Monday, October 16, 2017

"My computer ate my homework" is not a good excuse -- UPDATED

As readers of this blog know, the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility and now more than half the states, consider part of the duty of competence a duty to understand "technology" used in the practice of law.  (Go here for my most recent post on this.)  This means not only that lawyers should understand how the technology works but also how to use it properly.

So, what happens if the clerk of courts e-mails you an order, but your spam filter catches the e-mail and then deletes it after 30 days without alerting you, and you therefore fail to appeal the order in time?  You may be in trouble, that's what.

The Law For Lawyers Today discusses the issue here.

UPDATE:  Vermont's bar counsel, Michael Kennedy, picked up the story and added another good one.  In this new one a lawyer sent an email to a client asking whether the client wanted to file an appeal in a matter the court had decided against the client.  The e-mail never left the lawyer's computer system and, eventually, the client lost the right to file the appeal.   Lesson learned:  go "old school" and pick up the phone!

Friday, October 13, 2017

US Supreme Court grants cert to decide whether it is ineffective assistance of counsel to concede client's guilt over client's objection

The U.S. Supreme Court has granted review in McCoy v. Louisiana in which a Louisiana death row inmate is arguing ineffective assistance of counsel because his lawyer conceded his guilt over the defendant's objection.  You can find all the documents related to, and more information on, the case at the SCOTUSblog here. The New York Times also has some information on the case here.

In this case, the defendant, Robert Leroy McCoy, refused his lawyer’s suggestion to accept a plea deal, and objected when the lawyer informed him he planned to concede guilt.  He also protested at trial, after the lawyer conceded guilt during the opening statement.  According to an article in the ABA Journal, "the lawyer maintained the concession was necessary because he had an ethical duty to save McCoy’s life." 

There is only one problem.  There is no such ethical duty.

The duty of the lawyer is to represent the client and this includes following the client's instructions as to the goals of the representation.

The case presents an opportunity to clarify a terrible old decision of the US Supreme Court called Florida v. Nixon.  In that case, a lawyer attempted unsuccessfully to get his client - also a death row inmate - to cooperate in preparing his defense.  The inmate, who probably had diminished capacity, either did not understand what was happening or did not wish to communicate with the lawyer.  Eventually, the lawyer decided to concede guilt in order to argue for a lower sentence at the sentencing phase of the trial.  On appeal, much of the discussion revolved around whether there is a difference between "conceding guilt" and "pleading guilty."  The distinction is important because the rules of professional conduct explicitly reserve the right to plead guilty to the client.  Simply stated the lawyer has no authority to decide whether to plead guilty without a client's consent.

In a confusing opinion, the Court found that the lawyer had not provided ineffective assistance of counsel.  Yet it is not clear whether the decision was based on either (a) that the decision was for the client to make but the lawyer could make the decision for the client because the client was incapable of communicating with the lawyer or (b) that the decision was for the lawyer to make because it was "tactical" in nature.  If the decision in the case was to plead guilty, then the Court's decision must have been based on option (a), which would be wrong under the rules of professional conduct.  If the decision was "to concede guilt" (meaning something different from pleading guilty, even if the effect is the same) then it can be argued the Court's decision was based on option (b).  

I have never been comfortable with Florida v Nixon for many reasons, the most important one of which is that I don't see the difference between conceding guilt and pleading guilty.  In the end, the Court allowed an attorney to make the most fundamental decision, which is explicitly reserved for the client to make, without client consent.

And now McCoy could be even worse.

In McCoy, the Court is being asked to take the decision in Nixon one step further and allow the attorney to make the decision over the express objection of the client based on the notion that the decision to "concede guilt" is purely tactical and, thus, can be made by the lawyer.  In fact, in affirming the lower court's decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court found no Sixth Amendment violation stating that “[g]iven the circumstances of this crime and the overwhelming evidence incriminating the defendant, admitting guilt in an attempt to avoid the imposition of the death penalty appears to constitute reasonable trial strategy.” [emphasis added.]

I did not like that interpretation in Florida v. Nixon and I like it even less here.  As explained in the amicus brief of the The Yale Law School Ethics Bureau (available here),
The decision over whether to concede guilt at trial is ultimately the defendant’s to make. It goes to the very heart of the right to put on a defense–a right that personally belongs to the accused. ... In this case, Mr. McCoy vigorously and repeatedly expressed his desire to assert innocence at trial. Yet Mr. English [McCoy's lawyer] disregarded those entreaties and readily conceded guilt . By doing so, Mr. English not only betrayed the sacred bond between lawyer and client, but also denied Mr. McCoy his personal right to put on a defense.

[Because of the egregious nature of the ethical failures in this case,] Mr. McCoy was constructively denied counsel. By conceding guilt over Mr. McCoy’s express objection, Mr. English failed to act within the scope of the attorney–client relationship. He was not, in any meaningful sense, acting as Mr. McCoy’s lawyer. Mr. McCoy therefore did not just receive an “incompetent counsel”–he effectively did not receive any counsel “at all.” ...

Additionally, Mr. English failed to subject the prosecution’s case to meaningful adversarial testing. Indeed, far from testing the prosecution’s case, Mr. English seemed downright eager to advance it. He readily conceded Mr. McCoy’s guilt in his opening statement; called Mr. McCoy to the stand only to impeach his credibility; and failed to present any evidence that challenged the prosecution’s theory of the case. ...

Relying on reasoning from the Court’s decision in Florida v. Nixon,... the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to find Mr. English’s conduct presumptively prejudicial. But Nixon only held that a lawyer is not required to obtain affirmative consent from the client before conceding guilt. It expressly did not address the situation presented here, where the client positively objects to conceding. The difference between conceding guilt in the face of a client’s non–response and his explicit objection is crucial; for it is the difference between a reasonable strategic decision based on limited information and total destruction of the attorney–client relationship.
I agree.

Another argument in the case is that the lawyer was compelled to concede guilt because the lawyer did not believe the client's story and, thus, thought the client was going to base his defense on false evidence.

Yet, the rules of professional conduct do not give a lawyer the authority to unilaterally concede a client’s guilt because the lawyer doubts his client’s claim of innocence.  Even if the lawyer believes the client intends to present false evidence, the alternative approaches to the problem provided by the rules do not include conceding guilt.

Whatever the Court decides, this will be a very important decision.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Quick review of the duty of confidentiality

The news that some of Trump's attorneys inadvertently disclosed some confidential information raised issues as to whether the conduct constituted a violation of the duty of confidentiality. I will let you do you own research as to the story and the different reactions to it.  But, here is a quick review of the general principles related to the duty by the Bar Counsel of Vermont, Michael Kennedy.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Illinois Supreme Court hears oral argument on whether a Public Defender should be held in contempt for refusing to represent a defendant when doing so would result in a confict of interest

About two weeks ago, the Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a very interesting case that started last year when a trial judge appointed Cook County Public Defender Amy P. Campanelli to represent a defendant in a murder case.  The Public Defender refused to do so arguing that accepting the representation would constitute a concurrent conflict of interest.  She also told the judge she could not divulge more information because doing that would constitute a violation of the duty of confidentiality to her other clients.  The judge held the Public Defender in civil contempt and fined $250 per day.

In Holloway v Arkansas, the US Supreme Court held that reversal of a conviction should be automatic if the attorney for the defendant had been denied a request for separate counsel for a client based on a conflict of interest at trial.  Denying the request would force a defendant to be represented by an attorney with a conflict of interest in violation of the 6th Amendment to the Constitution.  Since then, most courts have held that an attorney's request for independent counsel should be granted because the attorney is in the best position to determine if there is a conflict.

Based on this case law, it would seem like the contempt conviction should be reversed.

The state argued the conviction should be affirmed because all the judge wanted was for the attorney to provide the basis for the objection to the representation rather than a vague and unsubstantiated claim of possible conflict.

You can listen to the oral argument here.  You can also download a video of the oral argument by going to this page and scrolling down to September 12.  The case is People v. Cole.

Monday, September 18, 2017

ACLU files lawsuit to block customs and border searches of electronic devices

Last week I reported that the New York City Bar Association  issued an ethics opinion holding that lawyers must take reasonable precautions to protect confidential information if the lawyer is searched by U.S border/customs agents.

In a related story, now comes news that the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have sued the Department of Homeland Security to block U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel from searching travelers’ electronic devices without warrants.

TechDirt has a comment here.  The Law for Lawyers Today has more information here.  You can read the complaint here

Sunday, September 17, 2017

How do we (or should we) define "the practice of law"?

How we define "the practice of law" has been a difficult question for a long time.  At one point, the ABA created a task force to propose a model definition which was eventually disbanded because it could not reach a viable solution.  And, more importantly, the answer to the question has tremendous implications.

The whole notion of regulation is based on the justification that there is something to regulate and that there is a reason for the regulation.  We have a hard time justifying it if we can't define what it is we are trying to regulate and why.  Likewise, the principle that lawyers need to be "admitted" to practice in a jurisdiction to be able to engage in the practice of law in that jurisdiction is equally shaky if we can't find a way to justify it.

Both principles are under attack.  There is an ongoing debate on whether lawyers admitted in one jurisdiction should be allowed to practice in all other jurisdictions.  In some jurisdictions, non-lawyers are allowed to engage in activities that could be considered to be the practice of law, and there are efforts in other jurisdictions to start allowing it.  Many are arguing for the elimination of rules that prevent lawyers from partnering up with non lawyers.  The use of technology has opened the door for computers to perform tasks that used to be performed by lawyers.  And now Congress is considering legislation that would affect the regulation of the profession.

Where will it all lead?  I don't know.   But the discussion starts with the basic question: what is the practice of law?

Prof.  Ronald Rotunda's most recent column at Justicia addresses the issue.  You can read it here.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Duty of confidentiality at the border

Given a number of recent reports that people's phones are being "searched" by customs officials when entering the US or other countries, it is not surprising to know that the New York City Bar Association recently issued an ethics opinion holding that lawyers must take reasonable precautions to protect confidential information if the lawyer is searched by U.S border/customs agents.  You can read the opinion here: NYCBA Opinion 2017-5.

Although the specific context in which the topic is discussed, the actual content of the opinion is nothing new or surprising.  It is merely an application of the principle already expressed in Model Rule 1.6(c) which states that "a lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client."

Since the duty is to take reasonable measures to protect the information, the fact that the information is disclosed, by itself, would not result in a violation of the rule.  Whether an attorney violates the rule, will depend on the reasonableness of his or her efforts to protect the information, Thus, the key question is what will be considered "reasonable."

On this, the opinion restates the comment to the Model Rule which explains that reasonableness will depend on may factors and that factors to be considered in determining the reasonableness of the lawyer’s efforts include, but are not limited to, the sensitivity of the information, the likelihood of disclosure if additional safeguards are not employed, the cost of employing additional safeguards, the difficulty of implementing the safeguards, and the extent to which the safeguards adversely affect the lawyer’s ability to represent clients (e.g., by making a device or important piece of software excessively difficult to use).

The opinion then adds that the simplest way to avoid a problem is to not possess any client confidential information when crossing the border and instead opting for other alternatives such as carrying a “burner” telephone, laptop computer, or other digital device, removing confidential information from digital devices, signing out of cloud-based services, uninstalling applications allowing remote access to confidential information, storing confidential information in secure online locations rather than locally on digital devices, and using encrypted software.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

How not to practice law: videotape co-worker while she is undressing in the office

It has been a while since I have posted an entry into the "How not to practice law" series, a series of posts about incredibly stupid things that lawyers do.  Past examples include the "typical" showing up drunk, judge having someone deciding case for them, lying and so on.

Today's story involves a lawyer who had the bright idea to place a secret camera in a colleague's office so he could record her changing clothes.  When caught, he was indicted and charged with a felony, after which he pled guilty to a reduced charge.  Now he is facing disciplinary charges for violating Illinois Rule 8.4(b) (committing a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.)

You can read the disciplinary complaint here and a summary here.

All kidding aside, though, it is often the case that many of the stories in the "how not to practice law" series involve personal issues such as addiction, alcoholism, inability to control urges (whether based on greed or sexual desire) and so on.  That is troubling and sad, but lawyers need to know that their role requires professionalism, discipline and the ability to stay in control.  If you or someone you know has these types of issues, get help.  Bar associations have lawyer assistance programs or access to other alternative.  Everybody makes mistakes; but often those mistakes will cost lawyers their livelihood.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

California opinion on the "insurance triangle"

Back in April, the Los Angeles County Bar Association issued an ethics opinion on whether a lawyer hired by an insurance company to represent an insured can disclose certain information to the insurance company to the detriment of the insured.   It concludes that
When an attorney engaged by an insurance carrier to defend the interests of an insured obtains information that could provide a basis for the insurance carrier to deny coverage, the attorney is ethically prohibited from disclosing that information to the insurance carrier.  In such a situation, the attorney must withdraw from the representation.
Up to the last sentence, the conclusion is not surprising and, as far as I know, the generally accepted view on this issue everywhere.  But the last sentence (the duty to withdraw) only makes sense in jurisdictions that hold that an attorney hired by a person to represent another actually has two clients.  In jurisdictions where the attorney in such circumstances only has one client (the insured, in this example), there should be no duty to withdraw. 

Also, as pointed out by Faughnan on Ethics, what happens when the attorney in California withdraws and a new attorney is appointed to the representation of the insured.  The same thing will happen again, and that new attorney will have to withdraw.

You can read the opinion here.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Florida Bar to consider whether it is ethical to participate in Avvo Legal Services

A few days ago, I reported that the NY state bar association issued an opinion holding it would be unethical to participate in Avvo Legal Services. See here.  Now comes news that the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors has decided to prepare an advisory opinion on whether lawyers could participate with a private lawyer referral service which charges a different set fee depending upon the type of case referred.  Without mentioning it, of course, this description refers to the Avvo Legal Services scheme which has now been rejected in every ethics opinion that has considered the question. 

The Florida Bar has in the past attempted to change the state rules to allow lawyers to participate in private referral services, but the Florida Supreme Court rejected the idea.  In fact, it published an opinion on September 24, 2015 which instructed the Bar to draft rules that “preclude Florida lawyers from accepting referrals from any lawyer referral service that is not owned or operated by a member of the Bar.”  Given this background it will be interesting to see if the Board of Governors attempts to revise its position or follows the lead of the Court.  For more on the news from Florida go here.

For some of my previous posts on Avvo go here and scroll down.