Ridiculous from up close and far away.

I have some real-world experience in trying to help lawyers already admitted in at least one jurisdiction obtain admission to practice here in Tennessee.  My state’s system now is still less than ideal but not necessarily in a way that makes it strikingly more problematic than is the case in many other states.  (In the long, long ago I wrote a bit about how it was strikingly more problematic but we obtained some important rule revisions that made things better, if not perfect.)

Part of the overall problem with this aspect of lawyer regulation is the antiquated nature of the overall process plus the increasingly-difficult-to-intellectually-justify approach that we have to the regulation of the practice of law in this nation that clings to the notion that each of the 50 states plus D.C. is entitled to make its own determinations about whether someone who is perfectly competent at practicing law in one state can manage to grasp how to practice law in their state.

The underlying premise and approach is one that institutionally leads itself easily into a protectionist and parochial approach to making admissions decisions.  There are lots of ways in which the patchwork approach that exists to these issues has been very difficult to reconcile with advancements in technology and how easy it is for a lawyer sitting on a chair, in let’s say Oregon, with an internet connection can effectively practice law in, and service clients in, California or Texas or Maine or . . . well, you get the point.

This recent Law.com story tells the tale of an associate in a Kentucky office of Dinsmore Shohl who relocated to Ohio to work in the Cincinnati office and who is now at risk of being denied admission to the Ohio Bar based on “character and fitness” issues.  The problem with her character and fitness to practice is that Ohio has concluded that she’s been engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Cincinnati by continuing to represent Kentucky clients where she is licensed while waiting for a decision on her application to be admitted to practice law in Ohio.

As far as fact patterns go, this one is among the more innocuous and is one that – if you happen to practice in a firm that has offices in multiple states — you’ve probably seen happen without incident and perhaps never even contemplated could go awry for the lawyer involved:

The questions about Jones’ potential admission to the Ohio bar trace back to 2015, when the associate requested a transfer to Dinsmore’s Cincinnati office so she could start and raise a family in Ohio, according to court documents. The firm granted her request but asked Jones to first apply for admission to the Ohio bar. It also required her to continue working only on matters arising under Kentucky law while her application for admission to the Ohio bar was pending.

Following the firm’s suggestions, Jones applied in October 2015 for reciprocal admission to the Ohio state bar—a process that would allow her to avoid retaking the bar exam in Ohio. She then moved to Cincinnati and worked only on Kentucky matters. She took a maternity leave and returned to practicing Kentucky law while based in Cincinnati, according to court documents in the case.

The article also indicates that those advocating for her admission in Ohio have raised constitutional arguments that also address one of the core problems with the way admissions authorities will often take a “cake and eat it too” approach to these issues:

Jones also invoked the U.S. Constitution’s due process provisions under the 14th Amendment. In a May brief, Jones’ lawyer noted that Ohio’s bar rules would allow an Ohio lawyer to practice Ohio law even if that lawyer was physically doing the work in another place. But, Jones argued, the board’s view would prohibit an out-of-state lawyer who wanted to do some work while in Ohio.

Even merely reading about this situation is a frustrating endeavor but important to highlight because, even if the Court ultimately gets the answer right, it shows how archaic some aspects of this whole approach to these issues are.  (Not the least of which being that we are talking about a situation in which this associate has now been under this cloud and in this situation for nearly three years.)  And heaven help all the multi-state firms with Ohio offices if the Court gets the outcome wrong.

The end of Avvo Legal Services should not be the end of the discussion.

A lot of the time, saying something seemed “inevitable,” only makes sense to say when you’ve had the benefit of hindsight.  At some level, every outcome can be justified as having been inevitable when you are doing the justifying after the event has already happened.

I say that to make clear that I understand the problem with making the following assertion:  As soon as the news came out that the same company that owned Martindale Hubbell was buying Avvo, it seemed inevitable that Avvo Legal Services was on the road to being scrapped/shut down.

Further, if the mere news that a much larger, much more “conservative” company was taking over didn’t signal for you how things would shake out ( a company that also owned other significant legal marketing products that might “compete” with or be intended to compete with Avvo), the news that quickly followed — all the key people at Avvo (the founder and CEO, the General Counsel, the marketing person who was to some extent the “face” of Avvo) were cashing out and moving on — should have left no doubt that large change was coming.

This week Internet Brands, that new owner of Avvo, let the cat out of the bag in perhaps the weirdest way possible that Avvo Legal Services would be shut down.  As this ABA Journal article reports, an unauthorized practice of law committee of the North Carolina Bar had sent an inquiry letter, apparently, to continue or begin an evaluation of whether Avvo Legal Services somehow involved the unauthorized practice of law.

In response, the General Counsel of Internet Brands sent the North Carolina committee a letter advising that Avvo Legal Services was going to be shut down imminently.  That’s a weird way for the news to come out because, of all the problems that Avvo Legal Services’s business model had, unauthorized practice of law simply wasn’t one.

If you follow this space, then you are likely well-versed on what those problems were: the business-model required participating lawyers to take on all of the risk that participation would involve them in one or more violations of their state’s ethics rules, including rules against sharing fees with people who aren’t lawyers or paying someone something of a value for a referral of legal work.

The end of Avvo Legal Services, however, should not mean that the legal profession should stop efforts to determine how the ethics rules need to be revised in order to facilitate the existence of things similar to Avvo Legal Services.  Consumers who have grown accustomed to using that kind of platform to get assistance with their legal needs are just going to look around the Internet for a new option.

One of the folks behind Avvo has been promoting the existence of one such new option pretty vigorously of late.  But there are all kinds of others out there and likely new ones waiting in the wings.  Very few, if any, of them can truly be described as providing any sort of service that is likely to hurt consumers seeking legal services.  Real-world transactions have demonstrated that the kind of approach to pairing consumers in need of help with lawyers with time on their hands and a willingness to assist at a desirable price point can take place without hurting the consumers of legal services.  The fact that those business models are currently prohibited by the ethics rules simply means that slavish devotion to those prohibitions based on theoretical concerns rather than how things truly are is an untenable position for the profession to try to maintain.

I still think a big choice has to be made in our profession, and I continue to think that choice is clear.

TIKD off my list.

Some day I’m going to get tired of having pun with TIKD titles, and you’ve probably already gotten tired of me doing it, but today is not that day for me.  I was looking to find something to be able to easily write about today before scrambling out of town for some speaking engagements and meetings and Roy Simon has come through for me again.  Roy kindly pointed me this morning to the latest development in the saga down in Florida over the traffic ticket app, TIKD, and its fight with the Florida Bar.

If you are not a Law360 subscriber, you can only read part of the story at this link.  Roy was kind enough to send me the full article, so I’ll summarize the key points of the development for you and then leave you with the only potentially relevant thought I can manage today.

The story explains that the Florida Supreme Court has issued a show cause order to TIKD to require it to respond to the Florida Bar’s petition over UPL allegations and to show cause why the Florida Supreme Court should not enter an order barring its services.

The article contains a very confident sounding quote from the owner of TIKD, likely more confident than he should be under the circumstances that reads as follows:

“What a stunning waste of time and resources,” Riley said. “For nearly a year we have been asking the bar to tell us what aspects of our business they find objectionable, so we could work to address
their concerns. Rather than having a conversation, they chose this route and now have filed a vague complaint, lacking any basis in case law.”

“Nonetheless, we’re glad the issue is out of the bar’s hands, and into a realm where actual facts matter. We remain confident Tikd and its affiliated lawyers are fully in compliance with Florida law,
and are hopeful we can finally resolve this and move on,” he added.

I remain skeptical that TIKD itself is truly engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, though I suspect the Florida Supreme Court may find otherwise.  I’m as confident as Mr. Riley sounds above that what they are is a referral service that violates the current version of the Florida Bar’s ethics rules and that lawyers doing business with TIKD simply cannot do so and comply with the current Florida rules.

I’ve written in the past about my thoughts in general about being open to taking hard looks at revising existing ethics rules that touch on these issues, but for now the rules say what they say.

What I’m puzzling over is this:  is there a way of describing what this traffic ticket app company does that is sufficiently analogous enough to what insurance companies do to justify its existence even under current ethics rules?

At some level, isn’t what this company is offering in the equivalent of ticket insurance without a deductible?  They select the lawyer to represent you, they pay the lawyer to represent you, and if a “judgment” goes down against you for which you are liable – a fine for violation of the traffic laws — they pay it.

If we let insurance companies do something very much like that, then what’s the difference here?

Friday follow up: This week flu by.

Apologies for the lack of content this week, been down with the flu since Monday afternoon.

Two short items by way of follow up today worth highlighting with a hope of resuming this blog’s normal, sub-par output next week.

First, word has come out that the former Florida Bar President made the subject of the disqualification motion in the TIKD litigation has now withdrawn from representing TIKD.  You can read an update about that here.

Second, in complaining a week or so ago about the scope of Tennessee’s RPC 5.5(h) prohibition on employing suspended lawyers, I made reference to the fact that the rule could arguably apply even to a lawyer serving an administrative suspension.  This month brings news of the relatively rare occurrence of a lawyer actually getting disciplined for continuing to practice while administratively suspended in Tennessee.  You can read the release from our Board of Professional Responsibility about a lawyer getting publicly censured for continuing to go into the office for 7 business days while suspended for purely administrative reasons relating to not securing the necessary CLE requirements here.  These materials don’t mention whether the lawyer actually even knew during those 7 business days of their administrative suspension.  Presumably so or the public censure, which already sounds overly harsh, would be extremely harsh.  Under RPC 5.5(h), if she were employed by other lawyers during those seven days, they could potentially face discipline as well.

Which is bananas.

And, as to flu, I think I was probably fortunate to only get the B strain.  Reports this week about the extent of things are bad on that front.

So, stay safe.

Husband can’t control his wife, gets disciplined.

Sometimes titles for posts are tough to come up with, sometimes they are far too easy.  This is one of the latter and is offered both with a spirit of tongue-in-cheek silliness and because it is a truly perfect seven-word summary of a recent disciplinary case of note.

It is, of note, at least for discussion purposes, because it appears to be: (1) the right outcome; and (2) a quintessential example of the harm that my state, Tennessee, seeks to prevent through the existence of a very specific, black-letter rule.  Despite that, I’d still like to explain why I happen to think that the Tennessee rule, in particular, is still too harsh and the wrong public policy approach.

The case comes out of Illinois and involves a public censure handed down earlier this month.  The ABA Journal online wrote an article about it a couple of days ago but here’s the pithier description of events published by the Illinois disciplinary authorities:

Mr. Niew, who was licensed in 1972, was censured. His wife, Kathleen Niew, an Illinois lawyer, was disbarred in 2013 for misappropriating $2.34 million belonging to a client who she represented in a real estate matter. After her disbarment, Mr. Niew failed to ensure that his wife no longer maintained a presence in their law office and he also failed to supervise his associate, to prevent that associate from aiding Ms. Niew in the unauthorized practice of law.

The ABA Journal piece points out a bit more detail, explaining that the wife was disbarred in November 2013 but kept coming into the law offfice she had shared with her husband multiple days a week until June 2014.  You can get the highly unfortunate details of the wife’s wrongdoing at the ABA Journal piece.  (Spoiler:  financial wrongdoing.)

The reason that the husband’s role in the wife continuing to come into the office was, itself, a disciplinary problem is that Illinois has a Supreme Court Rule, Rule 764b, that bars a lawyer who has been disbarred or suspended from the practice of law for at least six months from maintaining a presence in any office where law is practiced.  That Illinois rule also imposes a direct duty on other lawyers affiliated with the disbarred or suspended lawyer to stake steps to insure that the rule is complied with.

This kind of rule, which we also have in our ethics rules in Tennessee, is one that I and other Tennessee lawyers have described to people as a rule that means, if you’ve been disbarred or suspended, you can’t even push a broom in a law office as a way of trying to make a living.

In Tennessee, over the objections of the Tennessee Bar Association, our Supreme Court put such a prohibition housed in our rules as RPC 5.5(h).  It acts similarly to the Illinois rule by completely barring involvement in anything surrounding the practice of law for disbarred or suspended lawyers, but it is solely focused on the other lawyers involved and is actually even more harsh than the Illinois rule in two respects.

The Tennessee rule reads:

(h) A lawyer or law firm shall not employ or continue the employment of a disbarred or suspended lawyer as an attorney, legal consultant, law clerk, paralegel or in any other position of a quasi legal nature.

It is harsher than its Illinois counterpart, first, because it applies (on its face) with respect to a lawyer suspended for any period of time not just for six months or more.  Arguably even where a lawyer has been suspended for only 30 days or, possibly, even when they are subject to merely an administrative suspension.  Second, it is harsher because it is not just limited to a prohibition on being physically present in a law office but applies to any employment of such a person by a lawyer or law firm.

In Illinois, for example, the public policy objections I have to such a harsh rule might be less pointed beccause the ability to work from home or otherwise remotely be employed to perform certain tasks could be a saving grace against the otherwise absolute barrier to opportunities for lawyer rehabilitation.  But not so in Tennessee.

While the Niew Illinois case that has gotten some attention certainly appears to demonstrate the right outcome for its circumstances, I still think rules like Tennessee’s are far too harsh.  Problems posed by the classic scenarios that such rules seek to prohibit can otherwise be addressed through provisions in RPC 5.5 that make it unethical for a lawyer to assist someone else in the unauthorized practice of law.

It seems that there ought to be exceptions to such an absolute prohibition; exceptions that it would be hard for reasonable people to argue against.  One could readily construct a hypothetical involving a lawyer who gets herself suspended because of problems associated with the handling of client funds or other deficiencies in their ability to handle the business aspects of the practice of law, but who might be an incredibly gifted researcher and writer.  Seems unduly harsh to foreclose that person’s ability to continue to contribute and benefit clients of other lawyers through performing such work for other lawyers with no access to client funds or even to the clients in question while rehabilitating themselves on their deficiencies.

At present, there simply is not.  The only potential route to rehabilitiation that could be available in Tennessee, apropos if for no other reason than our being called “the Volunteer state,” is that it does look like a disbarred or suspended lawyer could take on such assignments for free.

So what does 2018 hold in store for us?

It’s a new year and, of course, for many that means a time of reflection and goal-setting and much talk of how the new year will be different from the prior year.

I will spare you much of that because you can find that all over the Internet.  I am prompted to post today (in addition to just wanting to get back on the horse after the holiday break) because there has been some news today of note that tends to demonstrate that 2018 is likely going to be a lot like 2017 in terms of what matters and must be discussed.

Today, The Florida Bar and a marketplace technology company, Legal.io, announced a partnership in order to modernize The Florida Bar’s Florida Lawyer Referral Service.  You can read the announcement here.

There are a multitude of reasons why this step in Florida could matter greatly — particularly if it is successful — because other bar associations might follow suit (if such endeavors are not already in the works).  The key seems to be whether any action like this is too late to gain traction with consumers who are already turning to other, similar for-profit endeavors.  I have little doubt that lawyers will be more comfortable with such arrangements because of the safety involved with not having to worry about ethics issues of fee sharing or improper payments for referrals if they can work through bar referral programs.  Florida is an interesting place for this to happen at this moment in time as well because one might expect this development could be raised in the TIKD antitrust litigation, for example, as more fodder for arguments of claimed collusive behavior in the marketplace for legal services by the bar.

And, along those lines (but sort of flipped 180 degrees), there was another development late last year that I haven’t mentioned but that will likely be significant for lawyers in 2018.  It is this lawsuit filed on the other coast against LegalZoom and a number of state bar associations (as well as the USPTO) that seeks $60 million in antitrust damages.  You can read a nice story about this suit filed in California federal court – and what the Plaintiff in it is really trying to accomplish — here.

In short, although the suit alleges that LegalZoom is engaged in unauthorized practice and competes in a way that is unfair to lawyers, and alleges that the USPTO, the California bar, the Texas bar, and the Arizona bar are somehow turning a blind-eye to the conduct to allow it to continue, the Plaintiff, an IP lawyer and entrepreneur named Raj V. Abhyanker, admits that what he’s really looking for is a court ruling that tells him that he, and other lawyers, can use the same business model as LegalZoom without fear of ethical ramifications.

So, you know, stay tuned.

Something TIKD this way comes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

Paragraph 28 of the complaint further drives the point home:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future of Legal Services – Oregon weighs in

I was given an opportunity to provide a Legislative Update piece in the Spring 2017 issue of TortSource a publication of the ABA Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section.  The focus of the Spring 2017 issue is “Evolving Legal Markets” and, although the authorship is Tennessee-heavy, I think you will find all the articles to be worth a read if you can get access.  There is a piece on artificial intelligence, a piece on consumer-facing legal services provided by non-lawyers, a piece on predictive coding, and one on online dispute resolution.

My piece focuses on questions of UPL and responses by states to challenges posed by the companies that compete with lawyers for clients and I’ll share with you the conclusion section:

Other jurisdictions may choose to take more strident approaches, but it would appear that the best path forward for leveling the playing field for lawyers is to seek the adoption of regulations that will require companies providing such legal services to consumers to adhere to the same ethics rules as lawyers. The ABA’s Model Regulatory Objectives for the Provision of Legal Services (A.B.A. Resolution 105, Feb. 2016) provide one template for states to consider to pursue such a path forward.

That conclusion feels more prescient than it truly was because, this past week, the Oregon State Bar Futures Task Force issued its report on the Future of Legal Services in Oregon.   Oregon is often discussed a rainy part of the U.S., and the volume of materials provided as the end product of the Futures Task Force is something of a deluge — the Executive Summary alone spans 15 pages of material.  You can read the Executive Summary here.

There is so much content of note in the work the OSB Futures Task Force has performed that I foresee spending a few posts discussing aspects of it, but today I want to start with a discussion of the findings of one of the two committees that made up the task force.

But even before discussing those two items, some background about the Futures Task Force and about the structure of the report and recommendations is in order.  First, the origin of the task force itself:

In April 2016, the OSB Board of Governors convened a Futures Task Force with the following charge:

“Examine how the Oregon State Bar can best protect the public          and support lawyers’ professional development in the face of            the public evolution of the manner in which legal services are            obtained and delivered.  Such changes have been spurred by              the blurring of traditional jurisdictional borders, the                            introduction of new models for regulating legal services and              educating legal professionals, dynamic public expectations                about how to seek and obtain affordable legal services, and                technological innovations that expand the ability to offer legal          services in dramatically different and financially viable ways.”

Second, the first step that was pursued as to the Task Force once created:

The Board split the Futures Task Force into two committees: a Legal Innovations Committee, focused on the tools and models required for a modern legal practice, and a Regulatory Committee, focused on how to best regulate and protect the public in light of the changing legal services market.

The end result was that the Regulatory Committee has made three recommendations and the Legal Innovations Committee has made five recommendations.  I plan to definitely write further, and in more detail, about the Regulatory Committee recommendations.

But, as indicated, for now I just want to talk about the findings made by one of the two committees, the Regulatory Committee.  I want to focus on them because, I think, they reveal just how universal the situation is that is faced in U.S. jurisdictions and, in turn, this means that the work product of this Oregon group has obvious potential application as a road map for action just about anywhere.  The Regulatory Committee made these nine findings:

  1. Oregonians need legal advice and legal services to successfully resolve problems and to access the courts.
  2. Consumers are increasingly unwilling or unable to engage traditional full-service legal representation.
  3. A significant number of self-represented litigants choose not to hire lawyers, even though they could afford to do so.
  4. Self-help resources are crucial and must be improved, even as we take steps to make professional legal services more accessible.
  5. Subsidized and free legal services, including legal aid and pro bono representation, are a key part of solving the access-to-justice gap, but they remain inadequate to meet all of the civil legal needs of low-income Oregonians.
  6. Despite the existence of numerous under- and unemployed lawyers, the supply of legal talent is not being matched with the need.
  7. Oregonians’ lack of access to legal advice and services leads to unfair outcomes, enlarges the access-to-justice gap, and generates public distrust in the justice system.
  8. For-profit online service providers are rapidly developing new models for delivering legal services to meet consumer demand.
  9. To fully serve the Bar’s mission of promoting respect for the rule of law, improving the quality of legal services, and increasing access to justice, we must allow and encourage the development of alternate models of legal service delivery to better meet the needs of Oregonians.

The question I would leave you with today is:  any reason at all to think that the first 8 items described would be any different if the discussion was about your state and its consumers rather than Oregon and Oregonians?  And, if not, then how could you think that the item identified in 9 isn’t something that your state is going to have to pursue as well?

 

Bad blogger doubles up on topics.

I had every intention of posting twice this week, but events, including being under the weather with general ick much of the week, undermined my intent.  So, this mediocre post will briefly hit two items.  And, with any luck, tie the two together in a way that makes this seem, in hindsight, the correct way to approach these topics.

The first, which is a potentially really big deal with respect to lawyer ethics rules and confidentiality, is a California decision expressly concluding that Sarbanes-Oxley preempts California’s ethics rule on confidentiality to the extent that California’s rule would prohibit an in-house counsel from disclosing confidential client information to pursue a wrongful discharge/retaliation claim.  California’s ethics rule on confidentiality is admittedly something of an odd duck as it is much more stringent than other jurisdictions and often appears to make it seem like California lawyers have to deal with disputes with their clients while having both hands tied behind their back.

The Bio-Rad Laboratories decision has fortunately been written about extensively already by a more prominent blogger who focuses on privilege issues.  You can read the discussion of Bio-Rad put together at Presnell on Privileges here.

Given all of the ways in which the corporate client had already waived privilege and confidentiality as discussed in the first 30 or so pages of the Bio-Rad opinion, the California court really didn’t need to weigh in on the preemption question, but the SEC filed an amicus to make clear its position and, being a district court decision, it isn’t surprising that the judge would offer up all the grounds to support its ruling.

The second is an Ohio advisory ethics opinion from early December 2016 that addressed issues associated with interpretation of RPC 5.5 and correctly explains why a lawyer not admitted in Ohio is not engaged in UPL, even if they are officed in Ohio, if pursuing an exclusively federal practice.  You can read Ohio Advisory Opinion 2016-9 here.  The Ohio opinion recognizes that the application of supremacy principles requires this conclusion.  There are, of course, a limited number of areas of law that a lawyer can practice that are exclusively federal, but they do exist.

The way these two items go together?  I’m not going to hold my breath, but Congress could address, through federal legislation, the problems associated with many aspects of the antiquated way in which various state bar or state regulatory entities address temporary practice in, or handling of matters touching on other state laws, under RPC 5.5 by treating things as unethical that really shouldn’t be in modern law practice — remember, for example, the silliness of the reprimand issued against a Colorado attorney by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Administrative suspensions -another far too often route to UPL problems.

I’ve long been torn about lawyers losing their license and ability to practice law through administrative suspensions.

In Tennessee, for example, this can happen to a lawyer through failing to get your required CLE hours (TN requires 15 annually), or failing to pay your registration fees, or failing to turn in the necessary forms about compliance with certain trust accounting requirements.   There are other ways, but you get the drift; they almost all involve failures that are primarily about not keeping up with paperwork or missing repeated deadlines.  Thus, at some level, it seems like a harsh result to lose the right to practice for a petty offense.

Yet, in most situations, a lawyer has to be really, really delinquent, forgetful, or careless and miss multiple opportunities to correct the oversights before an administrative suspension actually comes to pass.  So, given that you are talking about a profession in which compliance with administrative details and deadlines is a pretty fundamental skill set and can make or break a client’s case, then it can be hard to argue against administrative suspensions as being fair.

Where it really becomes unfortunate is when the lawyer subject to the administrative suspension either does not know or does not care he is suspended and continues to handle client matters and places not only himself but his clients in jeopardy.  The jeopardy for the lawyer is disciplinary charges in the nature of engaging in UPL can be heaped on top of the administrative suspension.  The jeopardy for the client can be questions about whether the actions taken by the suspended lawyer are null and void, and potential questions about whether the privilege applies to dealings or not.

An instance (though admittedly a pretty extreme one) of a lawyer ending up disciplined for UPL while administratively suspended caught my attention thanks to a write-up earlier this month by the folks at the Legal Profession Blog.  The New Jersey Supreme Court on October 7 accepted the recommended decision from the Disciplinary Review Board and issued a reprimand against a lawyer for representing a New Jersey business 8 years after having her New Jersey license administratively revoked.

The May 31, 2016 decision of the DRB, involving a lawyer named French, can be found here.  It caught my fancy not only as an example of the time delays often involved before an administrative suspension kicks in but also because it offers parallels to a recent bad Minnesota UPL decision I wrote about earlier this year.

French, also licensed in New York where she apparently has been working in house for an accounting firm for almost 20 years without incident, was licensed in New Jersey back in 1991.  It is possible she never actually paid the required annual registration/assessment fees in New Jersey, but eventually her law license in New Jersey administratively revoked in 2005 on the basis that she had failed to pay the annual assessment for seven consecutive years.

French testified she was unaware of the revocation and actually unaware of the need to pay an assessment — she says her original law firm never told her.

This disciplinary mess came about when she proceeded to do a favor for a friend in a budding unfair competition/breach of non-compete matter involving two salons.  Interestingly, she went to the trouble of creating her own separate private letterhead for purposes of sending a cease and desist letter for the company owned by her friend, and (unsurprisingly) it was counsel for the other salon that brought to French’s attention the fact that her New Jersey license had been revoked.

Ultimately, the DRB decided only a reprimand (which is a lesser sanction in NJ than a censure) should be imposed despite being “troubled that respondent made no effort, for over fourteen years, to ensure her compliance with [assessment] obligations, and no effort, for over twenty years, to verify her status as a New Jersey attorney.”  French was certainly helped by the finding that her testimony was credible on her actual mens rea of just not knowing.  And the credibility of her testimony was helped by the fact that she had always kept her New Jersey CLE obligations up to date over the years.

Interestingly, two of the members of the DRB voted to impose a three-month suspension against the lawyer, which loyal readers (or NJ lawyers) will remember is the kind of suspension you get in New Jersey for acts of violence.