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?

Really big goings on in California.

And, no, in the title I’m not referring to the leak of information about the California Bar essay topics before the bar exam. Although that story is certainly bananas.

You’ve likely by now read at least something somewhere online about the most recent product coming out of the California State Bar Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services, consisting of tentative recommendations that has been formally put out for public comment. Most of the usual places where you can readily get good news about issues relevant to (or related to) the practice of law have done a piece of some sort about it.

It really is a significant step in the national discussion about what the regulation of the practice of law ought to look like moving forward and, if you have the time, the full 250-or-so-pages of report and related attachments is worth a read and available at this link. (To be clear, if you only have time to read one report spanning hundreds of pages, it should be The Mueller Report. The future of legal ethics in this country isn’t going to be of much importance if we can’t get a handle on just how badly the rule of law is currently being threatened by our institutions (Part 2) and just how little faith and confidence we can have in the integrity of our elections process (Part 1). So, if you are a lawyer and still have not read that report yet, then you need to do so.)

(If you have time to read two massively long reports, then the ATILS report should be the other one.)

There is so much about the ATILS proposal, and its variants, that is worth writing about that I’m pretty certain I’m going to end up dedicating a few posts to the subject matter – though spread out a bit so as not to only write about it and nothing else for too long a time period. Aspects of what is being discussed are really substantial changes to the way things work now and will most certainly be scrutinized and subjected to significant debate.

To start off though, I want to just talk about two aspects of the report that ought to be much less controversial both because it is an easy jumping off point and because, on their own, they give a glimpse into how fast things are moving these days.

Now you may recall that California only very recently (effective November 1, 2018 as a matter of fact) revised their ethics rules in an overhaul that more closely resembles aspects of the ABA Model Rules. In so doing, California became the very last U.S. state to do so. But getting there took more than 17 years. With those revisions, California adopted a version of ABA Model Rule 1.1 on competence and adopted ethics rules related to legal advertising that at least followed the numbering and overall framework – with some deviations – of ABA Model Rules 7.1 through 7.5.

Despite the fact that California’s versions of those rules still essentially have a “wet paint” sign on them, the task force report is proposing a revision to California’s RPC 1.1 and is proposing that another pass be taken at California RPCs 7.1 through 7.5 to either put them more in line with the most recent revisions to the ABA Model Rules or possibly more in line with the less modest proposal that the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers made that (as written about here a time or two) started the process moving that led to the ABA revisions.

Being willing to consider such things less than a year since adopting new rules is a bit unusual on its own, but when it comes to RPC 1.1, the task force is going a bit further and proposing that California revise the language a bit even from what the ABA Model Rule says. To a large degree the proposed deviation is a bit wonky because, at heart, it stems from the age-old debate about where exactly the right lines are in terms of what Comments can be used for and what they can do when compared to the text of the rule itself. (The discussion of the motivation and issue is found at p. 18-19 of the task force report documents.)

The ABA Model Rule comment language reads:

To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and in practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology….

The California proposal would instead be:

The duties set forth in this rule include the duty to keep abreast of the changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.

For what it is worth, I can manage to both think that the ABA Model Rule approach does not run afoul of the balance between comment and rule but also agree with the task force proposal that if California adopted the proposed variation, it would likely be a better approach.

Now the cynical amongst us may say that these topics wouldn’t be being addressed if there wasn’t a much larger set of reforms being put on the table. And those folks are probably right … about which more later.

A modest proposal (about NYC Bar Op. 2019-5)

I have made a living (well not actually a living since no one compensates me in any form of currency, whether crypto or otherwise, for my writings here) writing about problematic ethics opinions. July 11, 2019 brings what might be the most practically useless ethics opinion ever released. If it were only just practically useless, then it might not be worth writing about. But it adds into the mix the fact that it appears, without discussion, to significantly expand the scope of the rule being interpreted as well.

It comes from the New York City Bar, and it addresses cryptocurrency. Well, that’s not fair exactly. Nebraska opinion 17-03 which I wrote about almost two years ago can be described as an ethics opinion that addresses cryptocurrency. This opinion from the New York City Bar addresses a highly speculative question related to cryptocurrency. It asks “what if…a lawyer entered into an agreement with a client that would require the client to pay the lawyer in cryptocurrency?” Not kidding. That is literally the overriding premise. Now, admittedly, Memphis is a long way from New York City, but is this really a potential fee contract provision with relevance to more than a handful of lawyers?

If it is relevant to you, then you could go read the full opinion at this link. Before you decide whether that is how you wish to spend your time though, here is an excerpt from the opinion that literally identifies the three variations of possible fee agreements it considers:

  1. The lawyer agrees to provide legal services for a flat fee of X units of cryptocurrency, or for an hourly fee of Y units of cryptocurrency.
  2. The lawyer agrees to provide legal services at an hourly rate of $X dollars to be paid in cryptocurrency.
  3. The lawyer agrees to provide legal services at an hourly rate of $X dollars, which the client may, but need not, pay in cryptocurrency in an amount equivalent to U.S. Dollars at the time of payment.

If those questions cry out to you as needing answers, then by all means do go read the full opinion.

But, if those questions don’t sound like they are relevant to you and your practice (and the opinion itself even acknowledges that the first scenario is “perhaps-unrealistic” and the second scenario is only “perhaps more realistic”), then here’s my modest proposal.

Let’s pretend that NYC Bar Op. 2019-5 starts at roughly p. 12 and just includes the rest…. because (1) those four pages of analysis are a pretty good overview of how you work through RPC 1.8 in most jurisdictions in order to evaluate the business transaction with a client issue, and (2) it reminds the reader of the two significant ways that New York’s version of RPC 1.8(a) differs from the ABA Model Rule.

New York’s version differs from the ABA Model by making the scope of its RPC 1.8(a) less broad in two different ways. It mandates that the rule only applies to transactions where the lawyer and client have “differing interests” in the transaction and where the client expects the lawyer to be exercising professional judgment on behalf of the client.

Nevertheless, the last four pages of the opinion give sound guidance of what a lawyer has to be concerned about with respect to a business transaction with a client:

First, the lawyer must ensure that the transaction is “fair and reasonable to the client” and must disclose the terms of the transaction in writing and “in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client.”

[snip]

Second, the lawyer must advise the client, in writing, about the desirability of seeking separate counsel and must then give the client a reasonable opportunity to consult separate counsel.

[snip]

Third, the client must understand and agree to “the essential terms of the transaction, and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction.”

One added benefit of my modest proposal is that it will also avoid the Pandora’s Box this opinion appears to wish to open. As long as the full version of this opinion exists, then lawyers will need to pay very close attention to what happens on page 4. That is when the opinion blithely sticks the words “(or prospective client)” in without discussion. Given the text of the rule, this reference would appear to entirely transform RPC 1.8(a) from a rule that only applies to a business transaction with someone who has already become your client into a rule that now applies to contracts to form an attorney-client relationship.

While the NYC Bar Opinion does cite to Professor Simon’s annotated version of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct (not surprisingly in the four pages at the end which should stay), my admittedly quick review of what Professor Simon offers in the annotations to RPC 1.8(a) doesn’t appear to indicate that the rule is as expansive as this opinion seems to indicate. Many of those annotations certainly read like the transaction in question can’t be the one that creates the attorney-client relationship itself. That seems like a pretty big thing to parenthetically speak into existence in this ethics opinion.

Friday Follow Up: TIKD off at the Wisconsin judicial system

Just two short items by way of follow up from pieces I’ve written about in the past here.

First, I’ve written several different posts about the saga down in Florida that appeared to be one of the first big disputes – post the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the North Carolina Board of Dentistry case –  in which the rise of technology and alternative methods of delivering legal services to consumers would be pitted against traditional bar regulation with antitrust law issues serving as the rules of engagement.  You can read each of those older posts at the links above and this one right here too.

If you haven’t read any of those earlier posts, or don’t know the reference to the Florida litigation, TIKD is an app that you can put on your phone to use to resolve speeding tickets and similar moving violations without ever having to go to court yourself.  It arranges the retention of a lawyer for you and even provides you with a financial guarantee on cost and a promise to pay court fines for you if unsuccessful.  The company behind the app filed an antitrust lawsuit against The Florida Bar and a Florida law firm (The Ticket Clinic) challenging allegedly conspiratorial conduct designed to damage TIKD’s business operations.  I’ve focused so much on the dispute and what its ramifications might be that it would be a pretty big cop out not to mention the fact that the federal district court in Florida issued a 1-page order earlier this month granting the Florida Bar’s motion to dismiss the antitrust claims against it.

It is a classically unsatisfying order for an outsider to litigation to read because it offers no insight into its rationale other than to say it ruled that way based on the “reasons stated at the motions hearing.”  Having followed the events, I would think the reasons have to be a belief that, despite the fact that the Florida Bar regulators include market participants, the regulations they are enforcing are clearly delineated and emanate directly from the Florida Supreme Court.  Assuming there will be an appeal, then there may be more discussion of how this shook out, but, for now, it appears that TIKD’s shot at the regulatory framework in Florida ended up being full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

Going much back further into the archives, you will find a couple of posts expressing frustration and outrage with a particular Wisconsin lawyer who became infamous (at least for a while) with the release of Netflix’s Making a Murderer documentary.  You can read my original thoughts on the awfulness that was Len Kachinsky’s way of practicing law here and here.

His was a name I was never hoping to run across again so it was quite a roller coaster of emotions to simultaneously learn that Kachinsky had been arrested and charged with stalking but to simultaneously learn he had been acquitted of the charge.  The roller coaster ride went even lower though at the moment the words I was reading about his employment situation fully engulfed me … he had become a municipal judge in Wisconsin.

WT actual F Wisconsin?  Are y’all not even trying?  How can that guy have failed upward into a position in your judiciary?  How is he allowed to preside over any case about any thing?  That’s just a travesty.

Nevada provides lawyers yet another reason not to blow their own horn online.

I have beaten the drum for many, many years now about lawyers not understanding the true scope of their obligation of confidentiality under rules patterned after ABA Model Rule 1.6.  The ability to quickly share information far and wide online has not been helpful to lawyers who lack that understanding.  I remain astounded at how lawyers do not seem to recognize the unnecessary risk they are taking on by touting achievements in particular cases online.

Now, of course, I’m not privy to discussions between those attorneys and their clients in advance of such efforts so, perhaps, everything I see is kosher because every time I see a lawyer engage in such conduct they have gotten their client’s consent to do so in advance.

Based on my experience over the past 20 years though, I’m highly skeptical of that.  What I think is much more likely is that because these sorts of things usually never amount to any disciplinary proceedings much less instances of public discipline, this just continues to be something that many lawyers do either on the basis that the risk is minimal compared to the perceived reward or on the basis that they don’t see any risk at all.

For some lawyers, it is the misunderstanding about how confidentiality functions that can be the problem as they either aren’t aware (or simply don’t care) about the counter-intuitive fact that a public jury verdict is still RPC 1.6 confidential information as far as the lawyer is concerned.  Those transgressions can likely be forgiven by most, if not all, involved.  But, particularly when the self-congratulatory efforts in question go beyond just providing information about a jury verdict and also opt to reveal information about pre-trial settlement negotiations, the egregious nature of the breach of confidentiality is nearly impossible to forgive.  And, thanks to the way the Internet works, it is certainly impossible to forget.

Just this week, I saw one of these posts from lawyers with whom I use to practice law blowing their own horn about a very large jury verdict and revealing what the settlement offer from the defense was before trial.  I hope that they were operating with the consent of their clients or, if they happen to be reading this, that they go and at least get retroactive consent from the client involved which is better than having never gotten consent at all.

As if the risk of discipline (even if perceived to be a small risk) wasn’t enough to discourage lawyers from self-congratulatory social media postings (and if you spend any time on social media you know that it isn’t enough to discourage most), the Nevada Supreme Court provides a new opinion in a piece of defamation litigation that ought to give lawyers another reason to think very, very carefully about blowing their own horn online.

In Patin v. Lee, the Nevada Supreme Court rejected the effort of a lawyer and a law firm to stop a defamation case brought against them by a dentist.  The dentist had been one of the opposing parties of the firm’s client in a dental malpractice case.  The lawyer and law firm tried through exercise of an anti-SLAPP motion to bring the defamation case to a quick end.  They were unsuccessful though as Nevada adopted California’s approach to determining whether something written online can be considered “in direct connection with an issue under consideration by a judicial body.”  If you aren’t familiar with the general concept of anti-SLAPP statutes, then such language is likely meaningless to you.  But, if you read the opinion it will give you a pretty efficient primer on the concept of anti-SLAPP statutes (SLAPP being an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). You can read that opinion right here

From a loss prevention standpoint, let me drill down on what is readily understandable in terms of the problematic conduct by the lawyer and law firm.  The lawyer represented a plaintiff in a dental malpractice lawsuit against three defendants – a dental group and two individual dentists.  The lawyer obtained a $3.4 million verdict in favor of the client against the dental group and one of the two individual dentists.  The jury verdict against the other dentist was one finding no liability.

There was some appellate wrangling in the malpractice case after the jury verdict but because the ultimate outcome on appeal did not change, that wrangling matters much less than what the lawyer and law firm decided to post on their website to tout their success in the case:

DENTAL MALPRACTICE/WRONGFUL DEATH – PLAINTIFF’S VERDICT $3.4M, 2014 Description; Singletary v. Ton Vinh Lee, DDS et al.

A dental malpractice-based wrongful death action that arose out of the death of Decedent Reginald Singletary following the extraction of the No. 32 wisdom tooth by Defendants on or about April 16, 2011.  Plaintiff sued the dental office, Summerlin Smiles, the owner, Ton Vinh Lee, DDS, and the treating dentists, Florida Traivai, DMD and Jai Park, DDS, on behalf of the Estate, herself and minor son.

The problem with this self-congratulatory post on the firm’s website — separate and apart from the normal questions that might be asked about whether the clients were consulted and consented before the post was made — is that it doesn’t mention that Dr. Lee — the person named in the caption headline and in the body of the update — was the individual dentist found by the jury to have no liability.  That dentist, in turn, is who sued the lawyer and law firm for defamation because a reader of the post in question would reasonably think that Dr. Lee had been on the wrong end of a $3.4 million jury verdict.

Those that know me know that I am not much for dropping Bible quotes but, even I have to say that this would be a pretty good place to drop Proverbs 27:2 – “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth….”

Friday Follow-Up: Florida Finds Facebook Friendship Fine

You’ve probably heard this news by now.  But, it’s Friday and I wrote about this before, so … I feel a sense of obligation to follow-up.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the fact that a judge is Facebook friends with a lawyer appearing before her in a litigated matter is not alone sufficient to justify disqualification of the judge.  You can read lots of good articles providing summary treatment of this decision.  I’d recommend this one from the folks at Bloomberg/BNA.

The majority certainly got to what I strongly believe is the right result.  And, the core of the correctness of that result lies in these six sentences which I have admittedly spliced together from different parts of the majority opinion:

[T]he mere existence of a friendship between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship. No reasonably prudent person would fear that she could not receive a fair and impartial trial based solely on the fact that a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge are friends of an indeterminate nature. Facebook “friendship” is not—as a categorical matter—the functional equivalent of traditional “friendship.” The establishment of a Facebook “friendship” does not objectively signal the existence of the affection and esteem involved in a traditional “friendship.”  Therefore, the mere existence of a Facebook “friendship” between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship.

I’m writing today about this more to make three points that I feel like have to be said out loud.

  1.  I can’t believe it was a 4-3 decision and that three justices of the Florida Supreme Court were willing to sign their names to the following position:  “The bottom line is that because of their indeterminate nature and the real possibility of impropriety, social media friendships between judges and lawyers who appear in the judge’s courtroom should not be permitted.”
  2. I’m even a bit more amazed that the concurring opinion (“I concur with the majority opinion. However, I write to strongly urge judges
    not to participate in Facebook.”) demonstrates a majority of the Court (4 justices) believes that judges simply shouldn’t be on Facebook at all.  There are legitimate reasons why maybe all of us should delete Facebook, but the reasons espoused by the dissent and concurrence aren’t among them.
  3. If you are in a band and aren’t actively considering naming it, or changing its existing name to,”Friends of an Indeterminate Nature,” then I don’t really think I can ever understand you.