You probably know about the ethics rule that prohibits lawyers from trying to prospectively limit their liability to clients (or at least I hope you do!).  You can find it in your state’s version of Model Rule 1.8(h).

In an interesting twist, the Utah Ethics Advisory Committee recently opined that it’s permissible to include a provision in a retainer agreement requiring the client to indemnify the lawyer against third party claims against the lawyer arising from the client’s own “behavior or negligence.”

Narrow reading — but not alone

The Utah committee said that an indemnification provision against liability, loss and expense to the lawyer caused by third-party claims arising from client’s conduct “is not specifically prohibited by the rules.”

While Utah’s Rule 1.8(h) (identical to the Model Rule) bars prospective limitation of liability to a client for malpractice, the committee said, “it does not address the specific question of whether an attorney may include an indemnification provision for claims brought by third parties.”  Therefore, such a provision “is not prohibited on its face.”

Third-party indemnification provisions might be helpful in representations involving opinion letters — for example, providing a legal opinion on behalf of a lessor, which is to be given to and relied on by the lessee.  The lawyer would be benefitted by being able to seek indemnification from the lessor client against later claims by the lessee.

Few state ethics committees seem to have addressed the issue of third-party indemnification.  But the New York State Bar Association, in a 2013 opinion, has approved the concept in the context of opinion letters.  And a 2005 Oregon opinion advised that a lawyer asked to investigate a client’s employee could seek indemnity from the client against subsequent claims by the employee against the lawyer.

Insurance deductible?  Not so fast

What about using such an indemnification provision to hold a client responsible for the lawyer’s malpractice insurance deductible if the client unsuccessfully sues the lawyer for malpractice?

The Utah committee also considered that question, and concluded that Rule 1.8(h) doesn’t expressly bar that scenario, because “requiring payment for an unsuccessful malpractice claim, on its face, does not limit liability for malpractice.”  But trying to use indemnification to extract payment from the client for your malpractice insurance deductible may be misconduct under other rules, said the committee.  Rule 8.4(d) bars engaging in conduct that is “prejudicial to the administration of justice.”  An agreement that would make a client (or, by then, presumably a former client) responsible for paying your deductible after the client loses a malpractice case against you, could “have a chilling effect on a client’s pursuit of a malpractice claim and would thus be prejudicial to the administration of justice,” the committee advised.

Client communication

In any event, client communication is key.  To say the least, “the average client may not understand what indemnification is or in what specific circumstances it could be applied.”  Sophisticated clients might, but your best bet is clear explanation and understanding.  Model Rule 1.4(b) (“Communication”) requires you to “explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”

That would seem to apply to the client’s decision to agree to indemnify you for anything.

*****

Note:  My co-editors and I are thrilled that the ABA Journal has again honored The Law for Lawyers Today as one of its “Web 100,” putting us among the 35 best legal blogs in the U.S.  Read the magazine’s announcement here.  We’re very proud, and we promise to keep bringing you fresh and lively news and comment from “Legal Ethics World.”  Thanks for reading!

Some answers are so obvious that you are left wondering why the question needed to be asked in the first place. Like “should a client pay a fee it agreed to in advance?”  Or, “should an attorney try his or her best to prevail?”

And now this:  the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued an advisory opinion earlier this month instructing lawyers who suffer a data breach that exposes “material client information” to notify clients of the breach and take additional measures to protect the confidentiality of the compromised information.  Obvious?  We think so.

When we advise clients about their data protection obligations, we often suggest that compliance is strengthened when data security strategies align with an organization’s culture. For law firms, this should be relatively easy:  lawyers learn (we hope in law school) that they have an ethical obligation under Model Rule 1.6 to preserve the confidentiality of their clients’ information.  In today’s world, that surely means that the lawyer and her firm should take appropriate measures to protect the information from cyber thieves and other threats to the security and confidentiality of a client’s confidential information.

Likewise, our duty of communication (Model Rule 1.4), coupled with our confidentiality obligations, should make it a no-brainer that when a breach occurs, the affected clients should be told.

Nevertheless, in its Formal Opinion 483 the Committee devotes 16 pages to state and support this conclusion. (Interestingly, the Committee primarily relies on rules dealing with competent representation and technological aptitude, and only secondarily refers to the duty of confidentiality.)  The opinion does contain instruction that, while hardly novel or visionary, provides sound advice:

  • A firm should implement technological and other measures to detect intrusions into its data systems;
  • A firm should develop, implement and test a data incident response plan. As we’re fond of saying, the time for a pilot to learn how to deal with catastrophic engine failure is not when the plane is hurtling to the ground from 30,000 feet.
  • The firm should promptly take measures to restore the affected systems and close the breach. (Don’t just stand by and do nothing!)
  • The firm should, alone or in concert with skilled cyber forensics professionals, determine how and why the breach occurred. (Again, don’t just scratch your head.)
  • The firm should notify current clients whose data are compromised. Oddly, the Committee stated that it is “unwilling” to impose that obligation with regard to former clients.
  • The opinion provides guidance on what the client notification should contain. Importantly, the opinion reminds lawyers that they may have additional notification obligations under federal and state data breach notification laws that apply, yes, even to lawyers.

 

Opinion 483 provides useful, if obvious, direction on our duties in response to a data breach. It hardly lays out a truly comprehensive set of best practices for safeguarding client information, but it does point in the right direction.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which last month dumped up to 35 inches of rain on parts of the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland, caused 48 deaths, and up to $22 billion in property damage, comes a timely new ABA opinion about our ethical obligations related to disasters.

The hurricane did not spare lawyers and law firms.  Ahead of the 1,000-year storm, Law360.com reported that firms in Florence’s projected path shuttered offices, activated contingency plans, and were glad if their firm systems and client data were stored in the cloud.  (Subscribers can access the story here.)  (And doing the profession proud, volunteer lawyers manned hot-lines to help storm victims get needed legal services.)

But what are our actual disaster-related ethics duties?

Communication, withdrawal, files and more

Disasters happen; that’s a fact of life.  The entire 13-page Opinion 482 (Sept. 19. 2018) repays reading.  Some highlights and nitty-gritty advice from the opinion:

  • Model Rule 1.4 requires us to communicate with our clients.  To be able to reach clients following a disaster, the opinion says, you should maintain or be able to quickly recreate, lists of current clients and their contact information.
  • You “must evaluate in advance storing files electronically” so that you can have access to those files via Internet or smart device, if such are available after a disaster.
  • If you can continue to provide services in the disaster area, you continue to have the same ethics duties as before; but in an emergency, you may be able to provide advice outside your area of expertise, as allowed by comment [3] to Rule 1.1 (“Competence”).  (We’ve previously written here about “emergency lawyering.”)
  • If you’re a litigator, check with courts and bar associations to see if deadlines have been extended across the board.
  • You “must take reasonable steps in the event of a disaster to ensure access to funds” you are holding in trust, the opinion advises.  Of course, your obligations will vary depending on the circumstances.  If you know of an impending disaster, you should determine if you should reasonably transfer client funds to an account that will be accessible; or even attempt to complete imminent transactions before the disaster hits, “if practicable.”
  • You may need to withdraw after a disaster, under Rule 1.16 (“Withdrawal”) and Rule 1.3 (“Diligence”), if a client needs immediate legal services that you will be unable to timely provide.
  • If client files are destroyed, your duty of communication will require you to notify current and former clients about the loss of client property with “intrinsic value.”  But there is no duty, the opinion concludes, to notify either current or former clients about the loss of documents that have no intrinsic value, for which there are electronic copies, or that serve no current useful purpose.
  • To prevent the loss of important records, “lawyers should maintain an electronic copy of important documents in an off-site location that is updated regularly.”

Disaster Prep 101:

The ABA has a committee devoted solely to the topic of disaster preparedness, and its website has helpful resources and tips on everything from getting insurance, to types and methods of information retention, and how you can assess damage and rebuild after a disaster strikes your practice.  The committee’s 44-page Surviving a Disaster — A Lawyer’s Guide (Aug. 2011) is also helpful.

And remember, calamitous disasters aren’t confined to weather, war, and the like.  A disastrous health event can leave your practice reeling, especially if you are a solo or in a small firm.  As we’ve pointed out before, one’s own death and disability are not pleasant to think about, but choosing a profession in which we owe fiduciary duties to others requires us to make contingency plans, like those laid out in my home bar association’s “What-If Preparedness” program.

In all events, thinking about the unthinkable is part of what we do.

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.

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.

Money and JusticeOld-time lawyers say that it used to be easy to get the court’s permission to withdraw from a case.  You would just go to the judge and state, “Your Honor, we are not ready to go forward, and I am seeking leave to withdraw, because Mr. Green has not arrived.”  You know:  “Mr. Green” aka the moolah, aka the promised fee from the client.  And, so the story goes, the judge would bang the gavel and grant your motion.  (For a variation on the theme, see The Lincoln Lawyer, 2011, starring Matthew McConaughey.)

Such stories may be apocryphal, and whether true or not, hopefully we’ve come a long way in our understanding of the duties we owe clients in seeking to terminate our representation.  When withdrawing requires permission of a tribunal, as it does under most court rules, a continuing ethics quandary has been how much information we are permitted to disclose to the court in justifying the request.  On December 19, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued some guidance on the subject.

When you “may withdraw”

Model Rule 1.16(b), and state rules based on it, describe when you “may” withdraw from a representation, including when the client “substantially fails to fulfill an obligation to the lawyer regarding the lawyer’s services,” and the client has been warned that the lawyer will withdraw unless the obligation is fulfilled.  Comment [8] gives the example of a client refusing to abide by an agreement concerning fees or court costs.

In civil litigation, the quandary arises because Model Rule 1.6 requires the lawyer to maintain confidentiality about everything “relating to the representation,” with only narrow exceptions, and Rule 1.16(c) requires the lawyer to comply with a tribunal’s rules in seeking to withdraw.

You have to phrase your withdrawal request to the tribunal in some way — but  how far can you go in revealing the reason?  In Formal Opinion 476, the ABA Committee acknowledged the difficulty, quoting one characterization of the issue as a “procedural problem that has no fully satisfactory solution.”

Will “professional considerations” suffice?

The ABA Committee noted that many courts will simply accept a reference to “professional considerations” that are prompting the motion to withdraw.  (Sounds just a little like “Mr. Green.”)  Rule 1.16 cmt. [3] endorses that approach, advising that the “statement that professional considerations require termination of the representation ordinarily should be accepted [by the court] as sufficient.”

But some courts won’t accept “professional considerations” as sufficient.  The Committee cited withdrawal decisions from several jurisdictions that reflected details about the money owed by the client, the specific legal services carried out and other facts, indicating that the court had required much more than a generic statement from the lawyer about “professional considerations.”

The Committee pointed out that Model Rule 1.6(b)(5) and its cmt. [11] permit some disclosure of confidential client information in fee-collection suits by lawyers.  A motion to withdraw for failure to pay is “generally grounded in the same basic right of a lawyer to be paid pursuant to the terms of a fee agreement,” said the Committee.  Also, many court rules specify that motions to withdraw must be supported by “facts,” or “satisfactory reasons,” or similar showings.

Limit the info … but explain if required

Therefore, the Committee concluded, where the assertion that “professional considerations” justify withdrawal is not acceptable, and “when a judge has sought additional information” to support the motion to withdraw for non-payment, then the lawyer may “disclose information regarding the representation of the client that is limited to the extent reasonably necessary to respond to the court’s inquiry and in support of that motion to withdraw.”

What about the judicial officers considering such motions?  The Committee advised that judges “should not require the disclosure of confidential client information without considering whether such information is necessary to reach a sound decision on the motion.”  And if detailed information is required, courts should mitigate potential harm to the client, such as by allowing disclosure under seal or in camera, and by using redaction.

There will always be a tension between the duty of confidentiality and the necessity of providing reasons for a request to withdraw from representation. But Opinion 476 at least charts a path forward when facing the need to withdraw because of a client’s failure to pay.

Empty Chair in an Interrogation RoomWhen the government comes knocking during a grand jury investigation, can a G-man interview one of your executives without getting consent from counsel?  Last month, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine said “Yes,” and refused to suppress a suspect’s statements in the tax fraud case against him, holding that the ex parte chat didn’t violate attorney ethics rules.

The case shows how in a federal criminal investigation, an exception to the well-known “no-contact” rule can sweep away its protection.

Tax fraud … more than skin-deep

In U.S. v. Sabean, IRS special agents interviewed a Maine dermatologist in his office, without his tax lawyer present.  Almost two years later, the dermatologist was indicted for taking more than $3 million in fraudulent medical deductions, health care fraud and illegally distributing prescription drugs.

The dermatologist moved to suppress the statements he made during the IRS interview, using an argument that the court called “rather novel” — namely, that federal statute requires government lawyers to adhere to the legal ethics rules of the jurisdiction where they work, including, Maine’s version of Model Rule 4.2, and that violating the no-contact rule amounted to a violation of his Fifth Amendment due process rights, requiring exclusion of his statements.

“Authorized by law” exception

Maine’s Rule 4.2, like its Model Rule counterpart, provides that a “lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a person the lawyer knows to be represented  by another lawyer in the mater, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other layer or is authorized to do so by law or a court order.”

Acknowledging that the IRS agents who interviewed the dermatologist were acting on behalf of government lawyers and knew that he was represented, the court decided that the interview fell under the “authorized by law exception.”

Comment [5] to Rule 4.2 says that ex parte “communications authorized by law” include “investigative activities of lawyers representing governmental entities, directly or through investigative agents, prior to the commencement of criminal or civil enforcement proceedings.  When communicating with the accused in a criminal matter, a government lawyer must comply with this Rule in addition to honoring the constitutional rights of the accused.”

The district court judge in Sabean reasoned that the comment means that the bar of the “no contact” rule “begins when there is an ‘accused,’ thereby marking the actual commencement of criminal proceedings,” and that the pre-indictment, non-custodial interview did not require consent of the suspect’s lawyer.

The judge found additional support for this view in the Reporter’s Notes for Rule 4.2, which were prepared by the state task force that considered adoption of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.  The Reporter explained that “[t]raditional investigative activities of prosecutors are those ‘authorized … by law” for purposes of the exception to the no-contact rule.

The judge also cited a case from the Third Circuit, and cases from district courts in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, which held that pre-indictment interviews do not violate the no-contact rule.

Suppression not an “appropriate remedy”

In addition, the court said that “while exclusion may be a remedy for due process violations of interview procedures, it is not a mandatory remedy,” and suppression is to be reserved for only the “most egregious violations of the no-contact rule.”

This case simply didn’t fall into the “egregious” category, the court ruled:  the interview was investigative, not prosecutorial; and it wasn’t “scripted to reveal potential trial strategy or obtain uncounseled confession.”

Following the denial of the motion to suppress, the jury trial in the case was set to begin on November 1.

Let's talkWhat should you do when you are co-counsel on a case or in a deal, and you become aware that the other lawyer has made an error?  A new ethics opinion from the New York State Bar Association says that if you reasonably believe that your co-counsel has committed a significant error or omission that may give rise to a malpractice claim, you must disclose the information to the client.

Discovery slip-up

Ethics Opinion 1092 was based on an inquiry received from a lawyer with a dilemma.  The lawyer had been brought into a case as co-counsel on the eve of trial, and found that the other lawyer had done virtually no discovery, and had not made any document requests — despite the fact that communications and e-mails between the parties would be critical to the case.

The lawyer believed that the lack of discovery was a significant error, and that it could constitute malpractice.  The outcome of the case was still pending.  The lawyer was concerned that disclosing the information to the client could undermine the lawyer’s relationship with co-counsel, but was nonetheless convinced that it was in the client’s best interest to reveal the facts as soon as possible.

Interpreting communication, conflict rules

The NYSBA Committee on Professional Ethics noted that prior opinions had consistently held that a lawyer must come clean to the client about his or her own significant errors or omissions in providing legal services.  That principle is founded on two ethical duties:  (1) the duty to communicate with the client, and provide the information necessary for the client to make informed decisions (see Model Rule 1.4); and (2) the duty to withdraw from the representation where the lawyer’s personal interests conflict with the client’s (see Model Rule 1.7(a)(2)).

Those same rules also raise a duty to communicate with the client about co-counsel’s potential malpractice, the Committee opined.

Respect for client autonomy and decision-making means that the lawyer must provide information about all significant developments affecting the representation.  That “applies equally to a significant error or omission by co-counsel that may give rise to a malpractice claim,” said the Committee.

If co-counsel committed such an error, the client would have several options, such as continuing the relationship with co-counsel and reserving a possible malpractice claim; terminating co-counsel; bringing a malpractice action against co-counsel now; or getting independent advice about the options.  But without information, the client would be stymied in pursuing any of these choices.

Also, depending on the facts, the lawyer with the inquiry might have a personal conflict of interest that would raise a significant risk of adverse effect on the lawyer’s professional judgment — for instance, if the lawyer’s desire to maintain a good relationship with co-counsel was motivated by personal concerns, like preserving a good referral source (as opposed to being based on the goal of avoiding harm to the client’s case).  A personal interest plus risk of adverse effect on professional judgment could raise a duty to withdraw.

Further thoughts …

Instead of the facts posed by the inquiry to the Committee, what if the case is already over, and then you become aware of some error by co-counsel — but the trial outcome was favorable, notwithstanding the mistake?  The Committee didn’t consider that possible scenario, but it raises some further questions.  For instance, even if the result was an award to the client, is it possible that the award would have been larger absent the error?  How far do you have to go to decide such a question?

Even with these open questions, one thing is clear from this recent ethics opinion:  at least sometimes, co-counseling a case can result in a duty to have a difficult conversation with your client, and you should keep alert and know your ethics rules if that day should come.