The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have sued the Department of Homeland Security to block U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel from searching travelers’ electronic devices without warrants.  This has implications for lawyers who cross in and out of the U.S. with phones and laptops  containing confidential client information.  The CBP’s policy, which the ABA also has questioned, currently authorizes such searches even without a suspicion of wrongdoing.

We first wrote about the issue last month, when the New York City Bar Association published an ethics opinion raising the client confidentiality issues and advising that in some circumstances lawyers should consider using “burner” phones, and avoid taking client confidential information across borders.

The ACLU and EFF’s lawsuit, in Massachusetts district court, alleges violations of the First and Fourth Amendments on behalf of 11 plaintiffs whose electronic devices were searched as they reentered the U.S.  None were subsequently accused of any wrongdoing.

The plaintiffs include journalists, students, an artist, a NASA engineer and a business owner — but no lawyers.  Despite the absence of lawyers from the roster of plaintiffs, the client confidentiality issues are obvious, and have received a lot of notice.  See here for the New York Times story on the lawsuit, and here and here for commentary on the N.Y. City bar ethics opinion.

I’d be interested in hearing whether lawyers have personal experience with border searches of their electronic devices.

Stay tuned for additional developments on this issue.

What if you’re about to initiate litigation on behalf of your client, or you are in the middle of litigation, and you find that a different client you represent in another matter has documents relevant to the case?  Can you subpoena the documents from your own client?  Can you cross-examine that client at trial?   Here is some background and some practical advice.

Current client conflicts

The ABA’s Ethics Committee analyzed this recurring scenario 25 years ago in its Formal Opinion 92-367, under the verbose-but-descriptive title “Lawyer Examining a Client as an Adverse Witness, or Conducting Third Party Discovery of the Client.”

The focus is on Model Rule 1.7, which deals with current-client conflicts.  It addresses representations directly adverse to existing clients and also situations where your representation of a client may be “materially limited” by your duties to another client.

The Committee concluded that cross-examining or directing third-party discovery to an existing client likely would be directly adverse to that client, and would create a disqualifying conflict of interest — unless both clients consented.  The circumstances would likely “pit the duty of loyalty to each client against the duty of loyalty to the other,” said the Committee.

The possibility of a “material limitation” on your representation of the litigation client is equally clear.  First, you could breach the duty of confidentiality you owe to your client who is the witness or the target of a document subpoena.  After all, in these circumstances, by definition, you have information that is relevant to the litigation you are conducting on behalf of the other client.

Second, there is a “punch-pulling” problem:  your interest in keeping the witness-client, or in not inconveniencing that client, may consciously or unconsciously cause you to go easier on that client, conducting a “‘soft’ or deferential” examination or document request, to the possible disadvantage of your litigation client.

The conflict issue is sharpened, of course, by Model Rule 1.10, the imputation rule:  if you are disqualified, so are all the other lawyers in your firm, by imputation.

Best practices?

The good news is that this conflict is generally viewed as being subject to the affected clients’ consent and waiver.  But how should you proceed?  Regarding the situation presented by third-party discovery against a current client, the experience of my firm and others suggests the following possible steps:

  • Advise the litigation client on whose behalf you want to serve the document subpoena that the target of the subpoena is another firm client in unrelated matters.
  • Get permission from the litigation client to inform the target of the subpoena about the subpoena and the subject matter of the request.
  • Determine if the subpoena target will be objecting to the subpoena or attempting to block production of any information called for by the subpoena.
  • If the answers to that question is “no,” then there is likely little risk of an actual conflict; but otherwise, there is a conflict that requires a waiver.

In the absence of a waiver from each client, or if your litigation client objects at the outset to the exploratory discussion with the subpoena target, you can’t proceed.

In that case, the  ABA Ethics Committee suggests that, as an alternative to withdrawing (which presents obvious and even acute problems, depending on the stage of the litigation), you might be able to co-counsel with an un-conflicted lawyer who would shoulder the third-party discovery.  A New York City Bar Association ethics opinion endorses that course of action.  But a California opinion questioned whether such co-counsel would be truly independent so as to alleviate the conflict.

The ABA’s ETHICSearch has a useful recent article on the ins and outs  of this quandary.

Clearly, there is a lot to think about when you are faced with this problem, and as always, you should make sure you know how your own jurisdiction approaches it.

A lawyer who was physically dependent on opioids and in an “opioid haze” was disbarred earlier this month for stealing more than $117,000 from a client.  Her chronic pain and addiction were not “extraordinary mitigating” factors that justified departing from the presumptive penalty for client theft, the Washington Supreme Court held.

The decision is a stark reminder at a time when the ravages of lawyer substance abuse have been spotlighted in studies, books and current events.

Trust account theft

The lawyer had a family law practice and worked with one associate.  In 2009, she agreed to represent a client in dissolving his marriage, took a $5,000 retainer and assigned the case to her associate, a recent law school graduate.

The court soon entered a dissolution decree, and awarded the client more than $117,000 as an equalization payment for his interest in the family house, which the lawyer put in her trust account.

The lawyer never paid the client.  Instead, she moved her trust account to another bank, and eventually transferred all the money to her personal account.  She used some of the funds to keep her practice afloat, but also for symphony and Mariners tickets, manicures, groceries, pet food and restaurants.

Most of the client’s many calls to the lawyer went unanswered.  When the lawyer did respond, she said she had been sick and needed time to get back to the client about the funds.  At the time, the client was destitute and sleeping on a friend’s couch while waiting for the settlement funds to help him get back on his feet.

In the meantime, the lawyer stopped coming to her office, and stopped attending to her practice.  The associate registered her concern in an e-mail, citing the trust account irregularities and the “ethical conundrum.”  In reply, the lawyer said that the associate had no responsibilities regarding the office’s finances, and purported to “relieve [the associate] of any ethical obligations regarding the firm’s financial business…”  The associate soon left the firm.  (A lawyer in such circumstances might need to consider whether Model Rule 8.3, “Reporting Professional Misconduct,” could be applicable.)

In 2014, the lawyer pled guilty to a criminal charge of first degree theft, and was sentenced to nine months of electronic home monitoring.

“Opioid haze”

The lawyer had been in successive car accidents in 2003, 2004 and 2006, and had developed chronic pain.  After the lawyer unsuccessfully tried several pain management techniques, her doctor prescribed a variety of opioids in 2006; the lawyer started taking the medication in increasingly large amounts and became dependent.

In her disciplinary filings, the lawyer said that she was in an “opioid haze,” and that her chemical dependency caused her to “overlook the proper disbursal of the trust funds” to the client.

Evidence at the hearing depicted the lawyer’s personality changes.  As her drug use mounted, she became chronically lethargic, “would pass out midsentence and was unable to complete simple tasks.”

Finally, in 2012, the lawyer entered a detox program.

No mitigation

Under the ABA’s Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions and Washington law, the presumptive punishment for client theft is disbarment.  Only “extraordinary” mitigation will merit reducing that sanction, the court noted.

The disciplinary hearing officer found that the lawyer had a physical disability due to her chronic pain; that she was chemically dependent; and that these two factors justified a three-year suspension rather than the presumptive disbarment penalty.

But the full disciplinary board — by an 11-0 unanimous vote — disagreed, and the state supreme court adopted the board’s recommendation of disbarment.

The court rejected the argument that the lawyer’s significant pain was an “extraordinary mitigator”:  “We do not wish to minimize the debilitating and disabling impact that chronic pain has on many individuals’ lives.  Nevertheless, such pain does not excuse extreme lapses of an attorney’s moral judgment.”

And the court held that the lawyer’s chemical dependency, either alone or in combination, would not justify a sanction short of disbarment — even if the lawyer had been able to show that her opioid dependence caused her to steal client funds.

The court wrote that it has consistently found that alcohol and drug addiction are not extraordinary mitigating factors in cases involving client theft.  Rather, the court said, despite her “opioid haze,” the lawyer was to some degree “culpable and responsible for her actions.  At some point, she ‘chose the path’ that led to her misconduct.”  The court refused to view the lawyer as an “innocent victim of forces beyond [her] control …. We must hold her responsible for the harm she caused to the real victim here [the client].”

Harsh result — or appropriate?

This was a tragic situation — for the client, whose money was stolen by the fiduciary who was supposed to protect his rights; and for the lawyer, whose professional life has now been foreclosed by a terrible lapse.

As a profession — and as individuals — we need to do a much better job of intervening in the chain of life events that led to the result in this case.  Our failure to do so when we are aware of a situation like this makes us bystanders.  Our obligation as humans demands more.

Putting your law firm name on coffee mugs and giving away donuts to prospective clients is apparently not enough anymore.  Recent firm branding campaigns have included sponsorships of pro golfers and cricket players, including emblazoning the bats with the firm name.

That may be the trend of the future in Biglaw, but a much more modest marketing effort recently landed an Ohio lawyer in disciplinary trouble.

No Justice, no peace?

According to the opinion, from 1981-1997, the lawyer in question practiced with another attorney, who eventually became (and continues to be) a Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.  Fast forward to 2015.  With the permission of the Justice, the lawyer began using their old firm name, including on business cards, and hung a sign outside the office saying “O’Neill & Brown Law Office (Est. 1981).”

That only lasted for a few weeks before the local bar association began investigating.  After the disciplinary authorities advised the Justice that the sign violated Ohio ethics rules, the Justice instructed the lawyer to remove his name from the sign, and eventually the lawyer did so.

False and misleading

The Ohio Supreme Court (with the Justice in question not participating) agreed with the Board of Professional Conduct that the firm name on the sign and business card, and the reference to the firm having been established in 1981 were false or misleading communications that violated Ohio’s version of Model Rule 7.1.  The court also found a violation of Rule 7.5(c), which prohibits using a judge’s name in a firm name or other firm communication, unless the judge regularly and actively practices with the firm.

By a 4-3 vote, the court imposed a two-year stayed suspension on the lawyer.  A significant aggravating factor contributed to the sanction:  this wasn’t the lawyer’s first rodeo — he’d been disciplined several times before, according to the opinion, including a previous suspension for threatening a judge who served as chair of the local bar grievance committee.  But in mitigation, the court noted that his conduct “did not involve the provision of legal services,” that no clients were harmed, and that the Justice participated in the decision to use the “O’Neill & Brown Law Office” name on the sign.

The three-judge minority would have imposed an “indefinite” suspension, which in Ohio is a term of at least two years.

Stick to the tchotchkes

A good lesson here.  A prominent legal moniker on your office sign may be good marketing, but it would be best to stick to the coffee mugs — or cricket bats.

Travelling abroad for work?  What should you do if a Customs and Border Patrol agent, claiming lawful authority, demands that you unlock your computer or thumb drive or cell phone — full of client confidential information — and hand it over to be searched as you cross the U.S. border?

New York City bar association ethics opinion issued on July 25 offers some practical tips, and spotlights the ethical duties of confidentiality and client communication involved in this increasingly-common scenario.

Cause for concern

The confidentiality concern is more than hypothetical.  According to the Department of Homeland Security, in February 2017 alone, CBP agents searched more than 5,000 cell phones, laptops and other devices.  That’s as many searches as in all of 2015.  CBP policy apparently permits U.S. customs agents to review any information that physically resides on travelers’ electronic devices, with or without any reason for suspicion, and to seize the devices pending inspection.

The ABA voiced concern in May, requesting that the Department of Homeland Security revise CBP’s procedures in order to better protect client confidential information from search or seizure at border crossings.

Evasive tactics necessary?

Under every state version of Model Rule 1.6, you have an ethical duty to safeguard the confidentiality of client information in your possession, and “few principles are more important to our legal system,” the opinion notes.

The thoroughly-reasoned and detailed New York opinion concludes that Rule 1.6, coupled with Rule 1.1 (Competence), raises obligations before a lawyer approaches the U.S. border; at the border when an agent seeks access to a device; and after an agent has reviewed clients’ confidential information.

  • Before crossing the border, Rule 1.6(c) and its comments, which require “reasonable efforts to prevent … unauthorized access to” client confidential information, means that you must take reasonable precautions in advance to avoid disclosing such information unless authorized by the client (which is unlikely).  Depending on the circumstances, including the sensitivity of the information, these efforts may include not carrying any client confidential information across the border.  If so, the opinion suggests:  securely backing up client information and then crossing the border with a blank “burner” phone or laptop; turning off syncing of cloud services; signing out of web-based services; and/or uninstalling applications providing local or remote access to confidential information.
  • At the border, Rule 1.6(b)(6) and its comments come into play.  It permits lawyers to disclose confidential information to the extent reasonably believed to be necessary when required “to comply with other law or court order,” including “a governmental entity claiming authority pursuant to … law.”  But, the opinion cautions, disclosure is not “reasonably necessary” to comply with law if there are reasonable lawful alternatives to disclosure.  The opinion concludes that “it would be an unreasonable burden” to require a lawyer to forgo entering the U.S. or to allow herself to be taken into custody or litigate the lawfulness of a border search. But the opinion also says that lawyers have a duty not to comply “unless and until” the lawyer “undertakes reasonable efforts to dissuade border agents from reviewing clients’ confidential information or to persuade them to limit the extent of their review.”  To facilitate that challenge, you should carry ID confirming that you are a lawyer, notify agents that your device has client confidential information on it, request that the agents limit their review, and ask to speak to a superior officer, says the opinion.
  • After a search or seizure of client confidential information, Rule 1.4 (Communication) requires that you notify affected clients about what occurred and the extent to which their confidential information may have been reviewed or seized.  That communication will let the client decide on possible responses, including a potential legal challenge.

Globe-trotting implications

Tennessee ethics lawyer Brian Faughan shared his comments on this opinion under the headline “Practicing law like it’s espionage.”  The ways to carry out the potential duty to avoid taking confidential information across U.S. borders, as well as the other recommendations in the New York opinion, indeed make me think of spy craft, and to wonder if we are entering the world of novelist John LeCarre.  That’s an uncomfortable thought — but under the reasoning of this opinion, such considerations are necessary as a matter of ethics.

If you’re driving from state to state, the rules of the road are generally consistent.  While details may differ, a red light means “stop” in every state of the Union.  But under our federal system, each U.S. jurisdiction has authority to regulate the practice of law — and under the resulting state ethics rules, not only the details, but even some of the basics may differ.

That’s spotlighted in a district court opinion issued earlier this year, denying a motion to disqualify counsel in a defamation case because plaintiff was not a “prospective client” under South Carolina’s ethics rules.

“If there is no conflict”

The plaintiff sued ten John and Jane Does, alleging he was defamed in a blog post.  The plaintiff first threatened suit against the blogger, who hired counsel at a Greenville, S.C. firm, (“Wyche”).  Ten days later, plaintiff’s lead counsel reached out to a different lawyer at Wyche.  They discussed the possibility of the Wyche lawyer serving as local counsel for plaintiff, and plaintiff’s lead lawyer asked for a fee agreement “if there is no conflict.”  The Wyche lawyer took the relevant names “for conflict purposes,” provided the firm’s rates, and said in an e-mail that “I hope we get the opportunity to work together.”

You can see where this is going, right?  The next day, the Wyche lawyer — having discovered that the firm already represented the blogger — told plaintiff’s lawyer that the firm had a conflict and declined the representation.

Later, plaintiff issued a subpoena to the blogger, claiming that she had knowledge of the Does’ identities.  When the Wyche firm appeared on behalf of the blogger, plaintiff moved to disqualify.

That’s where the Palmetto State’s ethics rules on prospective clients came into play.

Prospective client?

To safeguard the confidentiality interests of prospective clients, Model Rule 1.18 provides that if you obtain “information from [a] prospective client that could be significantly harmful to that person in the matter,” you and your firm are generally disqualified from adverse representation in the same or a substantially-related matter.

Who is a “prospective client” under the Model Rule? Anyone who consults with you “about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter” — even when no lawyer-client relationship ensues.

But South Carolina’s Rule 1.18 is more restrictive.  It’s version defines a “prospective client” as someone who consults with a lawyer — but “only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form the relationship.”

That made all the difference to the court in ruling on plaintiff’s DQ motion.  The court said that there was no evidence that a “commitment” was “likely” that the Wyche firm would represent the plaintiff.  The “hope-we-can-work-together” comment was only a “polite courtesy,” the court said.

“Niceties,” are not binding commitments to represent someone, the court held, and “are not, absent unusual circumstances, reasonably interpreted to indicate a commitment is likely.”  The plaintiff’s lawyer also clearly understood that before any engagement, Wyche had to check for conflicts.

Without having become a “prospective client” under South Carolina’s version of Rule 1.18, the plaintiff had no basis for disqualifying the Wyche firm.

Different rules, different outcome

The plaintiff here might have met the definition of “prospective client,” and been entitled to the protection of Rule 1.18, in a state that hews to the broader Model Rule language, instead of South Carolina’s more-restrictive version.  So you must be aware of such nuances in the ethics rules of the road.

But you also must be diligent in not “hearing too much” when a prospective client reaches out to you.  The Wyche lawyer who talked to the plaintiff’s lead counsel in this case didn’t get confidential information about the plaintiff before checking for conflicts.

That’s good policy.  There are plenty of examples of successful DQ motions where a lawyer has listened to details — which prospective clients often want to relate — and only then discovered a conflict.  The always-excellent Freivogel on Conflicts collects the cases.  In worst-case scenarios, that can result in needing to decline the prospective engagement and step away from the one that raises the conflict.  That’s the message of ABA Ethics Opinion 90-358 (1990) — an outcome no one wants.

Hot on the heels of the publicity for Brian Cuban’s new book, “The Addicted Lawyer:  Tales of the Bar, Booze, Blow and Redemption,” comes the searing account in the New York Times of the 2015 death of a former IP partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, who secretly battled drug addiction and reportedly died of a bacterial infection that often afflicts intravenous drug users.

Cuban’s book (he is the brother of billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban) is, by all accounts, a story of perseverance and recovery; Cuban redeemed his life, although he does not practice law any longer.

But the New York Times article, authored by the Wilson Sonsini partner’s ex-wife, is a harrowing call to arms about the need to do a better job — in the organized bar, in BigLaw, small law, corporate law and everywhere else — of identifying and helping addicted lawyers.

“Last call” — dial-in to a work conference

The Wilson Sonsini partner, identified in the NYT article only as “Peter,” is described as successful, driven and work-obsessed.  After a stellar law school career, in which he graduated first in his class, he replicated that success in a legal career that saw him regularly working 60-hour weeks over the next 20 years.

His ex-wife, with whom Peter maintained good relations, found him dead on the floor in his house, near half-filled syringes, a tourniquet, and crushed pills.  She had no idea that he was struggling with a severe addiction — reflected in detailed notes the lawyer kept of the times and amounts of his drug injections — although she writes that she noticed wild mood-swings in the months before his death, and voice mails consisting of “meandering soliloquies.”

Most poignantly, the lawyer kept working right up to the end.  The last call he made from his cellphone, his ex-wife wrote, was to dial in to a work conference call, even though he was “vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness.”

At Peter’s memorial service, his ex-wife wrote, while a weeping young associate eulogized the partner he had come to know, firm lawyers were bent over their own cellphones, tapping out e-mails — unable to put down their work even then.

Grim statistics

The statistics on lawyers and alcohol abuse are grim, and well-known.  More than a fifth of all lawyers are problem drinkers, according to last year’s joint report of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Lawyers.

The statistically-robust report drew responses from 12,825 licensed and practicing lawyers from 19 states.  But only 25 percent of respondents answered questions about drug use — out of fear of answering, according to the study’s lead author.  Quoted in the NYT story, he said that  “I think the incidence of drug use and abuse is significantly underreported,” because in contrast to alcohol use, drug use is illegal.

In his book, Cuban describes snorting cocaine in his former law firm’s bathroom, to keep going after boozing it up and using drugs the night before.  Other memoirs, like “Girl Walks Out of a Bar,” by a former Pillsbury Winthrop lawyer, underscore the reality of lawyer drug addiction.

What is the profession doing to help?

Accounts like Cuban’s and the death of the Wilson Sonsini lawyer spotlight the need for the legal profession to step up its efforts to help.  The ABA’s Model Rule on Continuing Legal Education calls for just one credit of CLE every three years on mental health or substance abuse.

Some states, like my home state of Ohio, have moved away from a specific substance-abuse requirement;  since rule amendments in 2014, many subjects qualify to meet our “professional conduct” CLE requirement, so a lawyer never needs to have any substance abuse CLE.

Yet, in the days before that change was made, when lawyers still needed to get one hour of  substance abuse training every two years, each time I spoke on ethics at a CLE seminar, I observed at least one lawyer going up afterwards to the person who had spoken on substance abuse, and speaking earnestly.  These were lawyers in trouble — and we need to do more to help them.

Jurisdictions like Illinois seem to be moving in the right direction, as reported by Chicago ethics lawyer Allison WoodUnder amended rules, Illinois lawyers are now required to take one hour of mental health and substance abuse CLE as part of their six-hour professional responsibility requirement.  Both the directive to have at least some substance abuse training, and the size of the PR requirement are laudable.

Law firms also have a huge role to play — there’s room to ask whether firm culture “enables” alcoholism.  De-emphasizing the historic link between lawyering and drinking , including at firm events, would help.  So would increasing access to law firm employee assistance programs, as highlighted in guidelines here, from Massachusetts “Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.”

And as I have done before, here’s a state-by-state list of links to lawyer assistance organizations.  No problem is ever made worse by seeking help.

Being inexperienced can contribute to getting into disciplinary trouble, but it can also be a mitigating factor in a bar disciplinary case.  That’s the message of a recent opinion of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which imposed a six month suspension from state practice as reciprocal discipline on a lawyer who had already been suspended from federal bankruptcy court practice for five years.

Raising the risk?

Something like 37,000 students likely graduated from law school this year; that’s a lot of newly-minted JD’s coming into the world of practice.  And while they might know more about legal ethics when they graduate than they ever will again (as I tell the law students I teach as an adjunct ethics prof), it’s also surely true that simple inexperience can play a role in going astray and getting into disciplinary trouble.

For one thing, with the legal job market being what it is, many new lawyers will likely be hanging out their own shingles.  There are lots of opportunities for a novice to get mentoring, advice, and hand-holding from more-veteran members of the  bar.

But failing to take advantage of those resources can mean that an inexperienced solo lawyer is stuck in an echo-chamber, without the corrective that a more-seasoned viewpoint can contribute.  And even in a firm, it’s easy to make a mistake if the proper supervision is lacking.

Sooner State of confusion 

The lawyer in this disciplinary case was admitted to the Oklahoma bar and started practicing in 2013.  About 18 months later, she got her first client — a couple who were attempting to set aside a bankruptcy court order.

Her attempt on the couple’s behalf went badly wrong, and then spiraled out of control:  the bankruptcy court found the lawyer’s set-aside motion to be without any legal or factual basis; she missed the deadline to supplement the filing; and then she sued the trustee, the judge, the state courts of two counties and the layers representing the creditors.

The court dismissed that suit with prejudice, and the creditors moved for sanctions against the lawyer in the bankruptcy court, asserting among other things that she had filed frivolous litigation, misrepresented facts, and had threatened the bankruptcy trustee and attorneys with criminal prosecution in bad faith.

Before the sanctions hearing, the lawyer entered into a settlement, accepting a five-year suspension from practice in both Oklahoma bankruptcy courts.

Inexperience counts

It’s a little-known fact that drawing professional discipline in one jurisdiction where you are admitted to practice (including before federal courts), can bring reciprocal discipline in other jurisdictions where you are admitted.  That’s what happened here.

In response to the state bar’s disciplinary charges, the lawyer creatively argued that because her bankruptcy suspension was a result of an agreed settlement and not an “adjudication,” there was no basis for reciprocal state discipline.  The Oklahoma supreme court swept that argument aside, and held that her conduct violated the Sooner State’s versions of Model Rules 1.1 (competence); Rule 3.4 (unfairness to opposing parties and counsel; and Rule 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

But in weighing the appropriate reciprocal discipline, the court significantly took as a mitigating factor that the lawyer “was new to the practice of law and without supervision or training.”  Without intending to hold “new legal practitioners to different standards from  more seasoned lawyers,” the court nonetheless took account of the fact that the lawyer “was practicing on her own with little prior training or supervision and refused to ask for help.”

Thus, although acknowledging that the lawyer exceeded the bounds of zealous advocacy, and “displayed a lack of competency and insolence in the practice of bankruptcy law,” the court imposed only a six-month suspension from practice.

Don’t let this happen to you 

If you’re a newbie, recognize the limits of your knowledge and get help.  Don’t count on your inexperience to save you from harsh professional discipline; you don’t want to go there in the first place.  If you practice by yourself, take advantage of all the formal and informal mentoring and training resources available via state and local bar associations and law schools.

My hometown Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, for instance, has a solo and small firm practice section.  The Ohio Supreme Court has a lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring program, linking veteran lawyers with new practitioners.  Last, here are other mentoring programs, listed by state.

The former general counsel for clothing retail giant Zara USA, Inc. can’t claim privilege in his discrimination-wrongful discharge suit for e-mails he created on a company-issued computer, said New York’s First Department court of appeals in an opinion last month — but the same material might be protected by the work-product doctrine, the court held.

The discovery dispute and ruling arose from a now-common scenario:  an employee who uses a company computer for personal communications about litigation against the company — and apparently, even corporate GC’s do it.

GC suit alleges discrimination, harassment

The backstory starts in June 2015, when the former GC sued his employer for bias and harassment.  In his complaint, the GC alleged that, for instance, after learning that he is gay and Jewish, company personnel sent sexually-charged e-mails to him, used Yiddish expressions in speaking to him and sent his long-time partner an e-mail with an image of a tattooed penis.  The GC alleges that after he complained about his treatment, company leaders told him that his job was in jeopardy, and eventually terminated him.

During discovery, Zara sought documents from the former GC’s laptop, asserting that it and its contents were company property under a policy that the GC had helped draft.  The policy was in the company employment handbook, and like many such policies, it:

  • restricted use of company-owned devices to “business purposes”;
  • specified that content created/stored company resources belonged to Zara “exclusively”;
  • emphasized that employees lacked any expectation of privacy in information transmitted or stored on company computers; and
  • said that Zara could access such information without prior notice.

No privilege for documents on employer-issued computer

In the trial court, the GC won a motion for protective order.  The judge wrote that Zara seemed to be “merely trying to gain litigation advantage by accessing documents that may be privileged,” referring to 101 documents on his computer that the GC created after the litigation began.

But the First Department found no privilege, reasoning that given the employee handbook provisions (which he had at least constructive knowledge of), the GC had no reasonable expectation of privacy, and thus lacked “the reasonable assurance of confidentiality that is foundational to attorney client privilege.”

This ruling is consistent with the case law in most jurisdictions, holding that attorney-client privilege does not apply to communications between an employee and the employee’s personal lawyer if made using the employer’s computer network and if the employer has informed employees that they have no expectation of privacy with respect to communications using the employer’s e-mail system.

Will work-product work?  

However, the appeals court also said that even though Zara reserved the right to access company-issued computers, it never did so, and so there was never any actual disclosure to any third party of the material that the former GC sought to shield.

As a result, even though attorney-client privilege was unavailable, the work-product doctrine might be applicable if no one other than the former GC and his counsel had actually reviewed the materials.  Accordingly, said the court, the GC’s use of Zara’s computer “for personal purposes does not, standing alone, constitute a waiver of attorney work product protections.”

Now, on remand, it will be up to the trial court to review the documents in camera and determine the work-product question.

At the crossroads

This case is at the intersection of employment law and privilege law, with facts that have become more common recently.  In fact, the First Department cited its own privilege decision earlier this year in a similar dispute over access to e-mails that Marvel Entertainment’s CEO exchanged with his wife using the company e-mail system.  There too, the court found no privilege (spousal, this time), but possible work-product protection.

The twist in this latest case is that it was Zara’s former chief legal officer who used his company-issued computer to communicate with his private counsel — making this decision one that GC’s should take note of.

Just last month, we wrote about a North Carolina draft proposal that would ease the way via its ethics rules for Avvo and other on-line legal services to operate there.  Now, after a joint opinion from three New Jersey Supreme Court committees, the Garden State has turned thumbs down on such law platforms, citing issues including improper fee-sharing and referral fees.

Nix on Avvo, LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer

The joint opinion bans participation in Avvo’s programs because of the “marketing fees” it collect from lawyers in exchange for participating in two of its offerings:  “Avvo Advisor,” in which clients talk to lawyers for 15 minutes for $40, with Avvo keeping $10; and “Avvo Legal Services,” where clients pay a flat fee to Avvo for access to affiliated lawyers, and then Avvo pays the lawyer net of its own fee.

The committees found that this arrangement violates New Jersey’s version of Model Rule 5.4(a), barring fee-splitting with non-lawyers, and it mattered not that Avvo called its cut a “marketing fee”:  irrespective of its label, said the committees, “lawyers pay a portion of the legal fee earned to a nonlawyer; this is impermissible fee sharing.”  In addition, said the committees, these payments signal a “lawyer referral service,” and payment of an “impermissible referral fee” under New Jersey’s Rules 7.2(c) and 7.3(d).

Icing the cake, the committees also raised a trust account issue, saying that Avvo’s practice of holding the lawyer’s fee until the conclusion of the matter violates the attorney’s duty to maintain a registered trust account and to hold client funds in it until the work is completed.

Avvo wasn’t the only on-line platform tagged — Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom also were placed off-limits to New Jersey lawyers, but for a different reason.  While they do not require payment from lawyers to participate, and do not share the clients’ monthly subscription fees with lawyers, Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom are “legal service plans” that have not been registered with or approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court, said the committees.  That places them outside the pale, even while not violating the fee-sharing prohibition.

A notice to the bar from the supreme court’s administrative office accompanied the joint opinion, listing the 46 state-approved legal service plans, including those offered through unions and government agencies.

What next?

As we’ve noted, the ABA’s Futures Commission sees the continuing onslaught of on-line platforms as something that is here to stay.  Nonetheless, this New Jersey ethics opinion joins other cautionary or negative ones issued by regulators in Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.  Against that backdrop, North Carolina’s recent consideration of rule changes may appear to be the outlier (although an Oregon state bar association task force also recently recommended ethics rule amendments that would be friendly to on-line service legal platforms).

Avvo responded to the New Jersey opinion, telling the New Jersey Law Journal that it is “attempting to address the pressing need for greater consumer access to justice, and we will continue to do so despite this advisory opinion.”

Will market pressure become a tsunami that will eventually sweep legal ethics considerations away?  It may take awhile to tell, but until then, look for more ethics opinions to come out with differing views, potentially creating a patchwork of inconsistent state approaches.  We’ll be watching with great interest.