It’s always easy to get distracted by the cat.

So, if you’re involved in the legal profession, one thing was guaranteed to make it into your email inbox or social media feed or both. And, no, it wasn’t even the atrocious lawyering that was on display in the defense in Washington, D.C. of a former social media influencer. It was undoubtedly the 34 second video from a Zoom hearing of a lawyer who was stuck using a cat filter and didn’t know how to disable it.

I am extremely confident that you’ve seen the video. I probably watched it at least 5 times yesterday and laughed pretty raucously each time. Everything about it is pretty seriously funny. Except for one part. That’s the part that I think needs to be discussed seriously and, so far, hasn’t been.

Now I’m not going to weigh in on the “tech competence for lawyers and ethics” piece, others have already rapidly covered that ground. You can read three of the better quick pieces here, here, and here.

No, I want to focus on a slightly larger issue for lawyering and a much larger issue for the public at large.

While all the humor was occurring in the bottom right square of the video, the upper left square had text of warning. (Now, admittedly, the warning may have been disregarded in order for all of us to have seen the video, but it was still there and presumably appears ubiquitously in proceedings in that particular court.)

The language of warning read:

394th Judicial District Court

Recording of this hearing or live stream is prohibited.

Violation may constitute contempt of court and result in a fine of up to $500 and a jail term of up to 180 days.

Excuse me?

Earlier in my career, along with normal litigation and legal ethics work, I represented a few media entities from time-to-time including work on access to courts issues so I can still remember many of the better quotations by heart, including this one:

What transpires in the courtroom is public property.

Now I remember the quote off the top of the dome, but have to look it up to be able to tell you the name of the U.S. Supreme Court case it comes from, which is Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980) and, actually, is quoting an even older U.S. Supreme Court case, Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367 (1947).

The pandemic has sown much chaos and disruption into our judicial system. This has been particularly difficult for people facing criminal charges as many have had to languish in prison for inability to take their case to trial in states where in-person judicial proceedings have continued to be prohibited because of the risk of transmission of the virus.

The ability to allow the business of the courts to continue through remote virtual proceedings has been a positive, but the cavalier nature in which courts are disregarding the issues associated with finding ways for the public to still have access to proceedings is not at all a positive for our system of justice.

While the restrictions on physical access to court proceedings where such in-person proceedings still take place can be justified on emergency grounds of being necessary for the protection of the actual, physical health of the public, presumptive restrictions on members of the public being able to monitor and watch judicial proceedings that are able to happen online are very unlikely to be justifiable as necessary at all. Such restrictions also are harmful to the health of our judicial system.

As another of the most important cases serving as the foundations of public access to judicial proceedings fleshes out, allowing for people to see and scrutinize trials and court proceedings “enhances the quality and safeguards the integrity of the fact finding process” and “fosters an appearance of fairness, thereby heightening public respect for the judicial process.” Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court, 457 U.S. 596, 606 (1982).

The fact that our profession, 11 months into a pandemic, is being pretty blithe about the idea that the contents of public court hearings in February 2021 come with a broadcast threat that you could go to jail for recording them or sharing the contents of a live stream of them is not at all a good look for attorneys, judges, and the system.

The ethics rules in most jurisdictions (patterned after ABA Model Rule 6.4) make clear that lawyers are allowed to participate in judicial and legal reform efforts even if doing so might get you crosswise with the interests of clients you represent, I’d like to encourage lawyers out there to be more willing to do so to make certain that the increasing trend toward making what happens in court proceedings essentially private comes to an end.

Pennsylvania wins the race to be first with COVID-19 ethics guidance.

I’ve lived in Memphis since 5th grade at this point, but I was actually born in Pennsylvania. I’ll heed all the guidance making the rounds of social media about not sharing information that might be a security question somewhere and won’t tell you what city.

But a part of my heart will always be in Pennsylvania since part of me really grew up there. It’s also the reason why my sporting allegiances beyond the Memphis Grizzlies and Chelsea Football Club all involve Pittsburgh teams.

So, I feel somewhat proud that the Pennsylvania State Bar seems to be the first bar to put out a truly comprehensive ethics opinion attempting to give guidance to lawyers and law firms about their ongoing ethical duties during the pandemic and in dealing with the “new normal” of working remotely from home.

While typically Pennsylvania ethics opinions have been hard to get access to some times because they have historically restricted them, Bob Ambrogi seems to have gotten his hands on the full opinion in digital format, so I’m linking to it as his site here.

It is quite good and really quite thorough (and you probably have some time on your hands), so I’d encourage you to read the whole thing. It addresses a number of rules, including Pennsylvania’s version of the ethics rules on competence and supervising non-lawyer assistants.

I only want to highlight two things that it specifically addresses and one thing that it, unfortunately, does not say at all.

First, I think this is the first ethics opinion from any lawyer regulatory body that comes out so clearly to call out what happens with smart speakers and other “always on” listening devices. It links to a vox.com article to allege that Amazon’s Alexa device and the Google Home speaker actually do have people reviewing the recordings of what those devices pick up and encourages lawyers (and people who work for lawyers and law firms) to not have client conversations in rooms where those always listening devices are located. I cannot remember for certain and have run out of the mental bandwidth today to go searching but I think I’ve written before about how the epiphany is obvious once you have it that the only way such devices can recognize when you call out their name for assistance is that they have to be “listening” before their name is uttered, but your view of such items profoundly changes once you have the epiphany. For what it is worth, I’ve been doggedly adhering to this by trying to have all of my calls take place in one of two places in my house (and on my second-floor balcony) where such devices are not located. And, yet, there’s still my iPhone and Siri which presumably also is a vigilant digital assistant just waiting for me to say her name.

Second, I feel a little personally attacked by the guidance that is stressed about only going to websites that are “secure” in that they have the https: designation. You might notice that this blog is not such a site but also I don’t ask you for any information or try to sell you any products here, so please keep coming around.

And, finally, the one thing that the opinion does not say that I really wish it would have done is this: Pennsylvania’s rules, like Tennessee’s and most others, contain language in the Preamble/Scope to stress that the ethics rules are rules of reason and should be construed as such.

All of the guidance in the opinion is very good and particularly offers a very good clearinghouse of things that lawyers should be trying to do, if at all possible. At the same time though, given how difficult all of this is we should not be sending messages to the profession that we are going to make perfect the enemy of the good.

During these difficult times, my hope will be that mistakes that lawyers may make with respect to the confidentiality and safeguarding of information will be treated as fodder for disciplinary proceedings only in instances of truly reckless or grossly negligent conduct and not mere negligence caused from trying to accomplish what client’s need to get accomplished in circumstances of a prolonged emergency.

That, to me, is a highly practical but entirely timely application of what the rules mean when they say they are rules of reason. Along those lines, while not guidance from a state bar or regulatory entity itself, I also commend for your reading a piece put out by the Holland & Knight law firm that ultimately grabs the spirit of that aspect of the ethics rules to analyze some guidance that can be found in the Restatement of the Law Governing Lawyers.

Lawyers continue to struggle with tackling online negative reviews.

Today’s topic come up again for two different reasons. First, because the North Carolina State Bar has put out a new proposed ethics opinion seeking public comment about the topic. Second, because it was also discussed at one of the presentations made at the APRL mid-year meeting a week or so ago.

As the title of the post indicates, the topic is the ethical constraints on lawyers when faced with trying to respond to an online negative review posted by a client where they feel hard done and feel like, if allowed, they could demonstrate that the client’s negative allegations are unfair.

Proposed 2020 Formal Ethics Opinion 1 in North Carolina reaches roughly the same conclusion as the other ethics opinions issued on this topic: tread carefully because none of the confidentiality exceptions offered by RPC 1.6(b) are satisfied merely by the posting of an online review. Attempting to offer some practical advice, the proposed opinion says that the attorney can “post a proportional and restrained response that does not reveal any confidential information.” Given the broad scope of confidentiality under the ethics rules, this outcome offers little room for lawyers to offer much of a response. Perhaps recognizing that a bit, the opinion tries to find ways to authorize a lawyer to contest the negative review with denials while walking a fine line of not disclosing actual information by referencing some “generic” or limited denials that other ethics committees have proffered.

It’s a fine proposed ethics opinion in so far as it goes. (It’s also a good round-up of the opinions issued to date on this issue by other groups.) But it fails to fully wrestle with one ethical question it acknowledges is relevant and fails to address at all at least one interesting ethical question that ought to be the most relevant one of all.

It does address, in part, the meaning of certain language in Comment [11] to RPC 1.6 about a lawyer not being required to “await the commencement” of an action or proceeding to rely upon the self-defense exception. But it only focuses on it in one direction. Looking only to whether the disenchanted (or disingenuous if you believe the lawyer targeted) client is likely to pursue a proceeding, the opinion brushes aside that language as any justification for a lawyer on the basis that the client’s willingness to post a negative review does not alone demonstrate that the client is contemplating pursuing any formal proceeding against the lawyer.

But the opinion does not spend any time talking about the flipside, which was actually raised by an audience member at the APRL mid-year meeting I referenced above: What if the lawyer is the one contemplating pursuing a proceeding?

For example, some lawyers — lawyers who rely very heavily for work on their online presence and can be very badly damaged by a false review — may view the inability to respond to an online negative review as meaning that actually filing a suit for defamation against the client/former client is their only viable option. If they actually filed the suit, they’d be able to disclose information about the representation to make the case. So the logic goes, could they not begin to exercise that right of self-defense before they have commenced that proceeding?

Under that line of thinking, couldn’t they respond to the online review to contest the allegations, and indicate to the client that they will file suit for defamation if the client doesn’t retract the statements? I don’t think that works primarily because any such communication to the client about the review making that kind of demand before filing suit would have no need to occur publicly. In fact, it would seem reasonable to read the language in the Comment to RPC 1.6 exhorting lawyers to take certain steps, including seeking protective orders or filing matters under seal, even when pursuing litigation so as to keep reasonable disclosures of client information from unnecessary public dissemination as fundamentally contrary to such a course of public action prior to commencing such a suit.

The relevant ethical question that the opinion does not address at all is what a lawyer can do with respect to crafting a path for being able to respond through RPC 1.6(a) rather than RPC 1.6(b). As a practical matter, having written frequently about The Streisand Effect here in the past, I still believe that most of the time the best course for a lawyer is not to do anything to risk amplifying the megaphone the client has already obtained. Usually, engaging in a public skirmish with the person is only going to result in more people learning about the criticism, but I recognize that there are some lawyers who simply cannot afford the damage that can be caused to their business pipeline from negative online reviews.

For those lawyers, I think the only ethical path to get beyond offering platitudes and perfunctory denials would be to secure a client’s agreement, in advance, as part of an engagement contract that the lawyer may respond to any future online negative review that the client chooses to make.

Given that RPC 1.6(a) clearly allows lawyers to disclose information about their representation of a client if they have the client’s informed consent to do so. It seems to me that if the issue is described sufficiently on the front end, and the client agrees in advance that the price of going online to complain is that the lawyer can use information about the representation to respond to the complaint, then the requirement of informed consent can be satisfied. While it could feel very much like a truly awful first foot to put forward with a client by raising the issue, if the lawyer’s practice is such that the issue is that important, there also is a benefit to being up front with the person about it at the time that they are prospective client.

But maybe you all can tell me if I’m missing something in that respect?

WhatsApp at Atrium? A lot, but also WhatsApp with you?

Now, I’m certain the 5 or 6 of you still left who haven’t been alienated by the long hiatus are a bit miffed about the lack of content over the last couple of weeks.

Fair, but technically there has been new content posted to the blog first on January 10 and then on January 12, just not by me. Two interesting comments on this post of mine about Atrium Law were left by someone who — other news sources tell me – may well have been one of the lawyers laid off by Atrium in the past few weeks.

Now I’m not really in the breaking of legal news business as much as the commenting on breaking legal news business so the fact that I life and work conspired to cause me to miss the opportunity to be among the first to speak on that development is not so bad. My delay allows me to instead point you to a number of good pieces that have been written about the goings on over at Atrium. Try here, here, and here.

For today, I want to try getting slightly out in front of a different issue that needs to be relevant to lawyers struggling with finding the right balance for how to engage in electronic communications with clients on various platforms. While “scary” is an overused term in a world as unstable as ours and where wealth is unevenly distributed and people all over the world truly live in scary conditions, concerns associated with the security of communications platforms can at least be “scary” at the “world of lawyering” level.

With WhatsApp being a pretty prominent texting platform, particularly for international organizations, the news of one or possibly two very prominent apparent hacks through use of that platform should make lawyers very cautious about using it to communicate with clients. The one that seems more concrete is the news regarding Amazon’s CEO having been hacked by a Saudi Arabian royal through the sending of a link through WhatsApp. You can read a good article about that trending story here. That article also helpfully reminds users of the fact that a similar-sounding vulnerability was acknowledged and patched by the app in November 2019.

The more speculative story making the rounds ties together these stories about potentially improper use of personal devices and apps to pursue official White House business and the known friendship Jared Kushner and the particular Saudi Arabian royal involved in the alleged Jeff Bezos hack.

Now, others have written long ago about reasons to be concerned about whether this particular app can be used ethically at all given other issues that are known risks, like this article that was in Above the Law more almost a year ago.

Prominent news stories such as these raise the specter of concern over less obvious risks of use. Such risks tied in with the fact that almost every state now has adopted some version of the “ethical duty of technical competence” concept through embrace of language in paragraph [8] of the Comment to ABA Model Rule 1.1 just adds more fodder for lawyers to be wary of the risks associated with third-party platforms when communicating with clients and to be deliberate about deciding whether to address such concerns in advance through language in engagement agreements.

The perils of letting your clients speak for themselves.

I’ve been known in the past when writing or speaking about Model Rule 4.2 and the restrictions it imposes to make the point that our ethics rule treats grown up adults as incapable of making decisions for themselves. Mostly jokingly I make that point. When elaborating it is merely to focus on the idea that in order to protect clients from overreaching by adverse counsel the rule does not allow the client to make the decision it wishes to communicate with the lawyer for their adversary. The consent to allow such a communication to occur has to come from the lawyer for that person.

But, what can happen when a represented client decides to freelance and talk about their legal issues without the input of their counsel? Well, as luck would have it during this extremely historic week in the United States, we have an example that can be taught and learned from.

An example where the client made a public communication that could be described by those who read it as “incoherent,” “utterly frivolous,” “chock-full of impenetrable arguments and unsupported assertions,” “organized in ways that escape our understanding,” and that “capitalizes words seemingly at random.”

You probably know exactly what I am referring to.

What? No, I didn’t see that the third President in U.S. history to ever be impeached sent a letter out earlier this week that his lawyers didn’t bless. I’ll have to check that out.

No, I’m referring to a brief that was filed in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals by a represented party but that wasn’t actually authored or approved by the lawyer for the party.

The ABA Journal has a story about it here. You can give the two opinions of the Court of Appeals that resulted a read if you’d like here and here.

Though as both the article and the opinion stress in their own ways, the true problem for the lawyer involved in this situation, and the reason for sanctioning, was the decision to let the client’s filing appear as if it had been the work-product of the lawyer and not a pro se filing by the client. The Seventh Circuit was particularly chapped when it first ruled at the notion that an attorney was responsible for a “monstrosity of an appellate brief.”

The patently frivolous nature of this appeal isn’t the only thing that troubles us. The hopelessness of McCurry’s cause didn’t deter her lawyer, Jordan Hoffman, from signing and submitting a bizarre appellate brief laden with assertions that have no basis in the record and arguments that have no basis in the law.

That, in and of itself, is a rare variation on a topic much-discussed, and likely much more common, when a lawyer offers behind-the-scenes assistance to a client but then has the client make the filing pro se and without disclosing that a lawyer’s assistance was provided. That is a set of circumstances that can also bring about ire from a court but for entirely different reasons.

As a reminder to my Tennessee-based readers, we have a Formal Ethics Opinion addressing that particular ghostwriting issue, which you can refresh your memory about at this link.

Really good guidance, but not good enough for some.

While I’m catching up on things I should have managed to write about sooner, ABA Formal Ethics Op. 488 is deserving of a few words. That opinion was issued back in early September of this year. What particularly brought it to mind now was that it covers one of multiple topics I was lucky enough to get to talk about last weekend at that PilotLegis member meeting I mentioned in a post last week.

Opinion 488 is a very well written opinion covering the landscape of what the consequences for judges should be in situations where they have some sort of relationship with lawyers or parties appearing before them. The opinion addresses this question with an eye toward what folks online refer to as IRL situations.

It divides the world for judges into three categories of relationships: (1) acquaintances; (2) friendships; and (3) close personal relationships. Having done so, it proceeds on a pretty straightforward basis to explain that if a judge and a lawyer, or a judge and a litigant, are just acquaintances, then the judge has no obligation to even make disclosure of that fact and certainly no obligation to decide to recuse themselves because they are disqualified from presiding. The opinion offers a fairly succinct proffered definition of what it means by the term “acquaintances” — “A judge and lawyer should be considered acquaintances when their interactions outside of court are coincidental or relatively superficial, such as being members of the same place of worship, professional or civic organization, or the like.” The opinion also makes clear that a judge and a litigant should be considered acquaintances under the same kinds of circumstances as judges and lawyers. As to the third category, “close personal relationships” the opinion explains that those require disqualification outright only if the relationship is a romantic one or what I’m going to call “unilaterally, aspirationally romantic.” Where the judge wants to have a romantic relationship with the person. As for the rest of the world of friendships and other close personal but non-amorous relationships, the opinion candidly admits that they are all pretty much fact specific as to whether disqualification is required or merely a disclosure on the record is what is required accompanied by an explanation of the grounds for why the judge believes they can still preside is appropriate instead.

I can manage to have some real fun criticizing ethics opinions from time-to-time so I can’t really begrudge others when they do. But this is one that I think gets things correct.

Two other prominent legal ethics experts, Karen Rubin and Alberto Bernabe, criticized this opinion in slightly different ways. Karen expresses disappointment that is does not do enough to provide what she called “needed” guidance about the impact of judges’ use of social media and connections with lawyers and litigants on questions of disqualification. Professor Bernabe mentioned that omission but was a bit more critical of the nature of the opinion as being an “it depends” and is largely “up to the judge” in the first instance.

I disagree on Professor Bernabe’s point because I think that is the very nature of the beast. And, I appreciate the opinion being candid about the exercise. I disagree with Karen Rubin for what might be two reasons, but might really just be one overall reason.

First, treating social media as something so important or different as to be deserving of its own space and separate treatment (I think) misses the larger point. A social media connection simply is just one piece of the overall puzzle of determining whether or not the judge and the person have an actual relationship that is a friendship or something less. Second, the opinion does address the topic – and does so in a way that is entirely consistent with my first point. It does this in footnote 11:

Social media, which is simply a form of communication, uses terminology that is distinct from that used in this opinion. Interaction on social media does not itself indicate the type of relationships participants have with one another either generally or for purposes of this opinion. For example, Facebook uses the term “friend,” but that is simply a title employed in that context. A judge could have Facebook “friends” or other social media contacts who are acquaintances, friends, or in some sort of close personal relationship with the judge. The proper characterization of a person’s relationship with a judge depends on the definitions and examples used in this opinion.

By simply acknowledging that it matters, but that it is no more dispositive of the relevant question than any other piece of the puzzle, I think that Opinion 488 handles it exactly the correct way. Stated another way, given the widely varying state opinions that Karen addressed in her much more timely post about this, I think the guidance needed from the ABA on the social media front was pretty much exactly what was in the footnote and nothing more. If that guidance is heeded, then perhaps state entities can start to “chill out” a bit about the trees and focus on the forest.

Rule revision roundup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens when it Gaetz worse?

So, I’m doing everything I can to only write about this stuff occasionally, but the latest stunt in connection with the ongoing investigations into the current administration requires at least some discussion – not just because of the brazen hypocrisy (after all the ethics rules do not prohibit lawyers from being hypocrites) but because the incident raises a fascinating question (at least for me) about the application of RPC 8.4(d).

Ok, before I go further assuming you know what I’m talking about, I’m talking about Congressman Matthew Gaetz, a Florida Republican, who appears to be the closest thing to the Jonah Ryan character from Veep that we have in the Trump cinematic universe version of that show.  Gaetz, who is a Florida lawyer, led a group of 40 Republican congressmen in unauthorizedly barging their way into the SCIF.  (Technically, 13 of them sit on committees that are entitled to be in there so, unless they were among the ones with phones, their involvement wasn’t unauthorized just outlandish.)

Now, if you are unfamiliar with the rules of Congress regarding the use of a SCIF or even what that stands for, you can go read this excellent article on the topic here.  Now as the news has come out, in addition to the fact that the only thing missing from the event to fully underscore the Olympic-level hypocrisy would have been for Gaetz to scream “Benghazi” as they pushed their way in, there are now indications that the activity may have been coordinated with the POTUS and, ultimately, it resulted in the Sergeant-at-Arms coming and declaring that the members were in violation of the rules of the legislative body.

While it is clear that this conduct, spearheaded by Gaetz, was in violation of the House’s own rules on such things, it is less clear to me about whether it involved an actual violation of the law.  On its face though, one thing that seems absolutely clear to me:  given that this was aimed at obstructing impeachment investigation proceedings, something that is a power given solely to the House, is there any argument that it is not conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice for purpose of Rule 8.4(d)?

I mean, there are several level of problems with storming a secure area in order to seek to disrupt Constitutionally-authorized proceedings, but given that it happened in connection with a deposition that was being given by a witness who was testifying in response to a lawful subpoena the day after pretty-damning testimony from the Ambassador to Ukraine raises the specter of witness intimidation in a way that would likely raise red flags for someone who hadn’t already faced proceedings about improper conduct that could be viewed as threatening witnesses to official proceedings much less someone who already found themselves in the cross-hairs defending themselves against such issues.

This might be an academic question only because Florida’s version of Model Rule 8.4(d), though expanded recently to reach harassment and discrimination, only prohibits conduct “related to the practice of law.” So it appears that you’d have to conclude this was a crime to come after him and constitutional protections for legislators under the Speech and Debate clause are pretty robust.

But, it really is not an academic question because Gaetz has already put his license at risk over such behavior. He has previously had to deal with a disciplinary investigation over a Tweet he directed at Michael Cohen, a former fixer/lawyer for Trump, which appeared to threaten Cohen at a time in which Cohen was scheduled to testify before Congress. Apparently, that matter was resolved with no disciplinary action but merely a letter of advice.

It would appear that Gaetz, like the man he appears to be willing to risk his license for, has not taken that kind of advice to heart.

Fettered is almost always better for lawyers.

Fettered is a fun word on a number of levels. It is a word lawyers are usually familiar with when it has a prefix attached to it and gets used when we talk about disclosures or access as being “unfettered.” But, it is also a word that literally means “to be restrained with chains,” so it would not be an entirely incorrect usage of “fettered” to describe being physically handcuffed … although it usually involves chains or manacles around the ankles rather than handcuffs.

The connection created by that word and its meanings is truly the only thing that prompted me to link the following two stories of interest for lawyers.

One involves a very thoughtful court ruling that provides a road map for the way lawyers should go about avoiding unfettered disclosure of client confidences even when they have the right to defend themselves.

The other involves a lawyer who so flagrantly went about things the wrong way that her lateral move ended with her in actual handcuffs for a couple of days, not to mention likely financial handcuffs for many years to come.

I’ve often spoken with lawyers about how the right to disclose confidential client information to defend your conduct is clearly acknowledged by the ethics rules, but also still an endeavor not entirely free of risk given the limits imposed under those same ethics rules. Model Rule 1.6(b) and its accompanying paragraphs of Comment actually combine to do a very good job of explaining to lawyers how they still have to go to some pains to try to protect information, even in the face of unreasonable conduct by clients (or former clients) behaving incredibly unfairly.

The two biggest components of those “pains” are: (1) that you cannot simply unleash and disclose everything you know that might be damaging to your former client but have to make measured disclosures that are only what is reasonably necessary to defeat the allegations against you, and (2) that you likely also must make some effort to see if the Court will allow you to file what you have to say under seal or under some other form of protective order to prevent far and wide dissemination of the information you are disclosing. But, what happens a fair percentage of the time is that lawyers read the rule but not necessarily the explanatory comments.

In connection with a criminal case in federal court in West Virginia involving accusations of ineffective assistance, a U.S. Magistrate Judge issued a very well structured and thoughtful opinion that essentially follows the guidance of the rule and its comment in a way that provides a good model for letting a lawyer defend their conduct while properly imposing safeguards to avoid unfettered disclosures. Thus, the full opinion is now another place to point lawyers to beyond just the Comments where they can read the preferred way this needs to work. As a bonus, it also provides an excellent gloss on a now-decade-old ABA Formal Ethics Opinion that some folks believed went a bit too far.

As to the lawyer who likely thought she was seeking greener pastures but ended up in handcuffs, the easiest place to succinctly describe Chelsea Merta’s conduct is a paragraph or two of the Confession of Judgment and Consent Permanent Injunction Ms. Merta entered in state court in St. Louis, Missouri around 10 days ago:

3. On or about February 2, 2018, seven days prior to her resignation, Merta transferred approximately 22,000 data files from SLF [her then firm] onto a portable USB flash drive without authorization from SLF. The data files that were transferred to the portable USB flash drive included files from SLF’s clients and SLF. Merta took the flash drive containing these files and, upon her resignation (despite representations to the contrary during her exit interview with SLF), retained the files. Many of those files were later found to be contained on [her and her new firm’s] MacBook Pro computers and cloud storage accounts.

4. Prior to her resignation and without authorization from SLF, Merta tampered with, deleted, and wiped her SLF computer, her SLF-issued smart phone, and other storage locations of all data, including data related to SLF’s clients and SLF, and also informed three clients of her imminent departure from SLF. Thereafter, following the submission of her notice of resignation, but prior to it becoming effective, Merta contacted a number of clients to inform them of her resignation and inform them that they could transfer their file to her new law firm.

In that confession of judgment, Merta agreed that the damages caused to her former firm were in excess of $550,000. The consent judgment also references the Court having already awarded damages against her for more than $200,000 over conduct involving contempt of court.

It was the contemptuous conduct – which itself at heart was continued refusal to relinquish the improperly taken files and continued misrepresentations to the Court about those facts – that also resulted in her spending two nights in jail until she purged the contempt. You can read all about the contemptuous conduct in this earlier order here.

Merta’s behavior when leaving to start a new firm, I sadly believe, happens a lot more often than you might think. It usually does not come to light for a variety of reasons, such as the dynamic associated with the pros and cons for the firm that has been wronged of ever pursuing the wrongdoing because of potential adverse effects for the firm and for continued discomfort on the part of its current and former clients. The reason that lawyers can tend to get away with this kind of conduct though is not that the departing conduct can’t be proven as the order lays bare. Technology these days makes it very difficult to not leave behind the kind of digital trail that Merta left.

Nevertheless, the tendency to engage in the conduct on the way out the door is fundamentally puzzling because it is antithetical to what lawyers usually are — risk adverse. It will likely come as no surprise to hear that this particular lawyer also has been pursuing bankruptcy proceedings. Thus, this case demonstrates just how significant the financial and professional risk of doing this can be in those cases where the firm that is wronged does make the decision to plow forward with proving it.


One possible answer: Radical transparency in design for legal services?

So, this post isn’t exactly about legal ethics. Of course, it isn’t exactly not about legal ethics. I’ve written a bit here recently about various jurisdictions launching increasingly bolder initiatives to try to reform the regulatory landscape when it comes to the delivery of legal services.

Many critical voices of these initiatives demand evidence that any changes to the ethics rules will result in better access to justice; others wonder what it is that technology companies or others who aren’t lawyers might be able to bring to the legal services marketplace that lawyers can’t afford to or are not interested in.

I certainly can’t provide a great answer to the first question. And I’m not sure I’m the definitive authority for answers to the second question. But I do have a thought that hit me yesterday while listening to the latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts – 99% Invisible.

If you aren’t familiar with it (and you really should be), it is a design podcast. Its most recent episode is entirely about the condition of waiting and how, as technology has advanced, people have designed ways to deal with people’s expectations as to waiting and how to manipulate them to have people feel better about their experience.

The episode is entirely worth your time in its entirety, but without giving too much away it focuses on things like changes over time to how you interact with Internet websites and how where once there was just a spinning hourglass that did not tell you anything about how long you might expect to have to continue waiting to the way the travel deal website, Kayak.com, shows you in a fully transparent fashion what is being searched while you are waiting.

One of the examples of the steady change in the direction of transparency the episode discusses is one of my favorite things online — something where I never really had previously thought about the “why” of its existence – the Domino’s pizza tracker.

The episode of the podcast talked about research and other studies measuring the effect of transparency, even “radical transparency,” on customer satisfaction. Examples of situations where a customer is happier with an online experience that involves an extended wait – but with flowing information about work being done in the meantime made transparent – than with a non-transparent but “instant” result. And, not all examples involved online interactions. One example was a restaurant that changed its design so that diners could see what was going on in the kitchen to make their food and that resulted in survey responses about how much better the food tasted than before.

My mind quickly moved to the experience for clients of hiring and relying upon lawyers and ways it could be made more transparent that are somewhat similar to the pizza tracker and other situations detailed in the episode. Anthony Davis of Hinshaw once explained to an audience (which included me) about how important it was for lawyers to be more communicative as to their billing because hiring a lawyer was like riding in a taxicab but with the windows blacked out. All you could see was the meter continuing to increase but had no idea how much closer to your destination you were.

Now the analogy is still a great one, even though fewer people experience cab rides now and opt instead for shared rides with prepaid fares.

In fact, the analogy is an even better one now because we live in a world where shared ride companies are putting cab companies out of business. Not only do you know on the front end how much you are agreeing to pay for the ride, but you also, through the app, can monitor your progress toward your destination the whole time (and can even track where your driver is when they are on the way to you).

Now, lawyers could try to be as descriptive as possible in the bills they send their clients, but those still only go out once a month or so. And lawyers could try to communicate more frequently to clients about what they are, or are not, doing on their case, but in an hourly billing scenario each of those communications just drives up the price for the client.

Thus, it seems logical that someone could harness technology and understanding of the life cycle of legal matters to provide a web portal that a firm (or a lawyer) could make available to clients where they could log in at any time of day and “see” something that would tell them what is going on in the life cycle of their matter.

It could be as simple as something that would tell them what the last significant event in their matter was and what the next upcoming significant event is. Or it could be as robust as something that not only gives immediate access to the big picture but would also tell them exactly when the last time was that the lawyer had “touched” their file and what work had been done and when the lawyer has calendared to next do something on the matter. Legal ethics would play a role in restricting certain parts of what could be done because some of the “manipulation” that occurs in terms of managing expectations would be quite risky given ethical restrictions on deceptive or misleading conduct of all kinds.

After those thoughts hit me and I was done with the first level of wondering if an approach surrounding “radical transparency” would work when applied to practicing law to improve the experience for clients and perhaps make people more willing to spend their money on acquiring the assistance of legal professionals, I almost immediately, and instinctively, brushed it off as something that would require too much investment and infrastructure to ever even try it.

And, that’s the real point. Isn’t it?