South Carolina lawyers: “Reply All” is not always your friend!

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Don’t communicate with represented parties accidentally!

business woman shocked computer

“Ruh-roh”

There are numerous ways a lawyer can get into trouble with the Supreme Court, but inadvertently communicating with another lawyer’s client can be avoided simply by thinking before hitting “Reply All” in your email system.

Ethics Advisory Opinion 18-04 addressed this concern. The situation posed to the Ethics Advisory Committee was:

Factual Background: Lawyer A sends an email to Lawyer B and copies several people, including Lawyer A’s client. Lawyer A has not previously consented to Lawyer B contacting Lawyer A’s client and does not expressly do so in the email.

Question:  If Lawyer B receives an email from Lawyer A on which Lawyer A’s client is copied, may the lawyer “reply to all” – copying Lawyer A’s client with the response – without the express consent of Lawyer A?”

The Committee discussed Rule 4.2, SCRPC, which provides that in representing a client, a lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a person the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter unless the lawyer has consent of the other lawyer or is authorized to do so by law or a court order.

The purpose of the rule is to ensure proper functioning of the legal system by protecting a party who is represented by counsel from overreaching by other lawyers. The rule is also aimed at preventing interference in the lawyer-client relationship.

Two previous opinions discussed whether letters can be ethically mailed to opposing parties represented by counsel. Ethics Advisory Opinion 91-02 advised prosecutors to avoid copying criminal defendants on court appearance notifications without the consent of the defense attorney. Similarly, Ethics Advisory Opinion 93-16 advised plaintiffs’ lawyers to avoid copying defendants on settlement offers to defense counsel without the consent of defense counsel.

The Committee opined that copying an opposing party on email is prohibited in the same way sending a letter is prohibited, absent consent of opposing counsel. The question then became whether consent must be express or may be implied. The Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers indicates the consent may be implied: “An opposing lawyer may acquiesce, for example, by being present at a meeting and observing the communication. Similarly, consent may be implied rather than express, such as where such direct contact occurs routinely as a matter of custom, unless the opposing lawyer affirmatively protests.”

The North Carolina, Alaska and New York City Bar Committees had previously opined that, while this consent may be implied, the mere fact that an attorney copies a client on an email sent to opposing counsel does not, by itself, constitute implied consent to a response sent to both opposing lawyer and the opposing client. South Carolina’s Committee agreed.

The Committee stated, however, that consent to a “reply all” may sometimes be implied. The Committee indicated that whether the matter is adversarial is an important factor. Additionally consent may be implied if the email is about scheduling under circumstances whether the client’s availability is at issue along with counsels, if email conversations among counsel and sophisticated clients together are the normal course of dealing, or if the lawyer initially cc’d the client expressly invites a “reply all” response.

The Committee cautioned that the practice of copying a client by either “cc” or “bcc” when emailing opposing counsel poses the risk of revealing confidential information. The Committee said that the recipient of an email might not recognize all the names in a group email and might communicate with opposing client’s client inadvertently by using “reply all”.  For these reasons, the Committee said that it is generally unwise to “cc” a client on an email communication to opposing counsel.

The Committee summarized its opinion: “Absent consent of Lawyer A, Lawyer B may not communicate with Lawyer A’s client about the subject of the representation either directly or by copying Lawyer A’s client in an emails sent in response to Lawyer A’s email on which the client was copied. The mere fact that a lawyer copies his own client on an email does not, without more, constitute implied consent to a “reply to all” responsive email.

My advice? Use caution when hitting “reply all” in all circumstances! “Less is more” is a generally good rule to follow in email communications. I have actually heard that one lawyer may set up another lawyer by coping a client in email communications. Don’t be a victim!

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Dirt lawyers: guard your clients and your offices against sloppy title search practices

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Our Supreme Court has made it crystal clear that searching titles is the practice of law. For every real estate closing, the closing attorney should perform or supervise the title examination. Theoretically, all title insurance and malpractice claims caused by title search errors can be prevented. Having safe title examination practices in real estate closing offices would go a long way toward minimizing claims and protecting clients and their properties!

The following are some dangerous practices that lead to claims:

  • Hiring title examiners who are inexperienced, who cut corners and who are not covered by errors and omissions insurance coverage.
  • Failing to properly instruct title examiners as to how titles should be searched. Whether law firm employees or outside abstractors are used, the closing attorney should develop and use his or her own set of title examining procedures.
  • Failing to require title examiners to pull documents. It is not sufficient to search titles using indexes. Doing so puts the lawyer and client at the mercy of the county employee who typed the index.
  • Failing to review chain documents. The attorney should review chain documents. Attorneys spot issues that are missed by abstractors. If a link in the chain of title is a foreclosure or an estate, the foreclosure file or the estate file should be reviewed.
  • Failing to use proper search periods. The long-standing search period standard in South Carolina is sixty years. Title insurance companies have shortened this standard to forty years, particularly for residential transactions. But some title insurance companies and sloppy practitioners are allowing for much shorter periods of time, like ten years, or “up from the developer” or “up from the deed into the borrower” without informing the client that the title has not been examined. Title examinations are the practice of law in South Carolina, and  title companies do not have the power to permit a lawyer to shorten search periods without the informed consent of the attorney’s client.
  • Relying on prior title insurance policies that are not worthy of reliance. In “tacking on” to prior policies, closing attorneys should use common sense and good judgment. Determine who issued the prior policy and decide whether that person’s work should be substituted for your own. Review the prior policy to determine whether it looks normal on its face. Some title insurance companies are issuing products that are not backed by title examinations or are backed by very short title examinations. Those policies are not worthy of reliance in an atmosphere where title examinations are the practice of law. As in the case of other short searches, informed consent confirmed in writing from clients should be obtained for employing a short search based on a prior policy.
  • Failing to pull back title notes where a short search is used. It does not help that the attorney’s office has closed properties in the same chain of title if that prior title work is not used. Exceptions and requirements from the prior title work should be used in the current title insurance commitment and policy.
  • Failing to search for a longer period of time where the shorter search does not reveal normal easements and restrictions for the type of property being searched. A search involving a residential subdivision created in the 1950’s should not stop in the 1960’s.

At least two sets of eyes should review every title examination. And one of those sets of eyes should belong to an attorney who was taught in law school to spot issues!