Louisiana court: Online anonymity doesn’t shield lawyers from ethical obligations

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

*****

Louisiana court: Online anonymity doesn’t shield lawyers from ethical obligation

Office water coolers used to be gathering places where people discussed current events and caught up on office gossip. But, like many other time-honored traditions, even water cooler conversations have been affected by technology.

Certainly these in-office discussions still occur, but much of the day-to-day discourse about current events has shifted to the online realm. Whether it’s on Facebook, in online forums, or in the comments that follow news articles, there are plenty of opportunities to comment on and share opinions about recent events. Notably, many of these comments can be made anonymously, and as a result, some people are less restrained about their opinions than they would be if their personal identities were publicly attached to them.

Of course, the perceived anonymity is often an illusion, since there are many different ways to go about determining who posted a particular comment, should the need arise to do so. That’s a lesson that was learned the hard way by Salvadore R. Perricone, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Last month, the Supreme Court of Louisiana handed down an opinion, In re: Salvadore R. Perricone, No. 2018-B-1233, wherein the court considered whether Perricone violated his ethical obligations as a result of anonymous comments that he posted online between 2007-2014. Some of the comments related to trials for which he was the prosecuting attorney and others related to trials that his colleagues were prosecuting.

The anonymous postings included the following comments:

A statement that the defense attorney had “screwed his client!!!!,”and was just “as arrogant as [the allegedly bribed official] … and the jury knows it.”
During a federal civil rights trial involving the shooting of an unarmed man he wrote: “Perhaps we would be safer if the NOPD would leave next hurricane and let the National Guard assume all law enforcement duties.  GUILTY AS CHARGED.”
Regarding an indictment alleging conspiracy: “I read the indictment…there is no legitimate reason for this type of behavior in such a short period of time and for a limited purpose. GUILTY!!!”

When his comments were discovered and reported to a judge, an investigation was conducted and disciplinary charges were filed. After reviewing the findings and recommendations of the hearing committee and disciplinary board, the Supreme Court of Louisiana concluded that the appropriate sanction for Perricone’s conduct was disbarment.

The Court explained that Perricone’s actions were not innocuous: “When discovered, respondent’s actions caused serious, actual harm in the River Birch and Danziger Bridge cases and, most profoundly, to the reputation of the USAO. There was a potential for harm in the Jefferson and Gill-Pratt cases.”

According to the Court, disbarment was necessary for a number of reasons, not the least of which was to send a message to other lawyers to tread carefully when posting online about pending matters: “Respondent’s conscious decision to vent his anger by posting caustic, extrajudicial comments about pending cases strikes at the heart of the neutral dispassionate control which is the foundation of our system. Our decision today must send a strong message to respondent and to all the members of the bar that a lawyer’s ethical obligations are not diminished by the mask of anonymity provided by the Internet.”

In other words, the lesson to be learned is one that I often repeat: the online is simply an extension of the offline world. You don’t leave your ethics at the door when you enter the online realm. Think before you post - anonymously or otherwise - and refrain from commenting about any matters that you are personally involved in or about which you have inside knowledge. Your ethical obligations require it, and your law license depends on it.

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: Billing and Calendaring Software, Cybersecurity, and Millennial Lawyers

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 from November 2018:


Supreme Court of Florida weighs in on judges using social media

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

*****

 

Supreme Court of Florida weighs in on judges using social media

Whether judges should use social media has been a contentious issue for some time now. Early on, the consensus seemed to be that it was problematic for judges to do so, but over time that’s changed.

So, 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. But then in August of this year, the Third District Court of Appeal in Florida in in Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein v. United States Automobile Association, No. 3D17-1421 addressed the very same issue and reached a different conclusion. The court determined that it was departing from the holding in Domville and was declining to disqualify a judge as a result of his Facebook connnection with an attorney appearing in his court, since online friends are “not necessarily (friends) in the traditional sense of the word” and thus the fact that a judge is Facebook ‘friends’ with a lawyer for a potential party or witness does not necessarily mean that the judge cannot be impartial.

Just last week, the Supreme Court of Florida considered this case on appeal in Herssein and Herssein v. United States Automobile Association, No. SC17-1848. At issue was whether the lower court correctly determined that a Facebook friendship between a judge and an attorney appearing for the judge was not, in and of itself, a sufficient basis for disqualification of the judge.

In reaching its decision, the court first examined the concept of a “friendship,” explaining that simply being friends with someone does not indicate the level of closeness of the friendship: “It is commonly understood that friendship exists on a broad spectrum: some friendships are close and others are not...Thus the mere existence of a friendship, in and of itself, does not inherently reveal the degree or intensity of the friendship.”

Next, the Court applied this understanding to the concept of a Facebook “friendship” and concluded that not all Facebook friendships between a judge and an attorney appearing in their court require disqualification. The court examined the nature of Facebook connections, explaining that “(t)he establishment of a Facebook ‘friendship’ does not objectively signal the existence of the affection and esteem involved in a traditional ‘friendship’...(and) it is regularly the case that Facebook “friendships” are more casual and less permanent than traditional friendships.”

Accordingly, the Court reached the same conclusion as the majority of other jurisdictions that have recently addressed this issue and held that a Facebook friendship, in and of itself, was insufficient to warrant disqualification: “(T)he mere existence of a Facebook ‘friendship’ between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship. No reasonably prudent person would fear that she could not receive a fair and impartial trial based solely on the fact that a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge are Facebook ‘friends’ with a relationship of an indeterminate nature.”

This is, I believe, the correct decision. As I’ve opined in the past, judges are simply people and have lives outside the courtroom which include friendships with attorney colleagues that pre-date their appointment to the bench. It flies in the face of common sense to issue decisions that prevent judges from interacting on social media with the very same lawyers with whom they are already connected and with whom they regularly interact in public. It’s heartening to see that the Florida Supreme Court agrees with this position and has issued a ruling that aligns with the realities of living in the 21st century.

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. 


Two paths for 21st-century law firms: innovation or extinction

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

*****

Two paths for 21st-century law firms: innovation or extinction

When I graduated from law school in 1995, the world was a different place. Legal research still occurred in law libraries using books. Windows 95 had not yet been released and MS-DOS reigned supreme. The internet was just emerging on the scene and cell phones were few and far between.

Fast forward 23 years and times sure have changed, haven’t they? The effects of technology are inescapable and unavoidable. Nearly all aspects of our lives - and law practices - have been affected, from how we communicate and interact with others, to how share information, collaborate, and conduct business. And yet, despite the rapid technological advancements, many lawyers continue to practice law just as they did in 1995.

Now, this isn’t necessarily surprising. Ours is a precedent-based profession and predicting the future based on what happened in the past has historically proven to be a very successful way of doing business.

Unfortunately, that methodology is proving to be acutely ineffective in the 21st century given the tremendous and unprecedented rates of technological change. Never before has the world experienced such an incredible rate of change at such a fast pace.

The inescapable result of the impact of technology on the legal industry is that lawyers must innovate in order to survive. Unfortunately, due to the unique characteristics exhibited by most lawyers, innovation is a surprisingly difficult task to accomplish.

According to Michele DeStefano, author and Professor of Law at the University of Miami, the personality traits of lawyers often stand in the way of an innovative mindset. In her recently published book, “Legal Upheaval: A Guide to Creativity, Collaboration, and Innovation in the Law” she explains that it’s not easy for lawyers to innovate. This is in part due to the innate qualities of the types of people drawn to the law and in part due to our training.

For starters, lawyers tend to be skeptical. In fact, according to DeStefano, we’re nearly twice as skeptical as the general public. We’re also less trusting than the general public, which is no surprise given our high rates of skepticism.

Unfortunately, lawyers aren’t a very resilient bunch either, with 90 percent of us scoring in the bottom 50 percent when it comes to character resilience. We’re also more introverted than most, with 60% of us qualifying as introverts. Finally, as a group we tend to be very risk averse, a trait that flies in the face of innovation.

In other words, as DeStefano explains, “The lawyer’s temperament…is the opposite of what is required to… innovate — to creatively, collaboratively problem find and solve.”

Does that mean it’s hopeless? Is it impossible for lawyers to innovate? Of course not! The trick is to work hard to change your mindset. DeStefano offers strategies in her book that designed to do just that, so you might want to look into getting a copy.

In addition, take steps to learn about technology and how it’s impacting the practice of law. Subscribe to a few technology blogs, buy a few more books, attend technology CLEs, and approach technology with an open mind.

One book to consider reading is “Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction To Your Future.” In this book, Richard Susskind predicts how technology will affect the legal industry as a whole in the coming years and offers advice for lawyers seeking to thrive in the new world order.

Susskind explains that adopting technology will be one of the primary drivers of success for law firms seeking to gain a competitive edge: “One key challenge for the legal profession…is to adopt new systems earlier; to identify and grasp the opportunities afforded by emerging technologies. We need, as lawyers, to be open-minded because we are living in an era of unprecedented technological changes in what our machines can actually do.”

The bottom line: Technology is not your enemy, and change is inevitable. Approach both with an open mind and embrace them. Ignoring technological change in 2018 simply isn’t an option.

Embrace change and innovate - or become extinct. The choice is yours.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software. 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: Secure Communication, Cybersecurity, Podcasts for Lawyers, and More

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 from October 2018:


Is coworking a viable option for solo and small firm lawyers?

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

*****

It is beyond dispute that technology has changed the legal landscape. Brick and mortar offices are no longer a requirement, as more lawyers than ever transition their firms’ data from paper to digital. As a result, the days of paper files and being tethered to your desk are long gone.

Instead, lawyers have more options than ever due to technological advancements. The proliferation of internet access and cloud computing software ushered in a new era, making it possible for lawyers to access case-related information from any location, day or night. As a result, virtual and home-based law practices have emerged as an affordable and viable way to practice law.

Of course, practicing law from a home-based or virtual law firm has its challenges, especially in New York. For starters, attorney registration procedures require that a law firm’s address be publicly listed. A post office box will not suffice, and many lawyers are understandably reluctant to provide their home addresses for publication in the online attorney registry. Also problematic is finding a suitable location in which to meet with clients and discuss confidential information.

Enter coworking as a practical, cost-effective solution for solo and small firm lawyers.

Over the years, coworking spaces have become increasingly prevalent, in part due to advances in technology that have made it easier than ever to work remotely. As someone who works remotely for MyCase, a California-based company that provides law practice management software for lawyers, I’ve kept an eye on this trend, but found that the available local options were unappealing to me for a variety of reasons.

But when I recently learned of a new coworking space just for lawyers that had just opened on the east side of town, I was intrigued. And then, after visiting the office and taking a tour, I was sold. Within days I’d signed on the dotted line and have been coworking for the past month from The Loffice at Basin Park. which is located near Bushnell’s Basin.

Coworking with other lawyers offers a number of benefits. Whether you’re looking for a location to meet with clients, an alternate address to list on your attorney registration, a home base that is closer to courts in outlying counties, or a break from the isolation of working from a virtual law firm, coworking might be just what you need. One of the most obvious benefits of using a coworking space rather than leasing your own office is cost. For just a few hundred dollars you have access to a furnished office and its accompanying address.

Coworking spaces also provide you with flexibility in terms of your office setup. Most will typically provide you with a number of different options, such as a collaborative workspace, a shared office, or a private office.

You’ll also most likely have access to office equipment such as printers, a paper shredder, a copier, a a fax machine, secure wifi, and a community kitchen. Because the particular coworking space I work from is associated with the law firm located next door (Larimer Law), attorneys who use this space also have the option of using the firm’s receptionist for greeting clients, receiving mail and packages, etc.

Finally, most coworking spaces typically provide access to conference rooms for meetings with clients, and a telecommunications room. So when you need privacy, it’s available. But when you’d like some camaraderie, a sense of community, or a colleague to bounce an idea off of, you have that available to you, too.

So, if you’re a Rochester lawyer who is practicing law from a home office or other atypical setup, coworking might be worth considering. As your law practice grows or changes over time, you’ll need options for flexible expansion at an affordable price. Coworking provides just that, so don’t overlook coworking spaces; they might be just what you need.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software. 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. 


Fitbit Evidence Provides Alibi For Victim’s Boyfriend

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

*****

Fitbit Evidence Provides Alibi For Victim’s Boyfriend

Last week, I wrote about a recent case where Fitbit data was used in a California case to convict the defendant, the victim’s step-father, of her murder. In that case, the victim was wearing a Fitbit and her heart rate data obtained from the device conflicted with the defendant’s version of events, ultimately resulting in his conviction.

That wasn’t the first time I covered the impact of wearable devices in court. in 2015, I wrote about two cases where Fitbit data was used in litigation: one where it was offered as evidence to support a personal injury claim and the other where it was used to disprove a complainant’s rape allegations. Then in 2017, I covered a case where Fitbit data and other digital evidence was used in a Connecticut murder prosecution to convict the defendant of murdering his wife.

Another criminal case from earlier this year in Wisconsin that I haven’t yet covered was notable because it involved Fitbit data being used as alibi evidence. In that case, the defendant, George Burch, alleged that the victim’s boyfriend, Doug Detrie, had forced him to commit the murder at gunpoint. However, a host of evidence, digital and otherwise, belied his assertion.

A good portion of the digital evidence used to pinpoint Burch’s movements on the night of the murder was obtained from his cell phone and Google Dashboard. By using that data, expert witnesses were able to show the jury that Burch was at the scene of the murder on the morning in question and then subsequently traveled to the location where they body was disposed of after the murder was committed.

Burch’s defense was that although he committed the murder and disposed of the body, he did so because Detrie held him at gunpoint and forced him to commit those acts. Fortunately for Detrie, he was wearing a Fitbit at the time of the murder and the Fitbit data contradicted Burch’s claims.

Not all of the Fitbit data was admissible, however. Specifically, the data that showed that Detrie was sleeping at the time of the murder was held to be inadmissible due to scientific disagreement regarding the reliability of that specific data. Other Fitibit data was deemed admissible, however, and that data provided an alibi that made all the difference in this case.

According to the Fitibit data, Detrie didn’t take nearly the number of steps required on the evening of the murder for his activity levels to comport with the movements alleged by Burch. The Fitibit data showed that Detrie took 20-30 steps at approximately 4 a.m. on the morning of the the murder. He asserted that he went to the bathroom at that time. Burch’s claims would have required Detrie to walk at least 2 or more miles on the evening of the murder.

After hearing the testimony and considering the evidence, the jury concluded that Burch was wearing his Fitbit on the evening of the murder and that the data obtained from it was accurate - and provided him with a much-needed alibi. The jury thus discounted Burch’s version of events and convicted him of the murder.

This is yet one more example where data from a wearable device provided crucial evidence that made all the difference in the outcome of the case. It’s also further proof that the devices we rely on and carry with us 24/7 collect a wealth of information about our movement and activities, all of which is readily accessible by law enforcement, sometimes with, and other times without, a warrant.

Certainly this should give you pause, and if nothing else, you might want to check the privacy settings of your smartphones, wearable devices, and the online accounts that sync with your mobile devices. Ascertain what type of data is collected and for what purpose, and then determine the value of the services provided using that data. If it’s not all that important to you, then switch off the ability to collect that data, to the extent that it’s possible.

No doubt there are plusses and minuses to living in the 21st century. The benefits include convenience, flexibility, and 24/7 access to information, but when balanced with the loss of privacy, are sometimes outweighed. The good news is that in some cases, the digital data can be your friend and provide you with an alibi, but that’s not always the case. The decision regarding how much privacy to sacrifice in order to take advantage of the positive aspects of living in the digital age is a personal one.The choice is yours, and it’s not always an easy one to make.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software. 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. 


Fitbit Data Used As Evidence In A New Murder Case

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

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Fitbit Data Used As Evidence In A New Murder Case

Wearable devices are becoming incredibly common. Take a look around - you’ll notice Fitbits, Apple Watches, and other wearable devices on the wrists of many people whom you encounter on a daily basis, including your legal colleagues and co-workers. They’re being used to track people’s health and fitness information, to ensure people are notified of important messages and events, and to assist with navigation, among other things.

Because they track so many aspects of our lives, the data collected and stored on the devices and shared with our phones can sometimes prove invaluable in court. I find their evidentiary potential to be incredibly interesting, so I started following and writing about cases where data from wearable devices has been used as evidence in litigation. For example, in 2015, I wrote about two cases where Fitbit data was used in litigation: one where it was offered as evidence to support a personal injury claim and the other where it was used to disprove a complainant’s rape allegations.

Then in 2017, I covered a case where Fitbit data and other digital evidence was used to support a Connecticut murder prosecution. The digital evidence included cellphone records for the defendant and his wife, 2) computer records from the defendant’s laptop, 3) Facebook records for the defendant, his wife, and his girlfriend, 4) text messages, and 5) Fitbit records for the victim, the defendant’s wife.

Now, there’s a new case where Fitbit data is being used in a murder prosecution, this time in California. In this case, the accused is the step-father of the victim. The victim was discovered in her home on Thursday, September 13th by a coworker after she failed to show up for her job. She was deceased, slumped over a desk, and was wearing a Fitbit while holding a butcher knife. She had sustained a deep cut to her neck. What initially appeared to be a suicide was later determined to be a homicide after the medical examiner determined that she’d suffered from many deep wounds to her head and face.

When questioned by police, her step-father informed them that he had stopped by her home on Saturday, September 8th to drop off pizza. He also stated that later in the day he saw her again when she drove by his home with someone in the passenger seat of her car. He denied harming her.

However, evidence obtained by the investigating officers conflicted with his account. First, there was surveillance video showing that his car had been at her home for 21 minutes on Saturday, September 8th, from 3:12 - 3:33 pm. The video did not show her driving from her home in her car subsequent to that point in time, despite the defendant’s claims to the contrary.

There was also digital data obtained from the victim’s Fitbit. It showed that her heart rate spiked at 3:20 p.m. on September 8th. It then slowed down quickly and her Fitbit stopped registering a heartbeat at 3:28 p.m. In other words, her Fitbit showed that her heart had stopped beating during the timeframe that the defendant’s car was at her home.

Based on the surveillance video and Fitbit evidence, and his conflicting account, he was arrested and charged with her murder. The case is still pending, so his ultimate fate remains unknown. But it’s a great example of the valuable evidence that can be obtained from wearables. While certainly not conclusive, when considered in conjunction with other evidence discovered throughout an investigation, this type of data can sometimes make - or break - a case. Tune in next week for an example of a case where, instead of making the prosecution’s case, wearable data instead provided the accused with a viable alibi.

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software. 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. 


Texas Bar on lawyers seeking legal advice from other lawyers in online forums

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

*****

Texas Bar on lawyers seeking legal advice from other lawyers in online forums

Lawyer-only online forums and listservs are commonplace. Often these forums are hosted by bar associations, but that’s not always the case. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Reddit private groups are often created by lawyers for lawyers. Because these groups are typically gated communities, lawyers can comfortably discuss a multitude of issues. Referral sources are sought, trending legal issues are mulled over, and opinions are solicited regarding issues arising in a lawyer’s practice.

It’s the last topic that was addressed in a recent Texas ethics opinion. One issue considered in Opinion 673 was whether it is ethical for lawyers to seek advice for the benefit of their clients from other lawyers outside of their firm in an online discussion group.

At the outset, the Professional Ethics Committee for the State Bar of Texas acknowledged that informal consultations with other attorneys occur often, both online and offline: “It is common for lawyers to have informal lawyer-to-lawyer consultations touching on client-related issues. Informal consultations may occur in a variety of situations, such as when a lawyer poses questions to a speaker at a CLE seminar, when a lawyer seeks advice from members of an online discussion group, or when a lawyer solicits the insight of a trusted mentor. Informal consultations allow lawyers to test their knowledge, exchange ideas, and broaden their understanding of the law, with the realistic goal of benefiting their clients.”

However, the Committee emphasized that when doing so, it’s important to have a full understanding of your ethical obligations, including the duty of client confidentiality. Importantly, not all consultations will involve a discussion of confidential information, such as “asking general questions about a particular statute, rule or legal procedure.”

Of course, that’s not always the case, and on occasion, an attorney may “consider it necessary to provide a certain amount of factual context in order to frame the issue and obtain useful feedback.” In those cases, whether the consultations occurs online or off, a lawyer must tread lightly, and be fully aware of the ethical implications.

That being said, the Committee explained that, with limitations, doing so is permissible, even in the absence of consent from one’s client: “It is the opinion of the Committee that Rules 1.05(d)(1) and (2) allow a lawyer to reveal a limited amount of unprivileged confidential information to lawyers outside the inquiring lawyer’s law firm, without the client’s express consent, when the inquiring lawyer reasonably believes that the revelation will further the representation by obtaining the responding lawyers’ experience or expertise for the benefit of the client, and when it is not reasonably foreseeable that revelation will prejudice the client.”

The Committee provided the following tips to assist lawyers in walking the fine line between a permissible consultation and one that impermissibly disclosed client confidences. First, it’s important to limit the “consultation to general or abstract inquiries that do not disclose confidential information relating to the representation.” If that’s not possible, it’s permissible to “reveal a limited amount unprivileged client information in a lawyer-to-lawyer consultation, without the client’s express consent, when and to the extent that the inquiring lawyer reasonably believes that the revelation will benefit the inquiring lawyer’s client in the subject of the representation.” However, when doing so, it’s necessary to use “a hypothetical that does not identify the client,” otherwise doing so is unethical “if it is reasonably foreseeable that the disclosure of the information will harm, prejudice or embarrass the client.”

So if you’ve ever wondered about the parameters of interacting ethically online in lawyer forums when discussing client hypotheticals, then some of your questions have been answered by this opinion. Not surprisingly, online discussions aren’t treated differently than offline discussions for ethics purposes. After all, as I always say, the online is simply an extension of the offline. That being said, online interactions are much more easily recorded for posterity’s sake - and for review by an ethics committee. The lesson being - keep that in mind when engaging online and err on the side of caution when seeking consultation regarding issues that may involve client confidences.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software. 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 on disaster preparedness and ethical obligations

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

*****

ABA on disaster preparedness and ethical obligations

In the wake of Hurricane Florence, disaster preparedness is on everyone’s minds. For lawyers affected by disasters, natural or otherwise, there are unique concerns given the nature of the services that they provide. Statute of limitations and other deadlines must be met despite the weather, as do clients’ needs and concerns. The drumbeat of the law stops for no one which is why lawyers need to take steps to ensure that their law office will continue to run smoothly even after a natural disaster hits.

For lawyers who are unsure how to go about doing this, an opinion recently issued by the American Bar Association provides some guidance. In Formal Opinion 482, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility addressed lawyers’ ethical obligations in the face of a disaster and provided advice for lawyers seeking to implement a disaster plan for their law firm.

The opinion addressed a host of different ethical issues faced by lawyers following a disaster in regard to both existing and potential clients. What follows is a summary of some of their recommendations, most of which relate to existing clients.

At the outset, the Committee explained the reason that lawyers must engage in disaster planning: “Lawyers have an ethical obligation to implement reasonable measures to safeguard property and funds they hold for clients or third parties, prepare for business interruption, and keep clients informed about how to contact the lawyers (or their successor counsel).”

Next, the Committee focused on the importance of ensuring an open line of communication with clients, even in the midst of a natural disaster. The Committee emphasized that part of disaster preparedness entails ensuring that client contact information will be readily available after a disaster hits, and that storing information electronically where it is easily accessible 24/7 is often a important part of making that happen: “One of the early steps lawyers will have to take after a disaster is determining the available methods to communicate with clients. To be able to reach clients following a disaster, lawyers should maintain, or be able to create on short notice, electronic or paper lists of current clients and their contact information. This information should be stored in a manner that is easily accessible.”

The value of online storage, typically in the cloud, was repeatedly stressed throughout the opinion. The Committee explained that exploring these options and choosing the right provider are important steps to take as part of disaster preparedness: “(L)awyers must evaluate in advance storing files electronically so that they will have access to those files via the Internet if they have access to a working computer or smart device after a disaster. If Internet access to files is provided through a cloud service, the lawyer should (i) choose a reputable company, and (ii) take reasonable steps to ensure that the confidentiality of client information is preserved, and that the information is readily accessible to the lawyer.”

The Committee also offered the following guidelines for law firms creating a disaster plan:

Lawyers should check with the courts and bar associations in their jurisdictions to determine whether deadlines have been extended.
Lawyers also must take reasonable steps in the event of a disaster to ensure access to funds the lawyer is holding in trust.lawyers should take appropriate steps in advance to determine how they will obtain access to their accounts after a disaster.
Lawyers whose circumstances following a disaster render them unable to fulfill their ethical responsibilities to clients may be required to withdraw from those representations.
To prevent the loss of files and other important records, including client files and trust account records, lawyers should maintain an electronic copy of important documents in an off-site location that is updated regularly.
(Lawyers) must notify current and former clients of the loss of documents with intrinsic value, such as original executed wills and trusts, deeds, and negotiable instruments.

Finally, the Committee concluded the opinion with these words of advice: “Lawyers must be prepared to deal with disasters. Foremost among a lawyer’s ethical obligations are those to existing clients, particularly in maintaining communication. Lawyers must also protect documents, funds, and other property the lawyer is holding for clients or third parties. By proper advance preparation and taking advantage of available technology during recovery efforts, lawyers will reduce the risk of violating professional obligations after a disaster.”

You never know when a disaster may strike. Whether it’s a fire, flooding, or other unexpected occurrence, planning is key. Is your firm ready for a disaster? It not, there’s no better time than now to start planing, and reading this opinion in its entirety 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. 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.