The Impact of Recent Revisions of the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct on Confidentiality

Newhouse_MartinWoolf_Jeffreyby Martin J. Newhouse and Jeffrey D. Woolf

Heads Up 

The recent revisions by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) to the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct effective July 1, 2015 included numerous changes to the rules governing confidentiality of client information, including substantial revisions of rule 1.6 (“Confidentiality of Information”).  The changes, as addressed herein, generally clarify a lawyer’s obligations under the Rules and also offer more helpful guidance on several points than was previously provided.

Rule 1.6:

  • The scope of information covered remains unchanged.  The SJC maintained a major difference between the Massachusetts and the ABA Model Rules, namely by continuing to limit the information covered by rule 1.6 only to “confidential information relating to the representation.”  (The ABA Model Rule covers all “information relating to the representation.”)
  • A clearer definition provided for “confidential information.”  In a very helpful step, the SJC also provided new comments, [3A] and [3B], clarifying what constitutes “confidential information.”  Comment [3A] defines confidential information as information relating to the representation of a client, whatever its source, that is (a) privileged; (b) likely to be embarrassing or detrimental to the client if disclosed; or (c) is information the lawyer has agreed to keep confidential.  Comment [3A] also provides a road map of what types of information would not be “confidential” under the rule.  Comment [3B] further explains the limitation of the rule to “confidential information” and explains how this change has been carried out throughout the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct.
  • Expanding protection of non-confidential information.  In an interesting addition, the SJC warns in comment [4] that the prohibition against disclosing confidential information also prohibits any disclosure of information, while not itself protected under rule 1.6, that “could reasonably lead to the discovery of [protected] information by a third person.”  Included in this are hypotheticals that may lead others to “ascertain the identity of the client or the situation involved.”
  • Enlarging the scope of permissible disclosures. Most notably, the SJC has added two new exceptions to rule 1.6(b).  Rule 1.6(b)(4) expressly permits disclosure “to secure legal advice about the lawyer’s compliance with these Rules.”  Rule 1.8(b)(7) permits limited disclosure “to detect and resolve conflicts” when lawyers change employment or firm ownership changes.  In addition, the new rule 1.6(b)(3), along with revisions to rule 1.6(b)(1) and (2), clarify prior existing exceptions.  Significantly, rule 1.6(b)(1) continues to contain a provision, absent from the Model Rules, which authorizes the disclosure of confidential information “to prevent the wrongful execution or incarceration of another.”  Rule 1.6(b)(2) also continues the prior Massachusetts provision that permits disclosure to “prevent the commission of a criminal or fraudulent act,” without limiting this exception to conduct committed by “the client,” as exists under Model Rule 1.6(b)(2).  Thus the Massachusetts rule permits disclosure to prevent the commission of a crime or fraudulent conduct by a third person.  Also unlike Model Rule 1.6(b)(2), the Massachusetts rule does not require that the lawyer’s services must have been used in furtherance of the crime or fraud in order for disclosure to be permitted.  Permissive disclosure under rule 1.6(b)(2) is also not limited, as previously and under the Model Rules, to preventing conduct likely to cause substantial damage to property and financial interests of another; new rule 1.6(b)(2) additionally permits disclosure where substantial damage is likely to “other significant interests” of another.
  • Enhanced guidance with regard to disclosure exceptions. Comments [5] et seq. have been revised or wholly rewritten to provide more detailed and much needed guidance for lawyers seeking to understand whether disclosure is permitted or required.  For example, comment [12] discusses disclosure that may be required by other law; comment [15] provides guidance on dealing with a court order requiring disclosure; comments [13] and [14] deal in detail with the disclosures when lawyers change employment or firms change ownership.  Finally, comment [17] provides important guidance on how lawyers should exercise their discretion when an exception under rule 1.6(b) authorizes discretionary disclosure.
  • Addition of Rule 1.6(c). This new subsection requires lawyers to make reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or access to, confidential information protected under the rule.  New comments [18] and [19] provide, inter alia, that unauthorized access to or disclosure of confidential information “does not constitute a violation of paragraph [1.6](c) if the lawyer has made reasonable efforts to prevent the access or disclosure.” The comments discuss the factors to be considered as to whether reasonable efforts have been made.  Comment [18] cross-references comments [3] and [4] to rule 5.3 with regard to the sharing of information with non-lawyers outside the lawyer’s firm (e.g., an outside document management company).  Comments [18] and [19] confirm an attorney’s obligation to comply with all applicable state and federal privacy laws.  (Practice tip: be aware of your obligations under Mass. G.L. c. 93H (the Massachusetts security breach notification law) and the corresponding regulations, 201 CMR § 17.00 et seq.).

Rule 1.8(b) and 1.9(c)(1):

Although in a number of respects, the SJC’s revisions to the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct have brought our rules into closer conformity with the ABA Model Rules, they have also preserved important distinctions.  As discussed above, the SJC retained our narrower definition of the scope of information covered by rule 1.6.

Similarly, while both rules 1.8(b) and 1.9(c)(1) parallel the ABA Model Rules in prohibiting the use of confidential information relating to the representation to the disadvantage of the client or, in the case of rule 1.9(c)(1), the former client, the SJC has retained in each rule the prohibition against using such information for the benefit of a third party or for the lawyer’s own benefit.  Under rule 1.8(b) such information may be so used if the client gives informed consent or such use is permitted or required by the rules.  Under rule 1.9(c)(1), such use is only allowed if permitted or required under rules 1.6, 3.3, or 4.1 with respect to the former client.  Rule 1.9(c) applies not only to a lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter but also if the lawyer’s present or former firm has formerly represented the client in a matter.

New Rule 1.18:

On the other hand, the SJC has not hesitated to adopt aspects of the ABA Model Rules that fill gaps in or represent improvements to the Massachusetts ethics rules.  One such example is the SJC’s adoption of Model Rule 1.18, which defines the duties owed to prospective clients.  The new rule makes it an ethical violation for a lawyer to engage in conduct for which the lawyer  would previously have been liable in tort for violating confidentiality obligations to a prospective client:

  • Under rule 1.18(b), even when no client-lawyer relationship is formed with the prospective client, a lawyer may not use or disclose confidential information learned from the prospective client, except as rule 1.9 would permit in the case of a former client.
  • Under rule 1.18(c), a lawyer who has received confidential information from a prospective client may not take on a representation materially adverse to the prospective client in the same or substantially related matter if the confidential information received could be significantly harmful to the prospective client.  If a lawyer is disqualified under this sub-section, no lawyer in the lawyer’s firm may knowingly undertake or continue the representation adverse to the prospective client.
  • However, rule 1.18(d) provides that, even when the lawyer has received disqualifying information from the prospective client, representation in the adverse matter is permitted if (1) both the affected and the prospective client give written informed consent or the lawyer who received the information took reasonable precautions to limit the information from the prospective client and is timely screened, as defined in rule 1.10(e), and the prospective client is promptly given written notice.

 Rule 1.0 (former Rule 9.1):

“Definitions” in the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct used to be found in rule 9.1.  Consistent with the ABA Model Rules, this has been renamed as “Terminology” and renumbered as rule 1.0.  Three new definitions (and corresponding commentary) have been added:  “informed consent”; “confirmed in writing”; and “writing” (or “written”).  The new Massachusetts definitions are largely consistent with the ABA Model Rules.

New Rule 4.4(b):

The SJC also has added rule 4.4(b), which is identical to the corresponding ABA Model Rule, and for the first time addresses a lawyer’s obligation upon receipt of documents or electronic information that was inadvertently sent by opposing lawyers or parties.  Rule 4.4(b) requires a lawyer receiving such documents or information to notify the sender promptly, in order that (as stated in comment [2]) the sender may take protective measures.  Comments [2] and [3] provide a good discussion of the problem the rule addresses.  Importantly, comment [2] brings metadata in electronic documents within the purview of rule 4.4(b) “only if the receiving lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the metadata was inadvertently sent to the receiving lawyer.”   Comment [3] recognizes a lawyer’s professional discretion to return or delete such documents unread where the law does not require other action.

In conclusion, the reader is directed to the “Report of the Standing Advisory Committee on the Adoption of Revised Rules of Professional Conduct Effective July 1, 2015,” for a further discussion of these and other changes.

Martin J. Newhouse, President of the New England Legal Foundation, is a member of the SJC Clients’ Security Board and BBA Ethics Committee.

Jeffrey D. Woolf is an Assistant General Counsel to the Board of Bar Overseers and is a member of the BBA Ethics Committee.

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