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.