Thursday, October 13, 2016

We've made the finals; please consider voting again...

Thanks to those who voted to nominate this blog as part of the 2016 Best Legal Blog Contest.  We have made the final cut.  Now the actual voting begins.  If you like this blog, please consider voting for it in the by going here.

To check other nominated blogs (in many different categories) and the vote totals go here.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Pennsylvania Opinion finds participating in program like Avvo Legal Services to be unethical

For the third time in four months, a state bar ethics committee has warned attorneys that participating in an Avvo like client referral program would be unethical.  Similar to opinions in Ohio and South Carolina, and to rules revisions in Florida, the Pennsylvania Bar Association Committee on Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued Formal Op. 2016-200 holding that attorneys risk violating several ethics rules if they participate in a program like Avvo Legal Services.

I have not been able to find a copy of the opinion yet, but an article in the BNA/ABA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct reports that it finds a number of problems with the way the program is set up an implemented. For example, it finds that what Avvo claims is a marketing or advertising fee does “not correspond to any traditional model of compensation for advertising,” that the program improperly “delegates to a non-lawyer several critical decisions and functions that fall within the exclusive domain of the practice of law,” that it interferes with attorneys’ duty to exercise independent professional judgment, that it hampers a lawyer's ability to comply with Rule 1.16(d), which requires lawyers to refund any fees that have not been earned at the end of a representation, that the management of the fees constitutes commingling and a violation of the duty to safeguard client property and that it threatens the confidentiality of information related to the representation.

This comes as no surprise to me, or to longtime readers of this blog.  I have argued both here and in an upcoming article, that under the current regulatory system, Avvo Legal Services puts lawyers in positions to violate a number of rules and that Avvo's arguments to the contrary are not convincing.  See here, here and here for example.

However, saying that participating in Avvo Legal Services would violate the rules is not the end of the issue.  The question then becomes whether the rules should be changed to accommodate what Avvo wants to do. Interestingly, I don't think this is what Avvo has been arguing in response to the opinions around the country.  Instead of saying that the rules should be changed, Avvo typically argues that the rules don't apply or should not be followed.

Others, on the other hand, have been making more thoughtful arguments.  For example, solo attorney-blogger Carolyn Elefant has published an interesting post in My Shingle in which she argues why the rules should be changed to allow services like Avvo Legal Services to operate the way they want to.  Among other things, she argues that rules should not require lawyers to use trust accounts at all, which I imagine will be controversial.

Also, Professor Milan Markovic (Texas A&M) criticizes the approach of some of the opinions on Avvo as mechanistic.  You can read his comment here.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Virginia clarifies duty of candor regarding possible perjury

The Legal Profession Blog is reporting that the Supreme Court of Virginia has approved amendments to Rules 1.6 and 3.3. The amendments clarify a lawyer’s obligations when a client discloses his or her intent to commit perjury in advance of trial, and whether the lawyer can withdraw from the representation before the client’s intended perjury occurs.  You can read the amendments here.

Friday, October 7, 2016

California: Prosecutors who withhold evidence can be charged with a felony

Long time readers of this blog know I often complain about the fact that courts do not seem to take prosecutorial misconduct too seriously.  Go here, here, and here, for a few examples; and you can go to the prosecutors tag and scroll down for lots of stories, and links on the topic.

Well, today, I am posting good news, for a change. Almost exactly one year ago, I posted (here) that California had adopted a new law to bolster a judge's ability to disqualify a prosecutor or an entire prosecuting attorney's office and to make it mandatory for judges to report violations to the state bar. 

Now, California has gone even further by making it a felony crime to withhold exculpatory evidence. Violators of the law could be sentenced to up to three years in prison.  The ABA Journal has more details here.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Five Myths About USPTO Ethics Investigations and Disciplinary Complaints

IPethics & INsights  has published a short and informative post called Five Myths About USPTO Ethics Investigations and Disciplinary Complaints.  You can read it here.  The five myths are:

1. The OED Only Cares About Practice Before the USPTO

2. If I Am Not A Registered Patent Practitioner The OED Does Not Care About My Conduct

3. The USPTO Prefers to Let the State Bars Investigate Ethics Violations

4. Discipline by the USPTO Will Not Impact State or Federal Bar Licenses

5. The OED Will Only Conduct an Ethics Investigation When Someone Files A Complaint

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Florida adopts duty of technology competence and a requirement regarding technology CLE

Last week the Supreme Court of Florida became the 25th state to adopt the duty of technological competence that the ABA adopted in its recent amendments to the Model Rules.  That's not terribly surprising as the language of the Model Rules usually eventually finds its way into state rules. 

However, the Florida Supreme Court did go a bit further.  As explained by the court, the amendment "add[s] language to the comment providing that, in order to maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should engage in continuing study and education, including an understanding of the risks and benefits associated with the use of technology.

Go here for more information and a copy of the Court's order.   The ABA Journal online also has the story here.

Interestingly, once it is decided that having knowledge about technology is part of the duty of competence, it follows that it will become an element of the standard of care for malpractice cases. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

NYC Bar Ethics Committee issues opinion holding that prosecutors’ duty to disclose is broader than the duty imposed by Brady v Maryland

As you probably know, there are differences of opinion as to whether the duty to disclose information imposed on prosecutors by ABA Model Rule 3.8 is broader than the duty imposed by the constitutional standards in Brady v. Maryland.  The ABA Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility held that it does in Formal Opinion 09-454, but a few jurisdictions have held otherwise.  I have written about this in the past here.  (And for all my posts on prosecutors' duty to disclose evidence go here.)

Courts or Ethics Committees have also decided the duty under rules of professional conduct is broader in Utah, Texas, North Dakota, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.  Courts or Committees have decided otherwise in Ohio, Oklahoma, Colorado, Louisiana and Wisconsin.

Now comes news that the New York City bar's ethics committee has issued an opinion holding that a prosecutor's ethical obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence is broader than the constitutional minimums imposed by Brady v. Maryland.  See N.Y.C. Bar Ass'n Comm. on Prof'l Ethics, Op. 2016-3, 7/22/15.

Thanks to the ABA/BNA Lawyers' Manual on Professional Conduct for all the links.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Ohio Supreme Court adopts amendment to allow lawyers to advise clients in legal marijuana business

Just about a month ago, I reported that the Ohio board that oversees attorney conduct decided that attorneys aren’t allowed to help someone establish a legal medical marijuana-related business in the state because using, growing and selling marijuana remains a federal crime.  A few days later, I updated the story when it was reported that the Ohio Supreme Court would consider a draft amendment to the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct to address the issue.

The Court not only prepared the draft, it just formally adopted the amendment. The amendment modifies Prof. Cond. R. 1.2(d)(2) by adding a new subsection, which reads:  “A lawyer may counsel or assist a client regarding conduct expressly permitted under Sub.H.B. 523 of the 131st General Assembly authorizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes and any state statutes, rules, orders, or other provisions implementing the act. In these circumstances, the lawyer shall advise the client regarding related federal law.”

Thanks to the Legal Profession blog for the update.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Ohio Supreme Court issues divided opinion on whether disciplinary counsel can bring charges against an attorney after another disciplinary agency had already decided not to do so -- UPDATED

Ohio has two parallel disciplinary mechanisms:  the certified grievance committees of local bar associations and the state disciplinary counsel.  If the local disciplinary counsel decides not to prosecute a case, can disciplinary counsel prosecute anyway? 

Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court addressed that question for the first time in a case called In Disciplinary Counsel v. Kramer.  The Court split 4 to 3 and held that the state's disciplinary counsel can pursue a case against a lawyer even though another agency had already decided not to do so.  

In Kramer, a prosecutor was investigated by the Cleveland Metro Bar Association (CMBA) because of discrepancies in his time sheets.  The CMBA determined that, because Kramer had resigned, no further disciplinary action was warranted.  However, before the CMBA formally sent a letter dismissing the matter, Ohio disciplinary counsel received an anonymous complaint based on the same misconduct.  Kramer argued that the CMBA dismissal should be final, and that its decision should be given full faith and credit, but the Supreme Court closely split on whether the rules governing Ohio attorneys allowed the disciplinary counsel to pursue charges against Kramer under those circumstances.

The Legal Profession Blog has a good summary of the decision here.

Thanks to Patrick B. Cavanaugh, of Kitch Drutchas Wagner Valitutti & Sherbrook for sending me information on the case.

UPDATE 9-18-16: Mike Frisch of the Legal Profession blog has a comment on the case here.  His conclusion:  "I agree with the majority on policy grounds. If the Ohio rules of discipline accord quasi-double jeopardy status to grievance panel dismissals, the rules defeat the purpose of bar discipline - protection of the public from unethical lawyers."

Illinois decision provides good test for discussion of Constitutionality of new ABA Rule 8.4(g)

As I am sure you know by now, the ABA recently approved an amendment to Model Rule 8.4 to make it misconduct to use discriminatory or biased speech.  The amendment is now Model Rule 8.4(g) which you can find here.  Back in January I wrote a long comment on the original proposal, which was changed before it was approved last month.  The approved version improved some of the issues I had originally objected to, but I still have reservations about the approved language. My main concern is that the language seems to punish protected, even if offensive speech.  You can read my most recent comments on it here and here

In one of my comments I posed asked rhetorically whether the new rule could survive a Constitutional attack.  So to pursue the question with some real facts, here is a good example.

The Legal Profession blog is reporting that a recent Illinois Hearing Board report recommended sanctions on an attorney who, among other things, “used demeaning and insulting language” toward the father of a client.  The father, by the way, was supposed to pay for the client’s representation which courts in Illinois have found makes him a client too.  The report lists some of the statements in question as follows: 
You are a piece of garbage. All black people are alike. You're slovenly, ignorant. [...]

I'm sick of you, you piece of shit.

I don't know who's the biggest bitch. You or [___]. I'm going to lock you up.

Low class n#!*s. I'm going to have you all locked up. [...]

You are such a pussy. ...

You're ugly, low class, ignorant. I'll finish with you when he gets off. You're demeaning your son.

Help your son. Pay. Stop delaying case.
Given those statements, the attorney was charged with a violation of Illinois Rule 4.4, which states that “[i]n representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person, or use methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of such a person.”

Personally, I don’t think that Rule 4.4 was meant to address this type of conduct; it is not meant to address the use of offensive speech directed at client.  It seems to me a better rule to use in a case like this would be the section of Illinois Rule 8.4(d) that talks about engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice. 

However, since 8.4 is also not squarely on point, it can be argued that the fact that the lawyer was charged under 4.4 rather than under another rule that may be more “on point” shows the need to adopt a new rule that would address this type of conduct. 

But what if that rule is adopted?  What if Illinois had adopted the new Model Rule 8.4(g)?  It seems to me this would be a good case to have a court decide the issue I have been writing about all along.  The conduct is deplorable and the speech is offensive; but the First Amendment protects against the state imposing sanctions on speech merely because some might find it offensive.

In the end, I think the issue comes down to deciding whether the state can support the argument that regulating offensive speech by lawyers outweighs the lawyer’s constitutional right to utter offensive statements.  If the answer is yes, the facts of this case are a good example to use in support of the adopting the new rule.  If the answer is no, then the facts of the case can be used as an example of the consequences of the Constitutional protection of what some might believe to be offensive speech.