Archive for the ‘Attorney Ethics’ Category

Chasing the Amtrak Crash

MyPhillyLawyer

Dean Weitzman from “My Philly Lawyer”

You have seen this act before, dear reader, but perhaps never so blatantly. It’s the lawyer who chases the mass disaster crash, a/k/a the ambulance chaser. It’s the lawyer that, by doing so, smears the names of all others in the lawyering profession.

Today’s story comes up because Dean Weitzman, managing partner of the Philadelphia firm Silvers, Langsam & Weitzman, decided it would be a swell idea to send out a press release to the local press letting everyone know that they would be accepting cases from the Amtrak crash. (Which is not an “accident” by the way).

He wrote, among much personal agrandizement, that is firm would be:

available to provide representation for victims and injured persons in last night’s Amtrak derailment in North Philadelphia.

Gee. Ya’ think?

And he also wrote that:

Dean Weitzman is also available to media outlets to give analysis and discuss what happens next.

The firm is, as I understand it, (in)famous for slathering Philly with its ads, using the moniker My Philly Lawyer.

It was exactly this type of grotesque chasing after cases that led New York to create its 30-day anti-solicitation rule (and I presume to a similar federal 45-day rule for airline disasters). In the immediate wake of the 2003 Staten Island Ferry disaster that killed 11, some lawyers ran to the Staten Island Advance to place ads for the next day.

But there were still bodies on the boat when many of them did that.

This type of wretched behavior has repercussions.  I see it when I step into the jury room to select, as do others in the profession.  Calling the jury pool cynicism deep would be an understatement.

If the cynicism came solely from insurance company propaganda, it would be one thing. But when the smear comes from your own ranks, then what? Then it becomes the obligation of others in the profession to express their contempt for the practice and issue a complete disavowal of the conduct.

Let there be no mistake about my position here: Dean Weitzman and the firm of Silvers, Langsam & Weitzman do a grave disservice to the cause of justice and to those who have been injured. By chasing ambulances in this fashion they perpetuate an ugly stereotype, whose ramifications are felt not only by members of the bar but more importantly by those we represent.

As I noted back in 2009 in a short analysis of anti-solicitation rules, they do work. In honor of the chasing that Weitzman is doing, it looks like time for Pennsylvania to follow suit with an amendment to its rules.

Since Dean Weitzman said he was “available to media outlets to give analysis and discuss what happens next,” I’ve sent him an email seeking comment about the appropriateness of sending out such an email within 24 hours of the crash, when all of the passengers aren’t even accounted for. If he elects to respond I may amend this post.

(Hat tip, Max Kennerly)

 

Lawyers and the Press. Again

GellerLawGroupI hate to pull the stuffings out of this article from the New York Times about women lawyers trying to manage both family life and a solid law practice. It was a lovely, fluffy piece of lifestyle journalism.

The women at the Geller Law Firm, it seems, have based their practice around making sure that they don’t lose sight of the other important things in their life, also known as children.

To do this, they cut back on hours, or make them really flexible, work from home or temporary offices, and focus most of the practice on non-litigation matters such as trusts and wills and small business incorporations. And “[T]he partners limit their litigation business because court appearances and filing deadlines mean less control over their schedules.”

According to the piece:

the founding credo of which is family-friendliness and whose stance on office face time is best described as “militantly against.”

You know what? If they can figure out a way to make the model work, then more power to them. If a group of people, for example, only want to work 30 hours a week, and take home less pay and have fewer clients, no problem.

So long as the clients aren’t affected.

But the article needed a little color. Someone decided it would be nice to have an actual client involved in the cuddly, little piece.

The problem with including a client, of course, is the risk that something will be said about an actual piece of litigation, so you would expect something very benign, such as “I think they are awesome and have no problem with the limited hours and they always get back to me when I call and they are awesome, and I said awesome twice because I really, really think so.” You know, like that.

But that is not what happened, so this is where the stuffings get pulled from the sweet teddy bear of a feature piece.

This part just leaped off the page at me, as confidential communications were exposed in front of the Times reporter:

By 10 a.m. on that Wednesday in March, Ms. [Maria] Simon was seated in front of a client, formerly the president of a condominium association that was now suing him. (The client gave me permission to sit in on the meeting.)

Ms. Simon began to review each count of the civil complaint against him, MacBook open and legal pad at the ready. She had a litigator’s game face that was only occasionally undone by a wry smile she couldn’t quite suppress.

“I have to ask,” Ms. Simon said at one point. “Did you ever falsely represent yourself as an attorney?” The client explained that he had once told a local agency that he was appearing before it as an attorney but that he had meant it “in the British sense,” in that he had power of attorney. “You know you’re not supposed to say that, right?” Ms. Simon deadpanned.

“Yes, lesson learned,” he said.

For the non-lawyer readers, let me explain. What lawyers and clients say between themselves is privileged. But when a third party, unrelated to the law firm, comes into the room, the privilege evaporates. Gone. Up in smoke. At a deposition opposing counsel can ask about every single thing that was said in front of this other person.

Lawyers see this potential problem with some regularity, though not with reporters as the third wheel. Often a friend will accompany the client to the office. And when that happens, it’s the job of the lawyer to exchange pleasantries with these friends and explain to them what a privilege is, and why they can’t come into the conference room, and offer them coffee and a newspaper as they sit in the waiting room.

Why the lawyers at Geller decided it would be wise to have a confidential meeting in front of a reporter is utterly beyond me. And why the lawyer would ask in front of a reporter, “Did you ever falsely represent yourself as an attorney?” is simply bizarre.

Saying that this was not a well thought out interview from the lawyer’s perspective is, I think, a significant understatement.

This is not the first time I’ve written on this subject, where it seems that the desires of the lawyer for press have superseded the best interests of the client.

We saw this just a couple weeks ago with South Carolina attorney David Aylor, who was representing police officer Michael T. Slager, who happened to fire 8 shots toward the back of Walter Scott, killing him. Aylor didn’t just jump ship after seeing the video, but worse, told the world just hours later that he was jumping ship after seeing the video. Because apparently Aylor comes first, not the client.

And we saw this a few years back with Chicago criminal defense attorney Stuart Goldberg, who interviewed with Lindsay Lohan about representing her, and then opened up to People magazine about her “fragile” state. But confidential means confidential.

What should the Geller client expect? That his admissions in front of his lawyer may now be an issue, that everything said in front of the lawyer is no longer confidential, and that the lawyer might actually now be a witness to the admissions, and be unable to handle the matter due to a conflict.

That is one hell of a mess, if you ask me. And I don’t know how anyone can say it benefits the client.

This isn’t to say that all client interactions with the press are bad. But going into them, there must be long and thoughtful discussions about exactly what is fair game to speak about, and what isn’t, and how/why it helps the client.

I reached out yesterday by email to the lawyer involved and she did not yet get back to me.

 

Enthralled with the Press

DavidAylorScreenGrabDid someone drop an extra dose of stupid in the drinking water of Charleston, S.C., attorney David Aylor?

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, let me attach it to an incident: On Saturday in North Charleston, police officer Michael T. Slager shot dead a citizen of that city, Walter L. Scott. Slager claimed that he stopped Scott for a broken tail light and then shot and killed Scott when Scott tussled for the officer’s Taser.

Aylor was the criminal defense lawyer for the cop, and said he believed that Slager followed the proper procedure.

But then a video surfaced that showed Slager shooting the unarmed Scott as he was running away. It looks like little more than an execution as he shot eight times at the back of the the fleeing Scott, hitting him five times.

Slager was arrested for murder. And his lawyer — Aylor — dumped him.

But Aylor didn’t just dump him. No, sirree. What he did was dump him publicly, thereby implicitly violating the attorney-client privilege and calling his client a liar. Lawyers don’t do that.

Lawyers don’t get hired for the purpose of violating confidences. If Slager lied to his lawyer in private about the facts, that is between client and lawyer, and nowhere else.

In response to being swamped with press calls after the video came out, Aylor could have said two things. First, he could have said “no comment.” Period. End of story.

Alternatively, if he was sick of being bombarded by press calls, he could conceivably have said that a change in counsel was in progress, and he obviously couldn’t say more. No one would know why. There are plenty of reasons for a change in lawyers, and few would think anything of it.

But instead, Aylor gave an interview to the Daily Beast. And after superficially claiming that he couldn’t discuss the matter, then proceeded to piss on the guy that came to him for legal help:

I can’t specifically state what is the reason why or what isn’t the reason why I’m no longer his lawyer. All I can say is that the same day of the discovery of the video that was disclosed publicly, I withdrew as counsel immediately. Whatever factors people want to take from that and conclusions they want to make, they have the right to do that. But I can’t confirm from an attorney-client standpoint what the reason is.

So there it is, he told the world that

1. He was the one dumping the client; and

2. That he was dumping the client right after seeing the video.

In other words, I think he called his client — to whom he owed a duty as an attorney —  a liar, since the video likely didn’t match the story he was allegedly told. There is no other way I can see this.

And in case anyone might think this was a single, moronic slip of the tongue, he did it again later in the interview:

I think that there’s been a release of information that was not public information at the time, or not discovered at the time at least to any knowledge of mine or anyone else publicly— at least the video. I can’t comment on the specifics of what I think the video says. I’m not going to analyze the video, but again … the video came out and within the hours of the video coming out, I withdrew my representation of the client.

So Aylor intentionally threw his client under the bus.

Now his client may be a murderer, and may be a monster and may be all sorts of mean, nasty things about which you will see protests in the coming days/weeks/months.

But the lawyer’s allegiance is to the client that came to him for help. If clients can’t speak to lawyers about problems then they can’t get the legal assistance they need. We have that lawyer-client confidentiality code for a reason. And it doesn’t get violated just because the lawyer suddenly has a reviled client.

Aylor was completely unprepared for the press. When he should have said nothing, he gave this comically contradictory answer to a simple question:

How did you come across the video?

I can’t say where I saw it first. I first became aware of it via the media. In fact, a reporter sent it to me via e-mail.

Did he think that talking to the press was going to be a neat bit of self-promotion so that the could add another little line to his website about all the press he has been in? Methinks that is going to backfire big time, as I think most lawyers are appalled by what he did, and some of them just must might want to write about this.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about a lawyer disclosing confidentially obtained information in a high profile case. I wrote about this five years ago when one of the lawyers being interviewed by Lindsay Lohan for a criminal defense thought it would be great to get some free press for himself by blabbing to the press about his meeting with her.

Incredibly, there is actually another comic note to all of this. It seems that Aylor put a video on You Tube boasting about being named the top lawyer in Charleston by City Paper (an alternative free weekly).

Don’t ask me how such a stupid survey could be done, but here’s the kicker: Aylor posted that little boast of being best on April Fools Day.

Elsewhere:

The Unwashed Advocate:

..giving an interview to the Daily Beast as an aggravating condition necessitating elevation to Interstellar Capital Dipshittery.

Simple Justice:

What could Aylor possibly have been thinking when the Daily Beast called and said, “talk to us, bro. It’s gonna be sweet!”  The only rational conclusion is that he saw his 15 minutes of fame coming to an end, and wanted to get his brand in there before the name David Aylor disappeared forever.  This was an opportunity to spin his involvement from lawyer for the devil to good guy who wouldn’t be caught dead standing beside the murderous liar.

Noah Feldman @ BloombergView:

[Aylor had] an ethical obligation as a lawyer to defend his client, not to abandon him or harm him by a public act of distancing. Yet in an interview with the Daily Beast, Slager’s lawyer did just that, dropping his client like a hot potato and strongly implying that Slager either had been set on a course of perjury or was simply too repulsive to represent.

It’s hard to avoid the implication that Slager hadn’t told his lawyer what really happened, and that lawyer withdrew at least in part because he thought his client had misled him.

Gamso for the Defense:

OK, yeah he essentially rolled on his client.
Yeah, he violated attorney-client privilege in substance if not in form while denying that he was doing that.
Yeah, he made an ass of himself in public, but that’s what comes from media whoring when there’s nothing to back…

“& Associates” as an Ethical Violation Gets a Courtroom Visit

Ethics-700970-774132Five years ago, when Sonia Sotomayor came before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation, she released a questionnaire that gave her legal history, and she revealed that she once had a firm called “Sotomayor & Associates.” The problem? There were no associates.

Oops. I wrote the piece up within a few hours of the document’s release, describing it as a one of the less serious pieces of misleading advertising that take place, but a violation nonetheless.

And there the post sat for a couple weeks until the Washington Times picked it up in an editorial. And then the New York Times did a big story on it (without attribution to me, thank you very much) a month after I did, complete with White House response.

But the most curious part of the episode was the White House claim that this wasn’t an ethical violation, raising the issue from an “oops” to a full-blown kerfluffle. They actually paraded out a defense of the clearly misleading practice by offering a written analysis by Hal R. Lieberman, a former disciplinary committee chief counsel in New York:

“Neither bar opinions nor cases to date have held that it was misleading for a sole practitioner to use the name ‘and Associates’ in such private communications…In fact, in the early 1980s, no rule prohibited the use of ‘and Associates’ in these circumstances and the only authority regarding the use of ‘and Associates’ in an advertising context was advisory, not mandatory, and thus not readily enforceable.”

Lieberman was dead wrong, in my opinion, and I called this a lousy defense.

Well, the answer is now clear, for any lawyers that thought they could get away with puffing out their firm names to make them look bigger than they actually are. Yesterday the Appellate Division, First Department censured a lawyer over the use of “& Associates” when he had no associates; he was a solo practitioner (Matter of Cardenas).

To be sure, this was the least of the transgressions committed in the censure that took place, with the big issue being the apparent deliberate commingling of funds. For the non-lawyers that may be reading, that means the lawyer borrowed money for his own use from an attorney escrow fund where it was supposed to sit segregated.

But mixed into the panoply of charges was this clear and unmistakable bit, for violating:

Rule 7.5(b) (using business cards and letterhead listing his law firm as “Cardenas & Associates,” when, during the period at issue, he did not employ any associates)

It is highly doubtful a lawyer would be censured for this alone. But the rule is nevertheless clear. It is misleading to call your firm “& Associates” when there are no associates. And if the White House or any other authority tries to tell you otherwise, there is now a decision to point to.

 

You want me to violate what law?

imposter

Who’s hiding behind that Google ad?

It isn’t often that someone emails me out of the blue and asks me to commit a misdemeanor. So I guess this wasn’t just another day.

Welcome to another edition of:   outsource your marketing = outsource your ethics. Today, perhaps, we can add to that equation that you might end out surrendering your money, license and liberty as well.

The email came to me from a Utah digital marketing firm called Lead PPC, from its CEO Grant James. I get pitches from marketeers all the time (“first page of Google!!!”) and generally just delete before reading, but I look sometimes to see if there’s any new scam under the sun.

The pitch was simple: The company would use the names of other personal injury attorneys as keywords for Google and my name would pop up in an ad. In other words, they want me to trade on the names of my “competitors” (a/k/a friends and colleagues).  This was the emailed pitch:

By staying away from the expensive $100+ cost per click keywords, we get right to the good stuff that is cheap, targeted, and needs help now.  Mostly, people are searching for the names of your top competitors who are advertising on radio, tv, and billboards.  We show up above them on Google and Bing, and they call us instead of them.

Whoa.  Now I may not always be the sharpest knife in the block  — just ask my kids —  but I do know that trading on the name of someone else is, what we call in legalese, a big, fat, hairy, ugly no-no. This is New York’s Civil Rights Law §50, also known as the right to privacy (and elsewhere, in various forms, the right to publicity):

A person, firm or corporation that uses for advertising purposes, or for the purposes of trade, the name, portrait or picture of any living person without having first obtained the written consent of such person, or if a minor of his or her parent or guardian, is guilty of a misdemeanor.

And in Civil Rights Law §51, there is a private right of action, and this includes both compensatory and punitive damages. In other words, I could be sued by the people whose names I’ve appropriated. And unlike other suits against me, this one could actually have merit.

In addition to the prospect of criminal and civil problems, there is also the prospect of action against my license under the Code of Professional Responsibility for false and deceptive conduct (Rule 7.1(a)(1)), implying that the better-known lawyer is associated with my firm (Rule 7.1(c)(2)) and using “hidden computer codes that, if displayed, would violate these Rules” (Rule 7.1(g)).

Grant James - LeadPPC

Grant James, CEO of LeadPPC

Figuring  that my understanding of what he suggested might just, perhaps, be the result of a poorly written email, or maybe that I didn’t understand the technology, I replied to Mr. James seeking clarity:

Hi Grant.

I read through your email and didn’t understand something:

Mostly, people are searching for the names of your top competitors who are advertising on radio, tv, and billboards.  We show up above them on Google and Bing, and they call us instead of them. 

What does this mean?

Simple enough, right? But his response was to make clear that I had it right the first time, that this was a dishonest, misbegotten, bastardization of legal marketing. He responded by giving me the names of prominent Texas trial lawyers he had misappropriated:

Hey. Yeah sorry if this was a little vague or confusing.

An example would be like in Dallas and Houston where we spend most of our budget on terms related to Jim Adler, Brian Loncar, ijustgothit.com, radlaw, and other terms for competitors.

What happens is that people hear a radio commercial and they can’t remember the website, so they search for what they can remember about the lawyer.

So if a guy searches for Brian Loncar, we know that they were most likely in an accident. If we rank for #1-2 on PPC, especially mobile, they click on us and call in.

A prospect typing in the name of a competitor term as opposed to “personal injury lawyer” is a much hotter prospect and further down the buying path. Additionally, these terms are much cheaper and less competitive than the broader terms everyone is bidding on and pushing up the prices.

The strategy works best in larger cities where law firms are advertising heavily on radio, tv, etc.

Texas, we have a problem.

Leaving aside the marketeer for a moment, what lawyer would do such a thing to another? I wanted to know, but since I’m in New York the Google ad words didn’t pop up in my market when I searched.

But, funny enough, I happen to know ace Dallas criminal defense lawyer blogger Mark Bennett. And Mark has written his fair share of postings about shady marketing tactics.

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 11.20.02 AM

So he Googalized those more prominent names that Grant James had kindly told me he had misappropriated, and up popped the website (txcarwreck.com) of attorney Ben Abbott in the Google ads.  You can see one of the to the right, where Brian Loncar was Googled. Bennett has screen shots of others.

You will notice that Bennett searched only for the name, and didn’t add lawyer, car accident, or any other popular buzzword.  Just the name. And up pops Ben Abbott’s ad.

As it happens, swiping the name of another person in order to exploit it is also a problem in Texas. It sure looks like Ben Abbott can be sued, and I’m guessing Grant James and his SEO company as well.

Now I’m also going to guess, simply because I fancy myself a kind and beneficent person, that Grant James is utterly ignorant of the law. I think I’m being charitable when I wrote that he probably knows that swiping the names of others to trade on them is a pretty scummy black hat tactic, but that he doesn’t know the legal ramifications. Or he knows but just doesn’t care.

But what would be the excuse of attorney Ben Abbott?

While I know that black hat marketing techniques go on, and have written about them in the past, I never really guessed it would come at me in such a bold and obvious way.

Who, I wanted to know, would he target? So I asked and he responded:

I would need to work together with you to put together a list of 15-20 of the top competitors in NY.  It would be the same guys who advertise on radio, tv, and billboards.

So then I moved the conversation to problems with his scheme, with a nice open-ended query to get his thinking, to see how he could justify this:

I don’t know, Grant, the whole thing about using the names of other lawyers to promote myself doesn’t really sound kosher.

What came back was a very long email about how Google operates and what Google allows and doesn’t allow and Google this and Google that, as if Google was a law of some kind and could be waved in front of judge and jury as a defense.

BenAbbottTexasLawyer-Standing

Ben Abbott, Texas lawyer

To Ben Abbott, who should know better, I asked:

Mr. Abbott:

I’m writing an article about your using the names of other Texas trial lawyers as part of your advertising. This includes Jim Adler and Brian Loncar.

When their names are Googled, your ad pops up. Would you care to comment about why you think this is acceptable marketing?

Thank you.

He hasn’t written back yet. If he does, I may update this.

This is, by the way, part of the Wild West of marketing. A year ago in Wisconsin, under presumably different laws, a court held that stealing someone’s name to use as a hidden advertising keyword might past muster in a civil suit, as in that state (unlike New York) there was apparently no statute. There was no word in Eric Goldman’s Forbes column about the ethical implications. (Update: Under Florida law, this is not an ethics violation. I think is should be.)

But I think the message is pretty clear that, once again my friends, when those marketeers come-a-callin’, you had best remember that they become your agent when you hire them for marketing. Marketing is part of attorney ethics. If you elect to outsource your marketing then you have outsourced your ethics. And reputation. And possibly your bank account and liberty.

It sucks to be a test case.

Ribbeck Law Bench Slapped Over Malaysian Aircraft Disappearance; Threatened with Sanctions

RibbeckLawFirm-714660Chicago based Ribbeck Law was sharply bench slapped yesterday and threatened with sanctions by Cook County Judge Kathy Flanagan over the motion it filed regarding missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The motion had allegedly been made to identify parties to a potential lawsuit that it intends to file in the United States.

Noting that similar Ribbeck motions had been rejected previously regarding air crashes in San Francisco and Laos, Judge Flanagan was not kind to Ribbeck. Via the Chicago Tribune:

“Despite these orders, the same law firm has proceeded, yet again, with the filing of the (Malaysia crash) petition, knowing full well there is no basis to do so,” Flanagan wrote.

The judge said she “will impose sanctions” if Ribbeck Law continues to make such filings.

While the firm claims it “expects” to represent half the victims, this seems (to me) to mere huckstering and puffery to obtain clients. The basis of my opinion? Repeat conduct.

We start with this, from the Tribune, regarding the missing Malaysian plane:

The first petition, filed March 25, named as a plaintiff Januari Siregar, who was described as the father of missing passenger Firman Chandra Siregar, 24.

But the plaintiff has turned out to be an uncle at odds with the rest of the family, and a spokesman for Siregar’s real father told the Tribune in an email Monday that he had not authorized Ribbeck Law to take legal action in Chicago.

From there we turn to the fact that the firm has put out press releases regarding its filing. Why put out press releases? As a way of trying to get a message to other victims that says, “Hey! We’re already handling this case, why not come to us?”

And from there we roll back further to last year when the National Transportation Safety Board reported the Ribbeck firm, in connection with the crash landing of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco, to the agency that regulates attorneys for further investigation of its online communications and in-person meetings with passengers. This was, presumably, referring to its disciplinary commission.

According to this Associated Press articleRibbeck was the only firm that warranted such referral (as of the time it was written). The referral came because because the NTSB “received an unspecified number of complaints about solicitations since the July 6 accident that killed three Chinese teenage girls and injured 180.”

I have also used this blog to present evidence of Ribbeck violating both a federal 45-day anti-solicitation law for aviation crashes as well as New York’s 30-day anti-solicitation rule for personal injury matters. The firm, for example, set up a website  and ran Google ads for the purpose of soliciting victims from the crash of Continental Airlines 3407 in Buffalo in February 2009. The contact person was attorney Monica Kelly. Other firms had also erred by doing this, as I noted in a February 16, 2009, posting.

A week later I followed up, and it wasn’t pretty for the firm. All the other firms had yanked down their ads, having been caught doing what they shouldn’t. Did Ribbeck? See: Ribbeck Firm of Chicago Still Soliciting Buffalo Plane Crash Victims?

And there is much more. From the Chicago Tribune two days ago:

In a recent commission action that is public, however, Kelly was recommended for censure last month for allegedly continuing to try to represent a survivor of a 2009 Turkish Airlines crash in the Netherlands that killed nine passengers and crew. The survivor had sent a letter terminating the relationship, records show. Kelly has appealed the decision.

According to commission records, Kelly also was accused of improperly soliciting that victim, who walked away from the crash but later learned he’d suffered a broken back and other injuries. The man testified that four people came to his home in 2009 as he was recuperating in bed, set up a projector and pitched him on Ribbeck’s prowess as an aviation litigator, according to the records. In its written ruling, the panel said there was not enough evidence to sustain those charges.

In 2008, Kelly’s brother and partner in the firm, Manuel von Ribbeck, was cited while working for another firm he allegedly posed as a Red Cross worker when he approached a man who’d lost his wife and daughter in a plane crash in the Bahamas.

The man alleged von Ribbeck invited him to a nearby hotel, where a projector had been set up and literature about the firm he was working for was passed out. The man told his lawyer, John Ruiz of Miami, who later filed a complaint with the disciplinary commission.

James Healy-Pratt, from London-based StewartsLaw, which is also dealing with these issues, gave me his thoughts on yesterday’s order threatening Ribbeck, given the fact that the airliner is still missing and that such lawsuits are often kicked out of US courts. He said he was:

surprised and confused with the premature legal activity in Chicago State Court. This was especially so, given that the airliner is still missing to this day, and the public fact that some 10 years of US Federal Court decisions have kicked out real lawsuits, on forum non conveniens motions, in foreign air disaster cases just like MH370. What was not surprising was the swift, decisive, and no-nonsense response of the Chicago State Court in dismissing the baseless lawyering, and promising sanctions for any repeat performances. This was an unwelcome and insensitive distraction for many of the families of MH370 at a very difficult time.

Other aviation lawyers are also outraged.  From this Reuters article:

Several U.S. aviation lawyers and experts called the Ribbeck filing premature and a publicity stunt, since the details of the plane’s disappearance were still largely unknown.

Justin Green, a lawyer with competitor aviation law firm Kreindler & Kreindler, said the filing was “nothing short of outrageous.”

“Without plane wreckage, victims’ bodies and any substantial evidence of cause or potential motive, there is simply no way to determine liability at this point in the investigation, and any legal counsel should recognize that,” he said in a statement on Monday.

And Robert Clifford, who also litigates aviation disasters, had last week predicted Ribbeck’s motion in the missing Malaysia case would be tossed out of court. He told Inside Counsel the filing was “grossly premature and without foundation.” He also described it as a “publicity stunt.”

There is a big downside to putting out press releases, filing frivolous motions to garner press attention and using the web to solicit clients in violation of federal and state rules. And that downside is that it may pique the interest of others who have strong opinions on ethics.  It isn’t only victims and their families that are watching.

 

NJ Files Ethics Complaint Against Rakofsky (And Why It’s Important to You)

Internet_dogThe New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics has filed a Complaint for misconduct against Joseph Rakofsky. It’s dated December 16, 2013, but hasn’t been previously reported.

There are two main issues in the Complaint. The first deals with the way he described his prior legal experience in web site advertisements. The second with the way he sought business in states where he isn’t admitted to practice law.

For the reasons below, I think this is a pretty important case to follow that affects all lawyers, regardless of whether we advertise or not.

But first, a very fast primer for those new to the Rakofsky saga: He was a recently admitted New Jersey attorney advertising his services in New York and other states, claiming vast experience. He then went down to Washington D.C. to try his very first case — a murder trial.

He didn’t do well, with the judge declaring a mistrial part way through citing, among other things, his lack of competence.

The Washington Post picked up the story of the trial, and then bloggers picked up the WashPo story and added more, regarding (among other things) the subject of his advertising and its relationship to his actual legal experience. Then he committed career suicide by suing a boatload of bloggers for defamation, including me, in a case quickly dubbed by Scott Greenfield as Rakofsky v. The Internet.

He then amended the suit to add those that skewered him for starting the suit. The case was finally dismissed last year.

Primer over. Read those links if you want more (or some of the 101 links here), as it’s time to turn to the nuts and bolts of the ethics complaint and his response. But I really only want to touch on one issue, and will leave the rest for others, as I am local counsel to many of the people sued. What you get here today, therefore, is mostly just a few facts and only limited opinions.

The first of the two subjects the ethics complaint touches on is the way he advertised himself, among many other claims, as having:

worked on cases involving Murder, Embezzlement, Tax Evasion, Civil RICO, Securities Fraud, Bank Fraud, Insurance Fraud, Wire Fraud, Conspiracy, Money Laundering, Drug Trafficking, Grand Larceny, Identity Theft, Counterfeit Credit Card Enterprise and Aggravated Harassment.

And the problem identified by the Office of Attorney Ethics is that he had barely any experience at all and inflated the importance of brief stints at a few firms, some no more than a few months long. The Complaint maintains that this was misleading advertising. In his answer to the Complaint, Rakofsky states that one of the mitigating circumstances for his conduct was that he was “young and inexperienced.”

The second issue had to do with his advertising his services in Washington D.C. and New York (and Connecticut, though that isn’t cited in the Complaint), even though he’s not admitted in those states. That is a big no-no. His defense, culled from his answer, is that he was a partner of some type with Sherlock Grigsby in Washington D.C., who was local counsel to the murder trial, and with Richard Borzouye in New York, who was local counsel here as Rakofsky sought pro hac vice admissions in several matters.

The exact nature of those relationships is described by Rakofsky’s counsel in the answer as “partners in that they shared expenses and referrals of cases providing access to other jurisdictions.” This, he seems to argue, lets him advertise that he has an office for the practice of law in other states. Rakofsky’s counsel asserts, in fact, that “This was intentionally his business model.”

Now there is a lot of meat and potatoes for others to analyze within those documents — competence, partnerships, advertising, solicitation, unlicensed practice of law and more — but this is the part that I wanted to discuss: When these twin issues of misleading advertising and practicing law outside his own jurisdiction were brought to the attention of the New York judge that heard the motions to dismiss in our defamation case, he rejected it all. He called it, quite charitably, mere “puffery” and moved on. (See Transcript 4.8.13, at page 38-40.)

Other judges might have been livid and lowered the boom on him, not only sanctioning him but referring him to the District Attorney for potential prosecution regarding the practice of law without a license. I think most people believe he got off very easy.

There will be a hearing in New Jersey at some point in the future on the ethics charges, though it’s not yet scheduled. My understanding is that such hearings are open to the public. The Complaint and answer in this matter are likewise public and I’ve provided them at the bottom of this post.

New Jersey is, therefore, very much unlike New York, where most disciplinary matters are kept hush-hush. Attorney Dominic Barbara, for example, infamously racked up nine Letters of Caution, nine Admonitions, and two Advisements without the public knowing, before finally being suspended. But it was only then, at the time of suspension, that all those other sanctions came to light.

New York and New Jersey couldn’t be more different, it appears, in how they handle ethics complaints.

The issue of lawyers exaggerating their experience in a misleading way has percolated among many law bloggers, often summed up by the now-ancient (1993) New Yorker cartoon that I used as art work above, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The instances of ethics committees trying to hold lawyers accountable for internet advertising are few and far between, and it’s clear that the attitudes of ethics panels will differ between states. While I obviously have a personal interest at stake, I can’t help but think that an objective viewer will find some pretty important lessons that emerge when the smoke has cleared, and possibly new case law.

The matter deserves to be watched — not to kick Rakofsky again — but to see how a state ethics committee will handle issues of misleading advertising on the internet. While the standard of what constitutes misleading is no different than a dead-tree Yellow Pages ad, the reality is that vastly more information can be put up on a website. And that means greater opportunity to “massage” a biography, and greater ease for lawyers to advertise their existence in jurisdictions where they aren’t admitted to practice.

The ultimate decision in this ethics case will matter to to us all. Because even if you don’t advertise, our collective reputation as attorneys is affected by those that do.

The Office of Attorney Ethics Complaint is here:ComplaintAndExhibits (December 16, 2013)

Rakofsky’s Answer is here: Answer Rakofsky (January 27, 2014)

Speeding Along to Break Ethics Rules in Gas Explosion (Updated)

Well, that didn’t take long. As I sit here pecking away at the keyboard, firefighters and search teams are swamping the site of a huge gas explosion in Harlem that took down two buildings, killed at least two, and injured many others.

The explosion took place at 9:30. The first attorney ad went up on Twitter within hours. The winner in the race to the bottom? [Updated, name deleted.)  You can see a screen shot of his Twitter feed here to the right [deleted].

And if you can’t read the graphic, here it is in all it’s ugly glory, via his Twitter feed,  @NY_InjuryLawyer:

Were you or someone that you know injured in the #eastharlem explosion? Contact [deleted] at 1-800-[deleted]. #harlem #explosion #nyc

(Update, 3/13/14: The firm has now deleted it from Twitter…see below for explanation.)

As regular readers all know, New York has a 30-day anti-solicitation rule in our Rules of Professional Conduct. It goes like this:

Rule 4.5(a) In the event of a specific incident involving potential claims for personal injury or wrongful death, no unsolicited communication shall be made to an individual injured in the incident or to a family member or legal representative of such an individual, by a lawyer or law firm, or by any associate, agent, employee or other representative of a lawyer or law firm representing actual or potential defendants or entities that may defend and/or indemnify said defendants, before the 30th day after the date of the incident, unless a filing must be made within 30 days of the incident as a legal prerequisite to the particular claim, in which case no unsolicited communication shall be made before the 15th day after the date of the incident.

The last time I wrote about this was December 2, 2013, when Proner and Proner were running ads after a train derailment in the Bronx.

And at the risk of repeating myself, yes, this is a solicitation within the meaning of the Code because it is targeted to a specific group of people:

Rule 7.3(b)  For purposes of this Rule, “solicitation” means any advertisement initiated by or on behalf of a lawyer or law firm that is directed to, or targeted at, a specific recipient or group of recipients, or their family members or legal representatives, the primary purpose of which is the retention of the lawyer or law firm, and a significant motive for which is pecuniary gain. It does not include a proposal or other writing prepared and delivered in response to a specific request of a prospective client.

What I found interesting was that, in the weeks after that accident, I spoke at a seminar on the subject of attorney ethics and solicitation. Incredibly, there was someone there trying to defend the practice of violating an explicit rule on solicitation. His rationale? That there existed some type of generalized duty of lawyers to inform the public of their legal rights.

Let’s be clear on this. Soliciting within 30 days seems to be a pretty clear violation. I can’t foresee anyone being able to lawyer their way around it if called on the carpet by the disciplinary committee.

The only real question is whether the disciplinary committees will turn a blind eye to what is going on.

Update, 3/13/14: I received a call from a very distressed support person for the lawyer — she is in charge of the social media for the firm and is the one that did the tweet. She told me that she posted the tweet without having it reviewed  by her boss, which was her mistake.

I told her that the mistake was not hers, but the lawyer’s, for outsourcing his marketing to a non-lawyer who didn’t know the Code of Professional Conduct, and noted the formula: outsource your marketing = outsource your ethics.

She corrected me, and noted that she was supposed to get approval. Thus, the fault lies with her.

A couple of things worth mentioning. First, I always give brownie points for people that ‘fess up when they’ve made an error. I wish our politicians would do the same.

Second, there were no threats of any kind. It was, in all respects, a very polite request made by phone. She had the voice (and integrity) of the type of person a lawyer would want as a support person.

Finally, I’ve elected to delete the lawyer’s name from the text, and pulled it off the category heading. It is still on the graphic [edit: changed my mind, now that is gone also], but graphics aren’t searchable by Google.

So it now stands as another example of the risks of social media, as well as an excellent example of how to cure a foul up. This morning the firm had lemons. Now it has lemonade.

hat tip: Andy Barovick

Proner Law Firm Violating Ethics Rules Over Train Accident? (Again?)

PronerAndPronerYouTubeAd

Screen Shot of Proner & Proner Ad on YouTube, 9 pm on December 1st, with YouTube noting it had been up for 11 hours.

Well, there they go again. It was just this past May that I took the New York law firm of Proner & Proner to task for stepping all over New York’s attorney ethics code with regard to a local train accident, and they seem to be back at it again. Yesterday’s deadly train derailment in the Bronx occurred about 7:20 am. The Proner law firm ran their first ad on YouTube within hours.

Let’s review, shall we?

In the wake of the 2003 Staten Island Ferry crash that killed 11 — and the race by some law firms to run ads in the Staten Island Advance before all the bodies had even been pulled from the wreckage —  New York updated the Rules of Professional Conduct to stop the unseemly chasing of cases soon after a tragic event. This is our 30-day anti-solicitation rule:

Rule 4.5(a) In the event of a specific incident involving potential claims for personal injury or wrongful death, no unsolicited communication shall be made to an individual injured in the incident or to a family member or legal representative of such an individual, by a lawyer or law firm, or by any associate, agent, employee or other representative of a lawyer or law firm representing actual or potential defendants or entities that may defend and/or indemnify said defendants, before the 30th day after the date of the incident, unless a filing must be made within 30 days of the incident as a legal prerequisite to the particular claim, in which case no unsolicited communication shall be made before the 15th day after the date of the incident.

And just to be clear about what solicitation means, yes, it seems to mean doing something exactly like this — targeting a specific group. Read for yourself:

Rule 7.3(b)  For purposes of this Rule, “solicitation” means any advertisement initiated by or on behalf of a lawyer or law firm that is directed to, or targeted at, a specific recipient or group of recipients, or their family members or legal representatives, the primary purpose of which is the retention of the lawyer or law firm, and a significant motive for which is pecuniary gain. It does not include a proposal or other writing prepared and delivered in response to a specific request of a prospective client.

I’ve written about this 30-day rule often, first after Captain Chesley Sullenberger splash landed a plane in the Hudson, then after a plane crash in Buffalo.

And most recently, I brought it up with this same firm, Proner & Proner, after another Metro-North derailment in Stamford Connecticut, when they apparently did the same thing they do today — use YouTube to solicit cases, despite our anti-solicitation rule. I counted stock videos uploaded in the hours after the accident, all of which have keyword loaded text to accompany it. See the screen grab above.

This makes Proner & Proner the second firm to get dishonorable mention twice on this blog for the same infraction.  (The first went to Ribbeck Law after plane crashes.)  I’m willing to bet, given that Proner has over 1,000 YouTube videos, that this type of conduct is probably standard procedure for them.

Why write about it again? Apparently, because those in charge of doing the disciplining either:

1. Don’t read this blog / didn’t notice; or

2.  They did notice but don’t actually care enough to do anything about it.

I sure hope it is the former and not the latter, because the idea that the courts would institute ethics rules but not follow them isn’t a thought I like to contemplate. Since I happen to think that the 30-day rule works, I likewise think it’s important to enforce it.

It’s also important to note, as I always do when taking a firm to task when my eyes see as ethical issues, that there are very few firms that do this. But those that do serve to influence how the public feels about lawyers. And when I go pick a jury on behalf of my own clients, my clients are the ones that suffer from the deep cynicism that such conduct creates. This is not just my opinion.

Judge Frederick Scullin, Jr. sitting in the Northern District of New York in Alexander v. Cahill, wrote in a footnote about the reason for the rules:

Without question there has been a proliferation of tasteless, and at times obnoxious, methods of attorney advertising in recent years. New technology and an increase in the types of media available for advertising have exacerbated this problem and made it more ubiquitous. As a result, among other things, the public perception of the legal profession has been greatly diminished.

It should be the obligation of attorneys to improve upon the system of justice, not bring it down.

Can You Secretly Record the Medical-Legal Exam?

SecretSurveillanceVideoOver the summer I did a series of pieces on Dr. Michael Katz, who got busted by a judge for lying under oath about the length of the medical-legal exam that he did on the defendant’s behalf. He was claiming it was 10-20 minutes or so, yet a secretly recorded video had him at just one minute and 56 seconds. The judge wasn’t pleased.

A mistrial was declared and the good doctor was referred to the District Attorney for possible perjury prosecution, to the Administrative Judge for possible civil contempt and to the Department of Health – Bureau of Professional Medical Conduct to evaluate his fitness to practice medicine.

I covered a lot of angles in that series, even doing original research on the length of exams by other “frequent flyer” experts that insurance companies rely upon, and finding an average length of under five minutes for those I looked at.

But one piece was missing from my series: Is it permissible for plaintiffs’ representatives that accompany them to these exams to surreptitiously videotape the doctor doing the exam, and if this is done, does that video need to be exchanged? The reason it was missing is that there really isn’t much in the way of law in this area.

To be sure, Justice Duane Hart‘s initial reaction in the Katz case was that this was improper conduct by the plaintiff, and initially sanctioned him. That sanction was withdrawn, but in the process he had also declared a mistrial on a case that had been going for a month. The problem that Justice Hart had to wrestle with is that there is no statute governing this and little case law.

This week on that subject, in the New York Law Journal, comes an article by Ben Rubinowitz and Evan Torgan (Turning the Table: Cross-Examining IME Doctor Using Video of Exam, $ub). They are, by all measures, well respected attorneys here in New York, and these guys frequently lecture on various aspects of personal injury practice.

In the absence of either statute or case law to analyze whether it’s acceptable to video, they turn to ethics opinions. But:

[T] he ethical opinions regarding secret video-recording specifically fail to provide clear guideposts for attorneys. For example, the American Bar Association, in opinion 01-422, found that, in general, undisclosed taping by an attorney or his agent was not in and of itself prohibited. In accordance with that opinion, The New York City Bar modified its previously held position that undisclosed videotaping was unethical, holding that such conduct was permissible, but only where the lawyer “has a reasonable basis for believing that disclosure of the taping would significantly impair pursuit of a generally accepted societal good.”

What constitutes “a reasonable basis for believing that disclosure of the taping would significantly impair pursuit of a generally accepted societal good”? Good question, glad you asked. And no, I don’t have the answer because such answer does not (yet) exist. Do I think it is a generally accepted societal good to catch a doctor doing a 2-minute exam that he claims was a 15-minute exam? Yep, I sure do. The scoundrels should be purged from our midst if we would like our system of justice to have more integrity.

It’s unclear to me why recording such exams should be a problem. Defendants, after all, are free to do secret surveillance of plaintiffs. Why shouldn’t a plaintiff be able to do likewise to the defense medical examiner, especially when we have excellent reasons to believe there is widespread corruption going on? The doctor isn’t even a party to the action.

Back to Rubinowitz and Torgan:

As it relates to personal injury actions, defense attorneys have become well versed in the use of videos to discredit a plaintiff’s claim of injury. While the law regarding the surreptitious taping of a plaintiff in a personal injury action has developed over many decades the issue of the propriety of the taping in the first instance and its disclosure seems to have been answered: There is no prohibition against such taping and there are now definitive time periods in which disclosure of the video must be revealed.

When it comes to the videotaping of the IME, however, the law is not so clear. In New York not only is there no statute directly on point but there is a paucity of case law supporting or prohibiting such conduct. The question that will likely be addressed in the near future is whether the plaintiffs attorney or his agent should be permitted to videotape the independent medical examination, and if so, when disclosure should be made. Many see no difference between the defendant’s right to surreptitiously videotape the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s right to surreptitiously videotape the IME. Both the plaintiff and the defendant are seeking to use the video for a similar purpose: to discredit the credibility of an individual through the use of extrinsic proof.

The sooner this gets resolved by the appellate divisions, the better, perhaps with a bit of help from the various ethics committees. But from were I sit, there is simply no sound reason to object to the practice. Every other formal part of litigation where evidence may be presented to a jury is recorded somehow, without exception. That a doctor would be able to claim something happened at a medical-legal exam — which is very much a formal procedure — when the plaintiff says no such thing happened, is very easily remedied.

Why would anyone be upset about making the process more honest? Why should there even be ambiguity over how long the exam took or whether certain tests were done?  As I noted over the summer when discussing next steps for this problem, technology is now completely unobtrusive. And with Google Glass coming along, the filming couldn’t be easier.

« Older Entries