As previously reported, following the 2012 and 2013 American Bar Association’s amendments to its Model Rules of Professional Conduct, many jurisdictions began to reexamine their own rules.  Massachusetts followed suit, and on July 1, 2015, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) adopted several revisions to the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct (Mass. R. Prof. C.) recommended by its Standing Advisory Committee.  This blog post is the second in a series designed to inform practitioners of several important changes to the Massachusetts rules.

 

The Duty to Remain Current on Latest Technologies

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Before an attorney can accept a matter, he or she has to comply with the competency standards found in Mass. R. Prof. C. 1.1.  According to said Rule, competent representation requires “the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

 

In response to the rapidly changing technologies impacting the practice of law, the SJC adopted Comment 8 to Rule 1.1, which states:

To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology . . . (emphasis supplied).

With the rise of e-discovery, this Comment is particularly appropriate.  The State Bar of California Standing Ethics Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct in its Formal Opinion No. 2015-193, noted that “[I]n today’s technological world almost every litigation matter potentially involves [e-discovery],” and failing to have a “basic understanding of, and facility with, issues relating to e-discovery” can eliminate an attorney’s competency for a case.

 

We expect Massachusetts to follow the guidance provided by California’s Committee, and interpret the new Comment to allow an attorney who is not competent in this regard to nonetheless perform legal services competently by: 1) associating with or consulting technical consultants or competent counsel; or 2) acquiring sufficient learning and skill before performance is required.  Lawyers must decline the matter when they cannot meet these two provisos, and when they do not, Comment 8 gives the Board of Bar Overseers an additional tool to sanction lawyers who mishandle e-discovery by producing confidential or privileged information, or by failing to locate and produce electronically-stored discoverable data.

 

Comment 8 should not, however, be viewed solely in the e-discovery prism.  The headlines scream about the latest hacking attacks and disclosures of personal information.  Failing to maintain proper firewalls and other security features, notwithstanding a lack of bad faith conduct, may also viewed as a disciplinary rule violation.  Given that the use of computers and e-mail are unavoidable, lawyers should follow the same guidance applied to e-discovery.  That is, engage technical consultants or acquire sufficient learning and skill.  It may cost a few dollars, but it’s worth it, particularly in light of the potential the risks associated with Comment 8 to Mass. R. Prof. C. Rule 1.1.

 

For more information on the revised rules visit:

 

http://www.mass.gov/courts/docs/sjc/docs/rules/a-sjc-order-rules-of-professional-conduct-adopted-march-2015.pdf