Ethics Opinions: A Modest Proposal

A few months back, I ranted about the inanity of Bar ethics opinions – those things that purport to help conscientious attorneys ensure they are fully in compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct. I’d like to add some nuance to that, and also propose a new approach for bars when it comes to ethics opinions.

Here’s the thing: the extra-careful, bend-over-backward approach of ethics opinions is actually a good thing when it comes to a lot of the ethics rules. As I tell attorneys, if you feel like you’re splitting hairs or facing a close call when it comes to client confidences or protecting your client’s assets, you’re already lost. You should ALWAYS err on the side of caution in those matters. And ethics opinions do a great job of helping attorneys err on the side of caution.

The problem comes when ethics opinions apply this same belt-and-suspenders approach to attorney marketing.

Here’s why: the rules dealing with attorney-as-fiduciary (whether money or confidences) only ratchet one way. There’s no detriment to clients if attorneys are overly-protective; what client WOULDN’T want their attorney to be super-cautious when it came to their money or secrets?  But that’s not the case for attorney marketing. Applying the same level of caution to marketing is actually BAD for consumers, as it deprives them of important information about legal services.

How’s that? Because a major way consumers find information about legal services is via communications from lawyers. And a lot of those are marketing communications. If the conscientious lawyers – the kind who ask for, read, and pay attention to ethics opinions – are pulling back their communications because a Bar ethics opinion took an uber-conservative interpretation of the attorney advertising rules, then consumers have access to less information and fewer innovative service offerings. That’s a bad thing for consumers and lawyers alike.

And it’s not just good policy that a fundamentally different level of caution should pertain to interpreting the RPCs as applied to marketing rules than to the other professional obligations of attorneys. You see, the First Amendment dictates that a wholly separate level of scrutiny apply to regulation in this area. While the state has wide latitude to regulate most matters related to attorney regulation, it has a much higher burden to meet when it comes to interpreting  rules that impact legal marketing (for more on this, see my in-depth discussion of the commercial speech doctrine).

Yet Bar ethics opinions almost never acknowledge this, and persist in taking the same cautious approach regardless of the rule in question. This is no good: it shows a lack of respect for important First Amendment principles, and it is actively harmful to both the profession and the public it serves.

So here’s my modest proposal: Bars should simply stop issuing ethics opinions on questions impacting legal marketing.  To preempt such requests, they could feature a statement like this on their “ethics opinions” pages:

The First Amendment protects the commercial speech of attorneys.  This is not just for the benefit of attorneys. As the US Supreme Court noted in Bates v. Arizona:

“[T}he consumer’s concern for the free flow of commercial speech often may be far keener than his concern for urgent political dialogue. Moreover, significant societal interests are served by such speech. Advertising, though entirely commercial, may often carry information of import to significant issues of the day.  And commercial speech serves to inform the public of the availability, nature, and prices of products and services, and thus performs an indispensable role in the allocation of resources in a free enterprise system.  In short, such speech serves individual and societal interests in assuring informed and reliable decisionmaking.” 433 U.S. 350, 364 (1977) (internal citations removed.)

There is an inevitable tension between the cautionary approach of ethics opinions and the public interest in access to a robust amount of information about legal services. Accordingly, the Bar does not offer advisory ethics opinions on the Rules of Professional Conduct relating to attorney advertising.

This should not be interpreted as a lack of concern for compliance with the Rules in this area. The Bar actively pursues disciplinary action against those attorneys who engage in false, misleading, or otherwise deceptive marketing practices.

Hyperbole and Confirmation Bias

So the other day I saw this tweet from Melinda Gates:

melinda-gates-tweet

This struck me as an extraordinary claim. Not because I don’t believe that gender-blind applications might make a difference in tech job callback rates, but because of the claim that it makes a one thousand percent difference.

Some context: the first entities to experiment in a large way with gender-blind application screening were symphony orchestras (applicants would literally sit for their auditions behind a screen). This was at a time – the 1970’s and 1980’s – when the musical directors running symphonies were openly dismissive of female musicians.

The results? Blind screening increased the probability a woman would move past the initial interview by about 50%.

A  fifty percent increase in interview success is a massive change. It unambiguously shows the value of the change in screening procedure. And by extension, it reveals the biases that were previously holding talented female musicians back. It’s why such screenings are now the industry norm.

So what would a study that produced a result twenty times higher tell us? Keeping in mind that the symphony study covered a time period where there was far less equality? When symphony directors would proudly and openly express sentiments about the inferiority of women? And the 20x-higher study was presumably done in 2016, where companies compete in an ever-more-desperate race for tech talent?

I’ll tell you what it would tell us: that the tech industry, for all its veneer of respectability and progressiveness, is in fact led by a pack of misogynistic sociopaths, driven by the single-minded goal of preventing women from being hired.

That would be an extraordinary claim – and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. However, all that seems to be available here is the barest of summaries:

  • The study was done by a recruiting agency known as Speak with a Geek (“SWAG;” cute).
  •  SWAG says it presented a group of employers with 5,000 candidates, first with full identifying details and later in a gender-blinded fashion.
  • SWAG says that in the first instance, only 5% of those selected for interviews were women. Once gender-blinded, that number went up to 54%.

So that’s actually close to an eleven hundred percent increase. Boo, evil male tech leaders!

I strongly suspect, however, that one of three things is actually going on here:

  • The SWAG study was very poorly designed and/or implemented.
  • The summary of the SWAG study misinterprets the data. 1
  • The study is fabricated – either entirely, or by stitching together a few semi-coherent data points and anecdotes into an amalgamation that doesn’t make any sense.

I don’t know which; SWAG never responded to my request for more info on the study.

But why do I care about this?

First, as a male who has worked in tech for 20+ years – including a stint running HR and recruiting – I find the implication appalling that my cohorts and I comprise some sort of cabal working fiendishly to keep women out of our playground.

Second, seeing statistics batted around in a non-critical way really gets under my skin. We’ve all got our cognitive biases, and many of us have a tendency to embrace “data” that supports our positions without doing adequate diligence on whether that data is, in fact, remotely accurate. It’s a bummer to see Melinda Gates, who should know better, fall into this same trap.

Finally, there’s this: those of us working in tech know that the industry has gender issues. The number of women pursuing CS degrees has plummeted over the last generation (although there are signs this is turning around). The culture in some tech companies can feel less-than-welcoming for a lot of women. And there are surely biases against women, implicit or overt, that male hiring managers bring to the table.

But promoting hyperbolic garbage is wholly counterproductive. Tech is a data-driven business, with a lot of smart people working in it. It betrays a certain unseriousness to promote wild-ass claims with no substance to back them up. It keeps people from engaging. And it makes them not trust anything you say – even when it’s true. After all, if proponents of a particular point of view are cool with just making shit up, why should someone take them seriously?

So let’s be critical and always ask to see the data before accepting the conclusion – particularly when the claim is extreme.

Notes:

  1. For example it would be far more plausible that gender-blinding improved the interview rate of an small cohort of female tech candidates by 54%. That could still be a very significant finding.

On Moderating Online Content

One of the wonders of the web is the sheer amount of information, on virtually any imaginable topic, available at one’s fingertips.

And one of the horrors of the web is the same thing. Anyone with a keyboard can spew whatever awfulness they feel compelled to share.

Companies that provide forums for user-generated online content have to strike a balance between these two sides of the internet, a task the difficulty of which is vastly underestimated.

Take Avvo, for example. Our site is narrowly focused on American lawyers and legal issues. We can moderate out all sorts of things simply on the basis of relevancy. Political screeds in the form of a question in our Q&A forum? Out. Marketing drivel as a legal guide? It’s gone. Off topic rants about someone else’s attorney in our review system? Those won’t even see the light of day.

And yet, even with Avvo’s narrow focus and relatively modest size, the effort necessary to moderate content on our site is a massive job. It involves a number of people working on this task full-time, and regular escalation of issues to all levels and departments of the company. And we’re still not ever going to make everyone happy.

So imagine what the content moderation job is like for Facebook, operating globally, with billions of users, in an environment where ALL topics are relevant to someone.  This Guardian article detailing some of Facebook’s struggles to strike the right balance mocks the company for using this form language when reversing content moderation decisions:

“The post was removed in error and restored as soon as we were able to investigate. Our team processes millions of reports each week, and we sometimes get things wrong. We’re very sorry about this mistake.”

Well, of course Facebook uses the same word-for-word apology. They are likely making hundreds – if not thousands – of the same “errors” every week. Content moderation is hard, and given Facebook’s scale it’s surely not difficult to find the sorts of ridiculous examples highlighted in the Guardian piece.

The potential for such errors can be self-inflicted as well. As this earlier piece from the Wall Street Journal notes, Facebook has had to deal with internal pressure to remove some of Donald Trump’s messages as “hate speech.” A global company like Facebook must navigate the norms its own employees bring to the table, particularly those in countries that don’t share America’s appetite for free speech. Although Facebook has resolved to consider the newsworthiness of items facing removal complaints, both Facebook and Twitter have faced complaints about putting a thumb on the scale in favor of progressive messaging and causes.

That’s always going to be a risk where humans are involved. We’re going to bring our biases and preconceptions to the table when trying to decide what is and is not worthy of being published. All the forum sites can do is try to be as balanced and fair as possible. But before getting all apoplectic about every example of content moderation gone bad, consider first the sheer scale and difficulty of the problem.

October 2016 Notes: Is There a Ray of Light in the Attorney Regulation Darkness?

Florida Institutionalizes “Access to Justice” Efforts.  In recent years, many states have implemented commissions to try and find solutions to the “access to justice” crisis. In Florida, after several years of work, the state Supreme Court has decided to make that state’s Commission permanent. That’s a good thing; the growth in pro se representation makes it incumbent upon courts to find ways to make it easier for people to grapple with the wheels of justice. This is not a problem so easily solved in a handful of years. But let’s also hope that the Commission – with the guidance of the Florida Supreme Court – will turn its attention to the archaic regulations that make it difficult for attorneys to offer innovative services to a public desperate for legal information and guidance. Because the Florida Bar seems to be trying to make things even worse.

Virginia Looks to Streamline Attorney Advertising Rules. On a more encouraging note, Virginia is leading the charge to update the attorney advertising rules. This effort stems from the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, which analyzed the rules and concluded that many of them are unnecessary, unconstitutional, and unduly burdensome. The issues with the existing rules go beyond the mere pedantic. The rules keep good attorneys from speaking out about the legal services they provide, while distracting enforcement authorities with banalities like lawyer referral service regulation or determining the “reasonable cost of advertising.” APRL’s proposal – which Virginia is looking to adopt – would eliminate much of this “cruft” within the rules, while retaining and sharpening the focus on preventing false and misleading advertising. This would be a great outcome for consumers and attorneys alike, and the Virginia State Bar deserves a lot of credit for pushing forward with such meaningful change.

Court Finds Review Sites Immune From Suit. 47 USC § 230(c)(1) is a curious law. Only 26 words long, “CDA 230” stands for a counter-intuitive (to lawyers, at least) principle: that responsibility for online content rests only with its creator. It doesn’t matter whether someone else has provided a forum for the content, promoted it, or disseminated it. Only the “content creator” can be liable. I call CDA 230 “the law that makes the internet go,” because it allows sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (and Avvo!) to create robust online communities without being liable for all of the stuff that gets published within those communities. There are exceptions to this rule – think IP and federal crimes – but for the most part CDA 230 is a powerful factor in the growth of the web. All this background to get here: the 9th Circuit just found that CDA 230 immunizes Yelp from defamation liability for user reviews. While the outcome was abjectly unsurprising, it’s nice to see the rule applied directly to online reviews.

Social Media News and Notes:

RT ≠ endorsement: court authorizes service of process via twitter.

Amazon bans incentivized user reviews.

More evidence that “reputation management” companies may be defrauding courts.

 

Intermediate Scrutiny for Professional Speech Regulation?

To what extent should the government be able to regulate what doctors and lawyers say? Sure, the focus of this blog is commercial speech, and that question is relatively settled (at least as far as the speech in question is straightforward advertising). But what about other forms of expression? How far can the state go in controlling what professionals say in that capacity, or when they are working with clients or patients?

It’s a messy issue, and one that is surprisingly bereft of easy answers or judicial guidance.

How messy? Well, Florida thinks it needs to protect the second amendment rights of its citizens by restricting how doctors can talk to patients about guns.  And California thinks it needs to use pregnancy-related clinics (including religious ones) to help advance the marketing of its state-funded family planning and pregnancy services, including abortion.

Where does the line get drawn? As I’ve argued before, I believe there are significant First Amendment problems with including “legal advice” within the legal monopoly. I also believe that getting a license to practice law should not deprive an attorney of full free speech rights – at least when those rights are exercised outside of a client’s matter.

But what about speech that’s engaged in within the attorney-client or doctor-patient relationship? While it seems clear that the government shouldn’t have free rein over what is clearly expressive activity, it also seems that the state’s interest in licensing – which is, broadly speaking, to protect the public – would dictate that it gets some leeway here.

But what should the standard be? It’s surprising that this issue hasn’t been more fully-fleshed out by the courts. Outside of speech at the core of professional licensure, 1 it’s a marshy swampland.

While we’re probably not going to get any answers until the Supreme Court directly addresses professional speech regulation, the Ninth Circuit did helpfully wade into the swamp in ruling on the California “abortion marketing” law described above. In its October 14, 2016 decision in NIFLA v. Harris, the Ninth Circuit found that regulation of “middle ground” professional speech – that is, speech that is less than a “public dialogue” yet more than the speech-as-conduct at the core of a professional’s practice – is subject to intermediate scrutiny review (the same as commercial speech).

That sounds right to me, 2 and it provides a good way of thinking about the extent of acceptable lawyer speech regulation in areas that don’t involve advertising or advocacy.

But again, this is an area that could really use an assist from the Supreme Court.

 

Notes:

  1. For example, psychological counseling or advocating for a client before a court, either of which would likely be considered by a court to be conduct rather than speech for the purposes of regulation. See, e.g., Pickup v. Brown, 740 F.3d 1208 (9th Cir. 2013).
  2. Although the Ninth Circuit really rushed through – in an unconvincing way – the intermediate scrutiny analysis to find that California could compel pregnancy clinics to market the state’s services.

The First Amendment in the Courtroom

In there a tension between the First Amendment and a judge’s right to control the courtroom? Nah. The right of a judge to control the courtroom pretty much slices through any such tension. Courtrooms – despite being government spaces – are the quintessential non-public fora. It’s not without reason that it’s been said that first amendment rights are “at their nadir” in the courtroom.

And control they do. Judges can be notoriously tetchy about stuff.  In just this last week, I’ve seen stories about judges getting butthurt over derogatory references to AOL email addresses, a big law firm sending a first-year associate to a hearing on an important case, and a lawyer refusing to remove a “Black Lives Matter” pin.

Of course these positions are stupid: taking offense over a perhaps-derogatory reference to an email address is mind-numbingly petty; many junior lawyers are better prepared than their senior partners for questions from the bench; and getting bent out of shape over a pin says more about a judge’s political beliefs than anything else.

But there’s a reason everyone laughs at a judge’s jokes. As an advocate, you’re in court represent a client. And as Megan Zavieh notes, your sole job in the courtroom is to advance the interests of your client. So laugh you do, and be sure to be prepared for a hearing, and don’t make jokes at the tech-enfeebled judge’s expense.

And you sure as hell don’t argue with the judge when he orders you to remove your politically-sloganeering button.  It beggars belief that a lawyer wouldn’t understand this; that she would let herself be shackled and taken from the courtroom – leaving her client unrepresented – in service of “standing up for her beliefs.”

While there are arguments about whether this judge’s order was appropriate, that’s beside the point when it comes to the attorney’s decision. Her beliefs? They could live to be vindicated another day. If she thinks the judge is a retrograde dinosaur, should could have fully exercised her First Amendment right to say so – at a time when the price for doing so would have been paid by her alone.

Minnesota’s No Good, Very Bad UPL Decision

Brian Faughnan has the details, but here’s the quick overview: A Colorado attorney agrees to help out his in-laws, who are dealing with a debt collector in their home state of Minnesota. Like a good son-in-law, he does it for free. He engages in a series of emails with the attorney for the creditor, who eventually (because shaking people down for small-time debts isn’t enough to satisfy his “I’ve gotta be an asshole” jones) files a bar grievance against the Colorado lawyer. Colorado lawyer ends up being disciplined by the Minnesota Bar authorities for the unlicensed practice of law, a decision which is subsequently upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

(Read the decision: In Re Charges of Unprofessional Conduct.)

Where to begin? Brian and other ethics mavens have already focused on the troubling retrograde nature of this decision, applying antiquated notions of the practice of law to modern communications norms. But I want to focus on three other fundamental problems with this decision:

Defining “The Practice of Law:”  As I’ve noted before, lawyer regulation has some fundamental First Amendment problems.  This is particularly true with respect to “legal advice.” The prohibition on non-lawyers providing legal advice is a content-based speech restriction, and those almost never survive a constitutional challenge.

In this case, Minnesota had the multi-jurisdictional practice statute to rely on; that rule explicitly limits out-of-state lawyers, and thus provides a thin facade to conceal an otherwise-suspect rationale. But what if the son-in-law hadn’t been a lawyer?  More on that in a moment.

“Holding Out:”  Much is made, too, of the argument that the Colorado attorney was “holding out” as the lawyer on a Minnesota legal matter. But this doesn’t survive scrutiny. The “holding out” indictment is based solely on the fact that the Colorado lawyer stated that he “represented” his in-laws. Yet restrictions on “holding out” as a lawyer are intended to apply to a specific set of practices that are harmful to consumers (i.e., pretending to be licensed as an attorney when you are not, in an effort to solicit business) – not to whatever this was. 1

And again, what if the Colorado lawyer hadn’t been an attorney? Would the disciplinary authorities have been able to argue that his statement of representation evidenced “holding old?” As with the definition of the “practice of law,” the only thread holding this together is the fact that the son-in-law was a lawyer.  Had he NOT been a lawyer, the state would have been left with a difficult argument: that people can’t help each other out with informal legal advice and advocacy unless they are in-state-licensed attorneys.

Which, come to think of it, is actually what most attorneys believe anyway. But I’m pretty confident that proposition would lose if challenged on First Amendment grounds.

Antitrust:  The discipline in this case was imposed by a 6-member panel of the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board. The Board is  comprised primarily of Minnesota lawyers. The discipline was then affirmed by the Minnesota Supreme Court, using a “clearly erroneous” standard.

This is a problem for the Board. Imposing discipline on non-market participants to maintain a government-sanctioned monopoly is the definition of anti-competitive behavior. And while quasi-government boards made up of market participants used to receive antitrust immunity, they don’t anymore (thanks to the North Carolina Dental Board case) unless they are “actively supervised” by the state. Judicial review – especially judicial review based on a highly deferential standard like that used here – is not within shouting distance of “active supervision.” While this issue wasn’t brought up in this case, it’s something Minnesota should think about if it plans to keep having other attorneys handle disciplinary decisions – and particularly when those decisions involve excluding competition from the market for legal services.

Notes:

  1. Let’s call it pedantry: “The out-of-state lawyer stated that he represented an in-state party. In-state parties can only be represented by in-state attorneys. Ergo, he is “holding out” as an in-state attorney.”

Florida’s Misguided Attempt to Modify its Lawyer Referral Service Rules

Last Friday, Avvo submitted comments to the Florida Supreme Court in response to the Florida Bar’s proposed changes to the state’s Lawyer Referral Service Rules. You can read our submission here, but here’s the backstory and highlights:

  • This isn’t the first attempt to change the LRS Rules. After the last go-round, the Florida Supreme Court instructed the Bar to go back to the drawing board and create rules that prohibited LRS entities owned by non-lawyers. The court was apparently concerned with the proliferation of such services in Florida, and in particular those that operated with cross-referrals to chiropractors and other medical professionals. 1
  • The Florida Bar apparently concluded that it couldn’t legally limit LRS to those owned only by lawyers. That’s probably right – it’s hard to see how such a limitation would survive first amendment (and antitrust) scrutiny.
  • Instead of going back to the court, the Bar decided to amend the rules. The amendments are not, remotely, what the court asked for. They are also notable for lacking any focus on either consumer harm or benefit. Rather than considering how the rules could enable Floridians to get better access to both legal services and information about legal services, the Bar simply futzed around with its rules.
  • In its futzing, the Bar managed to arrive at a particularly perverse result. The existing LRS rule – designed to protect against a particular type of marketing that is inherently deceptive – has been largely watered down. And, to make matters far worse, it’s now going to apply to virtually every company that lawyers use for marketing.

That means Florida lawyers will need to start gathering diligence materials for marketing providers. Those providers will have to submit annual lists of their Florida participants to the state bar. The ads that such providers run will need to comply with Florida’s picayune advertising rules (and, perhaps, even require pre-approval by Florida’s advertising review committee). This drives several results, none of them good:

  • The Bar is signing itself up for a massive new compliance program. Monitoring “qualifying providers” for compliance and processing all of those annual lists is going to cost the Bar a ton of money and time. Or, more likely, the Bar will simply enforce the rules in a highly haphazard and inconsistent fashion – making it unclear to lawyers and providers alike whether their marketing activities are in compliance with the Bar’s interpretation of its rules.
  • Diligent members of the Florida Bar will be even more reticent to provide consumers with information about legal services, concerned that their marketing providers – many of whom will be national or global companies serving many industries – are not technically in compliance with Florida’s rules.
  • In a similar fashion, the new rules – which attempt, via the comments, to make things like fee-splitting and pay-for-performance marketing per se against the rules (despite, naturally, any evidence that such practices are inherently bad for consumers) – will make it harder for Florida attorneys to get comfortable with innovative attempts to expand access to justice (like Avvo Legal Services).

And of course, the added irony: Florida – like all states – is suffering from an acute crisis where consumers can’t get help with their legal problems. As the Florida Bar itself notes, over 70% of civil court defendants are representing themselves. Help with even routine legal problems is out of reach of the vast majority of consumers. The system is hobbled from both ends. First, by a hidebound profession that can’t see beyond full-scope, gold-plated representation 2 And second, by a regulator so focused on the minutiae of its rules that it can’t see how its meddling is hampering the availability of information and the market for innovative legal services.

It’s not like this issue has been lost on the Florida Supreme Court. Less than two years ago, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga kicked off the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.  Here’s hoping the Court is able to see, where the Bar seemingly cannot, how badly these Rules are dis-serving the needs of Floridians.

 

Notes:

  1. Note that Avvo is *not* a lawyer referral service. Such services are entities that operate in an environment lacking in consumer choice: users are typically sent to whichever attorney has paid the most, bought geographic exclusivity, or is next in the rotation. That’s why many states choose to have more extensive regulation of lawyer referral services than they do of other forms of legal marketing.
  2. And, for many, a burning desire to protect its monopoly at all cost.

Ethics Opinion Follies

Earlier this year, Avvo rolled out Avvo Legal Services, our fixed-price packages for consumers and small businesses, fulfilled by local attorneys. We put a lot of thought into this product, how it would meet consumer needs, and how it could comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct to which lawyers are bound.

Our guiding principle in building Avvo Legal Services? Making them as consumer-friendly as possible. Our thought was that by so doing, the RPC issues should take care of themselves. As the RPCs are all about consumer and client protection, they shouldn’t be implicated by practices that don’t harm those people – right?

Right.

But one obstacle to this approach is a pervasive mindset of “rigid” or “mechanical” compliance that persists with the RPCs. Many attorneys want “safe harbor” guidance from the Bars on what complies with the rules. To respond to this need, many state Bars provide ethics opinions upon request. Such opinions are typically non-binding, but can carry some weight in a subsequent disciplinary proceeding.

Little surprise, then, that such opinions typically take the most conservative viewpoint possible. In most cases, the bars will broadly apply the rules, with no regard whatsoever for the first amendment implications or whether their interpretation is materially advancing the interests of consumers.

Indeed, in some cases the regulators explicitly state that their opinion does not take into account any first amendment factors. See, e.g., the last line of South Carolina Ethics Opinion 09-10. 1

If the Bars are serious about expanding access to legal services and information, one change they could make right away is to get out of the ethics opinion business – at least with respect to lawyer advertising. By discouraging new legal service offerings and disseminating information about legal services, the Bars are gravely mistreating the public they are ostensibly charged with serving and protecting.

And it’s not just me railing about this. The Supreme Court addressed a very similar system – that used by the Federal Election Commission – in the landmark 2010 Citizens United case. 2  Remarkably, the words chosen by the Court in Citizens United to describe the FEC’s advisory opinion process could just as easily apply to the process used by many state attorney regulators:

“Because the FEC’s “business is to censor, there inheres the danger that [it] may well be less responsive than a court—part of an independent branch of government—to the constitutionally protected interests in free expression.” Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51, 57-58, 85 S.Ct. 734, 13 L.Ed.2d 649 (1965). When the FEC issues advisory opinions that prohibit speech, “[m]any persons, rather than undertake the considerable burden (and sometimes risk) of vindicating their rights through case-by-case litigation, will choose simply to abstain from protected speech—harming not only themselves but society as a whole, which is deprived of an uninhibited marketplace of ideas.” [citations omitted]. Consequently, “the censor’s determination may in practice be final.” Freedman, supra, at 5885 S.Ct. 734.

Despite the approach of some Bars, there’s simply no way to interpret the rules regarding attorney speech without considering the first amendment.  Those bars that explicitly fail to do so are exacerbating the censor’s veto, hurting consumers, lawyers and the interests of free expression. There’s no question that such opinions cause many attorneys to simply abstain from providing information about the services they offer, preventing the consumers the Bar is supposed to serve from receiving information that may be vitally important to them.

Until and unless the Bars start doing away with the advisory opinion practice, attorneys who wish to really honor their commitment to serving the public should disregard these opinions. By understanding how the commercial speech doctrine works, such attorneys can confidently determine for themselves, independent of Bar input, where the rules apply and where they don’t.

Notes:

  1. And let’s keep picking on South Carolina, since they just issued an ethics opinion that seems to take aim at Avvo Legal Services: sometimes these opinions directly contradict one another. Compare the treatment of Rule 5.4 fee-sharing in South Carolina ethics opinion 11-05 vs. the new opinion 16-06
  2. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 588 U.S. 310 (2010).

California Issues Broad Opinion on Lawyer Confidentiality

As someone who has been hiring lawyers for over 20 years, I love the idea of lawyerly confidentiality. I don’t want my lawyers talking about my cases unless they’ve got my permission to do so.

And from a lawyer’s perspective, getting it right when it comes to confidentiality isn’t hard: if it’s a close call, if it makes you think at all, then keep your yap shut. Period. That’s both good legal ethics and good business. Why? Because prospective clients aren’t going to give a rip about your nuanced arguments for why your embarrassing disclosures about former clients don’t violate the ethics rules. They just aren’t going to want to be the next one you blab about, which means you won’t be hired.

In issuing the latest opinion on lawyer confidentiality, California notes that a lawyer’s obligation of confidentiality extends beyond merely client secrets and confidences. Rather, it properly covers “all information relating to the representation, whatever its
source,” and may include information that is otherwise publicly available.

From the perspective of a client, I like that: I don’t want my lawyers talking about stuff they’ve worked on for me, even if it IS public. Or worse, doing as one of Donald Trump’s lawyers recently did, using the fact of the former attorney-client relationship to add greater credibility to comments that I might find embarrassing.

And yet . . . should this concept of “public confidentiality” really exist on pain of sanctions? I’m all for calling such loose-lipped attorneys out as being bad for clients, for not exercising their obligation of loyalty to the fullest, etc., but should they be legally prohibited from talking about stuff that every other member of the public is free to discuss?

This is but one of many areas in which attorney regulation has a First Amendment problem.  One of the few court decisions to actually address the issue of attorneys being prohibited from communicating publicly-available information about their clients’ cases  (Hunter v. Virginia State Bar) concluded that the constitutional considerations trumped the regulatory reach of RPC 1.6:

State action that punishes the publication of truthful information can rarely survive constitutional scrutiny . . . To the extent that the information is aired in a public forum, privacy considerations must yield to First Amendment protections. In that respect, a lawyer is no more prohibited than any other citizen from reporting what transpired in the courtroom.

That sounds right to me. Attorneys shouldn’t be subject to legal sanction for talking about truthful, public information, even if so doing embarrasses their clients.

Now, whether those clients (or any potential clients) should want to continue working with such loose-lipped lawyers is another matter entirely.

Social Media + The Law of Legal Marketing