Hypothetical: Law professor Robert Nirtiz, a scholar and civil-liberties crusader, wins a key First Amendment case in the Supreme Court of the United States. His client prefers a low profile. Should Professor Nirtiz be precluded from discussing this case?
The case is part of our political culture, and prohibiting a civil-liberties’ proponent from discussing a favorable case abridges freedom of political speech, a more fundamental principle than the ethical commandment to keep client secrets. The same principle applies to all cases, including those of Horace Hunter’s clients even if they were offended by Hunter’s blogging. Professor Richard Zitrin disagrees. (Guard your clients’ secrets.) Against the Virginia Supreme Court’s holding in the Horace Hunter Matter that the First Amendment prohibits gag rules on court proceedings, Zitrin writes, “A lawyer remains at all times a lawyer.” The noninsular alternative was outlined by the four-justice dissent in Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada (1991) 501 U.S. 1030, 1054:
At the very least, our cases recognize that disciplinary rules governing the legal profession cannot punish activity protected by the First Amendment, and that First Amendment protection survives even when the attorney violates a disciplinary rule he swore to obey when admitted to the practice of law. [Citations.] We have not in recent years accepted our colleagues' apparent theory that the practice of law brings with it comprehensive restrictions, or that we will defer to professional bodies when those restrictions impinge upon First Amendment freedoms.
Unfortunately, the reach of state-bar ideology extended to the Gentile court’s majority.
Characteristic of the state-bar establishment’s bureaucratic reflex (or insularity, as Zitrin prefers to call it) is its elevation of bar law over constitutional law, as when the Office of the Chief Trial Counsel cites the State Bar Review Department against the California Supreme Court. Although Zitrin has criticized the California State Bar for being insular, his disagreement with the Virginia Supreme Court’s refusal to discipline Horace Hunter for blogging about his clients’ cases indicates that even the most sophisticated official California ethicists are prone to insular perspectives.
Official California ethicists have never understood that legal ethics, like all law, must evolve as decisional law. (Lack of this recognition is also the reason California lawyers accept the inaccessibility of a bar law reported only through the insular-system’s journal.) Law blogging demands that the law develop because until recently lawyers haven’t had the means to publicize their cases.
But before the advent of blogging, situations existed—such as our hypothetical—where the free-speech rights of an attorney are superior to the attorney’s duty of loyalty to client. The situations involve political speech. Whereas the distinction between political and commercial speech is probably unnecessary to support Hunter’s right to blog without encumbering disclaimers, it comes into its own in distinguishing the kinds of client secrets an attorney must keep, and these secrets belong mainly to two categories: secrets useful for the attorney’s commercial advantage and secrets disclosed carelessly in the course of representation. Disciplining either kind of disclosures regulates commercial speech, whether the commercial locus is in different commerce or the same commerce. The advent of blogging forces a clearer recognition that the duty to keep client secrets stops short of limiting a lawyer’s political speech.
kanBARoo court places loyalty to client at the pinnacle of legal ethics, but the marginal breach of loyalty involved in public discussion of a case doesn’t justify transgressing attorney rights to free political speech—although the rules should strive to reconcile the two to the greatest possible extent. The speech in question is indeed a form of political speech particularly salutary for law just because of its partly commercial character: it illustrates through actual cases how the attorney’s political aims and legal skills are aligned to further a client’s interest. This is a form of self-promotion that is likely to be a better indicator of attorney competence, courage, and conscientiousness than the standard credentials attorneys often brag up on their web sites. The damage done to the loyalty ethic (even without rule changes) is minor because this isn’t an area where the client has a strong claim for loyalty. Except by contract, clients have no right to secret cases.