Law Practice Management

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.

Making big news this summer was the shut-down of Avvo Legal Services just a few months after it was acquired by Internet Brands.  (A couple of the many reports are here and here.)  Some speculated that the new corporate owner had no stomach to continue to fight for that portion of Avvo’s business model in the face of numerous state ethics opinions that found a wide variety of ethics problems with it.

The flat-fee service that Avvo offered through a network of lawyers required the lawyer to rebate a “marketing” fee to Avvo out of the fee that the lawyer received.  As we’ve pointed out, that raised issues of fee-splitting with non-lawyers; but other aspects of the model also troubled ethics boards.

Does “processing fee” = fee-splitting?

On another front now drawing notice, another on-line legal services provider is contesting charges in California district court that its own business plan violates false advertising and unfair competition statutes, including recently-filed allegations that it supports its business with spurious attorney ratings.

The suit is significant for highlighting that despite the demise of Avvo Legal Services, the ethics issues remain in light of the other players that continue to occupy the same space in the marketplace, and that litigation, not just regulatory action, sometimes results.

The plaintiff in the California federal case is LegalForce RAPC Worldwide, an IP firm.  In an amended complaint filed earlier this month, LegalForce alleges that it competes with defendant UpCounsel Inc. to “provide individuals and small businesses with affordable access to attorneys,” by using technology to match clients with lawyers specialized in corporate, patent and trademark law.

The allegations, which withstood an earlier motion to dismiss, include that UpCounsel’s model features a “processing fee” markup that constitutes impermissible fee-sharing with non-lawyers.

The amended complaint says that UpCounsel tries to attract consumers by promising to provide lawyers in the “Top 5%” of specialized IP and corporate practice niches in cities across the U.S, and that the representation constitutes false advertising, as there is no ranking system that could provide a basis for the claim.

“Reviews” outnumber lawyers, says complaint

In addition, according to the allegations of the amended complaint, UpCounsel falsely advertised superior consumer ratings for the lawyers in its network.  As an example, the plaintiff pointed to the rating given to IP lawyers in Cotati, California:

“Cotati Intellectual Property Lawyers, 5.0 ***** Based on 5450 reviews.”  “It is impossible for Cotati Intellectual Property Lawyers to have 5,450 reviews on UpCounsel,” says the amended complaint, because “Cotati is a small town … with a population of 7,455. There are only 21 attorneys in the city of Cotati licensed to practice law in California, and none of these 21 attorneys are listed on UpCounsel.”

LegalForce alleges that this same pattern of “perfect or near-perfect review scores” based on thousands of purported reviews is duplicated as to lawyers advertised by UpCounsel in other cities, such as Tallahassee and Savannah.

More to come…

The ethics issues regarding on-line legal service providers have not gone away just because Avvo has withdrawn from that market.  As Prof. Alberto Bernabe, a legal ethics professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago, has pointed out, “Where Avvo left off, someone else will pick up…,” including, most recently, “Text a Lawyer,” an on-line platform where prospective clients can ask lawyers questions via text.

Regulators and litigation parties will surely continue to confront the ethical issues inherent in these platforms, although the ABA’s recently-passed revamp of some of the legal marketing rules in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct fails to address on-line referral providers.

The New York City Bar Association recently found that common forms of third-party litigation funding for law firms violate New York’s Rule 5.4(a), which like the analogous Model Rule, bars fee-splitting with non-lawyers.

In its Opinion 2018-5, the NYCBA’s Professional Ethics Committee advised that “a lawyer may not enter into a financing agreement with a litigation funder, a non-lawyer, under which the lawyer’s future payments to the funder are contingent on the lawyer’s receipt of legal fees or on the amount of legal fees received in one or more specific matters.”  (Left untouched by the opinion are agreements between funders and clients, which do not implicate the fee-splitting issue.)

While ethics opinions are advisory, they can be cited by courts as persuasive authority; and an opinion from the influential NYCBA could help shape the conversation in an area that has been marked by controversy.  As we described earlier this year, two jurisdictions now require some disclosure when third-party funding is part of a case (Wisconsin by statute and the Northern District of California by rule), and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has favored a change to the Rules of Civil Procedure to require such disclosure.  And as we have also described, some courts still view third-party funding as impermissible under the old doctrines of champerty and maintenance.  Yet, litigation funding is big business, with the U.S. market estimated at $5 billion annually, and growing.

Fee-splitting problem

Against this backdrop, the Committee considered two arrangements, both of which it found forbidden by the fee-splitting rule:  (1) where the funding to the firm is not secured other than by the lawyer’s fee, “so that it is implicit that the lawyer will pay the funder only if the lawyer receives legal fees in the matter;” and (2) where instead of a fixed amount or interest rate, the amount of the lawyer’s payment to the funder will depend on the amount of the lawyer’s fee.

Rule 5.4(a) (“Professional Independence of a Lawyer”) provides that “a lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a non-lawyer.”  The purpose of the rule, as described in comment 1, is to protect independent legal judgment.  See also Roy Simon & Nicole Hyland, Simon’s New York Rules of Professional Conduct Annotated at 1420 (noting that the rule’s intention is to protect independent legal judgment by removing the incentive for non-lawyers to interfere or pressure lawyers to use improper measures to win cases).

The Committee noted the long-standing nature of the fee-splitting prohibition, and that it has been broadly interpreted to bar many different types of business arrangements in which lawyers agree to make payments to non-lawyers based on the lawyer’s receipt of legal fees, or on the amount of those fees.  A financing arrangement contingent on the receipt of fees or their amount is no different, and is impermissible, said the Committee, “regardless of how the arrangement is worded.”

“Rightly or wrongly,” the Committee said, Rule 5.4(a) “presupposes that when non-lawyers have a stake in legal fees from particular matters, they have an incentive or ability to improperly influence the lawyer.”

Lessons from the case law… and a call to the legislature?

The Committee acknowledged that New York courts have enforced litigation funding contracts against attempts to invalidate the agreements based on public policy grounds, but said that would be expected:  “[L]awyers who violate the Rules cannot ordinarily invoke their own transgressions to avoid contractual obligations.”

And as for the argument that the prohibition on fee-sharing is overbroad?  The Committee recognized that there is room for question there, including whether there might be adequate contractual or other means of preventing litigation funding arrangements from interfering with independent legal judgment.  But “that is a matter to be decided by the state judiciary,” said the Committee.

Funder reaction:  not warm

As described in Law360 (subscription required), the chief investment officer at one major funder, Burford Capital, called the NYCBA’s opinion “flatly wrong.”  The chief investment officer of another funder, Bentham IMF, said it was “going the wrong way.”

Perhaps these reactions are predictable; but the NYCBA’s opinion is only the most recent of a string of advisory opinions from other jurisdictions, such as Maine, Virginia, Nevada and Utah, that point in the same direction.

Stay tuned.  This is a topic with possible ramifications on how new firms are financed, as well as an ongoing debate over the role of the fee-splitting rule in actually protecting clients.

A Washington lawyer was disbarred last month by the state supreme court in a disciplinary case with an interesting array of issues:  the heavy penalties for using trust account money to “rob Peter to pay Paul;” the danger of treating the representation of a relative too casually; “compassion fatigue” as a potential mitigating factor in lawyer discipline; and the application of the Constitutional protection against double jeopardy in the disciplinary setting.

Rob Peter, pay Paul

The lawyer was a sole practitioner with a personal injury practice.  Alerted to overdrafts in his client trust account, disciplinary counsel investigated and found numerous irregularities:

  • The lawyer transferred trust account money to his operating and personal accounts when they were overdrawn or short of funds, in the process converting more than $10,000 to his own use.
  • He also failed to pay several clients the full amounts of settlements they were entitled to, and made misrepresentations to them in the process.
  • The lawyer shuffled money in and out of the trust account, using funds properly belonging to one client to pay settlement amounts owed to others.

Misusing and misappropriating client funds in these kinds of ways is the most serious ethics breach in the rule-book, and the court found violations of Washington’s versions of Model Rule 1.15 (Safekeeping Property) and Rule 8.4(c) (dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation).  In Washington, as in many jurisdictions, the presumptive penalty is disbarment.

All in the family

Additional counts of the disciplinary complaint involved the lawyer’s representation of his nephew in a car accident case.  There was no fee agreement, but the lawyer eventually settled the case for $90,000 and took a $20,000 fee.  Later, however, after a change in Washington law, the tortfeasor’s insurer sent the lawyer more than $17,000 as an additional settlement payment.  The lawyer failed to notify the nephew, signed his nephew’s name on the check and eventually disbursed it to his office account, using it to pay bills.

The lawyer testified that his sister — the client’s mother — authorized him to negotiate the check, and that the nephew’s drug problem made it inappropriate to give the additional settlement money to him.  The sister had power of attorney over her son at one point, but it had expired long before the lawyer distributed the additional settlement funds to himself without the client’s knowledge or permission.

The court found that in addition to violating the trust account rules and converting the funds dishonestly, the lawyer violated the state’s version of Model Rule 1.4 (Communication).

“Compassion fatigue”?

The lawyer argued that the disciplinary board, which unanimously recommended disbarment, should have considered his emotional problems as a mitigating factor.  In the same year that he committed the charged misconduct, he had lost three personal injury trials in a row.  A psychiatrist testified at the disciplinary hearing that these losses and the lawyer’s over-identification with his clients led to “compassion fatigue,” a syndrome in which people in the helping professions become ill themselves as a result of working with traumatized populations.

The lawyer’s expert witness said that symptoms of “compassion fatigue” can include becoming “jaded,” and mentally disassociating from daily life, and that it had caused the lawyer to become careless and to avoid the stress of dealing with his bookkeeping.

The court accepted the concept of “compassion fatigue” as a potential mitigating factor.  Under Washington law, the mitigating factor of emotional problems requires merely some connection between the asserted problem and the misconduct; the court found that the psychiatrist’s expert testimony established that connection at least as to  some of the lawyer’s misconduct.

Nonetheless, the court said, under the totality of the circumstances, the lawyer’s emotional problems carried “little weight.”  “Compassion fatigue” did not actually cause the lawyer to forge his nephew’s signature, or convert client funds, the court said; and he testified that he was still aware of his ethical obligations.

In order to justify mitigation where the presumptive sanction is disbarment, the court noted, the circumstances must be “extraordinary.”  Here, they were not, and the failure to preserve the integrity of his clients’ funds led the court to rule that the lawyer’s emotional troubles could not reduce the sanction.

Double jeopardy and lawyer discipline

Last, the lawyer argued that being charged with multiple rule violations stemming from single instances of misconduct meant that he was being punished more than once for the same conduct, in violation of the Constitutional protection against double jeopardy.

This was an issue of first impression in Washington.  However, numerous jurisdictions have considered whether the double jeopardy clause is implicated in lawyer disciplinary proceedings, and answered “No,” and the Washington Supreme Court was persuaded by these holdings.  The weight of authority is that the sanctions for professional misconduct — reproval (or admonishment or reprimand), suspension or disbarment — are not criminal sanctions (which consist of fines or incarceration).  Thus, disciplinary sanctions are not “punishment” for purpose of the double jeopardy clause, the court held.

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.

So, you’ve just met with a potential client and the opportunity to take a fascinating case or close a major deal is at your front door. The catch? The client wants to pay for your services in Bitcoin.  Do you accept? Can you accept?

The do’s and the can’s

If you’re licensed in Nebraska the answer is yes! With some caveats, of course. Late last year, Nebraska’s Lawyer Advisory Committee became the first authority to opine on the legal ethics implications of digital currencies. Ethics Advisory Opinion 17-03 allows attorneys to receive and accept digital currency as payment for legal services. However, in order to ensure attorneys aren’t charging unreasonable fees, the Committee advised that the currency must immediately be converted to U.S. dollars upon receipt. Digital currency can also be accepted from third-party payers so long as there is no interference with the attorney’s independent relationship with the client. And, attorneys can hold digital currency in trust or escrow for clients and third parties as long as it is held separately from the attorney’s property, with reasonable safeguards.

Why Bitcoin?

An advantage to accepting Bitcoin (or other digital currency) as payment is that there are no transfer fees. Unlike payment by credit card, wire, or check, and foreign currency conversion for international transactions, Bitcoin is transferred from client to attorney directly, with no fee attached. Other advantages are instant transactions, no bank acting as middleman in the transaction, and the shared digital ledger book that tracks all Bitcoin transfers, which prevents counterfeiting.

How does Bitcoin work?

Bitcoin is an open-source program existing on a decentralized peer-to-peer network on the internet. Anyone can access Bitcoin, and it is stored in a digital wallet. There is a public key, consisting of numbers and letters constituting the “address” to which the Bitcoin is sent, and a private key that the sender uses to authorize the transfer of Bitcoin from one digital wallet to another. These transfers are managed and tracked in the leger book.

The value of Bitcoin fluctuates (wildly).  As of July 3, one was worth $6,624, but it has been worth almost $20,000.  Bitcoin can be transferred in pieces; the smallest, a Satoshi, is one hundred millionth of a Bitcoin.

Some ethical considerations

Given Bitcoin’s ever-changing value, there is a chance that a Bitcoin that was worth the fair value of the legal services you provided last week may today be worth three times as much.  To the Nebraska Committee, that raises the prohibition against unreasonable fees, under its version of Model Rule 1.5(a). The Committee tried to address this concern by mandating that Bitcoin be converted to U.S. dollars upon receipt.

Not everyone agrees. The late ethics guru Ronald Rotunda, for instance, thought that there is no legal ethics issue in not immediately converting digital currency into dollars. He argued that all forms of currency can rise and fall in value against the U.S. dollar, and that deciding in light of that risk to accept a legal fee in Euros, for instance, is a business decision for the lawyer to make, not an ethics issue.

Another potential issue is that since Bitcoin is not legal tender, the IRS classifies it as property. One commentator has noted that this makes accepting a Bitcoin payment similar to bartering for legal services, “like the country lawyer accepting a bushel of apples for drafting a will.” You should check  ethics opinions in your jurisdiction to determine any restrictions on bartering for legal services before agreeing to accept Bitcoin as payment. (We’ve written about bartering for your legal services here.)

A further issue is how to hold digital currency in a client trust account. The Nebraska Committee advised that if the payment is intended to be a retainer to be drawn on as fees are earned in the future, it must be converted to U.S. dollars immediately.  That certainly avoids the risk that the client’s retainer will go down in value; but it also precludes any upside gain that could benefit the client.  These circumstances might call for some client decision-making — and that makes them a subject that you have a duty to communicate about with your client, under Rule 1.4(b).

The Takeaway

Payment in Bitcoin and other digital currencies can be a very cool and convenient alternative fee method that you can offer clients. Just be sure to consider all of the ethical implications before accepting this form of payment.

* Jasmine C. Taylor is a rising third-year law student at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio. She is currently a Sergeant in the Ohio Army National Guard, 1-137th Aviation Regiment.

After hard-fought proceedings, you’ve finally settled a contentious case on behalf of your client.  The plaintiff’s lawyer has brought suit against your client before, and likely will again:  the lawyer advertises and uses social media aggressively to locate claimants who have the same kind of issue with your client.

Your client asks, “Can’t we include terms in the settlement agreement that would rein in this lawyer?  Maybe raise the settlement amount enough to get her to agree to stop taking these cases?  Or at least, get some language that would stop the blog posts and the TV ads fishing for clients to sue us?”

The answers:  “No — and no.”  A new ethics opinion from Ohio’s Board of Professional Conduct underscores the point.

Restrictions on right to practice

Model Rule 5.6(b), adopted with only minor variations in almost every jurisdiction,* bars you from “participating in making or offering” a settlement agreement that includes a restriction on a lawyer’s right to practice.  The new Ohio ethics opinion expressly extends that prohibition to settlement agreements conditioned on restricting a lawyer’s communication of information “contained in a court record.”

A settlement agreement can certainly bar both sides from disclosing non-public information (such as settlement terms, conditions and amount), and those are common clauses.  But preventing counsel from making a public announcement, or communicating to the media, or advertising about the case using information contained in case documents, violates Rule 5.6, said the Ohio Board.

The Board reasoned that an agreement prohibiting a lawyer from using public information interferes with the ability to market legal services in a way otherwise consistent with the Rules of Professional Conduct.  It also interferes with “the public’s unfettered ability to choose lawyers who have the requisite background and experience to assist in pursuing their claims.”  Rule 5.6(b) “prevents settlement agreements from being used to ‘buy off’ plaintiff’s counsel … in exchange for the lawyer foregoing future litigation against the same defendant.”  The Board also mentioned the conflict that such agreements create “between the interests of current clients and those of potential future clients.”

Expansive readings

The ABA Ethics Committee, as well as ethics committees in New York and the District of Columbia, have reached similar expansive conclusions about the reach of Rule 5.6(b).  The ABA Committee particularly disapproved in 2000 of settlement agreements conditioned on not “using” information in later representations against the same opposing party or related parties.  And the D.C. ethics opinion notes that the fact of settlement is usually reflected in public documents, thus making it a rule violation to condition the agreement on non-disclosure of that fact.

Underlying these opinions, as the D.C. ethics committee said, “is the intent to preserve the public’s access to  lawyers who, because of their background and experience, might be the best available talent to represent future litigants in similar cases, perhaps against the same opponent.”

Not a limit on duty of confidentiality

The Ohio opinion, and others, should not be read to alter your duty of confidentiality to your client.  Under Rule 1.6, absent client consent and other narrow exceptions, you already have a duty to keep confidential all information relating to the representation — and that would include otherwise public information, as we’ve noted before.  In contrast, the opinions centering on Rule 5.6(b) are about your ability to offer or accept settlement agreements restricting the right to practice.

Further, as Hofstra Professor Emeritus Roy Simon explains in his treatise on New York ethics law, you can get into ethics trouble even if a court might otherwise enforce the settlement agreement:  “A lawyer who makes or agrees to [a settlement in which a lawyer promises not to represent a client in later disputes with your client] risks professional discipline even if a court later holds that the agreement is enforceable.”

Client ABC’s — and the nuclear option

The restriction against participating in a settlement agreement aimed at reining in opposing counsel is a part of the ethical landscape that clients may not understand — especially when you need to turn down a request to pursue something that would be to the client’s advantage.

This is an issue that certainly merits explanation under Rule 1.4 in order to “permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”  And you also must “consult with the client about any relevant limitation on the lawyer’s conduct when the lawyer knows that the client expects assistance not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law.”

The new Ohio opinion cautions that if worst comes to worst, and the client insists that you participate in accepting or offering settlement agreement with an impermissible condition, Rule 1.16(a)(1) requires you to withdraw from representation, in order to avoid violating Rule 5.6.  Hopefully you won’t need to exercise that nuclear option.

* An exception to the nearly-nationwide approach is Virginia’s Rule 5.6(b), which carves out settlement agreement restrictions on a lawyer’s right to practice that are approved by “a tribunal (in such situations as the settlement of mass tort cases) or a governmental entity.”

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.

The concept of “unbundled” legal services is laid out in Model Rule 1.2(c), which provides that lawyers may limit the scope of their representation in reasonable ways, if the client gives informed consent.  The rule opens the way to representing a client as to one phase of a matter, or as to certain issues or tasks.

A New York appellate ruling last month, however, demonstrates that an intended limited-scope arrangement can come back to bite you if you’re not careful to lay out in detail — in writing — what you are and are not going to undertake, and the client’s express buy-in to the plan.

Negligence?  Or thrift?   

The January 11 opinion of New York’s First Department reverses the grant of summary judgment in favor of the client on its malpractice claim, and gives the law firm a chance to prove at trial that client thriftiness — and not sloppy lawyering — was the cause of the client’s alleged $85 million loss on a soured loan transaction.

The plaintiff, a venture capital fund, hired the firm to document loans that the fund was making to a third party borrower.  The loans, totaling about $4.5 million, were to enable the third party to finance the purchase of several portfolios of life insurance policies,  secured by the policies themselves, with a face value of $84 million.  But the fund’s security interests in some of the loans were never perfected, because collateral assignment forms weren’t filed with the insurance carriers for the policies.  The borrower defaulted on the loans, defaulted on a subsequent settlement, and was uncollectible.  The underwriting insurers refused to pay proceeds of the collateral to the fund, because they had no records that the collateral had been assigned.

The question was, Whose fault was the slip-up?  The fund pointed at the lawyers, saying that filing the collateral forms was the firm’s responsibility.  It sued for legal malpractice, eventually moving for summary judgment on liability.

In the trial court, the law firm argued that it was not responsible for filing the collateral forms — that the fund expressly limited the scope of the representation as a cost-saving strategy, and further habitually minimized the role of outside counsel to “minimize legal spend.”  The firm said that it was retained only to draft the loan documents, and that the limited representation was at the client’s express instruction.

Significantly, there was no retention letter documenting the engagement or its scope.  The trial court granted judgment in favor of the fund.

Let’s have some paper with that….

This has a happy ending for the law firm — at least for now.  The reviewing court noted New York’s version of Model Rule 1.2(c), and said that if the firm “wanted to limit the scope of its representation, it had a duty to ensure that [the client] understood the limits.”  But the appellate division nonetheless reversed the summary judgment, holding that there were enough factual issues to justify trial — raised by warring e-mails between the client and the law firm, some of which suggested that the fund was looking to the firm to perfect its security interests, and some of which showed the contrary.

One fact that stands out, though, is the absence of an engagement letter that would have defined the scope of the representation and reflected the client’s assent.  That could have protected the law firm here.  As it is, despite beating summary judgment, the firm could still be at risk for an adverse trial verdict, absent some settlement.

Don’t be like the shoemaker’s children.  We would always counsel our clients to “get it in writing.”  When providing limited scope representation, the case for doing so is compelling.