Traps for the Unwary – Married lawyers edition.

Within the last week, there was an interesting Law.com article (subscription required) on a topic that has been something of a pet . . . well not really “peeve” of mine, and not really a pet project of mine, but a topic that I feel like is somewhat uniquely overlooked by the people to whom it should be most relevant — spouses/significant others who are both lawyers but who work different places.

The article discusses an Ohio disciplinary case that is ongoing and that involves something that – based on anecdotal evidence over the course of my career — is an extremely frequent occurrence:  the sharing of information about cases and matters between spouses and significant others who both are lawyers but who aren’t both representing the client in question.

Although (as indicated above – unless you are particularly wily about how you use the Internet and various search engines ability to “cache” content — you need a subscription to read the article, here’s a snippet to give you a flavor of the fact pattern involved.

The Ohio high court is set to review a proposed disciplinary sanction against two education law attorneys, ThomasHolmes and Ashleigh Kerr, who are engaged to one another and admitted to exchanging emails that included work product and confidential client information.

Although Holmes and Kerr focus on similar types of law—namely the representation of public school districts—they have never shared clients and they worked at different firm. Holmes practiced most recently at [a firm] in …Ohio, and Kerr practiced at [a different firm] in … Ohio.

In a disciplinary complaint lodged in December against the couple, the Ohio Supreme Court’s board of professional conduct said the two have lived together since October 2015 and became engaged in November of that year. From January 2015 to November 2016, the disciplinary complaint alleged, the two exchanged information related to their client representations on more than a dozen occasions.

“Generally,” the board alleged, “Kerr forwarded Holmes an email exchange with her client in which her client requested a legal document (i.e. a contract, waiver or opinion). In response, Holmes forwarded Kerr an email exchange with his client which attached a similar legal document that he had drafted for his client. More often than not, Holmes ultimately completed Kerr’s work relative to her particular client.”

If you want more of the detail, you can access the disciplinary complaint here.  And you can go read the pending recommendation of the Ohio board as to the discipline — which has been agreed to by each of the lawyers here.

The proposed, agreed discipline is a six-month suspension from the practice of law for each lawyer (but with the suspension fully stayed/probated.)

I suspect the outcome of that matter – and perhaps even the fact of disciplinary proceedings at all — will come as a huge surprise to many lawyers.  But the simple fact is that the underlying practice — sharing information about cases in order to try to get your spouse or significant other to help you — despite how much it may seem consistent with human nature is almost always going to be undeniably a violation of the ethics rules.  It is possible that one of the lawyers could get the client to consent to the arrangement, but beyond that approach there are very few ways to avoid the simple fact that RPC 1.6 in almost any jurisdiction won’t permit doing this.

I also strongly believe that most lawyers who do this kind of thing — if they think about it from an ethics standpoint – believe that the risk is quite low of ever being found out because of the marital privilege.  But not only because of some of the inherent limits on how far that may take you, but also because of the increasing frequency in which we all do everything digitally… this case demonstrates that there are a number of ways that the communications can surface into the light without anyone ever having a spouse voluntarily provide information any marital privilege notwithstanding.

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