Tag: Ethics

EthicsLaw Practice ManagementTechnology

Guarding against Inadvertent Disclosure: Properly Remove Metadata and Redact Before Transmitting Digital Docs.

image   by Sheila Blackford    ©2015

Guard against inadvertent disclosures by properly removing metadata and redact confidential information before transmitting those digital documents.

Some lessons are so important, they bear repeating. For years the Practice Management Advisors at the PLF and through out the USA and Canada have cautioned lawyers about scrubbing metadata from documents.

Here is a brief snippet from my May 2006 Oregon State Bar Bulletin Managing Your Practice article, Metadata: danger or delight?

“…Much hype has surrounded metadata ever since the March 4, 2004, CNET News.com disclosure that SCO Group’s lawsuit against defendant DaimlerChrysler for alleged violation of their Unix software agreement was initially prepped as a lawsuit against Bank of America for copyright infringement. You may have enjoyed the benefit of using a suite of programs like Microsoft Office, especially because it is easy to pull data from one program into another, such as copying part of an Excel worksheet into a Word document. However, if you do this from the Edit menu using the “Paste Special” feature and selecting “Microsoft Excel Worksheet Object,” you may be in for a surprise. Double-click on the Excel worksheet object in your Word document and you’ll discover that the entire worksheet document is visible, including other worksheet tabs that may contain sensitive information. The entire Excel worksheet is known as an embedded object and is metadata that travels with the Word document. Thus, the full Excel worksheet can be viewed by the receiver of the Word document, even though you didn’t intend that result. The detriment of exposing more that a select portion of an Excel spreadsheet may be exponential if the additional figures pertain to your negotiation strategy on settlement offers or disclose profit projections for complex financing plans.

In complying with discovery requests, you are required to provide only the documents and data set out in the discovery demand. Beware — if supplying electronic versions of your documents — that you are not providing more information than required by inadvertent disclosures in document metadata.”

And a year later, then OSB General Counsel now Executive Director Sylvia Stevens warned lawyers about the perils of being unaware of metadata and referenced the August 2006 ABA Formal Opinion 06-442 Review and Use of Metadata in her April 2007 OSB Bulletin Bar Counsel article, Metadata: Guarding Against the Disclosure of Embedded Information.

“The ABA opinion stands as an important reminder that it behooves lawyers to learn and understand technological advances that are integral to their practice so that they do not inadvertently send information that they might later wish they had not.”
 

And a few years ago, OSB General Counsel Helen Hierschbiel cautioned lawyers about the perils of inadvertent disclosures when sending documents electronically in the June 2012 OSB Bulletin Bar Counsel article, Revealing Bits & Bytes:
Guarding (and Exploiting) Metadata
.

“Two rules inform a lawyer’s duties when sending documents electronically. Oregon RPC 1.1 requires a lawyer to provide competent representation to a client, meaning the lawyer must possess the “legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” In addition, RPC 1.6(a) requires a lawyer to “not reveal information relating to the representation of a client.” “Information relating to the representation” is a defined phrase under RPC 1.0(f) and includes both information that is subject to the attorney-client privilege and other information gained during the course of the representation that the client has asked be kept secret or the disclosure of which would be embarrassing or likely to be detrimental to the client. With these two rules as a backdrop, the OSB Legal Ethics Committee concludes that competency in relation to metadata requires a lawyer who uses electronic communications to maintain at least a basic understanding of the technology and the risks of revealing metadata or to use adequate technology support. OSB Formal Op. No. 2011-187.”

To safely redact confidential and/or protected information when producing discovery or eFiling, be sure to use Adobe Acrobat XI Pro and follow the easy steps I shared in my June 2012 OSB Bulletin On Professionalism article, Easier Acrobatics: New Adobe Features Especially Appreciated by Attorneys.

“How to Remove Visible Data or Do Redaction from PDF Files in Four Easy Steps:

This can be done in Acrobat XI Pro only.

1. In Acrobat XI, choose Tools > Protection.

2. Click Mark for Redaction.

3. Go through your PDF and highlight the text or images you want to redact.

4. Click Apply Redactions. Acrobat permanently deletes the selected information from the file, replacing it with black blocks or other formatting of your choice.”

Why all the concern? Lawyers are continuing to trip when they should be treading carefully, as stressed in this Law360 post: E-Filing Error Can Destroy Trade Secret Status that you can read in its entirety with a free 7-day subscription.

 “First rule of thumb in trade secrets litigation? A trade secret must be kept secret. It is painfully obvious, but modern practitioners must not grow complacent due to the convenience of electronic filing. Although trade secrets law does not command absolute secrecy, a recent e-filing snafu in HMS Holdings Corp. v. Arendt offers a cautionary tale from New York on how one botched upload could jeopardize a client’s most prized possession.”

Make no mistake, ABA Model Rule 1.1 specifically addresses the need to be competent when using technology, see the December 2013 Your ABA article Duty of Competence in the 21st Century

Model Rule 1.1:

Client-Lawyer Relationship
Rule 1.1 Competence

“A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

Comment 8:

Maintaining Competence

[8] “To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.”

Be safe out there!

Uncategorized

Just Say, “No.”

image   by Sheila Blackford   ©2015   One of the most important things you may need to tell your existing and potential clients is, “no.” When to say no can be difficult for some lawyers to determine. With memories of the 2008 economic climate and awareness of overhead, many lawyers struggle with turning away business. If there is a person with a problem, the lawyer says yes quickly without consideration of anything but the lawyer’s need for revenue or gratitude. If the scenario sounds familiar, consider for a minute, that you may be turning away a malpractice claim or an ethics complaint. Then saying no isn’t so hard, is it?

Lawyers have a duty of competence. If you aren’t competent, then you are supposed to get competent or associate with someone who is competent. You may find yourself in a situation where neither seems to be an option. I talked with a lawyer who was relatively young in law practice experience and did not have the level of experience, knowledge, or adequate capital to handle a medical malpractice case. A pro bono one! Happily, the lawyer was able to say no and get the case off to someone with the current skills and resources to help.

Lawyers have a duty to communicate with their clients. Sometimes, what needs to be communicated isn’t good news, such as communicating that upon review you have discovered that the case has no merit and not a chance of prevailing at court. One lawyer found this out after saying yes and engaging in a lot of puffery about being able to get the client money. Understandably, the lawyer was reluctant to say, no. No case. No ethical way to pursue this. That was a hard no. Likely, the lawyer toned down enthusiasm with the next potential case until investigating the facts revealed worth pursuing.

Lawyers have a duty to safeguard client property. Some clients  push for their check to be cut now. But if the funds for the client are not actually in the trust account, because the issuing bank of the check has not transmitted funds to the Lawyer Trust Account, then there are no client funds to be disbursed yet. You otherwise are robbing Peter to pay Paul. Best to say, no, the funds are not yet available and they will be disbursed to the client just as soon as they are available.

Lawyers have a duty to not take on a case, or if engaged to withdraw from representing a client, if the lawyer’s physical or mental condition materially impairs the lawyer’s ability to represent the client. What if the lawyer has represented the client for a long time and the client wants the lawyer to continue to finish up the matter? What if the lawyer cannot see or even concentrate because of the pain of treatment for terminal cancer? What if the lawyer has been admitted to a drug and alcohol treatment facility for detoxing or in a lock down for mental illness? The client may want the lawyer to continue but if the lawyer’s physical or mental condition render the lawyer incapacitated, then the lawyer must say no, not now. Hopefully the lawyer’s cell phone has been collected at the hospital door, but I have heard of clients calling and calling and calling, despite being told that the law office is temporarily closed.

What about those clients who are friends? How easy it is to get into a situation where you continue to do legal work for free because it is your friend. Some lawyers get themselves too busy helping friends, and friends of friends, with myriad legal matters that are beyond the lawyer’s ability to properly attend to with the competence and diligence required. You don’t get a pass on ethics violations or acts of malpractice just because it is a friend who is not paying for legal services. You undertake providing legal services, you need to provide the services ethically and without committing malpractice.

Comment 5 to ABA Model Rule 1.4 (Communication) states “…The guiding principle is  that the lawyer should fulfill reasonable client expectations for information consistent with the duty to act in the client’s best interests, and the client’s overall requirements as to the character of representation.” Make sure your clients are being given reasonable expectations. Hold the client’s best interest foremost in mind and you will do the right thing, even if the right thing is to say, “no.”

Client relationsEthics

Departing a firm ethically with grace

image   by Sheila Blackford   ©2015   I get a lot of calls from associates and partners wanting to leave their current firm to pursue the opportunity of moving to another firm or to pursue the dream of opening their own law office. The PLF has a variety of helpful materials on this topic “Departing a Firm” including checklists, sample letters for notifying clients and getting the direction of what the client wishes to do, instructions for setting up email bouce-back notices and articles from our Oregon Bar Counsel Helen Hierschbiel, General Counsel, and Amber Hollister, Deputy GC. There are many good CLEs held on this topic. This past week I attended a CLE from Bloomberg BNA on this topic called, “Lawyer Mobility: Ethical Issues Arising From Lateral Hires, Partner Withdrawals and Law Firm Dissolutions.” You may be able to watch this 90 minute on-demand by contacting Bloomberg BNA Professional Learning. www.bna.com

Here are some of the issues you need to consider before acting: you have a duty to your clients to communicate. Oregon RPC 1.4 Communication (a) A lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information. (b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation. The fact that you will be leaving the firm impacts your clients. They came to you for help in solving a legal problem. No matter your personal feelings of disenchantment with your firm, do not drag your clients into the middle of any conflicts.

Here are some frequent questions that cause anxiety:

“When can I ethically tell my clients I am planning to leave?” The common sense answer: “Tell your clients after you tell your firm.” That’s right, after. You get this one wrong and your relationship with your present firm is damaged. If you are a partner, you have a duty to your fellow partners and to the firm. If you are an associate, you have a contractual relationship with your employer.

“When do you need to tell your firm you are planning to leave?” If you are a partner, look to your partnership agreement. Remember you are withdrawing from the partnership. If you are an associate, look to your employment contract or personnel manual.

“What if my firm does not have anything in writing?” If there is nothing in writing to guide you, most professionals provide at least 30 days notice if not 60 days notice. You don’t want to damage your firm, merely move on. If you are in a general partnership, see the Oregon Revised Partnership Act, ORS 67 for governing provisions. If you are in a Limited Liability Partnership, LLP, see the Uniform Limited Partnership Act, ORS 70 for governing provisions.

“What about getting information for my conflicts of interest database?” If you have billed on a client matter, you have knowledge of client information that means a potential conflict of interest going forward.Some firms supply year-end and month-end reports of your billing matters. If not, you will want to ask your firm for this information.

“What about when I tell my firm about my plans?” Take the time to plan how this event will take place. Preparing an annotated status report of client maters you are responsible for or have been working on is important and appreciated. Additionally, you may want to have a packet of materials with you when you notify your firm: client status report, proposed letter to clients, copy of article addressing ethical guidelines, proposed timeline of your exit and transition of remaining clients to another attorney in the firm. Be sure to make a copy for yourself which will be important if the firm tells you to leave immediately or by the end of the day or week.

“What about forms and sample documents I’ve used or even created while at the firm?” Consult a lawyer about this. Generally speaking, if something was created during your employment by a firm, it belongs to the firm. Most firms have monitoring provisions in place, or the ability to do so. Your efforts to download documents from your firm’s server is not under the radar. There are records of this and there may be consequences if you help yourself to property of the firm with the intention of converting it to your own use at your next firm. You wouldn’t dream of collecting office supplies. Consider that the firm’s form bank is far more valuable than post-it notes and paper clips!

Finally, to ensure that you are going to exit your firm ethically and gracefully, consider seeking ethics advice from the Oregon State Bar Ethic Counsel or hire outside ethics counsel to guide you through your situation. Whether you are a partner or an associate, you are an Oregon attorney-at-law, a professional. Conduct yourself accordingly. Good luck in your future endeavor.

EthicsLaw Practice ManagementProfessionalism

Lawyers Leaving Firms – Happy or Otherwise

JEL23652-Blackford, Sheila P3 (2)  by Sheila Blackford   ©2010   Lawyers leaving their firms are on my mind today. Seems like stressful conditions financially are big contributor. There is more movement of lawyers from firm to firm. This raises issues of ethics and professionalism.

1. The Client is not property. The client gets to decide whether to leave the firm following the lawyer who has been doing the work or to leave the firm for a different firm or to stay. The implications of this are sometimes bitter: you have to let the client know that the lawyer who has been doing the work and being in contact with the client is leaving. Here in Oregon, following the ABA Model Rules, see ORPC Rule 1.4 Communication. Click here for a PDF of them which you might want to print them out to keep in a folder or save it on your computer for future frequent reference. It certainly is reasonable to keep your client informed about the status of his or her matter: “your attorney is leaving our firm at the end of the month.” Is the lawyer leaving to move to another state? Is the lawyer leaving to take a position practicing in a different area of law and will be unable to do this type of law? Is the lawyer leaving anyone behind at the firm who could competently continue to work on the client’s behalf? This seems eminently important information to be shared with a client “to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”

2. All fees are subject to refund if the work is not performed. Avoid calling fees earned upon receipt “nonrefundable.” This designation may be misleading, if not false, a violation of ORPC 8.4 (a)(3), prohibiting conduct that involves “dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law.” Wow. This flat fee earned upon receipt becomes a problem when the client chooses to leave with the attorney or to go to another firm. If the firm holds onto that fee, and has done little or no work, ORPC Rule 1.5 Fees prohibits doing so: “[a] lawyer shall not enter into an agreement for, charge or collect an illegal or clearly excessive fee or clearly excessive amount for expenses.” How do you know it’s excessive? “A fee is clearly excessive when, after a review of the facts, a lawyer of ordinary prudence would be left with a definite and firm conviction that the fee is in excess of a reasonable fee.” ORPC 1.5(b) goes on to innumerate eight factors to be considered as guides to determining the reasonableness. I don’t think you really need to read those factors to realize that unreasonableness of a flat fee earned upon receipt held out as “nonrefundable” to a client who want to leave with the attorney or go to another firm. This isn’t the time to try to assess fees for setting up a manila folder with a label and calling it legal work rendered. Sorry. Don’t keep money you haven’t earned.

3. Parting is not sweet sorrow. Giving notice to clients that the lawyer is leaving seems to be a big source of angst in many situations for the departing attorney and the firm. This is especially so when the separation generates hard feelings on either or both sides of the relationship. Our deputy general counsel for the Oregon State Bar, Helen Hierschbiel wrote “On the Move: Ethical duties when switching law firms” in the May 2007 issue of the Oregon State Bar Bulletin.

In a perfect world, one would do as Ms. Hierschbiel advises: “[t]he preferred method for providing notice to clients of a lawyer’s departure is by a joint letter from the managing partner and the departing lawyer to those client with whom the departing lawyer has had principal responsibility or significant contacts. The letter should provide information about the departing lawyer’s plans and indicate whether the firm is capable of and interested in continuing the representation. The letter must inform the clients that they may choose to keep their work with the firm or engage the departing lawyer. The letter should also inform clients, if they choose the latter option, what they need to do to terminate their relationship with the firm, including paying any outstanding fees or costs and how to get a copy of the file. This letter should be sent well enough in advance of the depature to give clients time to make their choices and lawyers time to take steps to effect any transfers of cases.”

However, relationships being what they are – between complicated humans who here happen to both be lawyers, a situation can develop where tempers are stoked and emotions are heated. In that event, Ms. Hierschbiel points out that “an unfriendly separation may make these best practices impossible. In such cases, separate letters may be sent. ABA Formal Op No 99-414 recommends that a letter from the departing lawyer should: 1) not urge the client to sever its relationship with the firm, but may indicate the lawyer’s willingness and ability to continue responsibility for matters upon which she currently is working; 2) make clear that the client has the ultimate right to decide who will finish the case and 3) not disparage the lawyer’s former firm. In addition, so long as the letter is sent only to those clients with whom the lawyer has a present professional relationship, the lawyer does not violate RPC 7.3(a). See OSB Formal Op No 2005-70.

“Upon separation, client files and property must be handled in accordance with the client’s direction. ABA Formal Op No 99-414; Oregon RPC 1.15(e) and 1.16(d). Generally, this means that if the client decides to go with the departing lawyer, the firm should surrender the client file [See OSB FOrmal Op No 2005-125 for discussion of what constitutes the “client file.”] to the departing lawyer and transfer any unearned advance deposits to the departing lawyer’s new trust account. Where a case is being handled on a contingent fee basis, fees will have to be apportioned. The decision on how fees will be split does not need to comply with requirements of RPC 1.5(e).”

4. A lawyer may solicit his/her former clients. “Once the lawyer is established in her new practice she may solicit the clients that she represented at the former firm. See, e.g., Oregon RPC 7.2(a)(2) (allowing a lawyer to solicit personally former clients); and Oregon RPC 7.2(c) (requirement that written solicitation of a person known to be in need of legal services in a particular matter be labeled as an “advertisement” does not apply to persons specificied in 7.2(a)).” I glad that Ms. Hieschbiel included this point in her article. If both the departing lawyer and the firm can keep this in mind, contacting the clients will be viewed in the correct perspective and it will be easier to do what is right by the client.

Hopefully, if you have read this post, you can share it with either someone who is leaving their firm or someone who is being left. I hope you can take a few minutes to read–or re-read– the article from Helen Hierschbiel linked above. Most of all, I hope that both parties can get through this transition ethically and professionally so they can get back to the business of practicing law.