Tuesday, May 28, 2013

99th Installment. Defend law blogging: The Horace Hunter Matter in Virginia

Legal and factual background
In the 92nd Installment, “The Ethics of Ghost Blogging,” kanBARoo court predicted that law bloggers would be vulnerable to repression by the state bars: “Until the legitimacy of blogs is officially recognized, the law menaces blogging attorneys.” The prediction was confirmed when the bar and courts of the Commonwealth of Virginia demanded that criminal-defense attorney Horace Hunter label his postings "Advertisement."

Hunter took an almost unprecedented approach to blogging. His postings were often about his own successful cases, and when the bar tried to discipline him for declining to label his blog “advertising,” he blogged his own discipline case, a strategy pioneered by kanBARoo court in 2007. Like me, Hunter combined political and commercial motives. I blogged about the incompetence of the California State Bar and presented my views on legal ethics, with the purpose of both exposing the state-bar establishment and promoting myself as a ghostwriter for attorney respondents. Hunter presents a political critique of popular attitudes toward criminal defendants and rebuts the “guilty until proven innocent” mentality through examples drawn from his practice, showing how his experiences support his positions and how his attitudes and legal prowess make him an effective instrument for achieving those goals.

U.S. Constitutional issues
Horace Hunter’s case is on writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States, which has never ruled on the protections owed hybrid commercial and political speech, but integration between the political and commercial should require extending full protection to hybrids. The Virginia courts ignored the integration between the commercial and political in Hunter’s blog, instead weighing the political and commercial as separate, unrelated features. An example is the weight the court accorded the absence of the opportunity for readers to comment on Hunter’s blog and the blog's access through a link at a commercial web page, incidental features unrelated to the degree of integration of commercial and political content.

Hunter’s blog deserves the full protection of political speech because he integrated the commercial and political. Because his blog has been deemed essentially commercial, the bar claims the right to impose limited restraints if without them the blog is potentially deceptive. But the risk of deception is speculative. The Virginia bar hasn’t demonstrated the risk: it has produced no instances where anyone has been deceived, and it hasn’t been shown generally that contemporary U.S. citizens confuse honest accounts of attorney success with a guarantee. Labeling such postings as advertisements, as Virginia requires, or disclaiming warranty of results, as California might require, is probably unnecessary even in truly commercial messages, and the bars should bear the burden of performing the studies proving the necessity.

Consumer interests
Substantive law blogs could become a boon to consumers. The regulatory agency should encourage them even when they’re purely commercial because consumers have a dearth of good means to evaluate lawyers; blogs can highlight skills in analysis and communication. Who benefits from curtailing legal blogs? Only big law and other established attorneys, whose interests the state bars cater to. But when the political and commercial are integrated, as with Hunter’s blog, The week in Richmond criminal defense, and as with kanBARoo court, treating the blogs as commercial denies ordinary lawyers and other ordinary citizens—who must also make a living—the realistic opportunity to pursue their political ends.

The bar-establishment’s reply is that disclaimers don’t interfere with the message, but lawyers should know enough about writing to realize that surplusage misleads, by miscuing the reader. When a posting is labeled “advertisement,” readers will assume that the usual standards governing commercial advertising—such as permitting puffery—govern. When a posting is accompanied by a disclaimer of guarantee of results, readers will assume that claims regarding successful outcomes are the gist of the message and disregard the rest. (Even the common disclaimer, “This is not legal advice,” too often invoked defensively, will lead readers to think the content is unreliable when, as is often the case, the disclaimer is applied needlessly to matter obviously not legal advice.)

Caveat on client confidentiality
Since Hunter demonstrated substantial courage beyond the lawyerly norm by defying the bar, I criticize him reluctantly, but one aspect of the case gives cause for unease. Hunter didn’t request approval from clients for posting documents containing their names, breaching the ethical principle that attorneys must protect information obtained in the course of representation, even if it could be obtained by other means. The bar charged him with violating the client-confidentiality rule, but the Virginia Supreme Court held in Hunter’s favor, ruling that the First Amendment prohibits restrictions on disseminating judicial documents. The issue is important because it potentially strikes at the heart of attorney ethics: loyalty to clients; one former client complained.

The courts’ refusal to discipline Hunter for breach of confidentiality was correct on existing law, but were the state-bar establishment more sagacious, it could protect the loyalty-based core of the attorney-client relationship without breaching attorneys' First Amendment rights. Free flow of information is often restricted by contract without offending the First Amendment when parties agree to nondisclosure. Use of identifying client information without consent should be prohibited by a clause implied into every retainer agreement as the default. Then attorneys’ First Amendment rights are uncompromised because lawyer and client remain free to contract to allow disclosure.

Horace Hunter v. Virginia State Bar
The week in Richmond criminal defense by Horace Hunter
Viewpoint: Court Struggles to Regulate Attorney Blogging by Richard Zitrin

No comments: