by David A. Barry and William L. Boesch
In the midst of a law firm’s handling of a case, a client announces that he believes the firm may have mishandled the matter and that he has retained separate counsel to evaluate the firm’s work. The client insists that the firm continue to handle the matter because withdrawing now would be prejudicial. He says that if the case turns out badly, he will seek indemnity from the firm for his losses.
The lawyers involved in the case turn to their colleagues for advice. They talk and exchange e-mails with the firm’s managing partner, and with others in the firm who have experience in the subject-matter of the case and in professional-liability matters. The managing partner requests a detailed memorandum explaining how the case was handled and why the now-disputed decisions were made.
If a malpractice lawsuit follows, are these in-firm communications privileged against discovery? The ongoing fiduciary obligation of a firm to a current client, and the potential for conflict between the firm’s own interests and those of a client who threatens a malpractice claim, have prompted judges in a series of cases to hold that in-firm communications such as those described in the example above are not privileged, even if conducted with the express purpose of seeking and obtaining legal advice about the client’s threatened claim. E.g., In re Sunrise Securities Litigation, 130 F.R.D. 560 (E.D. Pa. 1989); Bank Brussels Lambert v. Credit Lyonnais (Suisse), S.A., 220 F.Supp.2d 283 (S.D.N.Y. 2002); Koen Book Distributors, Inc. v. Powell, Trachtman, Logan, Carrle, Bowman & Lombardo, P.C., 212 F.R.D. 283 (E.D. Pa. 2002).
This view, sometimes referred to as the “fiduciary exception” to the attorney-client privilege, was adopted by Judge Gorton of the District of Massachusetts in a 2007 ruling in Burns v. Hale & Dorr LLP, 242 F.R.D. 170, and by Judge Stearns in a brief 2011 decision in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory v. Ropes & Gray LLP, 2011 WL 2884893.
The RFF Family Partnership Case
In a November 2012 decision, however, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Thomas Billings joined what may now be a counter-trend in favor of recognizing a privilege for in-firm communications on current-client matters, at least under certain conditions. RFF Family Partnership, LP v. Burns & Levinson, LLP, 30 Mass. L. Rptr. 502 (Mass. Super. Ct. Nov. 20, 2012). See also, e.g., TattleTale Alarm Systems, Inc. v. Calfee, Halter & Griswold, LLP, 2011 WL 382627 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 3, 2011); Hunter, MacLean, Exley & Dunn, P.C. v. St. Simons Waterfront, LLC, 730 S.E.2d 608 (Ga. App. 2012).
Judge Billings’s decision produced an interlocutory appeal which the Supreme Judicial Court has taken for itself to decide (the case is SJC-11371) which as of this writing has been briefed and argued, and is under advisement. As we discuss below, Massachusetts lawyers will watch with interest to see whether the SJC uses this occasion to announce general rules on the subject of in-firm communications. Whether or not the Court does so, lawyers and firms may want to examine their procedures for responding to client disputes.
In RFF Family Partnership, the law firm handled a real estate loan foreclosure that produced a dispute over lienholder priority. The client retained a second lawyer, who sent a malpractice claim letter and draft complaint to the law firm, and demanded indemnification from any loss the client might suffer due to the firm’s alleged failure to detect, report and address the competing liens. The letter prompted an internal meeting at the firm between the lawyers involved in the matter and the firm’s managing partner.
When a malpractice suit was filed more than a year later, the firm took the position in discovery that the in-firm meeting was for the purpose of seeking the managing partner’s legal advice on how to respond to the potential malpractice claim. The plaintiff-client argued that even if this was so, the meeting occurred at a time when the law firm owed the client a fiduciary duty of disclosure as to facts material to the client’s interests, and that this fiduciary duty precluded the firm’s invocation of the attorney-client privilege.
Judge Billings’s Decision
In his November decision, however, Judge Billings observed that the fiduciary exception was originally developed to address situations in which a trustee sought legal advice, at the expense of trust beneficiaries, to guide the administration of a trust. Here, by contrast, the lawyers obtained legal advice at the firm’s own expense and solely for the firm’s protection.
Further, Judge Billings did not see any inherent inconsistency between a lawyer’s ongoing duty to disclose facts affecting the client’s interests—a duty that exists regardless of the lawyer’s decision as to whom, if anyone, to consult—and the reasons for encouraging a lawyer faced with a malpractice claim to seek the advice of another lawyer about how to evaluate and respond to the claim. Judge Billings reasoned that unless facilitating such advice-seeking is somehow perceived as likely to result in the involved lawyer’s deciding to conceal something from the client that he has a duty to disclose, there is no good reason to deny protection to the advice-seeking communications. Indeed, he suggested, it may be in the interests of the client as well as the lawyer that the latter be free to explore issues freely with competent ethics or professional-liability counsel, without the cloud of potential future disclosure.
Thus, the judge upheld in principle the law firm’s invocation of the privilege as to the in-firm communications to the extent they sought or gave legal or ethical advice. However, he found the firm’s discovery responses inadequately detailed and ultimately held that the firm had partially waived the privilege.
The Outside-Counsel Option
If the SJC decides to explore the boundaries of the in-firm privilege in the RFF Family Partnership case, the Court might, of course, adopt the absolutist view exemplified by the two federal decisions cited above, and hold that a firm’s obligations to its client simply bar any potential in-firm privilege. In that event, it will become critical for a firm faced with a potential malpractice lawsuit by a current client to consult with a specialist lawyer outside the firm, and to ensure that the firm’s lawyers understand when such consultation should supplant internal communications among colleagues. Engaging an outside lawyer provides a basis for clearly distinguishing between actually seeking legal advice about the threatened claim and merely discussing the matter as part of the business of running the firm. And since the outside specialist clearly owes no direct or imputed duty to the client, a claim of privilege will not be in tension with such competing obligations.
Establishing an In-House Counsel Role
If the SJC were to uphold Judge Billings’s decision, there may still be many situations in which, for the reasons given above, consultation with outside counsel is the more sensible response to a malpractice threat from a client. But assuming this is not an option for a firm, either in general or in a particular matter, then it will be critically important (under a regime in which in-firm communications may be protected) that the role of the in-house advisor or advisors be clearly pre-established and defined. The firm’s goal should be to give itself a solid basis for arguing that any potential conflict of interests for the lawyers involved in representing the client alleging malpractice should not automatically be imputed to the in-house lawyer or lawyers from whom the involved lawyers seek advice. Rather, the in-house lawyer should be treated as the functional equivalent of an outside attorney for the firm, with whom confidential communications would undoubtedly be privileged.
Large firms may have the ability to create a full-time in-house counsel position and to appoint in that role a lawyer who has no involvement whatsoever in representing the firm’s clients. Smaller firms may be able to establish the role only on a part-time basis, but should do so with similar formality, so that when the in-house lawyer is consulted about the threat of a malpractice claim, it is clear in what capacity her advice is being sought. Choosing a lawyer with particular experience and expertise in professional-liability or ethics matters, and/or providing opportunities for the lawyer to seek special training on such issues, may help to distinguish the role. Referring to the position on the firm’s website will also help to establish it as a matter of record.
Further Issues and Options
It may be useful, if it can be done gracefully, to refer to the in-house counsel role in a firm’s standard engagement letter, and to explain that lawyers in the firm may from time to time seek internal legal or ethical advice on a confidential basis. The in-house lawyer should have a designated matter number for recording her time spent on consultations and investigations, and no such activity should be recorded or billed by anyone to the client’s matter. Likewise, e-mail and other documents should, when created, clearly signal that they relate to the internal consultation or investigation rather than to the client’s matter itself, and strict segregation between the files should be maintained.
Mere creation of an in-house counsel position will not prevent practical difficulties; they are inevitable. For example, in the part-time arrangement likely to be suitable to smaller firms, since the in-house lawyer cannot be consulted as such where she herself is involved in representing the client alleging malpractice, one or more backup lawyers may need to be designated for such contingencies. And judgments will still have to be made as to when a particular issue leaves the realm of everyday conversation between colleagues, and graduates to the actual seeking of legal advice from in-house counsel.
Finally, whether consultation about a potential malpractice claim occurs within a firm or with outside counsel, the lawyer or lawyers involved in the ongoing representation of the client have an ongoing duty—one not altered by the fact of the consultation, or by whether or not it may ultimately be deemed privileged—to provide the client with information known by the involved lawyers that affects the client’s interests. The involved lawyers must also fairly assess and communicate with the client about whether and how they can continue with the representation given the threatened malpractice claim. Here again, this obligation is unaffected by whether or with whom the involved lawyers have consulted about the potential claim.
Yet despite these complications, and while Massachusetts lawyers will watch with interest to see whether the SJC uses the RFF Family Partnership case to provide guidance on this topic, it seems likely that attention to the concepts and formalities described in this article will continue to be important in ensuring that a lawyer threatened with a malpractice claim has an opportunity to seek advice about the threat, and to do so on a confidential and protected basis.
David A. Barry is a partner at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, P.C., where he focuses his practice on complex litigation, including the defense of professional and products-liability cases. William L. Boesch is also a partner at Sugarman, Rogers. He represents lawyers and other professionals in malpractice cases and other matters, and litigates insurance and intellectual-property disputes.