Bellalta: A Flowchart for the Owner of a Nonconforming Home

by Kate M. Carter

Case Focus

In Bellalta v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Brookline, 481 Mass. 372 (2019), the Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed the process by which a preexisting, non-conforming single- or two-family structure can be altered or expanded, clarifying the framework established by courts wrestling with the “difficult and infelicitous” language of G.L. c. 40A, Section 6 for nearly four decades. Bellalta confirmed that changes to such structures can be made by special permit without the additional need for a variance.

The Section 6 Quicksand

Section 6 regulates the application of local zoning to preexisting, nonconforming structures and uses. Its language reflects a tension between competing philosophies governing the use and development of Massachusetts land. On the one hand zoning is interested in the elimination of nonconformities. But zoning also reflects the notion that “rights once acquired by existing use or construction of buildings in general ought not to be interfered with.” Opinion of the Justices, 234 Mass. 597, 606 (1920). Thus, under Section 6, a zoning ordinance or by-law shall not apply to structures or uses lawfully in existence or lawfully begun … but shall apply to any change or substantial extension of such use … to any reconstruction, extension or structural change of such structure … except where alteration, reconstruction, extension or structural change to a single or two-family residential structure does not increase the nonconforming nature of said structure. Pre-existing nonconforming structures or uses may be extended or altered, provided, that no such extension or alteration shall be permitted unless there is a finding by the permit granting authority … that such change, extension or alteration shall not be substantially more detrimental than the existing nonconforming [structure or] use to the neighborhood.

(Emphasis added). In two sentences, the statute (i) protects previously compliant structures and uses from the effect of subsequently enacted zoning bylaws, (ii) preserves the need to comply with zoning if one wants to change or alter a nonconforming structure or use, and (iii) creates a separate exemption for certain changes or alterations to single- and two-family structures. In Bellalta, the SJC examined the extent of the protections afforded by the “second except clause” to owners of single- and two-family preexisting, nonconforming structures.

Underlying Facts and Procedural Posture

Defendant homeowners owned a unit in a two-unit Brookline condominium. They proposed adding a dormer to add 677 square feet of living space. The building did not comply with the floor area ratio (“FAR”) – the ratio of building gross floor area to lot area – for the zoning district in which it was located. The FAR for the zoning district was 1.0. The FAR for the defendants’ building was 1.14, which would increase to 1.38 with the new dormer.

After being denied a building permit, the defendants applied for, and were granted, a “Section 6 finding” by the Brookline Zoning Board of Appeal. The Board found that the proposed addition and resulting increase in FAR would not be substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood than the nonconforming structure was prior to renovation.  Plaintiff abutters appealed, arguing that because Brookline’s bylaw expressly prohibited FAR increases of more than 25%, defendants also needed to apply for a variance – a more difficult and narrowly-available type of zoning relief.

The “Interpretative Framework”

Beginning with Fitzsimmonds v. Board of Appeals of Chatham, 21 Mass. App. Ct. 53 (1985), and culminating with Bjorklund v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Norwell, 450 Mass. 357 (2008), the courts have established a three-step framework to analyze a homeowner’s request to alter, reconstruct, extend, or change a preexisting, nonconforming, single- or two-family home. First, how does the structure violate current zoning? Second, does the proposed change intensify that non-conformity?  If the answer to question two is “no”, the proposed change is allowed by right, without the need for relief. Only if the answer to question two is “yes” must a homeowner apply for a finding by the local board that the proposed change will “not be substantially more detrimental than the existing nonconforming use to the neighborhood.” Bellalta, 481 Mass. at 380-81.[1]

In Bellalta, the defendants argued that the new dormer would make the building more consistent with the architecture and dimensions of other buildings on the street. Moreover, the proposed addition was modest – it only increased the habitable space by 675 square feet.[2] Thus, they argued that the new dormer would not be substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood than the existing, nonconforming building. The Board agreed, issued the Section 6 finding, and allowed the project to proceed without a variance. Bellalta, 481 Mass. at 383; see also Gale v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Gloucester, 80 Mass. App. Ct. 331 (2011).

In upholding the Board’s decision not to require a variance, the Bellalta court explained that since the “second except” clause was adopted in 1975, the Legislature has amended Section 6 on multiple occasions, and never clarified the language – thereby ratifying the courts’ interpretative framework. Bellalta, 481 Mass. at 383. To require the defendants to also apply for a variance would allow the Brookline bylaw to eliminate the special protections otherwise afforded preexisting, non-conforming single- or two-family structures by Section 6. Id. at 386 – 87.

Bellalta’s Significance Amidst a Growing Housing Crisis

Underlying the language of Section 6, the resulting interpretative framework, and the Bellalta decision is a value judgment that extra effort should be taken to protect a particular segment of housing stock: single- and two-family homes. The protections afforded preexisting, nonconforming single- and two-family homes would be illusory if owners were obligated to undertake the burden of applying for a Section 6 finding and a variance. Bellalta, 481 Mass. at 383. The time and costs associated with such a process might mean that homeowners would forego the renovation and maintenance of older, “starter” homes leaving them to be torn down and replaced with new, more expensive housing. Id. at 384. Bellalta’s re-affirmation of the “special protections” afforded to single- and two-family homes is particularly important amid today’s housing crisis. Section 6 provides a valuable counterbalance to municipalities seeking to stifle housing production by increasing minimum lot sizes or other dimensional requirements. Bellalta, 481 Mass. at 384 – 85. The Section 6 process allows homeowners to make changes to accommodate evolving housing needs, without adding additional demand to an undersupplied housing market.  By affirming the streamlined process by which homeowners of preexisting, nonconforming single- and two-family homes can make changes to their homes, the SJC in Bellalta, reaffirmed the Legislature’s decision to protect single- and two-family homes. Section 6’s protections will continue to play an important part in helping to address Massachusetts’ growing need for more habitable living space within an increasingly expensive and diminishing pool of available land.

 

Kate Moran Carter is a shareholder at Dain ǀ Torpy. She represents clients in disputes concerning the ownership, operation, development, and use of real estate.

 

[1] If the proposed change will create new nonconformities, a variance will be required.

[2] In Bjorklund, the SJC sanctioned certain types of improvements, without the need for a Section 6 finding, because the small-scale nature of such improvements “could not reasonably be found to increase the nonconforming nature of the structure.” 450 Mass. at 362 – 63. Although the Bellalta court implied that the defendants’ proposed dormer was the type of small-scale improvement, that would not require a Section 6 finding, the defendants had conceded that the proposed increase in FAR from 1.4 to 1.38 would increase the structure’s nonconforming nature. Bellalta, 481 Mass. at 381 – 82.


A Call for More Focused Advocacy: Setting Bail After Brangan

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by Hon. Peter B. Krupp

Voice of the Judiciary 

Many times a day in a criminal session judges decide whether setting an affordable bail will be sufficient to ensure a defendant will appear for future court dates. I have set or reviewed bail in hundreds of cases. I have rarely set bail with great certainty and almost always have had to decide based on woefully imperfect information.

There are serious risks of getting it wrong. If a defendant flees, justice for a victim may be substantially delayed or denied; releasing a violent or drug addicted defendant may create a risk to public safety; and setting unaffordably high bail for a defendant may have long-term effects on the defendant, even if an acquittal follows. Compounding the problem, bail decisions usually must be made quickly, so they are disproportionately susceptible to explicit and implicit biases; and the popular press does not help, usually reporting bail as a judicial critique on the severity of the crime rather than an individualized assessment of the defendant’s likelihood of appearing on the charges.

Given these challenges, much depends on effective advocacy by lawyers who must marshal relevant facts and information. Enter the Supreme Judicial Court in Brangan v. Commonwealth, 477 Mass. 691 (2017), which trained a fresh spotlight on the reasons for bail. Although it did not purport to change the law, Brangan, at a minimum, collected and clearly articulated the foundational principles underlying bail, re-centering judges and advocates on what matters and what does not. Before addressing the need for more effective and targeted advocacy, however, a quick overview may be useful.

At a defendant’s initial appearance, the Commonwealth may in certain serious cases move under G.L. c. 276, § 58A to detain a defendant without bail as dangerous. A petition for detention under § 58A triggers the right to an evidentiary hearing to decide whether the defendant is dangerous and, if so, whether a combination of financial and nonfinancial terms can reasonably assure the safety of others and the community. If no such conditions are available, the defendant is held without bail.

In the great bulk of cases, the Commonwealth does not or cannot seek detention under § 58A, but asks that bail be set to assure the defendant’s appearance at future court proceedings. The state and federal constitutions prohibit “excessive” bail, that is, bail “‘higher than an amount reasonably calculated to’ . . . assur[e] the presence of the accused at future proceedings.” Brangan, 477 Mass. at 699, quoting Stack v. Boyle, 342 U.S. 1, 5 (1951). When it comes to bail, one size does not fit all. One size does not even fit all people who commit the same crime. Bail decisions require individualization. As the SJC wrote, “bail that is set without any regard to whether a defendant is a pauper or a plutocrat runs the risk of being excessive and unfair.” Brangan, 477 Mass. at 700. Therefore, the court must determine how much the particular defendant is able to pay, and may set bail “no higher than necessary to ensure the defendant’s appearance.” Id. at 701.

Where no § 58A petition has been filed, “[u]sing unattainable bail to detain a defendant because he is dangerous is improper”; a “judge may not consider a defendant’s alleged dangerousness” in setting the amount of bail, although dangerousness may be considered in setting conditions of release. Id. at 701, 706. Therefore, arguments that a defendant poses a danger to the community, is a threat to public safety or a security risk, has been convicted of rape, failed to register as a sex offender, or had abuse prevention orders issued against him, may be properly advanced in a § 58A hearing, but not for setting the amount of bail, id. at 706-707, at least not unless they reflect directly on the defendant’s likelihood of appearing at future court dates.

A judge must set an affordable bail if it will cause the defendant to appear on future court dates.  A bail greater than what the defendant can reasonably afford, but no higher than necessary to ensure the defendant’s appearance, may only be set if the judge issues “findings of fact and a statement of reasons . . . either in writing or orally on the record.” Id. at 707. A new Superior Court form has been issued for these purposes.

In light of these principles, advocacy must evolve to address the only purpose for setting bail: to ensure the defendant will appear at future court proceedings. Certain factors considered in the bail determination, see G.L. c. 276, § 57, par. 2; G.L. c. 276, § 58, par. 1, bear more directly on the risk of non-appearance (e.g., prior defaults, flight from arrest, strong family ties outside Massachusetts, a strong case against the defendant, a high potential penalty), while others bear less directly (e.g., prior 209A orders, prior convictions, open probation matters).  Myriad other factors are relevant, including a defendant’s work history, medical condition, and age.

A few examples may help illustrate how prosecutors and defense attorneys need to think through the bail issues that apply to their particular defendant:

Ability to Post Bail. If the defendant has access to resources (or not), inform the court. Bring in tax returns, pay stubs, or an affidavit from the defendant’s employer. “The defendant tells me . . .” or “the police believe . . .” are not particularly persuasive. Put together a sworn statement addressing the defendant’s assets, or explaining where the proposed bail money is coming from and what the financial resources are of the people posting bail. What amount of bail has the defendant posted in earlier cases?

Prior Court Experience. If the defendant has previously been on bail, did the defendant default or appear? The Court Activity Record Information printout (“CARI,” formerly known as the “BOP”) does not show what bail was previously set, whether the defendant was able to post bail, the defendant’s history of appearing in court, or the reason for a default; and it is not always accurate or complete. Does the defendant have a record outside the Commonwealth? There is no substitute for getting docket sheets on a defendant’s prior cases from Massachusetts and other jurisdictions. If a prosecutor wants to rely on a defendant’s failure to remove an earlier default for four months, she should come prepared with documents demonstrating the defendant was not being held on another matter at the time.

Mental health/substance abuse. If the defendant has a drug problem or untreated mental health issue, be prepared to address where the defendant will live, or who the defendant will live with, to mitigate the risk that the defendant will not appear for court. How will medication compliance be monitored? Was defendant’s substance abuse problem addressed in earlier cases?

Effective bail advocacy in the Superior Court requires preparation to dig up information about a defendant’s past and present, information that is at least in some measure available to both the prosecution and the defense. This is often difficult and time-consuming and can rarely be done well on the fly. While a defendant has a right to a prompt bail hearing, in some cases counsel should be prepared to postpone a bail hearing so that information important to the bail determination may be gathered.

In this regard, bail presentations frequently suffer from the Committee for Public Counsel Services (and some district attorneys’ offices) acquiescing to bail appeals being prosecuted or defended by stand-in counsel representing the defendant or the Commonwealth in the Superior Court only for the bail appeal. See, e.g., CPCS Assigned Counsel Manual Policies and Procedures, Ch. IV, Part I, Sec. II.C.5 (“Counsel should facilitate the bail appeal procedure . . . [and] whenever possible, . . . represent the client at the hearing. (Emphasis added)). Most bail arguments cannot be assembled in an hour and should not be based on a quick read of the police report or a short interview with the defendant. Continuity of counsel is crucial. Whatever policies deter bar advocates from handling their district or municipal court clients’ bail appeals should be remedied to assure effective representation during this important phase of a criminal case.

Brangan has focused attention on the issue relevant in setting bail. Hopefully its clarity will also improve bail advocacy and cause lawyers on both sides of a case to assemble reliable facts and documents bearing on whether a defendant is likely to appear at future court proceedings.

Judge Peter B. Krupp has served as an Associate Justice of the Superior Court since 2013. He is a member of the Board of Editors of the Boston Bar Journal. 


The Introduction of Attorney-Conducted Voir Dire in Massachusetts

Smith_Markby Mark D. Smith

Heads Up

Last year, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted General Laws chapter 254, §2, permitting attorneys (and self-represented parties) in Superior Court criminal and civil cases to examine prospective jurors.  The Supreme Judicial Court subsequently created the Committee on Juror Voir Dire composed of judges, court officials, academics, and practitioners to help implement the new statute.

The Committee’s efforts led to two important initiatives: Superior Court Standing Order 1-15, an interim order setting forth the procedures for attorney-conducted voir dire in the Superior Courts, and, in conjunction with the Superior Court, the creation of the Panel Voir Dire Pilot Project, which will provide the opportunity to conduct group or “panel” voir dire in selected Superior Courts.

The Standing Order now guides the process for all attorney-conducted voir dire in the Superior Courts.  For now, it will be up to the discretion of each individual Superior Court Justice whether to permit attorney-conducted voir dire, except in the case of Superior Court Justices who have volunteered to participate in the Pilot Project, where the right to attorney-conducted voir dire will be automatic.

The Standing Order

An attorney who wants to examine prospective jurors must first file a motion requesting leave to do so.  In civil cases, the motion must follow the procedures of Superior Court Rule 9A.  In criminal cases, the motion must be served on all parties at least one week before filing and the opposition shall be filed with the court not later than two business days before the scheduled date of the final pre-trial conference.  The motion shall identify generally the topics of the questions which the moving party proposes to ask prospective jurors, though reasonable follow-up questions will be permitted.  The trial judge decides what questions are appropriate, but must give due regard to: (a) selecting jurors who will decide the case fairly and based solely on the evidence and the law; (b) conducting the selection process with reasonable expedition: and (c) respecting the dignity and privacy of each potential juror.

Generally, a court should approve questions that: (a) seek factual information about a prospective juror’s background and experience pertinent to the issues expected to arise in the case; (b) elicit pertinent preconceptions or biases; and (c) inquire about the prospective jurors’ willingness and ability to accept and apply pertinent legal principles.

A court should generally disapprove questions that: (a) duplicate questions appearing on the juror questionnaire; (b) seek information about a potential juror’s political views or voting pattern; (c) ask about the outcome of or deliberation in any trial in which the prospective juror has previously served; or (d) purport to instruct jurors on the law, require speculation about facts or law, are argumentative or would tend to embarrass or offend jurors, or unduly invade their privacy.

As in prior practice, before any jurors are questioned, the trial judge shall provide the venire with a brief description of the case, including the facts alleged and the claims or charges being brought, as well as brief preliminary instructions on legally significant principles such as the standard of proof and the basic elements of the civil claims or criminal charges.  The judge then shall proceed to ask all questions required by statute, and any other questions necessary to find jurors indifferent.  As with prior practice, the judge may ask these questions of the venire as a group but should conduct at least part of the questioning of each prospective juror individually outside the presence or hearing of other jurors.

After the judge has found an individual juror indifferent and able to serve, the judge shall permit the attorneys to ask the previously approved line of questions.  The questioning shall begin with the party having the burden of proof.  The judge may require the questioning of each prospective juror to be conducted individually and outside the presence (or at least the hearing) of the other potential jurors.

Perhaps the most significant provision of the interim order is that it allows counsel to question jurors as a panel during voir dire.  In such group questioning, the judge shall not permit questions that would elicit sensitive, personal information about an individual juror or that would specifically reference information provided in the jurors’ statutory confidential jury questionnaire (such information is required to be kept confidential under Chapter 234A, §23 and so may only be elicited outside of the presence or hearing of the other members of the jury pool).  If this procedure is followed, jurors shall be identified on the record by juror number only.

The trial judge may set a reasonable time limit for questioning of prospective jurors by attorneys, according to guidelines set forth in the interim order.  Once the attorneys are through questioning, the parties may assert challenges for cause, even though the judge previously found the challenged jurors indifferent.

The Panel Voir Dire Pilot Project

To facilitate the introduction of so-called “panel voir dire,” a subcommittee of the Committee on Jury Voir Dire and the Superior Court created a Pilot Project in which certain Superior Court Justices have volunteered to conduct panel voir dire according to the principles established in the Standing Order.  (The list of participating Courts can be found on the Trial Court website.) The Pilot Project will gather data on attorney-conducted voir dire to evaluate the efficacy of this selection process.  Upon the completion of the Pilot Project, the Committee will issue a report on its findings, including suggested changes to the Interim Standing Order.

In Pilot Project courts, parties must still make a request for attorney-conducted voir dire in compliance with Standing Order 1-15.  In cases where the parties are represented by counsel, jury selection in the Pilot Project shall include panel voir dire except for good cause shown.  At the final pretrial conference, the judge shall confer with counsel as to the mechanics of the panel voir dire process, including the use of a supplemental jury questionnaire and the establishment of time limits on questioning.

At trial, once the preliminary steps in jury selection are completed, the court should seat up to 16 jurors based on the judge’s preliminary findings of indifference.  As the jury box is filled, and before any attorney questioning is allowed, the clerk shall read into the record which juror, identified by juror number, is seated in which numbered seat.  It is incumbent upon the trial attorneys to correct any misstatements regarding any potential juror’s number and seating.  Also, as in prior practice, it is important for attorneys to keep track of this designation as they must address potential jurors by their identification number rather than by name.

Parties with the burden of proof shall conduct the questioning first.  In cases in which multiple parties are on the same side, the parties on each side shall agree to an order in which to proceed.  The questions may be posed by counsel to the entire jury panel or to an individual juror.  An attorney is free to object to any question posed to the jury panel by an opposing attorney, and the court may openly rule on the objection.

During this process, the nature of a proposed question or the particular circumstances of an individual juror may warrant bringing a juror to side bar.  The judge may rule on any challenge or cause at that time or at the conclusion of the panel questioning.  Furthermore, if the juror is brought to side bar, the judge may direct the parties to do their own questioning on the same subject matter at that time to avoid the need to return to side bar for related questioning. No follow-up questioning of a panel is allowed once an attorney has had his or her turn with questioning an individual juror except in the judge’s discretion and for good cause shown.

After all parties have questioned a panel, challenges for cause shall be heard and ruled upon at side bar.  The parties then exercise any preemptory challenges they have as to the remaining panel members.  Again, the party with the burden proceeds first, using all preemptory challenges the party seeks to use with that panel. If the first round of questioning of jurors does not result in a full panel, the same procedure shall apply for all subsequent panels required to seat a full jury.

The Superior Court will solicit feedback from participants in the Pilot Project, including judges, court personnel, attorneys, and jurors. It is expected that this feedback will be used to evaluate attorney-conducted voir dire and modify Standing Order 1-15 as appropriate.

Conclusion

The introduction of attorney voir dire in Massachusetts is a significant development in trial practice and a new opportunity for trial counsel, though the practical effects of attorney voir dire remain to be seen.  Whatever those effects might be, it is important for trial attorneys to learn and properly apply the interim procedures and then provide appropriate feedback to help shape the final form of these rules.

 

Mark Smith is a partner at Laredo & Smith, LLP, where he concentrates his practice in white collar criminal defense and government investigations.  He serves as a member of the Supreme Judicial Court’s Committee on Juror Voir Dire.


Massachusetts Leads The Nation On The Attorney-Client Privilege For Law Firms

by Robert M. Buchanan, Jr.

Case Focus

BuchananThe Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has taken intellectual leadership on an issue of nationwide importance for the legal profession.  RFF v. Burns & Levinson, 465 Mass. 702, 703 (July 2013) addressed “whether confidential communications between law firm attorneys and a law firm’s in-house counsel … are protected from disclosure to the client by the attorney-client privilege.”  The SJC ruled firmly that the privilege does apply the first time this issue has been resolved by the highest court in any jurisdiction.

Examples Of The Issue In Practice

The Boston Bar Association filed an amicus brief in the RFF case.  We provided several practical examples of how in-house counsel function in law firms.

Example 1:  Law Firm represents Client A and also represents Client B.  Client B calls Lawyer asking for urgent advice about an affiliate of Client A.  Does Lawyer have a conflict of interest?

Example 2:  Lawyer is preparing for a strategy discussion with Client, which is scheduled to begin in a few hours.  Suddenly Lawyer realized that he may have made a technical or strategic mistake.  What should he do?  Does he need to disclose something to Client?

Example 3:  A real estate developer Client sends a letter accusing Law Firm of malpractice, and at the same time insists that Law Firm continue performing work for the developer.  Should Law Firm continue performing work for this Client?

In each of these three scenarios, the lawyer needs guidance; the law firm’s in-house counsel is in the best position to provide guidance; and the client will benefit if the lawyer obtains proper guidance promptly.

The Facts Of The RFF Case

The RFF case was similar to Example 3.  Real estate lawyers received a demand letter from their client, a real estate developer.  The lawyers faced a difficult set of questions.  Should they argue with the client?  Should they continue to represent the client?  How could they do both at the same time?  The lawyers sought advice from their partner who was “designated to respond to ethical questions and risk management issues.”  RFF, 465 Mass. at 704.

The real estate developer later filed a malpractice action and sought to take depositions.  The Business Litigation Session — in a well-reasoned opinion by Judge Billings, dated November 20, 2012 ruled that the attorney-client privilege protected the lawyers from interrogation about their discussion with in-house counsel.

The SJC’s Analysis

The SJC affirmed, stating a logical series of principles, as the BBA had advocated.

1.         Lawyers in law firms often need advice.

Law firms, like corporations, face a vast and complicated array of regulatory legislation, where the line between permissible and prohibited conduct is not always an instinctive matter.

RFF, 465 Mass. at 708-09, quoting Chambliss, The Scope of In-Firm Privilege, 80 Notre Dame L.Rev. 1721, 1756 (2005).

2.         The attorney-client privilege enables in-house counsel to give advice.

Where a law firm designates one or more attorneys to serve as its in-house counsel on ethical, regulatory, and risk management issues that are crucial to the firm’s reputation and financial success, the attorney-client privilege serves the same purpose as it does for corporations or governmental entities:  it guarantees the confidentiality necessary to ensure that the firm’s partners, associates, and staff employees provide the information needed to obtain sound legal advice.

RFF, 465 Mass. at 704-10.

3.         There is no principled reason to reject the privilege.

Lower courts in some other jurisdictions had ruled that the attorney-client privilege does not apply.  These courts have held that the law firm is impaired by a conflict of interest when the firm represents itself adverse to a current client.  The SJC ruled, to the contrary, that the law firm can’t avoid analyzing what to do, and its analysis should be protected by the attorney-client privilege.  Justice Gants stated the critical distinction as follows:

. . .[A] client is entitled to full and fair disclosure of facts that are relevant to the representation, including any bad news, and to sound legal advice from its law firm.  But a client is not entitled to revelation of the law firm’s privileged communications with in-house or outside counsel where those facts were presented and the sound legal advice was formulated.

RFF, 465 Mass. at 716 (emphasis added).

The Privilege Applies If Four Requirements Are Met

The BBA’s amicus brief proposed a three-part test for applying the attorney-client privilege to in-house counsel.  These three requirements were adopted by the SJC in the passage below.  The SJC also added a fourth requirement, confidentiality, which is consistent with them.  The SJC held:

For the privilege to apply, four conditions must be met.  First, the law firm must designate, either formally or informally, an attorney or attorneys within the firm to represent the firm as in-house or ethics counsel, so that there is an attorney-client relationship between the in-house counsel and the firm when the consultation occurs.  Second, where a current outside client has threatened litigation against the law firm, the in-house counsel must not have performed any work on the particular client matter at issue or a substantially related matter….  Third, the time spent by the attorneys in these communications with in-house counsel may not be billed or charged to any outside client….  Fourth, as with all attorney-client communications, they must be made in confidence and kept confidential.

RFF, 465 Mass. at 723 (emphasis added).

Conclusion

All Massachusetts law firms should review these four requirements.  Although the SJC’s holding is not binding outside Massachusetts, its powerful reasoning should be persuasive in other states as well.  In the long run, this analytical clarity should benefit all U.S. law firms and the clients that they serve.

Robert M. Buchanan, Jr. wrote the Boston Bar Association’s amicus brief, pro bono, in the RFF case.  Mr. Buchanan is Chair of the Ethics Committee at Choate Hall & Stewart, where he is a partner in the Litigation Department and leads the Antitrust practice.