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  Applying it, together with other principles, a New Jersey appeals court, in an unpublished ruling, recently disqualified a firm from representing the plaintiff in a  wrongful termination case.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.

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.

We’ve written before about the breadth of the duty of confidentiality we owe to our clients, and how it even extends to matters that you think are safe to discuss because they are of “public record.”   (See here and here.)  Now comes the ABA’s latest on the subject of lawyer “public commentary” — Formal Opinion 480 (Mar. 6, 2018).  And it prompts us to be wary of a couple pitfalls when it comes to what we say about clients in online articles, on twitter, at webinars, in podcasts and through traditional print publications — all of which the opinion refers to as “public commentary.”

Duty “extends generally”

All such public commentary, the ABA reminds us, whether on-line or not, must comply with the relevant jurisdiction’s version of Model Rule 1.6.  The rule requires us to maintain the confidentiality of all information relating to the representation of a client, unless that client has given informed consent to the disclosure, the disclosure is impliedly authorized to carry out the representation, or the disclosure is permitted by a specific exception in Rule 1.6(b).

The confidentiality rule, as is frequently said, is much broader than the attorney-client privilege, and includes all information relating to the representation, whatever its source.  Even the identity of the client is usually deemed to be confidential information, the ABA ethics committee notes in this newest, foot-note-heavy opinion.  And, adds the committee, it’s highly unlikely that a disclosure exception (except for consent) would apply when a lawyer engages in this sort of public commentary.

Don’t hype the hypo

That brings us to “hypotheticals.”  We all use them — from law profs in class, to lawyers seeking informal practical advice from colleagues at other firms, to gurus of various stripes who use real-life examples at legal CLE seminars.  But, says the ABA committee, beware:  “A violation of Rule 1.6(a) is not avoided by describing public commentary as a ‘hypothetical,’ if there is a reasonable likelihood that a third party may ascertain the identity or situation of the client from the facts.”

For example, in a widely-reported case mentioned in the ABA opinion, an Illinois lawyer got a 60-day suspension in her home jurisdiction for violating  Rule 1.6, when she blogged about her criminal defense clients using either their first names, a derivation of their first names, or their jail ID number.  Reciprocal discipline was imposed in Wisconsin.

In light of the ABA opinion, you’re going to want to make sure that any real-life client situations you describe in  public commentary is so thoroughly disguised that no one can tell that it’s real.  If you’re using social media to educate and engage, there’s arguable benefit in discussing actual situations in a hypothetical way, while being sure to scrub the real facts out.  But as we’ve said before, if you’re just making cocktail party chit-chat, why even go there?  It’s not worth the risk of divulging confidential client information.

Trial publicity statements

The ABA opinion also briefly notes the constraints that Model Rule 3.5 puts on using public commentary to influence the court of public opinion.  The rule prohibits a lawyer from seeking to influence a judge, juror, prospective juror, or other official by means prohibited by law, and cites the case of a Louisiana lawyer disbarred for, among other things, using an internet petition campaign to contest the rulings of a judge presiding over a custody dispute involving her client.  That kind of conduct can also obviously lead to trouble.

All in all, the new opinion is a straightforward application of Rule 1.6 to this age of public commentary; but it is a good wake-up call for those who need one.

One of Bill Cosby’s accusers can continue with her defamation suit, the California state court of appeals said in an opinion late last year, holding that the trial court erred when it used the state’s anti-SLAPP law to partially strike Janice Dickinson’s complaint against the entertainer. Dickinson had based one of her claims on statements reacting to Dickinson’s claims that Cosby’s lawyers made in letters to media outlets.

The case could be a caution flag – at least under California law – for lawyers who label accusations against their clients as “lies.”

“Fabricated” and “an outrageous … lie”

Immediately after Dickinson went public on Entertainment Tonight with her claims that Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982, Cosby’s lawyer, Martin Singer, sent demand letters to Good Morning America and several other media outlets calling her assertions “fabricated and … an outrageous defamatory lie,” and explicitly threatening to sue them if they disseminated Dickinson’s claims further. The next day, Singer also issued a press release calling Dickinson’s accusations against Cosby “a lie.”

Dickinson sued for defamation based on the statements in the demand letter and the press release; Cosby responded with a motion to strike the complaint, under California’s anti-SLAPP law.

The trial court issued a divided opinion. It found the statements in the demand letter to be protected by the absolute litigation privilege; but the trial court rejected Cosby’s argument that the press release statements merely expressed a protected opinion, and held that Dickinson had shown a probability of prevailing on her defamation claim as to the press release. Both sides appealed.

The state court of appeals unanimously agreed that the trial court had gotten it right as to the press release, but reversed as to the demand letter, holding that the litigation privilege did not shield Singer’s statements on behalf of Cosby.

Litigation privileged?

California law, like that in other jurisdictions, extends an absolute privilege to statements made in connection with judicial proceedings. (California’s privilege is codified here.) The privilege is broad, and includes pre-litigation statements made in furtherance of the objects of the litigation.

A demand letter can qualify for the litigation privilege — but only when it relates “to litigation that is contemplated in good faith and [is] under serious consideration.” “Even a threat to commence litigation will be insufficient to trigger application of the privilege if it is actually made as a means of inducing settlement of a claim, and not in good faith contemplation of a lawsuit,” noted the court of appeals, citing a key 2007 state supreme court case.

Here, the court of appeals said, the letter was sent only to media outlets that had not yet run the story of Dickinson’s rape accusations, but indicated that they planned to; and when some of the news outlets ignored the demand letter and ran the story anyway, Cosby never followed through on the litigation threat in Singer’s demand letter, and never sued.

The court ruled that this evidence supported a prima facie inference that the demand letter was sent without good faith contemplation of seriously-considered litigation; rather, said the court of appeals, the letter “was a bluff intended to frighten the media outlets into silence (at a time when they could still be silenced), but with no intention to go through with the threat of litigation if they were uncowed.” Thus, the letters were merely “hollow threats of litigation” that did not qualify for the absolute litigation privilege.

Results may vary

The court of appeals noted and rejected the applicability of federal court decisions arising out of other claims against Cosby, including other statements that Singer made on his behalf; those cases were decided under Michigan and Pennsylvania law.

The point that the outcome in a defamation case is extremely dependent on particular state-law wrinkles is important. California’s strong authority on the litigation privilege and especially the high bar for showing that pre-litigation communications are serious threats of litigation, not settlement “bluffs,” spelled the difference here.

The law in your own jurisdiction may differ. In my home state of Ohio, for instance, similar authority appears lacking. But for cases under California law, the Dickinson ruling is instructive on the limits on privilege when it comes to calling the other side a liar.

Holiday parties are great times to socialize and network with colleagues.  But the casual atmosphere and the sometimes-plentiful adult beverages can also tempt you to tell war stories that reveal too much about your past clients, potentially violating your continuing duty of confidentiality under Model Rule 1.9.  But what’s “too much”?  If something about a previous case or transaction you were involved in is in the news, or is contained in court pleadings, can you discuss it?

The simple answer is “Not really.”  Model Rule 1.9(c)(2) says that you have the same duty not to reveal information relating to the representation of your former client as you do to a current client.  That’s a very broad duty:  it extends to all information “relating to the representation” (i.e., much broader than the attorney-client evidentiary privilege).  That effectively rules out war stories that would be detailed enough to let your audience figure out who you are talking about.

When is former-client info “generally known”?

Outside of the cocktail party context, how about using information adverse to a former client?  For instance, you might be in a position to use information you have acquired about the workings of a former client’s business without actually revealing it.  Rule 1.9(c)(1) says that such use is prohibited, subject to an interesting exception — it can be used “when the information has become generally known.”  That seems like a common-sense exception that strikes an appropriate balance between the former client’s valid interest in continuing confidentiality and the fact that you are no longer counsel to that client.

However, the definition of “generally known” can seem pretty narrow.  Last year, we wrote about a disqualification case holding that even information that’s “of record” in a court file may not be “generally known” for purposes of meeting the exception.  Now comes the ABA Ethics Committee’s take on that issue, published last week.

In Opinion 479, the committee agreed that information is “not generally known merely because it is publicly available or …[is] a matter of public record,” and noted numerous authorities that have reached that conclusion.  So when is former-client information “generally known”?

Citing New York rules commentator Roy Simon and a 2013 New York state ethics opinion, the ABA committee said that for Rule 1.9 purposes, information is generally known under two circumstances:

  • it’s widely recognized by the public in the relevant locale; or
  • it’s widely recognized in the former client’s industry, profession or trade.

“Workable definition”

This “workable definition,” said the ABA committee, encompasses publicity through traditional media sources, the internet and through social media — channels that can lead to public notoriety.  And publicity in leading sources in a particular field can meet the “generally known” test if members of the industry, trade or profession would widely recognize those sources.  “Information may be widely recognized within a former client’s industry, profession, or trade without being widely recognized by the public,” said the ABA committee.

But the committee reiterated that unless information has become widely recognized by the pubic, or within the former client’s industry, the fact that the information may have been discussed in open court, or may be available in court records does not necessarily signal that it is “generally known.”

Party safely and ethically

When you’re at a holiday gathering with your brother- and sister-members of the bar, have fun — but at the same time, watch what you imbibe (and designate a driver) and watch what you say.  Being judicious in both regards is the best way to enjoy the season without regret.

A lawyer representing an eBay seller in a dispute with the seller’s trading agents drew a defamation claim from the agents.  But the case had a happy ending for the lawyer, as the New Jersey court of appeals held last month that two letters the lawyer wrote to eBay were protected by the Garden State’s broad litigation privilege.  (H/t to Pete Gallagher, blogging over at Pete’s Take.)

The case spotlights the scope of the privilege, a “backbone” of the American judicial system, widely adopted in some form throughout the U.S., and enshrined in § 588 of the Restatement of Torts (Second).

“Dear eBay personnel…”

The underlying case started out in small claims court, where the two trading agents sued the seller.  The seller, represented by Lawyer, roared back with a multi-prong counterclaim that sought treble damages under the state consumer fraud act, plus punitive and other damages.  The counterclaim, which took the case out of small claims court, was based on an agreement for the trading agents to help seller sell goods on eBay.  The underlying case later settled.

But during the course of the underlying case, Lawyer wrote two identical letters to eBay, which was not involved as a party.  The letters were not addressed to anyone in particular at eBay.  They said that: seller had hired the trading agents based on eBay’s representations regarding its trading assistant program;  the trading agents had refused to pay money due to the seller; the trading agents “likely” never had a fidelity bond with eBay; and that eBay should suspend them from its program.  Lawyer also asked how eBay intended to “handle this matter.”

In their later complaint against Lawyer, the trading agents alleged claims including defamation and interference with contract, based on the letters.  The trial court dismissed the case, and the appellate division, in its unpublished opinion, affirmed.

Explore the truth — no recrimination

The privilege “provides immunity from suit to permit unfettered expression” in connection with litigation, noted the court of appeals.  Its contours under New Jersey law apply broadly to give absolute protection to:

  • any communication;
  • made in judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings;
  • by litigants or other participants;
  • to achieve the objects of the litigation;
  • where the communication has some connection or logical relation to the action.

Citing long-standing precedent, the privilege applies, said the court, even to statements spoken maliciously; even if connected to a not-yet-pending action; and even if addressed to a non-party to the litigation.

Here, the court said, Lawyer’s detailed letters were related to and relevant to the underlying case between Lawyer’s client and the trading agents.  They were in line “with the type of inquiry deemed … to be necessary to a thorough and searching investigation of the truth, and therefore, essential to the achievement of the objects of litigation.”  EBay’s response could have led to a claim against eBay; or could have prompted eBay to investigate the trading agents’ practices, possibly leading to additional support for seller’s claims against them.

The Lawyer’s statements, held the court, were well within the scope of the absolute privilege and its policy to “explore the truth of a matter without fear of recrimination.”

But don’t go wild

The litigation privilege is obviously good for lawyers and allows us broad scope to make statements relevant to litigation.  But a caveat:  as always, state wrinkles may apply.  (See this 2015 law review article, at n. 14, commenting about Georgia and Louisiana, for instance.)  And you should be aware that for disciplinary purposes, your motivation counts.  In representing a client, Model Rule 4.4 bars using means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden a third person.

You’ve probably read about the New York Times reporter who says that he overheard lawyers for President Donald Trump discuss the ongoing Russia investigation at a Washington, D.C. restaurant, and then reported on the talk — which revealed details of a strategy debate, the alleged existence of documents “locked in a safe,” and other purported insight on the internal workings of the President’s legal team.

(If you somehow missed the story — maybe you just stopped paying attention — check out the Times reporting, the backstory on how the reporter overheard the conversation, and the ABA Journal’s report.)

Every reporter’s dream

The NYT reporter, Kenneth P. Vogel, wrote that he overheard the conversation when he happened to be seated at a steakhouse at the next table over from Ty Cobb and John Dowd.  Cobb was brought over from Hogan Lovells in July to run point on the Russia investigation; Dowd, another member of the White House legal team, retired from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in 2015.

Vogel later wrote, “I have always thought of overhearing conversations as an underappreciated journalistic tool.”  The Washington Post commented, “It is every Washington reporter’s dream to sit down at a restaurant, overhear secret stuff, and get a scoop.”

Don’t let this happen to you!

Our take on this cautionary tale, of course, centers on Model Rule 1.6 — client confidentiality.  We often have occasion to warn you to consider particular wrinkles in the rules that affect your particular jurisdiction.  But not this time.  In every U.S. jurisdiction, lawyers have an obligation not to disclose confidential information relating to the representation of a client without the client’s consent.

That duty covers a wide swath of information learned through the representation.  It’s much broader than information that is protected by the evidentiary attorney client privilege.

And so many ordinary things you might do without thinking twice can jeopardize your client’s confidential information — as Cobb and Dowd have perhaps discovered.  (Some have suggested that the incident was so blatant that it must have been intentional.  But intentional or not, disclosure still requires client consent.  The Times reported that, according to its sources, the disclosure prompted White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II to “sharply reprimand[] Mr. Cobb for his indiscretion.”)

The list could go on ad infinitum, but here are just a few examples of every-day things that can breach your duty of confidentiality:

  • schmoozing about work while standing in line at Starbucks;
  • doing client pitches;
  • sharing war stories with friends over cocktails;
  • talking on a cell phone in a public place;
  • reading client documents on a laptop while sitting next to someone on a train or plane;
  • forgetting documents on a restaurant table or in a cab;
  • forwarding client-related emails to people outside your firm;
  • sharing documents or forms created for a client with friends or other clients.

You must remember this…

Remember, confidential information also includes “disclosures by a lawyer that do not in themselves reveal protected information but could reasonably lead to the discovery of such information by a third person.”  (Model Rule 1.6 cmt. 4.)  In other words, just leaving out names doesn’t help, if someone can figure out who you are talking about.

And, as the President’s lawyers perhaps learned, when your client realizes that you have disclosed confidential information, “oops” may not be a complete excuse.

Bottom line:  You might never work at the White House, but make it your default mode not to discuss client business outside of your office, and you won’t go wrong.

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.

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.