Legal ethics news this year ran the gamut from high-tech – can I friend the employee of an opposing party? – to more traditional challenges, such as attorney advertising and judicial recusal.
Here is a look at some of the top legal ethics-related news of the year that’s coming to a close:
• Technology in practice
The rise of technology has created a similar increase in ethical issues for lawyers. Over the past year, ethics opinions covered topics ranging from cloud computing to metadata to the need to inform clients about potential risks in using e-mail for communication.
A North Carolina ethics committee also considered the use of pop-ups, Google and Groupon by lawyers, while the San Diego County Bar Legal Ethics Committee determined that “friending” the employee of an opposing party on Facebook violates ethics rules.
However, despite the increasingly technological nature of law practice, the D.C. Bar reminded attorneys in an ethics opinion that lawyers who run paperless offices may still be required to deliver a former client’s records in paper form.
• Beware the dangers of blogging, referral sites
Lawyers USA highlighted two important ethical areas this year, informing lawyers about the ethical implications of blogging about their cases and the use of attorney referral sites.
Reviewing the Total Attorneys sites in response to a grievance similar to those filed in 46 other states, a New Jersey ethics committee concluded the pay-per-lead website did not violate ethical rules but should provide more information in order to avoid misleading consumers.
And when blogging or Tweeting, lawyers should avoid running afoul of ethics rules by declining to reveal client confidences or create attorney-client relationships.
• Changes to the legal practice
A recent opinion from the 2nd Circuit said that lawyers could engage in “ghostwriting” for clients – drafting pleadings and motions for pro se clients without disclosing their involvement – and furthered the trend of acceptance of the practice, which has traditionally been frowned upon.
The American Bar Association also indicated the possibility for an expansion of practice when it proposed rule changes that would make it easier for lawyers to engage in cross-border practice, although it cautioned that a virtual presence in another jurisdiction might trigger a rule violation.
• Attorney advertising
The age-old problem of attorney advertising appeared this year before the 5th Circuit, which struck down the majority of Louisiana’s regulations as overly restrictive of lawyers’ First Amendment rights.
The court overturned rules prohibiting lawyers from advertising their past litigation successes, requiring lengthy disclaimers in ads and banning advertising that portrays a judge or jury.
The state of Michigan also addressed attorney advertising, requiring its lawyers to mark any letter sent to solicit representation of a prospective client as “advertising material” under a new rule passed by the state’s highest court.
• U.S. Supreme Court
Even our nation’s highest court faced ethical conundrums in 2011, with a new bill proposed that set recusal rules for the justices after reports of dealings with political donors. The legislation directed the Judicial Conference to establish enforcement mechanisms of the Code of Conduct for the Supreme Court justices.
Later in the year, critics specifically targeted Justice Clarence Thomas, urging the Conference to investigate whether he violated federal ethics law by omitting information from his annual financial disclosure forms.