Every day, we see the impact of technology on the practice of law. Blogs, social networking, electronically stored information, and other legal resources create enormous economies and unprecedented depth in our field. But with these advantages come unrecognized perils. The transparency and mobility of electronic information creates significant risks to clients, unless properly controlled. As part of the project to rein in technology in the practice of law, the American Bar Association launched an ambitious multi-year project called Ethics 20/20. One of the major goals of Ethics 20/20 was to modernize the rules of ethics and bring them into congruence with the state of technology.
At its most recent meeting, the ABA passed multiple resolutions amending the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility to reflect the evolution of technology in the practice of law. This article provides a brief overview of those amendments. Those who are more interested in the details of the amendments can click here to read the reports online.
Confidentiality When Using Computers
Resolution 105A makes changes to help lawyers understand how to protect client confidences when using new technology, including cloud computing, tablets, and smartphones. Though small, one of the most significant changes is included in Comment 6 to Rule 1.1 (Competence). The Rule now includes a requirement that “a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” No longer can attorneys simply ignore developments in favor of staid methods of practice. To be competent, an attorney must work effectively with technology and keep alert to technological improvements and changes.
The amendment to Rule 1.6 (Confidentiality of Information) is probably the largest and most impactful rule change related to confidentiality. Now, Rule 1.6(c) requires attorneys to “make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating the representation of a client.” The comments make it clear that attorneys are required to utilize reasonable safeguards to protect confidential information. These changes are geared toward the protection of electronic data, especially given the innumerable bits of sensitive information flying around every day.
Using Technology for Marketing
Resolution 105B was designed to help lawyers understand how the principles of attorney advertising already incorporated into the Rules are affected by the growth of Internet-based marketing and social networking. This particular resolution accomplishes three main goals. First, changes to Rule 1.18 offer guidance on how to market online without inadvertently forming an attorney-client relationship. Recent cases have demonstrated confusion on behalf of the general public regarding whether an attorney-client relationship is formed when the potential client emails the attorney or fills out a communication form on the attorney’s website. The amendments to Comment 2 of Rule 1.18 address the concern by stating that a person becomes a prospective client by “consulting” with a lawyer. While the existence of a consultation depends on the circumstances, the Comment eliminates potential passive liability to prospective clients. A consultation “does not occur if a person provides information to a lawyer in response to advertising that merely describes the lawyer’s education, experience, areas of practice, and contact information, or provides legal information of general interest.” But, if the lawyer actively invites information about a possible representation, the lawyer is probably stuck with a prospective client.
Second, the Rules contain a prohibition against paying others for a “recommendation,” and this Resolution modifies that prohibition to account for online lead generation services through chances to Comment 5 of Rule 7.2. Lawyers may now pay others for generating client leads, as long as the Internet-based lead generator does not “recommend” the lawyer. The lawyer is also responsible for the representations of the lead generator, with Comment 5 placing the onus on attorneys to ensure that the lead generator is not making statements that are inconsistent with the rules.
Finally, amendments to Rule 7.3 assist attorneys in determining when communications on the Internet, particularly through social networking sites, may constitute a “solicitation.” Only a “target communication initiated by the lawyer” directed to a “specific person” that “offers to provide” legal services is a solicitation. Communications to the general public, including Internet banners, are not solicitations, so feel free to jump on that Facebook advertising spot.
Lawyers have been slow to adopt the economies of scale that outsourcing can provide, in part because of the perceived ethical dilemmas presented in outsourcing. Outsourcing can endanger confidential client information and presents a quandary over legal work being performed by attorneys not licensed in the United States. Resolution 105C encourages attorneys to ensure the efficiency, competence, and ethics of any outsourcing process. An entirely new comment is added to Rule 1.1, requiring the informed consent of the client to contract with any lawyer outside of the lawyer’s own firm. And, lest we forget, lawyers are always charged with supervising non-lawyers; that requirement does not abate simply because work is being outsourced to a foreign country. Comments 1 and 3 to Rule 5.3 incorporate this concept and apply the general rule to all non-lawyers outside of the lawyer’s own firm. The basic gist of the changes in Rule 105C is to encourage lawyers to keep a sharp eye on professionals hired from outside their own firm, and to work closely with clients in determining the proper scope of outside contracting and supervision. No surprise there—constant communication with the client is a harbinger of a durable and responsible attorney-client relationship.
A prevalent by-product of an informationally small, but geographically large, practice is the tendency of lawyers to move their practice. The world does indeed get smaller every year. No longer do lawyers move down the street; more and more, attorneys are moving their practice to different jurisdictions, and virtual law offices are sprouting in all states. The remaining resolutions that passed enable attorneys to establish a practice in another jurisdiction—subject to stringent information protection requirements—while pursuing admission in that jurisdiction. Resolutions 105D and 105E address the ABA Model Rule of Practice Pending Admission and the ABA Model Rule on Admission by Motion, respectively. With a few states signaling their intent to adopt a uniform bar exam, these model rules and their amendments continue the progress toward a more uniform practice of law. In case you have never encountered these model rules, or their state versions, their purpose is to allow experienced lawyers who have moved into a different jurisdiction to continue to practice while awaiting an expedited admission to the Bar.