When Must a Lawyer Plotting a Lateral Move Obtain a Client’s Informed Consent?

1. Conflict of Interest and Informed Consent

To avoid a conflict of interest, a lawyer needs to be informed client consent to engage in substantive job negotiations with a law firm that is adverse to the client. Likewise, hiring firms must avoid serious job talks with opposing counsel unless its own client consents. See North Carolina State Bar Ethics Comm., Formal Op. 20163, 1/27/17.

North Carolina Rule of Professional Conduct 1.7 forbids a lawyer from representing a client if the lawyer’s own interests may materially limit the client’s representation unless the lawyer reasonably believes he or she can provide competent and diligent representation and the client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing. N.C. Rules of Prof’l Conduct, Rule 1.7(b)(2) (2003). This type of conflict may arise when a lawyer has discussions about possible employment with a client’s opponent or a law firm representing the opponent. N.C. Rules of Prof’l Conduct, Rule 1.7, cmt. 10.

2. Substantive Discussion or Negotiation

While the exact point at which a lawyer’s own interest may materially limit his representation of a client may vary, the ethics committee advised substantive discussions and negotiations materially limit the lawyer’s representation of a client. Similarly, The Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers advises that once the discussion of employment has become concrete and the interest is mutual, the lawyer must promptly inform the client. Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers: A Lawyer’s Personal Interest Affecting the Representation of a Client, § 125, cmt. d. (2000).

The ethics committee relied on the ABA definition of “substantive discussion”, which “entails a communication between the job-seeking lawyer and the hiring law firm about the job-seeking lawyer’s skills, experience, and the ability to bring clients to the firm; and the terms of association.” ABA Formal Ethics Op. 96-400 (1996). To find a “substantive discussion,” the ethics committee opined that there must be a discussion or negotiation that is substantive. See North Carolina State Bar Ethics Comm., Formal Op. 20163, 1/27/17.

The committee further provided examples as to what constitutes a “discussion” and what is “substantive.” “Sending a resume blind to a potential employer is not a ‘discussion.” Id. “Speaking generally with a colleague at a social event about employment opportunities is not ‘substantive.’” Id.

To read the full opinion, click here.

It’s Like Leaving the File on a “Bench in the Public Square”: Unsecured Storage Results in Waiver of Attorney-Client Privilege

Recently, a Virginia federal magistrate judge held that a party waived its attorney-client privilege when it posted unsecured, confidential information to a file-sharing website. Citing public policy reasons, the court ruled that uploading a file that was not password protected and available to anyone on the Internet to view is akin to leaving the file on a “bench in the public square.”

The dispute arose between an insurance company and it is insured when an employee of the insurance company placed the entire case file on Box, Inc., a popular file storage website.  The judge referenced the rapidly evolving technology used in sharing information and directed that a company that chooses to use a new technology is responsible for ensuring that its employees understand how the technology works, and whether the technology allows unwanted access by others to its confidential information.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Alaska Bar Association: Use of “Web Bugs” is Unethical

Alaska Bar Association recently advised that the use “web bugs” to track e-mail communications with opposing counsel violates The Alaska Code of Professional Conduct. Opinion 2016-1, describes “web bugs” as Internet surveillance tools that may inform e-mail senders of the following information:

  • whether and when the e-mail and/or attachments were opened;
  • how long recipients reviewed the e-mail and/or attachments;
  • how many times the e-mail and/or attachments were opened;
  • whether and when the e-mail and/or attachments were forwarded; and
  • the rough geographical location of the recipient.

The Opinion explains that web bugs may allow the sending lawyer to determine the undisclosed location of the opposing party or to gain insight into which sections of a settlement draft are most important to the opposing side based upon how much time is spent on various pages of a document.

Concurring with New York State Bar Association’s Opinion, the Alaska Opinion concludes that “web bugs” “impermissibly and unethically interfere with the lawyer-client relationship and the preservation of confidences and secrets,” required by Rule 1.6- Confidentiality. Thus, the Opinion advises that the use of web bugs is unethical, dishonest, and a violation of Alaska Rules of Professional Conduct Misconduct Rules 8.4(a) and 8.4 (c). Moreover, the opinion states that “even the disclosed use of a tracking device when communicating with opposing counsel” is impermissible.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Up in the ‘Clouds’: Illinois Finds Duty of Competence Applies to Selection of Provider

This fall, the Illinois State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics reached two conclusions regarding use of cloud-based services. In Opin. 16-06, the Committee opined that:

(1) a lawyer may use cloud-based services to store confidential client information, so long as the attorney uses reasonable care to make sure that client confidentiality and client information is protected; and

(2) a lawyer is responsible for complying with her duties of competence in selecting a cloud-based services provider, assessing cloud-based services practices, and monitoring compliance with the lawyer’s professional obligations.

 This opinion expands Illinois’s prior opinion where a lawyer may work with a private vendor to monitor the law firm’s computer server, so long as the lawyer takes reasonable steps to ensure the vendor protects client’s confidential information. See, ISBA Op. 10-01 (2009).

Rule 1.1 Competence provides that lawyers must provide competent representation to their clients. Illinois recently amended this rule to include that lawyers who use cloud-based services must have a sufficient understanding of the technology to properly consider the risks of disclosure of confidential information. See Illinois Rule 1.1 Comment 8. Lawyers must also make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, confidential information. See Rule 1.6(e) Confidentiality. Because lawyers hire third-party providers for cloud-based services, lawyers will be subject to the professional rules regarding employing and supervising subordinates. See Rule 5.3 Comment 3.

Due to technology constantly changing, Illinois does not provide any specific requirements for lawyers when choosing a provider. However, Illinois does provide some tips for lawyers when inquiring about a cloud-based services provider, which are:

  • Review cloud computing industry standards and what protections should be put in place when using a cloud-based service;
  • Investigate whether the provider has employed reasonable security measures to protect client data from unintentional disclosures;
  • Investigate the provider’s reputation and history;
  • Look into whether the provider has experiences any security breaches in the past;
  • Demand an agreement to reasonably safeguard that the provider will abide by the lawyer’s duties of confidentiality and will immediately notify the lawyer of any breaches of information;
  • Require that all data is backed up and under the lawyer’s control; and
  • To require reasonable recovery of information if the agreement with the provider is terminated, or if the provider goes out of business.

Several other states have allowed lawyers to use cloud-based services to help with storing client information. See e.g., Alabama Ethics Op. 2010-2; Iowa Ethics Op. 11-01; Tennessee Formal Ethics Op. 2015-F-159; see generally “Cloud Ethics Opinions Around the U.S.”, American Bar Association, Legal Technology Resource Center.

To read the full opinion, click here.

 

“Attorney’s Eyes Only”

Court orders imposing “attorney’s eyes only” discovery restrictions do not disrupt the attorney-client relationship or contradict an attorney’s ethical duty to keep clients informed, according to the District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

The issue before the court arose in a trademark infringement action, in which the plaintiff contended that an “attorney’s eyes only” order, requiring an attorney to withhold discovery material from a client, contradicts an attorney’s duty to keep his clients informed and creates “an unnecessary level of secrecy.” However, the court reinforced attorneys’ “professional obligation to obey a court order imposing ‘eyes only’ limitation,” in holding that such a protective order does not conflict with Florida Rule of Professional Conduct 4-1.4, which requires an attorney to communicate with his client so that the client is reasonably informed about his case.

In reaching its holding, the court reviewed the language of Rule 4-1.4 and concluded the rule does not impose an absolute obligation on the attorney to disclose every matter to a client. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman found Rule 4-1.4 to be applicable only to reasonable disclosures and noted the use of reasonable several times within the rule .

Moreover, the court highlighted that the comments to Rule 4-1.4 specifically recognize the permissibility of protective order in litigation, which would include an “attorney’s eyes only” provision. (Rule 4-1.4’s comment refers to Rule 4-3.4(c), which requires attorneys not to “knowingly disobey an obligation under the rules of a tribunal.”)

The opinion recognizes that protective orders with an “Attorney’s Eyes Only” provision “agreements are widely accepted in Florida” and notes that several jurisdictions are in accord.

To read the full opinion, click here.