Top 5 Ways Social Media Will Get You Disbarred

Social media for lawyers has become the legal equivalent of playing with fire. Unfortunately, far too many lawyers and law firms wade into using social media lacking even a cursory understanding of the applicable ethical rules in their jurisdiction.

Here are the Top 5 ways social media can get you disbarred, disciplined or fined.

1. BARRATRY

Ambulance chasing has moved to the internet. A lawyer commits barratry when he solicits professional employment arising out of a particular event or series of events from anyone who has not sought the lawyer’s advice social-3064515_1920or with whom the lawyer has no family, or past or present attorney-client relationship. ABA Model Rules on Professional Conduct 7.3.

For example, assume a lawyer on Facebook sees an old high school friend post she has just been injured in a car wreck and is being transported to the hospital. Without thinking, the attorney posts: “Praying for you. If you need my help with filing a claim, give me a call.” What likely was a genuine desire to help an old friend has become clear case of barratry.

 

Imagine a lawyer sees a friend’s tweet expressing frustration about his attorney’s inability to resolve a contested probate matter quickly. The lawyer tweets back: “Sounds to be me like you have a need for speed. #TopGunForHire.” The responding attorney may have only thought he was being cleaver. Unfortunately, he also has committed barratry. The tweet also could subject the lawyer to discipline for communicating with a person the lawyer knows is represented by counsel as discussed further below. ABA Model Rule 4.2.

Lawyers are subject to disbarment or severe discipline for acts of barratry, which also has been a crime in most states for some time. See, Texas Penal Code 38.12. In addition, lawyers who commit barratry are subject to forfeiting their hard-earned attorney fees even after a case is concluded at least in most states.

Recently, some states are enacting laws that create civil causes of actions against the attorney. These barratry statutes typically permit the alleged victim to recover substantial, statutory penalties and an award of attorney fees. See, Texas Government Code, §82.065 et. seq. In Texas at least, a lawyer may not require a client to sign an engagement agreement that waives the client’s right to bring a claim for barratry under the statute. (Texas Opinion 637).

Unfortunately, an entire cottage industry of lawyers filing civil barratry claims now has sprung up in some states. Almost every time, the lawyer has a simultaneous grievance claim filed against him with the state bar.

As these claims grow in number, some members of the defense bar and legal industry analysts are left wondering whether at least some of these civil barratry claims were themselves unlawfully solicited, and in some cases fabricated entirely. Regardless, with tens of thousands of dollars available per claim, lawyer can be assured their social media accounts will be trolled for evidence they have unlawfully solicited anyone who chooses to file one of these civil barratry claims.

2. LACK OF CANDOR TOWARD THE TRIBUNAL

As trial judges and other lawyers become more savvy about social media, unethical lawyers will find themselves held to answer for false statements made to the court or to others. ABA Model Rules 3.3 and 4.1.

For example, a lawyer who chooses to lie to a judge or opposing counsel to obtain a continuance by claiming to be in trial or in a deposition out-of-town in another proceeding should be careful to turn off his Facebook location setting or insure his wife’s Instagram photos don’t reveal his Las Vegas getaway.

As early as 2009, one Texas lawyer learned how dangerous social media can be. The lawyer sought a continuance on the pretext her father had died.  The social media savvy judge, however, used the lawyer’s social media accounts to uncover the lawyer had posted photos of herself drinking and partying instead of mourning her father’s death.

3. UNINTENDED ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP

Social media is about engaging with other people. Lawyers, however, are not like other people.

In general, no lawyer should engage with anyone on social media about a specific legal matter unless the lawyer intends to create an attorney-client, or at minimum a “prospective client” relationship. ABA Model Rule 1.18.

The Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers, Section 14 provides a two-part test to create an attorney-client relationship.

First, a person manifests an intent that a lawyer provide legal services. Second, the lawyer either; (a) manifests consent, or (b) fails to manifest lack of consent and knows or reasonably should know the person reasonably relied on the lawyer to provide the services.

All the obligations of the attorney-client relationship such as a duty of competency, confidentiality, competency, and diligence are imposed on an attorney who even unintentionally enters into an attorney-client or “prospective client” relationship. See, ABA Model Rule 1.7. Under ABA Model Rule 1.10, even an inadvertent client relationship  can be imputed to the lawyer’s firm.

In other words, an attorney who engages a friend or follower on Facebook or Twitter should follow the same rules that would apply in an in-office setting.

The lawyer should clearly disclaim that any attorney-client relationship exists until an engagement agreement is signed by both parties. Additionally, the lawyer should clearly manifest his lack of consent to an attorney-client relationship after deciding to reject the client.

4. PROHIBITED COMMUNICATIONS

Social media can be a minefield of potential ethical violations for any lawyer who ventures into communications with anyone about a specific legal matter.

Sending a friend request or invitation to connect to the opposing sides of a case for the purpose of obtaining access to the person’s social media content will subject a lawyer to discipline, especially where the lawyer knows the person is represented by counsel. ABA Model Rule 4.2.

Lawyers also should proceed with caution before connecting via social media with a witness in a specific matter. Some jurisdictions require the lawyer to affirmatively disclose to the witness the reason for the lawyer’s attempt to connect via social media.

In other states, the lawyer is prohibited from using false pretenses, dishonesty, or an alias to gain access the other individual’s social media content. Kentucky (Op. KBA E-434), New York City (Op. 2010-2), New York State (Op. 843), and Oregon (Op. 2013-189).

The “real-time” nature of social media subjects uninformed lawyers to unintentionally disclosing confidential client communications. ABA Model Rule 1.9. For example, one lawyer forfeited a substantial settlement when his daughter violated the confidentiality term in a settlement agreement by posting details about the settlement on Facebook.

A public defender was suspended for 60 days after posting on social media that his client may have committed perjury. In re Peshek, M.R. 23794 (Ill. May 18, 2010). Even a nonspecific tweet such as, “just had a client lie on the stand for the first time,” could subject a lawyer to discipline if lawyer’s location or time of the tweet revealed the particular client’s identity.

5. UNAUTHORIZED ADVERTISEMENT

Most lawyers and law firms wouldn’t dream of publishing an advertisement in a newspaper or on television without submitting it to their state bar association for approval. A surprising number of lawyers, however, remain unaware that social media landing pages can be advertisements subject to the local disciplinary rules.

A lawyer’s profiles and home pages on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn can be advertisements where the landing page is generally available to the public. As such, lawyers must comply with their state’s version of the ABA Model Rules 7.1, 7.2, 7.3 and 7.4.

The California state bar concluded that the advertising rules do not come into play if a lawyer’s social media post merely announces a victory or recent publication without suggesting that the lawyer is in the market for new clients. But when a message expresses the lawyer’s willingness to be hired, the advertising rules apply. California (Op. 2012-186).

The California committee concluded that a Facebook post “Case finally over. Unanimous verdict! Celebrating tonight” did not constitute an advertisement because it was not an offer or message about the attorney’s availability for employment. Id.

The panel, however, concluded that when the lawyer posted. “Won a million dollar verdict. Tell your friends to check out my website,” the message asked readers to tell others to look at her website so that they may consider hiring her, and therefore, was subject to the state’s rules on lawyer’s advertising. Id.

Lawyers who chose to use social media for the purpose of advertising must comply with any rules requiring submission of such advertising to any Advertising Review Committee. See, Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 7.07. Every state’s rules are unique.

The California panel made clear that California lawyers were required to comply regardless of how difficult it may be to comply.

“The restrictions imposed by the professional responsibility rules and standards governing attorney advertising are not relaxed merely because such compliance might be more difficult or awkward in a social media setting.”

California (Op. 2012-186).

Some states, however, have enacted rules that don’t require submitting to an advertising review committee any social media that contains only basic information.

For example, in Texas a lawyer or law firm is not required to submit social media that only includes biographical information, sponsorship of certain activities, or where the communication was not significantly motivated by a desire for, or by the possibility of obtaining, pecuniary gain. Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct 7.07(e).

For example, a law firm would not be required to submit their social media posts, encouraging the public to follow their Facebook page, LinkedIn page, or Twitter account.

CONCLUSION

Social media has become pervasive in most lawyers’ every day and professional lives. At least one state’s bar association already has concluded that ABA Model Rule 1.1 requires lawyers to have “a basic knowledge of how social media websites work,” as well as the ability to advise clients about the legal ramifications of using the sites. Pennsylvania (Op. 2014-300).

As a result, best risk management practice suggests that every lawyer and law firm should implement a strong, written social media policy into their firm’s employee handbooks and regularly train their employees on the ethical rules that apply to lawyers and law firms. And, every lawyer should developing a personal, working knowledge of how social media works to avoid the ethical traps waiting for them in cyberspace.

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Tim Soefje Headshot 01Timothy B. Soefje is Managing Member and head of the professional liability section at the boutique firm of Seltzer │Chadwick │Soefje, PLLC. in Dallas, Texas. He is admitted in both Texas and Oklahoma. Follow him on Twitter at @TimSoefje. For more information, visit at www.realclearcounsel.com or contact Mr. Soefje at tsoefje@realclearcounsel.com

 

 

 

Pathology Of Mistakes And How To Avoid Litigation

It may come as a surprise that pathologists lose more medical malpractice jury trials than any other single group of medical specialists.

When you consider that a staggering 61 percent of all doctors over the age of 55 report having been subject to at least one claim in their careers, all pathology practice groups and hospitals should consider implementation of effective risk management strategies and training to reduce the risk of claims and maximize the chance of a successful outcome when one does occur.

In fact, according to one study by the Archives of Internal Medicine of all specialties, pathologists also achieved the lowest success rate of obtaining a complete dismissal of claims prior to trial. As a result, pathologists actually go to jury trial on claims filed at a 40-percent higher rate Pathologist(7.4%) than the national average (4.5%).

The vast majority of pathologist who responded (95.2%) to one study reported having been involved with a pathology error. A surprising 43.6% reported involvement with a serious error; 69.1% reported involvement with a minor error, and 77.6% reported involvement with a near miss. American Journal of Clinical Pathology, 135, 760-765 (2011).

A recent study of anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratory directors found pathologists believed that errors occurred frequently among hospitalized patents. The study found pathologists believe 3% of patients experience a serious error; 12% of patients experience a minor error, and 15% of patients experience a near miss. Id. at 760-765.

Pathologists disagree about the cause of medical errors. The study reported 55.2% believed errors were caused by care delivery systems, and 44.8% believed were caused by individual error. ld. at 760-765.

Despite these percentages, a surprisingly number (24.7%) of pathologists in the study did not know whether a formal error reporting system – such as an incident reporting or patient safety program – existed within their organization. More surprising, 28.2% affirmatively stated they believed no formal hospital reporting system was available to them. Id. at 760-765.

Pathologists face serious consequence when involved in medical errors. The implementation of effective risk management programs and use of pre-claims assistance provided by the pathologist’s insurance carrier can make the difference between a manageable event and a career-ending claim.

To subscribe to the Professional Liability Update, click HERE and provide your contact information and you’ll receive notice of our updates. 

Tim Soefje Headshot 01Timothy B. Soefje is Managing Member and head of the professional liability section at the boutique firm of Seltzer │Chadwick │Soefje, PLLC. in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter at @TimSoefje. For more information, visit at www.realclearcounsel.com or contact Mr. Soefje at tsoefje@realclearcounsel.com

 

 

Design Professionals Must Prepare Now For The Inevitable

A wise old lawyer once said: “If you’re not being sued, you’re not making money.”The point he was making was that as a professional’s business grows, it is statistically inevitable litigation will follow.

We partly can blame the rising volume of construction defect lawsuits brought against design professionals on the litigious world in which we live. Design professionals themselves, however, must shoulder some blame as well.Man-On-Wire-Over-Sharks

Too many design professionals remain uneducated about the litigation traps they unwittingly create daily on a job site; fail to develop internal policies to mitigate against the risk of suit; and remain unprepared to defend against the inevitable lawsuit when it comes.

A design professional’s legal liability typically flows from the duty to act reasonably with the same skill and care ordinarily exercised by other professionals in their field. A design professional is generally civilly liable only for damages arising from defects in their designs, but the full scope of liability for specific defects in construction or other work by the design professional is typically determined by contract.

How design professionals unwittingly create liability:

Design professionals frequently, however, create liability where none otherwise would exist. Sometimes, design professionals create liability because they are trying to be helpful during the construction process. At other times they create liability because of the conflicting responsibilities imposed by their codes of ethics and professional responsibilities.

For example, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Code of Ethics directs engineers to report concerns about building safety to the appropriate individuals or authorities. Ironically, the design professional typically could not be held civilly liable for a failing to report a known design defect or safety hazard, even where an injury or death occurs, unless the state where the events occurred imposes a “Good Samaritan Law” that creates such a duty.

A design professional who fulfills this objection and voluntarily reports a defect or safety hazard could prove the key to a successful defense or even the key to avoiding litigation altogether. Unfortunately, conscientious design professionals attempting to meet their professional responsibilities sometimes unwittingly create liability for construction defect where none would otherwise arise.

Assume a design professional reports a design defect or safety concern to a building owner. In an attempt to be helpful, the design professional voluntarily assumes the role of consultant or adviser to help the owner resolve the potential defect or safety hazard. In such a case, the design professional could be held civilly liable in a subsequent lawsuit brought by the owner or a third party if he fails to act reasonably or breaches the applicable standard of care that results in damages.

For example, assume a sound engineer is retained only to design a theater on the second floor of a building. While inspecting the job site, he observes that the second-floor truss system is improperly designed because splices have not been constructed according to the plans. He reports his concerns to the building owner or general contractor.

The architect, however, goes on to offer his unsolicited opinion the trusses should be fine until repairs can be made or the truss system is replaced. The owner relies on the architect’s opinion to delay taking immediate action. The next week, before repairs can be made, the second-floor collapses, causing substantial property damages and serious bodily injury to several people onsite.

In this circumstance, if the architect would simply have reported his concerns and not offered his opinion the trusses would be okay for a few days, the architect would have fulfilled his professional duties and likely have created no civil liability. In this example, however, the architect can be expected to be sued because he offered his professional opinion the trusses likely would be safe for a few days. As a result, it arguably was reasonable for the owner to rely on that representation to delay taking action to mitigate against the collapse.

In another example, assume the sound engineer goes onsite to inspect the progress, and thereafter, prepares a written report to the owner, noting the second floor is “complete.” The sound engineer recommends the owner move forward with the next phase of the project, including installing the theater seating on the second floor. During construction, the second floor collapses because the trusses were not constructed in accordance with the designs of the truss engineer and were insufficient to hold the additional weight of the seating. People are injured. Litigation will inevitably follow.

A creative plaintiffs’ attorney will argue the owner could reasonably rely on the representations by the sound engineer that the second-floor was “complete” only if the engineer had concluded the truss construction by the contractor and subcontractor was performed in accordance with industry standards and the truss engineer’s plans to adequately hold the weight of the theater seating. In this case, the sound engineer may have unwittingly created liability where none otherwise would have existed because he failed to foresee such liability when preparing his report advising the second-floor was “complete” and his phase of the project was ready to proceed.

Ordinarily, a design professional who approves the work of a contractor that later turns out to have been deficient does not automatically mean the design professional will share liability with the contractor. The design professional, however, likely will be placed in the position of having to explain why the observations and tests he made before approving the work did not uncover the defects.

Every design professional firm should take care to develop internal policies and procedures to mitigate against the risk of creating such legal liability. In our examples above, a careful design professional should have implemented an internal policy that prohibited any design professional from individually offering any onsite opinion or consultations that were outside the scope of the written contract with the design professional’s firm.

Where a design professional is asked to offer such an opinion onsite, a clearly-worded policy could be drafted to require the design professional to obtain express, written authorization from a firm supervisor. The supervisor, in turn, confirms in writing with the owner/contractor the scope and limitations of liability applicable to such an unplanned opinions or consultations that are outside the scope of the original contract and arise only because of the unique situation involving a design defect or safety concern.

What to include in a litigation mitigation policy:

A strong litigation mitigation policy should mandate that every design professional who reports any defect or safety concern should immediately document:

  1. who was told;
  2. what was said;
  3. when it reported;
  4. where the report was made;
  5. why the design professional felt compelled to report, and
  6. how the matter was resolved, including whether the design professional offered any opinion or consultation as to how to resolve the defect or safety hazard.

Every design professional firm would be well-advised to develop a written form for reporting such communication, which is signed by the reporting design professional.

The internal litigation mitigation policy should advise all design professionals to routinely clarify in all external oral or written communication that they are making no representations that can be construed as approval of any work performed by any contractor or subcontractor for which the design professional is not contractually responsible. It may be advisable to draft standard, limitation of representation language to be included in any outgoing emails or correspondence.

While such steps may appear excessive and burdensome, invariably lawsuits seem to turn on the innocuous email or handwritten notation prepared without consideration at the time of how the email or report would be used in subsequent litigation.

Additionally, every design professional firm should develop a litigation response plan. For example, every design professional firm should designate an internal litigation response team comprised of senior members of the firm, who are prepared to act quickly when a situation arises.

Every design firm should develop a strong relationship with an experienced construction litigation counsel who becomes part of such a litigation response team. By directing the investigation, litigation counsel can seek to preserve the attorney client privilege for documents prepared as part of the investigation, communications among employees, and investigations of potential witnesses.

The firm’s litigation response plan also should include a well-defined document retention policy to preserve all emails, correspondence, and documentation that may be available for anyone involved in the incident. Frequently, the preservation of documents only arises as an afterthought once a lawsuit is filed, which may be years after emails and a construction file it lost or destroyed in the ordinary course of business.

Experience litigation counsel also can assist a design professional firm and its professional liability insurer to quickly evaluate the design professional’s potential exposure and possibly help coordinate a plan with other potentially responsible third parties to develop a cost-effective a mitigation plan to reduce the future damages and costs of litigation.

Design professional companies must prepare for the inevitability of litigation through a long-term commitment to ethical conduct; the implementation of ongoing, internal training to educate their employees on the legal pitfalls that confront design professionals every day; and development of strong internal policies and procedures to quickly respond and effectively manage the inevitable litigation that will arise. A well-crafted litigation mitigation and response plan is a positive first step.

The basics of a litigation mitigation plan check list:

  1. Establish written ethics policy;
  2. Internal training to avoid creating unintended legal liability;
  3. Documentation of all external communication with owners, contractors, and subcontractors;
  4. Implement limitation of liability language for all external communications;
  5. Require written supervisor’s approval prior to any design professional offering any advice or consultation outside scope of a written contract;
  6. Develop documentation retention policy;
  7. Designated internal litigation response team of senior design professionals and project leaders;
  8. Establish a pre-existing relationship with qualified legal counsel.

 

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For a quick-tip video on this topic and other issues effecting design professionals, architects and engineers, visit http://admiral-design.omnisure.com/quick-tip-videos/

Tim Soefje Headshot 01Timothy B. Soefje is Managing Member and head of the professional liability section at the boutique firm of Seltzer │Chadwick │Soefje, PLLC. in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter at @TimSoefje. For more information, visit at www.realclearcounsel.com or contact Mr. Soefje at tsoefje@realclearcounsel.com