A Letter to the Editor of the Texas Bar Journal

Friends,

I am back from vacation and there are many pressing issues concerning legal ethics that need to be explored.

However, before I do that, please indulge me this one last comment on the newly amended Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure. It is a letter to the Editor of the Texas Bar Journal that I thought needed to be written. In the event it is never published in the Journal, I am publishing it here.

To the Editor of the Texas Bar Journal: 

In the July edition President Longley dropped a footnote on his President’s Page regarding the newly amended  Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure. Those new rules and the Order accompanying them are here. In the footnote, President Longley pointed out that the CDC was tasked with providing a process for an attorney respondent who was the subject of a grievance to object to a subpoena issued under the new investigatory subpoena procedure.

Unfortunately, there is simply no procedure in the new rules for the Respondent attorney to object to an investigatory subpoena not directed to him/her.

Rule 2.12(D) deals with a subpoena that is not yet being enforced in District Court and only allows the person who is being subpoenaed to object. It states in part that “[b]efore the time specified for compliance, a person commanded to appear or make production must present any objection . . . .”

Rule 2.12 (E) deals with objections to a subpoena that is being enforced by the CDC in District Court. For this scenario, it seems as if the Supreme Court actually intended to give the Respondent attorney the right to object to third party subpoenas. The June 21, 2018 Supreme Court Order entitled “Final Approval to the Amendments to the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure”, paragraph 3(d), states, in part: “Rule 2.12(E) has been revised to state that if the Chief Disciplinary Counsel pursues enforcement of a subpoena in district court: The Respondent may raise any good faith objection to the subpoena . . . . ”

I looked for this revision, but it has not been made. Instead, Rule 2.12(E) provides only that the“person commanded to appear or make production may raise any good faith objection to the subpoena”. Once again, only if the Respondent is the subject of the investigatory subpoena can s/he make a good faith objection to it.

Shortly after the new rules were published, I called and then emailed the office of the Supreme Court rules attorney and pointed out that Rule 2.12(E) had not, in fact, been “revised” as the Supreme Court had so clearly ordered.

Attorneys who I have spoken to, who, for lack of a better term, have “been around for a while” all say that the rule error will not be corrected and that no one cares.

I hope they are not right.

I have not received a response to my email and the discrepancy between the Supreme Court’s order and the rule remains.

It is disheartening that, after months of receiving comments on the new rules, the Supreme Court made so few changes to rules that are short on due process to start with. Doubly so when we see that even a minor change that the Supreme Court actually intended to be made was ignored. 

As President Longley points out in his President’s Page article, going forward, the Bar will have a chance to vote on all rule changes. And, because there is a new committee and process for making such rule changes, we can hold out hope that someone will care enough before too long to not only make the change discussed above, but to make the rest of the changes necessary to provide Texas lawyers the due process rights in the grievance process to which they are entitled.

JMH

A Dark Day Dawns for Texas Attorneys

On June 21, 2018 the Texas Supreme Court gave its final approval to the Amendments to the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure (the New Rules).

If you were keeping up, you know that the Texas Supreme Court had a chance to re-write these rules to bring them into compliance with the law (Govt. Code Ch. 81) and address the many comments that they received during the comment period. Unfortunately for Texas Attorneys, the Supreme Court did not address all the problems that exist with the drafting of the rules and many inconsistencies and questions remain.

The investigatory powers given to the CDC are particularly troubling.

These include the rules regarding the new “investigatory subpoenas” and “investigatory hearings,” that leave Texas Attorneys with little or no protection during the investigatory stage and give the Chief Disciplinary Counsel (CDC) nearly unfettered access to information and witnesses before finding that there is “Just Cause” to even believe that an ethical violation has occurred.

What was the purpose of these new powers?

Understanding why the new investigative powers are so problematic starts with the statutory rulemaking authority. The legislative history shows that supporters of the Bill argued that the CDC needed the subpoena power during its investigations in order to avoid dismissing valid complaints or finding “Just Cause” on baseless ones. Another goal was to align the Texas rules with the ABA’s Model Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement concerning investigatory proceedings.

The ABA Model Rules do provide for an investigatory subpoena, but only in accordance with the appropriate state rules of civil procedure. They also note that an investigatory subpoena might be necessary to assist disciplinary counsel in determining whether a claim had merit in those instances where the complainant had no evidence  and the respondent attorney could not or would not provide any.

Our New Rules provide no such Due Process for Texas Attorneys.

The New Rules gave the CDC the investigatory subpoena power—but do not make its use subject to the rules of civil procedure as in the Model Rules. The New Rules themselves do not contain any requirement that the respondent attorney be given notice of or information about anything that takes place during the investigatory phase. Also, there is nothing in the New Rules that indicate whether this new investigative process will be used only in certain types of cases or in every single case.

To understand why this is such a big deal, you must remember that there is no general application of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure (TRCP) to the rules of disciplinary procedure. The TRCP and its protections only apply to the discovery process after Just Cause has been found and the Commission for Lawyer Discipline becomes the client of the CDC and the Respondent becomes a party to the lawsuit. Texas Government Code 81.075(d); New Rules 2.14.

One more thing. Throughout the New Rules the “investigatory hearing” is described as a “nonadversarial proceeding”. The term “nonadversarial” appears nowhere in the underlying statute and I previously questioned what was intended by its use. The New Rules now make it clear that “nonadversarial” means that the Respondent attorney has no right to present evidence or challenge the existence of “Just Cause” at any such hearing.

What you need to know as a result.

Given the broad investigatory powers granted to the CDC under the New Rules, any Texas attorney caught up in the grievance process now needs to understand the additional risk he or she faces even before the CDC has identified an ethics violation or found that there is “Just Cause” to believe one has occurred. Under the New Rules, during the investigation of a Complaint, any or all of the following can take place:

  • The CDC can use an “investigatory subpoena” to obtain documents and testimony from third parties like your bank, your staff, and your opposing counsel without any notice to you. Let me repeat that because it is so shocking. A subpoena can be served by email (or any other method under TRCP 21a) without advance notice to the subject of the subpoena or any notice at all to the Respondent attorney who is the subject of the investigation. Rule 2.12(B) and (C).
  • An “investigatory subpoena” for documents or testimony can be issued at any time during the investigatory process, even before the Respondent attorney has responded to the Complaint. 2.12(B).
  • An “investigatory subpoena” can demand that documents or witnesses be produced on only 24 hours notice from any place in the State of Texas. This is because, again, the rules of civil procedure do not apply (in particular TRCP 176 and 205) and there are no reasonableness or other standards in the New Rules themselves.
  • If you are lucky enough to find out about an investigatory subpoena to a third party you cannot object to its issuance. Only the “person commanded to appear or make production” can object and then only if they do so in “good faith”. 2.12(D)(E). If the CDC has to enforce the subpoena in the district court a “bad faith” objection is punished by requiring payment of the CDC’s fees and costs for the enforcement. Rule 2.12(E)
  • You can be subpoenaed to produce documents or appear at an investigatory hearing; if you are subpoenaed, as the subject of the subpoena you may only object if you do so in “good faith” as above. However even a good faith objection may be grounds for enhanced punishment if you end up getting sanctioned since it can be seen as “uncooperative”–an aggravating factor in determining sanctions. Rule 15.09(b)(E).
  • The “investigatory subpoena” can be enforced by the district court with no right of interlocutory appeal. Rule 2.12(D) and (E).
  • The CDC can set and hold an “investigatory hearing” without any notice to you, and it can be held by telephone. Rule 2.12(F).
  • The process for the giving and taking of evidence at an “investigatory hearing” is up to the individual “investigatory panel” chairperson. As noted above, there are no rules of evidence and there are no rules of procedure that apply. Rule 2.12(F).
  • Any evidence or testimony obtained through the “investigatory subpoena” or at an “investigatory hearing” can be recorded and used against you in any subsequent disciplinary proceeding. Rule 2.12(F) That’s right. Testimony from witnesses you never had a chance to cross-examine, taken at a hearing of which you had no notice, can be used against you in the final hearing on the grievance.

Of course we don’t have any reason to think the CDC will overreach with these new powers, but history proves that power unrestricted by rules will eventually be abused. Without any due process protections in the New Rules for Texas attorneys during the investigatory process it would be foolish to just assume that any will be provided.

Until further changes can be made through the newly formed rules committee, Texas Attorneys must beware.

 

No Rules (yet) = Good News

Today (June 1) was the deadline for the newly amended Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure and Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct to take effect barring further action of the Texas Supreme Court.

The Court took action.

Yesterday, just before the June 1 deadline, the Court issued an Order entitled “ORDER DELAYING EFFECTIVE DATE OF PROPOSED AMENDMENTS TO THE TEXAS DISCIPLINARY RULES OF PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT AND THE TEXAS RULES OF DISCIPLINARY PROCEDURE PENDING FURTHER ORDER OF THE COURT”.

I believe this means that the comments submitted by the members of the State Bar and the general public were noted and that the Court wants additional time to consider the New Rules in light of those comments.

Stay tuned.

The Court has not given itself another deadline–which means the Court has time to amend the New Rules to accurately reflect the underlying statute and to provide the due process to which Texas attorneys are entitled.

Thanks to all of you who took the time to comment. If you needed proof that your voices can make a difference this just may be it.

The Ball is in the Court’s Court.

The comments are in and the Texas Supreme Court now has until June 1, 2018 to decide what, if anything, it will change in the newly adopted Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure.

In other words: The ball is in their Court.

You will recall that I, along with my partner Richard Hunt, submitted a Memorandum to the Texas Supreme Court last month in which we outlined the changes we thought were necessary to bring the newly adopted rules in line with the underlying statute as well as to address very real due process concerns. We also asked you to submit your own comments prior to April 30, 2018; apparently many of you did.

I was interviewed yesterday by a reporter for LAW360 about my concerns. Check out today’s article from Law360 in which I am quoted. In the article, anyway, I got the last word:

Huey said in comments to the court that while “uncooperative” behavior isn’t defined, it’s easy to imagine a lawyer could be seen as uncooperative for opposing a subpoena, objecting to questioning of a witness or even refusing to take a settlement offer made by the chief disciplinary counsel.

She said many Texas lawyers aren’t even aware of the changing rules for the disciplinary procedures and might not appreciate the significance of the changes because they never expect to be in trouble with the state Bar.

“Most attorneys think it’s never going to happen to them,” Huey said. “But if it does, it’s really going to matter. Anyone with experience with the process knows these rules really do matter.”

However, the Texas Supreme Court will have the real last word.

And when they do, I’ll let you know what that is.

 

Somewhere He Opens A Window . . .

It has been weeks since the Texas Supreme Court closed the door on the amendments to the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Procedure, but it left open a window.

As you may recall, the Court was required to adopt amendments to the disciplinary procedural rules in accordance with the Sunset Legislation (SB 302, in part contained in Government Code Section 81) by March 1, 2018. The Court did so, but in the Order Adopting those amendments it further ordered that the amendments “may be changed before June 1 in response to public comments” sent to rulescomments@txcourts.gov by April 30, 2018.

So let’s comment.

I have already blogged twice on this topic (Part 1 and Part 2) and identified what I believe are serious problems with the amendments and, along with others, sent comments during the initial comment period.

Now we have one more chance to appeal to the Supreme Court to fix the amended rules so that they both (1) comply with the underlying statute and (2) provide attorneys caught up in the grievance process the due process to which they are entitled.

We have prepared a Memorandum to the Supreme Court outlining some of the most egregious and obvious problems with the amendments. You can download it using this link: “Supreme Court Memorandum.” If these problems are not fixed we believe that the provisions we highlight risk being held unconstitutional if challenged.

If you want to add your name to the Memorandum, email me at jhuey@hunthuey.com by April 27, 2017 and I will tell you how to do it. If you want to use the arguments we make in this Memorandum or in either of my two prior blogs in your own comments to the Supreme Court you are welcome to.

There will be no referendum or other opportunity to change these rules before they are truly final.

Whether you agree with our conclusions or not—make yourself heard now before we are stuck with the amendments as currently written for the foreseeable future.

And thanks and gratitude to my partner and co-author, Richard Hunt. Those of you who know him will recognize his persuasive prose and razor-sharp analysis throughout the Memorandum.

 

 

You Can’t Be Good If You Feel Bad

Lawyers are in bad shape as far as “wellness” goes. This was made all too clear last week by ABA President Hilarie Bass’s “call to action” in her article in the New York Law Journal in which she reminded lawyers of the need to take care of themselves and the importance to the profession of making sure that other lawyers do the same.

The article cites to the story by a big firm lawyer in which he chronicled his struggle with depression that was published just two days prior–on March 28, 2018.

March 28 was the ABA Law Student Division’s official “National Mental Health Day” at law schools around the country.

How sick are we?

Recent studies confirm that, in alarming numbers, attorneys practicing today are more likely than non-lawyers to suffer from:

  • Substance abuse: 21 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers and use alcohol at a rate 25% higher than the general population.
  • Depression: Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.
  • Suicide: Lawyers ranked fourth, right behind dentists, pharmacists and physicians.(comparing the proportion of suicides in that profession to suicides in all other occupations)

This should not come as a surprise to those of us who have practiced law for any length of time. Most of us know fellow lawyers whose careers were interrupted or destroyed by substance abuse or mental illness.

We also know lawyers whose mental health creates additional stress for us as opposing counsel.

There is a proposal in the ABA to include mental health as an additional element of competence in the model disciplinary rules. You would think this is implicit in the meaning of competence, but while most lawyers manage to cope with the pressure of practice with a certain amount of professionalism there also seem to be more and more lawyers who are taking their inability to cope out on clients, judges and opposing counsel. This lack of professional conduct–regardless of the cause–undermines the integrity of the profession and creates additional and unnecessary stress for everyone involved.

Three things have contributed to the current crisis.

Old fashioned pressure: The traditional stresses we all signed up for when enrolling in law school still exist and don’t seem to be going away anytime soon: Long hours at work, success measured by income, feelings of isolation, high-stakes career making and breaking cases, difficult clients and cut-throat work environments.

New fashioned pressure: A couple of decades into the internet era we are still learning how to cope with a technology-fueled 24/7 law practice in which clients and partners demand “everything, all the time”.[1] Today the ordinary practice of law is like driving on a German autobahn with no speed limit and no off ramps.

The threat of obsolescence:  Technology has reduced the need for much of traditional lawyering, especially the parts that were easy and therefore low stress. The result is more stress as more lawyers chase less and less work. As noted in the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being August, 2017 Report (the Report): “Our profession confronts a dwindling market share as the public turns to more accessible, affordable alternative legal service providers.”

What is being done?

The crisis has not gone unnoticed by the ABA, who, in 2017, proposed a new Model Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) Rule that recommends mandatory mental health programming for lawyers–at least one credit hour every three years.

Baby steps.

For law students, one recommendation from the Report is that law schools be required to include well-being education in their curriculum in order to obtain ABA approval. The Report, aptly subtitled: Creating a Movement to Improve Well-Being in the Legal Profession, is full of suggestions for creating wellness and includes detailed recommendations for Judges, Bar Associations and legal employers.

What can we do in Texas?

Read the Report and put its recommendations into action where you meet other lawyers–at your firm, your local Bar Association or committee, or at the State level.

Maintaining the profession’s integrity and providing the excellent service our clients demand and deserve requires a mind that is not only intellectually but emotionally capable. In an increasingly stressful profession we can no longer take mental health and wellness for granted, and each of us shares in the responsibility to protect the profession and each other.

The Tennessee State Bar is apparently breaking ground in this area and has already revised its CLE requirements to grant ethics and professionalism credit for a broad set of well-being topics. It seems obvious that this is the next step, and there is no reason for the Texas State Bar to wait for the ABA or anyone else to propose new or additional requirements or standards in order to put the kinds of programs in place that the Report recommends.

For my part, I intend to continue to add a wellness component to the ethics CLE programs that I offer, utilizing both my training and experience as a lawyer and as a 500 hour Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT).

Join me in asking the Texas State Bar to address wellness now.

Our standard CLE offerings should routinely include programs on self-care and wellness so we can learn to prevent problems instead of just coping with the aftermath. We need not only traditional CLE on things like time management but also courses on a wide range of self-analysis and coping techniques. No single program will fit every need, and  an hour or two of CLE isn’t a solution, but it might just serve as a spring board within the local Bar, a firm or among colleagues for conversations about the benefits of stress reduction programs and ways to identify and address the problems of stress before they result in disciplinary action, a loss of clients or worse.

Remember: If you have a problem or know someone who has a problem the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) provides confidential help for lawyers, law students, and judges who have problems with substance abuse and/or mental health issues. Its confidential hotline can be reached any time of day or night at 800/343-8527.

[1] “Life in the Fast Lane” by the Eagles (1976).

Changes to the Ethics Rules: Part Deux

You may have heard fellow Texas lawyers talking about how “easy” it will be to change the disciplinary rules for the State Bar of Texas under the statute enacted pursuant to the Sunset Legislation. The statute, located in the Government Code, went into effect September 1, 2017 and was supposed to make it easier to change the disciplinary rules and to implement immediately some changes the legislature thought were important.

Let’s review how we got here:

Since 1993, the Texas Supreme Court and the State Bar have conducted five referenda to try and amend the Rules of Professional Conduct or the Rules of Disciplinary Procedure (the “ethics rules”); only two of them passed.

The new legislation’s sponsor put it plainly in his statement of intent. He stated that we need a new rule making process for the ethics rules “because the most recent attempt to revise them took about six years, alienated many attorneys, and resulted in no changes.”

The Sunset Committee’s initial recommendation was to eliminate the referenda process (take away our right to vote on proposed rule changes). Many of you spoke up and that recommendation was not adopted. Texas attorneys retain the right to vote on rule changes.

In order to facilitate more frequent reviews/changes to the ethics rules, the law provides for the creation of a new rules committee to review the rules annually, and new procedures for more frequently amending/updating them. (See Subsection E-1).

If you want to read all the details about the new rules committee and rule making procedures, check out the Government Code  or go to the Texas Lawyer article from January that includes the names of the committee members and summarizes the new rule making process.

Suffice it to say, since they were only recently appointed, the new rules committee has not had time to make any proposals for changing the ethics rules.  Only time will tell if the new procedure will result in more frequent/relevant/helpful ethics rule changes than we have historically had in Texas.

Where did the new proposed rules the Bar emailed us in January come from?

Those proposed new rules were directed by the legislation. This is another way that the Texas Supreme Court can make rules governing attorney discipline.  Included in the legislation is a section that mandates that the Chief Disciplinary Counsel (CDC) propose and the Supreme Court adopt new rules to enact many of the changes to the ethics rules that are set out in the statute. (See 81.083 and Section 15).

This would be fine as long as the proposed rule changes accurately reflect the law.  Unfortunately, some of them do not.

We’ll start with the crucial statutory provision allowing the CDC to issue subpoenas during the investigative phase; that is, before the CDC’s office finds “just cause” to act on the complaint. The statute states that any such subpoena must “relate directly to a specific allegation of attorney misconduct.” (Sec. 81.080). In other words, no fishing expeditions, just a tool for investigating specific allegations.

What the CDC has proposed does not include this critical statutory limit. Instead it requires only that the subpoena “relate” to the “complaint”, and further states that any objection will be ruled on based on “materiality”. (Proposed Rule 2.12). Complaints are usually written by non-lawyers and may include a host of poorly defined  grievances that may or may not constitute ethics violations. Only rarely will a complaint refer to a specific ethics rule. One of the things the CDC’s office does after a finding of “just cause”  is refine the complaint into the petition filed by the State Bar that does include references to specific ethics rule violations. If the only limit on the subpoena is that it “relate” to the complaint there will be very little the CDC cannot subpoena. Instead of investigating the allegations in the complaint, it may choose to engage in a free-wheeling investigation of the attorney’s entire practice. That is clearly not what the legislature intended. The new rule should track the language of the statute, permitting subpoenas only if they relate directly to a specific allegation of attorney misconduct.

Another obvious example is the granting of the privilege between the CDC and the investigatory hearing panel as I set out in my prior blog. (Proposed Rule 17.08) I see nothing in the statute that authorizes this.

The rules need to state the law. I again urge you to take a look at the proposed rules and comment if you see discrepancies.

Make yourself heard by looking at the proposed rules and commenting before the February 8, 2018 deadline.