A lawyer’s professional obligation to provide candid legal advice.

During a seminar that I did last week for Vermont Law School’s South Royalton Legal Clinic, I reminded clinicians that a lawyer’s job is not to tell the client what the client wants to hear.  A lawyer’s job is to provide the client with candid legal advice.  I said the same thing again today in a CLE for government lawyers. Indeed, it’s a tip I’ve shared for more than decade, including in the five blogposts linked below.

Typically, I deliver the message when discussing one of my 5 Cs of legal ethics: communication.  In my experience, most disciplinary complaints are not rooted in a lawyer’s failure to respond to a client’s calls or emails. Rather, they are rooted in a lawyer’s failure to communicate reasonable expectations to the client at the outset of the professional relationship. Or, stated differently, they’re rooted in a lawyer’s failure to disabuse the client of expectations that the lawyer knows are unrealistic.

communication

While I share the guidance in the context of Rule 1.4 and the duty to communicate, nowhere in the rule or its comments is it written “a lawyer shall provide clients with candid legal advice.”  As such, I’ve done a poor job communicating that my guidance is anything more than aspirational.  That ends now.  I post today to make clear that lawyers have a professional duty to render candid legal advice.

Rule 2.1 of the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct is entitled “Advisor.”  The first line is:

  • “In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.”

Comment [1] falls under the heading “Scope of Advice.” It makes my point better than I ever have:

  • “A client is entitled to straightforward advice representing the lawyer’s honest assessment. Legal advice often involves unpleasant facts and alternatives that a client may be disinclined to confront.  In presenting advice, a lawyer endeavors to sustain a client’s morale and may put advice in as acceptable a form as honesty permits. However, a lawyer should not be deterred from giving candid legal advice by the prospect that the advice will be unpalatable to the client.”

Lawyers: consider what you’d expect from your auto mechanic, doctor, dentist, financial advisor, or anyone else to whom you turn for advice.  Or from your lawyer if you ever need to hire one!  You’d expect candid advice.  It might not be what you hoped for or wanted, but it’s the advice you’re entitled to receive.  Your clients are entitled to the same.

Rendering candid legal advice is more than a tip from bar counsel.  It’s a lawyer’s professional obligation.

Related posts:

When a client insists that a lawyer advance frivolous claims.

Last year, I ran the “Professional Responsibility Madness” challenge.  Modeled on the “March Madness” brackets associated with the NCAA basketball tournament, I seeded 64 concepts associated with professional responsibility & legal ethics into the bracket.  Round-by-round, lawyers voted.  The concepts (and their category) that advanced to the Final Four were:

  • Candor to the Tribunal (Duties to Others)
  • Former Client Conflicts: Substantially Related? (Conflicts & Confidences)
  • Who Decides? Lawyer or Client? (Duties to Clients)
  • Did you say “Utes?” (My Cousin Vinny)

I was surprised by the interest in “Who Decides? Lawyers or Client?”  Until then, it was an issue rarely raised in ethics inquiries.

Flash forward to 2021.

In the past month, two different lawyers have made inquiries that boiled down to the same question: “what do I when the client insists on presenting a claim that I think is frivolous?”

In short, my position is that the lawyer decides which facts and arguments will be advanced, and that the lawyer, not the client, decides which facts and arguments are frivolous.  Then, if the client insists that the lawyer present frivolous claims, the lawyer must move to withdraw. In responding to each inquiry, I cautioned the lawyers that there is a difference between a frivolous claim and one that has little chance of prevailing.[i]

My position derives from the following rules:

  • Rule 1.2(a), which leaves the objectives of the representation to the client and how those objectives are pursued to the lawyer’s discretion, in consultation with the client;
  • Rule 1.4(a)(5), which requires a lawyer to “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;”
  • Rule 3.1, which prohibits a lawyer from bringing a claim or asserting a position “unless there is a basis in law or fact for doing so that is not frivolous;”
  • various provisions of Rule 1.16, most notably Rule 1.16(a)(1), which requires a lawyer to withdraw when continued representation will result in a violation of the rules; and,
  • the general duties of fairness to the opposing party and candor to the court.

Doing some follow-up research, I came across Ethics Opinion 1214 from the New York State Bar Association. Issued January 11, 2021, the opinion answers a question from a lawyer assigned to represent a person who had filed a pro se petition to vacate a judgment of foreclosure.  Upon reviewing the filing, the lawyer concluded that the person lacked a non-frivolous basis in law or fact to vacate the judgement.  The opinion concludes as follows:

  1. The lawyer may not argue or advance frivolous arguments.
  2. If the person insists, the lawyer may move to withdraw pursuant to:
    1. New York’s Rule 1.16(c)(4). The rule permits withdrawal when a “client insists on taking action with which a lawyer has a fundamental disagreement;”[ii] or,
    2. any other rule mandating or permitting withdrawal.
  3. In moving to withdraw, the lawyer must not disclose confidential information.[iii]
  4. If a motion to withdraw is denied, the lawyer must continue to represent the client, but without presenting frivolous claims.

Here’s the key language on the final point.  Even when withdrawal is not allowed, the lawyer:

  • “may still not engage in ‘frivolous conduct’ at the direction or behest of the homeowner. A client has no right to instruct a lawyer to violate a Rules of Professional Conduct, and a lawyer has no right to follow an instruction that the lawyer violate a Rule. Thus, the inquirer must find a means to competently represent the homeowner without putting forth frivolous arguments.”

As always, be careful out there.

[i] I suppose this might be referred to as the “Dumb & Dumber Corollary.”

Dumb and Dumber

[ii] Vermont’s Rule 1.16(b)(4) includes the same language.

[iii] For more on this issue, see my post Stop Making Noise. It discusses the peril of “noisy withdrawal.”

Wisconsin Advisory Opinion Offers Cybersecurity Tips on Working Remotely

In late January, the Wisconsin Bar issued Formal Ethics Opinion EF-21-02: Working Remotely.  The opinion makes three important points and shares helpful and practical guidance on cybersecurity practices, training & supervision, and preparing clients.

astronaut-sitting-moon-laptop

First, the important points.

I’m a fan of the opening line of the synopsis:

  • “The basic responsibilities that a lawyer owes the client – competence, diligence, communication, and confidentiality – lie at the core of lawyer’s professional obligations and remain unchanged irrespective of the lawyer’s physical location.”

That’s critical: the pandemic hasn’t lessened or diminished our professional obligations.  Our responsibilities remain the same as in 2019 when we were working in our offices.  Further, our basic obligations to clients will not change once the pandemic ends. As the opinion points out, “it is expected that lawyers, like other professionals, will continue to work remotely in some form after the pandemic.” So, the guidance, while issued in response to the pandemic, will prove valuable in an increasingly remote post-pandemic workplace.

Next, the opinion reiterates what I’ve been blogging for years: competence includes tech competence.  Pages 2 and 3 include language that I’m certain will worry lawyers.  The language, however, is important to take to heart.

  • “Basic technological competence includes, at a minimum, knowledge of the types of devices available for communication, software options for communication, preparation, transmission and storage of documents and other information, and the means to keep the devices and the information they transmit and store secure and private.”

As the opinion notes, large firms likely will employ IT professionals for these issues.  Small firms and solos are reminded that they “may need to retain the services of an expert if they lack the knowledge to personally manage the technological aspects of practice.”

Finally, the conclusion ties together the first two points in an important reminder:

  • “The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed how lawyers work and represent their clients. Some of these changes may be temporary but others are likely part of a movement towards increased reliance on technology in the practice of law. As working remotely has become the new normal, lawyers must develop new skills and knowledge to comply with their core responsibilities.”

Indeed.

I’ll finish by cutting and pasting the guidance and practical tips that begin on page 10 of the Wisconsin opinion.  I’ve reformatted & renumbered the footnotes to endnotes.

***

General Guidance

 It is impossible to provide specific requirements for working remotely because lawyers’ ethical duties are continually evolving as technology changes. It is possible, however, to provide some guidance. Cybersecurity Practices Because working remotely relies on technology, competence in technology and cybersecurity practices are essential. The following cybersecurity practices have been recommended by a number of ethics opinions[i] and other resources. None of these practices are new: they are reasonable precautions that have helped lawyers fulfill their ethical obligations, especially the duty of confidentiality, when working in the office and when working remotely, whether at home during evenings and weekends, or during travel for work or vacation.

  • Require strong passwords to protect data and to access devices. The more complex the password, the less likely that an unauthorized user will be able to access data or devices by using password cracking techniques or software.
  • Use two-factor or multi-factor authentication to access firm information and firm networks. Although requiring an additional authentication step, such as a six-digit code sent to the lawyer’s phone or email, may seem inconvenient or burdensome, it is a reasonable precaution that increases protection and reduces the likelihood of unauthorized access by providing an additional layer of security beyond a strong password.
  • Avoid using unsecured or public WiFi when accessing or transmitting client information. Hackers can access unencrypted information on unsecured WiFi and can use unsecured WiFi to distribute malware.
  • Use a virtual private network (VPN) when accessing or transmitting client information. A VPN encrypts information and allows users to create a secure connection to another network.
  • Use firewalls and secure router settings. A firewall monitors and controls incoming and outgoing network traffic based on predetermined security rules: it establishes a barrier between a trusted network and an untrusted network. A router connects multiple devices to the Internet, and connects the devices to each other.
  • Use and keep current anti-virus and anti-malware software. Anti-virus and anti-malware both refer to software designed to detect, protect against, and remove malicious software.
  • Keep all software current: install updates immediately. Updates help patch security flaws or software vulnerabilities, which are security holes or weaknesses found in a software program or operating system.
  • Supply or require employees to use secure and encrypted laptops. All lawyers and staff should use only firm issued devices with security protections and backup systems and prohibit storage of firm or client information on unauthorized devices. All devices used by the lawyer, such as desktop computers, laptops, tablets, portable drives, phones, and scanning and copy machines, should be protected.
  • Do not use USB drives or other external devices unless they are owned by the firm or they are provided by a trusted source.
  • Specify how and where data created remotely will be stored and how it will be backed up.
  • Save data permanently only on the office network, not personal devices. If saved on personal devices, taking reasonable precautions to protect such information.
  • Use reputable vendors for cloud services. Transmission and storage of firm and client information through a cloud service is appropriate provided the lawyer has made sufficient inquiry that the service is competent and reputable.[ii]
  • Encrypt emails or use other security to protect sensitive information from unauthorized disclosure. A lawyer should balance the interests in determining when encryption is appropriate.
  • Encrypt electronic records, including backups containing sensitive information such a personally identifiable information.
  • Do not open suspicious attachments or click unusual links in messages, email, tweets, posts, online ads.
  • Use websites have enhanced security whenever possible. Such websites begin with “HTTPS” in their address rather than “HTTP,” and encrypt the communication.
  • Provide adequate security for video meetings or conferences. The FBI has recommended the following steps: use the up-to-date version of the application; do not make the meetings public; require a meeting password; do not share the link to the video meeting on an unrestricted publicly available social media post; provide the meeting link directly to the invited guests; and manage the screen-sharing options.[iii] In selecting a videoconferencing platform, the lawyer should make sure it is sufficiently secure both in its structure and its contractual terms of use, especially any terms on access to user information.[iv]
  • Do not have work-related conversations in the presence of smart devices such as voice assistants. These devices may listen to and record conversations.[v]

Training and Supervision

To comply with the duties required by SCR 20:5.1 and 5.3, partners, managers and supervisory lawyers should consider whether the firm’s policies and procedures are adequate to address the specific challenges that may arise when lawyers and nonlawyer assistants are working remotely.

  • Establish and implement policies and procedures for cybersecurity practices. These policies and procedures should be in writing and provided to all lawyers and nonlawyer assistants, and stress compliance.
  • Establish and implement policies and procedures for the training and supervision of lawyers and nonlawyer assistants in the firm’s cybersecurity practices. Training is the most basic step in avoiding a cyberattack at a law firm. In other words, it is extremely important to develop a culture of awareness. The most serious vulnerabilities of a cybersecurity system are not the hardware or software, but rather the people who use it. It is estimated that 90% of cybersecurity breaches are due to human error.[vi]
  • Establish and implement policies and procedures regarding remote workspaces to mitigate the risk of inadvertent or unauthorized disclosures of information relating to the representation of clients. Remote workspaces should be private to ensure that others do not have access to phone conversations, video conferences, or case-related materials.
  • Hold sufficiently frequent remote meetings between supervising attorneys and supervised attorneys, and between supervising attorneys and supervised nonlawyer assistants to achieve effective supervision.

Preparing Clients

Representing a client remotely may present challenges to competent representation.[vii] Consequently, a lawyer should carefully consider whether the lawyer can adequately prepare the client to testify or for interviews while working remotely.

  • The lawyer and the client should have sufficient ability with the technology.
  • The lawyer and the client should have access to relevant documents.
  • The lawyer and the client have adequate time and attention to ensure the client’s comfort with the communicating by the medium that will be used.

[i] See, e.g., Wisconsin Formal Ethics Opinion EF-15-01: Ethical Obligations of Attorneys Using Cloud Computing (Amended September 8, 2017).

[ii] Wisconsin Formal Ethics Opinion EF-15-01.

[iii] https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices/boston/news/press-releases/fbi-warns-ofteleconferencing-and-online-classroom-hijacking-during-covid-19-pandemic

[iv] Lawyers must understand that if video conferences are recorded the vendor may retain a copy under the terms of service. See INSIGHT: Zooming and Attorney Client Privilege, https://www.bloomberglaw.com/exp/eyJjdHh0IjoiQ1ZOVyIsImlkIjoiMDAwMDAxNzEtZWExYy1kMDAwLWE5N2YtZ WE3ZTkwYWMwMDAxIiwic2lnIjoidVliaWhQR3J3ZmpWcDBKeE5KY1JYV1c0RlcwPSIsInRpbWUiOiIxNTkwMjQwMzM 1IiwidXVpZCI6IndNWHUzdVFGajBEWGxkZFBKcTNSVVE9PU1ZZmVtSkhLU0hBMWtPNG8rTE50eGc9PSIsInYiOiIxIn0= ?usertype=External&bwid=00000171-ea1c-d000-a97fea7e90ac0001&qid=6912181&cti=LSCH&uc=1320042032&et=SINGLE_ARTICLE&emc=bcvnw_cn%3A7&bna_news_ filter=true

[v] For example, Google and Amazon maintain those recordings on servers and hire people to review the recordings. Although the identities of the speakers are not disclosed to these reviewers, they might hear sufficient details to be able to connect a voice to a specific person. https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/2/21/21032140/alexa-amazongoogle-home-siri-applemicrosoft-cortana-recording .

[vi] https://www.techradar.com/news/90-percent-of-data-breaches-are-caused-by-humanerror#:~:text=A%20new%20report%20from%20Kaspersky,carried%20out%20by%20cloud%20providers .

[vii] The New York County Lawyers Association Formal Opinion 754-2020 at 3.

Set Reasonable Expectations for Clients

Image result for communication breakdown meme

Last week, I presented at a meeting of the Windham County Bar Association.  The audience included lawyers of all different ages, practice areas, and firm size.

I enjoy the seminars attended by lawyers with varied backgrounds & experiences.  They provide an opportunity to get down to the nitty gritty – the basics of professional responsibility that apply to all of us.

Here’s a tip that spans the gamut: work hard to manage client expectations.

Rule 1.3 of the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct requires a lawyer to act with reasonable diligence and promptness when representing a client.  The first sentence of Comment [3] is:

  • “Perhaps no professional shortcoming is more widely resented than procrastination.”

The Comment goes on to outline the risks associated with a failure to act with reasonable diligence.

I’ve worked here for 21 years and reviewed more than 3000 disciplinary complaints.  I agree that clients don’t appreciate lawyers who procrastinate.  However, to the extent that the Comment suggests that disciplinary complaints are driven by the wide resentment at procrastination, I disagree

In my experience, disciplinary complaints are not driven by resentment.  They are driven by a lawyer’s failure to meet a client’s expectations. That is: the client didn’t achieve the expected result, in the expected time frame, at the expected cost.  Nor did the lawyer communicate with the client as often as the client expected.

Often, these “failures” are not failures at all, and certainly aren’t ethics violations.  Rather, they’re the predictable result of a lawyer’s failure to set reasonable expectations at the outset of the representation.

Imagine:

“Dear Bar Counsel:

I don’t want to get my lawyer in trouble, but I don’t want anyone else to have the same experience I did.  I hired my lawyer 3 years ago.  When I did, my lawyer told me that I had a great case and that I should expect X. 

At first, things were great.  My lawyer seemed interested in my case and we spoke all the time.  Things have changed.

Here we are, 12 months later and there’s no end in sight.  My lawyer now tells me that the best I can hope for is far less than X.  My lawyer is going to drop me as a client unless I come up with more money.  I don’t have any more money! I already spent $Y! I never would’ve hired the lawyer if I had known it was going to take this long and cost this much to get what I could’ve gotten on my own.”

That’s not an uncommon complaint.

Consider:

  • far less than X,
  • in 12 months, at
  • $Y.

Guess what they often turn out to be?

Exactly what the client should’ve expected from the outset, but for the lawyer’s failure to set reasonable expectations.  In other words, from the beginning, the professional relationship proceeded under the illusion that communication had taken place.

In a way, then, I don’t blame the client for being upset.  How was the client to know?

Here’s how:  you.

Communicate reasonable expecations as to outcome, cost, and length of time to resolution.  Do so early & often.  A lawyer who doesn’t risks a communication breakdown that turns good times into bad times.

Image result for communication breakdown led zeppelin album art

Malpractice Insurance & Legal Ethics

Today on his Professional Responsibility Blog, Professor Alberto Bernabe reports that the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to require all lawyers to carry professional liability insurance.  As Professor Bernabe notes, Professional Responsibility: A Contemporary Approach originally reported the NJ development.  A summary:

  • NJ will not require all lawyers to obtain coverage;
  • NJ will retain an existing rule that requires limited liability corporations to carry insurance of at least $100,000 per claim multiplied by the number of attorneys in the firm;
  • Once administrative rules & regulations are developed, NJ will require attorneys to file evidence of the insurance that they carry, with the filings available to the public; and,
  • NJ will table, for now, discussion whether to require lawyers who do not carry liability insurance to disclose that fact to prospective clients.

Vermont does not mandate malpractice insurance.  The issue, however, interests me.  I’m particularly intrigued by the connection, if any, between Rule 1.4 and malpractice insurance.

Rule 1.4 requires a lawyer to “explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”  Consider:

  • can a client make an informed decision to hire a lawyer without knowing whether the lawyer carries malpractice insurance?
  • if a client asks, and the lawyer says “yes, I have malpractice insurance,” must the lawyer inform the client if, for whatever reason, coverage stops or is not renewed?

Last fall, Bloomberg Law posted Avoiding Accountability: The Rise of Mandatory Malpractice Insurance and DisclosureWith respect to mandating coverage, the article sets out the pros, cons, and a middle ground that has emerged.  Per the post:

  • Pros:  protects the public, provides accountability.
  • Cons:  cost prohibitive, will encourage more claims.
  • Middle ground: do not require insurance, but require lawyers to disclose whether they have it.

I assume the discussion will continue.

Image result for images of malpractice insurance

 

 

 

 

 

Manage expecations with candid legal advice

In November 2017, I posted The 50 Original Rules.  It’s a recap of the history of the conduct rules that apply to lawyers.

As best as I can tell, the earliest record of guidelines for attorney conduct in the United States is David Hoffman’s 1836 publication of his Fifty Resolutions in Regard to Professional Deportment.  My post includes each of Hoffman’s 50 resolutions.

182 years later, it’s somewhat fascinating to me how many of Hoffman’s resolutions continue to resonate.  Many are embedded in the rules and our collective professional conscience.  Given my fascination, I’ve resolved to blog about the continued relevance of Hoffman’s resolutions, taking them one at a time.  So far:

  1. Don’t be a jerk.
  2. Don’t switch sides.
  3. Don’t overcomplicate trust accounting.
  4. Deliver the file
  5. Resolve to be a mentor
  6. Be Diligent

Today’s tip: manage expectations by providing candid legal advice.

Here’s Hoffman’s Resolution 31:

  • “All opinions for clients, verbal or written, shall be my opinions, deliberately and sincerely given, and never venal and flattering offerings to their wishes or their vanity. And though clients sometimes have the folly to be better pleased with having their views confirmed by an erroneous opinion than their wishes or hopes thwarted by a sound one, yet such assentation is dishonest and unprofessional. Counsel, in giving opinions, whether they perceive this weakness in their clients or not, should act as judges, responsible to God and man, as also especially to their employers, to advise them soberly, discreetly, and honestly, to the best of their ability, though the certain consequence be the loss of large prospective gains.”

I’m using the exact quote.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that competent representation includes being responsible to God or any other deity.  Again, I was simply quoting Hoffman.

The rest of Resoluton 31 is as relevant today as it was in 1836.  Candid legal advice is always a better option than telling the client what the client wants to hear.

I’ve written often on managing client expectations:

In my experience, the lawyer who fails to set reasonable expectations at the outset of the representation should expect to have the client file a disciplinary complaint.

False hope leads to disappointment.  Even if the result is as good as the client should have expected from the outset, the client likely will be disappointed if the result pales in comparison to what the lawyer suggested the outcome would be.  Don’t fall into that trap.  As Hoffman said, “[a]nd though clients sometimes have the folly to be better pleased with having their views confirmed by an erroneous opinion than their wishes or hopes thwarted by a sound one, yet such assentation is dishonest and unprofessional.”

Better to thwart unreasonable hopes with sound advice than to nurture their growth.

Manage expectations by providing candid legal advice.  If you don’t, the client will insert your name into the Blank Space on a disciplinary complaint.

Don’t say I didn’t say I didn’t warn ya.

Image result for taylor swift blank space images

 

 

 

Ethics: it’s all about the bad grades

A few weeks ago I posted C in ethics? You’re on the right track In it, I offered two cheat codes to stay on the right side of the rules.

The first was my own: don’t lie, cheat or steal.  Nearly every violation falls under one.

The second was Brian Faughnan’s recipe for ethical lawyering.  The recipe?  The 5 C’s:

  • Competence
  • Confidentiality
  • Communication
  • Candor
  • Conflicts

Today I present a third: it’s all about the bad grades.

Alberto Bernabe is a professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago.  Professor Bernabe teaches torts and professional responsibility.  He maintains a blog for each topic.  His torts blog is here, and his professional responsibility blog is here.  Professor Bernabe is also a frequent member of this blog’s #fiveforfriday Honor Roll in legal ethics.

In response to my post on the 5 C’s, Professor Bernabe shared a story with me.  He urges his students to remember the general principles behind the rules.  He does so by suggesting that they associate those principles with the grades that they do not want to earn in a semester:  4 C’s, 1 D, and 1 F.  That is:

  • Competence
  • Confidentiality
  • Communication
  • Conflicts
  • Diligence
  • Fiduciary

Professor Bernabe’s full blog post on bad grades is here.

I love the semi-mnemonic.  Diligence and the fiduciary duty to clients are as important as the 5 C’s.

Thank you Professor Bernabe for another arrow in the quiver.

  • Don’t lie, cheat or steal
  • Remember the 5 C’s
  • Ethics: it’s all about the bad grades

See the source image         Image result for images of d and f grades      Image result for images of f grade

 

 

 

ABA Addresses an Attorney’s Obligations in Response to a Data Breach

I’ve blogged often on a lawyer’s duty to act competently to safeguard client data.  Generally, an attorney must take reasonable precautions to protect against inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of client information.  Some of my posts:

Last month, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics & Professional Responsibility issued Formal Opinion 483.  It sets out a lawyer’s obligations following an electronic data breach or cyber attack.

The opinion is detailed and technical.  It’s worth reading, or, at the very least, sharing with your IT support staff.  Also, various outlets have reported on the opinion, including The National Law Review, Louisiana Legal Ethics, and The ABA Journal.  I suggest each.

I’m going to try to stick to a summary.

  •  Prior to a breach, a lawyer has a duty to act competently to safeguard client property and information.  This likely includes adopting an “incident response plan” that will kick in once a breach occurs.
  • The duty includes an obligation “to monitor the security of electronically stored client property and information.”  In other words, there’s a duty to take reasonable efforts to monitor for and detect unauthorized access. This includes reasonable steps to ensure that vendors act in accordance with the lawyer’s professional obligations.
  • A breach is not necessarily evidence that the lawyer failed to act competently to safeguard client information.
  • If a breach occurs, a lawyer must take reasonable steps to stop it and mitigate the damage that results.
  • If a breach occurs, a lawyer must assess its scope.  This includes determining what information, if any, was lost or accessed.
  • A lawyer must notify current clients if the breach:
    • involves material, confidential client information; or,
    • impairs or prevents the lawyer from representing the client. For example, as would be the case in a ransomware attack.
  • Lawyers must be aware that their ethical obligations are independent of any post-breach obligations imposed by law.  Compliance with professional obligations is not necessarily compliance with other law, and vice versa.

Again, the full opinion is here.

As usual, I like to analogize to non-tech issues.  For instance, when it comes to paper files, most lawyers probably know that there’s a duty to take reasonable safeguards to protect them.  Locked file cabinets.  Locked rooms.  Secure office space.

If a lawyer arrives at work and realizes that the office has been broken into, I imagine the lawyer would intuitively understand the need to determine what, if anything, was viewed or taken.  Then, as appropriate, will notify clients. I also imagine that the lawyer would replace the broken locks, doors, and windows.

Thus, in my view, the ABA opinion clarifies that very standards that most of us already apply to clients’ paper files also applies to their electronic files.

Image result for images of a data breach

 

 

 

 

Joint Representation of Multiple Clients

I’m guessing that many lawyers can relate to Athos.

In general, people only ask for advice, [Athos] said, that they may not follow it or if they should follow it that they may have someone to blame for having given it.”

~ Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers

Image result for the 3 musketeers book

Still, there are times when advice is required no matter how it will be received.  One such time is prior to undertaking to represent multiple clients in the same matter.  Indeed, when it comes to joint representation, a lack of timely communication on the lawyer’s part could lead to the exact opposite of “All for one and one for all.”

Today, I’m NOT talking about representing multiple clients who have agreed to waive a conflict.  Rather, I’m talking about a joint representation that does not involve a conflict of interest.

The discussion flows from the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics Formal Opinion 2017-7.  The opinion outlines the disclosures that a lawyer should make when a joint representation does not involve a conflict.

And there’s the first important point: even if no conflict exists, there are still disclosures that should be made prior to undertaking a joint representation.  Why? Because Rule 1.4(b) requires a lawyer to “explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary for the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”

You might ask “well if there’s no conflict, what do the clients need to know before agreeing that I can represent both of them?”

How about this? Whether to agree to the joint representation in the first place.

Before I move on, let’s clarify “joint representations in which there is no conflict.”  Per the opinion, a “joint representation” refers to “a lawyer or law firm’s representation of two or more clients in a single matter on a coordinated basis.”  For example:

  • representing more than one plaintiff or defendant in the same matter;
  • representing 2 or more people who are forming a LLC;
  • representing spouses in their estate planning; or,
  • representing co-lenders or co-investors.

So, what disclosures are required?  Per the opinion, “it depends.”

I’d joke about the answer, but it’s the exact answer I’ve provided countless times both in this space and at my “live” seminars.  The nature of the joint representation will drive the disclosures that should be made up front.  Still, there are certain disclosures that likely should be made in any joint representation.   And, not only are they listed in the NYCBA advisory opinion, they’re outlined in Comments 29 thru 33 to Vermont Rule 1.7.

The disclosure/discussion includes:

An explanation from the lawyer as to how the lawyer will treat information communicated by any single one of the multiple clients.  On this, both the opinion and Comment 31 to Vermont’s rule are clear:

  • “the lawyer should, at the outset, of the common representation . . . advise each client that information will be shared and that the lawyer will have to withdraw if one client decides that some matter material to the representation should be kept from the other.”

As the opinion notes, while Comment 31 is directed at a situation in which a lawyer obtains informed consent to represent clients with conflicting interests, “ensuring that the joint clients understand this is no less important where the lawyer concludes at the outset that the joint clients’ interests do not and are not likely to differ.”

Why is this important?  Two reasons: the attorney-client privilege & conflicts.

Attorney-Client Privilege.  Per Comment 30 to Vermont Rule 1.7, “the prevailing rule is that as between commonly represented clients, the privilege does not attach.” In other words, as stated in the NYCBA opinion, “the lawyer must be satisfied that the joint clients understand that information that would otherwise be protected by the attorney-client privilege as against third parties will not be protected by the attorney-client privilege as between the clients if they later become adverse to each other.”

Conflicts.  A lawyer has a conflict whenever there’s a significant risk that the representation of one client will be materially limited by duties to another. For instance, you likely have a conflict if, while representing multiple clients in the same matter, one asks you to keep from the other information related to the matter.

Which brings me to the next & final disclosure: how a conflict will be resolved.  Joint clients should understand that if a conflict arises you might be required to withdraw from representing both.  As Comment 29 to Vermont Rule 1.7 states: “[o]rdinarily, the lawyer will be forced to withdraw from representing all of the clients if the common representation fails.”  Key point here: if one client quits or fires you, that client is now a former client whose interests might be materially adverse to the client who kept you.  If so, Rule 1.9(a) might knock you out.

Again, depending on the circumstances, there might be other disclosures that a lawyer should make to ensure that clients have enough information to make an informed decision as to whether to agree to a joint representation.  At the very least, the disclosures should include:

  1. An explanation from the lawyer as to how the lawyer will treat information communicated by any single one of the multiple clients.
  2. A reminder that information related to a joint representation might not be protected by the attorney-client privilege if the joint clients end up adverse to each other.
  3. A reminder that information from one will be shared with the other.
  4. A reminder that the lawyer may have to withdraw if one asks the lawyer to keep information from the other.

Finally, when should the disclosures be made? In my view, prior to the formation of the joint client relationship.  How can a client make an informed decision to agree to a joint representation without the information?  Thus, when giving advice on the pros & cons of joint representation, it’s probably best not to imitate Athos.

Why?  Because:

“He never gave his advice before it was demanded and even then it must be demanded twice.”

~ Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers

The information necessary to make informed decisions about the representation is not info that a client need demand even once.  It’s info that Rule 1.4 requires a lawyer to provide.

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Social Clients

Earlier this month, the ABA Journal posted a blog in its “ethics” section: Celebrity attorneys face challenges, ethical pitfalls.   I enjoyed it as much from the pop culture slant as I did from the “it’s my job” slant.

However, speaking of the “it’s my job” slant, I want to mention three things.

First, over the past year, the news has been filled with lawyers making public statements about their clients and former clients.  So much so that several times I’ve been asked what I think about it.

Regular readers know what I think it.  I’m a big believer in two concepts:

  1. Hey Lawyers! STFU!!!
  2. Can’t Keep Quiet? Try Harder.  

As Thomas Edison said:

“You will have many opportunities
to keep your mouth shut.
You should take advantage
of everyone of them.”

(aside: choosing not to blog is probably one of the opportunities of which I should take advantage.)

Second, despite my big belief that silence is a virtue, I was intrigued by two arguments in the ABA Journal’s post.  Specifically, the arguments that (1) at times, the duties of competence & diligence require a lawyer to speak out in a client’s defense;  and (2) the rules prohibiting such conduct run afoul of the First Amendment.  Alas, I can count on 2 fingers the number of Rule 3.6 complaints we’ve received in the past 15 years.  So, I am not so intrigued to do more than mention my intrigue.

Finally, there’s a little nugget in the article that, in my view, is great advice not just for lawyers who represent celebrities, but for lawyers who represent, well, clients.

Referring to lawyers who represent famous people, the article says:

  • “Client and entourage use of social media can compromise a defense. Ethically, attorneys have to make sure their clients and their team understand ground rules and place limitations on social media use related to the case.”

Trust me, I understand that very few of my readers represent the Vinny Chases of the world.  Nonetheless, I think the second sentence is critically important even for lawyers whose clients don’t have their own versions of E, Turtle, and Johnny Drama.

Why?

Because these days, entourage or not, what client isn’t on social media???  And that’s where the very next paragraph in the ABA Journal post comes in.  Quoting Ann Murphy, a professor at Gonzaga University School of Law, the post notes:

  • ” ‘Attorneys, as part of their ethical duties, must now counsel their clients on the use of social media,’ Murphy says. ‘Once it is out there, it is out there. Even if someone deletes a Facebook post—it likely has been saved as a screenshot and is of course subject to discovery,’ she adds. ‘Personally, I think the best advice is tell the client that any posts about his or her case must be viewed in advance by the attorney.’ “

That’s a fantastic tip.  Professor Murphy – if perchance you find this blog, In Few I Trust. Go Zags! 2019 national champs!

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Now, I can hear some of you now – “mike, am I supposed to know what my client puts on social media?”

Well, opposing counsel will.  So unless you’re comfortable finding out about that damning tweet or post at deposition or in mediation, then my response is:

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At the very least – and by “very least” I mean “barest of bare minimums” – I think lawyers have a duty to communicate to their clients the risks associated with posting info to a public forum.

Hmm…I guess this is where I can finally reference Hall & Oates.  When it comes to advising clients on the risks of posting too much to social media, it might be this:

  • Private eyes, they’re watching you.  They see your every move.  And they definitely see what you put out there to be seen.

Anyhow, while the ABA Journal article focuses on the risks associated with representing famous clients, it includes a tidbit that applies to any lawyer who has a client on social media: what happens on social media rarely stays on social media.

Tech competence.  It’s a thing.

By the way, among my friends, I’m definitely E.  My brother is almost definitely Drama.  Alas, while we have several candidates for Turtle, not many for Vinny.   And at risk of offending my friends, the “many” in that previous sentence?  It’s pronounced with a silent “m.”

Hint: this post doesn’t mention Ari Gold.  Which means his name might be of utmost importance later in the week.

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