ethics

Florida Bar Hands Down Opinion on AI Ethics

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

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Florida Bar Hands Down Opinion on AI Ethics

We’re heading into the second year of generative artificial intelligence (GAI) availability, and if you haven’t been paying attention to this cutting-edge tool, there’s no better time than the present. GAI is advancing at an exponential rate and is rapidly being incorporated into the software tools you use every day. From legal research and contract drafting to law practice management and document editing, GAI is everywhere, and avoiding it is no longer an option. 

This is especially so now that legal ethics committees across the country are rising to the challenge and issuing GAI guidance. The first to do so was the State Bar of California’s Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct, which handed down a thorough roadmap for ethical generative AI adoption in law firms in November 2023. As I discussed in another article, the guidance provided was extensive and covered many different ethical issues including technology competence, confidentiality, and the requirement of candor, both with legal clients and courts.

More recently, both Florida and New Jersey released guidance, with Florida issuing Ethics Opinion 24-1 on January 19th, and New Jersey handing down preliminary guidelines on January 24th. Below I’ll break down the Florida opinion, and in my next article will address the New Jersey guidance.

In Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 24-1 (online: https://www.floridabar.org/etopinions/opinion-24-1/), the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics concluded that lawyers may use GAI, but, of course, must do so ethically. The Committee addressed a broad range of ethics issues in the opinion, ranging from confidentiality and pricing to supervision and lawyer advertising.

At the outset the Committee explained that GAI tools can “create original images, analyze documents, and draft briefs based on written prompts,” but in doing so can hallucinate, which means providing “inaccurate answers that sound convincing.” As a result, the Committee cautioned that all output must be carefully reviewed for accuracy.

Next, the Committee reviewed GAI in the context of confidentiality and advised that lawyers who use GAI must have a thorough understanding of how the GAI technology handles data input and whether it uses input to train the GAI system. 

According to the Committee, a key way to do that is to vet GAI providers in much the same way as cloud computing providers. Take steps to ensure that: 1) the provider has an enforceable obligation to preserve data confidentiality and security, 2) the provider will notify the customer in the event of a breach or service of process requiring the production of client information, 3) Investigate the provider’s reputation, security measures, and policies, including any limitations on the provider’s liability; and 4) Determine whether the provider retains submitted information submitted before and after the discontinuation of services, or otherwise asserts proprietary rights to the information.

When it comes to client consent, the Committee noted that one way to mitigate confidentiality concerns would be to use in-house GAI tools like the legal-specific tools I referenced above, “where the use of a generative AI program does not involve the disclosure of confidential information to a third-party” in which case, “a lawyer is not required to obtain a client’s informed consent pursuant to Rule 4-1.6.” 

Next, the Committee reiterated the obligation to carefully review the output of any GAI tool, and that lawyers must ensure that all firm users are instructed to do this as well. The Committee cautioned that lawyers should not delegate work to a GAI tool that “constitute(s) the practice of law such as the negotiation of claims” nor should GAI be used to create a website intake chatbot that could inadvertently “provide legal advice, fail to immediately identify itself as a chatbot, or fail to include clear and reasonably understandable disclaimers limiting the lawyer’s obligations.”

Another key topic addressed was legal fees for GAI usage. The Committee explained that clients should be informed, preferably in writing, of the lawyer’s intent to charge a client the actual cost of using generative AI” and that lawyers can charge for the “reasonable time spent for case-specific research and drafting when using generative AI.”

Importantly, the Committee acknowledged that learning about GAI is part of a lawyer’s duty of technology competence, and explained that lawyers are obligated to develop competency in their use of new technologies like GAI, including their risks and benefits. However, clients cannot be charged for “time spent developing minimal competence in the use of generative AI.” In other words, you can’t charge clients for the cost of maintaining your ethical duty of technology competence.

The opinion also covers other ethics issues, so make sure to read it in its entirety. I don’t think certain requirements will withstand the test of time, such as the need to notify clients that you plan to use GAI. In the past, when ethics committees have required client notification as it relates to technology usage, that obligation has faded over time as the technology became commonplace. GAI will follow the same course, but it will happen much faster. 

That’s why these ethics opinions are so important: they provide lawyers with a roadmap for the ethical use of these tools. That being said, I don’t think these GAI opinions are technically necessary. Earlier opinions provide sufficient guidance for ethical technology adoption that can be easily applied to GAI. However, from a practical standpoint, these opinions serve a purpose: they provide a framework for moving forward and encourage lawyers to embrace GAI and the future that it brings. This means you have no excuse: there’s no better time than now to become familiar with GAI and its significant potential. 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Head of SME and External Education at MyCase legal practice management software, an AffiniPay company. She is the nationally-recognized author of "Cloud Computing for Lawyers" (2012) and co-authors "Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier" (2010), both published by the American Bar Association. She also co-authors "Criminal Law in New York," a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for Above the Law, ABA Journal, and The Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. She is an ABA Legal Rebel, and is listed on the Fastcase 50 and ABA LTRC Women in Legal Tech. She can be contacted at [email protected].


California Ethics Committee is First to Weigh in On AI

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

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California Ethics Committee is First to Weigh in On AI

Back in August, I discussed the imminent arrival of legal ethics opinions on generative AI tools. Since then, a small number of pioneering lawyers have experimented with this technology even without ethics guidance. For those who have been holding off until an ethics committee weighed in, your wait is over. 

As we head into the final month of 2023, you’ll be happy to know that ethics guidance focused on generative AI was published on November 16 by the State Bar of California’s Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct (COPRAC). 

It provides a thorough roadmap for generative AI adoption in law firms. 

At the outset, COPRAC explained that AI in its current state is simply a new kind of technology and does not warrant special treatment. As a result, “the existing Rules of Professional Conduct are robust, and the standards of conduct cover the landscape of issues presented by generative AI in its current forms. However, COPRAC recognizes that generative AI is a rapidly evolving technology that presents novel issues that might necessitate new regulation and rules in the future.”

The guidance provided by COPRAC was extensive, addressing many different ethical issues. Issues addressed included technology competence, confidentiality, and the requirement of candor, both with legal clients and courts. Below you’ll find some of the most notable takeaways.

The first topic tackled was the duty of confidentiality. According to COPRAC, lawyers “must not input any confidential information of the client into any generative AI solution that lacks adequate confidentiality and security protections.” The overarching obligation lawyers have in this regard is to fully vet AI providers and their products (or have an IT consultant do this on your firm’s behalf) so that you fully understand how confidential data will be handled and protected.

COPRAC also addressed technology competence, explaining that lawyers must learn, to a reasonable degree, “how the technology works, its limitations, and the applicable terms of use and other policies governing the use and exploitation of client data by the product.” In addition to ensuring an understanding of generative AI, the ethics rules also require that AI outputs be carefully reviewed for accuracy and bias.

Next up was the duty of supervision. COPRAC explained that supervisory and managerial attorneys must ensure that clear policies are in place that address permissible uses of AI. Those measures must provide “reasonable assurance that the firm’s lawyers and non lawyers’ conduct complies with their professional obligations when using generative AI.”

COPRAC further emphasized the importance of full candor with courts and clients. To that end, lawyers should carefully review all generative AI outputs for accuracy and correct any errors before submission to courts. The committee cautioned that “(o)verreliance on AI tools is inconsistent with the active practice of law and application of trained judgment by the lawyer…and AI-generated outputs can be used as a starting point but must be carefully scrutinized.”

Similarly, client communication obligations require that lawyers consider disclosing their intention to use generative AI to clients, “including how the technology will be used, and the benefits and risks of such use.” The committee also advised lawyers to be aware of any client directives that might conflict with the use of AI in their case.

Last but not least, COPRAC weighed on billing clients for AI-related work product, explaining that lawyers may charge for the time spent creating, refining, and reviewing generative AI outputs. Notably, the committee opined that charging for the time saved by using generative AI is impermissible. Finally, it determined that fee agreements “should explain the basis for all fees and costs, including those associated with the use of generative AI.”

With the issuance of this widely-anticipated guidance, nothing is holding you back from diving into the generative AI waters. With the recent release of legal generative AI products from LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters, and with many other legal AI products in the works, there’s no better time than now to take advantage of all that this technology offers. Rest assured, if you aren’t using it and reaping the time-saving benefits and efficiencies, your competitors undoubtedly will be.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Head of SME and External Education at MyCase legal practice management software, an AffiniPay company. She is the nationally-recognized author of "Cloud Computing for Lawyers" (2012) and co-authors "Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier" (2010), both published by the American Bar Association. She also co-authors "Criminal Law in New York," a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for Above the Law, ABA Journal, and The Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. She is an ABA Legal Rebel, and is listed on the Fastcase 50 and ABA LTRC Women in Legal Tech. She can be contacted at [email protected].


Legaltech Due Diligence: Evaluating Cloud and AI Software

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

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Legaltech Due Diligence: Evaluating Cloud and AI Software

Technology is evolving at a pace never before seen. While it can often feel overwhelming, there’s no better time to embrace change by incorporating emerging tools like cloud-based software and artificial intelligence (AI) into your law firm. Given the rapid pace of change, your best option is to do all you can to avoid falling behind.

Of course, whenever you consider implementing new cloud-based technology, including AI software, into your law firm, it’s essential to thoroughly understand the implications of technology adoption and fully vet all software providers that will handle your firm’s data. Your ethical obligation is to take reasonable steps to ensure that all confidential information will be properly protected and securely maintained.   

One of the first things you can do to ensure your firm’s data security is to use legal technology tools rather than consumer-grade software. Legal technology providers understand the needs and ethical obligations of legal professionals and are thus better equipped to meet your needs. But even when using legal software, you still required to understand how your firm’s data will be handled and protected. 

If you’re not sure where to start, I’ve got you covered. Below you’ll find a partial list of questions to ask cloud and AI companies. The comprehensive list of questions can be accessed online here: https://www.lawtechtalk.com/questions-to-ask-cloud-providers.html.

These questions will help you vet legal software providers, including 1) who will have access to it and under what conditions; 2) what steps will be taken to secure the data, 3) what types of data backup procedures are in place, 4) whether the accuracy and reliability of the output are sufficient for your needs, and 5) how you can export your data should you decide to switch providers.

Partial List of Questions to Ask AI Providers 

  • What is your AI’s core technology and architecture?
  • What data does your AI require for training?
  • How do you ensure your AI model’s accuracy?
  • How does your AI handle bias and fairness?
  • How is your AI model updated and improved over time?
  • What is your AI’s interpretability and transparency like?
  • What is your model’s performance in real-time applications?
  • Can your AI model be customized to our specific needs?
  • What kind of support and training do you provide?
  • How do you ensure confidentiality, data security, and privacy?

Partial List of Questions to Ask Cloud Providers

  • How long has the company been around?
  • What type of facility will host your law firm's data?
  • Who else has access to the cloud facility, the servers, and the data?
  • How does the vendor screen its employees?
  • Is the data accessible by the vendor’s employees limited to only those situations where you request assistance?
  • If there are integrations with the company's product, how does the company screen the security processes of the other vendors?
  • If there is a problem with a product that integrates with the vendor's software, which company will be responsible for addressing the issue?
  • Does the contract with the vendor address confidentiality?
  • How often are backups performed?
  • What types of encryption methods are used?

Keeping up with change isn’t always easy, but it’s essential in today’s fast-paced environment. Staying up-to-date and carefully vetting the companies that will provide technology solutions for your firm will lay the groundwork for future success. Your diligent efforts will pay off in the long run by enabling your law firm to thrive by leveraging technology that will level the playing field and allow you to compete in innovative ways never before imagined. 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Head of SME and External Education at MyCase legal practice management software, an AffiniPay company. She is the nationally-recognized author of "Cloud Computing for Lawyers" (2012) and co-authors "Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier" (2010), both published by the American Bar Association. She also co-authors "Criminal Law in New York," a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for Above the Law, ABA Journal, and The Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. She is an ABA Legal Rebel, and is listed on the Fastcase 50 and ABA LTRC Women in Legal Tech. She can be contacted at [email protected].


Sharing space, not secrets: Office sharing insights from ABA Formal Opinion 507

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

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Sharing space, not secrets: Office sharing insights from ABA Formal Opinion 507

The landscape of our lives looks very different now than it did before the pandemic struck. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the workplace. Remote work is more common than ever and increased technology usage has enabled more flexible and creative work arrangements. Because five-day in-office work weeks are less common, office-sharing arrangements have become more palatable for lawyers. Less office space is required due to hybrid work schedules, thus allowing more people to work from one office and divide rental costs while also sharing resources. 

However, with more office-sharing by attorneys comes the need to carefully balance the convenience with the potential risks this type of arrangement can pose. Fortunately, there is guidance available in the form of a recently released ethics opinion, ABA Formal Opinion 507.

Handed down in July, this opinion addresses the ethical issues that arise when lawyers participate in office-sharing arrangements. The Standing Committee on Ethics and Responsibility concluded that it is generally permissible for lawyers to share offices with others, but when doing so there are a number of ethical issues to keep top of mind.

First, the Committee cautioned that it’s essential to take steps to protect client confidentiality. Lawyers must ensure that the physical arrangement of the shared office space does not expose client information to other office-sharing lawyers or their staff. Safeguards that should be considered include maintaining separate waiting areas, installing privacy screens, and using technology to provide secure storage for client files 

The Committee discussed the importance of using separate telephone lines and computer systems, along with providing staff training to protect client information: "(L)awyers can also restrict access to client-related information by securing physical client files in locked cabinets or offices and using separate telephone lines and computer systems. Lawyers, however, may overcome confidentiality concerns with shared telephone and computer systems with appropriate security measures, staff training, and client disclosures." 

While keeping client information secure is paramount, it's not the only ethical obligation lawyers need to consider. Clear communication was also emphasized. According to the Committee, lawyers have an ethical obligation to clearly communicate the nature of their relationship to the public and clients to avoid misleading impressions. There are a number of ways that lawyers sharing office space can ensure compliance, including using separate business cards, letterheads, and directory listings.


The Committee also opined on the importance of taking steps to avoid conflicts of interest, explaining that attorneys “should pay particular attention to (1) avoiding the imputation of conflicts of interest, (2) taking on potential new matters that are adverse to clients represented by other office sharing lawyers, and (3) consulting with fellow office sharing lawyers.” 

Another area to approach with caution is when sharing staff with other lawyers. 

If lawyers decide to share support staff, they must instruct all employees regarding their confidentiality obligations and should take steps to supervise them appropriately. 

Finally, the Committee addressed issues that arise when lawyers who share office space consult with one another about their cases. According to the Commitee, lawyers should avoid disclosing client-identifying or privileged information during informal consultations, and discussing issues through hypotheticals is recommended. Notably, these consultations can sometimes lead to unexpected conflicts of interest that could limit a lawyer's ability to represent current or future clients. Therefore, a standard conflict check should be conducted before any informal consultation discussion in order to mitigate this risk.

The pandemic and technological changes have upended traditional legal practices. As a result, we now have an unprecedented array of options for how and where to conduct our work. But as this opinion reminds us, with this newfound flexibility comes a heightened ethical burden. In a landscape that's shifting almost as quickly as technology itself, this opinion provides much-needed guidance for lawyers seeking to take advantage of the many benefits offered by hybrid work arrangements like office-sharing.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Head of SME and External Education at MyCase legal practice management software, an AffiniPay company. She is the nationally-recognized author of "Cloud Computing for Lawyers" (2012) and co-authors "Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier" (2010), both published by the American Bar Association. She also co-authors "Criminal Law in New York," a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for Above the Law, ABA Journal, and The Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. She is an ABA Legal Rebel, and is listed on the Fastcase 50 and ABA LTRC Women in Legal Tech. She can be contacted at [email protected].


Never fear, AI guidance for lawyers is near

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

*****

Never Fear, AI Guidance for Lawyers is Near

You may have noticed that generative AI tools like ChatGPT are making waves lately. However, in their current iteration, when these tools are used by legal professionals, it’s not necessarily smooth sailing.

If you’re worried about ethics and security, rest assured you're not alone. The promised efficiencies of these tools are tempered by genuine concerns about the accuracy of results, confidentiality, and ethical compliance. Since this technology is both new and rapidly changing, implementation in law firms is a challenging task, and innovative lawyers are forced to navigate the uncharted waters of generative AI in the absence of clear guidance.

Fortunately, help is on the way. In a number of different jurisdictions, plans have been announced that are designed to address many of the thorny issues presented by generative AI, either through the issuance of ethics opinions or the formation of committees dedicated to tackling these challenges.

For example, in July the New York State Bar Association announced that it was forming a task force to address emerging issues related to artificial intelligence. The Bar explained that the task force would “address the benefits and potential dangers surrounding artificial intelligence and make regulatory recommendations for this powerful and fast-developing technology.” The task force plans to “develop policies for bar association adoption and suggest legislation to govern effective and responsible AI use.”

Similarly, a few weeks later, the Texas State Bar also announced the formation of a workgroup that would “examine the ethical pitfalls and practical uses of AI and report back within the year.” The ultimate goal is for the workgroup to provide recommendations on the policies related to AI that should be implemented by the state bar.

Finally, in May, the California Bar created a committee tasked with examining the impact of AI on the profession. The goal is to draft an advisory ethics opinion for release in November that would address the risks and benefits of using AI in legal practice and provide guidance on how to do so while complying with ethical obligations.

In the meantime, because generative AI technology is evolving so fast, you may as well learn as much as you can about it. That way, when the time comes, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about whether and how to use it in your law firm.

The guidance offered by the various state bars will help, but you’ll need to have a foundational knowledge of AI technology in order to make an educated choice that complies with the findings and determinations of the appropriate committee.

This course of action not only makes sense, it also ensures compliance with the duty of technology competence.

To get started, there are three sites with sections devoted to AI that will enable you to easily track the latest generative AI news: Above the Law, Legaltech News, and ABA Journal.


And if you’re really interested in a deep dive into ChatGPT and best practices for using this tool in your law practice, there’s a course available that is offered by New Orleans attorney and legal technology consultant, Ernie Evenson. It’s a free course called “Using ChatGPT in Modern Practice."

So whether you’re a legal tech geek or a curmudgeon, never fear: the technological and ethical assistance that the legal community has been seeking will arrive soon. While you’re waiting, embracing these changes and preparing for the new regulatory landscape is a great way to chart an innovative course while continuing to serve your clients effectively. The intersection of law and AI is a journey, and with the right roadmap, it’s one that promises to be both rewarding and impactful.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Head of SME and External Education at MyCase legal practice management software, an AffiniPay company. She is the nationally-recognized author of "Cloud Computing for Lawyers" (2012) and co-authors "Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier" (2010), both published by the American Bar Association. She also co-authors "Criminal Law in New York," a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for Above the Law, ABA Journal, and The Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. She is an ABA Legal Rebel, and is listed on the Fastcase 50 and ABA LTRC Women in Legal Tech. She can be contacted at [email protected].


Ethical implications of charging credit card fees: Insights from the NYSBA

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

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The Ethical Implications of Charging Credit Card Fees: Insights from the NYSBA

As the legal profession adapts to the digital age, the types of payment methods accepted from clients have likewise evolved. Lawyers in 2023 accept many forms of payment from clients, including credit cards. In fact, accepting credit card payments for legal services has become increasingly commonplace.

However, that wasn’t always the case. When lawyers first proposed the idea of accepting credit cards for payment of legal fees, there was significant resistance. The concern was that legal clients who were facing the complexities of their cases would be further burdened by the additional costs associated with credit cards. This resistance was grounded in our profession's commitment to maintaining a fair and equitable relationship between lawyers and clients.

Over time, however, attitudes changed. Credit cards were viewed with less skepticism, and as a result, many lawyers now regularly accept credit cards from clients. By doing so, they increase access to justice by making it possible for potential clients to afford lawyers when they might otherwise have been unable to do so. In other words, when lawyers accept credit cards, they offer their clients much-needed flexibility and convenience.

However, with this ease of payment comes new ethical considerations. Credit cards are a unique form of payment and as is always the case when it comes to any type of legal fee arrangement, transparency and reasonableness are always essential, as recently explained by the New York State Bar Association in Ethics Opinion 1258 (Online: https://nysba.org/ethics-opinion-1258-credit-card-fees-as-an-expense/). 

At issue in this opinion was whether it is ethical for lawyers to pass credit card processing fees onto clients as an expense, and under what circumstances. 

In reaching its determination, the Committee on Professional Ethics first confirmed that lawyers in New York can ethically accept credit cards from clients to pay for legal services as long as the following conditions are met: 1) The legal fee charged is reasonable; 2) The attorney maintains the client's information in strict confidence; 3) The lawyer doesn't let the credit card company influence their independent professional judgment when representing the client; 4) The lawyer informs the client prior to processing the credit card charges, giving the client an opportunity to question any billing discrepancies; and 5) In case of any disagreements regarding the lawyer's fee, the lawyer seeks to obtain a peaceful and quick resolution, and if relevant, follows the fee dispute resolution program set forth in 22 N.Y.C.R.R. Part 137.

Next, the Committee turned to the issue of charging clients the cost of the merchant processing fee. According to the Committee, Rule 1.5(a) of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct, prohibits attorneys from imposing "an excessive fee or expense" on a client. The rule outlines a series of factors, although not exhaustive, to help determine if a fee or expense is too high. The Committee explained that when a lawyer wants to pass a merchant processing fee to a client who uses a credit card for payment of legal services, it is considered an "expense" under Rule 1.5(a), which mandates that an attorney provide written notification to the client about the "fees and expenses" for which they will be accountable.

The Committee concluded that because a merchant fee from a credit card transaction is an “expense,” New York lawyers are permitted to transfer the merchant processing fee to clients who use credit cards to pay for legal services, as long as both the lawyer's fee and the processing fee are reasonable, and the lawyer previously notified the client in writing and received their approval to proceed.

Protecting the interests of legal consumers is essential regardless of the payment method accepted. This opinion, and others like it, play a pivotal role in safeguarding the interests of legal clients. They ensure that regardless of the payment method, the ethical standards of the profession prioritize the rights and interests of clients, reinforcing the fundamental principles of fairness and integrity in legal practice. 

Of course, whether it’s good business to pass processing fees onto clients is a different issue. Just as you may avoid gas stations that charge more for gas, so too may a legal client avoid a law firm that abides by this practice. 

Another option would be that once your firm begins to accept credit cards, consider increasing hourly rates across the board to account for expected credit card processing charges. Either way, your firm gets paid the same amount, but the process is simplified and your client likely will feel less resentment. Ultimately, the choice is yours, and you should do what works best for your firm and its clients.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Head of SME and External Education at MyCase legal practice management software, an AffiniPay company. She is the nationally-recognized author of "Cloud Computing for Lawyers" (2012) and co-authors "Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier" (2010), both published by the American Bar Association. She also co-authors "Criminal Law in New York," a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for Above the Law, ABA Journal, and The Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. She is an ABA Legal Rebel, and is listed on the Fastcase 50 and ABA LTRC Women in Legal Tech. She can be contacted at [email protected].




ABA Ethics Committee on Copying Clients on Emails to Opposing Counsel

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

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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].


New York Bar on Whether Lawyer YouTube Videos Constitute Advertising

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

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New York Bar on Whether Lawyer YouTube Videos Constitute Advertising

Lawyers have been advertising online for more than two decades. As technology evolves, the methods of online advertising also change. New social media platforms are launched, and the features of existing sites are regularly modified. 

Because the online world is ever-changing, it can sometimes be difficult for lawyers to navigate the ethical issues that arise when engaging online, especially when it comes to attorney advertising. Some interactions can be deemed personal, while others are professional. And, not all professional interactions necessarily equate to attorney advertising. 

As a result, it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether attorney advertising rules apply. Fortunately, bar association ethics committees regularly issue opinions as to which online interactions constitute attorney advertising and thus require the appropriate disclaimers.

For example, last week, the New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics handed down Ethics Opinion 1251, which focused on whether educational YouTube videos released by lawyers constitute lawyer advertising.

At the outset, the Committee confirmed that lawyers are permitted to educate the public on legal topics, and that, generally speaking, doing so does not constitute attorney advertising: “It is not unethical for a lawyer to write articles, give lectures, or write a blog about topics of general or specific interest, including the law.”

The Committee then turned to educational YouTube videos, likening them to law firm newsletters. It explained that the application of a three-prong test previously established to determine whether newsletters constituted advertising was appropriate in the context of analyzing the content of attorney YouTube videos. That test required an assessment of “the content of the communication, the intent (purpose) of the communication, and the targeted audience of the communication.” 

Next, the Committee provided examples of educational YouTube content that would not require an attorney advertising disclaimer: “To the extent that the YouTube videos provide general legal information for the public about ‘being a lawyer in the U.S.’ and ‘work-life balance,’ the videos would not constitute advertising.”

In comparison, as the Committee explained, videos focused on promotional news about the lawyer or law firm fall under the ambit of lawyer advertising: “To the extent, however, that the YouTube videos include information and news about the lawyer and her law practice for the primary purpose of retention of the inquirer, they would constitute advertising.”

The Committee also provided clarification regarding other ethical issues that may arise even when the YouTube channel and videos do not amount to attorney advertising. 

First, the Committee advised that “publishing and linking the inquirer’s name and contact information with the channel will not, in and of itself, push the content of the videos across the line into advertising.”

Second, the Committee advised lawyers to tread with caution when responding to any comments to the videos and provide only general information rather than individual legal advice in order to avoid the risk of inadvertently creating an attorney-client relationship.

Finally, the remaining issue addressed related to the possibility that a law firm might link to the YouTube channel or video from the firm’s website or other types of online firm advertisements. According to the Committee, in that situation, it may be appropriate to label the videos as lawyer advertising. 

This opinion provides lots of helpful advice, so I would suggest you read it in its entirety, especially if you’re licensed to practice in New York. If you’re a New York lawyer, should your firm choose to use YouTube or other video platforms to share educational videos, make sure to follow the guidance from this opinion. Finally, if you’re still unsure whether an attorney advertising disclaimer is required, I would suggest you include it. As I always say, better safe than sorry.

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].


Pennsylvania on the ethics of using smartphones for client data storage

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

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Pennsylvania on the ethics of using smartphones for client data storage

These days most lawyers use smartphones for work-related reasons. Smartphone use has become so common that according to the ABA’s 2022 Legal Technology Report, 81% of lawyers surveyed reported that they used smartphones in the courtroom.

Of course, whenever lawyers use technology, security and ethical risks must be considered, and smartphones are no exception. Fortunately, state ethics bars are rising to the occasion and providing guidance for lawyers who store confidential client contact information on their mobile devices.

For example, a few months ago I wrote about New York Ethics Opinion 1240. In this case, handed down in April, the Committee on Professional Ethics considered whether it’s ethical for lawyers who store current, former, or prospective client contact information on their phones to consent to share their contacts with a smartphone app.

The Committee concluded that if a lawyer found that the contact information included confidential client information, “the lawyer may not consent to share contacts with a smartphone app unless the lawyer concludes that no human being will view that confidential information and that the information will not be sold or transferred to additional third parties, without the client’s consent.”

More recently, Pennsylvania Bar Association Committee on Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility addressed a similar issue. In Formal Opinion 2022-500, the Committee considered the ethical considerations that arise when lawyers store client information on a smartphone.

The Committee agreed, in part, with the conclusions reached by the New York committee relating to client contact information stored on mobile devices, but expanded its focus to also address issues concerning others types of confidential information stored on smartphones.

The Committee explained that the Pennsylvania Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6, which addresses client confidentiality, differs from New York’s Rule and precludes a lawyer from revealing “information relating to representation of client,” a concept that encompasses a broader range of data than the New York Rule.

As a result, the Committee determined that if a lawyer’s smartphone contains information relating to client representation, “then the lawyer may not consent to share the information with a smartphone app unless the lawyer concludes that no human being will view that information, and that the information will not be sold or transferred to additional third parties, without the client’s consent.”

Precautions lawyers must take to protect confidential client information governed by Pa.R.P.C. 1.6. In some circumstances, this may include declining to give certain permissions to certain apps, avoid installing certain apps, or choosing not to store confidential information on their smartphones.

The Committee provided the following guidance for lawyers seeking to comport with their ethical obligations to maintain client confidentiality when using mobile devices and interactign online:

• When possible, do not store Rule 1.6 information on smartphones.
• Limit the ability of apps to access data, such as contacts, calendars, photographs, camera, microphone, location, files and more. While lawyers have an ethical obligation to do so, it also makes sense to limit the access of apps as much as feasible to protect the privacy of clients and lawyers.
• Android and Apple make it relatively easy to determine which apps access which types of data. For Apple users, check and set permissions by going to Settings > Privacy. For
Android users, check and set permissions by going to Settings > Apps > tap the App >
Permissions. The manufacturers also provide guidance on their websites.
• Minimize risks by not oversharing on social media.
• Keep device software up to date.
• Use a device passcode.
• Use a password manager.
• Enable Multifactor Authentication (MFA) when available.
• Always check and set app permissions to bar or minimize exposure of extraneous data to apps while retaining their functionality.

The guidance offered in both opinions is useful regardless of whether you’re licensed in those jurisdictions. This is especially so if your jurisdiction has not yet weighed in on these ethical issues.

The bottom line: take care whenever you interact online and when storing confidential client data on your mobile devices. Think before you type, and carefully consider whether to share client-related data, including contact information, with any apps that you download.

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].


Pennsylvania Provides Further Guidance on Secure Client Communication

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

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Pennsylvania Provides Further Guidance on Secure Client Communication

Are you still using email to communicate with your clients about confidential matters? If so, you might want to re-think that approach. Because when it comes to secure communication, the tide is most decidedly turning.

For many years there were rumblings of security issues with email in earlier opinions, and in 2017 the American Bar Association weighed in more definitively when it issued Opinion 477R. In that opinion, the ethics committee concluded that lawyers should avoid using unencrypted email when discussing particularly sensitive matters. Then, during the early days of the pandemic, both Pennsylvania (Formal Opinion 2020-300) and Wisconsin (Formal Ethics Opinion EF-21- 02) ethics committees referenced the ABA opinion’s conclusion and adopted its basic premise regarding secure communication in the context of providing ethical guidance for remote work.

Fast forward to 2022, and the Pennsylvania Bar Association has issued yet another helpful opinion that offers further guidance on the obligation of lawyers when communicating with clients using unencrypted email. In Formal Opinion 2022-400, the Pennsylvania Bar Association Committee on Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility considered the ethical obligations of attorneys when “transmitting information relating to the representation of a client to clients, opposing counsel, judges, and others.”

The Committee reviewed the ethical obligations triggered when lawyers communicate with clients along with the conclusions reached in other jurisdictions related to secure electronic communications. The Committee ultimately determined that in some situations, it is ethically permissible for attorneys to communicate about clients for work-related purposes using unencrypted email.

However, the Committee concluded that prior to doing so should, lawyers should, on a case-by-case basis, evaluate the benefits and risks associated when using unencrypted email given the nature of the information that will be discussed. Attorneys must discuss the risks and benefits of unencrypted communication with their clients, and if the risks outweigh the benefits, compliance with competence requirements may necessitate the use of more secure methods for communication.

According to the Committee, certain information should never be sent using unencrypted email, such as when a client has requested maximum security for certain information or when highly sensitive materials are being discussed or shared. The Committee also provided valuable guidance to help lawyers determine whether unencrypted email is the most appropriate method for a particular communication.

The Committee explained that lawyers should:

Whenever possible, avoid transmitting files containing information relating to the representation of a client as email attachments
Consider using “Encrypt & Prevent Forwarding” features if available
Advise clients not to forward emails or memos to third parties.
Encrypt communications or use passwords for attachments containing client-related information
Reduce the likelihood of unauthorized access by using a central file-sharing portal, cloud storage provider, or similar service
Consider using a client portal to eliminate the need to attach files to email and or use an end-to-end encrypted email service.

The easiest way to protect confidential client information when communicating electronically is to use a secure client portal built for law firms, like the ones built into law practice management software. By doing so, you avoid the hassle of assessing security risks on a case-by-case and email-by-email basis.

Encrypted email can be difficult to set up and often requires the assistance of an IT expert. In comparison, client portals are built into user-friendly software, and no IT assistance is needed to set them up.

Secure client communication portals provide an encrypted tunnel that protects client data and solves the problem of scattered communications. All client portal messages are stored in a secure, centralized online location that is easily accessible 24/7. All messages are connected with the appropriate case file, and your client’s confidential information is protected from prying eyes.

If your law firm is still using unencrypted email to discuss confidential client issues and has not yet transitioned to a more secure communication method, there’s no time like the present to make that change. The writing is on the wall: unencrypted email is an outmoded and ethically questionable way to communicate about client matters. Make the switch to an encrypted form of electronic communication today, and rest easy knowing that your law license, and your client’s data, are protected.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and Senior Director of SME and External Education at MyCase legal practice management software. She is the nationally-recognized author of "Cloud Computing for Lawyers" (2012) and co-authors "Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier" (2010), both published by the American Bar Association. She also co-authors "Criminal Law in New York," a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for Above the Law, ABA Journal, and The Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. She is an ABA Legal Rebel, and is listed on the Fastcase 50 and ABA LTRC Women in Legal Tech. She can be contacted at [email protected].

 

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].