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