There has been A LOT of stuff going on this week in the world of legal ethics. I will refrain from dedicating an entire post to try to tie this plea I made in a post back in December 2020 to these two developments, here and here.
Instead, I want to talk a little bit about a recent ethics opinion that comes out of Washington state and that address an unfortunately recurring issue that has unfortunately been made the subject matter of multiple ethics opinions which unfortunately also conflict with each other.
The Washington State Bar Association has issued Advisory Opinion 202201 that addresses a question regarding whether a lawyer’s communication with a represented opposing party violated RPC 4.2 when the communication occurs through using “reply all” on an email thread where the opposing party’s lawyer cc’d their client on a communication to the lawyer.
The opinion gets to, what I continue to believe is the absolute correct answer, it depends. But the factors on which it depends help demonstrate why this is not something lawyers should be doing unless they have reached a prior understanding with the opposing lawyer in question. The opinion offers helpful bullet points listing these kinds of factors, including the prior course of conduct of the parties and counsel and the nature and subject matter of the communication at issue.
The conclusion of the opinion essentially involves offering “best practice” guidance:
To avoid a possible incorrect assumption of implied consent, the prudent practice is for all counsel involved in a matter to establish at the outset a procedure for determining under what circumstances the lawyers involved may “reply all” when a represented party is copied on an electronic communication.
What the opinion does not address is the flip side of the situation – does the first lawyer who decides to loop his client directly into a conversation by cc’ing them on an email to opposing counsel run the risk of an ethical violation in doing so. Given the trend in various ethics opinions addressing the obligations of the receiving lawyer, there seems to be a good measure of safety for the sending lawyer, but I continue to believe that there is almost never a good reason outside of very limited circumstances for proceeding in this fashion. Of course, not all jurisdictions take the same view as Washington. Last year, New Jersey issued an ethics opinion on the topic that concludes that implied consent is always present when the sending lawyer includes their client as a cc in the communication with the other lawyer.
Now transactional lawyers may be screaming at me here for my naivete, but, unless you are truly trying to mimic a situation where lawyers and clients are all sitting around the table and having a discussion, I don’t think including all of those parties on an email thread makes sense. (And, it’s 2022, if that’s what you are trying to do then use some other communications platform at this point whether that be Zoom or WebEx or Teams or something else.)
Otherwise, whatever you want your client to see, just forward the email thread to them separately. Doing anything else, absent a clear agreement among the counsel involved about whether communication is permitted is simply an unnecessary risk to take.
And, in reference to the title of this post, the unfortunate reasons opinions like this continue to be necessary in no small part comes from the fact that there are lawyers out there that will purposefully cc a client on a communication in hopes of trapping the other lawyer into allegedly unethical conduct by replying without removing the client from the thread and, likewise, there are lawyers out there that will take advantage of a reply all with the other lawyer’s client to talk about subject matter other than what the thread involves.
Don’t be those lawyers.