These summaries were prepared by McGuireWoods LLP lawyer Thomas E. Spahn. They are based on the letter opinions issued by the Virginia State Bar. Any editorial comments reflect Mr. Spahn's current personal views, and not the opinions of the Virginia State Bar, McGuireWoods or its clients. 
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21-Reporting Another Lawyer's Unethical Conduct

45-Law Firms - Miscellaneous

49-Lawyers - Miscellaneous

ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) prohibits conduct “that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is” “harassment or discrimination on the basis of” specifically identifiable attributes, “race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status.” The prohibition applies to all “conduct related to the practice of law.” ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) thus applies “in non-litigation matters or at law firm social events or bar association functions” (although “Rule 8.4(g) does not regulate conduct unconnected to the practice of law, as do some other rules of professional conduct”). ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) “prohibits other conduct that is not covered by other law;” and might involve “a single instance of a lawyer” engaging in the prohibited conduct. “[T]he most common violations will likely involve conduct that is intentionally discriminatory or harassing.” “The existence of the requisite harm is assessed using a standard of objective reasonableness.”<br>ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) specifically excludes from its prohibition “[l]egitimate advice or advocacy consistent with [the ABA Model Rules].”<br>The following acts would not violate ABA Model Rule 8.4(g): (1) a First Amendment challenge to “a local ordinance that requires all schools to provide gender-neutral restroom and locker room facilities;” (2) a CLE program speaker “express[ing] the view” criticizing “a race-conscious process in admitting African-American students to highly ranked colleges and universities;” (3) a lawyer’s membership in “a religious organization, which advocates, on religious grounds, for the ability of private employers to terminate or refuse to employ individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.” The CLE speaker scenario does not violate ABA Model Rule 8.4(g), because “even a controversial [point of view] cannot reasonably be understood as harassment or discrimination contemplated by [ABA Model] Rule 8.4(g)” – and “[t]he fact that others may find a lawyer’s expression of social or political views to be inaccurate, offensive, or upsetting is not the type of ‘harm’ required for a violation.”<br>The following acts would violate ABA Model Rule 8.4(g): (4) an adjunct professor/lawyer “supervising a law student in a law school clinic” making “repeated comments about the student’s appearance and also making unwelcome, nonconsensual physical contact of a sexual nature with the student” (which involves “conduct related to the practice of law,” although the “conduct . . . may not necessarily fall directly within the context of the representation of a client”); (5) law firm lawyers stating during a planning session or “an orientation program for newly-hired associates to familiarize them with firm policies and procedures” stating that lawyers should “never trust a Muslim lawyer” or “represent a Muslim client” (“[b]ecause the remarks were made within the law firm setting, they were ‘related to the practice of law”).<br>In sum, ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) “does not prevent a lawyer from freely expressing opinions and ideas on matters of public concern, nor does it limit in any way a lawyer’s speech or conduct in settings unrelated to the practice of law. The fact that others may personally disagree with or be offended by a lawyer’s expression does not establish a violation.” (which “must necessarily be judged, in context, from an objectively reasonable perspective”).7/15/2020

19-Judge Conflicts


After pointing to evidence that some judges have "repeatedly failed to inquire into litigants' ability to pay financial obligations prior to incarceration for nonpayment," characterizing as "a core ethical obligation of the judiciary" judges' duty to inquire into such litigants' ability to pay.3/24/2020

5-Lawyers Changing Jobs

12-Withdrawing Lawyers (Including Non-Compete Issues)

Law firms cannot restrict withdrawing lawyers from unilaterally notifying clients of their withdrawal "once the law firm has been notified or otherwise learns of the lawyer's intended departure." Law firms and withdrawing lawyers "should attempt to agree on a joint communication" to clients with whom the lawyer "has had significant contact" – which "would include a client identifying the departing lawyer, by name, as one of the attorneys representing the client," in contrast to a lawyer who "prepared one research memo on a client matter for another attorney in the firm but never spoke with the client or discussed legal issues with the client." If they cannot "promptly agree on the terms of a joint letter," the law firm "cannot prohibit the departing lawyer from soliciting firm clients." All unilateral or joint communications to clients must give them the choice of "remaining with the firm, going with the departing lawyer, or choosing another attorney." Both law firms and withdrawing lawyers must take reasonable steps to "coordinate to assure that all electronic and paper records for client matters are organized and up to date" – so the client will be protected if it goes with the withdrawing lawyer, stays with the firm or chooses some other law firm. Withdrawing lawyers must "return and/or delete all client confidential information in their possession," unless the client goes with the withdrawing lawyer or the information is necessary for conflicts clearance. Law firms may impose "a reasonable notification period for withdrawing lawyers," but may not impose a notification period that "would affect a client's choice of counsel or serve as a financial disincentive to a competitive departure." For instance, lawyers may not be held to comply with "a pre-established notice period" if all of the clients' files are updated, and the lawyer either "has agreed to cooperate post-departure in final billing" or "does not seek to represent firm clients in the future." Such notification periods are the same as an improper financial disincentive "to a competitive departure," and are "problematic" when imposed only on withdrawing lawyers who plan to compete with the firm while routinely waived otherwise. Lawyers complying with a notification period should not be deprived of "adequate firm resources" needed to serve clients. After lawyers withdraw, law firms "should set automatic email responses and voicemail messages for the departed lawyer's email and telephones, to provide notice of the lawyer's departure, and offer an alternative contact at the firm for inquiries." A "supervising lawyer" should also review incoming emails, voicemails, etc. "in accordance with client direction and promptly forward communications to the departed lawyer for all clients continuing to be represented by that lawyer." Firms and lawyers complying with a notification period should also "discuss and clarify" how to treat new client matters that come in during that period.12/4/2019

26-Fruits and Instrumentalities of Crimes

31-Protecting and Disclosing Confidences and Secrets

46-Confidentiality - Miscellaneous

48-Criminal Defense Lawyers

56-Duty to Advise the Court

Lawyers have a duty under ABA Model Rule 1.1, 1.3, 1.4, 1.13, 8.4 and 1.16 "to inquire further to avoid assisting" clients' wrongful conduct if the lawyer "has knowledge of facts that create a high probability that a client is seeking the lawyer's services in a transaction to further criminal or fraudulent activity." "Failure to make a reasonable inquiry is willful blindness punishable under the actual knowledge standard" of ABA Model Rule 1.2(d). The "Committee rejects the view that the actual knowledge standard of [ABA Model] Rule 1.2(d) relieves the lawyer of a duty to inquire further where the lawyer is aware of facts creating a high probability that the representation would further a crime or fraud." If a client "refuses to provide information or asks the lawyer not to evaluate the legality of a transaction the lawyer should explain to the client that the lawyer cannot undertake the representation unless an appropriate inquiry is made."4/29/2020

79-Communicating with a Governmental Adversary

Lawyers may communicate ex parte with “a narrow subset of government officials” – as long as the communication is made for the purpose of addressing a policy issue, and the government official being addressed has the ability or authority to take or recommend government action, or otherwise effectuate government policy on the issue.” This freedom does not depend on whether the government official is in the “control group” or not (which governs non-governmental contexts), but rather whether the communication is “authorized by law” (such as “a citizen’s right to petition a legislative body). There is no need for the communicating lawyer to alert the government’s lawyer about such ex parte communications with government officials.1/9/2020

22-Interviews with Prospective Clients

31-Protecting and Disclosing Confidences and Secrets

Under ABA Model Rule 1.18, a lawyer who has received "significantly harmful" information from a prospective client may not (absent consent) represent that prospective client's adversary if the lawyer is not hired — although under some circumstances that lawyer's colleagues might be able to screen that lawyer and represent the adversary. The term "significantly harmful" does not include "information that causes embarrassment or inconvenience," but includes "information relating to '[c]ivil or criminal liability.' Examples of "significantly harmful" information include: "views on various settlement issues including price and timing;" "personal accounts of each relevant event [and the and the prospective client's] strategic thinking concerning how to manage the situation;" an outline of "potential claims;" "'specifics as to amount of money needed to settle the case;" "the underlying facts and legal theories about [a] proposed lawsuit," "'sensitive personal information' in a divorce case;" "premature possession of the prospective client's financial information;" "knowledge of `settlement position;' "a 'prospective client's personal thoughts and impressions regarding the facts of the case and possible litigation strategies;'" "'the possible terms and structure of a proposed bid' by one corporation to acquire another."6/9/2020

Copyright 2000, Thomas E. Spahn