Lawyers Take Care: Well-Being During Covid-19

Due to Covid-19 most lawyers are working remotely–and many are feeling a bit isolated.

Some lawyers report an inability to concentrate on their work for any length of time; others complain that they miss interacting with their colleagues at the office, in court, and at Bar activities and events.

Enter, Lawyer Well-Being Week, sponsored by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being and many partner organizations. Lawyer Well-Being Week takes place May 4-8, kicking off May, which is National Mental Health Month.

Click on the link above to access all the resources and tips for the week, including worksheets and activities for downloading and using throughout the year. Share these resources with colleagues who may appreciate a reminder to focus on wellness during this unusual time.

In addition, here is a short podcast I recorded with Bree Buchanan, Co-Founder of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being and Co-Author of its groundbreaking 2017 Report. Bree was formerly the director of the Texas Lawyer’s Assistance Program (TLAP)* for the State Bar of Texas, and now is a consultant with Krill Strategies in Austin.

Be well.

*TLAP is here for all Texas Lawyers 24/7. Call them at 800-343-8527, follow them on Facebook @TLAPhelps for daily wellness programming and resources, and check out their well-being resources for remote living.

The Ethics Of Getting Paid During The Pandemic: a quick podcast

So. Much. Advice.

As lawyers, we are inundated with helpful information about practicing law during the pandemic that is Covid-19.

Rather than give you something else to read, check out my recent podcast (8 minutes) recorded for the ABA Section of Litigation Ethics and Professionalism Committee.

The link is here.

Stay safe.

Preparing for a Pandemic: Practical Steps and Ethical Responsibilities

It is probably just a matter of time before Texas joins the list of states who are declaring a state of emergency due to the number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus known as “Covid -19” (the Virus).

Even so, this is no time to panic–it is time to prepare.

Prepare to protect your practice so that you can continue your work for your clients as seamlessly as possible no matter what happens—and do so with minimal risk of violating your ethical duties.

This is exactly what the United States District Court Chief District Judge Rodney Gilstrap* did when he issued a new Standing Order for the Eastern District of Texas last week. Judge Gilstrap cited the court’s duty to ensure (and maintain) “the just and speedy disposition of proceedings” and its duty to protect those who work for and appear before the court and the general public. The order requires parties involved in a case to give notice to the other parties if they may have contracted or been exposed to the Virus and sets out a number of alternative procedures for continuing the progress of the case while protecting those involved in the case from possible exposure.

The Texas Supreme Court is preparing as well—but in a different way. The Court is even now appointing Judges to enforce a possible quarantine due to the Virus.** The goal, it seems, is to have a large number of Judges who have experience in quarantine law ready and available 24/7 to respond to requests from any city, county or district attorney or the AG to enforce a quarantine. The law regarding communicable diseases is right there in the Texas Health and Safety Code Chapter 81, which includes criminal penalties for not cooperating in any investigation or for concealing exposure to communicable disease, among other things. Because quarantines involve highly communicable diseases, part of the Court’s planning includes making sure that these Judges have breathing masks available as well as the technology they need to hold remote hearings to protect themselves and others from contracting or spreading the Virus.

So what should you be doing to protect yourself, your practice, and the public? Consider the advice given and issues raised in the 2018 ABA Ethics Opinion number 482. The Opinion starts by observing that lawyers have various ethical obligations implicated by a disaster, including the obligations to communicate with clients and to protect client funds and documents. It offers this advice about preparing to meet these obligations BEFORE disaster strikes:

  • Make sure you have policies and procedures in place to safeguard client property and funds as well as access to those funds. If you can’t go to the bank are you prepared to receive and disburse client trust funds? Are your delivery services prepared for an emergency?
  • Make sure you have the means to work, keep clients informed about how they can reach you, and then have a way to “meet” even if you cannot do so in person. Many businesses are already arranging for employees to work from home. If your practice can’t be managed from home it’s time to get the appropriate technologies in place, including any necessary cloud and video conferencing services. The “paperless office” you and your partners have talked about may be the only kind of office that works.
  • Don’t forget billing – you don’t want to have everything set up to do the work and then discover you don’t have the means to get paid for your work.
  • Most important, don’t forget insurance. The costs of fulfilling your obligations may be high, and the obligations don’t disappear just because the money isn’t available.

Lawyers’ duties to their clients don’t go away in a disaster; like the courts, lawyers should be preparing now for the disruptions that may come with this disaster or the next.

*Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas—Marshall Division
**See the March 6, 2020 article in the Austin American-Statesman

Warning: Hackers are alive and well and after your [client’s] data

We have all tried to ignore the warnings about our ethical duty to be competent in the technology we use:

  • The articles and emails about data breaches and hacking of law firms
  • Texas Ethics Opinion 680 with its (incredibly long and seemingly impossible to achieve) laundry list of “reasonable precautions” Texas lawyers should take in order to meet our duties of confidentiality and competence and
  • Comment 8* to Rule 1.01, which makes it crystal clear that Texas lawyers are required to be competent in all forms of technology that they (and their firms) utilize

But no longer. 

The headline last week from Law.com announcing that a well-known hacker group had obtained and then released a small Texas law firm’s data, including the firm’s personal injury client’s “pain diaries” and HIPPA consent forms, should be a wakeup call to all Texas lawyers.

Here is how it can happen.

A hacker targets a law firm and then uses ransomeware to gain control of the firm’s data (i.e. confidential client information). They then publish the firm name and, if the law firm does not pay the demanded ransom (say, a million dollars) they will publish the firm’s data. Sometimes, as was the case with the recent hack of a Texas firm, the hacker publishes a sample of the firm’s data as proof that they can deliver on their threat if the law firm does not pay. Presumably if the firm pays the hackers release the data and remove the firm’s name from their published list of targets.

If this happens to you, it will not be a secret.

Texas law has for some time required any entity whose suffers a data breach to notify any individual who’s “sensitive personal information” may have been acquired by an “unauthorized person”. So yes, the clients will know. In addition, as of January 1, 2020, Texas law requires any business who experiences a data breach affecting 250 or more Texans to provide notice of that breach to the Office of the Texas Attorney General. Find the law in the Texas Business and Commerce Code, Title 11 Chapter 521 (Sec. 521.053) and forms for reporting to the AG here.

There is no excuse for delay.

No firm wants to admit that their data storage system has been hacked, which is why the answer to questions by the media is usually “no comment”. As a PR strategy—that is the way to go. However, if all of your clients’ personal data has been published on the internet—no PR strategy can save you. At that point, a disciplinary violation for breaching the duty of confidentiality and/or competence is going to be your last concern—and a massive number of lawsuits your first.

We must become the experts.

We may not be able to thwart a determined hacker; data security is a moving target due to the fast pace of technological advances. But being overwhelmed is not an excuse for  ignoring our ethical duties with respect to technology.

Don’t know where to start?

Here is a short list to begin: know and educate your staff about your ethical duties with respect to technology. Do what you need to in order to put protections in place to secure your firm’s data. Make sure that your Wifi security and software is up to date. Put a data privacy plan in place and replace weak passwords. Educate your staff to recognize phishing emails. Put all of it in your firm’s policies and procedures handbook, make sure everyone in the firm reads and understands the handbook and keep it up to date.

More information can be found online at the American Bar Association’s cybersecurity legal task force, including security resources and CLE links to articles aimed specifically at small firms.  The ABA has also recently issued a the 2nd edition of their publication The ABA Cybersecurity Handbook: A Resource for Attorneys, Law Firms, and Business Professionals a review of which is posted on the SBOT website.**

 

*Comment 8 to Rule 1.01: 
Maintaining Competence
8. Because of the vital role of lawyers in the legal process, each lawyer should strive to become and remain proficient and competent in the practice of law, including the benefits and risks associated wtih relevant technology. . . .

**By my former Winstead colleague, Texas attorney Shawn Tuma.

Family Law and the August Onslaught

I recently wrote an article for the UNT Dallas College of Law publication Accessible Law. The publication is aimed at educating the public on various legal issues.  My article, “Understanding Court-Appointed Attorneys for Children in Family Law Cases” also includes a nifty infographic that contains nearly all the information from the article for those who prefer a shorter read.

The article is aimed directly at the questions that litigants and family members may have about court-appointed attorneys.* It brings to mind all the years I spent practicing family law and dreading the month of August–and not because of the Texas heat.

About this time each year, those of us who have spent hard time practicing family law know it is coming: the inevitable August onslaught. Something about the end of summer causes many family law clients to reconsider their possession/support/situation and they pick up the phone and call a lawyer to see what can be done. Often these calls require the lawyer’s immediate attention or an emergency motion of some sort.

Keeping family law clients happy at any time of the year can be difficult. The high stakes combined with the average client’s lack of experience with the courts often results in unreasonable client expectations about what a Judge can do for them. This is a lethal combination for family law lawyers who too frequently find themselves the subject of a frivolous State Bar grievance.

And–let’s be honest–some grievances simply cannot be avoided. Certain clients will always be willing to hop online and file a made-up grievance out of spite or anger and, in the interest of protecting the public, the State Bar has made it incredibly easy for them to do so. It takes no more time and effort than a negative Yelp review after a bad restaurant meal.

So what can be done to reduce the risk of such a grievance being filed against you? To start, three things: communication, documentation, and education.

Failure to Communicate under Rule 1.03 is frequently cited by disgruntled clients (family law and other) as the reason for their grievance. It requires (1) that a client be kept reasonably informed about the status of a matter, (2) that a lawyer promptly comply with reasonable requests for information, (3) that a lawyer explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions. What is “reasonable” is not determined by the individual client’s anxiety level, but in order to lower that anxiety and the risk of being grieved in the first place, document everything that you can.

Education for the layperson like the kind provided by the UNT publication Accessible Law  is an important component that enhances effective client communication. Providing your client with articles, books and helpful website links will ultimately help them make more informed decisions. For family law lawyers, it may also reduce the August onslaught.

*Thanks to Rachel Li for her input and feedback on the UNT article.

 

 

 

We Need One More Texas Ad Rule Re-do

The latest proposed re-do of the Texas attorney advertising rules (the Ad Rules) has just been released by the Committee on Disciplinary Rules and Referenda (CDRR) and, surprisingly, they make a lawyer’s subjective desire for pecuniary gain the sine qua non of the Ad Rules. If you don’t read any further at least please view the proposed rules, comment, and learn about public hearings on them here.

This new subjective standard is a problem.

It has long been settled that, when it comes to attorney advertising (aka commercial speech), what matters is not the speaker’s subjective intent but rather whether the actual words used mislead the public, tarnish the image of the profession or otherwise harm some legitimate value the bar is allowed to protect.

You will recall that the CDRR released its first version of proposed changes to the Ad Rules in November, 2018.  That version allowed Texas lawyers to use trade names. Much objection from the Bar followed. Those rules were scrapped, and, as predicted, the prohibition against trade names has been revived in this latest version–but with a twist. It now states:

Rule 7.07: A lawyer substantially motivated by pecuniary gain shall not practice under a trade name.

Every lawyer works for pecuniary gain except when working on a purely pro bono basis. If we look honestly at what motivates lawyers then all lawyers in private practice are forbidden to use trade names because the only reason to use a trade name is get more trade; that is, for pecuniary gain.

But wait . . . there’s more.

The newly revised Ad Rules are riddled with this phrase–substantially motivated by pecuniary gain appears 17 times in the latest version–and there is no guidance at all as to how to objectively determine whether a communication or advertisement qualifies as such.∗

This phrase is even being used to define the kind of communications to which the Ad Rules apply in the first place. See proposed Rule 7.01(b)(1).

Invitiation to ligitation? Probably. Invitation to confusion? Absolutely.

Back to Bates.

Although a lot of work went into the new advertising rules it was work based on a flawed notion of what principle should guide the Bar’s regulation of advertising. Instead of trying to look into the heart and mind of the lawyer, which is an enterprise fraught with the likelihood of error, the rules need to look at the effect of advertising and trade names on the public. Bates v State Bar of Arizona , 433 US 350 (1977), struck down rules that forbade truthful advertising and specifically permitted restrictions on advertising that is false or misleading. Our advertising rules only need to restrict false and misleading advertising–something that is recognizable by the actual content of the message and not the motivation behind it. The profit motive will remain a legitimate concern in regulations forbidding direct solicitation of individual clients because the profit motive creates an unacceptable risk of other kinds of misconduct∗∗, but for communications aimed at the general public it is the actual words, not the motive that matters.

Back to trade names.

By way of example (and this analysis should be done on each rule that includes the phrase substantially motivated by pecuniary gain), if there is a problem with trade names it must be that they are misleading because they imply a specialization or expertise that does not exist. “Worlds Greatest Law Firm” would be a pretty obvious example of this. Nothing about the intent behind the name matters or is relevant to determining whether it is misleading.

The proposed addition of the attorney’s subjective intent renders the prohibition against trade names meaningless because it allows for only two possibilities. It either:

(1) applies to every lawyer (if that is the intention–it simply needs to say “no trade names”)

OR

(2) every lawyer can use a trade name as long as they can explain that they were not “substantially motivated by pecuniary gain” in so doing. To put it mildly–it is a standard that any decent lawyer can drive a truck through.∗∗∗

We need a standard that is objective and consistent with the Courts’ rulings on attorney advertising. The new proposed Ad Rules are neither.

∗ There are no comments to the proposed Ad Rules. Comments to the rules are necessary and typically used to define, explain or interpret what is meant by the language used in the rules. Moreover, the only similar language we found in any current Texas statute is the phrase “substantially motivated by sincere religious belief” in the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The word “substantially” itself appears thousands of times in Texas statutes without, however, ever being defined. Thus, the proposed rule hangs on a never before used phrase whose most important word, “substantially,” is not defined.

∗∗This is made clear in the comments to existing rule 7.03 (covering prohibited solicitations), which largely follows the ABA Model Rule on direct solicitation.

∗∗∗For example, the lawyers practicing at “The ADA Firm” are going to say that they are substantially motivated not by making money but by protecting the public and educating them about important rights under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Copy and paste a similar argument for every firm operating under such a trade name.

 

 

 

 

Texas Ethics in the News: Spring Edition

Diversity, pro bono and access oh my.

By now you have heard something about the lawsuit against the State Bar that was filed by a trio of attorneys who do not want to be compelled to subsidize activities the Bar’s “‘diversity’ initiatives, its legislative program, and its advocacy of pro bono and ‘access to justice’ programs.”

They are also challenging the legality of a mandatory bar.[1]

Not to be left out, Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an amicus brief in support of the Plaintiffs’ MSJ on liability—a brief in which he asked a federal judge to put a halt to the state bar’s “current practice of forcing all licensed Texas attorneys to fund a host of ideological and political activities through mandatory membership dues.”

The State Bar Executive Director has responded in the most recent Bar Journal and vows to defend against the attack. Summary Judgment Motions are pending, with the State Bar having just filed its own Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment.

While this challenge to the bar plays itself out in the courts, and regardless of where you fall in this clearly partisan game, it never hurts to remember that having a license to practice law in which the state grants you a special privilege not available to other people comes with obligations back to the public and those less fortunate.[2]

Who’s Afraid of Trade Names?

One of the most hotly debated proposed disciplinary rule changes in the past months called for eliminating the prohibition in Rule 7.01(a) against the use of trade names for lawyers. This was part of a proposed and much needed overhaul of the lawyer advertising rules. On its surface the change seemed to fill an obvious need; Texas is only one of a handful of states that does not allow lawyers and law firms to use trade names, requiring instead that lawyers practice under the names of current, deceased or retired firm members.

Nonetheless, it seems that members of the Bar were generally opposed to the trade name change, and as a result the proposed revisions to the ad rules have now been withdrawn and are being re-worked. The new proposed revision will be published for comment on June 1, 2019 in the Texas Bar Journal, with public hearings to follow in June and July[3] and will presumably not change the existing prohibition against trade names.

In the meantime, many Texas lawyers may find the prohibition has little practical effect. The use of domain names that look just like a trade name is not prohibited, for example, www.themalpracticedefensefirm.com would be perfectly acceptable as a descriptive URL or nickname—just not as the name under which the lawyer or firm does business.[4] Slogans and logos are also allowed – the Carwreck Cowboy and the Texas Hammer won’t get in trouble unless they fail to include their real firm names in advertising materials. Under these circumstances an actual change in the name of a firm seems superfluous.

However, if you want to anticipate the possible future and think about practicing under a trade name, or just up your advertising game by adding a descriptive URL or nickname, you should ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is the name you want available and not currently used by someone else? You don’t want to invest in a name that leads to a trademark dispute.
  • If the name is available can it receive trademark protection? Trade names have value because they are exclusive, and a trade name that cannot be trademarked may have not real value.
  • Is the name or something like it available as a domain name? Law firm marketing is internet marketing.
  • Is the name deceptive or misleading? No matter how the new rules come out on using trade names they are certain to always prohibit names that would violate other advertising rules by suggesting unique expertise or qualifications that cannot be verified or misleading the public about the attorneys’ affiliation with other groups.[5]

We will see in a week what the Committee on Disciplinary Rules and Referenda has come up with. For now, the existing advertising rules seem to leave plenty of room for creative lawyers to use trade-name-like slogans and nicknames in their advertising and promotions.

Texas Legislature Hopes to Reign in Anti-SLAPP!

While you are considering how you want to come down on the suit against the Bar and what names/phrases you want to trademark, you should keep an eye on the bill that has just passed the Texas House and Senate that would narrow the Anti-SLAPP law (a.k.a. the Texas Citizens Participation Act) to, in part, exclude attorney discipline cases. The current text of the bill is here.

The attempt to remove disciplinary matters from the reach of Anti-SLAPP is likely in response to an ongoing case in Travis County where the respondent attorney successfully used the law to have the grievance against him dismissed by the district court. For more details on this see my partner’s recent blog on this topic at www.accessdefense.com.

That case is on appeal and while Texas courts have applied Anti-SLAPP to an increasingly broad set of circumstances—it is hard to believe that it was ever intended to apply to disciplinary proceedings. The most obvious reasons are (1) the default method of deciding disciplinary complaints is not a suit in District Court, but an evidentiary hearing that is simply not within the scope of Anti-SLAPP law at all, and (2) the law itself (Section 27.010(b)) exempts proceedings against sellers of goods or services (which lawyers are) arising out of conduct in which the intended audience is an actual or potential consumer. This would cover the majority of disciplinary proceedings.

Given this, it is unlikely that the legislature ever intended the dismissal tool to apply to any disciplinary proceeding. Stay on top of the bill’s progress here.

 

[1] Currently, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Texas, Wisconsin and Oklahoma have litigation pending that challenges the legality of a mandatory bar association.

[2] Lawyers are different; our Texas disciplinary rules set out some of the ways that we have different responsibilities, including: (1) a moral obligation to provide free legal services to those unable to pay reasonable fees; (2) a special responsibility to maintain the quality of justice for everyone; and (3) the duty to each aid the legal profession in pursuing these objectives and help the bar regulate itself in the public interest.

[3] To make sure that you do not miss out on any CDRR updates, notices of meetings (you can listen in by phone or attend in person) or proposed texts of new rules for comment, sign up here.

[4] That domain name is available it appears. But just make sure that you don’t mislead the public—i.e. by adding the word “best” in front of it. See the Ad Rules Interpretive Comments relating to firm names, comments 17(i) and 28

[5] One of the State Bar’s complaints in the much commented on Oscar Rosales case was that his trade name suggested a non-existent connection to the Veteran’s Administration.

Hot of the Presses: Texas Grievance Procedural Guide Explains it All

Thanks to a recent publication from the Texas State Bar, we now know how the Texas Chief Disciplinary Counsel (CDC) intends to conduct an Investigatory Hearing–a new type of hearing in the grievance process that is now being utilized in most grievance matters. This makes it critical that Texas attorneys caught up in the grievance process understand what will happen during this kind of hearing.

Reminder: The legislature amended the State Bar Act (the law) in 2017 as a result of the 2016-17 Sunset Review and created a new type of hearing that may take place during the grievance process–the Investigatory Hearing.  The law has few details about just exactly what this type of hearing is and the amended Rules of Disciplinary Procedure are similarly lacking.

And so, until just recently, Texas lawyers did not know what the CDC thought this hearing was for or how they were going to use it. This was a problem because, without the rules of the game, Texas lawyers could neither prepare for nor defend themselves at this new type of hearing.

The answer is now here in the CDC’s Procedural Guide—the handbook distributed to Texas grievance committee members around the state that instructs them how to do their job when sitting as grievance panel members. Before now this was not publicly available.

Now, for the first time, all Texas attorneys will now know the rules because the Procedural Guide will be available on the state bar website. This is only fair since the game being played decides the fate of Texas attorneys who are facing discipline before the grievance committee.

While I recommend that you read the Procedural Guide in full for what it says about all types of hearings before the grievance committee, here are a few highlights about what will take place at the new Investigatory Hearing (page references to the Procedural Guide):

  • The Investigatory Panel members are told that their job is to determine whether there is “Just Cause” to find that the attorney before them violated any disciplinary rule. (Page 5, 9, 28).
  • If the panel finds “Just Cause” they will prepare a written report listing “Professional Misconduct Found” and recommend a sanction based on their findings that is an offer of settlement. (Pages 5, 9, 10, 29, 42, 43).
  • They will do all of the above in the span of an hour or two “informal” and “non-adversarial” hearing after interrogating the Respondent attorney (as well as any other witnesses present) under oath and on video tape. (Pages 9, 28, 43-44).
  • The complaining party or their attorney may be allowed to interrogate the responding attorney by having the panel chair ask questions for them. (Page 29).
  • The Investigatory Panel acts as both judge and prosecutor in making its decisions since it shares the privilege with the CDC and uses information that the CDC shares with it in private that the attorney will ever know about. (Page 6, 28, 29; TRDP 17.08).

If you are thinking these procedures do not match up with your understanding of how the disciplinary process works or the grievance committees’ proper role in that process, I agree with you–they do not. Until they are revised to conform with the law, however, every Texas attorney invited to an Investigatory Hearing should read the Procedural Guide to understand just how the CDC is using this process.

 

Thank You–Next! Withdrawing like a Rock Star

Every lawyer knows the signs; most don’t learn the lesson:

  • The client is not getting you the answers you need to move the case forward
  • The “evergreen” deposit (aka retainer) is not as fresh as it should be
  • Invoices to the client for costs are ignored
  • Important deadlines are looming with no continuance or extension in sight

Instead of promptly addressing the signs of cloudy client relations, most lawyers wait until it is too late to withdraw as efficiently and ethically as they should.

Acting at the first sign of stormy weather is one route to a smooth withdrawal. In order to avoid other common perils and pitfalls, read my latest article entitled “You’re Fired!” . . . “No, I quit!” , published in the April, 2019 edition of the Dallas Bar Association’s Headnotes.