How Big is Your E? Ethics Rules Large and Small

Shappell Socal Rental Properties v. Chico’s FAS, Fourth App. Dist., Div. 3, case no. G060411, filed 10/17/22.

Ethics lawyers, like every group of professionals, have a jargon all their own. One thing you might hear them talk about is “ethics with a big E” as opposed to “ethics with a small e.” Ethics with a big E refers to the black letter rules and statutes setting forth norms of lawyer behavior. This includes the Rules of Professional Conduct, sometimes codified as statutes, and other statutes, in California the statutes in the State Bar Act (Bus. & Prof. Code section 6000 et seq.) Ethics with a small “e” is taken to mean an undefined territory more vast, all the norms of the legal profession that have not been reduced to “black letter” rules. One principal difference is consequence; violation of a Big E rule raises a presumption of unfitness to practice and justifies discipline, but the sanction for violating a small e rule is usually significantly less, maybe even just the opprobrium of fellow lawyers or a court. A useful concept to keep in mind is the difference between normative ethics (absolutely Big E rules) and descriptive ethics, i.e. what lawyers actually do, which can be Big E but is mostly small e.

The distinction is important in understanding the incivility crisis. For some years now, the profession and the courts have been moaning about the decline of civility in the profession. This has produced a torrent of task-forces, reports, civility codes and much hand-wringing about what to do about it. Part of the problem is a lack of Big E rules, at least in California. California did have a civility rule, former Bus. & Prof. Code section 6068(f), which stated that it was the duty of lawyer to avoid “offensive personality.” Three decades ago, I prosecuted a lawyer for offensive personality. He had a habit of losing his temper in depositions and doing things like throwing chairs around the room. Definitely not civil. California lost the “offensive personality” rule when the Ninth Circuit found it unconstitutionally vague in US v. Wunsch 84 F.3d 1110 (1996). Now, the most recent civility proposals in California are looking at beefing up Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(d) which states that “[i]t is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:…(d) engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice…” (see Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct meeting agenda 10/14/22, item F.1) and other rules.

Small e violations are not without consequence, even if that consequence is not discipline. Shappell illustrates this. The Court of Appeal reversed the order denying the motion to vacate the default judgment because Shappell’s counsel violated the rule that “[a]n attorney has both an ethical and statutory obligation to warn opposing counsel, if counsel’s identity is known, of an intent to seek a default and to give counsel a reasonable opportunity to file a responsive pleading.” This rule cannot be found in the realm of Big E. Instead it comes from case law, specifically LaSalle v. Vogel (2019) 36 Cal.App.5th 127, 137. In LaSalle, the Fourth District Court of Appeal concluded “unequivocally, and without qualification…. that [this] obligation is rooted in decades of case authority and… is reinforced by a statutory obligation arising under Code of Civil Procedure section 583.130.” Justice Bedsworth, writing for the court, cited the small e California civility guidelines as cementing this duty as an ethical rule:

In contrast to the stealth and speed … courts and the State Bar emphasize warning and deliberate speed. The State Bar Civility Guidelines deplore the conduct of an attorney who races opposing counsel to the courthouse to enter a default before a responsive pleading can be filed. (Fasuyi v. Permatex, Inc. (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 681, 702, 84 Cal.Rptr.3d 351 (Fasuyi), quoting section 15 of the California Attorney Guidelines of Civility and Professionalism (2007).) Accordingly, it is now well-acknowledged that an attorney has an ethical obligation to warn opposing counsel that the attorney is about to take an adversary’s default. (Id. at pp. 701-702, 84 Cal.Rptr.3d 351.) LaSalle was previously discussed on the California Legal Ethics blog where I characterized it as A Judicial Cri de Coeur on Civility. It is an impressively written opinion but it still rests on small e as the court’s dismissal of Bellm v. Bellia (1984) 150 Cal.App.3d 1036 (LaSalle at 136) and its distinction of “legal” v. “ethical” shows. Big E is all about the law, the law that can get you suspended or disbarred.

But what about Code of Civil Procedure 583.130 cited as supporting a duty to warn before taking default? It says “It is the policy of the state that a plaintiff shall proceed with reasonable diligence in the prosecution of an action but that all parties shall cooperate in bringing the action to trial or other disposition.” This is real black letter law, right in the Code of Civil Procedure! Could this be a route to get from small e to Big E? California Bus. & Prof. Code section 6068(a) says that it is duty of lawyer to support the laws of the state of California. The State Bar Court Review Department held in In the Matter of Lilley (Review Dept. 1991) 1 Cal. State Bar Ct. Rptr. 476, that “that the Supreme Court interprets section 6068(a) as a conduit by which attorneys may be charged and disciplined for violations of other specific laws which are not otherwise made disciplinable under the State Bar Act.” The Lilley court was unclear as to whether this conduit was so wide as to admit a violation of a statute not in the State Bar Act but 6068(a) is broadly worded. The statute is also vague about what cooperation entails, much as Rule 8.4(d) is vague in lacking anything like a definition of the prohibited conduct beyond “prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

Vague but Wunsch-caliber vague? So far OCTC has shown no appetite for creative theories justifying civility prosecution. But small e can make a big difference in in the civil courts, especially in the Fourth Division.

“Ethics is a Club They Beat You With”

“Ethics is a club they beat you with…”

Former President of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers

Brawerman v. Loeb & Loeb, Second App. Dist., Div 8, case no. B305802, filed 8/3/22.

The plaintiffs hired the defendant law firm to advise him in a financial transaction. The fee agreement contained an arbitration clause. Defendant law firm had an associate who was licensed in New York but not California work on the matter, contributing 382 hours to the total of 928 billed by the firm. The relationship went south and plaintiffs filed this action against the law firm and the unlicensed-in-California associate for professional negligence and breach of fiduciary duty. Defendants moved to compel arbitration. Before arbitration, plaintiffs discovered the licensing status of the associate and moved to remand the matter to the trial court, arguing that the unlicensed status of the associate meant the entire fee agreement, including the arbitration was clause was void due the fraud. The arbitrator denied the motion, finding the arbitration clause severable. The decision after arbitration found the firm and the associate liable but concluded that the plaintiffs suffered no damages. The award ordered disgorgement of $138,075 in fees paid for the unlicensed associate’s services and $94,933 for the plaintiff’s fees incurred in the arbitration in connection with litigating that issue. The trial court confirmed the arbitration and the inevitable appeal followed.

On appeal plaintiffs again argued that entire fee agreement was tainted with fraud due the associate’s lack of California licensing and the law firm’s ethical misconduct in having the unlicensed associate work on the case. Citing one of the most significant California Supreme Court cases of the recent past, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP v. J-M Manufacturing Co., Inc. (2018) 6 Cal.5th 59, 72, they contended the ethical misconduct meant the arbitration award must be voided and the matter remanded to the trial court because “the arbitration has been undertaken to enforce a contract that is ‘illegal and against the public policy of the state.” (Sheppard, supra, 6 Cal.5th at p. 73.)

Defendants based their argument on another heavyweight pronouncement from the California Supreme Court, this one from the last century, Birbrower, Montalbano, Condon & Frank v. Superior Court (1998) 17 Cal.4th 119. Birbrower held that an unlicensed attorney’s illegal practice of law pursuant to the retainer agreement does not render the entire retainer agreement illegal.

In this Clash of the Ethics Titans, the Court of Appeal found Birbrower persuasive and Sheppard distinguishable. They upheld the trial court’s confirmation of the arbitration award. Along the way, they chastised plaintiff’s counsel for not even discussing Birbrower until page 79 of their reply brief and remanded counsel that Rule of Professional Conduct 3.3(a)(2) requires counsel to disclose authority known to be adverse to their position (see Rule 3.3: Another Shot Across the Bow.)

The Court of Appeal demurred on directly addressing the ethics issues involved in the firm’s assignment of an unlicensed associate to provide legal services to a California client in California, despite plaintiffs’ invocation of yet another heavyweight California Supreme Court case In Re Rose (2000) 22 Cal.4th 430. “We are reviewing a lower court’s order confirming an arbitration award, not conducting attorney discipline proceedings. And our jurisdiction has been invoked by appeal, not through any original petition. In re Rose has no application here.” So the question of whether lawyers of the defendant law firm might have violated former Rule of Professional Conduct 1-300(A) (current Rule 5.5(a)(2)) will have to be answered in another forum, if it is to be answered at all.

While it doesn’t exactly fit the mould, Brawerman reconfirms a truth about legal ethics captured in the pithy quote cited above from a former president of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL). In the civil arena, legal ethics are largely invoked in arguments about money, usually to justify non-payment of money. Here they were invoked in an unsuccessful effort to get another shot at proving up a claim of damages in front of a jury, a jury presumable less lawyer friendly than the arbitrator. It seems unlikely that this case will wind up in the pantheon of Supreme Court Titans, so the plaintiffs will likely have to be content with the disgorgement of fees.

Rule 3.3: Another Shot Across the Bow

Shiheiber v. JP Morgen Chase Bank, First App. Dist., Div. 2, A160188 filed 7/26/22.

The Court of Appeal upheld sanctions imposed on counsel by the trial court for violations of local trial court rules. Division 2 found sanctioned counsel’s argument lacking in a many areas, and bordering on frivolous, stating that they were publishing the opinion “to make clear that, in the future, an appellate argument such as this that is so lacking in even potentially persuasive value will indeed carry the possibility of sanctions as a frivolous appeal.” Among the leading infirmities was counsel’s failure on appeal to discuss the leading authority contrary to her position that the trial court lacked the authority to awared sanctions, the Bragg case. The Court reminded us that Rule 3.3(a)(2) provides that a lawyer shall not “fail to disclose to the tribunal* legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known* to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not disclosed by opposing counsel, or knowingly misquote to a tribunal the language of a book, statute, decision or other authority.” It also reminded us that it reminded us about Rule 3.3 once before in Davis v. TWC Dealer Group, Inc. (2019) 41 Cal.App.5th 662, 678.

The Court of Appeal neither sanctioned counsel or referred her to the State Bar. But it told us in certain terms that it could do those things and just might if it was faced with similar failures to comply with Rule 3.3(a)(2) in the future. The circumstances of this case, the relatively light sanction and the fact that bad faith was not found on counsel’s part militated against those measures in this case. The first part of Rule 3.3(a)(2) is a new Rule in California, adapted from the ABA Model Rules and adopted in 2018. There are no discipline cases applying it that can be found but the possibility of discipline in an appropriate case cannot be rules out.

At least one Court of Appeal has fired two warning shots concerning Rule 3.3. When and if they will direct their fire directly on the target remains to be seen.

Rule 3.7: One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

Lopez v. Lopez, Second App. Dist., Div. 4, case no. B315959, filed 7/20/22.

The Second Appellate District has reversed a trial court ruling disqualifying a lawyer from representing his wife in litigation where the lawyer was likely to be called as a witness. This case provides one of those ‘teaching moments’ on a topic that is the subject of some confusion among lawyers, and, apparently, some judges: the differences between the California Rules of Professional Conduct and the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

Some of the confusion may be the result of the way professional responsibility has been taught by law schools. I will offer myself up as an example. I went to an ABA-accredited law school in Los Angeles, longer ago than I care to remember. So long ago that we actually studied the 1969 ABA Code of Professional Responsibility, with its confusing hodgepodge of Canons, “ECs” (ethical considerations) and “DRs” (disciplinary rules.) We also learned a little of the then recently adopted ABA Model Rules. But our instruction never acknowledged, let only elucidated, the then-existing 1975 California Rules of Professional Conduct, the actual discipline rules that would be binding on the majority of us who would go on to practice in California. The California rules were not tested on the version of the Multi-state Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) that I took and passed in 1986. I did not even realize that California had its one distinctly different set of disciplinary rules until March 27, 1989, the day I began work at the State Bar of California.

Legal ethics education has improved since those days. My impression is that even law schools that aspire to be “national” make some effort to acquaint students with the California rules. I know from my own teaching experience is that it is difficult to teach two very different sets of professional responsibility rules. The adoption of California’s own version of the Model Rules in 2018 has made it easier, although California’s rules have many differences with the Model Rules, including our version of the lawyer witness rule, Rule 3.7, which tripped up the trial judge in the Lopez case. Unlike the Model Rule 3.7, our Rule allows the lawyer to serve as a witness with the informed consent of the client, as did former California Rule 5-220 (the 1975 California rules did not address this issue.) But that exception is not absolute; Comment 3 states that a judge may still disqualify a lawyer who will be a witness if necessary to protect the trier of fact from being misled or the opposing party from being prejudiced.

This is a useful reminder that disqualification is a judicial remedy that is broader than the rules of professional conduct and may be invoked in the exercise of a trial judge’s discretion to prevent unfairness. And, in the trial judge’s defense, it is clear that they are situations where the ABA Model Rules can be utilized as guidance on California questions, even after the adoption of our new rules in 2018. Pre-2018 case law held that “the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct may be considered as a collateral source, particularly in areas where there is no direct authority in California and there is no conflict with the public policy of California.” State Comp. Ins. Fund v. WPS, Inc. (1999) 70 Cal. App. 4th 644, 656. California Rule 1.0 states that the Rules of Professional Conduct “are intended to regulate professional conduct of lawyers through
discipline”; Comment 4 to that Rule states that “ethics opinions and rules and standards promulgated by other jurisdictions and bar associations may also be considered” in addressing ethical issues not related to discipline.

So maybe that trial judge wasn’t so dumb after all. Confusion about the proper role of the California Rules of Professional Conduct still exists as well as geographical reach. Are they just discipline rules, black-letter law like criminal statutes or do they serve a prophylactic role in guiding lawyer conduct. Of course, the answer is both, despite the long-standing California shibboleth about them being only discipline rules. This confusion was what the wacky 1969 ABA Code of Professional Responsibility was trying to address through its three-part structure of Canons, ECs and DRs. Maybe the 1969 Code wasn’t so dumb either.

SLAPP-shot: Lawyer’s Cross-complaint Gets Iced

Bowen v. Lin, Second App. Dist., Div. 6, case no. B312831, filed 6/6/22, certified for publication 6/23/22.

Fiduciary duty is not a level playing field. The essence of a fiduciary relationship is putting the interests of the other party ahead of your own. One of the incidents of the fiduciary relationship between lawyer and client is the client’s absolute right to discharge the lawyer, for a good reason, for a bad reason, or for no reason at all. This is sometimes difficult for lawyer’s to grasp, as the Bowen case shows.

“Victor and Calvin [Victor’s son] practiced medicine out of an Oxnard office owned by Victor and Yvonne [Victor’s wife.] The office sustained $25,000 in damages when a pipe in an adjacent office started leaking. The Lins hired Bowen as their attorney to demand that the owner of the adjacent office, Cynthia Lau, pay to rectify the water damage. After Lau rejected the settlement demands, Bowen recommended that the Lins sue. Victor and Yvonne agreed, but Calvin did not. Bowen nevertheless named him as a plaintiff in the lawsuit (the Lau case). He estimated that prosecuting the case would cost between $25,000 and $50,000. Over the next three years, the Lins paid Bowen nearly $68,000. Frustrated with ever-mounting costs, Victor told Bowen to cease all nonessential work on the Lau case while Gail [Victor’s daughter], a licensed attorney, tried to reach a settlement with Lau’s estate. Bowen replied that he would not cease work and would not grant Gail permission to settle the case as long as he was counsel of record. Gail then formally substituted in and settled the case.”

“Bowen sued Victor and Yvonne for breach of contract and quantum meruit, seeking to recover the unpaid balance of his fees. Victor and Yvonne cross-complained, alleging that Bowen breached his fiduciary duties, committed malpractice, and failed to execute a written fee agreement. Calvin joined the lawsuit as a cross-complainant.”


“Bowen then filed his own cross-complaint. His first cause of action asserted that Calvin breached his oral contract with Bowen when he stopped cooperating in the Lau case and fired Bowen as his attorney. The second, third, and fourth causes—for intentional interference with contractual relations, intentional interference with prospective economic relations, and negligent interference with prospective economic relations—asserted that Calvin and Gail encouraged their parents to stop cooperating with Bowen, fire him as their attorney, withhold payments due, and work with Gail to achieve a settlement. Bowen’s fifth cause asserted that Victor, Yvonne, and Calvin committed fraud when they induced him to provide legal services in the Lau case—all while providing minimal payments— knowing they would have Gail settle the case on the eve of trial. The sixth cause asserted that all four members of the Lin family conspired to defraud Bowen by encouraging him to work on the Lau case while knowing they would settle it themselves after
substituting him out.”

The Lins filed a SLAPP motion against Bowen’s cross-complaint. The trial court granted with respect to Gail, concluding that she engaged in protected activity and the litigation privilege (Civil Code section 47) meant that Bowen could not prevail on his cross-complaint against her. The trial court denied the motion with respect to Victor, Calvin and Yvonne, finding their communications “probably” did not come within the protection of the litigation privilege. It did not rule on whether Bowen was likely to prevail on his claims. Appeal, like flowers after a spring rain, naturally blossomed.

On appeal, Division 6 found that Victor, Calvin and Yvonne actions were “squarely protected” by the anti-SLAPP statute (Civil Code section 425.16(e)(1):“statement[s] or writing[s] made before a . . . judicial proceeding” and “written or oral statement[s] or writing[s] made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a . . . judicial body.”) “The “filing, funding, and prosecution of a civil action” are protected acts. (Rusheen v. Cohen (2006) 37 Cal.4th 1048, 1056.). Moreover, as noted above, a “client has the absolute right to change [their] attorney at any stage”, citing the venerable case of Gage v. Atwater (1902) 136 Cal. 170, 172, as well as the more recent case Taheri Law Group v. Evans (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 482, 491. “The trial court thus erred when it concluded that Bowen’s breach of contract cause of action did not arise from protected activity.

The Court of Appeal reached the same conclusion with respect to the interference causes of action, citing the very recent case of Pech v. Doniger (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 443, 462, for the proposition that advising clients to terminate an attorney’s services is protected activity. The fraud claims were also found subject to the SLAPP motion because they were based on the same protected communications activity specifically cited by the SLAPP statute.

Bowen tried to counterattack by noting that the Lins had cross-complained against him for malpractice but to no avail. The appellate court found that a malpractice claims does not chill petitioning activity but rather, the threat of a malpractice claim “encourages the attorney to
petition competently and zealously.”

Bowen’s appeal of the trial court’s granting of Gail’s part of the SLAPP motion failed for the same reasons. He attempted to distinguish Taheri by noting that the decision predated current Rule of Professional Conduct 4.2, but that rule is essentially the same as its predecessor, former Rule 2-100(a), which Taheri relied on. The rule was irrelevant in any case; Gail did not represent any party when she communicated with the Lins while they were represented by Bown, and the Rule only applies when the lawyer making the communication represents a party.

The Court of Appeal upheld the granting of the SLAPP motion as to Gail and remanded the matter back to the trial court to decide the issue of whether Bowen might prevail in his causes of action against Victor, Yvonne and Calvin.

While careful not to express an opinion, in discussing the trial court’s determination of that issue on Gail’s part of the SLAPP motion, the high court said this: “the litigation privilege bars liability for “any communication (1) made in judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings; (2) by litigants or other participants authorized by law; (3) to achieve the objects of the litigation; and (4) that ha[s] some connection or logical relation to the action.” (Silberg v. Anderson (1990) 50 Cal.3d 205, 212.) It is “relevant to the second step in the anti-SLAPP analysis in that it may present a substantive defense [the nonmoving party] must overcome to demonstrate a probability of prevailing.” [Flatley v. Mauro (2006) 39 Cal.4th 299, 323.] Whether the privilege shields Gail’s actions is a question of law subject to our independent review. (Kashian v. Harriman (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 892, 913.) “Any doubt about whether the privilege applies is resolved in favor of applying it.”

So, Mr. Bowen would appear to have his work cut out for him. The important lesson for the rest of us is that clients and their causes of actions are not property and when push comes to shove, the interests of the clients always come first.

Ex-Judge Becomes Ex-Counsel Via Rule 1.12

You Can’t Blame Him for Making a Career Move

Hassett v. Olson, Third App. Dist., case no.C092212, filed 4/20/22, modified and certified for publication 4/13/22. Stephen Baily, while a Superior Court judge in El Dorado County, presided over litigating and issued orders relating to the enforceability of one Cody Bass’s options to purchase two South Lake Tahoe properties. Baily left the bench. He was then employed as co-counsel the trustees of the one of the properties, Dastur, in litigation brought by Hassett, who claimed ownership of the properties. Baily sent a letter to the assigned Judge of the El Dorado Superior Court in his capacity as counsel for Dastur citing his former status as a judge and their social relationship and suggesting the entire El Dorado Superior Court recuse itself. She did and the case was transferred to a Sacramento County judge. Hassett brought a motion to disqualify Baily, citing Rule of Professional Conduct 1.12, which says:

a lawyer shall not represent anyone in connection with a matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially as a judge or other adjudicative officer, judicial staff attorney or law
clerk to such a person* or as an arbitrator, mediator, or other third-party neutral, unless all parties to the proceeding give informed written consent.

In support of his motion, Hassett attached Baily’s letter. The trial court granted the motion, based on the inherent power of the court (codified in Code of Civil Procedure section 128, subdivision (a)(5)) to control proceedings in the furtherance of justice. The court cited an “appearance of impropriety”, as well as a violation of Rule 1.12. The definition of “matter” in Rule 1.12 was broad enough to include Hassett’s action, even though he was not a party to the prior actions where Baily was directly involved, and Baily was found to have substantially participated in the matter. Finally, Baily’s law firm was also disqualified as there was no showing it was screened from participation as required by Rule 1.12.

The Court of Appeal affirmed. Hassett had standing, despite the fact that he was not a party to the prior actions. It was not necessary to show that Baily possessed confidential information under Rule 1.12. Matter and case are not synonymous, as shown by comment 1 to Rule 1.12. Moreover, California Rule 1.7(e) provides a broad definition that is similar to ABA Model Rule 1.11, which governs the same principles for government lawyers discussed in ABA Model Rule 1.12, the basis for the California rule.

For purposes of this rule, “matter” includes any judicial or other proceeding, application, request for a ruling or other determination, contract, transaction, claim, controversy, investigation, charge, accusation, arrest, or other deliberation, decision, or action that is focused on the interests of specific persons,* or a discrete and identifiable class of persons

The Court of Appeal concluded that no abuse of discretion by the trial court had been shown.

Cases interpreting the new Rules of Professional Conduct are still rare and this well-reasoned opinion is a worthy addition to prior California cases that reached similar conclusions without the benefit of Rule 1.12

Mountain Update: Supreme Court Denies Review in Respondent BB

The California Supreme Court has denied the Office of Chief Trial Counsel’s petition for review in In the Matter of Respondent BB, as case discussed in a previous post Going To The Mountain, posted 2/20/22. BB involved a San Francisco public defender found of two counts of disrespect to the courts and one count for failure to obey a court order. The hearing judge determined an admonition was appropriate under the “unique circumstances” established at trial along with five circumstances in mitigation and only one in aggravation; OCTC had sought a 30 day actual suspension. The Review Department, and now the Supreme Court, upheld that disposition.

A Warning from the Court of Appeal

We are told that California Rules of Professional Conduct are rules for discipline. And yet there are many Rules of Professional Conduct that are never, as far as can be determined, formed the basis for any discipline. In fact, these Rules largely serve an advisory role, giving lawyers notice of what the expected norms of professional conduct are. This distinction is more explicitly spelled out in the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct in the Preamble section 14: “The Rules are thus partly obligatory and disciplinary and partly constitutive and descriptive in that they define a lawyer’s professional role.” But ultimately, it is the possibility of professional discipline that gives the Rule force.

People v. Williams, Second District, Div. 5, case no. B311161, filed 2/24/22, involves California Rule of Professional Conduct 3.3(a)(2). The Rule says

A lawyer shall not:…
(2) fail to disclose to the tribunal* legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction
known* to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and
not disclosed by opposing counsel, or knowingly* misquote to a tribunal* the
language of a book, statute, decision or other authority

Rule 3.3(a)(2) was adopted in November 2018, part of the extensive revision of the California Rules of Professional Conduct to conform more closely to the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct and adopts the text of Model Rule 3.3(a)(2), along with a second clause derived from former California Rule of Professional Conduct 5-200(c). Given the recent adoption of the Rule, it is not surprising that it has not been the object of any discipline enforcement. The model Rule, though, has been cited in the unpublished decision in Martin v. Stenger, a 2014 decision from the First Appellate Dist., Div. 2, (2014 WL 2211719).

Although California has not adopted the Model Rules, courts and [attorneys] find the rules … helpful and persuasive in situations where the [California rules] are unclear or inadequate.’ (1 Witkin, Cal. Procedure, supra, Attorneys, [§ 407, p. 521.] ) We are one of those courts. (See generally Fortune et al., Modern Litigation and Professional Responsibility Handbook (2001) § 8.5.1, pp. 329–330 [‘The obligation to disclose adverse legal authority is an aspect of the lawyer’s role as “officer of the court.” … lawyers should reveal cases and statutes of the controlling jurisdiction that the court needs to be aware of in order to intelligently rule on the matter. It is good ethics and good tactics to identify the adverse authorities, even though not directly adverse, and then argue why they are distinguishable or unsound. The court will appreciate the candor of the lawyer and will be more inclined to follow the lawyer’s argument’].)” We do not imply that either counsel acted knowingly or intended to mislead when they failed to cite Yang. We nevertheless remind counsel of their obligation.

Martin v. Stenger, unpublished slip opinion at pages 2-3

Williams involves a failure by counsel to cite what the Court of Appeal deemed controlling authority in the appeal, specifically case law finding the subject order not appealable. The decision reveals the frustration the Court of Appeal found with the lawyer’s response to the Court’s direction to submit a letter brief on the issue of whether Rule 3.3(a)(2) had been violated, frustration which led the Court of Appeal to make this a published decision with a stern warning:

An attorney who prosecutes an appeal while failing to cite known authority that this court has no jurisdiction to entertain it violates the attorney’s duty of candor (where the authority is not otherwise brought to the attention of the court by another party to the appeal). Any such future violation, in the view of this court, may warrant disciplinary review by the State Bar or other corrective action.

People v. Williams, slip opinion at page 14-15

In adopting much of the ABA Model Rules, California has taken many of their “constitutive and descriptive” precepts and made them enforceable through the disciplinary process. Of course, the California Rules of Professional Conduct, although emphasizing their provenance as discipline rules since their original adoption in 1928, have always contained a lot of similar material, especially after the California Rules were re-written in response to the ABA Code of Professional Responsibility in 1975. But the Big Stick is always present, and the current mood of the discipline enforcers in the Office of Chief Trial Counsel means the discipline can never be ruled out. California lawyers who have not read the latest revision of the Rules of Professional Conduct practice are at some risk. Just ask the Second District Court of Appeal.

Remote Practice: in California, the Big Question Remains Unanswered

The State Bar’s Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct (COPRAC) has written a proposed ethics opinion on remote practice that is now out for public comment, formal opinion interim number 20-0004. The scope of the issues addressed by the opinion is broadly framed: “What are a California lawyer’s ethical duties when working remotely?” The opinion digest responds broadly:

Remote practice does not alter a lawyer’s ethical duties under the California

Rules of Professional Conduct and the State Bar Act. Managerial lawyers must

implement reasonable measures, policies, and practices to ensure continued

compliance with these rules in a remote working environment, with a particular

focus on the duties of confidentiality, technology competence, communication,

and supervision.

Proposed formal opinion 2020-0004

The impetus for the opinion, like other opinions regarding remote practice, over the last two years (ABA formal opinion 495, New Jersey opinion 59/742, District of Columbia opinion 24-20) is the widespread adoption of remote work during the pandemic. The transition to remote work is hardly new; it has been going on ever since advanced information technology made geography irrelevant around 1995. California was one of the first states to address the phenomenon in the seminal Birbrower case in 1998, albeit in dicta that was not really related to the facts of the case:

Our definition does not necessarily depend on or require the unlicensed lawyer’s physical presence in the state.   Physical presence here is one factor we may consider in deciding whether the unlicensed lawyer has violated section 6125, but it is by no means exclusive.   For example, one may practice law in the state in violation of section 6125 although not physically present  here by advising a California client on California law in connection with a California legal dispute by telephone, fax, computer, or other modern technological means.   Conversely, although we decline to provide a comprehensive list of what activities constitute sufficient contact with the state, we do reject the notion that a person automatically practices law “in California” whenever that person practices California law anywhere, or “virtually” enters the state by telephone, fax, e-mail, or satellite.  (See e.g., Baron v. City of Los Angeles (1970) 2 Cal.3d 535, 543, 86 Cal.Rptr. 673, 469 P.2d 353 (Baron ) [“practice law” does not encompass all professional activities].)   Indeed, we disapprove Ring, supra, 70 P.2d 281, 26 Cal.App.2d Supp. 768, and its progeny to the extent the cases are inconsistent with our discussion.   We must decide each case on its individual facts.

Birbrower, Montalbano, Condon & Frank v. Superior Ct. (1998) 17 Cal. 4th 119, 128–29

Since the case had to do with New York lawyers who were physically, not virtually, present in California, the rationale behind this dicta is difficult to discern on the surface. Some, including amicus counsel for the petitioner New York law firm, thought the case presented an opportunity to undermine the outdated patchwork of individual jurisdictions jealously protecting their turf, a position opposed by the amicus for the client trying to get out of paying their bill, the State Bar of California, who advocated for a traditional California protectionist approach ( I was present at the oral argument.) The Birbrower dicta, accurate as it was, probably created more confusion than insight.

The existing trend toward remote work accelerated, by necessity, during the pandemic, and even the State Bar of California was part of the trend. Once work becomes remote, it can become truly remote by moving beyond a state boundary line. Remote work raises a number of issues not directly connected with the multi-jurisdictional practice (MJP) problem. The problem is that licensure is still handled by that patchwork of jurisdictions long after this approach stopped making sense.

These non-MJP problems are well addressed by 2020-0004. But 2020-0004 says only this about the MJP problem:

California licensed lawyers practicing California law remotely in another
state where they are not licensed should consult the multijurisdictional practice and unauthorized practice of law rules and authorities of the state where they are physically present.35 The ABA and some other state bar and local ethics committees have issued opinions regarding unauthorized practice of law considerations for attorneys remotely practicing the law of the jurisdictions in which they are licensed while physically present in a jurisdiction in which they are not admitted.

Proposed formal opinion 2020-0004, at page 7.

The Committee does helpfully attach a long footnote citing the many opinions from other jurisdictions that address remote practice, including MJP. But for lawyers licensed in other jurisdictions who are practicing remotely while in California, the Committee offers no guidance.

This is a big question. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lawyers, admitted in other jurisdictions who are physically present in California and “virtually” practicing in their licensed jurisdictions to adopt the Birbrower language. The only guidance those lawyers have now is the limited guidance provided by California Rule of Professional Conduct 5.5(b): “A lawyer who is not admitted to practice law in California shall not: (1) except as authorized by these rules or other law, establish or maintain a resident office or other systematic or continuous presence in California for the practice of law; or (2) hold out to the public or otherwise represent that the lawyer is admitted to practice law in California.” Emphasis added.

What exactly does this language mean? Is practicing New York law for your New York clients from your home office in California a “systemic or continuous presence”? Can that lawyer use his residence address in California or establish a post office box in California for use in their “virtual practice” without “holding themselves out” as entitled to practice in California? Does this type of “virtual practice” violate their licensing jurisdiction’s version of ABA Model Rule 5.5(a)?: “A lawyer shall not practice law in a jurisdiction in violation of the regulation of the legal profession in that jurisdiction, or assist another in doing so.”

These are questions that need to be answered. But COPRAC is unable to. By direction of the Board of Governors (now Board of Trustees) in 1992, COPRAC cannot opine on questions involving the unauthorized practice of law. But if not COPRAC then who? Text or comments to Rule 5.5 could be added to clarify the meaning but in the normal course, those comments would be vetted through COPRAC. Would consideration of such clarifying language violate the Board’s directive? The Legislature could direct the State Bar to draft an amend Rule 5.5 or adopt a new Rule of Professional Conduct to submit to the California Supreme Court for adoption or a statute clarifying what constitutes the unauthorized practice of law. Given California’s protectionist proclivity, such Legislative activity seems very unlikely. There seems to be no procedural mechanism to directly request the Supreme Court to adopt new Rules of Professional Conduct.

So it appears that there is no way to get this question answered until some sweeping reform of multi-jurisdictional practice occurs to conform to reality. In the meantime, non-California licensed lawyers virtually practicing in California will continue a sort of shadow existence.

Is All Fair When Love Turns to War? Ethics Rules Say No

Some narrow issues were raised in the recent decision from the Fourth District of Court of Appeal, Division One, titled Shenefield v. Shenefield (case no. D078643, filed 2/24/22) and a bigger one as well.

The case involved a litigant in a marital dissolution matter who attached the confidential, court-ordered psychological evaluation undertaken during his spouse’s previous marital dissolution to a pleading filed by his lawyer. The spouse sought sanctions for violations of Family Code sections 3111, subdivision (d) and 3025.5, for unwarranted disclosure of the confidential custody
evaluation. Following trial, the Court issued sanctions against the litigant in the amount
of $10,000 and the litigant’s lawyer in the amount of $15,000. The trial court found that the litigant’s attorney was a ‘seasoned’ attorney who should have been aware of the Family Code statutes. She was reckless in filing the confidential and that she intended for the Court to rely on the confidential information from the prior, unrelated case. The lawyer challenged the sanction, arguing, among other things, that she was not a ‘party’ within the meaning of section 3111(d)(2). The Court of Appeal upheld the sanction, finding that California Rules of Court, rule 1.6(15), defines a “[p]arty” as “a person appearing in an action,” and it also notes that “party” “includes the party attorney of record.” The Court of Appeal also found no merit in the lawyer’s other arguments, that she was not afforded due process and that the opposing spouse had a duty to provide her the ‘safe harbor’ provided by Code of Civil Procedure section 128.7(c)(1) before moving for the sanction.

Good to know. But the bigger issue is highlighted in the part of the opinion that discusses an important piece of evidence at trial, a recording of a meeting between the litigants, Mark and Jennifer, and husband’s counsel. Jennifer did not have counsel.

On September 13, 2017, Mark pled guilty to violating Penal Code section 243, subdivision (e)(1), misdemeanor battery on a spouse. The Court issued a criminal protective order against Mark. The order contained the same terms as the restraining order, prohibiting Mark from contacting Jennifer or their child other than peacefully for visitation, and it authorized Jennifer to record any violations. Kovtun was Mark’s attorney of record in the criminal case. On September 28, 2017, Jennifer attended a meeting at Kovtun’s office with Mark and Kovtun. Jennifer recorded the meeting. During the course of the meeting, Kovtun told Jennifer she was a liar and a bad and unfit mother who was harmful to their child. When Jennifer said if Kovtun were not there, Mark would probably be beating her, Kovtun responded, “You know what? I would be.” Kovtun called Jennifer “nuts,” said Jennifer was “out of [her] mind,” commented that living with Jennifer was like dealing with a lunatic, and called Jennifer crazy. Mark berated Jennifer, telling her that he was going to take their child away and get full custody, directing Jennifer to stop crying, and admonishing her that if she loved him, Jennifer would sign a custody agreement that would give Mark 50 percent custody. Kovtun repeatedly supported Mark’s statements, commenting, “Yeah.” As a consequence of the September 28, 2017 meeting, Mark pled guilty to violating a court order (Pen. Code, § 166, subd. (c)(1)) in October 2018.

Shenefield, slip opinion filed 2/25/22 at page 23.

The trial court found that the recording did not violate Penal Code section 632 because it was authorized by the September 23, 2017, protective order. It relied on the recording to conclude that the lawyer was a seasoned family law lawyer and that she acted recklessly in allowing the confidential information from the prior custody evaluation to be filed. The Court of Appeal upheld those determinations.

Family law has always been difficult. Trends in society, the ongoing destruction of personal norms of appropriate behavior, the erosion of social trust, and the increased competition between lawyers for clients have made it more difficult. The lawyer-as-hired-gun meme still has currency, and it is often emphasized by lawyers themselves in their advertising, based on the idea that clients want aggressive lawyers. Many of my clients who are family law lawyers tell me that family law practice is uglier now than they ever seen it.

The ethical rules point in a different direction. Preamble 5 to the ABA Model Rules states that a “lawyer should use the law’s procedures only for legitimate purposes and not to harass or intimidate others.” California Rule of Professional Conduct 1.2.1 forbids a lawyer from counseling or assisting “a client to engage, or assist a client in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal, fraudulent, or a violation of any law, rule, or ruling of a tribunal.” Business and Professions Code section 6068(f) says that it is the duty of an attorney to “advance no fact prejudicial to the honor or reputation of a party or witness unless required by the justice of the cause with which he or she is charged.” Subsection (g) says that a lawyer has a duty to “not to encourage either the commencement or the continuance of an action or proceeding from any corrupt motive of passion or interest.” California Rule of Professional Conduct 4.3 specifically addresses communication with unrepresented parties and states that a lawyer may not take advantage of an unrepresented party to stating or implying that he lawyer is disinterested and may not give an unrepresented party legal advice, where their interests conflict with the client, except the advice to obtain counsel. While not a binding rule, the State Bar of California Civility Guidelines state that “in family law proceedings an attorney should seek to reduce emotional tension and trauma and encourage the parties and attorneys to interact in a cooperative atmosphere, and keep the best interest of the children in mind. For example, a. An attorney should discourage and should not abet vindictive conduct. b. An attorney should treat all participants with courtesy and respect in order to minimize the emotional intensity of a family dispute.” Guideline 19.

No, all is not fair in love, war or the practice of law. They all have ethical rules that must be followed if we are to live in a world not governed by brute force.