Monday, August 31, 2009

Where have you gone loyalty principle? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you....

Every now and then, a case (or news item) comes along that makes you question just how strong those "values of the profession" that we love to say we are so proud of really are.

This summer the ABA, and many states, went through lengthy debates on whether allowing firms to use "screening" (in cases where a lawyer moves from one firm to another) goes against the value of loyalty. See blog entries here. As part of that debate, one commentator argued: ". . .it certainly appears that real ethics have given way to the interests of stranded, individual lawyers and surviving firms that want to “cherry pick” from the castaways. . . . Violations will occur and will be covered up. Clients will have to fall back on common law duty of loyalty (and common law principles that impute knowledge within firms) when they suspect their confidences have been purchased with a lateral. . . ."

But, okay, you can make the argument that that question is a close call. You can make an argument to justify the position taken by the ABA. Even after the approval of the new approach to the question, loyalty is still an important value. Right?

Then someone noticed that, as originally drafted, the new rule would have allowed attorneys to use screening to represent clients with competing interests concurrently.

Now, this won't do! So the rule was changed again...

Now enter the well oiled slippery slope. is reporting that a Delaware federal judge has OK'd a lawfirm to use of a "screen" between the firm's U.S. lawyers opposing client Wyeth in a U.S. patent case and its European attorneys working with the pharmaceutical company in an unrelated matter.

In other words, the firm is representing Wyeth in one case and opposing it in another over Wyeth's objections.

Note this last piece of information - over the client's objections. So where exactly is the loyalty principle here?

The judge's order reportedly states that the client's opposition "means the firm is technically violating the Delaware court's local rules and the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct."

You have to love the use of the word "technically"! I am sorry, but there is not "technicality" here... The firm's conduct is either a violation or it isn't. And this judge simply admits he has agreed to the firm's attempt to act in a willful violation of the rules.

Why would the judge do that, you wonder? Well, essentially, there are two reasons: it is the client's fault and "globalization."

Yep. Believe it or not, the court allows the firm to willfully act unethically because, according to the judge, it is the client's fault. According to the article, he blamed Wyeth for not clearly indicating to the firm which of its in-house attorneys were working on which matters and for having sloppy legal billing practices. "[These practices] . . . created significant confusion for [the lawfirm] as to which entity or entities it was representing,"

And then, there is the obligatory mention of "globalization." The article quotes one of the partners of the law firm in question as saying: "When you're dealing with increasingly globalized economies, increasingly globalized law firms and different countries . . . . courts will likely look to the use of ethical walls "to reconcile all of these tensions."

Re-enter the aforementioned slippery slope.... Couldn't a firm with separate offices in New York and Chicago make a similar argument?

Maybe the mistake someone found in the new rule 1.10 was really just an omen. Maybe we are not that far away from allowing firms to represent competing interests concurrently after all.

Listen people, if your client objects to your representing a competing interest, do the right thing and respect your client's wishes. Your interest in securing another lucrative client or case should never come before your duty to your current client. That is called your fiduciary duty, in case you forgot.

The latest Gallup poll shows our profession could still go lower in the public opinion of trustworthiness. Let's work to move up, not further down.

Go here and here for the full story.

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