are actually talking about.  This latest ABA Formal Opinion also offers a helpful refresher on the problem with doing that:

A violation of Rule 1.6(a) is not avoided by describing public commentary as a“hypothetical” if there is a reasonable likelihood that a third party may ascertain the identity or situation of the client from the facts set forth in the hypothetical. Hence, if a lawyer uses a hypothetical when offering public commentary, the hypothetical should be constructed so that there is no such likelihood.

EVA(n) good things are complicated by ethical obligations.

So, this week’s biggest news in terms of the role of artificial intelligence in the practice of law is the rollout of a new, free AI product from ROSS Intelligence.  The product is called EVA, and you can read all about it here.

The short version of it is that when the other side files a brief in your lawsuit, you can upload the brief and EVA will analyze the cases being relied upon, alert you to other cases where those cases have been negatively treated, and point you to other relevant cases to fast track your research efforts.

It sounds great, and it probably is great.  But, me being me, I immediately started thinking about questions such as:

Will ROSS, through EVA, be keeping all of the data that is uploaded to it?

What are the terms and conditions lawyers have to agree to in order to use EVA?

Will those lawyers need their client’s permission to upload such documents into the EVA platform?

Here is a link to those terms and conditions so you can read them yourself should you be so inclined (at that link, you will need to click on the link titled Terms of Use to get those to popup on your screen), but I think the short version is that, almost always, a lawyer can safely make the decision to upload the other side’s brief into EVA without even talking to your client by relying upon the authority provided under Rule 1.6(a) to say that doing so is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation of your client.

It is, of course, interesting that what you are uploading is actually the work product of the other side and that the terms and conditions require you to say that you have all the necessary ownership rights to send the document through the EVA service.  Along those lines, I would imagine the weird instances of counsel attempting to claim trademark rights in briefs they file could complicate usage issues.  More realistically though, cases that are operating under protective orders and where briefs are filed under seal would seem to be the one area where lawyers could get themselves into trouble by using the free EVA service.

TIKD off my list.

Some day I’m going to get tired of having pun with TIKD titles, and you’ve probably already gotten tired of me doing it, but today is not that day for me.  I was looking to find something to be able to easily write about today before scrambling out of town for some speaking engagements and meetings and Roy Simon has come through for me again.  Roy kindly pointed me this morning to the latest development in the saga down in Florida over the traffic ticket app, TIKD, and its fight with the Florida Bar.

If you are not a Law360 subscriber, you can only read part of the story at this link.  Roy was kind enough to send me the full article, so I’ll summarize the key points of the development for you and then leave you with the only potentially relevant thought I can manage today.

The story explains that the Florida Supreme Court has issued a show cause order to TIKD to require it to respond to the Florida Bar’s petition over UPL allegations and to show cause why the Florida Supreme Court should not enter an order barring its services.

The article contains a very confident sounding quote from the owner of TIKD, likely more confident than he should be under the circumstances that reads as follows:

“What a stunning waste of time and resources,” Riley said. “For nearly a year we have been asking the bar to tell us what aspects of our business they find objectionable, so we could work to address
their concerns. Rather than having a conversation, they chose this route and now have filed a vague complaint, lacking any basis in case law.”

“Nonetheless, we’re glad the issue is out of the bar’s hands, and into a realm where actual facts matter. We remain confident Tikd and its affiliated lawyers are fully in compliance with Florida law,
and are hopeful we can finally resolve this and move on,” he added.

I remain skeptical that TIKD itself is truly engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, though I suspect the Florida Supreme Court may find otherwise.  I’m as confident as Mr. Riley sounds above that what they are is a referral service that violates the current version of the Florida Bar’s ethics rules and that lawyers doing business with TIKD simply cannot do so and comply with the current Florida rules.

I’ve written in the past about my thoughts in general about being open to taking hard looks at revising existing ethics rules that touch on these issues, but for now the rules say what they say.

What I’m puzzling over is this:  is there a way of describing what this traffic ticket app company does that is sufficiently analogous enough to what insurance companies do to justify its existence even under current ethics rules?

At some level, isn’t what this company is offering in the equivalent of ticket insurance without a deductible?  They select the lawyer to represent you, they pay the lawyer to represent you, and if a “judgment” goes down against you for which you are liable – a fine for violation of the traffic laws — they pay it.

If we let insurance companies do something very much like that, then what’s the difference here?

Safeguarding confidential information, border searches, and your devices

In February, I will have the opportunity to be part of a panel discussion in Vancouver, Canada at the mid-year meeting of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers focused on privacy and client confidentiality issues.

We will discuss quite a few interesting topics, including something that likely isn’t on the radar of as many U.S. lawyers as it should be — the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation which will become effective on May 25, 2018.  I plan to find some time on another day to write a bit more about that, but for today I just want to offer up a short-ish update on something talked about here before (and that we will also discuss in Vancouver) – concerns for lawyers when crossing the border back into the United States if Customs and Border Patrol demand access to electronic devices.

With a thankful tip of the hat to Wendy Chang with Hinshaw & Culbertson who alerted me to its existence, I can possibly alert you to the fact that CBP put out a new Directive on the topic of border searches of electronic devices on January 4, 2018.  You can go read the full document here.

The piece of it I want to spend just a moment or two elaborating on is the new guidance it provides in Section 5.2 “Review and Handling of Privileged or Other Sensitive Material.”

Before doing so though it makes sense to lay out for you what CBP’s prior directive on this topic indicated – which was dated August 20, 2009 and can be found here.  Section 5.2.1 of that directive provided as follows:

Officers may encounter materials that appear to be legal in nature, or an individual may assert that certain information is protected by attorney-client or attorney work product privilege.  Legal materials are not necessarily exempt from a border search, but they may be subject to the following special handling procedures:  If an Officer suspects that the content of such a material may constitute evidence of a crime or otherwise pertain to a determination within the jurisdiction of CBP, the Officer must seek advice from the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel before conducting a search of the material, and this consultation shall be noted in appropriate CBP systems of records.  CBP counsel will coordinate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as appropriate.

Now, assuming that meant what it implied, that seems to paint the guidance as being in the nature of:  if an attorney tells you that something you want to look at is a problem because it is privileged information, then you don’t proceed further with trying to look at it unless you suspect that it might be evidence of a crime or otherwise something that impacts CBP’s jurisdiction (i.e. you really think that maybe the person shouldn’t be let into the country unless you can read what that is).  And, if so, you first have to start talking with a lawyer for the CBP about whether to do so.

Now compare that to the much more extensive language on this issue in the new directive.   (Spoiler alert:  it appears to me to be more extensive but less friendly to traveling lawyers.)

5.2.1  Officers encountering information they identify as, or that is asserted to be, protected by the attorney-client privilege or attorney work product doctrine shall adhere to the following procedures.

5.2.1.1  The Officer shall seek clarification, if practicable in writing, from the individual asserting this privilege as to specific files, file types, folders, categories of files, attorney or client names, email addresses, phone numbers, or other particulars that may assist CBP in identifying privileged information.

5.2.1.2  Prior to any border search of files or other materials over which a privilege has been asserted, the Officer will contact the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel office.  In coordination with the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel office, which will coordinate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as needed, Officers will ensure the segregation of any privileged material from other information examined during a border search to ensure that any privileged material is handled appropriately while also ensuring that CBP accomplishes its critical border security mission.  This segregation process will occur through the establishment and employment of a Filter Team composed of legal and operational representatives, or through another appropriate measure with written concurrence of the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel office.

5.2.1.3  At the completion of the CBP review, unless any materials are identified that indicate an imminent threat to homeland security, copies of materials maintained by CBP and determined to be privileged will be destroyed, except for any copy maintained in coordination with the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel office solely for purposes of complying with a litigation hold or other requirement of law.

So, it does seem to me that this more extensive guidance is likely good for protecting privileged materials from improper use if actually reviewed and held and does seem to be clearer guidance about how CBP could go about, for example, reviewing some information on an electronic device but segregating items asserted to be privileged or work-product.  But it also seems to me that this guidance does not move the needle in a helpful direction for lawyers who want to attempt to protect review of their client’s information at all by asserting privilege as it both (1) imposes a more onerous process on the lawyer to do so (including the potential for demanding something in writing akin to a privilege log) and (2) appears to drop what was at least the implication of the prior directive that the assertion alone is likely enough to move the burden over to CBP to justify trying to do something further.

Which also makes me think that any attorney put in this situation is, at the very least, not going to be making any connecting flight if they seek to protect client materials from review.

Of course, neither the older directive nor this directive even mentions things that attorneys have to treat as confidential under their ethical obligations even though not privileged, which remains unfortunate.  But I am interested in hearing from anyone wanting to weigh in about whether you think I am misreading this guidance and that this directive is better for lawyers than the 2009 directive.

 

So what does 2018 hold in store for us?

It’s a new year and, of course, for many that means a time of reflection and goal-setting and much talk of how the new year will be different from the prior year.

I will spare you much of that because you can find that all over the Internet.  I am prompted to post today (in addition to just wanting to get back on the horse after the holiday break) because there has been some news today of note that tends to demonstrate that 2018 is likely going to be a lot like 2017 in terms of what matters and must be discussed.

Today, The Florida Bar and a marketplace technology company, Legal.io, announced a partnership in order to modernize The Florida Bar’s Florida Lawyer Referral Service.  You can read the announcement here.

There are a multitude of reasons why this step in Florida could matter greatly — particularly if it is successful — because other bar associations might follow suit (if such endeavors are not already in the works).  The key seems to be whether any action like this is too late to gain traction with consumers who are already turning to other, similar for-profit endeavors.  I have little doubt that lawyers will be more comfortable with such arrangements because of the safety involved with not having to worry about ethics issues of fee sharing or improper payments for referrals if they can work through bar referral programs.  Florida is an interesting place for this to happen at this moment in time as well because one might expect this development could be raised in the TIKD antitrust litigation, for example, as more fodder for arguments of claimed collusive behavior in the marketplace for legal services by the bar.

And, along those lines (but sort of flipped 180 degrees), there was another development late last year that I haven’t mentioned but that will likely be significant for lawyers in 2018.  It is this lawsuit filed on the other coast against LegalZoom and a number of state bar associations (as well as the USPTO) that seeks $60 million in antitrust damages.  You can read a nice story about this suit filed in California federal court – and what the Plaintiff in it is really trying to accomplish — here.

In short, although the suit alleges that LegalZoom is engaged in unauthorized practice and competes in a way that is unfair to lawyers, and alleges that the USPTO, the California bar, the Texas bar, and the Arizona bar are somehow turning a blind-eye to the conduct to allow it to continue, the Plaintiff, an IP lawyer and entrepreneur named Raj V. Abhyanker, admits that what he’s really looking for is a court ruling that tells him that he, and other lawyers, can use the same business model as LegalZoom without fear of ethical ramifications.

So, you know, stay tuned.

Where are we when even ABA Ethics Opinions are marketed with a “clickbait” approach?

So, as promised (and even though there have been even further developments down in Florida), today I am writing about the latest ABA Ethics Opinion and whether it might provide any solace and protection for a lawyer who is being dragged by a former client online and wanting to defend herself by responding online to try to set the “record” straight.

The ABA Ethics Opinion in question is Formal Op. 479, and the answer is “no, no it doesn’t.”

Before I elaborate on that, I really do want to vent a bit (hopefully without sounding too much like Andy Rooney because I’m only 44) about the way people rolled out the release of this ethics opinion.

The ABA Journal online gave it a headline reading: “Can news on social media be ‘generally known’?  ABA Opinion considers confidentiality exception”

This then was, of course, picked up in other places, Law360 went with “Social Media Can Create Confidentiality Exception, ABA Says.”

Then I saw some lawyers on social media (lawyers who certainly should know better since they were actually involved in the opinion itself) teasing the opinion in a similar fashion.

If you actually read the opinion, you wonder what in the world anyone was even talking about.  The term “social media” does appear in the opinion.  Once.  On p. 5, in this sentence, “Information may become widely recognized and thus generally known as a result of publicity through traditional media sources, such as newspapers, magazines, radio, or television; through publication on internet web sites; or through social media.”

That is not a groundbreaking statement of any sort.  It’s common sense.  It also is nowhere near the actual, helpful or relevant, takeaway of the opinion.

The takeaway of the opinion is clearly the following (forceful) reminder about how stark the obligation of lawyers to protect confidential information about even a former client is:

Unless information has become widely recognized by the public (for example by having achieved public notoriety), or within the former client’s industry, profession, or trade, the fact that the information may have been discussed in open court, or may be available in court records, in public libraries, or in other public repositories does not, standing alone, mean that the information is generally known for Model Rule 1.9(c)(1) purposes.  Information that is publicly available is not necessarily generally known.  Certainly, if information is publicly available but requires specialized knowledge or expertise to locate, it is not generally known within the meaning of Model Rule 1.9(c)(1).

Don’t get me wrong.  It is actually a really good ethics opinion, and it gives timely advice that lawyers need to take to heart to make sure they stay in compliance with their obligations.  It’s just a shame it was rolled out with a “click-bait and switch” message.  We’d all have been better off if it had been rolled out with the headline:  “ABA Opinion reminds lawyers that just because information about a former client has been publicized doesn’t mean it is ‘generally known.'”

And, to actually deliver on my promised topic, here’s why nothing about this opinion is going to help any lawyer who finds herself in a situation where a former client has posted something, somewhere disparaging the lawyer in a way that the lawyer thinks is unfair and she wants to respond to clear up the record by disclosing other information about the representation that puts it in context: the details that the lawyer wants to reveal to provide context won’t have been disclosed by the former client and, thus, even if the lawyer could try to claim that what the former client has said is now “generally known,” the bits he hasn’t said most certainly are not.

Thus, unless and until some exception is created in the ethics rules to allow responses to online criticism under Rule 1.6 (which I’m not necessarily advocating for), lawyers who opt to get into it with former clients (or even clients) online will need to be very careful about what they say.  Otherwise, they will find themselves in trouble – as did this South Carolina lawyer who was brought to my attention by the always wonderful Roy Simon  (Admittedly, the SC lawyer had more problems than loose lips online, but that was one of the problems all the same.)

(And, so as not to be accused of my own “bait and switch” situation, I will take a stab at juxtaposing this opinion with Opinion 478 which also came out recently.  If the treatment of the two opinions was consistent, 478 would have been rolled out by the ABA Journal with the headline:  “ABA Ethics Opinion tells judges not to go online.”

Friday follow up, follow up: Sick of TIKD yet? If so, a promise of something new for next week

I know they warn people about going to wells too often, but though the Roadshow has now wrapped up your intrepid blogger is a bit exhausted.

So this is the well where we find ourselves today … a further mention of the ongoing TIKD situation.  It is both a selfish and an altruistic offering.

The always on-point Joan Rogers over at the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct has put out a very thorough piece this week on all of the TIKD dustup in Florida and has spoken to many of the players, shed more light on that earlier state court action I wrote about, and otherwise put together a compelling narrative of the developments.  You can read that piece here.

She was also kind enough to let me weigh in and quote me as to why I happen to think this situation is a pretty meaningful one on the legal landscape.

Now, about that promise of something new, among the many insightful questions I received from lawyers during the course of my roadshow was one involving the continuing unfairness of situations where lawyers get blasted online by former clients but end up being prohibited by the ethics rules from responding to online criticism because of the obligation of client confidentiality and the lack of clear authority to say that the online venting waives both privilege and obligations of confidentiality.

This week the ABA has put out what could turn out to be a very important new ethics opinion that might provide a roadmap for some relief and fairness or might not.  I don’t want to spoil it for you now.  If you want to go study it ahead of time, you should be able to do so here.  Even if you don’t, I promise (threaten?) to write some more about it next week, and perhaps to even juxtapose that one with another recent ABA ethics opinion also issued this month and also relating to the world of online information but that looks at things from the perspective of judges rather than lawyers.

If you want to study up on that one, you can read it here.