Web/Tech

Lawyers and technology competency: Louisiana weighs in

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

*****

Lawyers and technology competency: Louisiana weighs in

In 2019, lawyers have a duty to stay on top of changes in technology. This requirement first appeared in 2012 when the ABA amended the comments to Model Rule 1.1 to indicate that technology competence is a requirement for lawyers. Specifically, Comment 8 was amended to include the following:

Maintaining Competence
To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.
Since then the majority of jurisdictions (36) have adopted this requirement.

In 2018 Louisiana joined their ranks in its own unique way when it amended its Code of Professionalism (which is a set of principles separate from its Rules of Professional Conduct) by adding the following two provisions regarding technology competence:

“I will use technology, including social media, responsibly. My words and actions, no matter how conveyed, should reflect the professionalism expected of me as a lawyer.”
“I will stay informed about changes in the law, communication, and technology which affect the practice of law.”

Notably, these two statements regarding technology differ quite a bit from the language that the other jurisdictions have incorporated into their Rules of Professional Conduct. While this choice of wording and the decision to include the statements in the Code of Professionalism rather than amending the Rules of Professional Conduct may at first blush seem insignificant, a recent ethics opinion issued by the Louisiana State Bar Association is indicative of a perspective on technology competence - and on technology itself - that differs substantially from that of other jurisdictions.

Under consideration in PUBLIC Opinion 19-RPCC-021 (online:
http://files.lsba.org/documents/Ethics/EthicsOpinionLawyersUseTech02062019.pdf), which was handed down in February, was the ethical obligations of lawyers who use technology. Importantly, in framing the issue, the Bar seemed to imply that lawyers do not necessarily need to use technology in order to practice law in 2019, and that if they choose to do so, only then do they have an obligation to understand it.

The focus of the opinion is on the many dangers of using technology, with an emphasis on the many risks lawyers face when doing so. The tenor of the opinion is evident from the very start when the Bar characterizes the approach taken any other jurisdictions in the following manner:

“The consensus is that if a lawyer is going to use technology, that lawyer has a duty to comply with Rules 1.1, 1.3, 1.4, 1.6 and 1.15 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Lawyers must use technology competently and diligently. (Emphasis added).”

Then towards the end of the opinion the Bar again suggests that using technology is a choice for lawyers:

“(I)f a lawyer chooses to use technology in the lawyer’s practice, basic issues must be addressed. (Emphasis added).”

Compare these statements to the explanatory language quoted above (that most states have adopted into the comments to their Rules of Professional Conduct):

“To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”

In the preceding sentence, knowledge of technology is part of the duty to maintain competence. Technology know-how is not optional and it is not something that a lawyer can avoid simply by choosing not to use technology.

In other words, the consensus regarding technology competence is not that lawyers must be competent only if they choose to use technology. Instead the consensus is that in 2019, lawyers must understand technology so that they can make educated decisions regarding whether and how to use it in their practices.

This is an important distinction since in 2019 it is impossible for lawyers to practice law without encountering - and thus necessarily gaining an understanding of - technology in one form or another. And the failure of lawyers to understand how a given technology works and how it will affect their clients’ matters is a violation of the duty of competence at best, and malpractice at worst.

For example, litigators need to understand how social media platforms work in order to assess whether social media evidence exists that would benefit or harm their clients’ matters. The failure to do so could arguably result in malpractice in some cases.

Similarly many jurisdictions are now requiring e-filing in some courts. A basic understanding of the concepts related to digital documents and e-filing, including proper redaction techniques, is needed in order to competently represent clients and timely file papers with the court.

For other lawyers, a basic understanding of ediscovery procedures is a prerequisite to competent representation of their clients. Similarly for lawyers handling matters involving potentially sensitive issues secure client communication options other than unencrypted email must be carefully considered in order to properly protect confidential client data.

These are only a few examples of how technology unavoidably overlaps with the practice of law. So, to put it mildly, I was extremely surprised by the tenor of the Louisiana opinion. Not only does it represent a marked shift from the approach taken by other jurisdictions - it seemingly flies in the face of the realities of practicing law in the 21st century. The proper framework for addressing the impact of technology on the practice of law and lawyers’ ethical obligations when doing so is not to ask if a lawyer will use technology, but when.

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. 


When emojis and the law collide

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

*****

When I started writing about the intersection of law and technology in 2006, emojis were a sidebar in the world of communication. Until the release of the first smartphone, the iPhone, emojis were typically used only in certain online chat rooms. But with the release of the iPhone in 2007, people were able to use emojis more often using various messaging apps. And then when iOS 6 was released in 2012, iPhone users were able to easily include emojis in Apple’s native messaging platform. From there, emojis become a common part of everyday communication.

Of course, as is often the case, whenever technological advancements occur - especially in the realm of communications - a notable impact on legal proceedings soon follows. For example, in 2011 I wrote a column focused on a witness intimidation case covered in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. It was a federal court case where the defendant was alleged to have “poked” someone on Facebook, and in doing so was alleged to have intimidated a witness. The judge conducting the arraignment admitted that he lacked sufficient knowledge regarding the nature of a Facebook poke, as did the attorneys appearing on the matter. The judge then asked the courtroom spectators if anyone could explain the concept and refused to move forward with the arraignment until he was satisfied by the explanation provided by a reporter who happened to be in the courtroom.

That was the very first time I had encountered a report of social media impacting a criminal matter so I found it to be of great interest. Of course, since 2011, social media references in court cases have increased exponentially. Notably, that same phenomenon is now occurring with emojis as they become commonplace in many of our digital communications, and references to emojis and emoticons in court cases have increased significantly in recent years.

In 2004, there was a single case that referenced the word “emoticon.” Fast forward to 2012, and there were 7. In 2015, there were 15 cases that referenced either the terms “emoji” or “emoticon,” and last year that number had increased to 53. (For a full list of references see this post.)

The most recent case (from March 12th) that references the term “emoji” appeared in a California Court of Appeal case that also involved allegations of intimidating a witness. In People v. Smith, 2019 WL 1122768, at issue was whether the evidence, which included Facebook comments that included emojis, was sufficient to convict the defendant of intimidating a witness.

The Court concluded that the emoji evidence at issue supported the defendant’s conviction of intimidating the witness, “T.R.,” a 15-yo victim in a pimping case:

“The comments contained emojis of rodents. The later comments, following T.R.'s other name, “[T.W.],” included gunshot emojis, gun emojis, and the statement, ‘share my post.’ The four gunshot emojis and three gun emojis were evidence Smith was seeking to encourage other viewers of his Facebook page to shoot T.R. His comments included three emojis, each representing a hand with the thumb and forefinger touching and the other fingers pointed up, representing the letter “b,” a symbol of the Bacc Street Crips. The jury could have reasonably concluded from the photograph and comments that Smith intended to communicate that T.R. was a despised female who had told on Washington, and she was therefore a “rat” or snitch whom members of the gang should kill to assure she did not testify against Washington at his trial.

Additionally, Smith “hashtagged” T.R., notifying her of the post. This evidenced an intent that she see the photograph and comments and cower accordingly, i.e., by not testifying against Washington at his trial.”

It’s undoubtedly a bit strange to read a court’s attempt to interpret the cartoon-like characters that are finding their way into our daily communications. But expect to see more of this - much more - as our use of electronic forms of communication continue to increase. Like it or not, emojis - and technology in general - are here to stay.

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. 


Pennsylvania Supreme Court on ethically mining social media evidence

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

*****

Pennsylvania Supreme Court on ethically mining social media evidence

Social media can be a gold mine for litigation attorneys. There’s a wealth of information available online that can often be used to the benefit of your client at trial. The trick is knowing how to ethically access social media evidence. Because if you don’t fully understand the ins and outs of the various social media platforms and your ethical obligations, your attempts to obtain online evidence favorable to your client’s case could have the opposite result: it could be precluded from use at trial, and you could even face disciplinary action.

The latter is what occurred when a Pennsylvania attorney’s law license was suspended by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. In Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Stacy Parks Miller, Miller’s license was suspended, in part, due to her deceptive behavior in creating a fictitious Facebook page in order to obtain evidence while serving as the Centre County District Attorney.

Specifically, it was alleged that Miller created a fictitious Facebook page in 2011, with the end goal being to curb criminal activity relating to the illegal sale of bath salts. The Facebook page was based on a fake social media persona and purported to be the social media account of a young woman who had recently dropped out of college.

After creating the page she sent an email encouraging her staff to send “friend requests” to others from the fake account in order to legitimize the fake account. Specifically she suggested that they use the Facebook account to “masquerade” and “snoop” on Facebook. While the account was being used by the District Attorney’s Office, “individuals represented in criminal proceedings either sent friend requests to the page or received friend requests from the page.”

In her defense, Miller asserted that the Facebook page represented a “proper law enforcement operation.” The Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania disagreed. The Board noted that the mere act of “having a third-person send a friend request to a represented party in order to gain access to the private portion of their profile violates RPC 8.4(c), and that the actions of Miller far exceeded that limited scope of impermissible conduct. Not only did she create a fake Facebook page, she provided her staff with access to it and actively encouraged them to use it to repeatedly interact with and connect with other individuals on Facebook who were suspected of engaging in illegal activities, some of whom were known to be represented by counsel."

Accordingly, the Board concluded that her actions were in violation of her ethical obligations. The Board explained that “(t)he Facebook page created by (Miller) and disseminated to her staff was fake and constituted fraudulent and deceptive conduct inn violation of RPC 8.4(c)…(Miller) induced her staff, both attorneys and non-attorneys alike, to engage in dishonest behavior and to imply disinterest in matters, without correcting any misapprehensions. The staff carried out (Miller’s) directives and used the page to “friend” individuals, some of whom were defendants. (Miller) enabled her staff to engage in deceptive conduct, without specific direction, for an unrestricted period of time. This conduct violated RPC 4.3(a), 4.3(c), 5.3(b), 5.3(c)(1), and 5.3(c)(2).” As such the Board recommended that her law license be suspended for one year and one day.

This is yet one more example of lawyers interacting online without fully understanding their ethical obligations. Certainly there is a wealth of information - and potential evidence - available on social media platforms, and in 2019, willfully ignoring its existence is arguably malpractice. But before attempting to access information posted online, make sure that you have full knowledge of how the platforms work and what your ethical obligations are in regard to accessing that data. Tread lightly and intelligently when mining social media for evidence, lest you face the same penalty as Ms. Miller.

 

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. 


How Lawyers Are Using Social Media in 2019

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

*****

How Lawyers Are Using Social Media in 2019

I’ve been covering lawyers’ use of social media in my column for the Daily Record since 2008. Back then, most lawyers believed that social media was a passing fad, despite my ardent assertions to the contrary. Some even believed that it was both unethical and unwise for lawyers to use social media. Convincing lawyers that social media was a phenomenon that they needed to learn about was an uphill battle, to say the least.

How times have changed. I first became convinced that a dramatic shift was occurring in 2011 when a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle, Gary Craig, wrote an article entitled “Threat Alleged Via Facebook ‘Poke.’” As explained in the article, a federal judge was unable to proceed with an arraignment of a defendant who was accused of threatening a witness via a Facebook “poke.” The judge had no idea what a “poke” was, and neither did the attorneys before him, so he sought out - and obtained - the information he needed from a spectator seated in courtroom.

For me, that was a turning point. Because that’s when I knew that social media was actually impacting cases, and that lawyers were finally going to begin to take notice and want to learn about - and use -social media.

Fast forward to 2019, and these days, according to the latest Legal Technology Survey Report issued by the American Bar Association, the majority of lawyers and law firms are using social media for professional reasons in one form or another, whether it’s for business development and networking or for litigation purposes.

According to the Report, 76% of lawyers surveyed reported that their firms maintained a presence on at least once social network. And 79% of lawyers reported that they personally used social media for professional reasons. The reasons for their online interactions varied, with 70% citing career development and networking as their motivating reasons. 54% hoped to obtain clients as a result of their participation online. 48% used social media as a tool to increase their education awareness. And finally, 30% used social media to investigate their cases.

For those lawyers seeking to drum up business as a result of their online interactions, some were successful, with 35% reporting that they’d had a client retain their services directly or via a referral because of their social media use for professional purposes. 46% indicated that their online interaction never resulted in a new client, and 19% weren’t sure.

According to the Report, the most popular social media network amongst lawyers is LinkedIn. 46% of lawyers indicated that their law firms maintained a LinkedIn presence, and 65% reported that they personally maintained a LinkedIn profile for professional purposes.

The second most popular site is Facebook, with 42% of lawyers reporting that their law firms maintained a Facebook presence. 37% of responding lawyers shared that they personally used Facebook for professional reasons, and 90% indicated that they participated on Facebook for personal, non-professional purposes.

Next was Twitter, with 14% of respondents indicating that their law firms maintained a Twitter presence, and 25% reported that they interacted on Twitter for professional reasons using personal accounts. 1% of lawyers reported that a client had retained them as a result of their use of Twitter for professional reasons.

Then there are blogs, which have been around longer than social media, but have decreased in popularity with lawyers over the last few years. According to the Report, 24% of law firms maintain a blog. And, 8% of lawyers reported that they personally maintained a blog focused on a legal topic, down from 15% last year. Finally, 36% reported that a client has retained their services because of their blogging efforts, down from 43% last year. So legal blogging is clearly on the decline, but nevertheless is still a very viable business development tool.

So there you have it: lots of statistics on how lawyers are using social media. And, yes, unlike 2008, the majority of lawyers are learning about - and using - social media in 2019. Are you one of those lawyers? Is your law firm using social media? Are you? How does your social media use compare?

 

 

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. 


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. 


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:


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.