Going abroad?  Think that “national counsel” is going to take care of anything that comes up when you’re gone?  Get swamped when you return and take “several weeks” to wade through the e-mail that piled up in your absence?  If you’re local counsel, that might be a recipe for disaster — for your client — as the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held recently.

What we have here is a failure to communicate

After the plaintiff filed a trademark infringement case, the Wisconsin district court’s docket shows that just a month later the parties reached a deal and jointly moved to file a consent order resolving the dispute.  But about four months after that, the plaintiff was back in court, moving for a contempt order and asserting that the defendant had violated the consent order.

Here’s where things began to go south, according to the appeals court opinion:  The defendant’s local Milwaukee counsel received notice of the contempt motion, via the electronic docketing system (presumably PACER).  When the lawyer failed to respond, the district court scheduled a hearing.  No one showed up on behalf of the defendant.  The district court then granted the plaintiff’s motion, holding the lawyer in contempt, requiring his client to pay the plaintiff’s fees and costs, and ordering the lawyer to explain his unresponsiveness.

As the court of appeals wrote, that order “caught [the lawyer’s] attention.”  Local counsel explained that he had been “traveling internationally” when the plaintiff filed its motion for contempt, and even though he returned five days before his client’s response to that motion was due (and 26 days before the scheduled hearing), “it took him several weeks to catch up on his email.”  He saw the court’s notices only after “all response dates had passed.”

The defendant’s request for reconsideration of the contempt order also pointed to what the appeals court called a “communication breakdown between local counsel and the company’s national trademark counsel.”  Local counsel believed national counsel would be “attending to any ongoing needs in the case; national counsel apparently had a different understanding,” the court wrote.

“Deadlines matter”

The result of this mess-up?  The district court found the local counsel in contempt, and after a line-by-line analysis of the plaintiff’s attorney fees and costs for the entire case — not just the contempt proceedings — sanctioned the defendant to the tune of almost $35,000.  The Seventh Circuit easily upheld those rulings, characterizing the whole situation as “unfortunate and avoidable.”

“Deadlines matter,” wrote the court, and certainly after the district court provided a second chance to the defendant by noticing a hearing, the lower court’s reaction in issuing its contempt order was not an abuse of discretion.  Nor did the defendant’s good faith provide any immunity from sanction, the appeals court said.

And the big take-away:  “Nor, of course, can communication breakdowns serve to exempt outside counsel … from compliance with the rules, or from the penalties for failing to do so.”

Beware local counsel duties — and check your e-mail

We’ve written before about local counsel duties. and a New York City Bar ethics opinion that is a helpful cautionary road map on local counsel duties.  The bottom line is that you don’t get any free pass for being “merely” local counsel.  The extent of local counsel’s role in any particular matter should be expressly set out in a carefully-considered engagement letter with the client.  If you think that “national counsel” is going to monitor a case or a docket after some certain end point, you should additionally clarify that understanding, something the court here said would have helped.

And, hey — Model Rule 1.1 (“Competence”) and Model Rule 1.3 (“Diligence”) mean that we can’t just totally put down our practices when we go on vacation.  That was true even in the days before e-mail and PACER, when someone “back at the ranch” would be monitoring our postal mail.  Now, the available technology means there is little excuse for not being aware of court filings in real time.

As for clearing up the inevitable post-vacation backlog of e-mails, the laundry from the trip might have to wait — but that’s okay, isn’t it?

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.

Last WillWhat if you suddenly became disabled and couldn’t handle your law practice?  Or, if you were to die, who would deal with your pending matters?  Who has the password for your computer?  Who knows where you bank?  The Ohio Board of Professional Conduct last week published an ethics guide titled “Succession Planning” that addresses these issues, and it’s worthwhile reading if you practice on your own or in a small firm, in any jurisdiction.

Trendlines point to need for planning

Two trends are converging that underscore the topic of succession preparedness:  the predominance of solo and small firms, and the graying of the profession.

  • The ABA reports that in 2005, 63% of all private practitioners were in firms of fewer than five people.  And 49% practiced on their own.  (Seventy-five percent of U.S. lawyers were in private practice in 2005.)
  • And we are not getting any younger — in fact, the opposite.  The median age of lawyers in 2005 was 49; 13% were over 65 years old.  And recent trends are going to increase the proportion of older lawyers:  total J.D. enrollment between 2011-12 and 2013-14 decreased by 12%, or by more than 17,000 students.  First-year law school enrollment decreased by 29% between 2010 and 2016, and for the 2016-17 school year it remained flat over the previous year.

Be prepared

The Ohio ethics guide notes that “failing to plan for the unexpected can result in harm to clients and in confusion and hardship for the lawyer’s family, staff and professional colleagues.”

Every state’s lawyer conduct rules has some version of Model Rule 1.1 and 1.3, dealing with competence and diligence, and the Ohio guide notes that while having a succession plan is not mandated by the Ohio rules, having a plan “can be viewed as a continuation of a lawyer’s duty of competent and diligent representation.”

Some jurisdictions go further.  As of June 2015, the ABA reported that several specifically addressed succession planning in their conduct rules, registration rules or in comments.  (A state-by-state chart is here.)  For instance, Florida requires the designation of an “inventory attorney,” who can agree to take action in the event of a lawyer’s death or disability.  Indiana provides as part of its annual registration process for permissive designation of an “attorney surrogate.”  South Carolina’s Rule 1.19, “Succession Planning,” says that lawyers “should prepare written succession plans” in anticipation of their death or disability.

What to do & who can help?  

The Ohio guide points to several components of a succession plan, which will help avoid the burden on your family and possible prejudice to your clients if the unexpected happens:

  • a written agreement with a designated successor lawyer;
  • information on the status and location of open and closed client files;
  • details regarding trust accounts, operating accounts and client ledgers;
  • location of log-in and password information for office computers, mobile devices, e-mail, voicemail, billing and calendaring systems, online banking, etc.;
  • location of accounts payable and receivable information;
  • information on leases, insurance, key vendors and other details needed to wind up a law practice, if needed.

Here in Ohio, two city bar associations have specific programs and resources.  My hometown bar, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, has a “What-If Preparedness” program, with a site that links to a wealth of material, including forms.  The Columbus Bar Association has a program called the “Advance Succession Registry.”  Details are here.  The ABA likewise has resources and links, including to jurisdiction-specific materials.

Think about the unthinkable

Thinking about death and disability is never easy — for lawyers or anyone else.  But coming to grips with these topics and taking action can put your mind at ease that you have protected your clients and minimized a possible future burden on those you love.  That’s worth doing, no matter how difficult.

Bag full of MoneyThe prohibition against aiding clients in carrying out crimes and frauds has been in the news lately, in connection with the quandary that lawyers find themselves in when attempting to help clients in the marijuana industry — whose conduct may be legal under state law, while remaining illegal under federal law.  (We’ve blogged about it previously, here and here.)  In this environment, it is useful to consider just what constitutes assisting a client’s crime or fraud, as the Ohio Supreme Court did last week in disbarring a lawyer who helped a divorce client hide assets from her spouse.

Anatomy of a fraud

The charge of violating Ohio’s version of Model Rule 1.2(d) arose out of the lawyer’s participation in a scheme to conceal  his client’s marital assets from the client’s husband.  Over a three-year period, before and during the divorce proceedings, the client paid the lawyer over $850,000 — not for legal services,  but to hide the money from her husband.  The client would withdraw cash from her business or personal accounts, and then write a new check, typically for less than $10,000, that she made payable to the lawyer.  The lawyer deposited the funds into two client trust accounts.

Eventually, the lawyer wire-transferred more than $800,000 to a Swiss bank account in which the client had the entire beneficial interest.   A portion of the funds were also transferred to another account in the Turks and Caicos Islands during the divorce proceedings.

Clear and convincing evidence

The disciplinary panel found that the client’s practice of transferring the funds in small increments was evidence that the client purposely structured the transactions to fly under the radar of banking laws aimed at catching larger illicit money schemes.

Based on requests for admissions that the lawyer failed to respond to, the disciplinary panel also found that the lawyer had agreed to put the money in his client trust account in order to hide the client’s marital assets.

The panel found that the relator had established a violation of Rule 1.2(d) by clear and convincing evidence.

In addition, in a separate count, the panel considered the lawyer’s alleged neglect of another legal matter, in which he accepted $750 to file two civil complaints on behalf of a condo association, but failed to do so.  The panel found a violation of Ohio’s version of Model Rule 1.3, requiring a lawyer to act with reasonable diligence in representing a client.

Based on the rule violations, the panel recommended permanent disbarment, the full Board of Professional Conduct adopted the recommendation, and the state supreme court agreed.

Clear cut cases

The lawyer in this case answered the disciplinary complaint against him, but failed to participate further in the administrative proceedings, including failing to respond to requests for admission.  That certainly doomed his case and paved the way for the professional death sentence that the supreme court confirmed.  But the facts here appeared clear-cut.  Unlike the grey area that lawyers are in when they want to represent their medical marijuana clients, the lawyer here was in a situation that was starkly black-and-white .

Discerning the boundaries of Rule 1.2(d)’s prohibition is sometimes hard — but sometimes, it is easy.