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.

Friday follow up – TIKD off by a DQ motion and the Supremes won’t stop suspending the wrong lawyers.

In the middle of Roadshowing (short break until the next stops next week) and also still trying to handle client matters to boot, so this will be a quick post.

(If you are here next week looking for the Roadshow playlist, just keep scrolling down as it can be found in the post immediately below this one.)

The dustup between the smartphone app known as TIKD and the Florida Bar has been back in the news in the legal trades recently over a motion to disqualify TIKD’s counsel filed by the Florida Bar.

On its face, it sounds like a pretty decent disqualification motion on the merits as the Florida Bar is alleging that TIKD’s counsel who is a former Florida Bar president had access during his term in office to internal information evaluating the Florida Bar’s antitrust liability exposure given its structure in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in an antitrust suit against the board that regulates dentistry in North Carolina.  (You might recall that I wrote a bit about that in the past as well as it is that case that has revived interest in, and concerns about, antitrust issues for the regulation of the practice of law in unified bar/mandatory bar jurisdictions.)  That would seem like a slam-dunk in terms of disqualification if that person had been a former General Counsel or otherwise a lawyer for the Florida Bar, but the analysis may be a lot murkier if, as is the case generally of bar presidents, that the president of the Florida Bar is always a lawyer but isn’t necessarily acting as a lawyer for the organization during the term of office.

Oh, and speaking of the U.S. Supreme Court, I wrote a bit earlier this year (as many other people did) about the weirdness associated with the fact that the United States Supreme Court made the very unfortunate mistake of suspending the wrong attorney – confusing one lawyer named Christopher P. Sullivan for another lawyer named Christopher P. Sullivan.  At the time, I tried to make discussing the circumstances a bit more worthwhile substantively and not just anact of piling-on by citing that epic mistake by the highest court in the land as maybe the ultimate example of the need for people in our profession to be deliberate in their actions and take their time because what we do can have real consequences for us and for others.

As is of course true for literally billions of other people on the planet, the Clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court is not a dedicated reader of this space (or didn’t take heed of that message) as a new story came to light a week or so ago of pretty much the same thing happening again with the Court suspending a lawyer named Jim Robbins instead of a lawyer named James A. Robbins.  (Even more coincidentally, the Sullivan who was wrongly suspended earlier in 2017 practiced law with a firm called Robins Kaplan.)

Actually, to say that pretty much the same thing happened isn’t quite right, as the James A. Robbins that deserved to be suspended wasn’t actually a member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar at all.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court since December 2008 and even more fortunately it appears to be an admittee with a name, Brian S. Faughnan, that seems highly unlikely to be duplicated on (or off) its rolls.

I Dowd that very much.

Last week was a pretty eventful week in the area where politics and the law overlaps, and an initially bizarre turn of events that was made more bizarre by subsequent claims injected some questions of legal ethics into events on the national stage again.

What I’m talking about is all stuff you’ve likely already read about.  In short story form, it goes like this: the news of the guilty plea of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI, followed shortly thereafter by an incredibly-unwise-seeming Tweet by the current occupant of The White House that was quickly discussed by others on-line as amount to direct incriminating evidence of obstruction of justice by that current occupant, followed then by claims that the current occupant of The White House didn’t actually write that Tweet and that, instead, the Tweet was drafted by one the current occupant of The White House’s personal lawyers, John Dowd.

Now, what do I believe in my heart of hearts happened.  That’s easy.  I’m a staunch believer in Occam’s Razor, so I believe that the same old man who has consistently, inappropriately used his Twitter account to say stupid things, spew vitriol, and retweet white supremacists and Islamiphobes tweeted something without thinking it through, and did so either without consulting with his counsel or simply with disregard for legal advice he was given about Tweeting about such things.  After that, I believe that one of his lawyers, fully recognizing just how problematic the contents of the Tweet were for his client, has decided to try to reduce the impact of the client’s admission by claiming that he was actually the author because that has, in turn, allowed him to claim to have been mistaken about what his client knew at various points in time.

I’m not writing this to claim to be the end-all-be-all on this line of reasoning actualy, but to address two things that I have seen others write about this situation that have bugged me.  Those sentiments are: (1) that it couldn’t have been written by the lawyer, Dowd, because the lawyer wouldn’t incorrectly say “pled” instead of “pleaded,” and (2) that if Dowd is lying about having been the one who wrote the Tweet then he ought to be disbarred.

I think both of those sentiments amount to hogwash.

As to the first one, I’m a lawyer – and I like to think I’m a fairly decent one – and I prefer to use “pled.”  I’ve seen people point to the AP Stylebook on “pleaded” versus “pled,” and I’m also well aware that Bryan Garner insists that “pleaded” is the proper usage.  Nevertheless, I fall into the camp of lawyers like the King & Spalding lawyer quoted back in this ABA Journal piece on its usage, who believe it is the better term to use to indicate the past tense verb form, and would certainly use it even in real-life writing.  It is not unfathomable that Dowd might fall into that camp as well.  Further, it is damn sure the better term to use on Twitter where character limits matter greatly.

As to the second one, there would definitely be an ethics violation or two (or three) for which Dowd could be charged with violating if he is lying about being the author of the Tweet in question in order to protect his client.  Nevertheless, to jump to the notion that the appropriate discipline for that would be disbarment is a bit silly.

A lawyer who would lie about the authorship of a client’s Tweet that could otherwise be an admission of a crime would run afoul of a couple of obvious rules, such as RPC 8.4(c) and RPC 4.1(a).  The ABA version of those rules respectively provide as follows:

Rule 8.4:  Misconduct

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

(c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

Rule 4.1: Truthfulness in Statements to Others

In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall not knowingly:

(a) make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person.

The lawyer could also be subject to a charge of violationg RPC 7.1 which people often forget does not only apply to advertisements.  The ABA version of that rule provides:

Rule 7.1: Communications Concerning A Lawyer’s Services

A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.

In this sort of context, an interesting question could be raised about whether the lawyer would also have violated RPC 3.4(a).  The ABA version of that rule provides:

Rule 3.4: Fairness to Opposing Part and Counsel

A lawyer shall not:

(a) unlawfully . . . alter . . . a document or other material having potential evidentiary value.

But, the idea that such an offense or offenses by Dowd would be punishable by disbarment is a bit silly.  A quick review online of publicly-available information shows that Dowd has never previously been the subject of any public discipline.  He’s been practicing for 50 years without even receiving a public censure.  Unless he managed to hire a lawyer to represent him who has been as sloppy as the lawyers folks associated with the current administration have hired to defend them, then I can’t imagine that outcome coming about if any disciplinary case were ever brought against him.

And, on that subject, given Dowd’s other missteps along the way in this high-profile setting, it weirdly is a bit more difficult to rule out the possibility that he actually was the one who exercised the poor judgment of creating the content of, and presumably even sending, that Tweet for his client.

Something TIKD this way comes.

So, about a week ago, the Florida Bar and The Ticket Clinic (a Florida law firm that somehow can manage to keep the lights on by specializing in representing people regarding traffic tickets) were sued in federal district court by something called TIKD.  TIKD is, at heart, an app for your smart phone.

The lawsuit alleges that the bar and the law firm have combined to damage TIKD in its business endeavors in violation of antitrust law and other unfair competition law.  Others have already written a bit about this development, but I still cannot resist chiming in because, though the litigation will likely end up amounting to nothing truly impactful, the underlying substance (or lack thereof) of the area of law being battled over with potentially such high stakes for the profession could easily be made into the stuff of a dark fantasy novel.

While others have written about this new federal court lawsuit where TIKD is the plaintiff, and there is some decent media coverage of it at The Washington Post and in some Florida news outlets, I want to just flag for your attention the existence of another lawsuit in Florida involving TIKD, but that was brought against TIKD seven months earlier in state court by one of the defendants in the TIKD suit, The Ticket Clinic.

You can read that full lawsuit at this link.  The gist of it though is also one for unfair competition.  The law firm, Gold & Associates d/b/a as The Ticket Clinic sued TIKD and its two owners claiming TIKD engages in false and deceptive advertising and is itself engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.  You can judge for yourself, but those particular claims to me seem dubious at best.  TIKD seems to do exactly what it advertises it will do and hires lawyers rather than tries to practice law.  But in the midst of those questionable claims, the suit still finds the nub of a true problem: unfair competition for lawyers trying to compete with (rather than work with) TIKD.

While it is the suit TIKD has filed pursuing the Florida Bar and The Ticket Clinic for antitrust violations that is currently getting all the media attention — folks who want to be “disruptors” in the legal industry are certainly using it as an opportunity to attack the entire concept of the regulation of the practice of law — the lawsuit filed by The Ticket Clinic as plaintiff forces a reader to think about the flip side of that problem by pointing out that what TIKD is doing to market its service, and convince people to use it, is making guarantees and promises that lawyers are prohibited from making under the ethics rules.

Specifically, paragraph 12 of the complaint points out a number of aspects of the TIKD business model that allow for unfair competition, which includes TIKD:

b) making guarantees to pay financial penalties imposed by courts and/or the “full cost of their ticket”;

[snip]

g) promising to “cover the full cost of your ticket no matter the price – even if the cost is higher than what you paid us;”

Paragraph 28 of the complaint further drives the point home:

In promising to pay a fine if they lose at no additional cost, TIKD, RILEY and BERTHOLD make a promise that a lawyer or law firm cannot possibly make, and they essentially “rob Peter (those persons whose cases are dismissed with no fine or court cost after
paying TIKD 75-80% of the fine stated in the citation) to pay Paul (those persons who are directed to pay the fine in full or greater, with costs)” which is a “house of cards” that will eventually fall, leaving clients with no remedy.

The story in The Washington Post also helpfully reinforces that these are important aspects of what makes TIKD a desirable service for which to pay:

TIKD, which launched in February, works this way in Florida: A driver who gets a traffic ticket can contact the company on a cellphone and be offered a one-time charge below the amount of the ticket. TIKD connects the driver with an independent attorney for no additional costs or fees, and the attorney handles the case without the driver having to appear in court.

If the ticket is not dismissed, TIKD pays any fines, and if the driver gets points on his or her license, TIKD will fully refund the one-time charge.

It is undeniably correct that the ethics rules would never let a lawyer make the same arrangements with a client.  It also seems pretty clear that without the ability to make those financial guarantees the app would lose pretty much all of its luster.  Thus, regardless of what you may think about the merits of any claim that The Florida Bar and The Ticket Clinic are engaged in some coordinated effort to hurt TIKD, it appears undeniably correct that there is a fundamentally unfair competitive advantage to being able to make the kind of financial guarantees that the app is making and which any lawyer would have to risk their license to match.

A reckoning in the legal industry is going to have to take place at some point relatively soon, but part of that reckoning absolutely has to be a level playing field in the area of providing legal services.  Either the same rules and restrictions will have to apply to all those operating in the space or those rules ought to apply to no one operating in the space.

The notion that the reckoning could be ushered along more quickly because of a fight over an area of legal representation that most firms have first-year associates handle for free as a perk for clients (i.e. getting speeding tickets dismissed) and involves a firm run by a lawyer who has been embroiled in litigation over a nearly $20,000 tab at a strip club and whose firm is being investigated for taking money to falsify traffic school certificates is just absurd enough to fit in with the rest of the fundamental absurdity that plagues 2017.

An open letter to Avvo

Dear Mark or Josh or Dan (or others at Avvo):

I am a lawyer of little relative influence but I know you are likely familiar with me because I have, time and time again here on my small platform written about the travails your business model is enduring as state after state issues ethics opinions warning lawyers who do business with you that they are acting unethically.  (And Josh has been kind enough to post comments here from time to time as well.)

It, of course, has happened again with the latest Virginia ethics opinion that has just been put out.  I won’t belabor anyone reading this with the breakdown of that opinion other than to say that it hits on many of the same problems that have been hit on by other states over the last couple of years (and a couple that come up less frequently as well).  I also know that you were actively engaged in trying to convince the powers-that-be in Virginia to not issue that opinion.  I’ve even read Dan’s oral remarks published online.

I also won’t do as I normally do and break down the analysis offered in this latest ethics opinion other than to say that this one – yet again – is correct in its interpretation and application of Virginia’s rules.  (At least it is correct as to the big, universally applicable rules impacting your current business model related to fee-sharing, payments for referrals, and the like.)  Of course it is.  These opinions keep coming out because the existing rules are pretty clear about the problems and why lawyers are prohibited from participating.

I’m also writing this as an open letter to urge Avvo – if it really is interested at heart in doing the things for the profession and consumers that it says it is interested in doing – to change its focus from trying to fight the issuance of ethics opinions in states or to then engage in criticism of those opinions as somehow incorrect or “part of the problem.”  Instead, your time and money should be shifted — if those are your real goals — to pursuing efforts to have the rules that currently prohibit lawyers from being involved with your business model changed.

You are fighting a losing battle in trying to change the outcomes of ethics opinions.  You could, however, be fighting a winning battle if you made active efforts to file petitions with the appropriate bodies in various states to propose revisions to the ethics rules that would permit participation with your service and other companies doing similar things.

For example, just about anyone who wants to in my state could file a Petition with the Tennessee Supreme Court and propose changes to the ethics rules which here are housed in Supreme Court Rule 8.  There are pretty similar processes in many jurisdictions.  (I would have thought y’all might have worked this notion out by now given how differently you’ve watched things appear to go in North Carolina where you’ve been participating in efforts to change the rules rather than efforts to try to get someone to issue an opinion that would pretend the rules don’ say what they say.)

I can’t guarantee how successful you would be in obtaining satisfactory rule revisions in jurisdictions but I’d bet a shiny quarter or two that your batting average will be greatly improved upon how you are doing in terms of favorable ethics opinions versus unfavorable ethics opinions.

I reckon that this open letter will likely have the same effect of most open letters written by human beings, but . . . at least I’ll still feel better for having said it.

About last week… (and some actual content too)

So, I didn’t manage to post last week and this is something of an apology to those of you loyal readers who kept coming to the site last week each day looking for content.  (Rest assured, there’s also some substantive discussion of a live ethics issue in the post as well.)

I don’t have any real great excuse as there is always work, sometimes travel, and other commitments to overcome to keep this blog going, but the only new piece of the puzzle last week that played a role in my failure to come through was my 44th birthday last Tuesday.

It was a weird one as thinking about it caught me up and resulted in more melancholy than joy.  Thinking about it statistically, 44 signaled that was likely through 2/3 of my life and only had 1/3 to go.  In that context, and I’m certain likely many others in the legal profession, I kept ruminating on my belief that I haven’t been as successful professionally as I would have hoped I’d be at this stage of my life.  I know this sounds like one of those Facebook posts from people pursuing an indirect “woe is me” cry for attention but it isn’t meant that way at all, just an explanation for last week’s radio silence.

Speaking of Facebook, Florida continues to dedicate far too may judicial resources to the resolution of a question that — if you set technology aside ought to be easily answerable — can judges and lawyers be “friends” on Facebook.

Karen Rubin over at The Law For Lawyers Today provided a good run down last week of the history of the Florida case, so I won’t retread that ground and instead am going to take the opportunity to repeat (though I don’t believe I’ve ever stated them here on my blog) my views on the absurdity of the underlying “debate” about the issue.

Judges are human beings.  Human beings, even awful ones, are still going to manage to have a few friends.  The judicial ethics rules do not prohibit judges from having friends who are lawyers.  Thus, there is no rational way the judicial ethics rules can be said to prohibit judges from being friends with lawyers on Facebook.  The judicial ethics rules do contemplate that a friendship between a judge and a lawyer can, if close enough, result in a judge needing to recuse herself from a case involving the lawyer.  Thus, whether a judge and a lawyer are friends on Facebook should simply be one factor in evaluating whether the nature of the friendship is close enough that the judge needs to recuse.  Actual real-world interactions between the lawyer and the judge though should be a more important factor.  The analysis of this issue in any jurisdiction, including Florida, should be as simple as that.

In fact, I believe that judges using Facebook and being friends with lawyers actually does the public a service because it provides litigants and their counsel with a level of transparency they might not otherwise obtain to evaluate whether a judge has a real-world friendship with a lawyer that merits the bringing of a motion to disqualify the judge.  On Facebook, even if a judge has all of her privacy settings as locked down as possible, you can still view a list of the judge’s friends.  Armed with that information, a litigant or a lawyer can then raise the issue and may come to learn of a true, deep friendship between lawyer and judge that might not have otherwise been discovered.

An ethics opinion from the Coinhusker state

Answering the question that was undoubtedly on the minds of every lawyer practicing in that state, the Lawyer’s Advisory Committee of the Nebraska Supreme Court issued Ethics Advisory Opinion for Lawyers No. 17-03 making clear that, yes, lawyers can accept payment from clients in the form of Bitcoin or other similar digital currencies.

I don’t exactly know what to make of this opinion.  I’m not normally a list maker, but here’s a quick pros and cons lists to label my feelings.

Pros:

  1.  It offers a pretty good explanation of what Bitcoin is and how it works.
  2. If you are a Nebraska lawyer interested in the answer to the question it definitely gives you a definitive answer.
  3. It is well written.
  4. It demonstrates how adaptable ethics rules for lawyers are that they don’t have to be changed simply because new technology arises that didn’t exist when the rule was first created.  (But see con #3.)

Cons:

  1.  I don’t know who this opinion is really for in terms of usefulness.
  2. Nebraska? Surely that wasn’t the state with a pressing need to be the first to issue an opinion on this topic.
  3. It incorrectly treats using property to pay an attorney fee differently than when the property involved isn’t Bitcoin.
  4. It entirely overlooks the most important aspect of lack of confidentiality in terms of impact on such a payment arrangement.

Since expanding on the “cons” is always a bit more fun as a writer, let me do that.

Who is the opinion for?  Why would any lawyer today be willing to accept Bitcoin as a form of payment?  Most answers to that question that I can come up with require the lawyer to be something of a believer in its use as a financial system.  If the lawyer in question happens to practice in Nebraska, that seems a pretty solid bet.  If that is true, then to some extent the opinion gives with one hand but takes away with the other by saying that a lawyer can accept payment in Bitcoin but then has to immediately convert the payment back into dollars.  If a lawyer is willing to put his or her faith into the Bitcoin currency system (and obviously the client must already have faith in that system), then why require them to immediately convert that client’s payment to dollars?

The answer to that – according to the opinion — is that Bitcoin is classified as property under the law and not as a currency and has the potential for rapid fluctuation in value.  But… shifting to the third con on the list… why should accepting this kind of property with fluctuating value as payment for services be treated so differently than other forms of property?

While we likely wouldn’t need a regulatory body to issue an ethics opinion on whether lawyers can accept payment in the form of gold or silver (of course they can), would we be comfortable with such an opinion declaring the lawyer has to immediately sell that property to turn it into cash?  If gold and silver seem too unwieldy for the thought exercise, then how about shares of stock or stock options.  (Let’s assume those would be otherwise done in compliance with restrictions such as Model Rule 1.8(a) and (i).)  Stocks can certainly fluctuate significantly in value and always have the potential to do so very rapidly.

Would you agree with an opinion that says a lawyer would have to immediately trade shares of stock for dollars because of the risk of rapid increase in value or decrease in value?  Why can’t two or more grown-ups negotiate an agreement for compensation in the form of property with a fluctuating value just because one or more of them is an attorney?  Why wouldn’t the lawyer taking on the risk of decrease in value play a role in evaluating reasonableness of the fee?

And, finally, the opinion talks a bit about confidentiality issues involved in payment via Bitcoin from a third party rather than the client, but completely overlooks the fundamental risk to client confidentiality created by accepting payment in Bitcoin from a client.  Such a transaction — necessarily because of the very architecture upon which Bitcoin is founded as the opinion does explain — is an open transaction for which confidentiality cannot be reasonably expected much less guaranteed.

Somehow the opinion  doesn’t manage to advise lawyers to make sure the client understands that – unlike cash or checks or wire transfers or even credit card payments — the fact of the client’s payment of money to a particular lawyer and all of the implications that payment entails is available to anyone sophisticated enough to understand how to delve into the Bitcoin ledger system.

So, in the end, sure the opinion says that a lawyer can accept payment in Bitcoin, but under this framework why would anyone ever do so?