Faced with an ever-burgeoning volume of inquiries, the MSBA Ethics Hotline has added another volunteer to its roster beginning this month, bringing the total number of MSBA Standing Committee on Ethics members on hand to field practice-related questions from attorneys statewide each month to four.
Administered by the 24-member Ethics Committee, the Hotline – comprised of practicing attorneys and/or judges, all Committee members – offers professional guidance in response to ethical inquiries from attorneys pertaining to their law practices, particularly within the context and application of the Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct. Traditionally, three Committee members have volunteered to receive and return such calls for any given month, with their contact information published in both the Bar Bulletin and online at www.msba.org.
But in recent years, says Ethics Committee Chair Christine Pham, “the volume of inquiries has increased substantially.”
“Seven or eight years ago, a [Committee] member would receive three or four calls a day,” says Pham. During that time, she explains, the number has grown to as many as between six and nine calls each day.
Handling such a volume of work on top of a busy law practice requires no small amount of dedication. A 22-year veteran of the Committee and Hotline, the Honorable Joan Bossman Gordon, District Court for Baltimore City, credits “the lively discussions at our meetings about best practices” for her ongoing tenure, as well as a sense of “obligation to help lawyers be the best professionals they can be.”
For Glenn D. Klakring, the desire to “maintain the standards of my profession” has inspired his two decades of Committee service. “I get a great deal of personal satisfaction if I am able to assist a colleague in resolving an issue in an ethical manner,” he says.
Former longtime Ethics Committee member Gayle Driver says that her “passion” for “maintaining professionalism” drove her more than 10 years of service.
Despite accelerated changes to the practice of law, particularly with regards to technology, many of the inquiries focus on perennial issues, such as conflicts with opposing counsel, the retention of records, and lawyer advertising. Indeed, during her decade of service, Driver says she witnessed “no real change in the nature of the inquiries,” save for her observation that “fewer and fewer attorneys actually read the Rules before making calls to the Hotline.” But for Klakring, it is par for the course.
“I find that simply articulating the issues to an uninvolved lawyer who can refer them to the appropriate Rules helps most of the Hotline inquirers with these immediate problems,” he says.
Still, Gordon says that today there “seem to be more questions about multi-disciplinary and multi-jurisdictional practice, as well as inquiries about discovery disputes in our age of metadata and cloud storage.” To be sure, in its 2012-2013 Annual Report, the Committee noted “a marked increase in the number of hotline inquiries, particularly related to multi-jurisdictional practice, online advertising, cloud computing, and outsourcing services.”
Moreover, Klakring notes that “the growth of the Internet and other means of information transfer have created practice problems especially with respect to client communication and confidentiality.”
“The Rules are intended to be brightline, but are frequently anything but,” Pham muses, adding that emerging areas germane to the practice of law, such as social media, present the Committee with an ever-changing dynamic.
While responses to many questions may be handled over the telephone, more complicated inquiries sometimes require greater scrutiny. In these instances, the inquiring attorney is sometimes asked to submit his or her question in writing, for review by the full Committee, which in particularly complex cases may subsequently issue a formal written Ethics Opinion.
A popular member service, all MSBA Ethics Opinions dating back to 1976 are indexed online and may be accessed at www.msba.org. Some Ethics Opinions are also published in MSBA’s bimonthly magazine, the Maryland Bar Journal. For Klakring, “having our former Opinions readily searchable online is particularly helpful” when addressing matters previously taken up by the Committee.
The Committee also noted in its 2012-2013 Annual Report that, while Hotline traffic has increased, the number of requests for written Opinions has dropped considerably. In 2000, the Committee averaged 30 written Opinions annually. However, in 2012, the number of written Opinions issued had dropped to 14.
Pham attributes this preference to many of the “more basic questions” that the Hotline now receives from “new attorneys, just getting out of law school” or “attorneys going out on their own for the first time” with greater frequency. For many of these callers, she says, the Committee’s guidance is often as much practical in nature as it is ethical.
“The Committee members take pride in being lawyers,” says Klakring, “and we want to help our fellow lawyers avoid the occasional ethical issue that we all face at one time or another.”