U.S. Third Circuit appeals court rejects New Jersey’s prohibition of lawyer’s website posts of excerpts of judicial opinions praising his legal work

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion which reversed a federal district court opinion upholding a New Jersey guideline prohibiting a lawyer from posting judicial opinion excerpts praising his legal work. The opinion is Andrew Dwyer et al v. Cynthia A. Cappell et al, No. 13-3235 (U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeal August 11, 2014) and the opinion is here: http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/133235p.pdf
According to the opinion, the lawyer had posted multiple excerpts of unpublished and public judicial opinions related to fee applications in employment discrimination cases brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination on his law firm website. One quote stated: ““The inescapable conclusion is . . . that plaintiffs achieved a spectacular result when the file was in the hands of Mr. Dwyer. . . . Mr. Dwyer was a fierce, if sometimes not disinterested advocate for his clients, and through an offensive and defensive motion practice and through other discovery methods molded the case to the point where it could be successfully resolved.”

A judge whose opinion quotes were posted on the lawyer’s website wrote to the lawyer in April 2008 and asked that the quotes be removed because he did not want his comments to be misconstrued as a blanket endorsement of the lawyer. The lawyer refused to remove any quotes and the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Committee on Attorney Advertising began examining the issue. The Committee and the New Jersey Bar Association ultimately produced Guideline 3, which was approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2012. Guideline 3 stated that an attorney “may not include, on a website or other advertisement, a quotation or excerpt from a court decision (oral or written) about the attorney’s abilities or legal services.” The guideline did permit a lawyer to post the entire text of a judicial opinion on the website or in an advertisement.

The U.S. District Court upheld Guideline 3 in June 2013; however, before the Guideline was to become effective, the lawyer filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that Guideline 3 violated his First Amendment rights to engage in truthful commercial speech. The district court found against the lawyer and found that the Guideline was a mere disclosure requirement and not a direct restriction on the lawyer’s speech. In making its ruling, the district court relied on the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel (1985), which stated that “an advertiser’s rights are adequately protected as long as disclosure requirements are reasonably related to the state’s interest in preventing deception of consumers.”

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the district court’s opinion. The opinion confirmed that disclosure requirements receive less scrutiny than actual restrictions on speech and that the New Jersey Guideline had characteristics of both a disclosure requirement and a restriction on speech. The opinion did not address whether the Guideline was a restriction or a prohibition; however, it stated that even under the less restrictive standard of review for disclosure requirements, the Guideline was constitutionally flawed.

The appellate opinion stated that “Guideline 3 does not require disclosing anything that could reasonably remedy conceivable consumer deception stemming from (the lawyer’s) advertisement.” The opinion also listed an example of a disclosure that would be sufficient: “This is an excerpt of a judicial opinion from a specific legal dispute. It is not an endorsement of my abilities.” Since Guideline 3 required a lawyer to post entire judicial opinions, it “effectively precludes advertising with accurate excerpts from judicial opinions on (the lawyer’s) website, it is unduly burdensome.”

“Guideline 3 as applied to (the lawyer’s) accurate quotes from judicial opinions thus violates his First Amendment right to advertise his commercial services. Requiring (the lawyer) to reprint in full on his firm’s website the opinions noted above is not reasonably related to preventing consumer deception. To the extent the excerpts of these opinions could possibly mislead the public, that potential deception is not clarified by Guideline 3. In any event, what is required by the Guideline overly burdens (the lawyer’s) right to advertise. We thus reverse the order of the District Court and remand the case.

Bottom line: This is a significant First Amendment decision related to lawyer advertising which found that New Jersey Guideline 3, which prohibited a lawyer from publishing excerpts of judicial opinions on his website, was an unconstitutional restriction on the lawyer’s commercial speech. The opinion did approve of the use of a disclosure/disclaimer to prevent any consumer confusion related to the opinion excerpts.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer: this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
jcorsmeier@jac-law.com
http://www.jac-law.com

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Lawyer’s ethical duties and responsibilities when a represented person requests a second opinion

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the lawyer’s ethical duties and responsibilities when a represented person contacts the lawyer to obtain a second opinion.  Although a lawyer is permitted to render a second opinion to a represented person who initiates the contact with the lawyer, there are important ethical and practical issues which should be considered before the lawyer agrees to do so.

A threshold issue is whether a second opinion would be an improper communication with a person represented by counsel.  In 2002, the ABA added a sentence to paragraph 4 of the Comment to Model Rule 4.2 which makes it clear that lawyers can provide second opinions if the lawyer is not representing another individual in the same matter.  Model Rule 4.2 has been adopted in substantial form by most jurisdictions, including Florida.  The Comment states:

(4) This Rule does not prohibit communication with a represented person, or an employee or agent of such a person, concerning matters outside the representation. For example, the existence of a controversy between a government agency and a private party, or between two organizations, does not prohibit a lawyer for either from communicating with nonlawyer representatives of the other regarding a separate matter. Nor does this Rule preclude communication with a represented person who is seeking advice from a lawyer who is not otherwise representing a client in the matter.

Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 02-5 (March 3, 2013, rev. August 24, 2011) discusses types of information a lawyer can give to an individual who is seeking a second opinion as well as potential solicitation.  The opinion states that, a lawyer may provide information about the lawyer’s availability and qualifications when contacted by an individual and if the information is requested.

The opinion concludes:

… a lawyer may provide a second opinion to a person who is represented by counsel at the person’s request. In providing the second opinion, the lawyer must give competent advice, and in doing so should carefully consider any limitations with which the lawyer is faced. Rule 4-1.1, Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. The lawyer should scrupulously avoid improperly soliciting the person. The lawyer may discuss what services the lawyer would be able to provide if the represented person requests not merely a second opinion, but also information about the lawyer’s availability and qualifications. Whether or not particular communications between the lawyer and the represented person might be considered tortious interference with an existing lawyer-client relationship is a legal question, outside the scope of an ethics opinion.

As is stated in the above ethics opinion, before giving a second opinion, the lawyer should consider whether he or she can competently render the opinion.  In order to be competent, the lawyer might need to review the client’s file, which may only be available through the client’s current lawyer.

South Carolina Bar Opinion 97-07 (1997) states:

…A lawyer may discuss a pending legal matter with a client who is represented by another attorney. If the client is seeking a second opinion based on a subjective opinion rendered by the client’s attorney, the lawyer should carefully consider the basis of the advice of the client’s attorney and may be required to consult with the client’s attorney in order to give competent legal advice. If so, the lawyer should advise the client accordingly prior to giving any opinion or advice.

A lawyer who provides a second opinion is also creating an attorney/client relationship and attorney/client confidentiality would apply.  The scope of confidentiality is extremely broad and includes all information related to the representation, including the fact that the client came to the lawyer for a consultation; therefore, the lawyer would not be able to contact the person’s current lawyer, unless the client consents or there is an exception to the confidentiality rule.

Oregon State Bar Opinion 2005-81 (Revised 2014) states:

A lawyer may provide a second opinion to a potential client regarding the quality of work done by another lawyer. The lawyer may not inform the other lawyer of the client’s request unless the client consents or another exception to the duty of confidentiality is applicable.

Bottom line:  It is not unethical for a lawyer to provide a second opinion; however, there are important ethical and practical issues that a lawyer should consider before agreeing to do so.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Lawyer’s ethical duties and responsibilities when a represented person requests a second opinion

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the lawyer’s ethical duties and responsibilities when a represented person contacts the lawyer to obtain a second opinion.  Although a lawyer is permitted to render a second opinion to a represented person who initiates the contact with the lawyer, there are important ethical and practical issues which should be considered before the lawyer agrees to do so.

A threshold issue is whether a second opinion would be an improper communication with a person represented by counsel.  In 2002, the ABA added a sentence to paragraph 4 of the Comment to Model Rule 4.2 which makes it clear that lawyers can provide second opinions if the lawyer is not representing another individual in the same matter.  Model Rule 4.2 has been adopted in substantial form by most jurisdictions, including Florida.  The Comment states:

(4) This Rule does not prohibit communication with a represented person, or an employee or agent of such a person, concerning matters outside the representation. For example, the existence of a controversy between a government agency and a private party, or between two organizations, does not prohibit a lawyer for either from communicating with nonlawyer representatives of the other regarding a separate matter. Nor does this Rule preclude communication with a represented person who is seeking advice from a lawyer who is not otherwise representing a client in the matter.

Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 02-5 (March 3, 2013, rev. August 24, 2011) discusses types of information a lawyer can give to an individual who is seeking a second opinion as well as potential solicitation.  The opinion states that, a lawyer may provide information about the lawyer’s availability and qualifications when contacted by an individual and if the information is requested.

The opinion concludes:

… a lawyer may provide a second opinion to a person who is represented by counsel at the person’s request. In providing the second opinion, the lawyer must give competent advice, and in doing so should carefully consider any limitations with which the lawyer is faced. Rule 4-1.1, Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. The lawyer should scrupulously avoid improperly soliciting the person. The lawyer may discuss what services the lawyer would be able to provide if the represented person requests not merely a second opinion, but also information about the lawyer’s availability and qualifications. Whether or not particular communications between the lawyer and the represented person might be considered tortious interference with an existing lawyer-client relationship is a legal question, outside the scope of an ethics opinion.

As is stated in the above ethics opinion, before giving a second opinion, the lawyer should consider whether he or she can competently render the opinion.  In order to be competent, the lawyer might need to review the client’s file, which may only be available through the client’s current lawyer.

South Carolina Bar Opinion 97-07 (1997) states:

…A lawyer may discuss a pending legal matter with a client who is represented by another attorney. If the client is seeking a second opinion based on a subjective opinion rendered by the client’s attorney, the lawyer should carefully consider the basis of the advice of the client’s attorney and may be required to consult with the client’s attorney in order to give competent legal advice. If so, the lawyer should advise the client accordingly prior to giving any opinion or advice.

A lawyer who provides a second opinion is also creating an attorney/client relationship and attorney/client confidentiality would apply.  The scope of confidentiality is extremely broad and includes all information related to the representation, including the fact that the client came to the lawyer for a consultation; therefore, the lawyer would not be able to contact the person’s current lawyer, unless the client consents or there is an exception to the confidentiality rule.

Oregon State Bar Opinion 2005-81 (Revised 2014) states:

A lawyer may provide a second opinion to a potential client regarding the quality of work done by another lawyer. The lawyer may not inform the other lawyer of the client’s request unless the client consents or another exception to the duty of confidentiality is applicable.

Bottom line:  It is not unethical for a lawyer to provide a second opinion; however, there are important ethical and practical issues that a lawyer should consider before agreeing to do so.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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ABA revises recent Formal Opinion 477, which addresses lawyer ethics issues when transmitting confidential information over the internet

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert update which will discuss Revised ABA Formal Opinion 477, which was issued on May 22, 2017. The opinions addresses a lawyer’s ethical responsibilities to secure client confidential information when transmitting the information over the internet.  According to the ABA, Formal Opinion 477 was revised to clarify that the opinion does not alter Formal Ethics Opinion 11-459 and to note that the change in Model Rule 1.6(c) supported 11-459. There are no substantive changes to the opinion.  The revised Formal Opinion is here: Revised ABA Formal Opinion 477.

ABA Formal Opinion 477 states:  “In Formal Opinion 99-413 this Committee addressed a lawyer’s confidentiality obligations for e-mail communications with clients.  While the basic obligations of confidentiality remain applicable today, the role and risks of technology in the practice of law have evolved since 1999 prompting the need to update Opinion 99-413.  Formal Opinion 99-413 concluded: ‘Lawyers have a reasonable expectation of privacy in communications made by all forms of e-mail, including unencrypted e-mail sent on the Internet, despite some risk of interception and disclosure. It therefore follows that its use is consistent with the duty under Rule 1.6 to use reasonable means to maintain the confidentiality of information relating to a client’s representation.’ (footnote omitted).”

“Unlike 1999 where multiple methods of communication were prevalent, today, many lawyers primarily use electronic means to communicate and exchange documents with clients, other lawyers, and even with other persons who are assisting a lawyer in delivering legal services to clients.” (emphasis supplied).`

The opinion concludes: “A lawyer generally may transmit information relating to the representation of a client over the internet without violating the Model Rules of Professional Conduct where the lawyer has undertaken reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized access. However, a lawyer may be required to take special security precautions to protect against the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of client information when required by an agreement with the client or by law, or when the nature of the information requires a higher degree of security.”  (emphasis supplied).

Bottom line:  The now revised ABA formal opinion addresses the important ethical issues related to securing client communications when transmitting confidential information over the internet under the Model Rules and is for guidance only and is not binding; however, the analysis would be applicable in most, if not all jurisdictions, including Florida.  Lawyers should consult the rules and ethics opinions of their jurisdiction for further guidance.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Filed under ABA formal opinions, ABA opinion 477- communication with client over internet, Attorney Ethics, Confidentiality, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer communication over internet- confidentiality, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer ethics opinions

Florida Supreme Court dismisses Florida Bar’s petition proposing substantial revisions to lawyer referral service rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert Update which will update my August 1, 2016 Ethics Alert and will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court Order (May 3, 2017) dismissing the Bar’s petition for approval of the proposed substantial revisions to the Bar Rules related to lawyer referral services.

The proposed rules would have substantially revised the current rules, changed the name of the referral companies to “matching services” and “qualifying providers”, specifically prohibited fee splitting and deleted the disclaimer that the entity is a lawyer referral service.  The proposed rules would not have limited ownership to lawyers only or referrals to lawyers only.

The case is: In Re: Amendments to the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar-Subchapter 4-7 (Lawyer Referral Services, Case No.: SC16-1470 and the Supreme Court’s Order May 3, 2017 is here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2016/1470/2016-1470_disposition_138549.pdf

Under the proposed amendments, which were approved by the Florida Bar Board of Governors in 2016, any private entities that connect consumers looking for legal services with lawyers would have been called “qualifying providers” regardless of whether they were “traditional” referral services (such as ASK-GARY or 411 PAIN) or a technology-based provider (such as AVVO or LegalZoom).

The Florida Bar’s website has a page summarizing the proposed rule revisions as well as a frequently asked questions section and comparison chart.  The link to that page is here:  http://www.floridabar.org/proposedlrsamend#Overview.

The May 3, 2017 Florida Supreme Court Order states:

Previously, in In re Amend. to Rule Reg. The Fla. Bar 4-7.22—Lawyer Referral Services, 175 So. 3d 779, 781 (Fla. 2015), the Court rejected amendments to Rule Regulating the Florida Bar 4-7.22 proposed by The Florida Bar and directed the Bar to propose amendments that “preclude Florida lawyers from accepting referrals from any lawyer referral service that is not owned or operated by a member of the Bar.” In this case, the Bar proposes amendments to rule 4-7.22 that do not comply with the Court’s direction concerning lawyer referral services that are not owned or operated by a member of the Bar and that seek to expand the scope of the rule to include “matching services” and other similar services not currently regulated by the Bar. (emphasis supplied).

The Court having considered the Bar’s prior petition, the amendments proposed in this case, the comments filed, the Bar’s response, and having had the benefit of oral argument, the Bar’s petition in this case is hereby dismissed without prejudice to allow the members of this Court to engage in informed discussions with the Bar and those who are in favor or against the proposed regulation of matching and other similar services. The Court lacks sufficient background information on such services and their regulation at this time.

No rehearing will be entertained by this Court.

Bottom line:  As I previously stated, if approved by the Florida Supreme Court, the proposed revisions would have substantially altered the rules for lawyer referral services; however, the proposed rules would not have limited ownership to lawyers nor referrals only to lawyers.  This Order makes it clear that the that the proposed rules “do not comply with the Court’s direction concerning lawyer referral services that are not owned or operated by a member of the Bar and that seek to expand the scope of the rule to include ‘matching services’ and other similar services not currently regulated by the Bar.”

The Florida Bar will now ponder the language of the Supreme Court’s Order in considering potential future proposed lawyer referral rule revisions.  Stay tuned…

…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Filed under Attorney Ethics, Florida Bar 2016 Lawyer referral rule revisions, Florida Bar lawyer referral rule revisions, Florida Bar matching services, Florida Lawyer Professionalism, Florida Lawyer Referral Services, Florida Supreme Court, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer matching services Avvo, Uncategorized

ABA Formal Opinion 477 addresses lawyer ethical duties when transmitting client information over the internet

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss ABA Formal Opinion 477, which was issued on May 11, 2017. The opinions addresses a lawyer’s ethical responsibilities to secure client confidential information when transmitting the information over the internet.  The Formal Opinion is here: ABA Formal Opinion 477.

ABA Formal Opinion 477 is an update opinion which specifically addresses “securing communication of protected client information” over the internet.

The Formal Opinion states:  “(i)n Formal Opinion 99-413 this Committee addressed a lawyer’s confidentiality obligations for e-mail communications with clients.  While the basic obligations of confidentiality remain applicable today, the role and risks of technology in the practice of law have evolved since 1999 prompting the need to update Opinion 99-413.  Formal Opinion 99-413 concluded: ‘Lawyers have a reasonable expectation of privacy in communications made by all forms of e-mail, including unencrypted e-mail sent on the Internet, despite some risk of interception and disclosure. It therefore follows that its use is consistent with the duty under Rule 1.6 to use reasonable means to maintain the confidentiality of information relating to a client’s representation.’ (footnote omitted).”

“Unlike 1999 where multiple methods of communication were prevalent, today, many lawyers primarily use electronic means to communicate and exchange documents with clients, other lawyers, and even with other persons who are assisting a lawyer in delivering legal services to clients.”

The opinion concludes: “A lawyer generally may transmit information relating to the representation of a client over the internet without violating the Model Rules of Professional Conduct where the lawyer has undertaken reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized access. However, a lawyer may be required to take special security precautions to protect against the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of client information when required by an agreement with the client or by law, or when the nature of the information requires a higher degree of security.”

Bottom line:  This ABA opinion addresses the ethical issues related to securing client communications when transmitting confidential information over the internet under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and is for guidance only and is not binding; however, the analysis would be applicable in most, if not all jurisdictions, including Florida.  Lawyers should consult the rules and ethics opinions of their jurisdiction for further guidance.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this ethics alert is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Leave a comment

Filed under ABA formal opinions, Attorney/client confidentiality, Confidentiality, Confidentiality and privilege, lawyer confidentiality, Lawyer ethical duties when sending confidential information over the internet, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Uncategorized

ABA Formal Opinion 477 addresses lawyer ethical duties when transmitting client information over the internet

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss ABA Formal Opinion 477, which was issued on May 11, 2017. The opinions addresses a lawyer’s ethical responsibilities to secure client confidential information when transmitting the information over the internet.  The Formal Opinion is here: ABA Formal Opinion 477.

ABA Formal Opinion 477 is an update opinion which specifically addresses “securing communication of protected client information” over the internet.

The Formal Opinion states:  “(i)n Formal Opinion 99-413 this Committee addressed a lawyer’s confidentiality obligations for e-mail communications with clients.  While the basic obligations of confidentiality remain applicable today, the role and risks of technology in the practice of law have evolved since 1999 prompting the need to update Opinion 99-413.  Formal Opinion 99-413 concluded: ‘Lawyers have a reasonable expectation of privacy in communications made by all forms of e-mail, including unencrypted e-mail sent on the Internet, despite some risk of interception and disclosure. It therefore follows that its use is consistent with the duty under Rule 1.6 to use reasonable means to maintain the confidentiality of information relating to a client’s representation.’ (footnote omitted).”

“Unlike 1999 where multiple methods of communication were prevalent, today, many lawyers primarily use electronic means to communicate and exchange documents with clients, other lawyers, and even with other persons who are assisting a lawyer in delivering legal services to clients.”

The opinion concludes: “A lawyer generally may transmit information relating to the representation of a client over the internet without violating the Model Rules of Professional Conduct where the lawyer has undertaken reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized access. However, a lawyer may be required to take special security precautions to protect against the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of client information when required by an agreement with the client or by law, or when the nature of the information requires a higher degree of security.”

Bottom line:  This ABA opinion addresses the ethical issues related to securing client communications when transmitting confidential information over the internet under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and is for guidance only and is not binding; however, the analysis would be applicable in most, if not all jurisdictions, including Florida.  Lawyers should consult the rules and ethics opinions of their jurisdiction for further guidance.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this ethics alert is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Lawyer ethics and positional conflicts of interest

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss lawyer ethics and positional conflicts.   Although this may not be common in a typical lawyer’s practice, all lawyers should be aware of the potential ethical issues which may arise from taking opposing legal positions on behalf of 2 or more clients.

ABA Formal Opinion 93-377

ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility Formal Opinion 93-377- Positional Conflicts (issued in 1993) reviewed ethical issues when a lawyer represents one client in a matter in which the client’s interests regarding a substantive legal issue are directly adverse to a position the lawyer (or law firm) is advocating on behalf of another client on the same or similar issue.  Formal Opinion 93-377 is attached.

The opinion states that “…(a)rguing a position on behalf of one client that is adverse to a position that the lawyer, or her firm, is arguing on behalf of another current client raises a number of concerns. For example, if both cases are being argued in the same court, will the impact of the lawyer’s advocacy be diluted in the eyes of the judge(s)?  Will the first decision rendered be persuasive (or even binding) precedent with respect to the other case, thus impairing the lawyer’s effectiveness–and, if so, can the lawyer (or firm) avoid favoring one client over the other in the ‘race’ to be first? And will one or the other of the clients become concerned that the law firm it has employed may have divided loyalties?”

The opinion also reviewed the 1993 Model Rule 1.7 Conflict of Interest: General Rule as it existed before the ABA Ethics 2000 Commission recommended revisions to the Model Rules.  The opinion refers to paragraph (9) of the Comment to Rule 1.7 which stated as follows:

“A lawyer may represent parties having antagonistic positions on a legal question that has arisen in different cases, unless representation of either client would be adversely affected. Thus, it is ordinarily not improper to assert such positions in cases pending in different trial courts, but it may be improper to do so in cases pending at the same time in an appellate court.”

The opinion noted that representing two clients in different trial courts while advocating opposing sides of the same issue could also be a conflict of interest under Rule 1.7 just as if both matters were pending in the same appeals court.  A decision in a trial court could influence the outcome of a second matter in another trial court, and a decision in an appeals court could have an adverse effect on a matter pending in a trial court matter.

With regard to matters pending in the same jurisdiction, the opinion stated:

“The Committee is therefore of the opinion that if the two matters are being litigated in the same jurisdiction, and there is a substantial risk that the law firm’s representation of one client will create a legal precedent, even if not binding, which is likely materially to undercut the legal position being urged on behalf of the other client, the lawyer should either refuse to accept the second representation or (if otherwise permissible) withdraw from the first, unless both clients consent after full disclosure of the potential ramifications of the lawyer continuing to handle both matters.” (footnote omitted).

If the matters are not being litigated in the same jurisdiction, the opinion provides several questions a lawyer should consider, including the relative importance of the positional conflict issue and the likelihood that it may affect the outcome of one or both of the cases, the extent to which a decision in one case might influence the decision in the other and the extent to which the lawyer ‘s independent professional judgment may be affected if he or she changes advocacy or tactics in one case to minimize any adverse effects on the client in the other case.

The ABA Ethics 2000 Commission deleted paragraph (9) to the comments to Rule 1.7, and replaced it with current paragraph (24) which states:

“Ordinarily a lawyer may take inconsistent legal positions in different tribunals at different times on behalf of different clients. The mere fact that advocating a legal position on behalf of one client might create precedent adverse to the interests of a client represented by the lawyer in an unrelated matter does not create a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest exists, however, if there is a significant risk that a lawyer’s action on behalf of one client will materially limit the lawyer’s effectiveness in representing another client in a different case…Factors relevant in determining whether the clients need to be advised of the risk include: where the cases are pending, whether the issue is substantive or procedural, the temporal relationship between the matters, the significance of the issue to the immediate and long-term interests of the clients involved and the clients’ reasonable expectations in retaining the lawyer. If there is significant risk of material limitation, then absent informed consent of the affected clients, the lawyer must refuse one of the representations or withdraw from one or both matters.”

The Restatement of the Law Governing Lawyers also considered this issue and, in comment f §128 (2000), states that a lawyer “ordinarily may take inconsistent legal positions in different courts at different times”; however, “a conflict is presented when there is a substantial risk that a lawyer’s action in (one matter) will materially and adversely affect another client in (a second matter).”

Florida Bar Rules 

The Florida Bar has not issued an ethics opinion addressing positional conflicts; however, the Comment to Florida Bar Rule 4-1.7 is identical to the 1993 paragraph 9 of the Comment to Model Rule 1.7 and states as follows:

Conflicts in litigation 

A lawyer may represent parties having antagonistic positions on a legal question that has arisen in different cases, unless representation of either client would be adversely affected. Thus, it is ordinarily not improper to assert such positions in cases pending in different trial courts, but it may be improper to do so in cases pending at the same time in an appellate court.

State Bar Rules and Ethics Opinions 

Some state ethics opinions have considered this issue.

Oregon Ethics Opinion 2007-177 (2007) states that a lawyer may not represent a client in a matter requiring the lawyer to contend for something that he or she must contend against on behalf of another client in another matter if the outcome of one matter is highly likely to affect the outcome of the other.  The ethics opinion is here:  https://www.osbar.org/_docs/ethics/2007-177.pdf

Maine Ethics Opinion 155 (1997) – Arguing Different Sides of Same Legal Issue in Unrelated Cases addresses that state’s conflicts of interest rules in its analysis.  The ethics opinion is here:  http://www.mebaroverseers.org/attorney_services/opinion.html?id=89688

“…Although we conclude that an “issue conflict” standing alone is not a conflict within the meaning of Bar Rule 3.4(b), we note that counsel has an obligation to both clients under Rule 3.6(a)(1) to employ “reasonable care and skill” and to “employ the lawyer’s best judgment” in the representation of her clients. In light of this rule, an attorney must be mindful of the possibility that contemporaneously arguing opposite sides of the same issue before the same judge or panel of judges could impair her effectiveness on behalf of both clients, thereby arguably violating Rule 3.6(a)(1). It is not possible to define all the circumstances in which this rule might be implicated, since it will depend on the particular facts and circumstances.”

The Maine Rules of Professional Conduct were revised in 2009 and that state’s version Comment to Rule 1.7 is now similar to ABA paragraph 24.

District of Columbia Ethics Opinion 265 (1996) states:  “When a lawyer is asked to represent an entity that takes positions on matters of law in a subject area in which the lawyer practices regularly on behalf of other clients, the lawyer may not, without the informed consent of all affected parties, accept simultaneous representation of both clients where such representation creates a substantial risk that representation of one client will adversely affect the representation of the other.” The ethics opinion is here:  https://www.dcbar.org/bar-resources/legal-ethics/opinions/opinion265.cfm

Bottom line:  If the lawyer is considering taking a position for one client which is directly adverse to a position the lawyer (or law firm) is taking for another client on the same or similar issue, the lawyer must consider the potential conflict of interest and act accordingly.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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