It is still astounding (as well as deeply dispiriting) that the context of the discussion I’m about to launch is the work of White House Counsel but this is the world we currently occupy. You may very well have read this fascinating The Washington Post article by now released in connection with the ongoing news story of a former White House staffer who repeatedly secretly taped conversations – including her own firing in The Situation Room — inside The White House and what those recordings may reveal about whether that person says even more outrageous things in private than the outrageous things he says in public, as well as whether that person is suffering from a decline in his mental faculties.
Because tackling the notion of the ethics of representing a client with diminished capacity if that client happens to be – at least theoretically – the most powerful politician on the planet – is too depressing to tackle, I’m not writing about that today. If you want to delve into those issues, your starting point is ABA Model Rule 1.14.
Instead I want to talk about [as the title of the post telegraphed] what can be a thorny ethics issue even in much more pedestrian contexts: is it ethical for a lawyer to draft and create a contract for a client’s use that the lawyer knows to be unenforceable?
As the topic du jour the context of the question is requiring staff at The White House – public employees — to sign non-disclosure agreements including provisions that would prohibit them from disparaging the 45th President of the United States. Seemingly everyone acknowledges that given the nature of public employment, democracy, the at-least-still-for-the-time-being cherished concept of transparency in government, and numerous other federal laws such an agreement is obviously and undisputedly unenforceable. The article describes what the media has been told about the events:
A number of White House aides were urged to sign NDAs in early 2017 by White House Counsel Donald McGahn, according to current and former aides, who requested anonymity to discuss internal West Wing deliberations. Trump was obsessed with leaks to the news media and repeatedly demanded that McGahn draft the agreement, the aides said.
Initially, McGahn told Trump he would not draft or give aides the NDAs because they were not enforceable, White House officials said. But in the end, McGahn created a document that said aides would not divulge any confidential or nonpublic information to any person outside the building at any time, according to three people who signed it.
Other media outlets have reported that McGahn may have convinced people to actually sign the document by reassuring them that it was unenforceable. One of the reasons the question is important ethically is that if you create a contract for a client that you know is unenforceable, they will likely still try to use that contract in the future against people and cause them harm (at the very least economic harm and inconvenience associated with defending a lawsuit seeking to claim a breach of the unenforceable contract). Media reports today indicate that something like this is now being undertaken – although admittedly apparently based on an NDA that was required by the campaign and not the actual government.
My opinion about the answer to the question of whether any such conduct by a lawyer is unethical is, unfortunately, less than equivocal. At heart, it will have to turn on a situation-by-situation analysis. Using the Model Rules to explain, this is because there is not exactly a specific rule outside of the litigation context that flatly prohibits a lawyer from assisting a client in pursuing a frivolous position in negotiation of a document in the same way that there is such a rule prohibiting the pursuit of frivolous claims in litigation.
What is available is a collection of rules that would need to be sifted through and applied to the circumstances to reach a conclusion about the lawyer’s role in assisting a client in getting someone to agree to a provision in a contract (or an entire contract) that is known to be unenforceable. Those rules are:
RPC 1.2(d): A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent, but a lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client and may counsel or assist a client to make a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law.
RPC 1.16(a): … a lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if: (1) the representation will result in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law ….
RPC 4.1: In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall not knowingly: (a) make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person; or (b) fail to disclose a material fact when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client, unless disclosure is prohibited by Rule 1.6.
RPC 4.3: In dealing on behalf of a client with a person who is not represented by counsel, a lawyer shall not state or imply that the lawyer is disinterested. . . . The lawyer shall not give legal advice to an unrepresented person, other than the advice to secure counsel, if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the interests of such a person are or have a reasonable possibility of being in conflict with the interests of the client.
RPC 4.4(a): In representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person ….
RPC 8.4(d): It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to … engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.
Assuming that, at all times in dealing with the members of staff being asked to sign the contracts, White House counsel was truthful about the situation, then the most troublesome provisions from the list above would be RPC 4.4(a) as there seems no “substantial” purpose other than to burden these people to seek to have them agree to an unenforceable contract — particularly where one of the grounds of unenforceability in this scenario is a constitutional issue.
In other circumstances, for example, where the unenforceable piece of the contract puzzle is just one part of an otherwise enforceable contract or, on the other extreme, where the contract itself is unenforceable because its purpose is inherently criminal or illegal, then the interweaving of these rules may provide a clearer outcome.