ABA Ethics Committee on Copying Clients on Emails to Opposing Counsel
In a few of my recent columns, I've addressed the many issues encountered when lawyers use electronic forms of communication. Among them are the host of security and ethical issues encountered when lawyers use email to communicate with their clients. Notably, there’s a reason I keep writing about this topic: in recent months, ethics committees from multiple jurisdictions have handed down opinions focused on these very issues.
Most recently, I discussed a New City Bar Association ethics opinion, Formal Opinion 2022-3. At issue in this opinion was whether it is ethical for lawyers to cc or bcc their clients on emails sent to other attorneys. The Committee on Professional Ethics explained that this common practice triggers several ethical concerns and advised lawyers to think twice before copying clients on an email.
One situation that the New York City Ethics Committee addressed was whether lawyers should bcc “their client on an email with other counsel and the client then replies to all.” The Committee joined other jurisdictions in concluding that in that situation, the attorney of the client who has been bcc’d “has not impliedly consented, without more, to other counsel’s contacting the attorney’s client.”
The American Bar Association addressed this same issue a few weeks ago in Formal Opinion 503.
The ABA Committee considered the issue of implied consent when bcc’ing a client and reached a result that differed from that of several ethics committees, including the New York City Ethics Committee.
The ABA Committee explained the rationale for its departure was grounded in providing clarity for lawyers seeking ethical guidance: “Several states have answered this question in the negative, concluding that sending lawyers have not impliedly consented to the reply all communication with their clients. Although these states conclude that consent may not be implied solely because the sending lawyer copied the client on the email to receiving counsel, they also generally concede that consent may be implied from a variety of circumstances beyond simply having copied the client on a particular email….This variety of circumstances, however, muddies the interpretation of the Rule, making it difficult for receiving counsel to discern the proper course of action or leaving room for disputes.”
According to the ABA Committee, a clear-cut rule was required in order to remove any doubt and ensure that lawyers clearly understood how to proceed when copying clients on emails: “In the absence of special circumstances, lawyers who copy their clients on an electronic communication sent to counsel representing another person in the matter impliedly consent to receiving counsel’s ‘reply all’ to the communication.”
Next, the Committee provided lawyers seeking to share emails with their clients with alternative mechanisms: “(U)nless that result is intended, lawyers should not copy their clients on electronic communications to such counsel; instead, lawyers should separately forward these communications to their clients. Alternatively, lawyers may communicate in advance to receiving counsel that they do not consent to receiving counsel replying all, which would override the presumption of implied consent.”
While the ABA Committee’s intent is to provide clarity, its determination is at odds with the conclusions reached in other jurisdictions. As a result, lawyers are faced with conflicting conclusions about the proper use of email, and unfortunately, I fully expect things to get worse as more jurisdictions address the landmine of ethical issues presented by email communications with clients.
As far as I’m concerned, the writing is on the wall: email is outdated, and lawyers should consider using more secure electronic communication methods, such as client portals, in order to protect client confidentiality and avoid ethics violations. There are better, more secure electronic communication methods available, and I would strongly recommend making that transition sooner rather than later.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the head of SME and External Education 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 [email protected].