Communication Ethics: The American Bar Association’s Impossible Formal Ethics Opinion 500

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The duty of communication is both a fiduciary duty and, for lawyers, a professional one. American Bar Association Model Rule 1.4, one rule that every jurisdiction has adopted nearly verbatim, holds that

(a) A lawyer shall:

(1) promptly inform the client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which the client’s informed consent, as defined in Rule 1.0(e), is required by these Rules;

(2) reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished;

(3) keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter;

(4) promptly comply with reasonable requests for information; and

(5) consult with the client about any relevant limitation on the lawyer’s conduct when the lawyer knows that the client expects assistance not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law.

(b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.

The last part is, much of the time, a fictional standard. I have been hammering at this in my recent ethics seminars, much to attendees alarm: clients often, perhaps even most of the time, don’t comprehend what’s going on on many levels.

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A Baseball Ethics Meets Legal Ethics Spectacular!

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You can imagine how happy this ethics mash-up makes me.

In legal ethics, a perpetual controversy involved what a law yer should do when another lawyer inadvertently sends him or her confidential information intended for the adversary lawyer’s client, and the information is a smoking gun that could win the receiving lawyer’s case. In the old days, when this involved some clerk in a law firm sending a load of documents to the opposition by mistake, the rule was simple. It was called “the Wigmore Rule,” after the famous law professor, John Henry Wigmore (above) who coined the phrase, “You snooze, you lose.”

In brief, the convention was that if a lawyer was careless enough to let this happen, he or she was at fault, and the lawyer getting the confidential documents could use them to benefit his or her client. The advent of faxes, and later the internet, and after that metadata, however, through what was largely settled law and ethics into a tangle that has yet to be settled. Technology made such errors much more common and also easier to make, and the American Bar Association’s opinions on the matter bounced back and forth like ping-pong balls, first saying that a Golden Rule approach should apply, with lawyers sending the material back to the technologically-challenged lawyer without looking it over, then concluding that lawyers should know how to use essential technology (back to the Wigmore Rule!), until the newest technological developments made them sympathetic again to lawyers who don’t get confidential metadata out of their emails. Last I checked, the state bars still don’t agree, but many are drifting back to the Wigmore Rule once again…as they should.

Now, you might well ask, how does this relate to baseball ethics?

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Friday Ethics Wars, 9/17/21: More Harvard Craziness, Woolly Mammoth Ethics, And The Importance Of Hiring A Competent Hitman

Death Star2

1. Fair Harvard, you continue to be an embarrassment. This is a candidate to make it into my “why I’m boycotting my reunion” note for the Class book: Giang Nguyen, executive director of Harvard University Health Services, sent a campus-wide memo telling students to follow these rules while eating and socializing in the dining halls. (I learned more eating in the dining halls and in late night snack sessions than I did in my classes):

“Eating and drinking together are a cornerstone of human social interaction, but there are ways to interact that minimize the time spent unmasked and in close proximity,” Nguyen wrote.

Among his requests to students:

  • Follow the “Quick Sip Rule” when drinking. Lower your mask, take a sip, and then promptly cover your mouth and nose. A straw can make this more efficient.
  • Do not linger with your mask down. If you wish to slowly savor a hot beverage, do it away from others.
  • Consume and cover! Consume your meal and immediately mask up when done.
  • Conversation, checking your phone, and other activities should be masked, even when you are in a designated indoor dining area.
  • If you are taking your time between bites (for conversation, for example), put your mask back on.
  • Dine in small parties of 2-to-4 people.
  • Avoid table-hopping.
  • Consider dining consistently with the same small group of people rather than a different group at every meal of the day.
  • Keep your close contacts to a minimum.
  • Limit each interaction to under 15 minutes.
  • Plan events that don’t involve eating, drinking, or removal of masks

My advice to the author of such a “request” were I a student today: “Bite me. Then put your mask on.” Harvard has a 94 percent vaccination rate among its students. As of this week, its test positivity rate is 0.18 percent.

2. Fake Woolly Mammoth ethics. This article managed to go on at great length about how a new company is planning to “de-extinctify” Wooly Mammoths and start new herds in Siberia as if it all made perfect sense. They’ve fooled private investors into giving them $15 million for the project: this is a scam, whether they know it or not. As far as the Times piece goes, it rates an ethics foul for never once mentioning “Jurassic Park.” Come to think of it, the article should have mentioned “The Producers.” Jerry A. Coyne, Ph.D, and Emeritus Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, explains just how absurd the project is:

“What they are doing is making a genetically modified Asian elephant by inserting into its genome a maximum of sixty mammoth genes that they think differentiate the modern species from the extinct one: genes that involve hairiness, cold tolerance, amount of fat, and so on. What they’d get would be a genetic chimera, an almost entirely Asian elephant but one that is hairier, chunkier, and more tolerant of cold. That is NOT a woolly mammoth, nor would it behave like a woolly mammoth, for they’re not inserting behavior genes…Further, a lot of other genes differ between a mammoth and an Asian elephant. What guarantee is there that the inserted mammoth genes would be expressed correctly, or even work at all in concert with the Asian elephant developmental system? But it gets worse. Since you can’t implant a transgenic embryo into an elephant mom (we don’t know how to do that, and we would get just one or two chances), [the group] has this bright idea…’make an artificial mammoth uterus lined with uterine tissue grown from stem cells.’

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Shameless Self-Promotion Dept: “Legal Ethics Serenade”

mike-messer

Tomorrow at 9 am, I’ll be launching the latest ProEthics musical CLE (Continuing Legal Education) seminar for the New Jersey State Bar. It’s called “Legal Ethics Serenade,” and is being zoomed. As with my other musical presentations, the great Mike Messer accompanies himself on guitar and occasionally other instruments as he belts out parodies of rock and pop classics retooled to raise complex legal ethics issues. Mike has been my muse for more than a decade. This time, he’ll be doing versions of “I’m a Believer,” “Oh Darling,” “Hello Mary Lou!,” “50 Ways to leave Your Lover,” “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing,” “Why Don’t We Di It in the Road?,” Elvis’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” “You Were Always On My Mind,” and “Take Good Care of My Baby,” all followed by legal ethics musings by me, and, I hope, lively debate.

If any readers are New Jersey lawyers in search of ethics credits, the information is here.

We now return you to our usual programming…

An Old Defense Lawyer Unburdens His Conscience In A Book, And It’s Unethical

Pointing-Finger

A shocking story in the New York Times has the legal ethics world buzzing. I just added the issues to an ethics seminar I’m preparing for this month; I wrote a song parody about it, in fact. For some reason, a Times reporter finally found out about a self-published memoir by criminal defense lawyer Peter De Blasio that came out about a year ago. The book, “Let Justice Be Done,” reveals among its other tales of his legal career the truth of his most famous case, and one of his most successful. DeBlasio had convinced a jury to acquit his client, Dominic Byrne, of kidnapping in the sensational Samuel Bronfman Jr. abduction case in 1975, though the evidence pointing to his guilt was overwhelming.

What made DeBlasio’s defense strategy work was the testimony of the mastermind of the kidnapping plot, a spectacularly talented liar named Mel Patrick Lynch. He took the stand and claimed that the 21 year-old Seagrams heir had planned his own kidnapping, and that he, Lynch, was the young man’s gay lover. Lynch was unshakable under cross examination even though his elaborate story made no sense. Realizing that the jury was buying the tale, and that the prosecution was unprepared to discredit it, DeBlasio exploited the story to persuade the jurors that the dimwitted Byrne was innocent of kidnapping, though he would be convicted of extortion. In the end, both Byrne and Lynch served less than four years in prison.

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A Show Of Hands, Please! Who Is Surprised To Learn That “Time’s Up,” Like #MeToo, Is Partisan, Hypocritical, And Tainted By Double Standards?

I assume only those so gullible that they are constantly falling for Ponzi schemes and hanging on Chris Cuomo’s every word have their hands up.

The #MeToo brigade that screamed that Justice Bret Kavanaugh was a “rapist” based on the weirdly vague “discovered memories” of an alleged victim who knew the SCOTUS nominee before he could vote went on to overwhelmingly vote for a Presidential candidate whose serial sexual harassment habit was a matter of photographic record. Now we learn that the leadership of Time’s Up, an organization formed in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations (well, revelations in the sense that all of the Democrats and Hollywood stars who had willfully ignored them finally had to give in) that has the started mission of fighting sexual harassment and sexual assault—at least when Democrats aren’t involved, were involved in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to stifle the women accusing him of — sexual harassment and sexual assault!

The report issued last week by the New York Attorney General’s office found overwhelming evidence that Cuomo of sexually harassed eleven women. The report, also revealed that Roberta Kaplan, the chairwoman of the anti-harassment group as well as a co-founder, reviewed a draft of an op-ed letter that was designed to discredit Lindsay Boylan, the first woman to accuse Cuomo. The group’s CEO, Tina Tchen, also advised Cuomo and his staff, according to the report. Nice.

Today a group of victims of harassment t and sexual assault published a letter on Medium accusing that Time’s Up of betraying “the very people it was supposed to champion. The board continues to fail to heed the outcry from survivors. TIME’S UP is failing all survivors.”

Now Kaplan has resigned as chair, writing that as a lawyer, she could not answer questions about her involvement with Cuomo. “I therefore have reluctantly come to the conclusion that an active law practice is no longer compatible with serving on the Board at Time’s Up at this time and I hereby resign,” she wrote. So far, Tchen is still with the group.

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Saturday Morning Ethics Warm-Up, July 10, 2021: Remembering The Unethical And Bizarre”Monkey Trial”

Scopes

Ooooh, it’s Clarence Darrow time again, and as I will show in another post shortly, this has serious, and underappreciated current day relevance.

For on this date in Dayton, Tennessee, the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial began in 1925, not only one of the most famous trials in U.S. history, but also one of the most misrepresented, misunderstood and, frankly, silly trials as well. John Thomas Scopes, a young high school science teacher, was accused of teaching evolution in violation of a new Tennessee state law which made it a misdemeanor punishable by fine to “teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Town officials persuaded Scopes to volunteer to get arrested for the offense, not so much to challenge the law but because alocal businessman figured out that it would put Dayton on the map. His plot succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The American Civil Liberties Unio—-yes, they once cared about the First Amendment—announced it would defend Scopes, and hired an aging but famous Clarence Darrow to do the job, which included making sure his client was convicted, so they could appeal the verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court, where even a monkey judge would know that the Tennessee anti-evolution law was a blatant First Amendment violation.

William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential candidate who was seeking his fourth shot at the White House, volunteered to assist the prosecution in his guise as a fundamentalist Everyman. The Monkey Trial got underway with in-person coverage by renowned cynic H.L. Mencken and hoards of other reporters. Parts of the trial were broadcast nationally over the radio, an all-time first. Preachers set up revival tents along the city’s main street; venders sold Bibles, hot dogs and souvenirs like monkey dolls and fans to tourists. A carnival “exhibit” featuring two chimpanzees and a “missing link” opened in town: the alleged “Monkey Man” was 51-year-old Jo Viens, who was short, had a receding forehead, and whose jaw protruded like an ape. One of the chimpanzees wore a plaid suit, a brown fedora, and white spats, and periodically was allowed to run around on the courthouse lawn.

To recap, the “trial” was based on a contrived “crime” committed with the cooperation of authorities, and the defense was to make sure Scopes was convicted, not acquitted. But things got even more Bizarro World-like. At one point, Scopes told Darrow that a substitute teacher, not him, had actually taught the Darwin class, and Darrow told the teacher to shut the hell up about that rather crucial detail. When Judge John Raulston ruled that expert scientific testimony on evolution would be inadmissible, Darrow decided that his sole expert witness would be Bryan, one of the prosecutors. (No, this had never happened before and has never happened since.). Raulston ordered the trial moved to the courthouse lawn for this spectacle, fearing that the weight of the spectators and reporters inside would cause the courthouse floor to collapse.

Darrow treated Bryan as a hostile witness, though they knew each other, were both political progressives, and were both doing what they loved best, performing in front of a crowd. Popular legend holds that Darrow made a monkey out of Bryan, which was how the famous play (“Inherit the Wind”) based on the trial and its many TV and movie versions portrayed the showdown, but reading the transcript tells a different story. Bryan’s answers were cagey and clever, but he had a big problem: he knew his answers were being broadcast to potential voters who were not fundamentalists, yet he couldn’t afford to alienate the Bible-Beating jury. Darrow had no such dilemma: remember, he wanted to alienate the jury, and knew that if Bryan insisted that the Bible was literally true, “The Great Commoner” would end his political career (though it was almost certainly over anyway.) . Thus Bryan argued, for example, that God explained things in the Bible in ways that could be understood by the people of the time. For example, God obviously knew that the Earth moved around the sun, and not the other way around, but HE just said, in the Bible, that the sun “stopped,” so as not to confuse the faithful.

The weirdness got worse: in his closing speech, Darrow asked the jury to return a verdict of guilty in order that the case might be appealed. I’m pretty sure this is an abuse of process and wildly unethical: isn’t a request to be found guilty indistinguishable from a guilty plea? This tactic did have a mean consequence for poor Bryan: under Tennessee law, the admission of guilt meant Bryan couldn’t deliver the grand closing speech he had been preparing for weeks. It took eight minutes for the jury to return with a guilty verdict—why did Darrow feel he had to ask for a verdict that was pre-ordained, other than to deny Bryan his big finale?— and Raulston ordered Scopes to pay a fine of $100, the minimum the law allowed.

After all of this, the ACLU’s scheme still failed: the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the Scopes verdict, but on a procedural technicality, so the case never got to the U.S. Supreme Court at all. The constitutional issue was officially unresolved until SCOTUS overturned a similar Arkansas law.

Can you guess why this fiasco has special relevance in 2021?

Watch this space!

Unethical Tweet Of The Month And Ethics Dunce: ACLU National Legal Director And Georgetown Law Prof. David Cole

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David Cole, ACLU National Legal Director and Professor at Georgetown University Law Center, tweeted in response to the SCOTUS ruling striking down California’s law making it mandatory for non-profits to disclose the names of their biggest donors,

Cole tweet

Gee, that’s funny! The ACLU filed an amicus brief supporting the majority’s decision in AMERICANS FOR PROSPERITY FOUNDATION v. BONTA, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF CALIFORNIA.

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Down The Slippery Slope To Lawyer Censorship: First Giuliani, And Now This

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Rudy Giuliani, as discussed here, was just suspended from the practice of law on the basis of out of courts statements that the New York bar disagrees with, while representing a client they hate (Donald Trump), using a standard that has never been applied to a lawyer before.

Yet what was just done to South Carolina lawyer David Paul Traywick by the state Supreme Court was even worse, and more ominous. The Court ordered his suspension from the practice of law based on social media posts that were pure opinion, and that had no connection to the practice of law at all. Traywick lost his license for six months. He will also have to complete at least one hour of diversity education, undergo an anger management assessment, submit to an evaluation through the South Carolina Bar program Lawyers Helping Lawyers, and comply for one year with any treatment recommended by “re-education” authorities.

The Court felt justified punishing him after the South Carolina Office of Disciplinary Counsel received complaints from 46 people about Traywick’s Facebook posts. The posts were accessible to the public, and his profile identified himself as a lawyer while mentioning his law firm his law firm.

The Court found twelve posts by Traywick “troubling.”I will interject here that an individual’s statement on social media are none of a court’s business, indeed none of its damn business, unless they are libelous or criminal, or evidence in a case before it. None of the posts fit into those categories. Two of the posts nonetheless triggered the suspension:

  • On April 5, 2020, Traywick posted what the Court calls “an offensive comment regarding tattoos,” apparently so offensive the the opinion won’t even enlighten us to what it was. After whatever it was he was saying about tattoos, which could have only been an opinion, he  challenged his readers, “Prove me wrong. Pro tip: you can’t.” In a subsequent post in response to a comment, he wrote, “The general statement has exceptions, such as for bikers, sailors, convicts or infantry. But these college educated, liberal suburbanites. No, the rule was written for these boring mother fuckers. And they are everywhere. Fuck em. Especially these females, Jesus Christ!”
  • On June 3, 2020, at the peak of the George Floyd Freakout, they lawyer posted, also on Facebook,  “Here’s how much that shitstain’s life actually mattered: Stock futures up. Markets moved higher Monday and Tuesday. Fuck you. Unfriend me.

By no stretch of the imagination or the Rules of Professional Conduct do those statements justify suspending a lawyer’s right to practice law. It is protected speech under the First Amendment. It does not involve the practice of law. The comments are profane, but profanity is not grounds for discipline out of a legal context. They are vulgar, but the same hold with those. They may offend readers, but nobody is forcing readers to follow this jerk. The lawyer appears, based on his comments, to be an asshole, but being an asshole is not a disqualification for practicing law. It is often an asset, some might say. He may have been lying, but not in any way that could be linked to his trustworthiness as a lawyer, and lies are also protected speech unless they constitute fraud or perjury.

Yet the Court wrote,

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Re Rudy Giuliani’s “Interim Suspension”

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New York’s Supreme Court took the draconian step of suspending Rudy Giuliani, former federal prosecutor, former mayor of New York City, and counsel to former President Trump, from practicing law based on his statements, allegation and, in some cases, presentations in court and court documents, regarding the 2020 election and his clients claims that it had been “stolen.” From the opinion:

“For the reasons that follow, we conclude that there is uncontroverted evidence
that respondent communicated demonstrably false and misleading statements to courts,
lawmakers and the public at large in his capacity as lawyer for former President Donald
J. Trump and the Trump campaign in connection with Trump’s failed effort at reelection
in 2020. These false statements were made to improperly bolster respondent’s narrative
that due to widespread voter fraud, victory in the 2020 United States presidential
election was stolen from his client. We conclude that respondent’s conduct immediately
threatens the public interest and warrants interim suspension from the practice of law,
pending further proceedings before the Attorney Grievance Committee (sometimes AGC
or Committee).”

Note that Giuliani has been suspended before the completion of an investigation of the claims against him, or a hearing, based on a conclusion that the public is literally endangered by the possibility of his continuing to make the same claims that former President Trump and many others are making in public every day. The stated justification for the extremely rare interim suspension never explicitly made clear: exactly what is the danger to the public that justifies this? The Supreme Court of the State of New York is simply continuing the false narrative that there was a “violent insurrection” by misled members of the public on January 6 caused by the insistence of the President and others that the election was stolen by the Democrats, and Trump was really elected. Indeed, the Court writes,

“One only has to look at the ongoing present public discord over the 2020 election, which erupted into violence, insurrection and death on January 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol, to understand the extent of the damage that can be done when the public is misled by false information about the elections. The AGC [Attorney Grievance Committee] contends that respondent’s misconduct directly inflamed tensions that bubbled over into the events of January 6, 2021 in this nation’s Capitol.”

I shouldn’t have to point out that neither Trump nor any non-lawyers making the “stolen election” claim t have been or can be punished by the the Courts or the government, but the New York Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct can be used to do just that to Giuliani for serving a client the judges don’t like (they are all Democrats). To justify this, the opinion uses the fact that a lawyers’ speech is more subject to regulation than normal citizens because of their “persuasiveness,” supposed trustworthiness as members of a profession that is forbidden from lying, and bootstraps its argument by noting that the real purpose of the Rules us not to punish lawyers, but to protect the public. That is true, but the purpose is to protect the public from being represented by bad and untrustworthy lawyers, or substantively harmed by lawyers assisting criminal or predatory clients, not to muzzle lawyers from making controversial statements in the public square.

This case has been the subject of much debate by my legal ethicist colleagues of late, with a depressing near-consensus that Rudy is getting what he deserves. This is because, I detect, the vast majority of lawyers cannot see through their political biases and Trump hate. At the most simple level, the ruling is premature because contrary to the Court’s certitude, all of the evidence is not in, though the claim that there was widespread election fraud and that the election was “stolen” has for many months been pronounced “a lie” by Democrats and the mainstream media with suspicious vigor. While the opinion makes a convincing case that many of Giuliani’s statements, including some made to courts and government bodies, were careless, sloppy, badly sourced, unprofessional and wrong, it cannot know at this point that his (or Trump’s) general claim is false. If its is not false, then raising doubts among the public cannot be called dangerous to the public. It is more dangerous to keep opinions, arguments and ideas from the public’s awareness “for their own good.”

Thus this is a First Amendment problem. Except for one assertion about the status of a complaint, which he later corrected, Giuliani is not accused of improprieties in court proceedings where he functioned as an advocate. The Court’s focus is almost entirely on Giuliani’s public statements on the radio, in podcasts, on TV shows and news interviews. Alan Dershowitz, along with Jonathan Turley among the very few well-known lawyers (and Democrats) who have managed to maintain their integrity during the nearly five-year attack on Donald Trump, reacted to the interim suspension by telling Breitbart (which I will not link to after being burned to many times),

“I taught legal ethics for, I don’t know, 35 years at Harvard Law school. I think of myself as a leading expert on legal ethics. I’ve never ever seen a case where a lawyer was essentially disbarred … without a hearing. The most basic concept of due process is you don’t deprive somebody of his living, of his freedom, of his ability to work without a hearing. And then the criteria under which they suspended his law license is so vague. It says in the course of representing a client, a lawyer shall not knowingly make a false statement of fact or law to a third person. In other words, if he goes on your show, or he goes on my podcast, or he goes on Fox or anywhere else, and he makes a statement which turns out to be false, and he had reason to believe it was false, he could be disbarred. Do you know how many lawyers we’d have left if we applied that standard across the board? … We have case after case after case where prosecutors, defense attorneys, lawyers of every kind, have made statements … which turn out to be untrue, and they’re never disbarred. And certainly not without a hearing. And so, this is a first. …The atmosphere is such today that if you defended President Trump in any way, they’re out to get you. And they’re certainly out to get Rudy Giuliani.

In other words, the suspension is a politically motivated silencing. I strongly suspect that anti-Trump bias was at the heart of this slap at Giuliani, as Dershowitz says. Turley, in a piece for The Hill, expressed similar concerns:

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