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.

Picture this:   You’re travelling across U.S. borders, heading home from a client meeting abroad.  However, unlike other trips, this time a Customs and Border Protection agent requests that you unlock and hand over for inspection your computer and cell phone — full of client confidential information.  You’ve been concerned about this issue, and so you’ve had your IT department encrypt all of the sensitive data on your devices.  Will that protect you client’s information from disclosure?

Ethics duties at the border

We wrote here last year about the ethics issues with border searches of e-devices, including the New York City Bar Association’s July 2017 opinion on how to deal with the duty of confidentiality in that scenario.

The NYCBA ethics committee advised that you may of course ethically comply with lawful government orders, but also that you should not comply “unless and until” you “undertake reasonable efforts to dissuade border agents from reviewing clients’ confidential information or to persuade them to limit the extent of their review.”

The concern about this issue was heightened by a sharp uptick in border searches of e-devices.  Customs officers searched an estimated 30,200 cellphones, computers and other electronic devices of people entering and leaving the U.S. last year — an almost 60 percent increase from 2016, according to Homeland Security Department data.

Most recently, in January 2018, the CBP revised Directive No. 3340-049, which includes procedures for searching information subject to attorney-client privilege.  Section 5.2 calls for segregating privileged material to ensure that it is “handled appropriately.”

Encryption – it’s no panacea

What about encrypting the client information on your e-device to make sure it stays confidential and won’t be revealed during a potential border search? That approach may be of limited use.

Section 5.3.3 of the revised CBP directive provides that if border officers can’t inspect your device “because it is protected by a passcode or encryption,” they may detain it and convey it (or a copy of its contents) to third parties who can supply “technical assistance.”

This is an indirect reference to the various U.S. intelligence agencies that are authorized pursuant to Section 2.6 of Executive Order 12333 to provide technical support and assistance to the CBP.  This aid may be derived from the National Security Agency, which leads the federal government in cryptology, or from the National Media Exploitation Center which consists of representatives from multiple intelligence agencies that are  responsible for decrypting, translating and analyzing documents and electronic devices in the federal government’s possession.

If CBP officers seek to decrypt and access the confidential information on your device, they likely have the authority and the technical resources, through federal intelligence agencies, to do so.

The magnitude of the risk, and what to do

Even though the 5,000 devices searched in February last year sounds like a lot, it’s only a tiny percentage according to CBP’s Office of Public Affairs. The agency says that in FY 2017, only about .007 percent of arriving international travelers screened and processed by CBP officers were required to submit to an e-device search.  That possibly points to a low risk for any one lawyer who might be returning from international travel.

But given the breadth of your ethics duty, and the limits on the ability of encryption to protect confidential client information on your devices, it would be a best practice to heed the advice that the NYCBA gave last year:

  • Depending on the circumstances, including the sensitivity of the information, you should consider not carrying any client confidential information across the border.
  • Rather than exposing your client’s information to disclosure in a search, you should securely back up client information and cross the border only with a blank “burner” phone or laptop.
  • And before coming back across the border, you should also turn off syncing of cloud services, sign out of web-based services, and/or uninstall applications providing local or remote access to confidential information.

Lawyers and their firms should consider incorporating these measures into their data security policies and practices. It’s what the times, and your ethics duties, would seem to call for.

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.

In a warning to semi-retired lawyers and others, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month affirmed a 90-day suspension for a lawyer who let others draft and sign his name to deficient  pleadings, saying that “a lawyer’s good name and professional reputation are his primary stock in trade, an asset to be cultivated and safeguarded throughout his career — even after ceasing the active practice of law.”

“One size fits all” briefs

The case started out in a Michigan district court, which found that briefs filed under the lawyer’s name from 2012-2015 in multiple social security benefits cases were “woefully deficient both as to the quality of the briefs and the management and monitoring of the appeal process on behalf of clients.”  The briefs sometimes had little to do with the facts of the particular case in which they were filed; the district court hearing panel, in its opinion, called them “one size fits all” briefs.

The panel found that in the process of retiring from the firm in which he was a senior partner, and withdrawing from actively practicing, the lawyer authorized his firm for a period of some years to continue submitting district court filings in his name in numerous social security benefits appeals as though he were attorney of record.  But he didn’t review these filings, or supervise the lawyers who actually prepared them.  Rather, his participation was simply a “façade” to help the firm.  (In fact, said the panel, the firm’s social security practice was essentially run by a secretary.)

The panel described how once a brief was filed in the district court, no further work would be done on a social security appeal.  Neither the lawyer whose name was used nor any other lawyer at the firm saw the opposing party’s brief, no lawyer submitted any type of response, and none ever saw a report and recommendation or a final decision.

In this process, the clients obviously got short shrift.  The panel described at least one of them as having been “abandoned.”

Duty to supervise, duty of candor

In its panel opinion, the district court said that the lawyer violated Michigan’s versions of Model Rule 5.1 (duty to supervise subordinate lawyers) by not supervising preparation of briefs that were submitted using his signature and his filing credentials; and Rule 3.3 (candor to the tribunal), by authorizing submission of briefs bearing his name – thus falsely representing that he had reviewed or monitored their preparation.

The district court panel recommended a 90-day suspension; as one of the aggravating factors, the panel noted that the lawyer had a “selfish motive” in lending his name to the appeals, since it helped keep the firm profitable, and his retirement benefits flowing.

The Sixth Circuit adopted the panel’s findings and recommendations.  It wrote that “this case presents a sad example of a decent lawyer, who in the autumn of a successful career, became careless in permitting the use of his name for improper purposes and needlessly brought dishonor to himself, his firm, the profession and the justice system.”

Takeaways…

First, whether you’re winding down your practice or in your prime, it’s clearly risky to let anyone use your name to sign court filings you don’t have control over, even if it’s someone at your firm.

Second, and maybe not so well-known, is that your state’s disciplinary authority is not the only body that can mete out professional discipline.  The federal district courts have inherent power to regulate the conduct of the lawyers who appear before them; they usually have their own disciplinary procedures laid out in their local rules; and by local rule, the district court usually adopts the lawyer conduct rules of the jurisdiction as the ones that govern.

And last, the lawyer here came under extra criticism for his “continuing resistance to this disciplinary action and stubborn refusal to acknowledge his leading role in the failings.”  If you  ever find yourself in the disciplinary cross-hairs, don’t do that — it will seldom help your cause.

Does the new year have you thinking about taking on work in a new practice area?  Maybe business in your accustomed area is slowing, and you’re considering shifting gears.  If so, beware of dabbling in areas where you don’t have the requisite knowledge and skill to provide competent representation to your client.

The ethical duty of competence — Model Rule 1.1 — is the first rule in the rule book for a reason:  without competence, fulfilling your other ethical duties is meaningless.  A couple of recent cautionary tales shine a light on how lawyers can get it wrong.

Step carefully into specialized areas

One way lawyers get in trouble is in overestimating their ability to deal with the ins and outs of a specialized area that they may not be familiar with.

That might have been the problem in a recent District of Columbia Court of Appeals case.  The lawyer represented the client in post-conviction and immigration proceedings.  The client was at risk for deportation on the premise that he had been convicted of an “aggravated felony” as defined under the federal immigration statute.

The lawyer made several missteps in trying to forestall the client’s removal.  Initially, he petitioned the state circuit court to vacate the conviction and guilty plea, based on the mistaken claim that the court had failed to advise the client about the potential immigration consequences of the conviction.  Then, the lawyer dismissed the petition, conceded removability before the immigration court, and did not try to challenge or delay the client’s deportation on any other ground.

Ultimately, the client got new counsel, who successfully argued against removal on the ground that the burglary offense he was convicted of was not an “aggravated felony” within the meaning of the immigration statute.  That appears to be something that a practitioner in the immigration area might have known, but which might not have occurred to someone not well-versed in the specialized world of immigration law.

The lawyer admitted to violating D.C.’s version of Rule 1.1, and was suspended for 30 days with one year probation.  The probation conditions included the requirement that he join an immigration lawyers’ association and attend 10 hours of CLE pertaining to immigration law.

Get help when needed

Another danger is trying to go it alone, and failing to get help when needed.  When you don’t know how to proceed, talk to a colleague; call the bar association to identify the head of a committee or section in the relevant area; reach out to the relevant lawyers’ group; look for resources on-line — just don’t isolate yourself.

Help like that might have aided a Louisiana lawyer who acknowledged that his primary area of expertise was criminal law.  He accepted representation in a civil case involving a school’s discipline of a student, and proceeded to file suit against the wrong parties.  The court extended time to cure the problem, but the lawyer didn’t amend the petition or file anything else in the case.

In its opinion suspending the lawyer for a year and a day, the Louisiana Supreme Court noted that the lawyer did not appear to understand the complexities of civil law practice and procedure.  He acknowledged that he didn’t properly research the case law for this type of claim and filed suit against the wrong parties.

Keep calm and learn on…

None of this means that you can’t move into new areas or deal with issues that are initially unfamiliar to you.  As comment [2] to Rule 1.1 explains, “the most fundamental legal skill consists of determining what kind of legal problems a situation may involve, a skill that necessarily transcends any particular specialized knowledge.”

Be assured, says the comment, that you can “provide adequate representation in a wholly novel field through necessary study” — you just have to recognize what you don’t know, and come up to speed on it.

Greetings 2018!  Time for some ethics trend predictions to kick off the Year of the Dog (according to the Chinese zodiac).  Let it be a year in which you doggedly pursue ethical practice (ouch).  No more bad puns — here’s what’s hot as we begin the year:

Law firm cyber-security

No surprise here that the top trend is data security.  It’s one of the “chief concerns” of GC’s, and for good reason:  It’s not if, but when, a firm is going to experience a cyber-attack.  The latest ABA report says that 22 percent of law firms of all sizes were hit with a data breach in 2017, up from 14 percent in 2016; several of the biggest firms experienced attacks and various kinds of disruption in the past couple years.  But small and medium-size firms are just as vulnerable, say the data.  Of course, lawyers have an ethical duty under Model Rule 1.6(c) to take reasonable steps to safeguard the confidentiality of client data.  Ethics rules also require lawyers to have the technological competence to recognize and address the problem.  (See comment [8] to Rule 1.1.)  Trending:  More clients are insisting that firms establish data security policies and procedures.

The “Uber” effect – on-line service providers and other tech disruptors

Just as Uber disrupted an entire market segment with its ride-hailing model, on-line businesses like Avvo and LegalZoom have taken aim at legal services and how they are marketed.  But these on-line types of business raise legal ethics issues, including fee-splitting, handling client funds and professional independence.  (Excellent summary is here.)  Some innovative models, like the traffic-ticket-fighting site TIKD, are under fire for potential antitrust violations and the unauthorized practice of law.  And will consumers soon be taking their legal problems to chatbots?  Will legal teams soon be using artificial intelligence to analyze complaints and generate document drafts?  Trending:  State ethics regulators have come down against Avvo-like platforms, but they are still thriving.  How will the legal industry adapt?  (Hint:  Watch the progress of the ABA’s consideration of a revamp of the Model Rules on lawyer marketing and advertising, aimed at “bringing them into the 21st century” and reported here, in the Professional Responsibility Blog.)

Gender bias and sexual harassment in the profession

The ABA adopted Model Rule 8.4(g) in 2016, barring lawyers from engaging in harassing or discriminatory conduct; states are now considering whether to adopt the rule into their own lawyer conduct codes.  (Box score as of 8/1/17:  1 aye, 1 nay, many studying; and some commentators raise First Amendment concerns.)  But 40 percent of women in the profession report that they have been subjected to harassment and discrimination; and there have been several high-profile discrimination and pay-equity claims against prominent national firms and individuals.  The judiciary has been hit as well, with a prominent federal judge apologizing and retiring abruptly after sexual harassment allegations; and 695 law professors and former clerks are now petitioning Chief Justice John Roberts, seeking revision of judicial employee guides and support for reporting misconduct.  Trending:  Women in the profession are adding their voices to #metoo.

Lawyer health and wellness — mental and physical

Finally, we’d be remiss, in our first post of 2018, if we didn’t mention the personal aspect of lawyering:  keeping yourself safe and sane.  As a profession, more of us fight alcoholism, substance abuse, depression and anxiety than the general population, and those trends start developing in law school.  The statistics are alarming.  Trending:  a hopeful resolve, via a new, comprehensive ABA report, to come to grips with these systemic issues.  If you made a New Year’s resolution to stop drinking or drugging, or to address mental health issues that are affecting your legal practice, every state has a lawyer assistance organization to help you.  We’ve linked to the ABA’s state-by-state listing before; but here it is again.  If it helps one person, there’s no such thing as posting it too often.

Happy New Year.

 

If the clerk of courts e-mails you an order that your client must pay $1 million in attorney fees to the opposing party, but your spam filter catches the e-mail and then deletes it after 30 days without alerting you, and you therefore fail to appeal the order in time — well, your client may be out of luck, as a Florida court of appeals ruled recently.  (There is a motion for rehearing pending.)

Spam canned?

The ruling thus far is a cautionary tale and shines a light on some ethics duties as they might apply to your process for handling and keeping on top of spam e-mail — especially the duties of diligence (Model Rule 1.3) and competence (Model Rule 1.1, and see cmt. 8 on technology).

The facts:  Company sued Utility Authority, and Company won.  Company’s Lawyer moved for attorney fees, and after more than a year, the trial court granted them — reportedly as high as $1 million.  It’s worth noting that during the time that his client’s fee motion was pending, Company’s Lawyer had the firm’s paralegal check the court’s on-line docket every three weeks for a ruling.

When the court finally issued the ruling, the clerk e-mailed it to all counsel.  Technology experts who later testified said that the e-mail server at the Utility Authority’s Lawyer’s firm received the e-mail. But the firm’s e-mail filtering system was configured to drop and permanently delete e-mails perceived to be spam without further alert.

Apparently that’s what happened to the e-mailed attorney-fee order.  After 30 days passed without the fee award being paid (i.e. after the time to appeal the order had run), Company’s lawyers contacted opposing counsel.

No relief

The Utility Authority moved for relief from the judgment, arguing that its lawyers didn’t receive the order in time to file an appeal.  The trial court rejected the argument, and the court of appeals agreed:  this was not “mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect,” it held.  The Utility Authority’s Lawyer’s firm did receive the order — the equivalent, the court of appeals said, of placing a physical copy of the order in a mailbox.  The e-mail just went right to spam, from where it apparently was deleted without further notice.

At the hearing on the motion, the law firm’s former IT consultant testified that he advised against that configuration; the firm rejected the advice, as well as advice to get a third-party vendor to handle spam filtering, and advice to get an online backup system that would have cost $700-1200 per year.  Financial considerations played a part in these decisions, the court found.

The decision to use this filtering configuration despite warning was a conscious decision to use “a defective e-mail system without any safeguards or oversight in order to save money.  Such a decision cannot constitute excusable neglect,” said the court of appeals.

Adding further sting, the court noted the Company’s Lawyer had a paralegal regularly check the court’s online docket during the long pendency of the fee motion.  If the Utility Company’s Lawyer had done something similar, the court said, he would have received notice of the fee order in time to appeal.  “The neglect” of that duty “was not excusable.”

Spam:  not tasty but good to check

The harsh result here may yet be ameliorated if the court of appeals grants rehearing.  In the meantime, however, the scary scenario points to the need to pay attention to your firm’s  technology and processes for handling spam.  And old-fashioned procedures like checking the court’s docket can also help avoid an unpalatable spam situation.

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.

Being inexperienced can contribute to getting into disciplinary trouble, but it can also be a mitigating factor in a bar disciplinary case.  That’s the message of a recent opinion of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which imposed a six month suspension from state practice as reciprocal discipline on a lawyer who had already been suspended from federal bankruptcy court practice for five years.

Raising the risk?

Something like 37,000 students likely graduated from law school this year; that’s a lot of newly-minted JD’s coming into the world of practice.  And while they might know more about legal ethics when they graduate than they ever will again (as I tell the law students I teach as an adjunct ethics prof), it’s also surely true that simple inexperience can play a role in going astray and getting into disciplinary trouble.

For one thing, with the legal job market being what it is, many new lawyers will likely be hanging out their own shingles.  There are lots of opportunities for a novice to get mentoring, advice, and hand-holding from more-veteran members of the  bar.

But failing to take advantage of those resources can mean that an inexperienced solo lawyer is stuck in an echo-chamber, without the corrective that a more-seasoned viewpoint can contribute.  And even in a firm, it’s easy to make a mistake if the proper supervision is lacking.

Sooner State of confusion 

The lawyer in this disciplinary case was admitted to the Oklahoma bar and started practicing in 2013.  About 18 months later, she got her first client — a couple who were attempting to set aside a bankruptcy court order.

Her attempt on the couple’s behalf went badly wrong, and then spiraled out of control:  the bankruptcy court found the lawyer’s set-aside motion to be without any legal or factual basis; she missed the deadline to supplement the filing; and then she sued the trustee, the judge, the state courts of two counties and the layers representing the creditors.

The court dismissed that suit with prejudice, and the creditors moved for sanctions against the lawyer in the bankruptcy court, asserting among other things that she had filed frivolous litigation, misrepresented facts, and had threatened the bankruptcy trustee and attorneys with criminal prosecution in bad faith.

Before the sanctions hearing, the lawyer entered into a settlement, accepting a five-year suspension from practice in both Oklahoma bankruptcy courts.

Inexperience counts

It’s a little-known fact that drawing professional discipline in one jurisdiction where you are admitted to practice (including before federal courts), can bring reciprocal discipline in other jurisdictions where you are admitted.  That’s what happened here.

In response to the state bar’s disciplinary charges, the lawyer creatively argued that because her bankruptcy suspension was a result of an agreed settlement and not an “adjudication,” there was no basis for reciprocal state discipline.  The Oklahoma supreme court swept that argument aside, and held that her conduct violated the Sooner State’s versions of Model Rules 1.1 (competence); Rule 3.4 (unfairness to opposing parties and counsel; and Rule 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

But in weighing the appropriate reciprocal discipline, the court significantly took as a mitigating factor that the lawyer “was new to the practice of law and without supervision or training.”  Without intending to hold “new legal practitioners to different standards from  more seasoned lawyers,” the court nonetheless took account of the fact that the lawyer “was practicing on her own with little prior training or supervision and refused to ask for help.”

Thus, although acknowledging that the lawyer exceeded the bounds of zealous advocacy, and “displayed a lack of competency and insolence in the practice of bankruptcy law,” the court imposed only a six-month suspension from practice.

Don’t let this happen to you 

If you’re a newbie, recognize the limits of your knowledge and get help.  Don’t count on your inexperience to save you from harsh professional discipline; you don’t want to go there in the first place.  If you practice by yourself, take advantage of all the formal and informal mentoring and training resources available via state and local bar associations and law schools.

My hometown Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, for instance, has a solo and small firm practice section.  The Ohio Supreme Court has a lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring program, linking veteran lawyers with new practitioners.  Last, here are other mentoring programs, listed by state.