Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New ABA Formal Opinion on prosecutors who allow debt collection companies to pretend the prosecutors' office backs them up

The ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has issued a new Formal Opinion (No. 469).  You can read the full opinion here.  The summary speaks for itself:
A prosecutor who provides official letterhead of the prosecutor’s office to a debt collection company for use by that company to create a letter purporting to come from the prosecutor’s office that implicitly or explicitly threatens prosecution, when no lawyer from the prosecutor’s office reviews the case file to determine whether a crime has been committed and prosecution is warranted or reviews the letter to ensure it complies with the Rules of Professional Conduct, violates Model Rules 8.4(c) and 5.5(a).

Monday, November 10, 2014

South Carolina Supreme Court recognizes the right of a beneficiary of a will or trust to sue a lawyer for malpractice

About ten days ago, in a case called Fabian v. Lindsay, the South Carolina Supreme Court recognized a cause of action, in both tort and contract, by a third-party beneficiary of an existing will or estate planning document against a lawyer whose drafting error defeats or diminishes the client's intent. The Court added that "[r]ecovery under either cause of action is limited to persons who are named in the estate planning document or otherwise identified in the instrument by their status. Where the claim sounds in both tort and contract, the plaintiff may elect a recovery."  You can read the opinion here.

Friday, October 31, 2014

More comments on California's rejection of a proposal to adopt the Model Rules

As I reported recently (here), the California Supreme Court has decided not to adopt a proposal for new rules of professional conduct. As you would expect, the decision has generated much commentary (see here, here and here).  Adding to the discussion, over at the Legal Ethics Forum now you can find a very good discussion of the issues.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Podcast on ethical issues about social media

Here is another podcast on ethical issues related to social media.  If you can't see the play button below, you can listen to the program here.

Monday, October 27, 2014

ND State Bar opinion finds use of medicinal marijuana is a violation of the rules of conduct even if the use is legal according to state law

Legal Ethics in Motion is reporting on an interesting Advisory Opinion issued a couple of months ago by the Ethics Committee of the State Bar Association of North Dakota that concludes that a lawyer licensed in North Dakota who uses medical marijuana in a state that authorizes its use, violates North Dakota Rule of Professional Conduct Rule 8.4(b).  You can read the short opinion  here.  (Opinion 14-02, issued August 12, 2014)

I don't agree with the opinion.  Rule 8.4 provides that “[i]t is professional misconduct for a lawyer to…commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects[.]”  Why does this rule apply if the lawyer is participating in a legal activity?  And even if it is illegal, how does using marijuana for medicinal purposes reflect adversely on a person's honesty or fitness?  It is one thing to say that a lawyer is unfit because he or she is suffering from a the medical issue that is so debilitating it prevents the lawyer from meeting his or her duties, but that is not what the opinion says.

The basis for the conclusion is that the use of medicinal marijuana has not been legalized by federal law.  Based on this reasoning, a lawyer (indeed, anyone at all) who uses medicinal marijuana even in a state where it is legal to do so, could be found to be in violation of federal law.  And, due to that possibility, a lawyer should not engage is conduct that is potentially a violation of federal law.

I understand the logic, but I am still not convinced, particularly since I am not convinced that the "crime" is the type of crime, by itself, that reflects adversely on honesty or fitness.  According to the Committee's logic all crimes reflect adversely which makes the language of the rule superfluous.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Comments on possible non lawyer ownership of law firms

Whether law firm ownership should be limited to lawyers is one of the most important debates going on in the American legal profession today.  Below you will find a short comment posted in the The Legal Talk Network on the subject, which is described as follows:

Legal Talk Network producer Laurence Colletti interviews consultant George Beaton about how client buying behavior was affected by the deregulation of ownership of law firms in Australia. Beaton discusses conflicts of interest, access to justice, client satisfaction, and the range of services under an outside ownership model for a law firm. Additionally, he talks about professionalism in the legal field and the role of an oversight model such as a Bar Association. Dr. George Beaton is a partner in Beaton Capital, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, and authored NewLaw New Rules, a ground-breaking narrative on the changes sweeping the legal services industry.

If you can't see the "play button" below, you can listen to the program here.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Puerto Rico Supreme Court invalidates statute that made Bar Association membership mandatory

Last week the Puerto Rico Supreme Court issued an opinion resolving a debate that had been hanging over the legal profession in the island for decades: whether it is constitutional for the state to mandate that attorneys join the Puerto Rico Bar Association. The case is called Rivera Schatz v. Estado Libre Asociado, and you can read the opinion (in Spanish) here.

The background story is long, but I will summarize it as best as I can. In 1932, the Puerto Rico legislature enacted a statute creating the Puerto Rico Bar Association (known in Spanish as the Colegio de Abogados) and making membership mandatory for all attorneys. Failing to pay the Bar Association's dues was, thus, a sanctionable offense. That statute was challenged at some point in the 1980s by about 100 attorneys who refused to pay the membership dues arguing that the "integrated bar" requirement was an unconstitutional infringement on the attorneys' rights to freedom of speech and association.

As a result of that long litigation in the 1980s (Schneider v. Colegio de Abogados) a system was adopted for Bar Association members to specifically designate what their fees could be used for. Once this was in place, the Bar Association could claim the members were not in a position to claim their constitutional rights to free speech and association were violated.

The saga did not end there, of course.  The next chapter began in 2009 when the legislature amended the 1932 statute to eliminate mandatory bar membership as a requirement to practice law.

Arguing that the legislature had infringed on the Supreme Court's "inherent power" to regulate the profession, the Bar Association sued to challenge the new law. This challenge was decided in 2011 when the Court denied the Bar Association's cert petition with an order holding that the legislature's decision to eliminate mandatory bar membership did not infringe on the Court's inherent power to regulate the profession and was not in violation of the principle of separation of powers.

Three years later, the legislature (now controlled by a different political party) enacted yet another law restoring mandatory Bar Association membership, and, as you would expect, that law was then challenged by opponents of an integrated bar. It is this challenge that the court decided last week.

Given its decision against the Bar Association in 2011, it is not surprising that the Court again decided against a mandatory integrated bar. What is surprising, though, is that it does so by adopting the position it rejected back then. In the new opinion, the Court concludes that the adoption of a statute constituted an infringement on its "inherent power" to regulate the profession and a violation of separation of powers.

Of course, the question of the constitutionality of an integrated bar is not unique to Puerto Rico. In 1961, the US Supreme Court rejected a constitutional attack of mandatory membership in state bar associations in a case called Lathrop v. Donahue, 367 US 820 (1961). Also, in Cuyahoga Cty. Bar. Assn. v. Supeme Court of Ohio, 430 US 901 (1977), the Court summarily affirmed a lower court ruling on the constitutionality of a mandatory annual fee to support a state bar and disciplinary system. However, the free speech and free association arguments advanced in Lathrop were not rejected by the prevailing opinion. The Court simply found that more facts were needed for them to be considered. Other courts, however, have found that mandatory fees need to be related to bar organization matters.

This last point is important for the Puerto Rico situation because the underlying fight has always been about the Bar Association's use of its funds to support causes some of the members find objectionable.

The PR Bar Association has always been thought of as a "liberal" organization (with ties to the pro commonwealth and independence political parties) which has supported causes like women's rights, environmental protection, access to legal services and which has expressed opposition to the United States use of parts of the island for military operations, and so on. "Conservative" lawyers, and the more conservative pro-statehood party, have long objected to the Bar Association's involvement in what they consider to be political questions, particularly since the Bar Association's position has typically "leaned to the left" on the issues.

Interestingly, how to deal with the opposition to the use of the funds was one of the questions that the Schneider case in the 1980s actually decided. It was for that reason that when the pro statehood party took control of the legislature, it enacted the law eliminating mandatory bar membership entirely. Not surprisingly, as soon as the pro-commonwealth party regained power, it again restored mandatory membership.

But the story ends, for now, at least, last week when the Supreme Court, a majority of the members of which were appointed by the most recent pro statehood governor, decided that Puerto Rico lawyers should be free to choose whether to join the Bar Association.

I wonder if the Bar Association will take the chance to go to the US Supreme Court and ask it to consider what it left undecided in Lathrop.

Stay tuned....

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Supreme Court of Puerto Rico rejects proposal to adopt ABA Model Rules

After writing about the recent decision by the California Supreme Court to reject a proposal to adopt the ABA Model Rules, I realized that I had not commented on the fact that the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico had recently decided to do the same thing.

Even though it was approved in 1970, the current Code of Professional Conduct in Puerto Rico is essentially a translated and amended version of the ABA Canons of 1908 with some influence from the ABA Model Code.  And, even though the ABA abandoned the Model Code in favor of the Model Rules in 1983, Puerto Rico has not made any changes to its Code since it approved one amendment in 1980 (to update the canon regarding advertising).

In 2005, a Commission appointed by the Puerto Rico Bar Association to draft a new Code presented its proposal to adopt a new set of rules based on the ABA Model Rules.  However, for some unknown reason, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court sat on the proposal for eight years and then, without explanation, announced in an order last December that it rejected the proposal in its entirety. You can find the Court's order here (in Spanish).

Surprisingly, at the same time the Court also announced that there was another project that had already been prepared by the Judicial Conference.  You can find that project here.  The Court said it would consider the project this year, but given that it took it eight years to consider the previous one, it is difficult to know what to expect.

The new project is a very odd combination of materials based on sources from the ABA Model Code, the Model Rules and Codes from other countries.  It has sections called "canons" which read like they are meant to provide inspiration rather than regulation (like the "ethical considerations" of the Model Code) and sections called "rules" that attempt to provide more guidance for disciplinary matters.  In my opinion, the rejected project based on the Model Rules was much better, but it appears that one will not be revised now.

It remains to be seen what will happen.  There is a debate as to whether the new proposal is better than keeping the obviously inadequate current Code or whether the new proposal is so bad it should be rejected until a better one can be drafted.  When I first saw the documents, I felt that anything would be better than the current system, but the reporter of the recently rejected proposal to adopt the Model Rules almost has me convinced that it would be better to start from scratch.  The University of Puerto Rico Law School is considering putting together a conference on the subject and I have already agreed to be one of the speakers.  Get in touch with me if you want more information on this.

U.S. Department of Justice prohibits ineffective assistance of counsel waivers as part of plea bargains in federal criminal prosecutions

About two months ago I reported (here) that the Kentucky Supreme Court issued a very important opinion concluding that the use of ineffective assistance of counsel waivers in plea bargain agreements "(1) creates a non- waivable conflict of interest between the defendant and his attorney, (2) operates effectively to limit the attorney's liability for malpractice, and (3) induces, by the prosecutor's insertion of the waiver into plea agreements, an ethical breach by defense counsel."

Now comes news that four days ago the Justice Department officially decided that federal prosecutors are prohibited from requiring criminal defendants to waive their right to claim ineffective assistance of counsel a condition of a plea. Attorney General Eric H. Holder said the “policy is an attempt to ensure that all individuals who face criminal charges are ably represented. ‘Everyone in this country who faces criminal legal action deserves the opportunity to make decisions with the assistance of effective legal counsel…(u)nder this policy, no defendant will have to forego their right to able representation in the course of pleading guilty to a crime.’”

Here is a copy of the memo sent to all federal prosecutors.  The Lawyer Ethics Alert blog has more details here.

California Bar Pioneers Pre-Admission Competency Training for New Lawyers

About a year ago, the State Bar of California’s Board of Trustees charged the Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform with “[e]xamin[ing] whether the State Bar of California should develop a regulatory requirement for a pre-admission competency training program, and if so, proposing such a program” for submission to the Supreme Court.” After studying this issue for a year, the Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform released a report on June 24, 2013.  Legal Ethics in Motion has the full story here.  The report is available here.