A Tennessee disciplinary matter has made some national news this past week, so what I am writing about might be something you’ve heard about already.
It involves a Tennessee lawyer who has been given a 4-year suspension from practice, with one-year of active suspension for providing advice over Facebook to a woman about how she could potentially kill someone but make it appear to be self-defense and who advised that woman to delete the evidence from Facebook if she was serious.
Incredibly bad decision-making, obviously unethical conduct, and something that certainly is very deserving of punishment. I want to make all of that clear up front because I’m here otherwise to offer a pretty contrarian take on the opinion that the Tennessee Supreme Court put out explaining the outcome.
Before I do that though, and in case you hadn’t read anything at all about the case elsewhere, here is the gist of the relevant facts of the conduct itself taken from the Court’s very good summary, starting with its second sentence:
The attorney had a Facebook page that described him as a lawyer. A Facebook “friend” involved in a tumultuous relationship posted a public inquiry about carrying a gun in her car. In response to her post, the attorney posted comments on the escalating use of force. He then posted that, if the Facebook friend wanted “to kill” her ex-boyfriend, she
should “lure” him into her home, “claim” he broke in with intent to do her harm, and “claim” she feared for her life. The attorney emphasized in his post that his advice was given “as a lawyer,” and if she was “remotely serious,” she should “keep mum” and delete the entire comment thread because premeditation could be used against her “at trial.”
I started with the second sentence and not the first because the first sentence says: “This case is a cautionary tale on the ethical problems that can befall lawyers on social media.”
Well, it is now because the Tennessee Supreme Court decided to make it into one and to make that the most important thing that they have decided to emphasize. Why that was how the Court decided to frame this eludes me a bit.
This lawyer’s situation wasn’t one where he was merely interacting with people on social media without touting himself as a lawyer and without wading into the explicit giving of legal advice. That’s important to note at this moment in our nation’s history in particular as lots of robust debates are being had about where one might draw the line on the intersection of attorney ethics rules and First Amendment rights of lawyers. The Court’s opinion — as a result of its overall focus — offers some words that likely will only be capable of being read as having a very chilling effect on online speech. (More about that in a minute.)
The Court could have focused on what this situation fundamentally was – an instance of a lawyer doing at least two things that are absolutely antithetical to what it means to be a lawyer: (1) giving legal advice to people designed to help them commit crimes and get away with it; and (2) giving legal advice to people about how to destroy evidence.
Instead, the Court puts an exceedingly high amount of emphasis on the fact that this interaction occurred on social media because these posts, made publicly, “fostered a public perception that a lawyer’s role is to manufacture false defenses. They projected a public image of corruption of the judicial process.” The Court even almost exclusively justifies its decision to change the original outcome of the disciplinary proceedings from a 60-day suspension to a 4-year suspension on treating the lawyer’s having done this on public social media as an aggravating factor. In so doing though, the Court drops a footnote to say that it didn’t know, and it didn’t matter, whether the person being given the advice had made their Facebook page public or private. (If it was going to go down this path, it should have gotten an answer to that question because it does in fact matter.) In so doing, the Court also avoids acknowledging that, on some level, if the lawyer had sent the legal advice to the person via a private Facebook direct message then that conduct actually might have been worse on the whole.
Admittedly, the lawyer’s self-representation before the Court in these proceedings did not help much. He continued to struggle with admitting the gravity of his errors, persisted in trying to say he was fundamentally joking in his statements, and only made the point about the distinction between a private message and a public “wall” post in trying to claim that he couldn’t have really been serious or he wouldn’t have made the statements so publicly. But still, in the end, there is something deserving of real thought about whether a lawyer who does something like this in daylight where others can see is actually doing something worse — in the way that the Court views it — then a lawyer who does something like this but better covers their tracks.
And, in having this laser-like focus on the social media component of this galling conduct, the Court also ends up – at least in the opinion of one Justice — issuing an opinion that is more dicta than opinion. Justice Lee filed a separate opinion, concurring in the judgment and concurring in the section that evaluated why the 60-day punishment was insufficient – but not joining the rest of the opinion. In it, Justice Lee explains that in the posture the case arrived — not appealed by the lawyer or by the Board of Professional Responsibility — the Court could only evaluate the appropriateness of the level of discipline. Thus, all of the Court’s discussion about other matters, including all the reasons why the lawyer’s communications did violate RPC 8.4(d) was, in Justice Lee’s view, just dicta.
If all of those sections are dicta, that does help tamp down concerns that the Court analyzed this situation so thoroughly and never referenced the need for lawyers to understand that this likely was not just a violation of RPC 8.4(d), but truly likely was a violation of RPC 1.2(d) [“A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage … in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is criminal…] as well as a violation of RPC 1.6 because the lawyer essentially disregarded all notions of concern for confidentiality by having the entire interaction with this client on a Facebook wall. Not to mention, of course, a violation of RPC 3.4(a) for counseling someone to destroy or conceal potential evidence. (The lawyer was not charged in the disciplinary proceedings themselves with any violation of anything other than RPC 8.4(d) and the ubiquitous bootstrap charge of RPC 8.4(a)).
Whether or not Justice Lee is correct about the dicta issue does not help me any as to the piece of the opinion that I believe could have the most chilling effect on speech of any sort because it appears in the portion of the opinion addressing the appropriate disciplinary sanction which Justice Lee joined. Again, before quoting the problematic passage a reminder of the context, this was a situation in which the lawyer in question expressly touted the fact that they were a lawyer in their online postings and were clearly engaged in giving direct legal advice to a person, including advice to attempt to conceal or destroy evidence.
It was in that context that the Court chose to say this:
“[A]ttorneys in any setting — including on social media platforms — remain bound by our Rules of Professional Conduct. See In re Vogel, 482 S.W.3d at 545 (All attorneys licensed to practice law in this state have a duty to “act at all times, both professionally and personally, in conformity with the standards imposed upon members of the bar as conditions for the privilege to practice law.”). Lawyers who choose to post on social media must realize they are handling live ammunition; doing so requires care and judgment. Social media posts are widely disseminated, and the damage from a single ill-advised comment is compounded and magnified.
That is not say that the passage is not good, practical advice. The problem is that coming out of the mouth of the Tennessee Supreme Court it must be given greater weight than being just good, practical advice. Attorneys in Tennessee now have to be greatly concerned that the Court does not believe that there can be any separation in terms of online speech between the personal lives of lawyers and their professional lives.
For reference, the Vogel case cited by the Court was not a disciplinary proceeding involving anything that a lawyer was doing personally rather than in their role as a lawyer. Vogel involved a lawyer who improperly disclosed confidential information of a former client and engaged in a sexual relationship with a client during the representation.
To use what was – with all appropriate respect — a throwaway line at the end of the Vogel opinion to appear to signal now that simply being a lawyer means that there can be no “purely personal” interactions online, nor any ability to comment on politics in a capacity outside of one’s law license, is an exceedingly troubling development.