It’s been a while.

Today I’m going to splice together two short discussions about topics that I haven’t mentioned in a while.  (And, for any fans of the podcast U Talking U2 to Me that are out there, you do have to read the title of this post to sound like the first words of this remake right here.)

I have not written in a while of an instance of a lawyer getting into disciplinary trouble over saying too much in the process of withdrawing from a client representation.  But it’s happened again, so it’s worth reminding people not to do that.

A week ago, the Ohio Supreme Court issued its opinion affirming a recommended one-year suspension (but with all of the suspension stayed) for a divorce lawyer who paired an affidavit with his motion to withdraw from a client’s matter.  The Ohio court succinctly laid out the problematic contents of the affidavit:

In the affidavit, he recounted communications he had had with
[the client] about the scope of his representation and his compensation, accused her of refusing to pay his agreed-upon fees “without cause,” and disclosed legal advice that he had given her. He also described [the client]’s discharge of him as “retaliatory” and alleged that it had “occurred because of [his] advice to her
concerning her objectionable and potentially illegal actions” relating to her ex-husband, which he characterized as “a problem similar to the one [he] experienced in [his] previous representation of her.”

The Ohio opinion not only cogently walks through why the lawyer’s attempted arguments that such disclosures were permitted to be made under exceptions set out in Ohio’s Rule 1.6(b) weren’t triggered, but also stresses another point too often overlooked by lawyers even when they might have justification to make certain disclosures:

Finally, even if [the lawyer] had reasonably believed that Prof.Cond.R. 1.6(b) permitted him to disclose [the client]’s allegedly fraudulent conduct, the means by which he chose to do so were improper. The comments to Prof.Cond.R. 1.6 clarify that when a lawyer believes that disclosure of client information is
necessary, the lawyer should first seek to persuade the client to take suitable action to obviate the need for the attorney’s disclosure and that a disclosure adverse to the client’s interest should be no greater than necessary to accomplish the purpose. Prof.Cond.R. 1.6, Comment 16. And “[i]f the disclosure will be made in connection with a judicial proceeding, the disclosure should be made in a manner that limits access to the information to the tribunal or other persons having a need to know it and appropriate protective orders or other arrangements should be sought by the lawyer to the fullest extent possible.” Id. Here, [the lawyer] failed to notify or communicate with [the client] about the allegations in his affidavit prior to filing it, and he did not attempt to limit public access to the document.

Another topic I haven’t mentioned in a while is ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) and how it’s playing in various states.  You will recall on at least one occasion when I did write about it, I mentioned how one of the ABA’s talking points was that somewhere north of 20 states already had black-letter rules in one form or fashion making acts of discrimination unethical.

About three weeks ago, one of those states, Vermont, just decided to scrap its version of such a rule and replace it with a Rule 8.4(g) that is substantially equivalent to the ABA Model Rule.  You can read the order of the Vermont Supreme Court adopting such a rule which will become effective on September 18, 2017 here.

What’s in a name?

For example, the folks behind the popular Radiolab podcast also launched a spin-off podcast last year about the U.S. Supreme Court called “More Perfect.”  The reason for naming it that, of course, is that it almost assuredly a reference to the famous line in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

But today it seems a funny/ironic name because the U.S. Supreme Court managed to make a pretty bad mistake that is being reported on now and that likely added some real stress into the life of a lawyer whose only crime was having almost the same name as another lawyer.

You can read about the story itself, and find links to other outlets reporting on the story, at the ABA Journal online, but the short version is that the U.S. Supreme Court intending to suspend and potentially disbar a Christopher P. Sullivan of Vermont instead suspended and issued show cause why disbarment should not occur to a Christopher P. Sullivan of Boston, Massachusetts.  The Vermont Sullivan’s middle name was Paul and he had already been disbarred in Vermont after being involved in a fatal automobile accident and pleading guilty to a DUI.  The Massachusetts Sullivan’s middle name is Patrick.

If you do the math, you will find that the Sullivan who was wrongfully sullied ended up with 15 days passing between being suspended and the U.S. Supreme Court fixing its mistake and reinstating him.  Presuming he was aware of and dealing with fixing the Court’s mistake, I imagine that was a long 2 weeks for that gentleman.

But, in terms of a larger lesson to be learned, I think the lesson is that we all need to be more deliberate rather than more perfect in what we do.  I can’t help but think that a more deliberate review of information on the Court’s part would have avoided the “mistaken identity” error in the first place.

I like to think that most errors I make are ones that, upon reflection, I could have avoided had I been more deliberate in the first place.  I reckon you might say the same about yourself, so …

Two short updates for a Tuesday

Late last month, I focused a post on a West Virginia lawyer who ended up staring down a 2-year suspension over chronic over-billing.  If you missed that post, you can read it here.  If you read it, you will recall that one of the items discussed was that the Executive Director of the West Virginia Public Defender Services agency had indicated that particular lawyer was not even among the worst offenders.

The ABA Journal online has a piece up that is apparently about one such even worse offender who has skipped out on bail regarding the criminal charges he is facing over his rampant over-billing (including billing more than 24 hours on 17 different days) and is suspected to be a fugitive in a much more temperate part of the world than West Virginia.

Over a larger time period and with a bit more frequency, I’ve written a little bit about the ABA Ethics 20/20 revisions to the Model Rules — admittedly through the lens that those revisions were being considered and then adopted here in my home state of Tennessee.  If you’ve been looking for a really good window into what the technology-focused aspects of the Ethics 20/20 revisions mean for your law practice, you are in luck because the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has now put out Formal Ethics Op. 477 which pretty much provides exactly that.

It is a good opinion – it’s getting a lot of attention in the legal media for establishing new standards but that’s not quite right.  It doesn’t really establish anything new but it does do a really good job of focusing lawyers’ attention upon the logical repercussions of the Ethics 20/20 revisions and the risks that lawyers need to be acutely aware of when communicating with clients.

It is also worth noting — particularly given the last few days of ransom ware news (and one other high-profile instance of information that was promised to be kept secret being disseminated under questionable circumstances) that user error continues to be a leading cause of unintended disclosure of (or complete loss of access to) confidential information whether technology is involved or not.

It should go without saying that there is only so much a lawyer can do to try to guard against those kinds of risks.

Traps for the Unwary – Employer email systems

I like to think I am “warier” than the average attorney.  But a recent attorney-client privilege opinion out of New York was a good reminder that being “wary” can be much like being “woke.”  Even if you think you are, you probably aren’t as much as you think you are, and you can always be a bit more.

I’ve spoken and written in the past about the risk for lawyers’ clients to using an email system provided by an employer to communicate with them but my focus in doing so has largely involved assumptions about ways in which the nature of the representation could be one in which the client wouldn’t actually want to the employer to be able to access the communications.  For example, where the client and the employer would actually have contrary interests.

That type of scenario was the focus of the kind of warning ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 11-459 provided to lawyers who handle employment law matters:

This opinion addresses this question in the following hypothetical situation.
An employee has a computer assigned for her exclusive use in the course of her employment. The company’s written internal policy provides that the company has a right of access to all employees’ computers and e-mail files, including those relating to employees’ personal matters. Notwithstanding this policy, employees sometimes make personal use of their computers, including for the purpose of sending personal e-mail messages from their personal or office e-mail accounts. Recently, the employee retained a lawyer to give advice about a potential claim against her employer. When the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the employee may use a workplace device or system to communicate with the lawyer, does the lawyer have an ethical duty to warn the employee about the risks this practice entails?

[snip]

The situation in the above hypothetical is a clear example of where failing to warn the client about the risks of e-mailing communications on the employer’s device can harm the client, because the employment dispute would give the employer a significant incentive to access the employee’s workplace e-mail and the employer’s internal policy would provide a justification for doing so. The obligation arises once the lawyer has reason to believe that there is a significant risk that the client will conduct e-mail communications with the lawyer using a workplace computer or other business device or via the employer’s e-mail account. This possibility ordinarily would be known, or reasonably should be known, at the outset of the representation. Given the nature of the representation–an employment dispute–the lawyer is on notice that the employer may search the client’s electronic correspondence. Therefore, the lawyer must ascertain, unless the answer is already obvious, whether there is a significant risk that the client will use a business e-mail address for personal communications or whether the employee’s position entails using an employer’s device.

With hindsight it certainly seems an obvious extension of the same point to be worried that the privilege is in jeopardy even when the underlying matter is not one in which client and the employer are adverse, yet I’ll admit that I was initially surprised to hear about through this (as always) quite good write up in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct and then dig in and read the Peerenboom v. Marvel Entertainment opinion itself (which is remarkable for its brevity) which found that Marvel’s CEO’s emails to his personal attorney on Marvel’s email system could not be shielded from discovery by a third party pursuing litigation against Marvel based on attorney-client privilege.  (Simultaneously also saying that no marital privilege existed either.)

The New York court explained that Marvel’s email policy provided that it “‘owned’ all emails on its system, and that the emails were ‘subject to all Company rules, policies, and conduct statements.’ Marvel ‘reserve[d] the right to audit networks and systems on a periodic basis to ensure [employees’] compliance’ with its email policies. It also ‘reserve[d] the right to access, review, copy and delete any messages or content,’ and ‘to disclose such messages to any party (inside or outside the Company).'”  Based on that, the court considered it easy to conclude that the CEO had no reasonable expectation of privacy in email communications to others using his Marvel email address.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the opinion does not reference or discuss in any fashion whether the CEO’s lawyer would still be obligated to treat all of the communications as confidential under the relevant ethics rules in New York(spoiler alert: he would).

Since I’ve got your webcam turned on remotely, show of hands if you’ve 100% of the time been making sure your clients’ email communications with you are only happening on a platform provided by someone other than their employer – like gmail, Yahoo, Bellsouth, or Comcast, or some other personal source of email access.

Yeah, me neither.

It certainly feels like a harsh result — particularly when you stop and think about how much email traffic takes place on email platforms that are company provided to all involved — but it can be a difficult outcome to argue against given the traditional strict construction of the privilege and how readily it can be waived as a result of exposure to anyone who is a stranger to the relationship.

The Peerenboom opinion also serves, however, as a good reminder of just how different the attorney-client privilege and the attorney work-product doctrine are and how differently they are waived.

Given the lack of evidence that Marvel viewed any of Perlmutter’s personal emails, and the lack of evidence of any other actual disclosure to a third party, Perlmutter’s use of Marvel’s email for personal purposes does not, standing alone, constitute a waiver of attorney work product protections (see People v Kozlowski . . .898 N.E.2d 891 . . . .

That point is one I’ve always found easiest to explain to lawyers with reference to another New York case (albeit one in federal court) involving a different very famous brand, Martha Stewart, United States v. Stewart, 287 F. Supp. 2d 461 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).  That was the case in which a New York federal court explained the different ramifications as to privilege waiver versus work product waiver flowing from Martha Stewart sharing her lawyer’s communications with her daughter.  While, because she was a stranger to the attorney-client relationship Stewart had with her lawyer and thus eviscerated the attorney-client privilege, as to work product:

By forwarding the e-mail to a family member, Stewart did not substantially increase the risk that the Government would gain access to materials prepared in anticipation of litigation. Martha Stewart stated in her affidavit that “Alexis is the closest person in the world to me. She is a valued confidante and counselor to me. In sharing the e-mail with her, I knew that she would keep its content strictly confidential.” Martha Stewart Aff. ¶ 6. Alexis Stewart stated that while she did not recall receiving the June 24 e-mail, she “never would have disclosed its contents.” Alexis Stewart Aff. ¶ 2. The disclosure affected neither side’s interests in this litigation: it did not evince an intent on Stewart’s part to relinquish work product immunity for the document, and it did not prejudice the Government by offering Stewart some litigation-based advantage. Accordingly, I hold that Stewart did not waive work product protection over the June 23 and 24 e-mails.

And, it seems fair to say that the more robust ability of the work-product doctrine to withstand waiver in a world in which people use their work email for a lot of things, allow me to echo Ms. Stewart to say.

That’s a good thing.

A weird-ish court opinion here in Tennessee.

On the heels of my criticism of an ethics opinion out of New York as weird-ish, let me turn my attention closer to home to discuss a Court of Appeals opinion this week here in Tennessee that is fortunate for the law firm involved but unfortunate for lawyers in Tennessee in general.

In Guo v. Woods & Woods, PP (which you can read by clicking on this link: guox_031417 ) the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued an opinion that held that a lawyer (and his firm) were entitled to keep the entirety of a $7,000 fee paid to them at the beginning of a representation because it was earned when paid.  The outcome was certainly fortunate for the lawyer involved, and it is likely the correct outcome in the appeal if for no other reason than the inept nature of the effort of the pro se plaintiff on appeal, as the opinion describes.

The really unfortunate part of the opinion, however, is that it makes no reference whatsoever to our ethics rule – Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 8, RPC 1.5(f) – that addresses what is necessary to charge a nonrefundable fee.  Instead, the Court of Appeals looked to an earlier appellate opinion from 2005 [before our state enacted RPC 1.5(f)] and applied a three-part test for non-refundable retainer fees established in that case, Stalls v. Pounders.

Charging and enforcing non-refundable retainer fees or other non-refundable fees is a tricky enough area.  The last thing Tennessee lawyers need is two separate tracks of authority to have to work through and seek to reconcile.  Particularly when one of them relates to potential discipline against their law license.  Unfortunately, this Court of Appeals opinion adds to that risk by not even acknowledging the existence of RPC 1.5(f).  The ethics rule reads:

A fee that is nonrefundable in whole or in part shall be agreed to in a writing, signed by the client, that explains the intent of the parties as to the nature and amount of the nonrefundable fee.

Given the pro se nature of the losing party in the matter and the small stakes involved, it seems unlikely that the case will go to the Tennessee Supreme Court where there would be an opportunity to make clear that a nonrefundable fee has to comply with RPC 1.5(f).  So, hopefully, over time there will not be any further appellate opinions in Tennessee that tackle this kind of matter without acknowledging the rule.

Until such time, the safer course for lawyers is to make sure to comply with the rule because it is hard to decipher a way that satisfying the rule would not also satisfy the Court of Appeals’ three-part test.  (Although insisting on saying that the fee has to be “just and reasonable” when the rule only requires that it be “reasonable” as explaned in cmt. [4a] to the rule at least creates a smidgen of doubt,)  The converse is not as clear particularly if you look at the language of the letter in Guo, take heed of footnote 2 in that opinion, and analyze the requirement in the rule that the writing has to “explain() the intent of the parties as to the nature and amount” of the nonrefundable fee.

Learn something new every day. Or two things. Or three things. I’m not your boss.

About a week or so ago, I learned something new about South Carolina’s ethics rules – thanks to the law-student-powered blog of the University of Miami (FL) School of Law, Legal Ethics in Motion.  They wrote about a South Carolina federal court case in which a motion to disqualify premised on South Carolina Rule 1.18 was denied.  I learned a second new thing about South Carolina’s ethics rules in reading that opinion.

The first new thing I learned about South Carolina was that it has a weird-ish wrinkle in its Rule 1.18(a).

Most jurisdictions, including Tennessee, follow the lead of ABA Model Rules and have a version of Rule 1.18(a) that defines a “prospective client” as someone who “consults with” or “discusses with” a lawyer the “possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter.”

South Carolina, however, takes a different approach.  Its RPC 1.18(a) reads as follows:

A person with whom a lawyer discusses the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form a relationship.

Now, that “only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form a relationship” language can have some obvious benefits in avoiding having to deal with certain situations where most folks would agree that the array of protections afforded to a person as a prospective client under RPC 1.18 just shouldn’t come into existence.  Like, if the only reason someone is reaching out is to get a lawyer disqualified – usually just dealt with through language in the Comment — this language should suffice to prevent RPC 1.18 protection from coming to pass.  Likewise, if say a person a lawyer has never met before calls out of the blue and starts running on at the mouth about their case before the lawyer could get a word – like “stop” – in edgewise, this rule’s “reasonable expectation” and “likely to form” language would be a very good tool for shutting down any RPC 1.18 argument.

But, even having only just learned of the existence of such language, I was still surprised to then learn what the federal court in South Carolina thought it meant.  Instead of resolving a disqualification motion on the basis that there didn’t seem to be any “significantly harmful” information that was ever transmitted, the court concluded that a series of events spanning a voice mail message, a telephone conference about a possible engagement, and an email exchange thereafter with a South Carolina lawyer was not sufficient to ever create the existence of a prospective client at all.

The court’s own description of the events is really all that should be needed to understand my surprise:

On July 7, 2016, Plaintiff’s attorney Jay Wolman (Wolman) called and left a voice mail for Wyche attorney Tally Parham Casey (Casey) about a possible engagement in a case.  Wolman and Casey discussed the possibility of Wyche’s serving as local counsel for Plaintiff in this matter in a telephone conference on July 11, 2016.  Wolman subsequently emailed Casey on July 11, 2016, and provided Plaintiff’s and Gari’s names “[f]or conflict purposes” and requested a fee agreement “[i]f there is no conflict.”  Casey responded on that same day with applicable hourly rates and stated, “I hope we get the opportunity to work together.”  On July 12, 2016, however, Casey sent Wolman an email stating, “I’m afraid we have a conflict and will not be able to assist you with this matter.”

Pardon the wordplay and all, but I’m not sure it is “likely” that a multitude of judges would agree with how that particular line was drawn on the RPC 1.18(a) front in this particular South Carolina decision.

While I am on the subject of South Carolina and its ethics rules, one other development is worthy of mention here.   South Carolina’s Supreme Court has issued a public censure against an Arkansas lawyer for his role regarding using investigators to “pose as customers in an effort to obtain evidence to prove that the defendant was violating the intellectual property rights of the plaintiffs.”  The Court explained that the Arkansas lawyer’s investigators “made false statements to the defendant’s employees and used tactics designed to prod the employees into making statements about the product,” and also “tape-recorded these conversations without notice to the employees.”

Many, many moons ago (2012), I wrote an article for an ABA publication called Landslide about the ethical problems for lawyers stemming from investigations relying on pretext in intellectual property matters.  I don’t think I’m bragging when I say that billions of people never read that article.  While it is probably a pretty safe bet to guess that this Arkansas lawyer was among the billions of people who didn’t read it, I can’t actually call that something I truly learned today because the conduct for which he is now being punished in 2017 with that public reprimand actually took place back in 2009.

Thus, if I’m flailing around trying to add one more thing to my list of nuggets learned today, it would have to be this, the South Carolina Court was actually a bit kind to this Arkansas lawyer in terms of how it described the problems.  It pointed out, in issuing a public reprimand against the lawyer in question, that the lawyer was “unaware that secret tape-recording, pretexting, and dissembling were in violation of the South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct.”   Had it wanted to be a bit more damning in its explanation of events, it could have pointed out that the South Carolina rules upon which the discipline against the Arkansas lawyer rested (RPC 4.4(a) and RPC 8.4) say the same thing that Arkansas’s own version of those rules say and, thus, that it probably would not be a stretch to say that Arkansas’s ethics rules are also violated by (at least) pretexting and dissembling.

 

 

Crossing the Line in Maine

No, the title is not a veiled attempt to publicly-shame Maine’s Governor for his latest act of public ridiculousness… or is it?  This is instead a short post discussing conduct that I posit is a lot more common than you might think and that resulted recently in a very low-level of discipline against a Maine attorney.

In the middle of December 2016, a criminal defense lawyer in Maine received an admonition for crossing the line when interviewing an unrepresented witness by providing legal advice in violation of Maine’s version of ABA Model Rule 4.3.  Rule 4.3 governs a lawyer’s communications with someone who is not represented by counsel.  That is the rule that, among other things, limits a lawyer’s advice to an unrepresented person.  Many folks remember the rule as foreclosing any advice but the advice to “get a lawyer,” but the rule actually only prohibits other legal advice if there is a risk that the interests of the unrepresented person are in conflict with those of the lawyer’s client.

In the Maine matter, the defense lawyer communicated with the victim in a domestic violence assault case against his client.  The short opinion regarding the admonition stresses that the fact of the communication itself, as well as several of the topics discussed, were perfectly appropriate since the victim was willing to talk with the defense lawyer.  Where the Maine lawyer crossed the line was providing his opinion to her about whether “she could avoid testifying by invoking her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.”  Because the victim had interests adverse to his client’s, the Maine attorney could only ethically respond to any questions about Fifth Amendment rights by telling her that she would need to get her own attorney to receive that kind of advice.

Even in less emotionally-charged circumstances than would be expected to be true in a domestic violence matter, navigating an interview of an unrepresented witness and complying with Rule 4.3 can be difficult.  Not only do people often want to take advantage of having a lawyer’s ear to seek advice but often those same people have no idea that they are putting a lawyer in a jam by asking.  Lawyers, being human  beings, can struggle with how to be inoffensive in declining to answer what the witness may view as a simple question rather than an ethical land mine.  The situation for the lawyer can be further complicated by having to work through whether or not the client’s interests and the witness’s interests are sufficiently aligned for the lawyer to be able to actually offer advice beyond “get a lawyer.”

For both of those reasons, I suspect that this kind of violation happens at a level of frequency that far exceeds the number of cases where you see discipline meted out.  Often, there never comes any reason for anyone to ever complain.  Often, anyone who might complain never knows the interaction took place.  Sometimes, the person communicating with the lawyer ends up benefiting from getting the free legal advice.

The Maine admonition came about only because the district attorney prosecuting the domestic violence case filed the grievance; the opinion makes clear that the DA had spoken to the victim shortly before the Maine attorney interviewed the victim, the fact that he filed the complaint strongly implies that he likely talked to the victim again after the Maine attorney spoke with her.

 

Two quick technology takes – texting and more on email “bugs”

Not too long ago, I weighed in on an Alaska Ethics Opinion about the ethics of lawyers using email “bugs” that surreptitiously track what happens to an email after it has been sent.  There is a new, interesting read on the “legal or not” aspect of this technology in the ABA/BNA Lawyers Manual on Professional Conduct authored by Chad Gilles, a former lawyer who is now involved with customer strategy and legal affairs with a company called MailControl.net.  It certainly makes for an interesting and informative read, and I appreciate the short mention of a snippet of what I said here on my blog.  I was surprised in the Gilles article to read that Professor Dane Ciolino of Loyola University New Orleans had espoused a belief that it was ethical to use such technology if you were a sending lawyer and, for what it is worth, I’ve now gone and read Ciolino for myself on the issue  and … well, color me still unconvinced.

For what it is worth, the notion that Gilles explains that the jury is out on whether the conduct — using mail bugs — also runs afoul of one or more federal statutes (think the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) leaves me more confident that my conclusion that the conduct is unethical is on the right side of things.

On an unrelated note — other than being related by way of the broadly encompassing “technology” category — Thomas Spahn and I will be doing a teleseminar on January 20, 2017 focusing specifically on a variety of ethical issues that can arise in connection with lawyers using text messaging to communicate with clients and each other.  I haven’t been fortunate enough to do a seminar with Tom in a few years and am looking forward to discussing this topic with him.

I’ve also spent a little bit of time — unsuccessfully — trying to re-find a case/situation that was reported on within the last couple of years involving a lawyer who saw part of the contents of a text sent to a judge because the judge’s phone was laying out on the bench and it lit up and the first part of the message was viewable.  I can’t remember if it was the lawyer who got in trouble for the snooping or the judge because of what was on the text, but I remember it happening.  It serves as a great teaching tool for thinking about turning off the “preview” function for texts on your smart phone, but only if I can properly reference it.

If anyone reading this, recalls it or is more proficient at finding it before January 20, I’d appreciate you shooting me a message of where to find it.  And, either way, if you have the time please feel free to sign up for our teleseminar — it is being offered through a variety of bar entities so you should be able to find it with a google search, but here’s a link to one state bar where you can sign up for it.

 

Alaska you a question about read receipts.

Sorry, bad and lazy pun for a title.  As loyal readers of the site know, I like to write from time-to-time about formal ethics opinions issued by state regulatory bodies.  A recent one caught my attention at first for its — “I cannot believe someone even had to ask feel.”  But, ultimately after I read it all the way through, it intrigued me as a gateway to raise another, related and I happen to think a bit more interesting question.

With that as prologue, on October 26, 2016, the Alaska Bar Association Board of Governors approved Ethics Opinion 2016-1 for release.  The opinion tackles the following question:

Is it ethically permissible for a lawyer to use a “web bug” or other tracking device to track the location and use of emails and documents sent to opposing counsel?

The opinion gets the answer to that question undoubtedly correct by saying that, no, it isn’t and that doing something like that violates Alaska’s RPC 8.4 on generally deceptive conduct and is also problematic because it can undercut the receiving lawyer’s ability to comply with her own obligations under RPC 1.6 to attempt to protect information related to her representation of her client as confidential.

To give a better sense of the kind of technology being discussed, the Opinion explains:

One commercial provider of this web bug service advertises that users may track emails “invisibly” (i.e., without the recipient’s knowledge) and may also track, among other details:

  • when the email was opened;
  • how long the email was reviewed (including whether it was in the foreground or background while the user worked on other activities);
  • how many times the email was opened;
  • whether the recipient opened attachments to the email;
  • how long the attachment (or a page of the attachment) was reviewed;
  • whether and when the subject email or attachment was forwarded; and
  • the rough geographical location of the recipient.

Yikes, right.  That’s a pretty dogged little bug and one that would provide a significant, surreptitious window into the work of the lawyer on the other side.  When I saw the headlines at places like the ABA Journal online about the issuance of this opinion, I jumped to the incorrect conclusion that the lawyer requesting the opinion was a lawyer looking to use this kind of software feature.  At that point, I was surprised anyone would need to ask to know that you couldn’t do this, but the Opinion explains that the request actually came from someone who received an email with one of these “web bugs.”  Thus, the request for a definitive opinion of the wrongful nature of the conduct makes more sense.  (And, for those immediately wondering, apparently some email providers do have countermeasures in place that notify you about some of these “webbugs” and that has to be how the receiving lawyer knew what had transpired.)

I think the opinion is pretty well done and reaches the obvious and correct solution.  It offers some interesting discussion about how, even if the webbug were not surreptitious but actually announced itself, the use of it by the sending lawyer could still be problematic as invasive on the attorney-client relationship through, among other things, potentially revealing otherwise work-product protected information and even endangering the whereabouts of clients who are trying to stay hidden.

What intrigued me enough to write this piece though was a tangential topic that is raised a bit in a footnote to the Opinion, the ethical issues surrounding generic “read receipts” on emails.  Specifically, in footnote 6, the Opinion says:

The use of “delivery receipts” and “read receipts” through Outlook and similar email services does not intrude upon the attorney’s work product or track the use of a document, and therefore is not at issue here.  Those types of receipts are functionally comparable to the receipt one may receive from the use of certified mail.

That last part may well be true — that these are digitally the functional equivalents of a return receipts on certified mail — but I have a slightly different view on this topic.  I certainly do not contend it is unethical for attorneys to send emails to other attorneys that include a request for a “read receipt,” but I uniformly refuse to comply when I get such “read receipt” requests, and I do so because of my obligations under the ethics rules.

If I’m getting an email only because I am an attorney representing a client, then information about when I read that email – how close to when you sent it to me or how far away from when you sent it to me – is “information related to the representation of my client,” and I see no need to do anything other than act to reasonably safeguard that information and decline the read receipt request.

I doubt anyone would ever get disciplined for doing otherwise as a violation of RPC 1.6, but I’m curious as to whether there are others reading this who conduct themselves the same way and have the same view of the “read receipt” issue.

 

Friday follow-up – more proof that it’s risky for lawyers to work with Avvo Legal Services

I’ve written about this topic several times (some might say probably too many times) now, but here is the first example of people who — unlike me — actually matter reaching a very familiar sounding set of conclusions about something that quite obviously is the Avvo Legal Services program.

South Carolina put out an advisory ethics opinion back in the middle of July.  I don’t exactly know how I missed it before yesterday, but thanks to an ABA Journal online story about it, I’ve now learned about it.  It hits exactly the two issues that, outside of jurisdiction like Tennessee that have a separate barrier like RPC 7.6, I tried not-too-subtly to emphasize in one of my earlier posts present a real problem for any lawyer thinking about signing up with Avvo Legal Services.  The two issues that, amount to something of a Schylla and Charybdis scenario, are the rule against fee sharing with non lawyers – RPC 5.4(a) — and the rule against paying people for giving people something of value in exchange for recommending your services – RPC 7.2(c).

The South Carolina opinion, quite succinctly, walks through why the arrangement about which it was asked manages to sound like both a fee sharing problem and alternatively a payment for referral problem.  As to fee sharing:

[T]he service collects the entire fee and transmits it to the attorney at the conclusion of the case.  In a separate transaction, the service receives a fee for its efforts, which is apparently directly related to the amount of the fee earned in the case.  The fact that there is a separate transaction in which the service is paid does not mean that the arrangement is not fee splitting as described in the Rules of Professional Conduct.

A lawyer cannot do indirectly what would be prohibited if done directly.  Allowing the service to indirectly take a portion of the attorney’s fee by disguising it in two separate transactions does not negate the fact that the service is claiming a certain portion of the fee earned by the lawyer as its “per service marketing fee.”

As to the lawyer giving Avvo Legal Services money in exchange for a recommendation or referral of the lawyer’s services and whether the “marketing fee” can be considered the “reasonable costs of an advertisement”:

The service, however, purports to charge the lawyer a fee based on the type of service the lawyer has performed rather than a fixed fee for the advertisement, or a fee per inquiry or “click.”  In essence, the service’s charges amount to a contingency advertising fee arrangement rather than a cost that can be assessed for reasonableness by looking a market rate or comparable services.

Presumably, it does not cost the service any more to advertise online for a family law matter than for the preparation of corporate documents.  There does not seem to be any rational basis for charging the attorney more for the advertising of one type of case versus another.  For example, a newspaper or radio ad would cost the same whether a lawyer was advertising his services as a criminal defense lawyer or a family law attorney.  The cost of the ad may vary from publication to publication, but the ad cost would not be dependent on the type of legal service offered.

As the ABA Journal story indicates, Avvo continues to argue against this kind of result on the basis of things that maybe “ought” to be true but just aren’t “actually” true at the moment with respect to pretty much any state’s ethics rules.   Avvo also has in a variety of online spots advanced the argument that it is not even making referrals but just offering a marketplace.  All of this is extremely intellectually interesting from a distance of course because there are models for providing a “marketplace” that actually do work within the existing ethics rules, even ones where the company charges the attorneys for the privilege of getting to be in the marketplace.  But the approach in that regard doesn’t involve charging a fee that is only tied to successful outcomes – i.e., transactions where legal services are provided and fees paid.  (Although even that kind of approach can be made to work if the consumer is the one that pays the freight to the entity hosting the marketplace.)  A much less controversial approach along those lines would be like the eBay model of providing a marketplace, where the participants are paying a fee associated with being involved and they pay it whether they end up getting to a successful transaction or not.

Importantly, Avvo’s response to developments like this SC opinion also makes clear that it plans to carry on full speed ahead, as you’d expect it would given its size, its capital, and its investment in its approach.  That kind of reaction to regulatory barriers is very similar to other market disruptors in other industries who sort of take a “we’re so big and we’re so influential, we dare you to try to stop us” approach.  Uber would be a fine example, but as to Uber there is very little risk to the users or the drivers in being affiliated with the entity when regulators come calling.

As to Avvo Legal Services there are real, and potentially really serious consequences for participating lawyers.  Individual lawyers will make their own decisions, but South Carolina lawyers will have to be extremely reticent about doing business with Avvo Legal Services in light of this opinion.  And I don’t think the SC opinion will be the last to come out and to reach similar conclusions.  My guess is that this will be the first of several jurisdictions that will put out similar opinions.

Thus, if you are a lawyer that is thinking about participating in this kind of arrangement, or continuing to participate if you are already doing so, you know, of course, that no matter what Avvo won’t be the one getting reprimanded and they can’t serve your suspension for you, but it would be a pretty reasonable conversation to pursue to see if Avvo is willing to pay for the costs of your defense if you end up facing disciplinary proceedings over your participation.