Ignore The Spin: It Was Unethical For Michael Cohen To Secretly Record His Client, Donald Trump

This morning the Washington Post tries to spin the clear ethics violation by Michael Cohen when he surreptitiously recorded his client, Donald Trump, when his client didn’t know or have any reason to suspect that such a recording was taking place. It was unethical. I have never spoken to a lawyer or ethics authority who didn’t believe such a recording would be unethical, at least until such an ethics breach was made against this particular betrayed client. Now, since the legal profession is one of many that have abandoned integrity and professional standards in the fever of anti-Trump madness, I’m sure several, maybe many, will change their tune. You know: they don’t want their friends to be angry with them.

Yes, Cohen’s taping was legal, because it occurred in New York, where only one party to a conversation has to know it is being taped. That is irrelevant to the ethics breach at issue. For a lawyer to tape a client secretly is always unethical. That’s my position, and I know of no persuasive argument against it. The Post article says that the matter isn’t clear cut. Oh yes it is.

Until 2001, there was little dispute that a lawyer was violating Rule 8.4, which pronounces it misconduct for a lawyer to engage in misrepresentation, dishonesty, fraud or deceit. Taping anyone secretly is misrepresentation. Does anyone want to dispute that? Try. If I am talking to you privately, and you do not tell me that I am being recorded, then you are representing to me that I am NOT being recorded, unless our previous conversations were recorded and I knew that. A few states just ducked the issue, and held that a lawyer could do what any other citizen could do in a state that made one party recordings legal. The American Bar Association, however, right through the 20th Century, held that it was per se unethical for a lawyer to surreptitiously tape anyone.

The absolutist position was an Ethics Incompleteness Principle accident just waiting to happen. In other words, there had to be exceptions, and since almost all states allowed District Attorneys to surreptitiously record suspected criminals without the threat of ethics sanctions, exceptions were already recognized. Thus, in 2001, the ABA revised its position with equivocal, muddled, Formal Opinion 01-422, “Electronic Recordings by Lawyers Without the Knowledge of All Participants,” which the ABA summarized this way:

A lawyer who electronically records a conversation without the knowledge of the other party or parties to the conversation does not necessarily violate the Model Rules. Formal Opinion 337 (1974) accordingly is withdrawn. A lawyer may not, however, record conversations in violation of the law in a jurisdiction that forbids such conduct without the consent of all parties, nor falsely represent that a conversation is not being recorded. The Committee is divided as to whether a lawyer may record a client-lawyer conversation without the knowledge of the client, but agrees that it is inadvisable to do so.

It does not “necessarily” violate the ethics rules because, the opinion explains (as various state opinions have as well), sometimes recording a third party serves the interests of justice, as when, for example, a client is trying to show domestic abuse, or when there is an allegation of illegal loan or housing discrimination. 01-422 wanders into Clintonesque rhetoric, however, when it states, Continue reading

Clearing Up A Matter Of Widespread Confusion: How Lawyers Acquire Accidental Clients

When I pointed out this morning that by Sean Hannity’s own description of his relationship to Trump fixer Michael Cohen, he was Cohen’s client, several commenters protested, including a lawyer or two. This suggests that many more were similarly confused, and it is no surprise. A disturbing number of lawyers fall into the trap of acquiring “accidental clients.” There are many ways this can happen, but the most insidious of them is this, which people like me constantly and repeatedly warn lawyers about, often to no avail.

A relative or a friend approaches you, a lawyer, at a party. He or she asks you a question about some legal issue, and you give an off-the-cuff answer. Because you are a lawyer, and because you gave advice, however vague, that individual accepts it as a free legal opinion, and also assumes that the conversation was confidential. Usually nothing happens. Sometimes, however, the friend or relation acts based on your advice. If the results turn out badly, he or she may sue for malpractice, and sometimes will win damages. In an infamous case that is still good law, an individual went to a medical malpractice specialist to engage him to sue a hospital. After describing the facts, the potential client was told, “You have no case,” and informed that the lawyer would not accept the representation. But the individual relied on that statement, and didn’t bring a suit until the statute of limitations had run. Then he learned, from another lawyer, that he did have a valid case, though one he could no longer pursue. The first lawyer was sued for malpractice, and the court found that indeed “You have no case” constituted legal advice, and the advice was relied upon, meaning that an attorney-client relationship had been formed. Continue reading

“Zodiac” And Real Lawyer, Fictional Lie Ethics

zodiac Belli

One of the problems with being an ethicist is that every movie seems like an ethics movie.

I watched “Zodiac” last night, struck by how much it resembled “Spotlight,” and not just because Mark Ruffalo had similar roles in the two films. It is a long, intense 2007 movie about the frustrating 1960s and early 1970s manhunt for the serial killer who called himself the “Zodiac” while killing seemingly random victims in the San Francisco Bay Area, and taunting police, Jack the Ripper-style, by sending them  letters, blood stained clothing, and in a special touch, ciphers mailed to local newspapers. The case remains unsolved.

What set off my ethics alarms, however, was a scene based on an actual incident in the case. From the website “Zodiac Killer Facts”:

On the night of October 11, 1969, the Zodiac murdered cabdriver Paul Stine and removed a portion of the victim’s shirt. Days later, the killer mailed an envelope to the offices of The San Francisco Chronicle. Inside, the Zodiac had included a blood-soaked piece of Stine’s shirt along with a letter that traumatized the Bay Area for decades. In his customary cavalier style, The Zodiac wrote, “School children make nice targets. I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning just shoot out the frunt tire and pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.”

The Zodiac’s threat to assassinate school children terrified children and parents everywhere, and created a nightmare of security concerns for police and school officials. Armed men escorted children to and from schools while patrol cars and even aircraft followed along and monitored the surrounding area. As media coverage of Zodiac’s murderous plans increased and fears of a horrific ambush grew, a local television station was the setting for a chilling scene.

In the early morning hours of October 22, 1969, the Oakland police department received a phone call from a man claiming to be the Zodiac. The caller said he wanted famous Boston attorney F. Lee Bailey to appear on a local television talk show, but told the operator that he would settle for San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli in the event Bailey was unable to appear.

Hours later, Belli was the guest on the show with host Jim Dunbar. A man called the KGO television station several times, and, in conversation with Belli, claimed he was the Zodiac and that his name was “Sam.”

Continue reading

The Ethics of Stopping the Condemned From Accepting Death

In Oregon, a judge has granted death row inmate Gary Haugen’s motion to dismiss his lawyers after they persisted in taking measures to block his execution. They had declared he was not mentally competent to waive his appeals and allow his own state-decreed death to proceed.

Leave it to lawyers to be convinced that they know what’s best, even when it involves someone else’s wishes about his own life and death.

Is the condemend prisoner who approves of his own excecution insane, or courageous?

In an attorney-client relationship, the lawyer is ethically bound to do what the client wants as long as it is legal and within the bounds of the ethical constraints on the lawyer. A lawyer can render advice and should; a lawyer can explain the legal consequences of a course of action. But substituting the attorney’s judgment for that of the client is taboo…except, all too often, in cases like this one, in which a death row inmate decides that letting justice take its course and accepting the state’s death decree is preferable to rotting in prison.  Continue reading