North Carolina on the ethics of mining social media for evidence

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

*****

These days, the vast majority of people, including lawyers, interact on social media. For many, social media platforms are a part of their daily lives and are a primary way of communicating with family and friends.

That’s why social media sites are a goldmine when it comes to obtaining evidence for pending litigation. So it’s no surprise that lawyers began to mine social media for evidence more than a decade ago, and when that began to occur, the ethics committees from various jurisdictions weighed in on how to ethically obtain evidence on social media.

The first to do so was the Philadelphia Bar Association in Op. 2009-02 which was followed by, among others, the New York State Bar (Op. 843 in 2010), the New York City Bar (formal Op. 2010-2), the San Diego Bar (Opinion 2022-2), the Oregon State Bar (Op. 2013-189), the Pennsylvania Bar (Formal Op. 2014-300), the Massachusetts Bar (Op. 2014-T05), the DC Bar in 2016), and the Maine Bar (Op. 217 in 2017).

A few months ago, the North Carolina Bar joined their ranks and addressed this issue as well. In mid-July the State Bar Council adopted 2018 Formal Ethics Opinion 5. At issue in this opinion was whether and under what circumstances lawyers may ethically “either directly or indirectly, seek access to social network profiles, pages, and posts…belonging to another person.” The conclusions reached in this opinion were in agreement with the those reached by the majority of jurisdictions on most issues, with a few notable exceptions.

At the outset, like all jurisdictions thus far, the Ethics Committee concluded that lawyers or their agents may view information obtained from publicly viewable social media profiles.

Notably, however, the Committee weighed in on an issue that is typically addressed in relation to researching jurors on social media sites as opposed to parties or witnesses: whether a passive notification from a social media site indicating that a lawyer has viewed the individual’s social media profile constitutes a “communication” from the lawyer. The Committee concluded that it did not and was instead a communication from the social media service. The Committee explained that a small number of views and notifications would be permissible but that lawyers “may not engage in repetitive viewing of a person’s social network presence if doing so would violate Rule 4.4(a)” which prohibits lawyers “from using means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person, and from using methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of such a person.”

Next the Committee concluded that lawyers are forbidden from using deception to access social media information located behind a privacy wall. That being said, lawyers may, using their own true identities, request access to an unrepresented person’s social network presence behind a privacy wall. The Committee explained that “(t)he person contacted has full control over who views the information on her social network site (and the) grant of the lawyer’s request, without additional inquiry, does not indicate a misunderstanding of the lawyer’s role.”

However, the Committee determined that it was ethically impermissible for lawyers or their agents to request access to a represented person’s restricted social media presence. According to the Committee, absent express consent from the represented person’s attorney, “the request interferes with the attorney-client relationship and could lead to the uncounseled disclosure of information relating to the representation.”

The last issue considered by the Committee is of particular interest since, to the best of my knowledge, it has not yet been addressed by any other jurisdictions. Specifically the Committee considered whether a lawyer may request or accept information from a third party who has access to the restricted information found behind the privacy wall of a person’s social media profile. According to the Committee, doing so is perfectly acceptable for both represented and unrepresented persons. The Committee compared this to the similar offline scenario where lawyers may obtain other types of evidence relevant to a client’s matter from witnesses.

According to the Committee: “(W)hen a lawyer is informed that a third party has access to restricted portions of a person’s social network presence and can provide helpful information to the lawyer’s client, the lawyer is not prohibited from requesting such information from the third party or accepting information volunteered by the third party. Similarly, a lawyer may accept information from a client who has access to the opposing party’s or a witness’s restricted social network presence…However, the lawyer may not direct or encourage a third party or a client to use deception or misrepresentation when communicating with a person on a social network site.”

All in all, an interesting opinion that is worth a read, even if you don’t practice in North Carolina. And if you aren’t already mining social media for information relevant to your clients' cases, then what are you waiting for? There is undoubtedly useful information to be found, and the failure to seek it out arguably amounts to malpractice in this day and age. So there’s no better time than the present to get up to speed on the ins and outs of ethically mining social media for evidence - and this opinion is a great place to start.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


ABA Ethics Opinion On Judges, Social Media, Friendships, and Disqualification

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

*****

Judges are supposed to be neutral arbiters. Unfortunately, in the real world, that’s sometimes easier said than done.

Ideally, judges would have no connection to the parties and lawyers appearing before them, and thus would be fully impartial. Judges, however, are human. They have close personal relationships, friendships, and many acquaintances. Judges are also lawyers, and as a result, they often personally know the lawyers appearing in their courtrooms. Those relationships are not supposed to affect the their rulings, but if there is the potential that they might, judges are required to disqualify themselves.

A simple concept in theory, but one that isn’t nearly as clear cut in practice. Determining which relationships conflict with the appearance of impartiality is rarely an easy feat. Not surprisingly, the advent of social media connections to our social infrastructure have added a new layer of complexity that some have suggested necessarily complicates this determination.

That’s why many courts and ethics committees have begun to consider the issue of whether judges’ social media connections with the lawyers appearing before them warrant disqualification. For example in 2012, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal addressed this issue in Pierre Domville v. State of Florida, No. 4D12-556 and disqualified a judge from overseeing a case because the judge was Facebook “friends” with the prosecuting attorney.

Then in 2018, the Third District Court of Appeal in Florida addressed the very same issue in Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein v. United States Automobile Association, No. 3D17-1421, but reached a different conclusion and declined to disqualify a judge as a result of his Facebook connection with an attorney appearing in his court, since online friends are “not necessarily (friends) in the traditional sense of the word.” Later that same year, the Supreme Court of Florida considered this case on appeal in Herssein and Herssein v. United States Automobile Association, No. SC17-1848 and upheld this ruling, concluding that a Facebook friendship between a judge and an attorney appearing before that judge was not, in and of itself, a sufficient basis for disqualification of the judge.

That approach makes the most sense. After all, a social media connection is simply one piece of the puzzle, and only serves as evidence of some sort of social connection or relationship. For that reason, I was heartened to read a footnote echoing this sentiment in a recent ABA ethics opinion.

In Formal Opinion 488, the Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility considered the issue of whether and when the social or close personal relationships of a judge warrant disqualification. The Committee concluded that in making this determination the disqualification inquiry must focus on assessing the nature and quality of a judge’s relationship with the attorney in question.

Notably, in footnote 11, the Committee acknowledged that when reviewing a judge’s friendship with a lawyer, a social media connection alone is not dispositive:

“Social media, which is simply a form of communication, uses terminology that is distinct from that used in this opinion. Interaction on social media does not itself indicate the type of relationships participants have with one another either generally or for purposes of this opinion. For example, Facebook uses the term “friend,” but that is simply a title employed in that context. A judge could have Facebook “friends” or other social media contacts who are acquaintances, friends, or in some sort of close personal relationship with the judge. The proper characterization of a person’s relationship with a judge depends on the definitions and examples used in this opinion.”

In regard to the issue of whether disqualification is required when a judge has a social connection or close personal relationship with an attorney, the Committee provided the following guidance: “(J)udges need not disqualify themselves if a lawyer or party is an acquaintance, nor must they disclose acquaintanceships to the other lawyers or parties. Whether judges must disqualify themselves when a party or lawyer is a friend or shares a close personal relationship with the judge or should instead take the lesser step of disclosing the friendship or close personal relationship to the other lawyers and parties, depends on the circumstances. Judges’ disqualification in any of these situations may be waived in accordance and compliance with Rule 2.11(C) of the Model Code.”

In other words, relationships - including those of judges - are necessarily more complex than a single online connection. Whether disqualification is appropriate in any given case depends on the nature and extent of the relationship. A social media connection is simply one factor to consider. To conclude otherwise would fly in the face of reality and the true nature of human relationships. After all, social media connections, while relevant to this determination, do not a relationship make.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


Round Up: Cybersecurity, Dictation Tools, and Law Firm Disaster Planning

SpiralI often write articles and blog posts for other outlets and am going to post a round up here from time to time (but won't include my weekly Daily Record articles in the round up since I re-publish them to this blog in full). Here are my posts and articles since  August:


Run a 21st-century law firm with these books

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

*****

Run a 21st-century law firm with these books

Running a small law firm isn’t easy. Practicing law is a full-time job in and of itself, and as a result most small firm lawyers don’t have the luxury of letting others run the back-end of their law firm. Instead, they’re often responsible for many of the day-to-day tasks involved in managing the business end of their practices, whether it’s hiring employees, managing the books, invoicing and collecting payments from clients, or marketing their practice.
And then there are the administrative and IT functions that small firm lawyers take on themselves. These can include handling client intake, managing calendars, drafting documents, choosing and maintaining computer hardware, and selecting software for the firm.
No wonder you sometimes feel overwhelmed! Because you singlehandedly take on so many different roles, there’s too much to do and not enough hours in the day. You need all the help you can get! Fortunately, there are lots of books available designed to do just that: provide you with the guidance you need to run your small law firm efficiently and profitably. What follows are a few of my top recommendations.
First, there’s “Solo By Choice: How to be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be” and the “Solo By Choice, the Companion Guide,” both written by lawyer Carolyn Elefant. These books walk you through the ins and outs of starting your own law firm and cover everything you need to know about starting and managing a successful solo or small firm practice.

Next up is “The 2019 Solo and Small Firm Legal Technology Guide,” written by Sharon D. Nelson, John W. Simek, and Michael C. Maschke.  In this book, which is updated and revised annually, you’ll learn all about how to make smart technology decisions for your law firm. This book will help you sift through your technology choices, which range from hardware options to legal software tools designed to simplify the lives of solo and small-firm lawyers.

Speaking of technology, if you have senior lawyers in your law firm who are either resistant to technology or are struggling to keep up, make sure to invest in a copy of “Technology Tips for Seniors, Volume 2.0,” written by Ashley Hallene and Jeffrey M. Allen. This book includes a mobile device app guide and offers lots of other useful information that will help senior lawyers improve their productivity by learning about, understanding, and using technology.

Another book to consider if you’re seeking ways to innovate and stand out in today’s increasingly crowded legal marketplace is “Legal Upheaval: A Guide to Creativity, Collaboration, and Innovation in the Law.” In this book, author Michele DeStafano explains why the legal industry is in the middle of an unavoidable transformation, and provides ideas to help lawyers innovate in order to succeed in the new world order.

“How to Capture and Keep Clients: Marketing Strategies for Lawyers, Second Edition” is another book to read for advice on how to successfully market your law firm in 2019. This book is edited by jennifer j. rose and includes chapters from more than 27 lawyers and legal marketing experts who offer lots of great legal marketing ideas and advice.

As you put all of your learnings into action and your firm begins to thrive, you’ll no doubt seek to grow your firm by hiring new employees. That’s where “Effectively Staffing Your Law Firm, 2nd Edition” comes in. This book is also edited by jennifer j. rose and each chapter is written by experts - many of whom are lawyers - and covers everything you need to know about hiring staff, firing staff, and everything in between.

And last but not least, as you begin the process of hiring new employees, you’ll most likely encounter a Millennial or two along the way. If so, you may be struggling to understand your new hires. That’s where “What Millennial Lawyers Want” comes in. In this book, author Susan Smith Blakely explains what makes this generation tick and how managing law firm partners can change their outlook and embrace the many qualities that make Millennial employees a unique and valuable asset for law firms.

So what are you waiting for? Invest in a few of these books today and then put your newfound knowledge to work. In no time, you’ll be reaping the benefits of your investment and will be on the path to a successful and profitable law practice!

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


Lawyers and cybersecurity: What are your ethical obligations?

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

*****

Lawyers and cybersecurity: What are your ethical obligations?

If you’re practicing law in 2019, there’s no escaping technology. One way or another, you’re using technology as part of your day-to-day practice, whether it’s the internet, email, mobile devices, or cloud-based legal software. Technology is an unavoidable - and as a result, so too is the possibility of cyberattacks and breaches.

In the wake of the Equifax and Capital One breaches, along with countless other breaches that have come to light in recent years, experts warn that it’s not a matter of if you’ll be breached, but when. With that in mind, what’s a lawyer to do when it comes to cybersecurity? What are your ethical obligations and how do you ensure that your firm is in compliance?

This very issue was addressed by the Maine Bar Association in Opinion No. 220 earlier this year. In that opinion, the Professional Ethics Commission answered the following question: “What are a lawyer’s ethical obligations to understand the risks posed by technology, to prevent a cyberattack or data breach, and to respond once one occurs?”

According to the Commission, lawyers have an ethical obligation to take steps to prevent breaches from occurring and a corresponding set of duties that are triggered once a breach occurs.

At the outset, the Commission addressed lawyers obligations to prevent a cyberattack, and emphasized the importance of technology competence: “The overriding obligation is to know what the technology does, what it does not, and how to use it safely…Keeping abreast of practice changes means seeking education on evolving technology on a regular basis in order to maintain competence in its use.”

Notably, the Commission explained that while lawyers who lack technological expertise are permitted to outsource this requirement, they must nevertheless have a basic understanding of the technology being used: “A lawyer who lacks individual competence to evaluate and employ safeguards to protect client confidences and secrets should seek education from an expert or associate with another lawyer who is competent…However, the Commission does not mean to suggest that it endorses a complete ignorance of technology just because an associated lawyer or staff member knows all about it. A baseline understanding of, and competence in, the technology used in the practice of law must be maintained by every lawyer.”

Next the Commission turned to breaches, explaining that absolute security is an impossibility: “(T)he standard for measuring ethical conduct is not one of strict liability, but reasonableness.”

According to the Commission, breach prevention involves a two-step process: “(1) supervising the use of technology by lawyers and staff to ensure it is consistent with their training and instruction, and (2) monitoring the status of the technology itself in order to reveal attacks and breaches as soon as reasonably detectible.”

It’s also important to prepare for a breach and ensure that a plan is in place to address a breach or cyberattack. That’s why the Commission recommended “creating a plan to address known or suspected security breaches, including the identification of persons to be notified.”

According to the Commission, once a cyberattack or breach occurs, lawyers’ ethical obligations include: 1) taking reasonable actions to stop or contain the attack or breach, 2) investigating the attack or breach, and 3) notifying affected current and former clients.

Note that while the Maine Commission advised that former clients must be notified, a different conclusion was reached in ABA Formal Opinion 483 (online: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/professional_responsibility/aba_formal_op_483.pdf), which was handed down in October 2018. In that opinion, the ABA Committee explained that it was “unwilling to require notice to a former client as a matter of legal ethics in the absence of a black letter provision requiring such notice.”

Accordingly, in light of the conflicting conclusions on this issue, if you aren't a Maine attorney, I would recommend that you carefully review your jurisdiction's laws, regulations, and ethical guidelines to determine whether notifying former clients of a breach is required.

Does your firm have a plan in place to address cyberattacks and breaches? If not, what are you waiting for? You can take steps to prevent a breach and ensure that your firm is prepared should one occur. But in order to be prepared, you need a plan. And what better time than now?

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


In 2019, lawyers are using mobile and cloud computing more than ever

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

*****

 

In 2019, lawyers are using mobile and cloud computing more than ever

A little over a decade ago, the mobile revolution was launched when the iPhone was released in 2007. Just one year earlier, Amazon rolled out Amazon EC2, their first cloud computing service, and now, in 2019, many of the most popular websites, including Netflix, Pinterest, and Reddit are run on cloud servers hosted by Amazon Web Services.

It’s no coincidence that mobile and cloud computing tools launched so close in time. After all, mobile and cloud computing go hand and hand, and together they make today’s computing possible. This is because mobile devices alone are limited by their memory, processing power, and battery life. But when mobile phones and tablets are used with cloud computing tools, the data processing and storage needed to make mobile apps useful and functional can happen outside of mobile devices on cloud computing servers.

This combined utility has contributed to the significant rise in the use of cloud and mobile computing by lawyers in recent years. According to the American Bar Association’s most recent Legal Technology Survey, small firm lawyers are making the move to cloud-based legal software more than ever before, with 55% of lawyers surveyed reporting that they’ve used cloud computing software for law-related tasks over the past year, up from 38% in 2016.

And many more are thinking of switching to cloud-based legal software in the year to come. Small law firms were the most likely to plan to do so. The survey results showed that firms with 2-9 lawyers led the way at 15%. Next up was law firms with 10-49 lawyers at 14%, followed by firms with 50-99 lawyers at 13%.

According to the survey, the reasons for using cloud computing software are many. Ease of access from any location was the most popular reason (68%), followed by 24/7 availability (59%), and the affordability and the low cost of entry (48%). Other reasons provided by the lawyers surveyed included robust data back-up and recovery (46%), the ability to get the software up and running quickly (40%), the elimination of IT and software management requirements (34%), and last but certainly not least, better security than the firms were able to provide in-office (31%).

The top reason cited for making the switch – ease of access from any location – isn’t surprising since lawyers are more reliant on mobile devices in 2019 than they’ve ever been. In fact, according to the survey, 95% of lawyers reported that they use their smartphones outside of the office for law-related purposes. And, nearly half of all lawyers – 49% – reported that they used their tablet for law-related purposes while away from the office.

The most popular type of phone used by lawyers was iPhones, with 72% preferring it. Androids were next at 27%, followed by Blackberrys (2%) and then Windows Mobile (1%). Notably, despite the prominence of iPhone use by lawyers, 43% of lawyers surveyed reported that their firms supported multiple platforms for smartphones, rather than just one type of smartphone.

50% of lawyers have downloaded a legal-specific app to their smartphone, with legal research apps being the most popular. Similarly, 50% of lawyers have downloaded a general business app to their smartphone. Dropbox was the most popular, with 77% of lawyers reporting that they’d downloaded it. LinkedIn was next at 63%, followed by Evernote (37%), LogMeIn (15%), and DocsToGo (14%).

Do any of these statistics about how small firm lawyers are using cloud-based legal software and mobile devices surprise you? How mobile are you compared to your colleagues? And, is your firm in the cloud yet? If not, maybe it’s time make the switch.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


The legality of probation conditions that allow searches of electronic devices

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

*****

Technology creep is an unavoidable phenomenon. These days, technology is impacting just about every aspect of our lives, and its effects are unavoidable. The criminal justice system certainly isn’t immune from this trend, with evidence of this fact cropping up on a near daily basis.

One situation I’ve covered in the past is the ways that technology intersects with the conditions of probation and parole. For example, in 2015, I wrote about Hector Salvador Lopez, a young man in California whose probation term included a condition requiring that he provide his probation officer with the passwords to any “social media sites” that he participated on. Mr. Lopez challenged that condition in People v. Lopez, 2016 WL 297942 (Cal. App. Ct. Jan. 25, 2016), claiming that it was unreasonable and unconstitutionally vague. He asserted that the term “social media site” was unclear because it could apply to any number of websites, including sites with a social element but which are not commonly referred to as social media sites. The Court rejected his assertion and the condition remained in effect.

More recently, on August 15th of this year, the Supreme Court of California considered a similar issue: whether a probation term properly included the requirement that the probationer be required to submit to an electronics search. Specifically, in Ricardo B, S230923 (online: https://tinyurl.com/InReRicardoP), the Court was asked “to decide whether an electronics search condition like the one at issue here is ‘reasonably related to future criminality.’”

Specifically, the probation condition at issue required that the probationer submit to a search of “electronics including passwords under [his] control…at any time of day or night.”

At the outset, the court noted the sweeping nature of this condition: “The plain language of this electronics search condition would require Ricardo to provide probation officers full access, day or night, not only to his social media accounts but also to the contents of his e-mails, text messages, and search histories, all photographs and videos stored on his devices, as well as any other data accessible using electronic devices, which could include anything from banking information to private health or financial information to dating profiles.”

The Court also acknowledged the invasiveness of the provision and the privacy implications that it triggered: “The warrantless search of a juvenile’s electronic devices by a probation officer, a government official, plainly raises privacy concerns of a different order than parents checking their children’s cell phones.”

Next the Court turned to the specifics of Ricardo’s case, noting that there was no correlation between any crimes he’d committed in the past and probationary search provision. The Court explained that “nothing in the record suggests that Ricardo has ever used an electronic device or social media in connection with criminal conduct. The juvenile court instead relied primarily on indications that Ricardo had previously used marijuana and its generalization that ‘minors typically will brag about their marijuana usage or drug usage, particularly their marijuana usage, by posting on the Internet, showing pictures of themselves with paraphernalia, or smoking marijuana.’”

Accordingly, the Court concluded that after balancing the invasive nature of the probation requirement against the purported reasons for its imposition by the sentencing court, the clause should be removed from his probationary conditions. The Court held that because “the record here…contains no indication that Ricardo had used or will use electronic devices in connection with drugs or any illegal activity…(and) is insufficient to justify the substantial burdens imposed by this electronics search condition. The probation condition is not reasonably related to future criminality and is therefore invalid…”

A just result if I’ve ever seen one. As the Court noted, the data stored on electronic devices often includes some of the most personal and intimate information available about a person and those they love. For that reason, sentencing courts should tread lightly and refrain from allowing probation officers unfettered access to this data absent strong evidence that doing so would forward the goals of probation in light of the probationer’s history and crime.

This is because governmental access to electronic data should always be carefully and thoughtfully considered and should be permitted only in very limited circumstances. Privacy rights should always trump law enforcement interests, especially where technology is concerned. While that doesn’t always happen, it’s heartening to see that privacy concerns prevailed in this case.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


Small firm lawyers in 2019: geographic data, earnings, career satisfaction and more

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

*****

Small firm lawyers in 2019: geographic data, earnings, career satisfaction and more

Running a small law firm in 2019 isn’t easy, in part because the legal marketplace is in the midst of an unprecedented transformation. 21st century technologies and globalization are significantly impacting the business of law and continue to disrupt and alter the competitive landscape. Small firm lawyers are not immune from the rapid pace of change, and market forces have significantly altered many aspects of small firm practice.

For evidence of this you need look no further than the results of a number of different studies that were released this year. These reports include a vast array of data on small firm lawyers and their practices, including demographics and earnings data, along with insights on the pace of change and how law firms and lawyers are being affected by it. Here are some of the more interesting statistics from those reports.

Lawyer demographics and growth

For starters, according to the 2019 ABA National Lawyer Population Survey, lawyers are concentrated in regional pockets throughout the United States. The five states with the highest number of resident active attorneys living in the state are:

New York – 182,296
California – 170,117
Texas – 91,244
Florida – 78,448
Illinois – 62,720
D.C. – 56,135

In comparison, the same report shows that Alaska, Delaware, West Virginia, North Dakota, and Wyoming have a combined total lawyer population of less than 14,000.

Interestingly, according to another study, the ABA’s 2019 Profile of the Legal Profession Report, the states with the largest lawyer populations aren’t necessarily the states whose lawyer numbers are growing the quickest. Some of the states with the highest percentage of growth over the last decade were Florida with 28% growth, followed by Utah (27%), North Dakota (24%), North Carolina (22%), Texas (22%), and New York (19%). And D.C. has the most lawyers per capita, with 56,000 lawyers, with lawyers representing 1 out of every 13 D.C. residents.

Lawyer earnings

Next up, let’s take a look at lawyer earnings. According to the data from ABA’s 2019 Profile of the Legal Profession Report, the average lawyer salary is $144,230. Notably, lawyer earnings have increased far more slowly since the 2008 recession, and lawyer wages have increased only 9.3% in the past 5 years, compared to the 45% increase seen between 1997-2002.

Interestingly, according to the report, lawyers come in 4th overall for average industry wage, behind doctors, CEOs, and dentists.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that lawyer earnings vary greatly by region. The top 5 metropolitan regions where lawyers earned the most in 2018 were: 1) San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA ($207,950), 2) San Francisco-Oakland-Hayword, CA ($188,070), 3)Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD ($179.980), 4) Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA ($176,020), and 5) Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX ($175,380).



Also of interest is that according to the results of the Martindale-Avvo 2019 Attorney Compensation Report, small law firm earnings have increased overall in the past year. The survey results indicate that the mean earnings for the lawyers surveyed increased from $194,000 in 2017 to $198,000 in 2018. Similarly, the median earnings likewise increased from $135,000 in 2017 to $140,000 in 2018. 

Also notable are the top 5 most profitable practice areas. In 2018 they were: 1) medical malpractice ($267,000 on average), 2) personal injury ($254,000), 3) worker’s compensation ($226,000), 4) intellectual property ($224,000), and 5) business ($218,000).



Career satisfaction



And last but not least, the lawyers surveyed for the Martindale-Avvo Report were asked whether, if given a choice, they’d choose law as a career again. The vast majority said they would (71%). 74% reported that they’d choose the same practice area(s), and 57% said they’d choose that same work setting.

What about you? Would you do it all over again? And if so, what would you change, if anything?

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


Round up: Document Assembly Software, Robot Lawyers, and Paperless Tips

SpiralI often write articles and blog posts for other outlets and am going to post a round up here from time to time (but won't include my weekly Daily Record articles in the round up since I re-publish them to this blog in full). Here are my posts and articles since the end of May:


The mindful lawyer: apps and other resources

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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The Mindful Lawyer: Apps and Other Resources

It’s not easy being a lawyer. Lawyering can be a contentious, combative line of work. Your days are filled with constant and sometimes unexpected deadlines. The stress of practicing law is further compounded by the unrelenting pressure to bring in new books of business. And let’s not forget about billable hour requirements, which only add to the pressure cooker. And in some cases, despite your best efforts, you’re unable to achieve the desired results for your clients.

For all of these reasons, lawyers suffer from depression at twice the rate of the general population, and 40% of law students are clinically depressed before they even graduate. Suicide rates for lawyers are nearly 4 times higher than other professions and 7 in 10 lawyers report that they would change careers if the opportunity arose.

In other words, lawyering isn’t always easy. The good news is that there are ways to address the stresses that go hand in hand with practicing law. One of the most effective ways that you may have not yet considered is to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life.

Fortunately, there are lots of mindfulness apps and tools available for lawyers seeking to reduce heir stress levels through mindful thinking. Here are some of my favorites, all of which are low-cost or free resources designed to get you on your way to a more stress-free existence.


Let’s start with two very helpful books. The first is Dan Harris’ book “Ten Percent Happier.” In this book, Harris provides a great overview of the benefits of mindfulness from a refreshing, matter-of-fact perspective and explains very convincingly what a difference it can make if you’re able to use mindfulness to become just 10% happier.

Another book worth checking out is “The Anxious Lawyer,” an ABA-published book written by attorneys Jeena Cho and Karen Gifford. This book offers an 8-week guide in which mindfulness is used as a tool to help you achieve a more satisfying and balanced law practice. You can also access guided meditations based on the teachings of the book here.

Another great mindfulness resource is your smartphone. There are a vast assortment of mindfulness apps available for both Android and Apple devices. So much so that it can be difficult to sift through the plethora of options available to you.

But guess what? You’re in luck! I’ve made it easier by doing the leg work for you.

First, let's start with my two favorite mindfulness apps: Headspace and Calm. Both are very well known and when they were first released years ago, offered a large number of free mindfulness meditations. But as a result of their increasing popularity, both have shifted to paid subscription plans, which are well worth the price once you choose the one is the best fit for your needs.

In the meantime, both offer a few free guided meditations which you can try out. Additionally, if you have Apple TV, all of Calm’s meditations are available for free. And if you use Amazon’s Alexa, you can access a free daily guided meditation from Headspace via the Headspace skill. So those are two other very convenient ways to test out each app’s meditation offerings.

If you’d rather not invest in a monthly subscription payment in order to access guided meditations, then check out a free meditation app that I recently discovered: Smiling Mind. It’s an app created by an Australian not-for-profit organization, and it offers a vast array of free guided meditations and meditation series.

Next, if you wear an Apple Watch, make sure to take advantage of the free, built-in Breathe app. This app reminds you periodically, using a schedule that you determine, to take a minute to focus on your breathing. You also have the option of choosing the “Breathe” watch face. For your Apple Watch. This makes it even easier for you to access the app and check in with yourself by taking a mindful minute for breathing.

And don’t forget to take advantage of any support services offered by your local bar association. As mindfulness becomes increasingly common, bar associations across the country are incorporating mindfulness classes into their CLE schedules and are also providing members with other types of support services to help address stress-related issues. For example, if you’re a member of the Monroe County Bar Association locally, there is a “Lawyers Support Group for Self-Care and Well-Being,” which meets monthly.

And last, but not least, to learn more about lawyer mindfulness and see if it might be a good fit for you, make sure to watch this video recording of a webinar on mindfulness for lawyers with Jeena Cho.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


NYC Bar addresses Bitcoin as payment for legal services

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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NYC Bar Addresses Bitcoin as Payment for Legal Services

Cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, while still an unusual form of payment, is becoming more common and familiar to the average person. As a result, the issue of whether lawyers can ethically accept Bitcoin as payment for legal services is an issue that ethics committees across the country have begun to grapple with.

The latest to do so is the New York City Bar Associations’s Professional Ethics Committee. Earlier this month, the Committee addressed this very issue in Formal Opinion 2019-5.

Specifically, the issue considered by the Committee was whether “a fee agreement requiring the client to pay for legal services in cryptocurrency (is) a business transaction governed by Rule 1.8(a)?”

At the outset, the Committee noted that Rule 1.8 is inapplicable to ordinary fee arrangements between lawyers and their clients, since “ordinary fee agreements are relatively easy to understand, do not entail complex negotiation, and do not involve a significant risk that the client will repose misplaced trust in the lawyer to protect the client’s interests.”

However, according to the Committee, unlike traditional fee agreements, some contemplated cryptocurrency fee agreements may trigger the requirements of Rule 1.8. The Committee explained that whether the fee agreement regarding cryptocurrency payment constitutes a “business transaction” will depend on the way in which the lawyer and client intend to use cryptocurrency as payment.

According to the Committee, Rule 1.8 would not apply to the following scenario:
“The lawyer agrees to provide legal services at an hourly rate of $X dollars, which the client may, but need not, pay in cryptocurrency in an amount equivalent to U.S. Dollars at the time of payment.”

The Committee explained that Rule 1.8 is inapplicable because “the fee agreement is, in our view, an ordinary one where the lawyer is simply agreeing as a convenience to accept a different method of payment but the client is not limited to paying in cryptocurrency if it is not beneficial to do so. The lawyer and the client do not have to resolve terms as to which they may have differing interests. Cryptocurrency functions merely as an optional way of transmitting payment.”

However, in these 2 situations, Rule 1.8 does apply:

1. “The lawyer agrees to provide legal services for a flat fee of X units of cryptocurrency, or for an hourly fee of Y units of cryptocurrency.”
2. “The lawyer agrees to provide legal services at an hourly rate of $X dollars to be paid in cryptocurrency.”


The Committee determined that Rule 1.8 applies in these situations since both constitute a “business transaction.” This is because there are increased complexities presented in each scenario relating to accepting cryptocurrency as payment that would require the lawyer and client to negotiate certain variables and and issues that will arise due to the proposed payment terms.

For that reason, the Committee concluded that “(a) fee agreement requiring the client to pay cryptocurrency in exchange for legal services is subject to Rule 1.8(a) if the client expects the lawyer to exercise professional judgment on the client’s behalf in the transaction. In that case, the lawyer must comply with the procedural requirements of Rule 1.8(a)(1)-(3) before entering into the fee agreement.”

As such, the Committee explained that in both situations, the lawyers must comply with the requirements of Rule 1.8, which require that:

1) “(T)he transaction is ‘fair and reasonable to the client’ and must disclose the terms of the transaction in writing and ‘in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client…’”
2) “(T)he lawyer must advise the client, in writing, about the desirability of seeking separate counsel and must then give the client a reasonable opportunity to consult separate counsel.”
3) “(T)he client must understand and agree to “the essential terms of the transaction, and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction..The lawyer must secure the client’s ‘informed consent’…in writing.”

The bottom line: accepting cryptocurrency as payment for legal services isn’t impermissible in New York, but it’s important to tread lightly and think through your options carefully prior to doing so. The good news is that if you’re a New York lawyer and have been pondering whether to accept Bitcoin as payment for legal services, this opinion offers some very helpful and timely guidance.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 



NYC bar revisits New York lawyers and virtual law offices

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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NYC Bar Revisits New York Lawyers and Virtual Law Offices


Lawyers have been practicing law remotely for many years now, first via remote access tools and more recently by using cloud computing software, such as cloud-based law practice management software. Not surprisingly, as cloud computing legal software has become increasingly common in law firms, so too has the occurrence of practicing law virtually.

The ethical issues posed by New York lawyers practicing from virtual law offices (VLO) have been grappled with repeatedly in recent years. As.a result, I’ve often written about many of then different ethics opinions and legal decisions that have been handed down regarding those issues.

The most recent opinion addressing lawyers and virtual law firms was handed down by the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics. In March it issued Formal Opinion 2019-2, noting that he opinion replaced its earlier opinion, 2014-2, which I wrote about previously. The reason The Committee replaced its earlier opinion was so that it could take into account the subsequent determinations of “the New York Court of Appeals and the United States Court of Appeals (which) held that Section 470 requires lawyers admitted in New York but who reside in another state…maintain a physical law office within New York State.”

At issue in the March opinion was whether a solo practitioner who did not intend to have a traditional law firm, and instead planned to work from a home office while using a VLO for some purposes such as client meetings and service of process, could use the VLO’s physical address as the “principal law office” address for advertising purposes pursuant to Rule 7.1(h), and also on the firm’s business cards, letterhead, and website. For purposes of the opinion, a VLO was understood to be a “a facility that offers business services and meeting and work spaces to lawyers on an ‘as needed’ basis.”

One reason that this is such an important issue is that lawyers who work mostly from a home office are often reluctant to use their home address for attorney registration and advertising purposes. Requiring them to do so would stifle innovation in law practice and prevent New York lawyers from providing affordable and superior client service by taking advantage of emerging technologies.

Fortunately, the NYC Bar recognized this fact, and declining to adopt New Jersey’s “bona fide office rule,” which requires that lawyers maintain a fixed, specific, and full-time physical location where most law office functions occur, reasoning that “(s)uch a requirement would unnecessarily burden busy solo practitioners who spend most days in court and may have no full-time support staff.”  

The Committee explained that technology has drastically impacted the practice of law, and as a result, the concept of a “law office” has changed over time: “In recent years, the concept of a ‘principal law office’ has evolved somewhat as a result of significant advances in technology which provide an attorney with the flexibility to carry out a variety of activities at different locations and under varying circumstances. The term does not necessarily mean continuous physical presence but, at a minimum, it requires some physical presence sufficient to assure accountability of the attorney to clients and to the court.”

The Committee then concluded that a VLO can satisfy the requirements of a “principal law office” in New York: “(A) VLO as described in this Opinion includes a physical facility at which a lawyer may meet with clients and receive service of process…(A)ssuming the VLO qualifies under Section 470, it may be identified as a lawyer’s ‘principal law office’ under Rule 7.1(h).”

This is a notable and timely opinion. Certainly legal ethics should not be sacrificed in the face of change, but neither should ethics prevent or discourage lawyers from embracing change. Fortunately, in this opinion the Committee strikes the right balance and provides much-needed guidance for New York lawyers seeking to take advantage of 21st technologies in their virtual practices.

 

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


New York court allows smartphone search in absence of a warrant

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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New York Court Allows Smartphone Search in Absence of a Warrant

Smartphones have been around for 12 years now and during that time, they’ve become indispensable for many of us. They are small computers that we hold in the palms of our hands that provide us with access to the world. We use them to obtain information, share information, connect with friends and family, conduct work, and communicate, among other things. Smartphones have become central to the lives of most Americans. They’re the first thing we look at when wake up and the last thing we look at before going to sleep.

So it’s no surprise that in recent years, law enforcement officers have often sought access to smartphones in the course of their investigations. And as a result, courts have increasingly grappled with the constitutional issues presented by these requests.

For example, the United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether law enforcement could obtain historical cell phone records last year in Carpenter v. U.S., 138 Sup. Ct. 2206 (2018). In that case, the Court determined that a warrant was required in order to access the geolocation data stored in historical cell phone records.

But when it comes to law enforcement access to real-time cell phone data, the law reminds unsettled. In People v. Gordon, 58 Misc. 3d 544 (Sup. Ct. 2017), the issue presented was whether the pen register statute applied to the use of a cell site simulator to determine a suspect's location via geolocation data obtained from a cell phone. The Court concluded that cell site simulators were more akin to GPS devices given the invasive nature of the information collected by cell site simulators and thus “the use of a cell site simulator intrudes upon an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, acting as an instrument of eavesdropping and requires a separate warrant supported by probable cause rather than a mere pen register/trap and trace order such as the one obtained in this case.”

A similar conclusion was reached in Massachusetts Supreme Court opinion Commonwealth v. Almonor, No. SJC-12499 (2019), which I wrote about in April. In that case, the Court considered whether “whether police action causing an individual’s cell phone to reveal its real-time location constitutes a search in the constitutional sense” and concluded that it does in fact constitute a search when law enforcement obtains real-time location data from a cell phone provider.

Another issue that has cropped up in numerous court opinions around the country is whether law enforcement may compel an individual to provide biometric data in order to access a smartphone. I recently wrote about that issue in January when I covered a case handed down by Northern District of California Magistrate Judge Candice A. Westmore. In The Matter of the Search of a Residence In Oakland, California, Case No. 4-19-70053, the Court denied law enforcement’s request for a search warrant that required any individual present at the time of the search could be compelled to “press a finger (including a thumb) or utilize other biometric features, such as facial or iris recognition, for the purpose of unlocking the digital devices found in order to permit a search of the contents…” on the grounds that doing so would violate the individuals’ Fifth Amendment privilege against self incrimination.

But what about physical access, as opposed to digital access, to a smartphone? Is a warrant required for that? According to a recent New York case, the answer is “no.” In People v. Ward, 169 A.D.3d 833 (2d Dep’t 2019), the court considered whether the physical search of a defendant’s cell phone fell within search incident to arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. The Court concluded that it did, explaining that “unlike in Riley, the subject was a physical search of the phone, in which the police opened the back of the phone and looked under the battery to obtain the phone's serial number. As such, the intrusion on the defendant's privacy was limited to the fact of his ownership of the phone, and did not implicate any of the aspects found to distinguish a digital search from a search of any other physical object…”

Another day, another opinion on law enforcement access to smartphones. Since smartphone technology is unceasingly evolving and changing at a quick clip, new issues regarding access to information that is contained on, in, and is accessible via these devices will continue to arise. The various permutations of these issues will no doubt present fascinating legal decisions that will have long-lasting privacy implications.

Let’s hope that the courts will continue to stay abreast of rapid technological advancements, all the while thoughtfully balancing our fundamental privacy rights with the needs of law enforcement. This is especially important given the rapid expansion and invasiveness of technology in 2019. Now, more than ever, it’s increasingly imperative for judges to keep up with the pace of change. Freedom from governmental intrusion is the very bedrock of our democracy; to allow misunderstood technology to chip away at that foundation would contravene the very principles upon which this great country was founded.

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


Electronic signature sufficient for supporting deposition

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Electronic Signature Sufficient for Supporting Deposition

Every summer, during the course of conducting research for the annual update to the book I co-author with Judge Karen Morris, Criminal Law in New York, I often come across cases that offer an interesting take on the intersection of law and technology. People v. Almodovar, 63 Misc.3d 994 (Crim Ct. 2019) is just such a case.

At issue in this case is the sufficiency of the accusatory instrument charging the defendant with assault in the third degree, menacing in the second and third degree, criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree, and harassment in the second degree. Specifically, the defendant asserted that the accusatory instruments were defective due to the fact that “the supporting deposition's electronic signature is invalid under New York State law.”

In this case the accusatory instruments consisted of, in part, a complaint and the complainant’s supporting deposition attesting that the facts set forth in the complaint were true and were based upon her personal knowledge. The supporting deposition had been electronically signed and included the following language:

*The above is an “electronic” signature that has been authorized by the above named person pursuant to New York's electronic Signature and Records Act and New York State's Technology Law Section[s] 301-[309] (2002).”

Also submitted with the complaint was the affirmation of an assistant district attorney (ADA), which also included an email exchange between the ADA and the complainant that resulted in the complainant providing her electronic signature. The ADA’s affirmation provided, in relevant part, as follows:

(1)On or about, I spoke to [CARMEN LOPEZ] in the above-entitled action, and he/she agreed to sign the supporting deposition electronically.
(2)In addition, the attached emails were sent from my office email account to the complaint's email account.
(3)The attached emails are a complete and accurate copy of the emails I sent to the complainant in the above-entitled action and the complainant's response.
(4)After I received the attached email exchange, I called the complainant and confirmed that he/she typed the attached response.

In reaching its decision, the court examined the legislative intent behind the enactment of New York State Technology Law § 304 (2), which specifically allows the use of an electronic signature on most legal documents, unless otherwise provided by law. The Court noted that when the Legislature enacted the law, it did not include criminal court complaints or supporting depositions on the the list of enumerated exceptions.
The Court also considered the rulings recently handed down by a number of New York courts that had concluded that the use of an electronic signature on a supporting deposition was permissible.

Based on its analysis, the Court rejected the defendant’s argument, which was that the electronic signature was invalid since the email address used to register the electronic signature did not contain the complainant’s name, and thus someone else could have executed it. The Court proffered the following explanation:

(T)here is nothing in the State Technology Law that requires a person to only utilize an email address that contains their personal identifying information to execute an electronic signature. Indeed, it is the court's experience that people often do not put their names or other identifying information in their personal email addresses in order to deter identity theft, for privacy reasons, or simply because it is not available when they signed up for their email account.

Accordingly the Court concluded that the electronic signature on the supporting deposition was valid, and as such, the accusatory instrument was facially sufficient.

The Court’s conclusion was the correct one. Times are changing and technology’s impact cannot be ignored, even in the Halls of Justice. Electronic signatures are now commonplace and have binding legal effects; criminal courts should not be immune from this 21st century reality.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


Email tracking and lawyers: not a great mix

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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For most lawyers, email is their primary method of correspondence with clients, courts, opposing counsel and others. Over the years, we’ve become increasingly reliant on email because it’s a fairly simple and cost-effective way to communicate.

Of course, as technology has advanced, so too have the tools that can be used to make email more useful. Many of these tools have the end effect of streamlining email correspondence. Email add-ons and built-in features allow users to schedule emails, automate the process of sorting and filing emails, and snooze emails for viewing at a later date, among other things. In most cases, these new features increase the efficiency of email.

But sometimes email add-ons can have a more nefarious purpose. Case in point: email tracking tools. Typically this type of software allows the sender to track a wide range of things, including when a sent email and its attachments are opened, how long the recipient views the email and attachments, how many times they was opened, whether they were forwarded, and the geographical location of the recipient.

Email tracking clearly raises some ethical red flags in the context of lawyer communications, so it’s no surprise that its use by lawyers has been addressed by a number of ethics committees.

First there was New York Opinion 749 (2001), wherein the Committee on Professional Ethics determined that a lawyer may not “use available technology to surreptitiously examine and trace e-mail and other electronic documents.” Then there was the Alaska Bar Association Ethics Committee which concluded in Opinion 2016-1 that even if the use of email tracking software is disclosed, its application to emails sent to opposing counsel is ultimately both dishonest and unethical.

Pennsylvania has also issued an opinion addressing email tracking. In Formal Opinion 2017-300 the committee concluded that Pennsylvania lawyers should avoid using email tracking tools with opposing counsel. Most recently, in Opinion 18-01, the Illinois State Bar Association likewise determined that it is unethical for lawyers to use email tracking software with opposing counsel.


Last week, the issue of whether lawyers should use email tracking software once again reared its ugly head, but this time in the context of a war crime court martial. As covered in a number of major news outlets, defense counsel for
Edward Gallagher - a man accused of stabbing an Islamic State group militant to death - alleged that the military prosecutor in that case sent an email that included email tracking software to multiple lawyers, paralegals, and a reporter with the Navy Times.

Two weeks after the allegations were made, the judge presiding over the case issued a ruling that resulted in the removal the prosecutor from the case. The reasons for the removal were based on constitutional due process and Sixth Amendment grounds and because the threat of investigation into alleged prosecutorial misconduct could be viewed as a conflict of interest.

If you weren’t already convinced about the perils of lawyers using email tracking, this case offers even more evidence that lawyers and email tracking software are a bad combination. Likewise, it offers additional support for the recommendation I made when I wrote about email tracking software last year - and that I still stand by today:

“For those of you who practice in one of the many jurisdictions where this issue has not yet been addressed, I would suggest that it would be wise to err on the side of caution and, in the absence of consent, avoid using software with opposing counsel that could provide insights regarding their online behavior, whether it’s part of an email program or otherwise. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com.