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New Jersey on the ethics of ‘reply all’ emails

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

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New Jersey On The Ethics Of “Reply All” Emails

Lawyers have communicated with clients via electronic means for more than two decades. For most of that time period, email has been the preferred and primary method of electronic communication. However, over time, email - which is inherently unsecure and is no different than sending a postcard written in pencil through the post office - has begun to fall out of favor as technology has improved.

For that reason, in recent years, more secure communication methods are increasingly being recommended by ethics committees and cybersecurity security experts. More secure options include encrypted email and the encrypted client communication portals built into law practice management software, for the reasons set forth in ABA Opinion 477, where the ethics committee concluded that due to “cyber-threats and (the fact that) the proliferation of electronic communications devices have changed the landscape…it is not always reasonable to rely on the use of unencrypted email.”

Despite this recommendation, many lawyers continue to use unencrypted email for confidential client communications, and doing so can sometimes compromise confidentiality. For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics recently addressed one of the many ethical risks posed by email: the use of the “reply all” functionality.

At issue in NJ Ethics Opinion 739, which was handed down in March, was whether ethical issues were presented when lawyers used the “reply all” function to respond to a group email that had been sent by a lawyer who had cc:d his client in on the original email. Specifically the inquiring lawyer queried whether lawyers who used the “reply all” function in that scenario were unethically communicating with his client without consent, thus compromising the confidentiality and sanctity of the attorney-client relationship.

At the outset, the Committee noted that the applicable Rule of Professional Conduct was Rule 4.2, which  provides: “In representing a client, a lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a person the lawyer knows, or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should know, to be represented by another lawyer in the matter ….”

Next, the Committee wisely considered analogous offline conduct prior to reaching its determination. Specifically the Committee explained that when lawyers receive a letter where opposing counsel’s client is copied, it would be unethical for the recipient lawyer to respond by writing a letter addressed to both the lawyer and the client. In comparison, if a lawyer placed a phone call to another attorney and the client was on the line as well, the lawyer who initiated the call would have been deemed to impliedly consent “to opposing counsel speaking on the call and thereby communicating both with the opposing lawyer and that lawyer's client.”

According to the Committee, because email is a decidedly informal method of communicating, when clients are cc:d in on a group email, it is assumed that all replies to the email are directed  toward the attorneys in the group and not the client.

The Committee acknowledged that some other jurisdictions have concluded otherwise, and have found that implied consent to client communications does not occur in this scenario. However, the Committee specifically rejected that determination since “these opinions from other jurisdictions do not fully appreciate the informal nature of group email or recognize the unfairness of exposing responding lawyers to ethical sanctions for this conduct.”

Therefore, the Committee concluded that implied consent does, in fact, in this situation and that “(l)awyers who initiate a group email and find it convenient to include their client should not then be able to claim an ethics violation if opposing counsel uses a ‘reply all’ response. ‘Reply all’ in a group email should not be an ethics trap for the unwary or a ‘gotcha' moment for opposing counsel. The Committee finds that lawyers who include their clients in group emails are deemed to have impliedly consented to opposing counsel replying to the entire group, including the lawyer's client.”

I wholeheartedly agree with the Committee’s conclusion, and particularly appreciate that it reached its determination on this issue by considering how Rule 4.2 is applied to analogous forms of offline communication. Because, as I always say, the online is simply an extension of the online. New rules are rarely required for online conduct. Instead, existing rules and principles can be applied to online conduct thus providing more relevant and concrete guidance that will withstand the test of time.

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.