Category Archives: ABA formal opinions

California Ethics Opinion addresses ethics issues related to lawyer blogging and advertising and provides guidelines

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent California Formal Ethics Opinion which addresses ethics issues related to lawyer blogging and advertising and provides guidelines for lawyers who blog.  The Opinion is The State Bar of California Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct Formal Opinion No. 2016-196 and the ethics opinion is here: Cal. Formal Opinion No. 2016-196

The opinion reviews the application of advertising rules to attorney blogging and when blogging by an attorney considered a “communication” under the California Bar Rules and the provisions of California Business and Professions Code which regulate attorney advertising.  The California rules prohibit false or deceptive “communications” which confuse, deceive or mislead the public (as do most, if not all Bar rules throughout the U.S.)  This proscription applies to both affirmative statements and/or to omissions necessary to make a statement not misleading.

The opinion discusses U.S. Constitution First Amendment principles, including the fact that lawyer advertising is protected commercial speech, and truthful lawyer advertising cannot be absolutely prohibited; however, it can be subject to reasonable regulation and restrictions.  In addition, communications for publication by lawyers that are primarily informational and educational have long been considered to be core political speech and protected under the First Amendment, and such speech can be restricted only under extraordinary circumstances.

The First Amendment protections apply even if the lawyer also hopes, as a partial motive, to use the informational and educational communications to increase his or her legal business; however, commercial motivation is only one factor to be considered.  The key questions are whether a blog is a message or offer (1) made by or on behalf of a California attorney; (2) concerns the attorney’s availability for professional employment; and; (3) is directed to a former, present or prospective client.  Since all blogs will meet factors 1 and 3, the important question is whether the blog concerns the attorney’s availability for professional employment under question 2.

The opinion discusses Cal. Formal Opinion 2012-186, which analyzes the application of California advertising rules to attorney social media posts, and found that a post which has words of offer or invitation relating to representation is a “communication’; however, if a post is only informational in nature, it is not a communication. The opinion concluded that this same analysis applies to lawyer blogs.

The opinion also discusses Cal. Formal Opinion 2001-155, which found that, even without specific words of invitation or offer, a website that included information such as a detailed listing of services, qualifications, backgrounds, and other attributes of the attorney or law firm, with their distribution to the public, could carry a “clear implication” of availability for employment, and would therefore be a “communication” subject to advertising  regulation. The opinion concluded that the same analysis applies to lawyer blogs.

The opinion states that a listing of all of an attorney’s cases and outcomes, without comment, could be considered informational and not a “communication”; however, a communication with the result of a specific case or cases without providing information related to the facts and/or law giving rise to the result, would be presumed to be false, misleading or deceptive, and could be a prohibited “guarantee, warranty or prediction regarding the result of representation.” The opinion stated that even a numbered listing of “wins” might be misleading without clarification about what is considered a “win.”  The use of disclaimers may (but will not necessarily) overcome a presumption of violation.

Bottom line:  Lawyer blogging has become a very popular and somewhat ubiquitous form of legal communication and is often recommended to lawyers as a business strategy.  This recent California Bar ethics opinion provides solid guidance to lawyers who are blogging or plan to blog to attempt to insure compliance with the Bar rules, regardless of whether the lawyer is in California or another state.  If a lawyer blogs, each blog should primarily informational and educational to potentially avoid the application of Bar advertising rules (like this one).

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

www.jac-law.com

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ABA Ethics Opinion provides guidance regarding client confidentiality when lawyer withdraws from representation for failure to pay fees

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent ABA Formal Ethics Opinion which provides guidance regarding client confidentiality when a lawyer withdraws from representation.  The opinion is ABA Formal Opinion 476 (12/19/16) and is online here: ABA Opinion 476.

Model Bar Rule 1.16 related to withdrawal from representation

The ABA opinion discusses Model Rule 1.16, which is substantially similar to the Florida Bar Rule 4-1.16 and other state Bar rules.   According to the opinion, “Model Rule 1.16 addresses a lawyer’s duties and responsibilities when withdrawing from the representation of a client. Rule 1.16(a) sets forth the circumstances when a lawyer is required to withdraw, and Rule 1.16(b) describes the circumstances when a lawyer may be permitted to withdraw from a representation.  Among the permissive reasons, Rule 1.16(b)(5) provides that a lawyer may withdraw from representing a client when “the client substantially fails to fulfill an obligation to the lawyer regarding the lawyer’s services and has been given reasonable warning that the lawyer will withdraw unless the obligation is fulfilled.”

“Comment [8] to (Model Rule 1.16) states:  ‘A lawyer may withdraw if the client refuses to abide by the terms of an agreement relating to the representation, such as an agreement concerning fees or court costs . . . .’ In addition, Rule 1.16(b)(6) provides that a lawyer may withdraw where ‘the representation will result in an unreasonable financial burden on the lawyer or has been rendered unreasonably difficult by the client.’  As the courts have decided in the cases cited below, if a client fails over time to pay a lawyer’s fees, and that failure continues after a lawyer provides a reasonable warning to the client, the lawyer may be permitted to withdraw.  In effectuating a withdrawal, a lawyer should do so in a manner that minimizes any prejudice to the client.”

Model Bar Rule 1.16 related to the lawyer’s duty to maintain confidentiality 

“Neither Rule 1.6(b) nor the Comments expressly refer to motions to withdraw for unpaid fees. The Comments do, however, recognize that some disclosure of confidential client information otherwise protected by Rule 1.6(a) is permitted in fee-collection suits by lawyers, based on the “claim or defense” exception in Rule 1.6(b)(5).  Similarly, motions to withdraw based on a client’s failure to pay fees are generally grounded in the same basic right of a lawyer to be paid pursuant to the terms of a fee agreement with a client. Nonetheless, courts have differed widely as to whether any specific information regarding a lawyer’s reasons for seeking withdrawal is required in a motion to withdraw, and if so, how much.”

Limiting any required disclosures of confidential information to mitigate harm/prejudice to clients 

The opinion also discusses the requirements to limit disclosures to mitigate harm/prejudice to the client.  “Comment [16] to Rule 1.6 provides that disclosures under Rule 1.6(b) are permitted only to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to accomplish the purpose specified.  Of course, where practicable, a lawyer should first seek to persuade the client to take suitable action to remove the need for the lawyer’s disclosure. When such persuasion is not practicable or successful, and disclosure of some confidential information is required, ‘If the disclosure will be made in connection with a judicial proceeding, the disclosure should be made in a manner that limits access to the information to the tribunal or other persons having a need to know it and appropriate protective orders or other arrangements should be sought by the lawyer to the fullest extent practicable.’   Thus, Comment [16] anticipates the use of in camera submissions for disclosures where any of Rule 1.6(b)’s exceptions may apply. The situation is similar to discovery disputes over claims of privilege, whereby competing claims are often resolved by a court’s review in camera of the documents at issue and such procedures can help reconcile the competing issues involved in ruling on motions to withdraw as well.

The opinion’s final summary paragraph states:  “In moving to withdraw as counsel in a civil proceeding based on a client’s failure to pay fees, a lawyer must consider the duty of confidentiality under Rule 1.6 and seek to reconcile that duty with the court’s need for sufficient information upon which to rule on the motion. Similarly, in entertaining such a motion, a judge should consider the right of the movant’s client to confidentiality. This requires cooperation between lawyers and judges. If required by the court to support the motion with facts relating to the representation, a lawyer may, pursuant to Rule 1.6(b)(5), disclose only such confidential information as is reasonably necessary for the court to make an informed decision on the motion.”

Bottom line:  All lawyers must be aware of the ethics rules, issues, and requirements surrounding client confidentiality when a lawyer is withdrawing from representation due to the client’s failure to pay the fee and this opinion provides a good overview.  The fact that the client has failed to pay is confidential in itself and the lawyer should not include any client confidential information in the motion to withdraw and should only provide the information to the court if necessary or if ordered to do so by the judge.  If the court orders the lawyer to provide confidential information, the lawyer should consider an in camera appearance before the judge with the client and excluding the opposing counsel to preserve confidentiality, if plausible.

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 Ethics Opinion provides ethics requirements when lawyer receives an earned fee in which another lawyer has an interest

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent ABA Formal Ethics Opinion which addresses the ethical requirements when a lawyer receives an earned fee that is subject to a fee sharing arrangement and both lawyers have an interest in the fee.  The opinion is ABA Formal Opinion 475 (December 7, 2016) and is online here: http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/professional_responsibility/aba_formal_opinion_475.authcheckdam.pdf.  The opinion discusses the ABA Model Rules which apply when lawyers agree to properly share a fee and one lawyer receives the earned fee.

According to the ABA opinion, “Model Rule 1.5(e) provides for the division of fees between lawyers who are not in the same firm.  A division of a fee “is a single billing to a client covering the fee of two or more lawyers who are not in the same firm.”  Rule 1.5(e) provides that such agreements are permissible only if the division is proportionate to the services performed by each lawyer or both lawyers assume joint responsibility for the representation, the client agrees to the arrangement including the share each lawyer ‘will receive, the arrangement is confirmed in writing, and the total fee is reasonable. Model Rule 1.15(a) provides in pertinent part that a lawyer shall hold property of…third persons that is in a lawyer’s possession in connection with a representation separate from the lawyer’s own property.’”

The opinion states that “(t)he receiving lawyer…must, under Rule 1.15(a), deposit the funds in which co-counsel holds an interest in an account (typically a trust account) separate from the lawyer’s own property. Rule 1.15(d) requires the lawyer who receives the earned fees subject to a division agreement to promptly notify the other lawyer who holds an interest in the fee of receipt of the funds, promptly deliver to the other lawyer the agreed upon portion of the fee, and, if requested by the other lawyer, provide a full accounting.”

“Finally, if there is any dispute as to the interest of the receiving lawyer and the lawyer with whom the receiving lawyer is dividing a fee, Rule 1.15(e) requires that the receiving lawyer keep the disputed funds separate from the lawyer’s own property until the dispute is resolved.”

Bottom line:  “A lawyer may divide a fee with another lawyer who is not in the same firm if the arrangement meets the requirements of Model Rule 1.5(e). When one lawyer receives an earned fee that is subject to such an arrangement and both lawyers have an interest in that earned fee, Model Rules 1.15(a) and 1.15(d) require that the receiving lawyer hold the funds in an account separate from the lawyer’s own property, appropriately safeguard the funds, promptly notify the other lawyer who holds an interest in the fee of receipt of the funds, promptly deliver to the other lawyer the agreed upon portion of the fee, and, if requested by the other lawyer, provide a full accounting”.  (Most states, including Florida, the same or substantially similar rules).

Lawyers must be aware that, according to this recent ABA opinion (which is not binding), when there is a fee sharing arrangement (referral or co-counsel fee), and the lawyer receives funds to which another lawyer has an interest, the receiving lawyer must hold the funds in a separate account, safeguard the funds, promptly notify the other lawyer, and provide an accounting if requested by the other lawyer.

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 obligations in surrendering client papers and property after termination of representation and asserting retaining liens

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert will discuss the lawyer’s ethical obligations to surrender papers and property to which the former client is entitled after termination of the representation and asserting retaining liens.  American Bar Association Formal Ethics Opinion 471 provides a good overview of these ethical obligations.  The July 1, 2015 ABA formal ethics opinion is here: ABA Ethics Opinion 471.

ABA Model Rule 1.16, Declining or Terminating Representation is substantially similar to Florida Bar Rule 4-1.16 and requires lawyers to surrender “papers and property to which the client is entitled.”  Neither the Model Rule of the Florida Bar Rules provide a definition of these terms.

The ABA opinion discusses the approaches taken in various jurisdictions and notes that the majority (including Florida) use the “entire file” analysis, wherein clients are entitled to receive all items in the file unless the lawyer can show that the item would fall under one of the generally accepted exceptions, which include the following:

“ materials that would violate a duty of nondisclosure to another person; materials containing a lawyer’s assessment of the client; materials containing information which, if released, could endanger the health, safety or welfare of the client or others; and documents reflecting only internal firm communications and assignments.”

In Florida, the client file is the property of the lawyer and the lawyer may assert a retaining lien on the client file after the representation is terminated; however, Florida Bar Rule 4-1.16(d) states that, upon termination, the lawyer must surrender papers and property to which the client is entitled, take all steps to mitigate the consequences of the termination to the client, and “may retain papers and other property as security only to the extent permitted by law.”

Florida Ethics Opinion 88-11 (Reconsideration) states:

“Many attorneys are unaware that in Florida a case file is considered to be the property of the attorney rather than the client. Dowda and Fields, P.A. v. Cobb , 452 So.2d 1140, 1142 (Fla. 5th DCA 1984); Florida Ethics Opinion 71-37 [since withdrawn]. Under normal circumstances, an attorney should make available to the client, at the client’s expense, copies of information in the file where such information would serve a useful purpose to the client. Opinion 71-37 [since withdrawn].

In appropriate situations, however, an attorney is entitled to refuse to provide copies of material in the file and instead may assert an attorney’s lien. Such situations include a client’s refusal to reimburse a discharged attorney for the attorney’s incurred costs or to provide a reasonable guarantee to the attorney that the costs will be repaid at the conclusion of the case. See Florida Ethics Opinion 71-57. While in such a situation it may be ethically permissible for an attorney to assert a lien with respect to materials in a case file, the validity and extent of the lien is a question of law to be decided by the courts.

Florida common law recognizes two types of attorney’s liens: the charging lien and the retaining lien. The charging lien may be asserted when a client owes the attorney for fees or costs in connection with a specific matter in which a suit has been filed. To impose a charging lien, the attorney must show: (1) a contract between attorney and client; (2) an understanding for payment of attorney’s fees out of the recovery; (3) either an avoidance of payment or a dispute regarding the amount of fees; and (4) timely notice. Daniel Mones, P.A. v. Smith , 486 So.2d 559, 561 (Fla. 1986). The attorney should give timely notice of the asserted charging lien by either filing a notice of lien or otherwise pursuing the lien in the underlying suit. The latter approach is preferred.

Unlike a charging lien, a retaining lien may be asserted with respect to amounts owed by a client for all legal work done on the client’s behalf regardless of whether the materials upon which the retaining lien is asserted are related to the matter in which the outstanding charges were incurred. A retaining lien may be asserted on file materials as well as client funds or property in the attorney’s possession, and may be asserted whether or not a suit has been filed. Mones , 486 So.2d at 561.  Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 88-11 (Reconsideration is here: http://www.floridabar.org/TFB/TFBETOpin.nsf/SMTGT/ETHICS,%20OPINION%2088-11%20(Reconsideration).

An attorney’s right to assert a lien may be limited, however, by the ethical obligation to avoid foreseeable prejudice to the client’s interests. What papers or documents must be furnished to a client in a particular case in order to avoid prejudicing the client’s interest therein will necessarily depend on the specific facts and circumstances involved.

Some  jurisdictions follow the “end product” analysis. Under this analysis, clients are entitled only to those items that are the end product of the representation, and may not be entitled to receive the documents or other materials that led up to the end product.

“…Under these variations of the end product approach, the lawyer must surrender: correspondence by the lawyer for the benefit of the client; investigative reports and other discovery for which the client has paid; and pleadings and other papers filed with a tribunal. The client is also entitled to copies of contracts, wills, corporate records and other similar documents prepared by the lawyer for the client. These items are generally considered the lawyer’s “end product.”

Under this alternative analysis, administrative documents, internal memoranda and preliminary drafts of documents do not have to be returned; however, internal notes and memos may need to be turned over if the final product of the representation has not yet emerged and nondisclosure could harm the client.

Bottom line:  Lawyers must be aware of the requirements of their jurisdictions regarding the return of a client’s file after termination of the representation and before contemplating the assertion of a retaining lien on the client’s file.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Please note:  Effective June 27, 2016, my new office address is:

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150, Clearwater, Florida 33761

E-mail addresses and telephone numbers below will remain the same. 

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

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Lawyer’s ethical obligations in surrendering client papers and property after termination of the representation

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert will discuss American Bar Association Formal Ethics Opinion 471 which addresses the lawyer’s ethical obligations to surrender papers and property to which the former client is entitled after termination of the representation. The ABA opinion and provides a good overview of those obligations.  The advisory opinion was issued on July 1, 2015 and the opinion is here: http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/professional_responsibility/aba_formal_opinion_471.authcheckdam.pdf

ABA Model Rule 1.16, Declining or Terminating Representation is substantially similar to Florida Bar Rule 4-1.16 and requires lawyers to surrender “papers and property to which the client is entitled.”  Neither the Model Rule of the Florida Rule provides a definition of these terms.

The advisory opinion discusses the approaches taken in various jurisdictions and notes that the majority (including Florida) use the “entire file” analysis, wherein clients are entitled to receive all items in the file unless the lawyer can show that the item would fall under one of the generally accepted exceptions, which include the following:

“ materials that would violate a duty of nondisclosure to another person; materials containing a lawyer’s assessment of the client; materials containing information which, if released, could endanger the health, safety or welfare of the client or others; and documents reflecting only internal firm communications and assignments.”

In Florida, the client file is the property of the lawyer and the lawyer may assert a retaining lien on the client file after the representation is terminated; however, Florida Bar Rule 4-1.16(d) states that, upon termination, the lawyer must surrender papers and property to which the client is entitled, take all steps to mitigate the consequences of the termination to the client, and “may retain papers and other property as security only to the extent permitted by law.”  The lawyer must return documents which have legal significance in their original form, such as wills, trusts, stocks, bonds, and property deeds.

Some  jurisdictions follow the “end product” analysis. Under this analysis, clients are entitled only to those items that are the end product of the representation, and may not be entitled to receive the documents or other materials that led up to the end product.

“…Under these variations of the end product approach, the lawyer must surrender: correspondence by the lawyer for the benefit of the client; investigative reports and other discovery for which the client has paid; and pleadings and other papers filed with a tribunal. The client is also entitled to copies of contracts, wills, corporate records and other similar documents prepared by the lawyer for the client. These items are generally considered the lawyer’s “end product.”

Under this alternative analysis, administrative documents, internal memoranda and preliminary drafts of documents do not have to be returned; however, internal notes and memos may need to be turned over if the final product of the representation has not yet emerged and nondisclosure could harm the client.

Bottom line:  Lawyers must be aware of the requirements of their jurisdictions requirements before asserting a retaining lien on a client’s file after termination of the representation.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Please note:  Effective June 27, 2016, my new office address is:

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150, Clearwater, Florida 33761

E-mail addresses and telephone numbers below will remain the same. 

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 Formal Opinion 475 addresses when lawyers from different law firms are permitted to share a referral fee

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent American Bar Association Formal ethics Opinion which addresses when lawyers may share a fee in a referral arrangement.  The opinion is ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 475 and was issued on April 21, 2016.  The formal opinion is here: http://www.abajournal.com/files/FO_474.pdf

Under ABA Model Rule 1.5(3) (and the Bar Rules of most jurisdictions), lawyers may refer cases to lawyers in other firms and receive a fee as long as the referring lawyer performs legal services or assumes joint responsibility for the case. Comment 7 to Model Rule 1.5 explains that these arrangements most often occur between a referring lawyer and a trial lawyer.  ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 474 discusses the propriety of referral fees between lawyers, explains that clients must consent in writing to such arrangements, and provides examples of when a lawyer does and does not have a conflict of interest.

The opinion notes that state rules related to referral fees vary widely.  Some states only require client consent and a total reasonable fee and some states prohibit referral fees altogether.  Other states (including Florida) require that the referring lawyer either perform legal services of assume joint responsibility for the case (which would include potential legal malpractice liability) and limit the amount of the fee without court approval.

The client must consent to the referral arrangement and be fully informed of the agreement regarding the division of fees before or within a reasonable time after the representation begins.  A lawyer cannot be involved in the case (or receive a referral fee) if there is a conflict of interest unless the lawyer obtains a waiver which meets the requirements of ABA Model Rule 1.7(b), which includes the requirement that each affected client give informed consent in writing (if the conflict is waivable).  A lawyer cannot perform legal services or assume responsibility for the case, however, if he or she has a conflict of interest.

The opinion also states that “(t)he agreement must describe in sufficient detail the division of the fee between the lawyers including the share each lawyer will receive.”  In addition, a referral agreement should not be entered into toward the end of the attorney-client relationship but must be disclosed and agreed to by the client “either before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation.”

Bottom line:  Lawyers should be aware that, although most jurisdictions (including Florida) permit referral fees, the Bar rules typically impose the requirement that the client provide informed consent in writing to the referral fee and the fee is also subject to limitations in the amount without court approval (25% in Florida without court approval).  In addition, if a lawyer is unable to represent a client outright because of a conflict of interest that is not waived or waivable, the lawyer will not be able to accept a referral fee since, in Florida and most jurisdictions, the referring lawyer must either perform legal services or assume joint responsibility for the matter (which includes potential legal malpractice liability).  Lawyers should consult the Bar Rules in his or her jurisdiction before participating in a referral fee.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice 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

www.jac-law.com

 

 

Leave a comment

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ABA issues formal ethics opinion addressing lawyer’s duties upon receipt of subpoena or other process for client confidential documents

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent American Bar Association Formal Opinion 473, which provides guidance to lawyers regarding ethical duties and obligations under the Model Rules upon receipt of a subpoena or other compulsory process for client documents and information.  ABA Formal Opinion 473 (February 17, 2016) is here: http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/FormalOpinion_473.pdf.

According to the opinion, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility was asked to review ABA Formal Opinion 94-385 (July 5, 1994) regarding a subpoena for a lawyer’s client files since ABA Model Rule 1.6(b)(6) was adopted in 2002 and which states that: “A lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation of a client to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to comply with other law or court order.”

When Formal Opinion 94-385 was issued, Model Rule 1.6(b) specifically required a lawyer to disclose confidential information in only two situations: (i) to prevent certain crimes, and (ii) to establish certain claims or defenses on behalf of the lawyer.  Formal Opinion 94-385 advised that the lawyer “must comply with the final orders of a court or other tribunal of competent jurisdiction requiring the lawyer to give information about a client.”

The opinion states that the model rule and Formal Opinion 94-385 do not address “complex, critical, and fact-intensive questions on how to respond” when the lawyer receives a subpoena or other process which is not a “final order of a court or other tribunal”.  The opinion addresses these issues and provides guidance to lawyers regarding their duties and obligations.  The opinion states that a lawyer who receives a subpoena or other compulsory process (but not a court order) for documents or information relating to the representation of a client (which is, of course, confidential) has multiple ethical duties and obligations, including:

  1. The lawyer “must notify—or attempt to notify—the client.  For former clients, the lawyer must make reasonable efforts to reach the client by, for example, internet search, phone call, fax, email or other electronic communications, and letter to the client’s last known address.”
  1. If the client is available, the lawyer must consult with the client about how to respond. If instructed by the client (or if the client is unavailable), the lawyer must assert all reasonable claims against disclosure and seek to limit the subpoena or other initial demand on any reasonable ground.  Such a consultation should include a discussion regarding the applicability of the attorney-client privilege, the work-product doctrine, and the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
  1. If the client wants to challenge the subpoena or process, the lawyer should challenge “on any reasonable ground.”  If that challenge fails, the lawyer should consult with the client about appeal options.
  1. If there is an order to disclose confidential or privileged information and the client is available, a lawyer must consult with the client about whether to produce the information or appeal the order.
  1. The lawyer should seek appropriate protective orders or other protective arrangements so that access to the information is limited to the court or other tribunal ordering its disclosure and to persons having a need to know.
  1. If the lawyer discloses documents and information, whether it is in response to a demand or an order, and regardless of whether client is available, the lawyer may reveal information only to the extent reasonably necessary.
  1. If the client and the lawyer disagree about how to respond to the initial demand or to an order requiring disclosure, the lawyer should consider withdrawing from the representation pursuant to Model Rule 1.16.
  1. If the lawyer is unable to find the client, the lawyer must “assert all reasonable objections and claims when the lawyer receives the initial demand.” If those “objections and claims” are rejected by the tribunal, the lawyer must produce the information to the extent reasonably necessary to comply with the order; however, the lawyer “is not ethically required to take an appeal on behalf of a client whom the lawyer cannot locate after due diligence.
  1. If there is an order to disclose and the client is unavailable, the lawyer is not ethically required to appeal.

With regard to fees for the consultation and services regarding the response to the subpoena/process, the lawyer should consult with the client regarding whether responding to the demand was included in the scope of work under the fee agreement.  If not, the lawyer should discuss the fee for doing so.  Regardless, the lawyer may still “be required to challenge the initial demand” under the ethics rules even if the services were not included in the initial fee agreement.  The opinion states that a lawyer “should consider” providing for this circumstance in the lawyer’s retainer agreements.

Bottom line: This ABA Formal Opinion provides guidance regarding issues involving client confidentiality which lawyers confront fairly frequently and that I frequently address in my ethics presentations.  The opinion’s guidance is important and should be considered by lawyers who receive a subpoena or process demanding client confidential information, regardless of whether the lawyer’s jurisdiction’s ethics rules include the specific language in Model Rule 1.6(b)(6).

Note to Florida lawyers:  Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6 does not include the specific language in ABA Model Rule 1.6(b)(6) that: “A lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation of a client to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to comply with other law or court order”; however, Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6(d) states that: “When required by a tribunal to reveal confidential information, a lawyer may first exhaust all appellate remedies.”  In addition, Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6(f) states that: “When disclosure is mandated or permitted, the lawyer must disclose no more information than is required to meet the requirements or accomplish the purposes of this rule.”

The ethical duties and obligations regarding subpoenas and other process addressed in the opinion should apply to Florida lawyers upon receipt of a subpoena or other process to provide confidential documents/information.

Be careful out there!

If you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding these or any other ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert  is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice, 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

www.jac-law.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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