As the legal market continues to change, attorneys face more challenges when it comes to client relations. While the trend has been for clients to slash attorney’s fees by hiring third party auditors to review bills, or to aggressively seek discounts on fees, ethical considerations, and now the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, make it clear that overbilling clients cannot be a solution for legal revenue woes.

In a recent opinion, the Tenth Circuit left a law firm with a legal bill of its own when the Court ruled that the firm’s malpractice insurer was entitled to recover its expenses from defending an overbilling malpractice claim not covered under the firm’s policy.

What happened?

In 2012, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office began investigating attorney Michael P. Medved for allegedly overbilling clients, and later filed suit against him.  Additionally, Medved was facing a class action suit from former clients relating to the same allegations. Medved reached out to his firm’s malpractice insurance provider, Evanston Insurance Company, for representation in both matters.  At the time, Medved’s firm had a malpractice policy that covered “wrongful acts by reason of professional services.” Evanston agreed to defend Medved subject to a reservation of rights. Both cases resulted in relatively quick settlements.

Evanston later sued Medved seeking reimbursement for legal fees and costs incurred, arguing that the malpractice policy did not cover claims related to overbilling because overbilling was not a “wrongful act by reason of professional services.”

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, reasoning that:  “The alleged wrongful act (overbilling) lacked the required connection to professional services rather than the claim itself, and the ‘by reason of’ phrase does not create a connection between the wrongful act and the professional services . . .”

Medved argued that Evanston’s failure to properly reserve its right to challenge the representation should estop Evanston’s claims, but the Court of Appeals quickly dismissed this argument, finding that Medved had failed to show prejudice.

Ethical considerations

Model Rule 1.5 prohibits a lawyer from collecting unreasonable fees or an unreasonable amount of expenses from a client. While this rule seems pretty simple on its face, there is no bright-line test to determine what is, or is not, reasonable. Given there is no bright-line rule, the ABA Model Rules provide eight factors you should consider when determining the reasonableness of a fee.

All jurisdictions have adopted some version of Rule 1.5.  Clients and courts have been paying more attention to attorneys’ billing practices; the Tenth Circuit’s ruling here points to the risk of not being able to rely on malpractice insurance to cover the cost of defending against overbilling claims.

The Tenth Circuit ruling also shines a light on the importance of heading off billing problems with clients before they start.  Communicating with clients about fees is more important than ever, and it’s also part of your duty under your jurisdiction’s version of Model Rule 1.4 (Communication). Thoughtful communication with the client throughout the course of a matter is the best practice.  However, the more transparently you communicate with clients about your fees and billing practices on the front end, the less likely it is that you’ll have to defend against an action based on overbilling on the back end.

*Imokhai Okolo is a rising second-year law student at the University of Akron School of Law where he serves as an Assistant Editor on the Akron Law Review, member of the Akron Law Trial team, Vice President of the Akron Black Law Students Association, and Student Director of the Driver License Restoration Clinic.

Do you toil in the pressure cooker of a firm, but dream of going in-house? Many lawyers have that goal.  But the churn works in the other direction, too, with in-house lawyers migrating to firms or solo practice.  When they do, they can face conflict of interest issues leading to disqualification, as a former in-house lawyer for Rolls-Royce discovered earlier this year.

A luxury ride

Donald Little was in-house counsel for Rolls-Royce for more than 10 years.  A couple years after he left, he represented Rolls-Royce as outside counsel in a suit by Davis S.R. Aviation, defending against allegations that Rolls-Royce made false statements about airplane engine parts in order to prevent Davis from selling engines on the open market. That case settled.

Then, in 2016, a different plaintiff filed suit against Rolls-Royce under the False Claims Act, but based on the same constellation of facts as Davis, centering on the alleged use of defective parts in a U.S. Air Force aircraft.  The qui tam plaintiff alleged that Rolls-Royce improperly used the parts, resulting in a crash, and that it submitted false documents and invoices for payment to the air force.

Little became one of the lawyers for the qui tam plaintiff in the False Claims Act case.

Rolls-Royce moved to disqualify Little, as well as to dismiss the case. The magistrate judge recommended disqualification and dismissal, and the U.S. district court for the Western District of Texas overruled the plaintiff’s objections and accepted the recommendation.

The rubber meets the road

In its opinion, the district court noted that the magistrate judge had “expressed disbelief at Little’s insistence that he should not be disqualified” in light of his prior work for Rolls-Royce, in a matter substantially related to the qui tam suit.

The Texas version of Model Rule 1.9 (Duties to Former Clients) is codified in Rule 1.09(a) of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.  Like the Model Rule, the Texas version bars representation adverse to a former client in the same or a substantially related matter, except with the former client’s consent.

In the view of the magistrate judge and the district court, this was a no-brainer: it was “a clear violation” of the conflict rules for Little to represent the plaintiff adverse to Rolls-Royce in the qui tam action, because it was substantially related to his prior work in-house for Rolls-Royce, and to the Davis case, in which Little had represented Rolls-Royce as outside counsel.

In-house counsel take heed

Migrating from a berth as in-house counsel to being outside counsel raises former-client conflict issues that you – and your new employer – must be aware of.  As the Association of Corporate Counsel has pointed out, all the ethics rules apply with equal force to in-house counsel.  Even lateral moves, from a company law department to the same post with a competitor can raise some thorny former-client conflict issues.  See Dynamic 3D Geosolutions LLC v. Schlumberger Ltd. (Schlumberger N.V.), 837 F.3d 1280 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (affirming disqualification of plaintiff’s in-house counsel and outside counsel in patent infringement case; plaintiff’s in-house counsel was defendant’s previous deputy GC).  Be aware, and you can avoid the risk of disqualification.

* Joy A. Wilson is a rising second-year law student at the University of Illinois College of Law where she is a finalist on the university negotiations team and client counseling team and an event coordinator for the Black Law Student Association and Sports and Entertainment Law Society.

So, you’ve just met with a potential client and the opportunity to take a fascinating case or close a major deal is at your front door. The catch? The client wants to pay for your services in Bitcoin.  Do you accept? Can you accept?

The do’s and the can’s

If you’re licensed in Nebraska the answer is yes! With some caveats, of course. Late last year, Nebraska’s Lawyer Advisory Committee became the first authority to opine on the legal ethics implications of digital currencies. Ethics Advisory Opinion 17-03 allows attorneys to receive and accept digital currency as payment for legal services. However, in order to ensure attorneys aren’t charging unreasonable fees, the Committee advised that the currency must immediately be converted to U.S. dollars upon receipt. Digital currency can also be accepted from third-party payers so long as there is no interference with the attorney’s independent relationship with the client. And, attorneys can hold digital currency in trust or escrow for clients and third parties as long as it is held separately from the attorney’s property, with reasonable safeguards.

Why Bitcoin?

An advantage to accepting Bitcoin (or other digital currency) as payment is that there are no transfer fees. Unlike payment by credit card, wire, or check, and foreign currency conversion for international transactions, Bitcoin is transferred from client to attorney directly, with no fee attached. Other advantages are instant transactions, no bank acting as middleman in the transaction, and the shared digital ledger book that tracks all Bitcoin transfers, which prevents counterfeiting.

How does Bitcoin work?

Bitcoin is an open-source program existing on a decentralized peer-to-peer network on the internet. Anyone can access Bitcoin, and it is stored in a digital wallet. There is a public key, consisting of numbers and letters constituting the “address” to which the Bitcoin is sent, and a private key that the sender uses to authorize the transfer of Bitcoin from one digital wallet to another. These transfers are managed and tracked in the leger book.

The value of Bitcoin fluctuates (wildly).  As of July 3, one was worth $6,624, but it has been worth almost $20,000.  Bitcoin can be transferred in pieces; the smallest, a Satoshi, is one hundred millionth of a Bitcoin.

Some ethical considerations

Given Bitcoin’s ever-changing value, there is a chance that a Bitcoin that was worth the fair value of the legal services you provided last week may today be worth three times as much.  To the Nebraska Committee, that raises the prohibition against unreasonable fees, under its version of Model Rule 1.5(a). The Committee tried to address this concern by mandating that Bitcoin be converted to U.S. dollars upon receipt.

Not everyone agrees. The late ethics guru Ronald Rotunda, for instance, thought that there is no legal ethics issue in not immediately converting digital currency into dollars. He argued that all forms of currency can rise and fall in value against the U.S. dollar, and that deciding in light of that risk to accept a legal fee in Euros, for instance, is a business decision for the lawyer to make, not an ethics issue.

Another potential issue is that since Bitcoin is not legal tender, the IRS classifies it as property. One commentator has noted that this makes accepting a Bitcoin payment similar to bartering for legal services, “like the country lawyer accepting a bushel of apples for drafting a will.” You should check  ethics opinions in your jurisdiction to determine any restrictions on bartering for legal services before agreeing to accept Bitcoin as payment. (We’ve written about bartering for your legal services here.)

A further issue is how to hold digital currency in a client trust account. The Nebraska Committee advised that if the payment is intended to be a retainer to be drawn on as fees are earned in the future, it must be converted to U.S. dollars immediately.  That certainly avoids the risk that the client’s retainer will go down in value; but it also precludes any upside gain that could benefit the client.  These circumstances might call for some client decision-making — and that makes them a subject that you have a duty to communicate about with your client, under Rule 1.4(b).

The Takeaway

Payment in Bitcoin and other digital currencies can be a very cool and convenient alternative fee method that you can offer clients. Just be sure to consider all of the ethical implications before accepting this form of payment.

* Jasmine C. Taylor is a rising third-year law student at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio. She is currently a Sergeant in the Ohio Army National Guard, 1-137th Aviation Regiment.

Four quick takes on social media pratfalls by judges, lawyers and others — just from the last few weeks.  Don’t let these happen to you!

  • A Kentucky state court judge posted a comment on a pending murder case on her “official” Facebook page:  “This murder suspect was RELEASED FROM JAIL just hours after killing a man and confessing to police.”  The judge agreed to a public reprimand, for violating judicial ethics rules, including refraining from public comments that could affect the outcome of pending cases.
  • Another judge was sued last month in federal district court because he allegedly scrutinized his secretary’s Facebook posts, called her into his office to express his disapproval of her politics-related posts, and eventually fired her two weeks after she posted criticism of President Trump’s immigration policies, and those of some Texas politicians.  The secretary had worked for the court for 14 years.
  • You’ve undoubtedly seen the rant of a New York City lawyer against Spanish-speaking staff in a restaurant.  His profanity-laced tirade was captured on a cell-phone (of course), and went viral.  His apology on Twitter was called “too little, too late” by a United States congress member, who filed a formal complaint with the attorney discipline system, as reported by the ABA Journal.  According to CNN, he was kicked out of his office space, too.
  • Last, a grand juror is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to sending a Facebook message disclosing a Florida federal grand jury indictment to the girlfriend of the man charged.  Grand jury proceedings are secret; the grand juror warned the girlfriend that the man had been set up by a snitch, and later sent her photos of the indictment.

Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter (oh my)

Social media is great — we are bombarded with messages about the benefits for us as lawyers in credentialing and marketing ourselves (love to blog!) and educating the public on legal issues.  And lots of lawyers and judges use it successfully.  The downside, of course, is that it’s so easy to use these tools, that we can get careless and make missteps.  And when we do, social media is also there to show our gaffe to (potentially) millions.

Interestingly, there are lots of stories about Facebook follies — but anecdotally, it would seem that fewer lawyers use it for professional purposes than LinkedIn, for instance.  A recent ABA Journal “question of the week” asked if lawyers planned to de-activate their Facebook accounts in light of the flap over FB’s disclosure of information to Cambridge Analytica, a data-mining company.  While not a scientific poll, the responses seemed to show that respondents weren’t very much into using FB professionally anyway.

The ABA’s 2017 Legal Technology Report suggests a similar conclusion.  Less than 40% of firms (of all sizes) reported having Facebook accounts.  (In contrast, 75% of respondents said they had an individual LinkedIn profile.)

Of course, the watchword here is to be sensible and cautious.  Speed kills:  slow down, and think before you click.  Don’t do anything on social media you wouldn’t want millions to see — because they might.  And of course, check your local rules and ethics opinions.  By now, there is lots of such guidance about friending judges, social media as advertising, pretexting to gather data on opposing parties, not disclosing client information and other issues.

After hard-fought proceedings, you’ve finally settled a contentious case on behalf of your client.  The plaintiff’s lawyer has brought suit against your client before, and likely will again:  the lawyer advertises and uses social media aggressively to locate claimants who have the same kind of issue with your client.

Your client asks, “Can’t we include terms in the settlement agreement that would rein in this lawyer?  Maybe raise the settlement amount enough to get her to agree to stop taking these cases?  Or at least, get some language that would stop the blog posts and the TV ads fishing for clients to sue us?”

The answers:  “No — and no.”  A new ethics opinion from Ohio’s Board of Professional Conduct underscores the point.

Restrictions on right to practice

Model Rule 5.6(b), adopted with only minor variations in almost every jurisdiction,* bars you from “participating in making or offering” a settlement agreement that includes a restriction on a lawyer’s right to practice.  The new Ohio ethics opinion expressly extends that prohibition to settlement agreements conditioned on restricting a lawyer’s communication of information “contained in a court record.”

A settlement agreement can certainly bar both sides from disclosing non-public information (such as settlement terms, conditions and amount), and those are common clauses.  But preventing counsel from making a public announcement, or communicating to the media, or advertising about the case using information contained in case documents, violates Rule 5.6, said the Ohio Board.

The Board reasoned that an agreement prohibiting a lawyer from using public information interferes with the ability to market legal services in a way otherwise consistent with the Rules of Professional Conduct.  It also interferes with “the public’s unfettered ability to choose lawyers who have the requisite background and experience to assist in pursuing their claims.”  Rule 5.6(b) “prevents settlement agreements from being used to ‘buy off’ plaintiff’s counsel … in exchange for the lawyer foregoing future litigation against the same defendant.”  The Board also mentioned the conflict that such agreements create “between the interests of current clients and those of potential future clients.”

Expansive readings

The ABA Ethics Committee, as well as ethics committees in New York and the District of Columbia, have reached similar expansive conclusions about the reach of Rule 5.6(b).  The ABA Committee particularly disapproved in 2000 of settlement agreements conditioned on not “using” information in later representations against the same opposing party or related parties.  And the D.C. ethics opinion notes that the fact of settlement is usually reflected in public documents, thus making it a rule violation to condition the agreement on non-disclosure of that fact.

Underlying these opinions, as the D.C. ethics committee said, “is the intent to preserve the public’s access to  lawyers who, because of their background and experience, might be the best available talent to represent future litigants in similar cases, perhaps against the same opponent.”

Not a limit on duty of confidentiality

The Ohio opinion, and others, should not be read to alter your duty of confidentiality to your client.  Under Rule 1.6, absent client consent and other narrow exceptions, you already have a duty to keep confidential all information relating to the representation — and that would include otherwise public information, as we’ve noted before.  In contrast, the opinions centering on Rule 5.6(b) are about your ability to offer or accept settlement agreements restricting the right to practice.

Further, as Hofstra Professor Emeritus Roy Simon explains in his treatise on New York ethics law, you can get into ethics trouble even if a court might otherwise enforce the settlement agreement:  “A lawyer who makes or agrees to [a settlement in which a lawyer promises not to represent a client in later disputes with your client] risks professional discipline even if a court later holds that the agreement is enforceable.”

Client ABC’s — and the nuclear option

The restriction against participating in a settlement agreement aimed at reining in opposing counsel is a part of the ethical landscape that clients may not understand — especially when you need to turn down a request to pursue something that would be to the client’s advantage.

This is an issue that certainly merits explanation under Rule 1.4 in order to “permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”  And you also must “consult with the client about any relevant limitation on the lawyer’s conduct when the lawyer knows that the client expects assistance not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law.”

The new Ohio opinion cautions that if worst comes to worst, and the client insists that you participate in accepting or offering settlement agreement with an impermissible condition, Rule 1.16(a)(1) requires you to withdraw from representation, in order to avoid violating Rule 5.6.  Hopefully you won’t need to exercise that nuclear option.

* An exception to the nearly-nationwide approach is Virginia’s Rule 5.6(b), which carves out settlement agreement restrictions on a lawyer’s right to practice that are approved by “a tribunal (in such situations as the settlement of mass tort cases) or a governmental entity.”

Representing a campus sexual assault victim-turned-activist and later using her confidential information in representing an alleged campus assailant with interests adverse to the former client is a “textbook” conflict of interest.  That’s the message the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sent in suspending a lawyer for a year in a consent-to-discipline case published this week.

Former -client conflict

Most lawyers know that it’s a conflict of interest to take on a new representation adverse to a former client they’ve represented previously in a substantially related matter — at least without consent from both the new client and the former client.  Model Rule 1.9, “Duties to Former Clients,” codifies the rule.

In litigation, engaging in this kind of former-client conflict of interest will likely get you disqualified.  But as this case illustrates, disciplinary action is also possible.

The complainant in the disciplinary case, Hope Brinn, was a former Swarthmore College student who alleged that she had been sexually assaulted on campus, and who subsequently became a victims’ rights advocate, including for other students allegedly assaulted at the college.

Swarthmore activism 

Following her assault, the lawyer reached out to Brinn via Facebook, suggesting that she hire him.  She responded “I hire you!”  During their many communications by e-mail, Facebook, phone and in person, the lawyer said he intended to support Brinn in litigation, campus adjudication against her assailant, and in her national activism.  He also assured her that anything she shared with him was confidential.

He assisted Brinn in preparing a class complaint, which she and another activist filed in 2013 with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on behalf of 12 other Swarthmore students, raising concerns about how the college handled sexual assault complaints.  One of several alleged campus assailants was identified as “Juan Doe” in the  complaint.

A month after the OCR class complaint was filed, Brinn terminated the lawyer’s representation.  Almost two years later, the lawyer represented the same Juan Doe in filing suit against Swarthmore.

“The Angry Feminist Cabal”

The lawyer’s 135-page complaint in federal district court on Juan Doe’s behalf alleged that Swarthmore discriminated against him by giving credence to false allegations against him of sexual assault asserted by “Jane Doe,” and making him the unfair target of “vigilante justice from student activists.”  The complaint, filed under seal, referred to Brinn at least 55 times by a pseudonym, “Student  Activist No. 1.”

The complaint had a long section titled “The Angry Feminist Cabal within Swarthmore’s OCR … Complaints Trigger Jane Doe’s Complaint Against Juan,” in which the lawyer alleged on behalf of Juan Doe that Brinn had encouraged Jane Doe to manufacture a sham complaint of sexual assault against Juan Doe.  The complaint also alleged that Brinn and others became radicalized, and made false accusations in their attempt to make Swarthmore “a safe place for women.”

The complaint contained confidential information that Brinn had provided to the lawyer during the former representation.

DQ granted … and then suspension

The district court judge granted Swarthmore’s motion to disqualify the lawyer from representing Juan Doe, based on violations of Rule 1.6 (“Confidentiality”) and Rule 1.9, arising from his former representation of Brinn.  The court found a “clear and complete disregard” by the lawyer of the rule against unconsented-to former-client conflicts and his duties of confidentiality.

Likewise, the disciplinary board found in adopting the consent-to-discipline petition that the lawyer engaged in “a textbook conflict of interest by representing Juan Doe in a matter substantially related to [the lawyer’s] representation of Ms. Brinn in which Juan Doe’s interests were materially adverse to the interests of Ms. Brinn.”  In addition, the board found, the lawyer lied to disciplinary authorities during their investigation, claiming that the judge in the Juan Doe case had denied the disqualification motion.

In addition to the conflict raised by representing Juan Doe, the petition detailed the lawyer’s misconduct in two other cases as well, involving claims against his mother’s employer.

Take-home lessons

Be alert for former-client conflicts, of course (including ones like this, which would seem clear-cut), and be aware that disqualification is not the only potential adverse outcome.  And, of course, if you find yourself in a disciplinary investigation, never misrepresent anything; that can never help you.

What are your ethics obligations when your client gives you documents that the client may not be entitled to have?  Model Rule 4.4(b), adopted in some form by most jurisdictions, provides some guidance.  Applying it, together with other principles, a New Jersey appeals court, in an unpublished ruling, recently disqualified a firm from representing the plaintiff in a  wrongful termination case.

“Burn files”

The disqualified firm’s client, Sanchez, was the former chief compliance officer at a pharmaceutical company.  After receiving a disciplinary warning as a result of complaints about his “deportment” involving employees who reported to him, Sanchez told management that he had personal copies of confidential files of his employer, which he called his “burn files.”  He said that he would use these “‘burn files’ to ‘f–k'” the employer “when they try to get [him].'”

Sanchez was fired two months later, and sued his employer for wrongful termination in New Jersey state court under the Garden State’s whistleblower law.

Sanchez gave the documents to his lawyers.  In discovery, the employer asked for any confidential documents that Sanchez had taken.  By the time Sanchez’s lawyers responded and acknowledged the “burn files,” nine months had passed.  Asserting that the documents had been improperly taken, contained trade secrets and were privileged, the employer moved to preclude their use and to disqualify Sanchez’s lawyers.

The trial court granted the motion, leading to the appeal.

Careful company policies

Several policies of the employer helped the court conclude that Sanchez wrongfully took the “burn files.”

  • Employees in general were required to protect the company’s confidential information and barred from “improperly possessing or using” it.
  • Another policy prohibited employees from accessing confidential or secret information outside the scope of their work responsibilities, and misusing or disclosing it.
  • As a high-level manager, Sanchez had also signed a contract agreeing to return documents and work-related data after leaving the company.

Interplay of discovery rules, ethics principles, other law

The court of appeals upheld the trial court’s orders, including disqualifying Sanchez’s lawyers.  New Jersey’s version of Model Rule 4.4, said the court, “impose[s] an ethical obligation on attorneys to safeguard confidential information of third persons.”  It provides that “a lawyer who receives a document … and has reasonable cause to believe that the document … was inadvertently sent shall not read the document … [and] shall (1) promptly notify the sender [and] (2) return the document to the sender…”

This rule, the court held, is coupled with the state’s discovery rules, which provide that a party who is notified that information produced in discovery is subject to a claim of privilege must promptly return, sequester or destroy it, and not use it until the privilege claim is resolved.  (New Jersey’s rule is like those in many other jurisdictions, and Rule 26(b)(5)(B) of the federal civil rules.)

The court also analyzed the state supreme court’s 2010 multi-factor test in Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corp., holding that in some circumstances employees can  take and use employer confidential documents to prove claims under the state’s anti-discrimination statute.  Here, though, the court of appeals agreed that Sanchez was required to return the “burn files” that he removed “through self-help, pre-litigation measures.”

This case underscores that you must consider different sources of law in working through the issues presented when your client gives you documents that the client may not be entitled to have.  Both the discovery rules and ethics rules potentially apply, plus the rules on attorney-client privilege and relevant case law.

“Chaotic self-help battle”

The appeals court concluded there was reasonable cause here to believe that the documents Sanchez improperly took were privileged, and said that the judiciary must “prevent the discovery process from degenerating into a chaotic self-help battle.”

As for disqualification, the court said that having an opponent’s privileged documents weighs in favor of disqualification, because less-severe remedies “fail to adequately address both the [Rule 4.4(b)] violation and the attendant harm of access and exposure to privileged documents.”

The key to the ethics violation here, said the court of appeals, was the nine-month delay during which Sanchez’s lawyers failed to notify opposing counsel that they had the “burn files.”  That was an “unreasonable delay” that “rendered futile” any attempt to mitigate the harm caused by disclosing the documents.

Don’t get burned

Rule 4.4(b) and the obligation to notify the sender extends to documents that are “inadvertently sent.”  The question implicitly raised by this case is whether documents that the lawyer obtains as a result of being improperly taken by a party should be treated the same as those that are “inadvertently sent.”  The court here seems to conclude that the answer is “yes,” but without any explicit analysis that would provide guidance.  Nonetheless, the lawyer’s mere exposure to the opposing party’s privileged documents would apparently have been enough, in this court’s view, to mandate the remedy of disqualification.

Bottom line:  be sure you consider all the sources of law that might apply, including ethics rules, when your client drops “burn files” in your lap — otherwise, you might end up getting burned with a DQ order.

You might remember our report last year on the Florida judge who resigned after accepting Tampa Bay Rays baseball tickets from lawyers who had a pending case before him.

The lawyers were representing plaintiff in a slip-and-fall case against Wal-Mart.  The day after the jury came back with a defense verdict, one of the lawyers called the judge’s assistant and offered the judge tickets to that night’s Rays game against the Boston Red Sox.  The judge accepted five tickets (for great seats, if that makes a difference).

The judge asked for more tickets to a game against the Twins — four days after hearing the lawyers’ motion on behalf of the plaintiff to set aside the jury verdict.  The firm complied; this time, one of the lawyers delivered the tickets in open court.

The judge granted the plaintiff’s motion to set aside the verdict, and granted a new trial.  The judge resigned ahead of a disciplinary hearing on his conduct.

What about the lawyers?

At the time, I wondered about the lawyers, pointing to Model Rule 3.5(a) (barring lawyers from seeking to influence judges by means prohibited by law) and Model Rule 8.4(f) (knowingly assisting judge in conduct that violates rules of judicial conduct or other law).

Sure enough, a referee last week recommended that each lawyer receive an admonishment and a year’s probation for his misconduct — and be required to speak at CLE’s for new lawyers and veteran lawyers about the incident.  Each was also ordered to pay almost $5,400 in costs. The recommendation now goes to the Florida Supreme Court for review.

“It never crossed my mind…”

At the disciplinary hearing, one of the lawyers said that in offering the tickets, he thought they were doing something nice for the judge because the trial had been contentious.  They had seen the judge wearing a Red Sox cap, and knew it was his favorite team.

The other lawyer testified that “It never crossed my mind …  how bad it looked and how improper it was … it should have, but it didn’t.”  He said he had no intent to influence the judge, and it never occurred to him that the judge might be influenced by the tickets.

The lawyers each had more than 30 years of experience.  They testified that their firm’s policy now prohibits offering baseball tickets to anyone at the courthouse.

The referee recommended that the lawyers be found guilty of violating Florida’s versions of Model Rule 3.5(a) (so I called that one).  The other violations found were Rule 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice); Rule 8.4(a) (violating a Rule or assisting another to do so); and a rule unique to Florida, Rule 3-4.3 (commission of any act that is unlawful or contrary to honesty and justice).

Paved with good intentions

The referee did not find that the lawyers “acted with any corrupt intent to create a quid pro quo situation.”  But they should have known that their gift would create an appearance of attempting to influence the judge presiding over their case.  “The rules require the profession, both attorneys and judges, always to think about the implications of their words or actions. That these two attorneys … were so thoughtless and oblivious here is unacceptable.”

The referee based the recommendation for an admonishment and probation on several mitigating factors:  the absence of actual prejudice to the defendants in the underlying case (the grant of the motion for new trial was set aside on appeal, although not because of the tickets); the lawyers’ remorse and acknowledgment of their misconduct; and evidence of their good character and their “many public service and charitable works.”

Lessons learned

What are the lessons here?  Giving gifts is nice, but you shouldn’t step into the batter’s box when the umpire is the judge on your case.  An admonishment and probation, while the lightest forms of discipline in Florida, are nothing to welcome.  And, as we’ve mentioned before, if you are caught in a rundown, taking responsibility for misconduct is certainly the way to go.

We’ve written before about what you can and cannot say when withdrawing from representation.  Now a Texas bar ethics opinion adds a twist:  what can you tell an insurance company that retains you to represent its insured, when the client won’t cooperate?

Lonely in the Lone Star state

A Texas lawyer had a quandary.  An insurer had assigned Lawyer to defend its insured in a state court personal injury action arising out of a car accident.  For a while, the client cooperated.  Then — radio silence.  Lawyer tried contacting the client by various means, including having an investigator track the client down to ask him to contact Lawyer.

The client’s non-cooperation made it difficult or impossible to defend the suit, and exposed Lawyer to sanctions for not answering discovery requests.  Lawyer also realized that the client’s failure to communicate might violate the cooperation provision of the insurance policy, and result in the insurer withdrawing coverage.

Lawyer’s investigator finally delivered a letter to the client, warning that Lawyer would move to withdraw if the client didn’t contact Lawyer.  Receiving no response, Lawyer prepared to withdraw, and asked for guidance on what he could disclose to the insurance company  about the reasons for withdrawing.

Silence is golden

You can’t say much, answered the state bar ethics committee.  “At a minimum,” the committee said, the client’s “failure to communicate with Lawyer is unprivileged client information.”  Under the state’s version of Model Rule 1.6, that meant that it was confidential information that Lawyer could not disclose to third parties or use to the disadvantage of the client, including in the context of withdrawing from the representation.

No exception to the general confidentiality rule applied here, noted the committee.  For instance, like the Model Rule, the Texas rule allows lawyers to disclose confidential client information in order to carry out the representation.  It’s sensible to regard that kind of disclosure as always being impliedly authorized, because otherwise, we could not negotiate with opposing counsel, for instance.  But the disclosure here would not be for the purpose of representing the client, the committee said — rather, it would be for the purpose of ending the representation.

Therefore, in withdrawing, the Lawyer was advised not to reveal the client’s failure to communicate in order to explain either to the insurance company or the court the reason for Lawyer’s withdrawal.

The committee cited the  ABA Ethics Committee’s 2016 Opinion 476, which considered what you can say to the court when withdrawing for non-payment, and which, like the Texas opinion, advises that the information is within the scope of your confidentiality duty to the client.

Take home lessons

  • Bear in mind that even the most difficult client is still your client; the Texas opinion points out that there’s no free ethics pass even when the client stops communicating with you.
  • And in the insurance defense context, the insured is a client for ethics purposes, despite the fact that the insurance company has assigned the case to you and is paying your fees.

If you believe that you may have materially erred in a current client’s representation, your duty of communication under Rule 1.4 requires you to inform the client.

That’s the unsurprising conclusion that the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility reached in its latest opinion, issued April 17.

Of note, though, is that the Committee firmly concluded that no similar duty applies to former clients. Also interesting is the excursion into substantive law that the Committee takes in order to delineate when a current client becomes a former client.

What we have here is a duty to communicate…

Even if you’ve only seen the Paul Newman classic Cool Hand Luke on YouTube clips, you know the classic line about communication. Not failing to communicate is important whether you’re on a chain gang or just working hard for your client.

As the ABA Committee said in the opinion, unfortunately, “even the best lawyers may err in the course of clients’ representations,” and if material, you have to ‘fess up to the client. “An error is material if a disinterested lawyer would conclude that it is (a) reasonably likely to harm or prejudice a client; or (b) of such a nature that it would reasonably cause a client to consider terminating the representation even in the absence of harm or prejudice.”

The Committee identified several parts of Rule 1.4 that potentially apply where a lawyer may have erred in the course of a current client’s representation:

  • the duty to reasonably consult with the client about how the clients objectives are to be accomplished;
  • the duty to keep a client reasonably informed about the matter;
  • the duty to comply with reasonable requests for information; and
  • the duty to explain a matter so that the client can make informed decisions about the representation.

Errors exist along a continuum, the Committee said, ranging from errors like missing a statute of limitations, which can undermine the client’s objective, to minor typographical errors, or missing a deadline that only causes delay.
It’s not only errors that could support “a colorable legal malpractice claim” that must be communicated – because an error can “impair a client’s representation even if the client will never be able to prove all the elements of malpractice.”

Rather, the measure of the obligation to disclose errors to current clients is the materiality of the error.

But not to former clients

Significantly, “nowhere does Rule 1.4 impose on lawyers a duty to communicate with former clients.” That led the Committee to conclude that although a lawyer must inform a current client of a material error, there is no similar duty to former clients.

But how do you distinguish between current and former clients? For instance, if you represent a client only “episodically,” is the client a “current client” in between times?

Interestingly, the Model Rules themselves, and their state analogs, decline to touch those issues; rather, in order to determine whether a lawyer-client relationship exists, a lawyer must consult “principles of substantive law external to these Rules,” says section 17 of the Scope section.

The Committee, however, was not reluctant to deal with substantive law principles, and undertook a case analysis, concluding that “if a lawyer represents a client in more than one matter, the client is a current client if any of those matters is active or open,” and that the “episodic” client’s reasonable expectations guide whether it is a current or former client.

Calling all gurus

Once you’ve determined that you have a duty to communicate with a current client about a material error you’ve made, or even during the process of that decision, you are going to want to get some expert ethics advice. In its opinion, the Committee points to the confidentiality exception that Rule 1.6(b)(4) extends, permitting a lawyer to reveal client confidential information to get legal advice about complying with the Rules.

We’ve also written before about the trend toward upholding the in-house firm counsel privilege, which can allow that type of advice to fall within the attorney-client privilege.

In any event, this is an area where it pays to tread carefully, in order to maintain the rights of both lawyers and clients.