Legal Malpractice in the Electronic Era

Wherever attorneys do their work the question of legal malpractice may arise. In today's New York Law Journal, Joel Cohen and James Bernard present an excellent compilation of potential legal malpractice issues in the ESI area.  Investigation of electronically stored information has become a central issue in litigation since the Zabulake v. USB Warburg decision.  As the country becomes more involved in social media, further sophistication is required.  Even the question of when an attorney may use public Wi-Fi is discussed.   From the article "The 'Ethic' of Getting up to Speed 'Technologically' by Cohen and Bernard:

"When things end up poorly in a case, whether the client deserved to win or not, the client may decide to come after his criminal lawyer claiming malpractice, either in a civil action or in a post-conviction proceeding claiming "ineffectiveness." He may argue that the lawyer 1) didn't explain all of the litigating options to me; or 2) was "ineffective" in investigating the case, or in cross-examining key witnesses; or 3) did not let me, or mistakenly encouraged me to, take the witness stand in my own defense.

Examples may range from a lawyer's failure to obtain text messages (we all know about emails), to a failure to obtain posts on a Facebook page, to a more common failure to adequately preserve electronic materials. Which disgruntled client, particularly one sitting in a jail cell, wouldn't use the judge's remarks to try to nail to the wall his now or soon-to-be-terminated lawyer for malpractice or—maybe, worse for his reputation at the bar—by claiming "ineffective assistance of counsel" in a post-conviction appeal or collateral attack on his conviction? For in such a lawsuit, appeal or collateral attack he will "name [his lawyer's] name" as ineffectually having tried the case by tying his own arm behind his back against—perhaps a younger—prosecutor more in tune with modern Internet technology.

The origins of the modern technological revolution in the art of lawyering can probably trace itself back to a number of milestones: the first Westlaw/Lexis terminals, the advent of the Internet and, on the judicial front, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin's decisions in the seminal Zubulake case. Whether you believe that the decisions opened up a Pandora's box of litigation costs and burdens for defendants, or whether you believe they gave plaintiffs access to critical evidence which would have otherwise been destroyed, there is no question that Zubulake changed the way litigators think about and prepare cases. It also required us to learn more about technology issues. As Scheindlin wrote in Zubulake V: "[C]ounsel must become fully familiar with her client's document retention policies, as well as the client's data retention architecture. This will invariably involve speaking with information technology personnel and the actual (as opposed to theoretical) implementation of the firm's recycling policy."1 In other words, counsel had to get tech savvy.

And it is worth asking, if a lawyer fails to "get smart," what are the consequences? Of course, there are the potential sanctions that might be available to the aggrieved party. But can, after this new Comment 8, a lawyer face an ethics charge for this sort of lapse in knowledge? It is quite possible that it could be the basis for a malpractice claim if the failure to discuss these issues with a client resulted in a serious enough sanction, such as dismissal of a claim or defense.

Given all of the resources which have been devoted to educating the bar about the need to preserve electronic information, emails, documents, etc., it is not too hard to imagine a client claiming that the failure to do so in this day and age amounts to malpractice, even though that would not have been the case however many years ago. In the criminal context, could it rise to the level of ineffective assistance of counsel resulting in a possible conviction reversal? Not too many years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a lawyer provided ineffective assistance of counsel when the lawyer failed to tell a client about the likelihood of deportation if a client pleaded guilty to drug distribution charges.2

There are obvious differences between working with a client on e-discovery issues and informing a client of the legal consequences of pleading guilty to a felony, but it is not impossible to imagine a scenario in which the failure to learn about a client's technological infrastructure is egregious enough and results in a serious enough sanction so as to bring the attorney's behavior within the realm of a constitutional claim of ineffectiveness. After all, constitutional ineffectiveness under Strickland is triggered when counsel's conduct falls "below an objective standard of reasonableness."3 What is "reasonable" in terms of what counsel is expected to know about e-discovery is rapidly changing, and only in the direction of requiring greater knowledge."

Post A Comment / Question

Remember personal info?