January 18, 2018

The Colorado Lawyer Self-Assessment Program

By Jonathan White, Esq., Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel

Do you need CLE credits? Check out Colorado’s new Lawyer Self-Assessment Program. The program allows you to self-assess your practice and identify areas of strength as well as areas for improvement. Colorado lawyers who participate in the program may claim up to three general and ethics credits. In addition, on Monday, December 11, 2017, CBA-CLE will host a 90 minute live seminar on the new program, “Proactive Practices: Protecting Client Confidences and Prioritizing Wellness to Run a Successful Practice,” where lawyers can claim an additional 2.0 general and 1.8 ethics credits (register here).

Lawyers can view and complete the self-assessments through the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel’s website: https://www.coloradosupremecourt.com/AboutUs/LawyerSelfAssessmentProgram.asp. An affidavit is available on the same page for lawyers to use to apply for CLE credit once they complete the self-assessment program. The program’s goals include helping lawyers better serve clients, instituting efficient, consistent law office management procedures, and allowing lawyers to reflect on whether they have procedures in place that promote compliance with professional obligations.

As a complement to this new initiative, CBA-CLE has hosted a series of lunch-hour CLE seminars devoted to the self-assessment program. The last in the series takes place Monday, December 11, beginning at noon. This seminar will explore proactive procedures that help lawyers comply with their duty to protect client confidences. It will also discuss lawyer well-being and why well-being is essential to a lawyer’s duty of competence. Register here for the December 11 program.

The Colorado Lawyer Self-Assessment Program arises out of a multi-year initiative of a subcommittee of the Colorado Supreme Court’s Attorney Regulation Advisory Committee. More than 50 practicing lawyers volunteered their time to identify ten areas of assessment and associated questions. The assessments draw from the collective professional experience of the subcommittee members. The ten areas of self-assessment include:

  1. Developing a competent practice;
  2. Communicating in an effective, timely, professional manner and maintaining professional client relations;
  3. Ensuring that confidentiality requirements are met;
  4. Avoiding conflicts of interest;
  5. Maintaining appropriate file and records management systems;
  6. Managing the law firm/legal entity and staff appropriately;
  7. Charging appropriate fees and making appropriate disbursements;
  8. Ensuring that reliable trust account practices are in use;
  9. Working to improve the administration of justice and access to legal services;
  10. Wellness and inclusivity.

The self-assessments are voluntary and confidential. The Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel does not receive any personally-attributable answers. The assessments offer links to the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct and to a variety of educational resources ranging from template forms to advisory opinions to articles on current professionalism issues.

The Colorado Lawyer Self-Assessment Program

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Jonathan White of the Colorado Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. You can find out more about the lawyer self-assessment survey on the OARC website

By Jonathan P. White, Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel

Colorado has launched its new lawyer self-assessment program designed to help lawyers better serve clients and simplify their professional lives. This program arises out of a multi-year initiative of a subcommittee of the Colorado Supreme Court’s Attorney Regulation Advisory Committee. Over 50 practicing lawyers have participated in the subcommittee. They have drawn from their professional experience to identify practices that promote client service, that lead to more efficient office management, and that allow lawyers to assess their practice’s ethical infrastructure. The subcommittee’s goal is to help lawyers assess their practice and identify points of excellence and areas for improvement.

There are ten individual areas of self-assessment:

  1. Developing a competent practice;
  2. Communicating in an effective, timely, professional manner and maintaining relations;
  3. Ensuring that confidentiality requirements are met;
  4. Avoiding conflicts of interest;
  5. Maintaining appropriate file and records management systems;
  6. Managing the law firm/legal entity and staff appropriately;
  7. Charging appropriate fees and making appropriate disbursements;
  8. Ensuring that reliable trust account practices are in use;
  9. Working to improve the administration of justice and access to legal services; and
  10. Wellness and inclusivity.

Ultimately, these self-assessments should help attorneys avoid grievances and alleviate some of the stress associated with practice, especially for solo and small firm practitioners and those new to practice. The self-assessments are voluntary and confidential. The Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel does not receive any personally-attributable answers. The assessments offer links to the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct and to a variety of educational resources ranging from template forms to advisory opinions to articles on current professionalism issues.

Lawyers can now view and complete the self-assessments through the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel’s website: https://www.coloradosupremecourt.com/AboutUs/LawyerSelfAssessmentProgram.asp. Lawyers can choose to take all ten self-assessments through an online survey platform accessible at the top of the previously-referenced webpage. This online platform may be used on a desktop computer, laptop, or mobile device. As an alternative, lawyers may also download the print/PDF survey through the same webpage. After completing either the online self-assessment or the print/PDF version, lawyers may claim up to three general credit hours and three ethics credit hours of continuing legal education. A CLE affidavit is available on the self-assessment program webpage, as well as through the online survey itself.

Colorado Supreme Court: Failure to Pay Funds to Third Party Constituted Knowing Conversion by Attorney

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in In the Matter of Kleinsmith on Monday, October 30, 2017.

Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct—Attorney Discipline—Conversion—Due Process—Equal Protection.

This attorney disciplinary proceeding required the supreme court to determine whether an attorney commits knowing conversion, in violation of Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct (Rules) 1.15A and 8.4(c), when he bills a client for services performed by a third party and then uses for his own purposes the client funds he received that were intended to pay for the third party’s services. This proceeding further required the court to determine whether the Presiding Disciplinary Judge’s reading of the Rules violated the attorney’s rights to due process and equal protection. The court concluded that in the circumstances presented here, the attorney’s actions constituted knowing conversion in violation of the Rules and that the Presiding Disciplinary Judge’s construction of the Rules to reach the same result did not violate any of the attorney’s constitutional rights. Accordingly, the court affirmed the orders of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge and the hearing board, including the order disbarring the attorney from the practice of law.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Payments for Vendor Tables at Republican Convention Were Not Political Contributions

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Campaign Integrity Watchdog v. Colorado Republican Committee on Thursday, October 5, 2017.

Administrative Law Judge—Campaign Contributions—Value of Services—Reportable—C.R.S. §§ 1-45-108(1)(a)(I) and -103(6)(b).

An administrative law judge (ALJ) held a hearing and determined that the Colorado Republican Committee (CRC) improperly failed to report three payments for vendor tables at its 2016 Republican Party assembly and convention. The CRC was fined and sanctioned for failing to report contributions.

On appeal, CRC contended that the ALJ erred in determining that the three payments for vendor tables at the convention were reportable contributions under state law and not properly reported by CRC. C.R.S. § 1-45-108(1)(a)(I) requires political committees to report receipt of contributions of $20 or more and to report expenditures and obligations. C.R.S. § 1-45-103(6)(b), which defines “contribution,” applies to all contributions “for which the contributor receives compensation or consideration,” and thus applies to the payments at issue here. Under the plain language of this section, political parties are required to report only that portion of payments for services that exceeds the value of the services rendered. Here, Campaign Integrity Watchdog provided no evidence that the value of the vendor tables was actually less than the $350 CRC charged. Therefore, the ALJ erred in finding that the payments at issue were reportable contributions under state law.

The part of the order imposing a fine and sanctions against CRC for failing to disclose the relevant payments was reversed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Rule 8.4 of Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct Amended in Rule Change 2017(09)

On Thursday, September 28, 2017, the Colorado Supreme Court released Rule Change 2017(09), amending Rule 8.4 of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 8.4 addresses attorney misconduct. The change to the rule only involves subsection (c), which is amended by the addition of a clause to clarify that attorneys may advise, direct, or supervise others in lawful investigatory activities:

(c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation, except that a lawyer may advise, direct, or supervise others, including clients, law enforcement officers, or investigators, who participate in lawful investigative activities;

The rule change is effective immediately. A redline and clean copy of the rule change is available here. All of the Colorado Supreme Court’s adopted and proposed rule changes are available here.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Counties Not Liable for Attorney Fees to Defend Disciplinary Action Against District Attorney

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Ruybalid v. Board of County Commissioners of Las Animas County on Thursday, August 24, 2017.

Ruybalid was the District Attorney for the Third Judicial District, and he admitted to serial violations of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct during his tenure as District Attorney. Ruybalid believed the counties should have defended him against his disciplinary actions, but the counties refused to pay for his attorney fees and costs. Ruybalid hired an attorney and entered into a settlement, admitting a pattern of discovery violations that led to the dismissal of criminal charges in several cases and stipulating that he did not diligently represent the people and engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

After resolving the disciplinary action, Ruybalid filed a complaint for declaratory relief against the counties, seeking reimbursement of his attorney fees and costs incurred in defending the disciplinary action. The counties moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing Ruybalid had no right to fees and costs. Ruybalid countered that he had a statutory right to fees and costs, and also an equitable claim. The district court concluded that Ruybalid had failed to state a claim and had no right to fees and costs, and dismissed the complaint. Ruybalid appealed.

The court of appeals noted that the American Rule generally requires parties to pay their own fees and costs. Ruybalid argued that C.R.S. § 20-1-303 required the counties to pay his attorney fees, but the court of appeals disagreed, finding nothing in the rule to require the counties to pay attorney fees or costs. The court refused to infer an exception to the American Rule not explicitly authorized by statute. The court declined to consider the attorney fees and costs incurred in defending Ruybalid’s disciplinary action as “expenses necessarily incurred” in discharging a district attorney’s official duties. The court also noted that Ruybalid failed to allege any facts that tended to support that the expenses incurred were for the benefit of the counties.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Attorney Must Assume Financial and Ethical Responsibility in Order to Share Fees

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Scott R. Larson, P.C. v. Grinnan on Thursday, June 15, 2017.

Attorney Fee Dispute—Referral Fees—Division of Fees.

Grinnan is a general practitioner with limited experience in personal injury cases. Grinnan’s friend Kelley asked Grinnan to represent him in a personal injury case. Grinnan obtained Kelley’s approval to involve Scott Larson., P.C. in the case, and Larson entered into a contingency fee agreement with the Kelley family. As relevant here, the agreement identified Grinnan as “associated counsel,” stated that Grinnan would be paid a percentage of Larson’s fee “not to exceed 100%,” and provided that Larson was responsible for paying case expenses. Grinnan was not a signatory to the agreement.

Larson brought claims against various entities and settled with one early in the case. From Larson’s $333,333 fee on this settlement, he sent Grinnan a check for $50,000. After three years of litigation, the case settled. Based on the settlements, the contingent fee agreement entitled Larson to a fee of $3,216,666.67. Larson had incurred about $300,000 in costs.

Larson and Grinnan couldn’t agree on how to divide the contingent fee. Grinnan entered his appearance, and the court granted his request that all attorney fees paid to Larson be placed in a restricted interest bearing account. Following a hearing, the trial court entered a detailed written order allocating the attorney fees. The trial court declined to divide the fees in proportion to services and found that Grinnan had assumed joint responsibility for the litigation. The court divided the fees by awarding Grinnan 20% of the $333,333.34 from the first settlement and 12.5% of the $2,883,333.33 fee from the other two settlements. The court also awarded Grinnan prejudgment interest at the rate of 8% from the date the settlement checks were issued until final judgment entered on the fees allocated to him. It also awarded Larson interest on the fees placed in the restricted account less the fees awarded to Grinnan (as a wrongful withholding). The court declined to award costs, finding that neither lawyer was the prevailing party.

On appeal, Larson asserted that Grinnan never assumed joint responsibility because he did not assume responsibility for the representation as a whole. The court of appeals found that Grinnan had assumed one of the two components of joint responsibility—financial responsibility for the case—because of Grinnan’s exposure to liability for any malpractice of Larson. A remand was necessary to determine whether he also assumed ethical responsibility, the second component, on which the court had made no findings.

As guidance to the trial court on remand, the court analyzed the ethical responsibility issue. It concluded that a referring lawyer must: actively monitor the progress of the case; make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm of the lawyer to whom the case was referred has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that all lawyers in the firm conform to the Rules of Professional Conduct; and remain available to the client to discuss the case and provide independent judgment as to any concerns the client may have that the lawyer to whom the case was referred is acting in conformity with the Rules of Professional Conduct.

On remand, if the court finds that Grinnan assumed ethical responsibility, the court’s fee award will stand, subject to appeal by Larson. If the court finds that Grinnan did not assume ethical responsibility, he is only entitled to fees in proportion to the services he performed, with the referral fees to be reallocated to Larson, subject to appeal by Grinnan.

The court concluded that Grinnan failed to preserve issues he raised on cross-appeal.

Grinnan also contended that the trial court erred in finding a wrongful withholding.  The court found no error in the trial court’s award of prejudgment interest to Larson based on Grinnan’s wrongful withholding.

The court also noted that on remand the trial court could reconsider its decision not to award costs based on its findings on ethical responsibility.

The attorney fee award was vacated, the cross-appealed rulings were affirmed, and the case was remanded.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Motion to Disqualify Under Colo. RPC 1.9(a) Rarely Raises “Identical” Issue to Other Case

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in In re Villas at Highland Park Homeowners Association, Inc. v. Villas at Highland Park, LLC on Monday, May 22, 2017.

Issue Preclusion—Attorney Disqualification—Colo. RPC 1.9.

In this original proceeding under C.A.R. 21, the supreme court reviewed a district court’s order applying the doctrine of issue preclusion to deny defendants’ motion to disqualify one of the plaintiff’s attorneys under Colo. RPC 1.9 and to disqualify her law firm by imputation of the attorney’s conflict under Colo. RPC 1.10. The disqualification inquiry under Colo. RPC 1.9(a) asks whether an attorney’s prior representation and current representation are “substantially related.” This inquiry under Colo. RPC 1.9(a) is specific to the particular matter for which disqualification is sought. The supreme court therefore concludes that a motion to disqualify under Colo. RPC 1.9(a) will rarely, if ever, raise an “identical” issue to a disqualification motion in another case for purposes of issue preclusion. Here, the court held that the trial court abused its discretion by relying on the doctrine of issue preclusion to deny the disqualification motion instead of conducting the requisite analysis under Colo. RPC 1.9(a). The court therefore made the rule to show cause absolute, vacated the trial court’s order, and remanded the case for the trial court to address the merits of the motion to disqualify under Colo. RPC 1.9(a).

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Dissemination of Confidential Client Information Discouraged in Formal Ethics Opinion 130

The Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee recently issued Formal Opinion 130, dated April 3, 2017. Formal Opinion 130 addresses the disclosure of confidential client information, including information that is publicly available, such as when the information has been on the news. The opinion concludes that dissemination of such information is prohibited by the Rules of Professional Conduct, and specifically states that there is no exception for information contained in the public record.

Formal Opinion 130 also addresses the use of information about former clients, concluding that such use may be allowed under the Rules when such information is “generally known.” The opinion advises attorneys to exercise caution when using information about former clients.

The opinion offers redaction and informed consent as reasonable measures to use for the dissemination of confidential client information, but cautions that merely redacting the client’s name is likely insufficient to comply with the Rules.

Finally, the opinion cautions against editing confidential client information in order to mislead or misrepresent positions. This would implicate Rule 8.4(c), which prohibits conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.

The opinion concludes, “In many situations, making information obtained in the course of representing a client public is helpful, either to other lawyers or to educate the public.  But client confidences must be respected.” Lawyers should use caution when disseminating confidential client information.

Formal Opinion 130 by cleincolorado on Scribd

Ethics in the Electronic Age: Social Media Guidance for Attorneys

Do you have a LinkedIn account? How about a Facebook page? Twitter handle? Instagram? Blog? All of the above?

Have you ever considered the Rules of Professional Conduct when commenting on someone else’s Facebook post, or sharing a clever tweet, or even writing on your personal blog? If not, then you should.

Most lawyers are probably aware that there could be ethical implications to their professional use of social media, but personal use can also implicate the Rules. Learn more from Katrin Miller Rothgery of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck in the video, below.

Ms. Rothgery’s presentation on Ethics in the Electronic Age was just one part of the 2017 Real Estate Spring Update. Purchase the full homestudy here, or call (303) 860-0608. CLE Pass Holders can access the MP3 and Video OnDemand homestudies for free. Find out more about the CLE Pass here.

Colorado Supreme Court: Mutuality is Necessary Element of Defensive Claim Preclusion

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Foster v. Plock on Monday, May 15, 2017.

Claim Preclusion—Issue Preclusion—Mutuality.

In this case, the supreme court considered whether mutuality is a necessary element of defensive claim preclusion. Although multiple divisions of the court of appeals have concluded that mutuality need not be established for the defensive use of claim preclusion, the supreme court disagrees. Instead, the court concluded that mutuality is a necessary element of defensive claim preclusion. The court also concluded that mutuality existed in this case, as did the remaining elements of claim preclusion, and therefore affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals on other grounds.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

ABA Formal Ethics Opinion Issued Regarding Secured Communications of Client Information

On Thursday, May 11, 2017, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility released Formal Opinion 477, “Securing Communication of Protected Client Information.” The opinion discusses internet transmission of protected client information, concluding that:

A lawyer generally may transmit information relating to the representation of a client over the internet without violating the Model Rules of Professional Conduct where the lawyer has undertaken reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized access. However, a lawyer may be required to take special security precautions to protect against the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of client information when required by an agreement with the client or by law, or when the nature of the information requires a higher degree of security.

Formal Opinion 477 is an update to the basic confidentiality requirements addressed in Formal Opinion 99-413. The opinion was issued in response to the 2012 amendments to the ABA Model Rules in which technological competency was enunciated. This opinion discusses cybersecurity and measures that lawyers should take to safeguard client information, electing to reject requirements for specific security measures in favor of a fact-specific approach to business security obligations.

The opinion offers guidance on what reasonable steps an attorney may undertake in response to a cybersecurity threat, including:

  1. Understand the nature of the threat;
  2. Understand how confidential client information is transmitted and where it is stored;
  3. Understand and use reasonable security measures;
  4. Determine how electronic communications about client matters should be protected;
  5. Label confidential client information;
  6. Train lawyers and nonlawyer assistants in technology and information security; and
  7. Conduct due diligence on vendors providing communication technology.

To read the entire opinion, click here.