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.

Beach Office 1Practicing law out of a “virtual law office” (“VLO”), without being tied to the overhead expense of a brick-and-mortar facility, is increasingly attractive to lawyers in many stages of their careers:  junior lawyers hanging out their shingles in a tough market; senior lawyers who want to keep practicing, but in a flexible format; and mid-career lawyers who are attracted to the increased options for leveraging their practices by using cutting-edge technology.

Ohio’s Board of Professional Conduct is the latest to issue an ethics opinion on the subject.  But by not discussing an inherent issue — multi-jurisdictional practice and possible unauthorized practice — the Ohio opinion leaves some gaps.

VLO:  OK in OH

The Ohio Board’s opinion lays out the basic concepts of a VLO:  it typically involves communicating with clients “almost exclusively” in a non-face-to-face way, using various forms of technology, including secure internet portals, and without “a physical office where the lawyer works, meets with clients, and stores client files.”  Following the lead of several earlier ethics opinions, including from Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Washington, the Ohio Board in general greenlights VLO’s for lawyers in the Buckeye State.

The Board pointed to several ethics duties inherent in operating a VLO:

  • maintaining the technological competence needed to operate the VLO;
  • using reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertently disclosing client information;
  • discussing at the outset of the representation the office technology the lawyer uses;
  • keeping up adequate communication with the client, “regardless of the type of technology used;” and
  • making reasonable efforts to ensure that technology vendors are providing their services “in a manner compatible with the lawyer’s professional obligations,” as required by Ohio’s version of Model Rule 5.3(a).

“Office address” requirement

Some jurisdictions — but not Ohio — have bar rules or court rules requiring a lawyer to have a “bona fide office,” interpreted as traditional office space.  Such rules clearly limit the ability to operate through a VLO.  But even without a bona fide office requirement, a corollary issue lurks:  most state versions of Model Rule 7.2(c) require legal marketing materials to include the “office address of … [a] lawyer … responsible” for the advertising.

The Oho Board resolved that issue, saying that the language does not require a physical address, and can also include the lawyer’s home address, the address of shared office space or even a registered post office box.  In order to avoid being misleading, lawyers who have untethered themselves from physical offices must state in their advertising that they are able to meet in person with clients “by appointment only.”

VLO’s and UPL/MJP

The Ohio Board’s opinion doesn’t discuss multi-jurisdiction practice, or when an Ohio lawyer’s operation of a VLO might risk crossing the line into the unauthorized practice of law (“UPL’) in another state.  That’s somewhat puzzling — first, because Model Rule 5.5(a) (as adopted in Ohio and elsewhere), bars lawyers from practicing in a jurisdiction in violation of regulations in that jurisdiction; and second, because the Board previously dealt with the flip side of the VLO/UPL issue.  In 2011, the Board opined that out-of-state lawyers who represented Ohio residents through a VLO had impermissibly established a “systematic presence” in Ohio for the practice of law, in violation of Ohio’s version of Model Rule 5.5(b).  The Board said that “‘systematic and continuous presence’ includes both physical and virtual presence in Ohio.”

Most jurisdictions have adopted some version of the rule prohibiting out-of-state lawyers from establishing a systematic presence in that jurisdiction.  Therefore, if another state were to adopt Ohio’s stance that “systematic presence” includes virtual presence, Ohio lawyers could risk a UPL finding if they provide services to clients in that state through an Ohio-based VLO.  That’s a risk that the Ohio Board could have cautioned about.

Ethics opinions from California and Illinois (citing the 2011 Ohio opinion) have discussed the UPL issues with VLO’s.

The ABA’s Task force on E-Lawyering has advised in its Suggested Minimum Standards for Delivering Legal Services On-Line that lawyers operating VLO’s should avoid UPL by serving “only clients who are residents of the state where the firm is authorized to practice, or clients who have a matter within the state where the law firm is authorized to practice.”

That seems like a good way to stay out of border-crossing trouble, and to minimize UPL risks while using technology to engage in virtual practice, with its potential benefits.

ContractWhether you are in-house or outside counsel, your clients want the attorney-client privilege and/or work-product shield to apply to materials created as part of an internal corporate investigation.  But the applicability of these doctrines is very fact-specific, and difficult facts can doom that desired outcome.  That was the conclusion of the Washington, D.C. district court in an opinion last month involving the D.C. transit authority  board.

Development dispute

The transit authority  was negotiating with a developer on a construction project.  After discussions broke down in March 2010, the developer sent a letter to the transit board detailing what it believed to be improper actions of the authority and its board, and indicting that it would seek its available “remedies at law or in equity” if negotiations did not resume.  The alleged “improper actions” (set out in an earlier decision), centered on a transit board member who was also a D.C. city council member and who favored a different developer — a major campaign contributor — for the project.  The situation generated a “public outcry.”

Over two years later, the transit authority hired Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft to “provide investigative and legal services” regarding the board’s actions in connection with the failed project.

The investigation included interviews with current and former transit personnel as well as non-transit-personnel.  It generated 51 interview memos, each marked “Attorney Work Product.”

After Cadwalader submitted its report and recommendations, the board decided to release it to the public.  The report cited and referred to the interview memos prepared during the investigation.  The developer sued the board, and sought the memos, arguing that the work-product doctrine did not apply and that the board had waived any attorney-client privilege.

The district court agreed, denied the board’s motion for protective order, and ordered the transit authority to turn over all the memos, subject only to some limited redaction.

Timing is (nearly) everything

The work-product shield did not apply to the 21 memos of interviews with non-transit-board personnel, the court said, because too much time had elapsed between the letter threatening legal action and the preparation of the memos.  Even if litigation could reasonably have been anticipated at the time the board received the letter, it did not hire Cadwalader until two years later, and did nothing in the interim.  Although acknowledging that  “there is no standard or rule regarding how close in time potential litigation must be,” two years was too long, the court said.

Further, the D.C. Circuit has adopted the “because of” standard to assess the motivation for creating materials later claimed to be attorney work product.  For instance, Cadwalader’s recommendation to the board said it had been retained “to provide general governance recommendations” and to evaluate the board’s code of ethics.  The court said the evidence showed that the board did not commission the investigation “because of” possible future litigation, and would have conducted an  investigation to evaluate its business and ethics practices even without any anticipated litigation.

Attorney-client privilege waived

Citing D.C.’s strict definition and narrow construction of privilege, the court also held that no privilege shielded the remainder of the memos, created after interviews of transit authority personnel.

Cadwalader’s report, with its legal and factual conclusions about the construction project negotiations, had originally been intended to  be disclosed only to the transit board.  Intentionally releasing the report to the public, with multiple references to at least 23 different witness interviews, was not consistent with “zealously protect[ing]” the privileged materials.  Rather, publication constituted a subject-matter waiver of the privilege as to the memos used to compile the report, and “fairness dictat[ed]” that the memos be considered together with the report, the court said.

Takeaways? 

In the investigation context, facts dictate the outcome of a privilege battle.  Here, the transit authority couldn’t get out from under some difficult facts that sank its work product and privilege arguments:  waiting so long after the threat of litigation to launch an investigation; and making the report public, which was likely a political necessity in any event.  The court’s strict holdings were the result.

One dollar billsLitigation funding is in the news again, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spearheading a request to amend the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to require initial disclosure of all third-party agreements for compensation that are “contingent on, and sourced from, any proceeds of the civil action, by settlement, judgment or otherwise.”

The Chamber joined with 28 other organizations in a letter sent earlier this month to the federal courts’ Rules Committee, saying that its aim is to bring third-party litigation funding out of “the shadows” and to identify “a real party in interest that may be steering a plaintiff’s litigation strategy and settlement decisions.”

The new push follows up on a 2014 proposal that the Chamber and a few other organizations made to the same rulemaking committee, which was rejected.  Things have changed since then, the Chamber’s June 1 letter said, citing expansion of third-party funding in the U.S., with several significant players reporting significant and steady growth, and on-line marketplaces opening the way for investors to shop for individual cases to contribute to.

Shift in momentum?

As we reported in February, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California became the first court to mandate disclosure of litigation funding that parties in class actions receive from outside sources, under a revision to the court’s standing order.  That was followed up in March, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017, which likewise would require disclosure of third-party funders in class actions.  The bill is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Problems with alternative litigation funding

The process for amending the federal civil rules is a lengthy one.  But with at least some momentum on its side, the U.S. Chamber cited several justifications for the rule change it seeks, including:

  • The champerty problem.  This old legal doctrine, which seeks to prevent buying and selling lawsuits, still continues to be in play, with at least three state courts of appeals citing it or suggesting it as a viable defense in 2016-17, and a U.S. bankruptcy court in January finding an agreement to be champertous.
  • Fee-sharing issue.  Model Rule 5.4(a) bars almost all forms of sharing legal fees with non-lawyers, with the goal of preserving the lawyer’s independent professional judgment. But some models of third-party litigation funding apparently involve plaintiffs’ counsel repaying the funder’s investment out of the lawyer’s attorney fees, if any.
  • Confidentiality and conflicts.  To the extent that funding arrangements require disclosure of client information to the financier they could raise confidentiality concerns under the ethics rules, as well as privilege issues.  And lawyers who have “contracted directly with a funding company may have … duties to it that are … perhaps inconsistent with” the duties of loyalty to the client, including conflicts arising from steering clients to favored funders.

Watch and wait

In a press release, one large litigation funder, Bentham IMF, said that the Chamber’s proposal was misguided, including because the law firms using such financing were assisting under-served and under-funded clients — small-to-mid-size businesses and individuals — who could not otherwise afford to litigate their claims.  Bentham also said that the rule amendment proposal was unfairly one-sided, and that defendants should have to abide by similar disclosure rules.

Litigation funding will continue to be a hotly debated issue, and if your clients are involved in civil litigation, these are developments that bear watching.  Stay tuned.

Businessman stopping traffic at roadblockI love LinkedIn, but here’s a potential hazard — what you say there can and will be used against you if you’re engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.

A Colorado lawyer found that out the hard way:  he was suspended in Pennsylvania for a year, and got the same discipline in Colorado, where he was licensed.  (Actually, the suspensions were for a year-and-a-day, a punishment term that is loosely associated with ancient English common-law.  Now you know.)

LinkedIn holding-out

The only place the lawyer was licensed was Colorado.  Nonetheless, according to the Pennsylvania disciplinary board’s report and recommendation, he maintained an office in the Keystone State, and registered that address with the Colorado Supreme Court.

He also held himself out to the public as being admitted to practice in Pennsylvania — namely in his LinkedIn profile, which mentioned his “Pennsylvania law firm,” and the Pennsylvania client entities he claimed to have represented.  The profile also falsely stated that the lawyer had been licensed since 2006 to practice in Pennsylvania and also California.

That was a serious problem — in Pennsylvania, as in most states, holding yourself out as authorized to practice when you are not is an independent instance of misconduct (see Model Rule 5.5(b)(2)).  It can even be a violation of state statute, like it is in my home state of Ohio.

The lawyer claimed that the false information on his profile resulted from not being “careful in writing” it, and that he had mistakenly cut and pasted information “from his resume” into the profile.  The disciplinary board found those claims “not credible.”

Hearing hassle

The LinkedIn problem might have been enough to get the lawyer tagged for the unauthorized practice of law, in violation of Pennsylvania’s version of Model Rule 5.5, and for making “overt misrepresentations” in violation of Rule 8.4(c).  But that wasn’t all he did, according to the disciplinary board findings.

In 2014, the lawyer appeared as counsel on behalf of a parent and her minor child at an expulsion hearing held at a Pennsylvania high school.  The child happened to be the lawyer’s step-son, but the lawyer never disclosed that.  He introduced himself at the hearing as counsel, and when asked for his attorney ID number the lawyer gave his Colorado bar number, but never disclosed before, during or after the hearing that he had never been admitted to practice in Pennsylvania.

The lawyer continued his representation in the high school expulsion matter for the next year, until the term of the child’s school discipline was complete.  He then wrote to the superintendent that his “representation of [Child] is hereafter terminated.”

Don’t let his happen to you…

The lawyer in this disciplinary case brought a heap of trouble down on himself.  But even if you would never practice where you are not authorized to do so, and would never hold yourself out as being admitted where you are not, this disciplinary case has a few takeaways.

  • First, police your social media statements, and make sure they are accurate — because they can be a basis for disciplinary trouble.  Here’s an article by my LinkedIn buddy, Missouri lawyer Michael Downey, on LinkedIn ethics issues — it’s from 2013, but still well worth reading.
  • Second, if you get an inquiry from bar disciplinary counsel respond to it, even if it’s just to ask for more time or get clarification.  The lawyer here failed to respond for many months, leading to an additional charge of failure to cooperate, which is another independent basis for discipline under Pennsylvania bar rules (as it is in other states, too).
  • Third, be aware that ethical misconduct can be prosecuted in the state where it occurs as well as in your home jurisdiction, where you are licensed — and as here, your state of licensure will impose “reciprocal discipline” based on a finding of misconduct elsewhere.

Businessman with boxing gloves punching man in the faceWe’ve written before about deposition conduct that crosses the line between valid advocacy and sanctionable misconduct.  Here’s the latest example, in which a New York federal magistrate imposed sanctions on a defense lawyer for the City of New York, who interjected over 750 statements on the record, including more than 600 objections across 84 percent of the deposition transcript pages.

Deposition duel

The case arose after the plaintiff was arrested at work, held in jail and released the next day.  The discovery trouble broke out at the deposition of one of the defendant police officers.

As described in the opinion, defense counsel’s conduct ran the gamut of obstructionist deposition tactics:

  • she instructed the witness not to answer at least 20 times;
  • she made speaking objections that suggested the answer to the witness — including objections that encouraged the witness to resist the question;
  • she objected to questions on the basis that they had already been asked and answered, even though they had not been answered;
  • she objected to questions on the basis of relevance, although that is an improper objection under Second Circuit law; and
  • she threatened to walk out of the deposition.

The lawyers called the judge’s chambers twice during the deposition.  The first time, the judge’s law clerk instructed that objections should be short and concise “and there is really nothing else that needs to be said, other than ‘objection to form.'”  The second time, the judge herself directed that any contested questions were simply to be marked in the transcript.  But despite the calls to the court, defense counsel failed to curtail her objections.

Excessive objections = sanctionable conduct

The magistrate judge granted plaintiff’s motion for sanctions, ordered the city to pay reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs associated with the deposition, and gave plaintiff an additional shot at deposing the witness.

The judge noted that Federal Civil Rule 30(c)(2) mandates that deposition objections be stated concisely, “in a non-argumentative and non-suggestive manner,” and instructions not to answer are limited mainly to preserving privilege.  Rule 30(d)(2) authorizes sanctions for impeding, delaying or frustrating the “fair examination of the deponent.”  Bad faith is not necessary, and making an excessive number of unnecessary objections may itself constitute sanctionable conduct, as the Rules Advisory Committee notes provide.

The court held that defense counsel’s behavior “clearly impeded the progress of and unnecessarily extended the length of the deposition,” meriting sanctions.

Effect of Haeger ruling?

Curtailing deposition misconduct means that judges must be willing to penalize lawyers who cross the line.  In April, the U.S. Supreme Court arguably made that prospect somewhat more remote, unanimously ruling that when based on the district court’s inherent authority to sanction bad faith discovery conduct, the amount of sanctions cannot be punitive, and must be tied to the costs and fees proximately resulting from the misconduct.  That obviously limits the potential sting of sanctions for deposition misbehavior.

In the New York federal case, the basis of the court’s ruling was Rule 30(d), and not its inherent power, as in Haeger.  And the court expressly said that its ruling didn’t require bad faith on the part of the sanctioned counsel.  But the court still limited the amount of the sanction to the plaintiff’s fees and costs resulting from the deposition.

That is a measured response to conduct that derailed a deposition.  In egregious cases, more is called for if the persistent problem of deposition misconduct is to be addressed effectively.  Courts and bar associations can continue to extol the virtues of professionalism, but if more trial courts don’t become engaged and take forceful action against it, and courts of appeal don’t confirm that forceful action, discovery abuse will continue to undermine our justice system.

Stand out from the crowd concept femaleAvvo Legal Services has been meeting with North Carolina bar regulators, resulting in a draft proposal that would amend several legal ethics rules and make it easier for Avvo to operate in the Tar Heel State, according to Prof. Alberto Bernabe, a Chicago law professor who has seen some of the relevant documents, and blogged about them last week.

Ethical problems?

Several state legal ethics opinions have recently found client-referral services using an Avvo-like model to be ethically problematic, including opinions from regulators in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and my home state, Ohio.  Rule revisions in Florida now pending for approval by the state supreme court there likewise call aspects of the model into some question.

Some of the identified ethical issues raised by Avvo-like referral services, as identified by various ethics opinions are:

  • the company — and non-lawyers — control significant aspects of the attorney-client relationship, including functions that can constitute the practice of law (see Model Rule 5.5(a));
  • the structure can interfere with the lawyer’s exercise of independent legal judgment on behalf of the client (see Model Rule 5.4(c));
  • the way the fees are managed could constitute or invite commingling of clients’ funds and lawyers’ funds (see Model Rule 1.15(a));
  • the fee structure makes it difficult to comply with the duty to refund unearned fees at the end of the representation (see Model Rule 1.16(d));
  • a model where the lawyer is paid only after the representation is concluded makes the fees contingent on the outcome, which can violate the prohibition on contingent fees for certain kinds of cases (see Model Rule 1.5(d));
  • receiving and holding client funds paid in advance may violate the lawyer’s duty to hold those funds in a trust account (see Model Rule 1.15(c));
  • although part of the fee paid by the client and kept by the company may be designated as a “marketing fee,” the fact that such fees are calculated as a percentage of the full fee makes the arrangement likely to be impermissible fee-splitting with a non-lawyer (see Model Rule 5.4(a));
  • the business model can threaten the confidentiality of the lawyer-client relationship (see Model Rule 1.6).

North Carolina considers amendments

In light of these issues, Avvo has tried to allay concerns, including by saying that its model actually comports with ethics rules, and that it is providing advertising that is protected by the First Amendment.  (A recent Georgetown Law Journal article by Prof. Bernabe details Avvo’s arguments.)

According to Prof. Bernabe, North Carolina may now be considering a different regulatory approach:  amending its lawyer conduct rules to “make it acceptable for lawyers to participate in services like Avvo.”

Documents he has seen include a proposal to amend the fee-splitting rule to permit payment of a portion of the lawyer’s fee to an on-line platform if the amount is a reasonable charge for administrative or marketing services and there is no interference with the lawyer’s independent professional judgment.

Another proposed comment amendment would allow lawyers to participate in Avvo-like rating services without fear of being held in violation of the prohibition against giving something of value in exchange for a recommendation of employment.  (See Model Rule 7.2(b).)

Yet another amendment would allow the company to keep the client’s payment until the end of the representation, imposing on the lawyer the obligation of ensuring that such “intermediaries” “adequately protect client funds” — instead of placing such advance payments in the lawyer’s trust account.

Brave New World

Although nothing is certain yet, and the documents that Prof. Bernabe describes are certainly preliminary and might be incomplete, the path that North Carolina appears to be contemplating significantly departs from the road that bar regulators in other jurisdictions have so far taken.  Whether acquiescing to market trends — even ones that seem to be irresistible — is in the true best interest of legal consumers and the legal profession remains to be seen.

Compliance chart with keywords and icons. Flat designOur guest blogger is a Certified Compliance & Ethics Professional (CCEP)®.

Increased scrutiny for Chief Compliance Officers

Compliance officers are facing increasing scrutiny from a variety of regulatory agencies. The Department of Justice and the Securities Exchange Commission have announced their intention to hold companies accountable through the individuals involved.  As a result, many in the compliance industry have stated that the personal risk involved in being a chief compliance officer is becoming deeply concerning.  Such concerns are not unfounded, but people in compliance must also recognize that they hold a unique position of trust, requiring a higher level of responsibility to ensure that risks are recognized and effectively mitigated and that regulations are closely followed.

First individual Chief Compliance Officer held accountable by FinCEN

Earlier this month, the U.S. Treasury Department’s  Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) settled its first suit ever filed against an individual compliance officer in the financial industry.  Thomas Haider, the former Chief Compliance Officer for MoneyGram International, Inc., agreed to a three-year injunction barring him from performing compliance functions for any money transmitter.  In addition, Haider will pay a $250,000 penalty.

What did Haider do to become the first financial compliance officer to be assessed a civil monetary penalty? After all, FinCEN had already entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with MoneyGram in 2012, under which MoneyGram forfeited $100 million and agreed to an independent compliance monitor.  In addition, MoneyGram had settled consumer fraud claims with the FTC in 2009 by paying an $18 million penalty.

Willfully blind or reckless?

FinCEN’s announcement of the assessment of a $ 1 million civil penalty against Haider in December 2014 stated that he not only willfully violated the requirement to implement and maintain an effective anti-money laundering (“AML”) program, but he also willfully violated the requirement to report suspicious activity  under the federal Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  Under the BSA, the government does not have to prove knowledge, improper motive or bad purpose to establish that an individual acted willfully.  Rather, it is only necessary to  demonstrate  reckless disregard or willful blindness.

In Haider’s case, he was the chief compliance officer from 2003 through May 23, 2008, and had authority over both the fraud and the AML compliance departments. During this period, despite having been told by MoneyGram’s Fraud Department, as well as outside counsel and consultants of the need to implement certain policies and procedures due to high risks of possible fraud and money laundering activities, Haider failed to:

  • Implement a discipline policy;
  • Terminate high risk agents;
  • File timely suspicious activity reports (“SARs”);
  • Conduct effective audits; and
  • Conduct adequate due diligence.

Considering that under the BSA an individual can be assessed $25,000 for each day for lacking an effective AML program as well as $25,000 a day (up to $100,000) for each failure to file a company SAR, it appears that Haider may have gotten a pretty good deal.  FinCen stated that from approximately January 2004 through May  2008, over 30,000 consumer fraud reports were filed, totaling close to $60 million in losses.  Yet, FinCen determined, Haider “siloed” MoneyGram’s fraud department from the analysts who were  responsible for filing the SARs, effectively negating any chance of proper action – despite multiple guidance sources reiterating the importance of sharing information between departments.

Great power, great responsibility

Bottom line is that those who are given the authority or power must follow through to ensure that policies, procedures and controls are in place, as well as ongoing employee training and independent audits, in order to test whether the compliance program functions commensurate with the risks of the organization.

Ben Parker’s line from the Spiderman movie is appropriate here: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Acting FinCEN director Jamal El-Hindi summed up the responsibility of those in the compliance field: “Compliance professionals occupy unique positions of trust . . . when that trust is broken, it is important that we take action so that reputations of thousands of talented compliance officers are not diminished by any one individual’s outlying egregious actions.”