Tech competence: don’t take the wrong message from this NJ decision declining to sanction a lawyer.

When I created this blog, many early posts focused on technology.  Long-time readers probably remember the mantra “competence includes tech competence.”  Key points included:

  1. At some point, a basic understanding of technology that impacts client matters is required.
  2. Technology is always evolving.
  3. Even if you don’t know everything about a new technology, sometimes it helps to analogize to a “paper” or “real life” situation.

Weaved into the messaging was a reminder that “but I don’t even know how that stuff works!” likely won’t excuse a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.  Which is why today’s story so interests me.

As reported by the ABA Journal, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently dismissed disciplinary charges against a lawyer whose paralegal had obtained information directly from a represented adverse party via Facebook.  Law360 and Law.com also reported the opinion.

First, I’m going to summarize what happened. Then, I’m going to share several of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s statements with which I agree, and one that gives me pause.

What happened?

Flashback to 2007.  Yes, 2007.  Plaintiff, a police officer, was struck by a police car while exercising in the police station’s parking lot.  Plaintiff sued the police department.  Plaintiff claimed significant injuries.

Attorney represented the Department. In 2008, Attorney instructed Paralegal to “conduct internet research” into Plaintiff.  Paralegal found Plaintiff’s Facebook page.

With respect to what happened next, here’s what’s not in dispute:

At a time when Attorney knew that Plaintiff was represented, Paralegal became Facebook friends with Plaintiff.  Paralegal found a video showing Plaintiff wrestling.  Paralegal downloaded the video and gave it to Attorney.  Attorney believed that the video was made after Plaintiff was struck by the police car.  So, another lawyer in Plaintiff’s firm asked questions about the video during Plaintiff’s deposition.  Afterwards, Attorney forwarded the video and other postings to Plaintiff’s Counsel.  Never having consented to direct communication with Plaintiff, Counsel filed an ethics complaint against Attorney.

Not all was undisputed.  At a disciplinary hearing that, for reasons not important here, did not happen until April 2018, different versions of what else happened next emerged.

Paralegal’s version:  for a while, Plaintiff’s Facebook account was public, Paralegal monitored the account, and reported publicly available information to Attorney.  The account became private. Paralegal told Attorney that the only way to continue to monitor the account was to become Facebook friends with Plaintiff.  Attorney did not seem to understand Facebook privacy settings or friend requests and instructed Paralegal to send a message that would grant access to Plaintiff’s postings.  Paralegal sent a Facebook message to Plaintiff stating that Plaintiff looked like Paralegal’s favorite hockey player.  Plaintiff responded with “flirtatious messages” and a friend request.  Paralegal accepted the request and resumed monitoring the account.

Plaintiff’s version:  the account was always private.  Paralegal sent a friend request that Plaintiff accepted.  Plaintiff messaged Paralegal, asking who Plaintiff was.  Paralegal replied that Plaintiff looked like Paralegal’s favorite hockey player.  Nothing in Paralegal’s profile or reply indicated that Paralegal worked with Attorney.

Attorney: I told Paralegal to conduct internet research.  Back then, I didn’t know what it meant to be Facebook friends or that Facebook offered various privacy settings.  I did not tell Paralegal to friend Plaintiff.   I told Plaintiff to monitor any information about the lawsuit that Plaintiff posted to the internet. I believed that information posted to Facebook was available to all and that the duties of competence and diligence that I owed to my client required me to review such information.

Over many years, the case worked its way through New Jersey’s disciplinary system.  Eventually, at the trial level, a Special Master concluded that Attorney did not violate the Rules of Professional Conduct.

On review, the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) concluded otherwise, determining that Attorney violated (1) the rule that prohibits communication with represented persons; (2) the rule that prohibits dishonesty (Paralegal’s failure to identify Paralegal’s role was a misrepresentation by omission); and (3) the rule that required Attorney to ensure that Paralegal’s conduct conformed with Attorney’s professional obligations.

In the end, the New Jersey Supreme Court dismissed the charges, concluding that they had not been proven by clear and convincing evidence. To a large degree, the court’s opinion recognizes that the ultimate decision turns on witness credibility and that the Special Master – not the DRB or the court – was in the best position to assess credibility having presided over the evidentiary hearing.

Still, several of the court’s statements bear noting.  Because while the court declined to sanction Attorney, it also made clear our duties with respect to tech competence.

For instance,

  • “[Attorney] may have had a good faith misunderstanding about the nature of Facebook in 2008, as the special master found; but there should be no lack of clarity today about the professional strictures guiding attorneys in the use of Facebook and other similar social media platforms.”

The court went on:

  • “When the communication is ethically proscribed, it makes no difference in what medium the message is communicated. The same rule applies to communications in person or by letter, email, or telephone, or through social media, such as Facebook.”

Finally,

  • “Lawyers must educate themselves about the commonly used forms of social media to avoid the scenario that arose in this case. The defense of ignorance will not be a safe haven.”

I don’t disagree with any of the quoted statements.  I’m especially a fan of refusing to find port in the storm for the “the defense of ignorance.”  Yet, it’s another statement that gives me pause.

Essentially, a single statement underpins the court’s opinion:

  • “What attorneys know or reasonably should know about Facebook and other social media today is not a standard that we can impute to [Attorney] in 2008 when Facebook was in its infancy.”

I get it.  Really, I do.  But, for practicing lawyers and their nonlawyer assistants, I urge caution.

On tech competence, people in my practice area have been clear: we are long past the day when we will provide “hard and fast” pronouncements on each new technological development.  Rather, lawyers are reminded that technology will continue to develop and, as it does, lawyers remain under a duty to ensure that their use of technology complies with the Rules of Professional Conduct.[i]

Whether 2030, 2025, or sooner, there will be a new way to communicate that none of us has ever imagined.  In my view, the New Jersey opinion should not be viewed as suggesting that, with brand new technology, lawyers can use first, ask questions later.  That is, with respect to the conclusion that a technology’s “infancy” may excuse a violation, I’d be very careful in how I define “infancy.” Indeed, as I read the NJ opinion, both Paralegal and Plaintiff were well-versed in how Facebook worked. It was only Attorney who was not.

Also, for two reasons, don’t forget my point about analogizing to “paper” or “real life.”

First, when the day comes that an assistant asks you if you want to communicate with a represented person via the assistant’s Ansible, I hope your reaction isn’t “I wonder what Ansible is.”  Instead, I hope warning bells go off as you respond, “we can’t communicate with a represented person!!”[ii]

Second, I suppose an assistant might resort to Ansible without asking you first.  So, remember: if someone brings you information that seems too good to be true, it just might be.

Competence includes tech competence.  As always, be careful out there.

Social Media

[i] See, ABA Formal Opinion 477R

[ii] It’s okay if you clicked on the Wiki entry for Ansible before realizing that that you’d been asked to communicate with a represented person.  As an old coach, it’s best to make mistakes in practice, learn from them, and not repeat them in games.