scientific_CloudComputing45Two New Jersey lawyers cannot avoid disciplinary charges arising from their use of a paralegal to friend a represented opposing party on Facebook, the state supreme court ruled recently.

We’ve written before about the perils of using Facebook to obtain information about opposing parties or to communicate with them.  This latest example involves a twist of particular interest to legal ethics wonks like me, because it also spotlights the issue of how disciplinary power is allocated between local and state ethics regulators.

“Will you be my friend?”

The two lawyers represented governmental defendants against the claims of a plaintiff injured after being hit by a police car.  The lawyers directed their paralegal to search the Internet to obtain information about the plaintiff, and in response, she accessed his Facebook page.  Initially, the page was open to all, but later, the plaintiff changed his privacy settings to limit access to “friends.”

It is alleged that the two lawyers then instructed the paralegal to access and continue to monitor the non-public parts of the plaintiff’s Facebook account.  In response, she submitted a friend request to the plaintiff — but she did not reveal that she worked for the law firm representing the defendants in the case, or that she was investigating him as part of the case.

The plaintiff — who was represented by counsel — accepted the friend request, and so the paralegal was able to get information from the non-public parts of his account.

The plaintiff learned about the lawyers’ actions after they sought to add the paralegal as a trial witness and produced printouts from the plaintiff’s Facebook page and his friends’ pages.  He filed a grievance with the local New Jersey District Ethics Committee, asserting that contacting him through Facebook without going through his own attorney constituted an ethical violation.

The local committee, however, declined to docket the grievance; the committee advised the plaintiff that the allegations, if proven, would not be a violation of the New Jersey Rules of Professional Conduct.

Who’s in charge?

But that was not the end of the matter.

The plaintiff’s lawyer filed a grievance directly with the state-level disciplinary body, the Office of Attorney Ethics, which, in New Jersey’s disciplinary system, has parallel jurisdiction.  The director investigated and filed a complaint against the lawyers alleging violation of numerous rules, including New Jersey’s versions of Model Rule 4.2 (communicating with a person represented by counsel); Model Rule 5.3 (failure to supervise a non-lawyer assistant); Model Rule 8.4(a) (violating the ethics rules by inducing another person to violate them); and Model Rule 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation).

The lawyers denied any violations — including asserting that they acted in good faith and were “unfamiliar with the different privacy settings on Facebook.”  Later, they asked the OAE to withdraw the complaint, arguing that procedurally, the state-level OAE could not proceed against them after the local-level district committee had declined to do so.  The OAE would not withdraw the complaint.

State supreme court:  “You’re on the hook”

That sent the case out of the disciplinary system and into the state court system, eventually ending up in the state supreme court.  On April 19, the court ruled that under New Jersey’s “robust disciplinary system,” the action of the local committee in declining the grievance would not “close off further inquiry” at the state level if the grievance presented “an important, novel issue as to which there is little guidance,” or if the allegations involved “egregious, unethical conduct.”

Bottom line:  The two lawyers will have face the ethics charges against them, notwithstanding the pass they got the first time around at the local level.  (Be aware that your own jurisdiction may have disciplinary procedures that are quite different from New Jersey’s.)  Stay tuned — and in the meantime, be very careful when using social media to investigate litigants.  Several jurisdictions have ethics opinions that point to the pitfalls, and provide specific guidance on how to stay out of trouble when doing so.  The New York State Bar Association guide to social media ethics issues, published last year, collects many of the significant opinions.

Unpaid internshipsIn today’s soft legal services market, some aspiring members of the profession feel pressure to work for free, but the fairness of such arrangements in general has come under scrutiny.  In a twist (and just in time for the summer crop of interns), the New York State Bar Association earlier this month said that law firms can bill clients for services provided by unpaid legal interns, as long as the amount is not excessive, and the internship program complies with applicable law.  If charged to clients as an expense, the law firm can build in its overhead costs, such as for supervising the intern, the Committee on Professional Ethics said in its Opinion 1090.

U.S. DOL standards judicially rejected

Last summer, the Second Circuit refused to apply U.S. Department of Labor standards barring employers from deriving immediate economic advantage from unpaid interns, in favor of a non-exhaustive set of considerations that focus on what the intern receives in exchange for the work.  The ruling overturned the grant of class certification in a wage case against Fox Entertainment.  The Second Circuit also upheld a trial court denial of class certification in another intern wage case against Hearst Corp.

Many law schools place students with private-sector employers who do not pay them; but the interns do benefit in some cases by getting academic credit.  Whether and how clients can be billed for the work of such credit-earning interns was the subject of a law firm inquiry.

Billing intern work as fees vs. expenses

In response to the inquiry, the NYSBA ethics committee said that there was nothing in the state’s ethics rules that would prohibit a law firm from billing clients for the services of a law student-intern on either a fee basis or as an expense to the firm, even if the firm didn’t pay the intern or the law school.

The state’s version of Model Rule 1.5(b) mandates communicating to the client “the basis or rate of the fee and expenses,” and under Rule 1.5(a), as interpreted by previous opinions, neither the fee nor any expenses may be “excessive” — defined as one where a “reasonable lawyer would be left with a definite and firm conviction” that it is too much.  Nothing in the opinion appears to require the firm to inform the client that although the intern receives academic credit, the firm is not compensating the intern.

While the firm could bill the student’s work to the client as legal fees (by the hour or per task, for instance), the committee also approved the possibility of billing the work as an expense instead.  In that case, the committee said, “the lawyer may charge the client ‘either … an amount to which the client has agreed in advance or … an amount that reflects the cost incurred by the lawyer’ to sponsor the intern (e.g., the cost of supervising the intern).”

In other words, although the law firm does not have any direct costs in connection with using an unpaid intern, it does incur overhead costs, and may peg the expense value of the  intern’s work to include those costs to the firm.

ABA opinions on billing

The NYSBA’s opinion tracks the ABA’s 1993 opinion on billing issues.  There, the ABA ethics committee said that in the absence of disclosure, it is improper to mark up expenses such as taxis and meals charged to the client unless the lawyer herself has incurred additional expenses beyond the actual cost of the disbursement item.  Later, in 2000, the ABA’s committee expanded the same principles to cover the work of temporary or contract lawyers.  This most recent New York opinion continues the same line of reasoning to support using the lawyer’s overhead cost to value an unpaid intern’s work when it is charged to the client as an expense.

The social justice aspect of using unpaid interns is hotly debated; but at least in New York, lawyers and firms have some guidance about the rules of the road in billing clients.

OopsWhat’s ethical may nonetheless not be a best practice — timely advice from the ethics committee of the New York State Bar Association, which weighed in recently with an ethics opinion on the practice of blind copying your client on e-mails you send to opposing counsel.

The inquiry to the NYSBA’s Committee on Professional Ethics arose because the inquirer’s opposing counsel apparently objected to the inquirer bcc-ing the client on e-mails that the two lawyers were exchanging.

Is a bcc “deceptive”?

The ethics committee noted that lawyers are required by the state’s version of Model Rule 1.4 to communicate regularly with the client, and to keep the client reasonably informed.

Against that imperative, the committee considered whether using a bcc as a handy way to keep the client informed was somehow “deceptive” within the meaning of New York’s version of Model Rule 8.4(c), which prohibits “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”  The committee concluded that because the lawyer is the client’s agent, it is not deceptive for a lawyer to send to her own client copies of correspondence with opposing counsel, and opposing counsel may not reasonably assume that the lawyer will not share communications with her own principal, the client.

Therefore, bcc’s are allowed even over the objection of opposing counsel, the committee said.

And, the committee said, there are good reasons not to copy the client on an e-mail that is directed to opposing counsel — which might at first suggest that a bcc is the way to go.  First, a cc would reflect the client’s e-mail address, which the client may not wish to provide to opposing counsel.  A cc may also appear to invite opposing counsel to communicate directly with the client — although it would be improper for opposing counsel to do so.  (Model Rule 4.2 bars communication with a represented party, and comment [3] advises that the bar applies even when the represented party initiates or consents to the communication.)

Danger — “Reply All”

So, bcc-ing your client on e-mails you send to opposing counsel is not unethical, and it seems preferable to using a cc.  But not so fast.  The committee also said that there are reasons not to use either cc or bcc when copying e-mails to the client — namely the dreaded “Reply All.”  Inadvertent use of the Reply All button has created embarrassment (and worse) many times.  If you google “Reply All embarrassments” you will get hundreds of hits with titles like “Nine reply-all e-mail disasters,” and “Reply-all horror stories:  the button everyone loves to hate.”

For lawyers, the stakes are, of course, even higher.  As the committee pointed out, “if the enquirer and opposing counsel are communicating about a possible settlement of litigation, the inquirer bccs his or her client, and the client hits “reply all” when commenting on the proposal, the client may inadvertently disclose to opposing counsel confidential information otherwise protected by Rule 1.6.”

Bottom line:  the committee advised that you can bcc your client on e-mail to opposing counsel even over opposing counsel’s objection — but there are good reasons to take the extra step to forward that correspondence to the client later, and to stay off of that bcc button.


3d people - person talkingWe’ve mentioned before that some courts look with disfavor on lawyers helping pro se litigants by ghostwriting briefs for them to file as their own.  Some opinions discussing the issue frame the conduct as lawyer deceit, as misrepresentation, or even as potential contempt of court.  In a related twist, the ABA ethics committee has recently tried to issue some advice for the lawyer on the other side of the case.

Limited scope quandary

In Opinion 472, the committee addressed the obligations of a lawyer under Model Rule 4.2 (Communicating with Persons Represented by Counsel) and Model Rule 4.3 (Dealing with Unrepresented Person) when a pro se litigant is receiving limited-scope representation, a form of practice permitted under Model Rule 1.2(c).  What do you do if a pro se litigant is on the other side of a case from your client, and you have reason to believe that the party has gotten some assistance from a lawyer — in writing the most recent brief, for instance.  Can you contact that pro se party directly and communicate with him or her?  Or is the party “represented,” requiring you to go through the lawyer?

As is commonly known, Rule 4.2 (the “no-contact” rule) says that if you “know” that a person is represented by another lawyer in a matter, you may not communicate  about the subject of the representation with that person without the other lawyer’s consent.  “Knowledge” can be inferred from the circumstances.

In its opinion, the committee noted the “quandary” for the lawyer on the other side of a matter where a supposedly pro se party appears to be getting or to have gotten some limited legal assistance; the committee acknowledged that the situation doesn’t fit naturally into either the traditional full-matter representation contemplated under Rule 4.2’s no-contact rule or the wholly-pro se rubric of Rule 4.3, where the lawyer can, within limits, talk to the opposing party.

“Rules of Reason”

But the Model Rules are “rules of reason,” said the committee, to be interpreted with “reference to the purposes of legal representation and the law itself.”

Therefore, the committee recommended that when a lawyer sees indications that the person has received some degree of legal assistance on a case, that the lawyer inquire whether the person is in fact represented by counsel.  Such indications include briefs that appear ghostwritten.  (Parenthetically, in 2007 the ABA’s committee said in passing that ghostwriting a brief for a client does not violate ethics rules, differing from the position taken by some courts.  See Formal Op. 07-447 (subs. req.).)

The committee acknowledged that Rule 4.2 does not include a duty to ask whether a person is represented by counsel.  But the committee noted that you cannot evade the no-contact rule by “closing [your] eyes to the obvious.”  Therefore, said the committee, if you suspect a ghostwritten brief, you have to ask.

If the person “indicates that yes, a lawyer drafted documents, but is not providing any other representation,” the committee said that suggests that “the representation has concluded,” and you can talk to the person:  “On aspects of the matter for which representation has been completed and the lawyer who provided limited-scope services is not expected to reemerge to represent the client, a lawyer may communicate directly with the other person.”  But if not, and presumably if the situation is ambiguous, you have to reach out to the “pro se” party’s lawyer.

Whose burden?

I agree with commentator Brian Faughn that the opinion is not very helpful in shedding light in this murky area, and the burden (though it is a light one) seems to be put on the wrong participant.  Why should the opposing lawyer have to inquire about the scope of the representation?  If a litigant makes an informed choice to proceed with a limited-scope representation (and Rule 1.2 indeed calls for informed consent), doesn’t that include the possibility that the litigant will have to deal with opposing counsel on his or her own?  For purposes of the no-contact rule, shouldn’t you be entitled to rely on the fact that no lawyer has entered an appearance on the other side?

ABA formal opinions are advisory, of course, and you should also consider the case law and ethics rules in your own jurisdiction as you attempt to navigate these waters.  But this opinion’s “rule of reason” seems somewhat off-base.