September 28, 2016

Ask the Experts: Why Do Lawyers Get Sued?

EthicsThe ABA Standing Committee on Lawyers’ Professional Liability compiled a comprehensive Profile of Legal Malpractice Claims, evaluating claims from 2008 through 2011. According to the Committee’s report, real estate lawyers held the dubious honor of having the highest percentage of malpractice claims, followed by family law, trust and estate, and personal injury law. Forty-five percent of all malpractice claims were filed due to substantive errors, like failure to know or properly apply the law, discovery errors, procedural choice errors, missing deadlines, and conflicts of interest. Administrative errors counted for the second-highest reason for claims, including procrastination in performance or follow-up (read: not returning phone calls), lost files, calendaring errors, and other clerical errors. Together, nearly three-quarters of all legal malpractice claims filed during the Committee’s study period were due to errors. That is a frightening statistic.

One way to avoid becoming the subject of a malpractice claim is to choose clients carefully. Everyone has experienced “problem” clients—clients who won’t leave you alone, who lack the ability to pay, and who seem to criticize your every move. Attorney Sally Field (no relation to the actress) compiled a list of the top ten warning signs for problem clients:

  1. Clients who want to change lawyers in the middle of the case;
  2. Clients who trash the lawyer they just left;
  3. Clients who are reluctant to answer basic questions;
  4. Clients who are overly opinionated about the law without justification;
  5. Clients who have unreasonable expectations;
  6. Clients who micromanage everything;
  7. Clients who won’t let you end an excessively long initial client interview;
  8. Clients who want to exact revenge or punishment through the legal system;
  9. Clients who make negative comments about judges, courts, and the judicial system; and
  10. Companies with unusually high turnover of key staff or unusual corporate structures.

Bottom line? Many potential malpractice claims can be avoided by refusing to represent those clients who seem like trouble from the outset. Avoiding mistakes is helpful, too.

Sally Field, along with John Palmeri, will discuss common reasons for lawyer malpractice lawsuits in a panel discussion moderated by Heather Kelly. Join us for this interesting and informative breakfast CLE on Tuesday, September 27, 2016. Call (303) 860-0608 to register, or click the links below.

 

CLELogo

CLE Program: Why Lawyers Get Sued

This CLE presentation will occur on September 27, 2016, at the CBA-CLE offices (1900 Grant Street, Third Floor), from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Register for the live program here or register for the webcast here. You may also call (303) 860-0608 to register.

Can’t make the live program? Order the homestudy here: MP3Video OnDemand.

ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4 Amended to Prohibit Discrimination

ABAOn Monday, August 8, 2016, the ABA announced that the ABA House of Delegates passed a resolution to amend Model Rule 8.4 in order to bring into the black letter of the rule an express prohibition against discriminatory conduct in the practice of law.

Revised Resolution 109 amended subparagraph (g) of Model Rule 8.4 as follows:

(g) engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination harass or discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law. This Rule paragraph does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16. This paragraph does not preclude legitimate advice or advocacy consistent with these Rules.

Additionally, the Comment to the Model Rule was amended as follows:

[3] A lawyer who, in the course of representing a client, knowingly manifests by words or conduct,  bias or prejudice based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation  or socioeconomic status, violates paragraph (d) when such actions are prejudicial to the  administration of justice. Legitimate advocacy respecting the foregoing factors does not violate  paragraph (d). A trial judge’s finding that peremptory challenges were exercised on a  discriminatory basis does not alone establish a violation of this rule.

[3] Discrimination and harassment by lawyers in violation of paragraph (g) undermines confidence  in the legal profession and the legal system. Such discrimination includes harmful verbal or  physical conduct that manifests bias or prejudice towards others because of their membership or  perceived membership in one or more of the groups listed in paragraph (g). Harassment includes  sexual harassment and derogatory or demeaning verbal or physical conduct towards a person who is, or is perceived to be, a member of one of the groups. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. The substantive law of antidiscrimination and anti-harassment statutes and case law may guide application of paragraph (g).

[4] Conduct related to the practice of law includes representing clients; interacting with witnesses, coworkers, court personnel, lawyers and others while engaged in the practice of law; operating or managing a law firm or law practice; and participating in bar association, business or social activities in connection with the practice of law. Paragraph (g) does not prohibit conduct undertaken to promote diversity. Lawyers may engage in conduct undertaken to promote diversity and inclusion without violating this Rule by, for example, implementing initiatives aimed at recruiting, hiring, retaining and advancing diverse employees or sponsoring diverse law student organizations.

[5] Paragraph (g) does not prohibit legitimate advocacy that is material and relevant to factual or legal issues or arguments in a representation. A trial judge’s finding that peremptory challenges were exercised on a discriminatory basis does not alone establish a violation of paragraph (g). A lawyer does not violate paragraph (g) by limiting the scope or subject matter of the lawyer’s practice or by limiting the lawyer’s practice to members of underserved populations in accordance with these Rules and other law. A lawyer may charge and collect reasonable fees and expenses for a representation. Rule 1.5(a). Lawyers also should be mindful of their professional obligations under Rule 6.1 to provide legal services to those who are unable to pay, and their obligation under Rule 6.2 not to avoid appointments from a tribunal except for good cause. See Rule 6.2(a), (b) and (c). A lawyer’s representation of a client does not constitute an endorsement by the lawyer of the client’s views or activities. See Rule 1.2(b).

The remaining comments were renumbered.

The ABA Model Rules Committee considered the changes a “necessary and significant first step to address the issues of bias, prejudice, discrimination and harassment in the Model Rules,” but noted that it is only the first step in a multi-disciplinary effort to provide access to justice.

The chair of the ABA Standing Committee on the Model Rules, Myles V. Lynk of Arizona, noted that 25 jurisdictions across the country have enacted similar language. Over 70 lawyers signed up to speak in support of the changes, while none spoke in opposition. Only a few members of the House of Delegates voted “no” in a voice vote.

For the complete text of the ABA Resolution, click here.

New and Revised Ethics Opinions Address Unbundling, Missing Clients

The Colorado Bar Association’s Ethics Committee has released Formal Opinion 128, addressing missing clients, and has revised Formal Opinion 101, addressing unbundling of legal services. Formal Opinion 128, “Ethical Duties of Lawyer Who Cannot Contact Client,” addresses situations where a client disappears at some time during the representation, or situations where a lawyer is retained by an insurance company to represent an insured but cannot locate the client. The CBA Ethics Committee opines that the lawyer should continue to act on behalf of the client in order to preserve legal rights, as long as the actions do not conflict with other ethical rules. The Committee also notes that the lawyer should take reasonable steps to locate the missing client.

Formal Opinion 101, “Unbundled Legal Services,” was revised by the Ethics Committee and reenacted as a new opinion. Formal Opinion 101 addresses unbundled legal services, where a lawyer undertakes part of the representation for a client but does not provide full services, such as in situations where a client cannot afford the full range of legal services but retains a lawyer to “ghostwrite” pleadings. The Ethics Committee incorporated the changes to Colo. RPC 1.2(c), which rule specifically allows limited representation, and the amendments to C.R.C.P. 11(b) and 311(b), which allow “ghostwriting” of pleadings. The opinion discusses the rule changes and their significance to lawyers in limited representations.

These rules and more will be discussed at CBA-CLE on July 26, 2016, at a breakfast program: “Ethics Rules Changes – Effective April 6, 2016.” Speakers Marcy Glenn, David Stark, and Jamie Sudler will discuss the new and revised rules and their implications for practitioners. Click the links below to register, or call (303) 860-0608.

 

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CLE Program: Ethics Rules Changes — Effective April 6, 2016

This CLE presentation will occur on July 26, 2016, at the CBA-CLE offices (1900 Grant Street, Third Floor), from 8:30 a.m. to 9:50 a.m. Register for the live program here or register for the webcast here. You may also call (303) 860-0608 to register.

Can’t make the live program? Order the homestudy here: MP3Video OnDemand.

Colorado Supreme Court: Disclosed Costs Can Be Actionable Under CCPA if Costs Are Not Actual, Necessary, and Reasonable

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in State v. The Castle Law Group, LLC on Monday, July 5, 2016.

In this C.A.R. 21 original proceeding, the State appealed from the trial court’s order barring testimony of market rate prices. The State brought CCPA claims against Castle and several affiliated vendors, alleging that the vendors conspired with Castle to charge above market rate prices for various foreclosure-related services, and the inflated charges were eventually carried by mortgage servicers and the public because they relied on Castle’s representation that the costs were “actual, necessary, and reasonable.”

The trial court limited the State’s ability to provide market rate comparisons because it ruled that charging high prices is not illegal, and as long as Castle disclosed everything it charged, there was no deception. The Colorado Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court’s characterization of the CCPA claims. The court ruled that the trial court misperceived the alleged deception: that the prices charged were not “actual, necessary, and reasonable.” Because market rate comparison evidence directly impacts the determination of whether the charges were “actual, necessary, and reasonable,” the supreme court made its Order to Show Cause absolute and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

The Ethical Danger of the Microsoft/LinkedIn Merger

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Stuart Teicher’s blog, “Keeping Lawyers Out of Trouble,” on June 16, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Headshot-Stuart-TeicherBy Stuart Teicher

This week it was announced that Microsoft is buying LinkedIn. There are some hidden attorney ethics implications about which we all need to be aware.

A review of the recent news articles announcing the acquisition reveals that a key motivating factor in Microsoft’s purchase of LinkedIn was access to LinkedIn’s data.  Of course, sharing data is nothing new. But when companies improve their ability to share our data across various platforms, my ears perk up. Not just because it’s creepy or because of obvious privacy implications. The type of data sharing they’re contemplating in the Microsoft/LinkedIn combination makes me worry about confidentiality (and other) issues.

Why they are merging:

According to the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft sees a critical synergy with LinkedIn:

“LinkedIn’s users are, arguably, Microsoft’s core demographic. They also offer Microsoft something it has long sought but never had—a network with which users identify. Microsoft needs to persuade LinkedIn users to adopt that identity, and use it across as many Microsoft products as possible.

Access to those users, as well as the enormous amounts of data they throw off, could yield insights and products within Microsoft that allow it to monetize its investment in LinkedIn in ways that the professional networking site might not be able to. [Microsoft CEO] Mr. Nadella already has mentioned a few of these, including going into a sales meeting armed with the bios of participants, and getting a feed of potential experts from LinkedIn whenever Office notices you’re working on a relevant task.“

In other words, Microsoft wants to have your Outlook and other Microsoft software products speak to your LinkedIn profile. The intersection of that data is valuable—various sellers of products and services would be willing to pay for it.

It appears that Microsoft wants to be able to read through the work we do on their products like Word, review our upcoming appointments in our Outlook calendar, search for keywords in our emails, and then find connections with people with our LinkedIn connections. That’s what they are searching for—connections they could monetize.

For instance, let’s say accountant X has an Outlook Calendar appointment which sets a meeting with “Charles McKenna of Account-Soft Corp.” Microsoft could then search LinkedIn and it would learn that McKenna works for a company that sells workflow management software. Well, now Microsoft knows the accountant is in the market for workflow management software… and they could sell that knowledge to other software companies who would then direct solicitations in the accountant’s direction. That’s an annoyance for an accountant, but a potential ethics disaster if he/she were a lawyer.

Basic issue, Confidentiality:

If Microsoft scours our Word documents and emails, then there could be Rule 1.6 confidentiality issues.  That’s so obvious that we don’t need to spend time talking about it now. I think the more unusual issues come from the Calendar function…

If they leverage the data in our Calendar, it could reveal our client relationships:

The substance of what we learn from the client is confidential, but so is the very existence of the lawyer-client relationship. Will the integration of these platforms make it easier for people to figure out who we represent?

Think about how much information Microsoft could piece together from our Calendar. They might see a potential client introduction (which lists Pete Smith as present), a court appearance (which lists Pete Smith as present), and a meeting for settlement purposes (which lists Pete Smith as present). It’s not going to be too tough for the Microsoft bots to figure out that Pete Smith is your client.

If they leverage data in our Calendar, it could reveal key substantive information that could harm the client:

If Microsoft looks at our Calendar they can see that we’re heading to a particular locale. They might then cross reference our LinkedIn connections and send a message to one of them that says something like, “Your connection Bruce Kramer is going to Chicago next week. Why don’t you look him up?”

That heads-up might give someone the incentive to look into our movements a bit more… and who knows what they could find. What if that info was given to a real estate agent that we know in Chicago… and maybe we are representing a successful land owner… and we’re clandestinely scouting a real estate purchase because we don’t want people to figure out that we’re there on behalf of our deep-pocketed client… because if they know, the purchaser will run up the price. That LinkedIn message tipped off the real estate agent and it could cost the client a lot of money.

If they leverage data in our Calendar, it could end up revealing a misrepresentation:

Imagine that Client A asks you to accompany them to a meeting in Los Angeles. You tell her that you can’t go because you’ll be on vacation on the East Coast. That’s not true, however. The truth is that you’ve already scheduled a meeting with a potentially new client in Los Angeles. You didn’t want Client A to know that you’d be in town because you didn’t want to have to shuffle between clients—it would just be too much work. You could have told Client A that you’d be in town but you didn’t have time to meet her, but you thought she’d be insulted. It was just easier to say you’re far away and be done with it.

Later, Client A gets a LinkedIn message that says, “Your Connection Mary Smith is going to be in Los Angeles next weekend… send her a message and try to link up!” Do you know what you are now? Busted. And not only do you have egg on your face, but you may also have committed an ethical violation.

Is the white lie that you told your client going to be considered a misrepresentation or deception per Rule 8.4(c)? That rule states: “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to (c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation…”

I know what you’re thinking… it was a half-truth. No harm no foul. Well, I searched the ethics code, and I didn’t find the term “white lie” or “half-truth” anywhere in the code. You should also note that Rule 8.4(c) does not require that the misrepresentation be “material.” It doesn’t allow you to lie about inconsequential things and there’s no modifying language- it just says that you can’t lie or deceive.

These are just a few issues. Some of these are clear ethics concerns, others are more akin to PR nightmares. Are they so terrible that we all need to get off LinkedIn right away? That might be a bit premature. After all, they only just announced the merging of the platforms- they haven’t actually done anything yet. I don’t know what dangers will actually be realized, or whether any dangers will be realized at all. What I do know is that part of being a responsible attorney in this technological age is to be diligent in thinking about these issues. As lawyers practicing in an ever-changing technological environment, we need to be aware of the potential problems. Keep your eye on the news and stay abreast about the details regarding the integration of these two platforms. Then, if you determine that you need to act, do so.  That way we are “keep[ing] abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” Comment [8], Rule 1.1.

Save the Date!

Stuart Teicher will be at the CLE offices on Thursday, September 8, 2016, to present two ethics programs. Registration is not yet open, but mark your calendars and don’t miss these important programs.

 

Stuart I. Teicher, Esq. is a professional legal educator who focuses on ethics law and writing instruction. A practicing attorney for over two decades, Stuart’s career is now dedicated to helping fellow attorneys survive the practice of law and thrive in the profession. Stuart teaches seminars and provides in-house training to law firms/legal departments.

Stuart helps attorneys get better at what they do (and enjoy the process) through his entertaining and educational CLE Performances. His expertise is in “Technethics,” a term Stuart coined that refers to the ethical issues in social networking and other technology. He also speaks about “Practical Ethics”– those lessons hidden in the ethics rules that enhance a lawyer’s practice. Stuart writes the blog “Keeping Lawyers Out of Trouble.”

Mr. Teicher is a Supreme Court appointee to the New Jersey District Ethics Committee where he investigates and prosecutes grievances filed against attorneys, an adjunct Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School in Camden, New Jersey where he teaches Professional Responsibility and an adjunct Professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick where he teaches undergraduate writing courses. He is a member of the bar in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In 2014, he authored the book Navigating the Legal Ethics of Social Media and Technology (Thomson Reuters).

Colorado Supreme Court: Ethical Prohibition on Paying Witness Contingent Fee Does Not Require Exclusion of Evidence

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Murray v. Just In Case Business Lighthouse, LLC on Monday, June 20, 2016.

Contingent Fees for Witnesses—Summary Witness Testimony—Summary Exhibits.

The Supreme Court held that the violation of an ethical rule does not displace the rules of evidence and that trial courts retain the discretion under CRE 403 to exclude the testimony of improperly compensated witnesses. The Court also held that trial courts may allow summary witness testimony if they determine that the evidence is sufficiently complex and voluminous that a summary witness would assist the trier of fact. It further held that in those circumstances, summary witnesses may satisfy CRE 602’s personal knowledge requirement by examining the underlying documentary evidence on which they based their summary testimony. Finally, the Court held that that under CRE 1006, trial courts abuse their discretion when they admit summary charts that characterize evidence in an argumentative fashion rather than simply organize it in a manner helpful to the trier of fact. The Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ holding remanding the case to the trial court, but affirmed on all other issues.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

ABA Ethics Committee Recommends Adoption of Model Ethics Rule Prohibiting Discrimination

The ABA Center for Professional Responsibility announced that the Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct submitted with the ABA House of Delegates a resolution to amend the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to include a black-letter prohibition against discrimination. The proposed change would add a new subparagraph (g) to Model Rule 8.4, which states:

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

. . .

(g) harass or discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law. This Rule does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline, or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16.

The proposal would also add new comments to Model Rule 8.4 explaining that “Discrimination and harassment by lawyers in violation of paragraph (g) undermines confidence in the legal profession and the legal system,” and clarifying that paragraph (g) is not intended to prohibit legitimate advocacy. The Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility explained that the rule is intended to further the ABA’s goal of eliminating bias and enhancing diversity in the profession.

To read more about the proposal, click here. For a redline of the proposed changes to Model Rule 8.4, click here.

Formal Ethics Opinion 95, “Funds of Missing Clients,” Withdrawn

The Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee withdrew Formal Opinion 95, “Funds of Missing Clients.” This opinion addressed what to do with funds that were held in a lawyer’s trust account but the client’s whereabouts were no longer known to the attorney. The opinion recommended obtaining an advance agreement from the client to donate unclaimed funds, or to allow the lawyer to withdraw small amounts of the funds to use in locating the client, or to proceed under the Unclaimed Property Act. The opinion was withdrawn on Saturday, May 21, 2016.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Potential Conflict of Interest Relevant in Determination of Prejudice to Defendant

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Villanueva on Thursday, May 5, 2016.

Benjamin Garcia-Diaz’s wife called the police for a domestic violence incident, and authorized a search of the residence. Police found $30,000 worth of cocaine during the search. Garcia-Diaz retained Charles Elliot to defend the domestic violence charges, and although the prosecution moved to add drug charges, the motion was still pending when Garcia-Diaz disappeared in March 2005. His body was found in September 2005, and Martin Villanueva was arrested for the murder.

Villanueva retained Elliot, who had represented him in the past. Elliot advised Villanueva that the prosecution might seek to disqualify him because of his prior representation with Garcia-Diaz, and later Elliot entered into an agreement with the prosecution where neither party would mention his prior representation of Garcia-Diaz. The trial court was never told about the conflict of interest.

At trial in 2006, the prosecution’s theory of the case was that Garcia-Diaz was about to enter into an agreement with the prosecution and would have laid the blame on Villanueva, his supplier, so Villanueva shot him at a crucial time. In fact, as Elliot knew, Garcia-Diaz had not negotiated at all with the prosecution and was not preparing to blame Villanueva, but because of his agreement Elliot could not rebut the prosecution’s theory.

Villanueva was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. He then filed a Crim. P. 35(c) motion alleging that Elliot’s performance was deficient because he had a conflict of interest that adversely affected his trial performance. The district court denied the postconviction motion.

On appeal, the court of appeals evaluated Villanueva’s claims under the framework set forth in West v. People, 2015 CO 5, which clarified the correct standard for evaluating conflict of interest claims. Under West, to show an adverse effect from a conflict of interest, the defendant must identify a plausible defense or strategy, show that the alternative strategy was objectively reasonable, and establish that counsel’s failure to pursue the alternative strategy was linked to the conflict. Villanueva contended that Elliot was ineffective for failing to rebut the prosecution’s theory of the case. The trial court determined that because Villanueva showed only a potential conflict, not an actual conflict, his argument failed. However, under West, Villanueva needed only to show a potential conflict.

The court of appeals remanded for the district court to consider whether Elliot’s duties to Garcia-Diaz were inherently in conflict with Villanueva’s suggested alternative strategy of rebutting the prosecution’s evidence regarding whether Garcia-Diaz was about to snitch on Villanueva.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Contract that Violates Rules of Professional Conduct Unenforceable

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Calvert v. Mayberry on Thursday, April 21, 2016.

Disciplinary Proceeding—Oral Contract—Colo. RPC 1.8(a)—Issue Preclusion—Void Agreement—Equitable Lien—Unclean Hands.

In a question of first impression, the Colorado Court of Appeals decided that an attorney who enters into a contract with a client that violates Colo. RPC 1.8(a) cannot later enforce the contract against the client.

The Colorado Supreme Court disbarred the attorney after a hearing board determined he had committed ethical violations, including some against the former client in this case. Specifically, the hearing board found that the attorney had loaned the former client over $100,000 and secured his interest in the loan funds by recording a false deed of trust in the chain of title on her house. The hearing board also found that the attorney had not complied with Colo. RPC 1.8(a) when he made the loans to the former client. The attorney then filed this case to recoup money he had loaned to the former client, claiming that he had an oral agreement with the client for repayment of the loans, and alternatively asserting that the trial court should impose an equitable lien on the former client’s house. The trial court granted summary judgment for the former client and her daughter (to whom she had quitclaimed her interest in the house), finding that because the oral contract between the former client and the attorney violated Colo. RPC 1.8(a), the attorney was ethically prohibited from enforcing that agreement.

The attorney appealed. On appeal, the former client contended that the doctrine of issue preclusion barred the attorney from relitigating factual issues that were litigated during the disciplinary proceeding. The court agreed; therefore, the hearing board’s factual findings bind the attorney in this case, including its finding that the attorney violated Rule 1.8(a) when he entered into the oral contract with the former client, and the oral contract between the attorney and the former client is void and unenforceable. The attorney contended that the trial court erred in applying the doctrine of unclean hands to bar his request for an equitable lien. Based on the attorney’s misconduct, the court disagreed. The attorney also asserted a fraud claim against the former client’s daughter, but his allegations did not support this claim, and it failed as a matter of law. The district court properly entered summary judgment.

The judgment was affirmed and the case was remanded to the trial court to determine whether fees should be awarded to the former client and her daughter.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Attorney at Work—Mixing Cocktails with Legal Advice: Don’t

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Attorney at Work on April 19, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Mark3By Mark Bassingthwaighte

I can appreciate a well-crafted cocktail. But when I am in a situation where such beverages are being served, I never get involved in a conversation about someone’s legal problems. And I strongly encourage you to do the same.

Here’s a short story that explains why.

An associate at a law firm — not a litigator in any way — attended a social function and had a few more than she should have. She got involved in a conversation with another guest about a personal injury matter. In addition to sharing some generic advice, the associate also let the guest know there was still plenty of time to deal with the matter, saying the statute of limitations in that jurisdiction was two years. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to our heroine, there was an exception to the statute in play and the actual time to file suit was six months. The guest, relying on the advice, did not obtain legal counsel until after the filing deadline had passed.

The young lawyer and her firm were eventually sued for malpractice.

The Accidental Client

We all know drinking and driving can have serious consequences — when your judgment and reflexes are impaired, accidents can happen. Mixing cocktails and legal advice is similarly problematic. It’s too easy for a casual setting, coupled with a few adult beverages, to cloud your thinking. You may then find yourself dealing with an accidental client.

Malpractice claims can easily arise out of these situations, but the risk isn’t limited to cocktail parties. Casual conversations online with extended family members or friends and gatherings with members of your church congregation or other community organizations are all situations where you should proceed with caution.

You can’t overlook the office setting, either.

Should you be concerned about passing along a little casual advice in a conversation with a corporate constituent while representing the entity itself? How about discussing issues with beneficiaries while representing the estate, trying to help a prospective client out during that first meeting when you know you are going to decline the representation? Or what about being a good Samaritan by making a few suggestions on the phone to someone who clearly has a problem but really can’t afford an attorney? How about answering a few questions from an unrepresented third party?

The answer is, of course, yes — these are all situations that can easily lead to an accidental client.

“No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”

Old sayings became old sayings because they have a ring of truth to them.

I am always surprised by what attorneys say when they have to deal with a claim brought by an accidental client. Comments like “I never intended to create an attorney-client relationship,” “There was no signed fee agreement,” and “No money was exchanged so how could this be?” are common.

Guess what: It’s not about you! Typically, it is more about how the individual you interacted with responded to the exchange. If they happened to respond as if they were receiving a little legal advice from an attorney, and that response was reasonable under the circumstances, it can start to get muddy. Worse yet, if it was reasonably foreseeable that this individual would rely or act on your casual advice — and then, in fact, did so to their detriment — you may have a serious problem on your hands.

I share this not with a desire to convince you to keep quiet and never try to help someone. By all means, be helpful. The world could use a few more good Samaritans, and a desire to help others is a good thing as long as you stay the course. I share this because I want you to be cognizant of the risk involved whenever you decide to step into those waters.

Here’s the Bottom Line

Accidental clients are for real and there is no such thing as “legal lite.” So if you are enjoying a wonderful evening at a party, cocktail in hand, and find yourself conversing with another guest who has just learned you are an attorney and wants to “pick your brain,” don’t talk about legal issues you are not well-versed in. If you feel compelled to pass along a little advice, then remember to ask questions so you understand the entire situation. Just know that you may be held to the accuracy of that advice later on, so you might want to jot down a few notes as soon as you can.

Finally, know that it’s okay to say you’re not the right person to be asking, particularly after you’ve had a few.

That said, salute!

Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier, since 1998. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1150 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented numerous continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management and technology.  Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the ABA and currently sits on the ABA’s Law Practice Division’s Professional Development Board, the Division’s Ethics and Professionalism Committee, and he serves as the Division’s Liaison to the ABA’s Standing Committee on Lawyers Professional Liability. Mr. Bassingthwaighte received his J.D. from Drake University Law School and his undergraduate degree from Gettysburg College.

Contact Information:
Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq.
ALPS Property & Casualty Insurance Company
Risk Manager
PO Box 9169 | Missoula, Montana 59807
(T) 406.728.3113 | (Toll Free) 800.367.2577 | (F) 406.728.7416
mbass@alpsnet.com | www.alpsnet.com

ALPS offers up to a 10% premium credit for each attorney in a firm who receives 3 CLE credits annually in the areas of ethics, risk management, loss prevention, or office management. ALPS is a lawyers’ malpractice carrier endorsed by the CBA. Learn more at try.alpsnet.com/Colorado

Colorado Supreme Court: Legislature Lacks Authority to Regulate IEC Dismissals Based on Frivolity

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Colorado Ethics Watch v. Independent Ethics Commission on Monday, April 25, 2016.

Constitutional Interpretation—Amendment 41—CRS § 24-18.5-101(9)—Judicial Review.

In this original proceeding, the Supreme Court considered whether the Independent Ethics Commission’s (IEC) decision to dismiss a complaint against a public officer as frivolous is subject to judicial review. Plaintiff contended that the General Assembly authorized such review when it enacted CRS § 24-18.5-101(9), which provides that “[a]ny final action of the commission concerning a 18 complaint shall be subject to judicial review.” The Supreme Court concluded that, while the General Assembly may authorize judicial review of IEC’s enforcement decisions, it may not encroach on the IEC’s decisions not to enforce. Therefore, the Court held that the General Assembly’s “judicial review” provision does not apply to frivolity dismissals. Accordingly, the Court made its rule to show cause absolute and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.