eDiscovery Case Law: Practicing Law and Discovery Services Companies Don’t Mix
February 02, 2012
At least, not in DC.
Vendors seeking to assist attorneys in offloading substantial portions of discovery-practice need to be careful not to cross the line into the unauthorized practice of law, according to a new ethics opinion by the District of Columbia Bar. On January 12, 2012, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law released Opinion 21-12 regarding the “Applicability of Rule 49 to Discovery Services Companies.” This opinion provides guidelines for attorneys and discovery vendors regarding supervision of large-scale document reviews and vendors’ marketing practices, which are intended to prevent the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). Under these guidelines, the role of discovery-service providers in the e-discovery process must be limited to administrative, technical, and logistical tasks. This opinion and these guidelines additionally make clear that the onus of supervising a discovery project rests squarely on the shoulders of the D.C. Bar member who holds the attorney-client relationship with the client.
Rule 49 of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals provides:
No person shall engage in the practice of law in the District of Columbia or in any manner hold out as authorized or competent to practice law in the District of Columbia unless enrolled as an active member of the District of Columbia Bar, except as otherwise permitted by these Rules.
The ‘practice of law’ includes “[f]urnishing an attorney or attorneys, or other persons” to provide legal services. Rule 49(b)(2)(F).
Opinion 21-12 provides the following “principles” to provide guidance regarding “the permissible scope of services that may be performed [by document services companies]” without running afoul of the UPL rules. Opinion, at 7.
First, Rule 49’s UPL rules apply only to the provision of legal services in the District of Columbia. To the extent a discovery provider advertises itself as being able to assist with any discovery project occurring in the district, even if the vendor is not physically located in the district, then Rule 49’s prohibitions apply because such company would be viewed as “holding itself out” as being able to provide legal services in the district. Opinion, at 7–8.
Second, in line with the committee’s prior 1999 Opinion 6-99, contract-attorney companies cannot make the final selection of contract attorneys to staff on a project, nor can the companies provide legal supervision over the contract attorneys. Both of those tasks must be handled by a member of the D.C. Bar with an attorney-client relationship with the client. The company’s role should be limited to the administrative aspects of the review (i.e., finding and interviewing reviewers, handling payroll and taxes, making sure the reviewers show up to work, etc.). A company is allowed to provide and supervise a person doing non-legal work if that person is not identified to the client as a lawyer. Opinion, at 8.
Third, a discovery-service company cannot use broad-based statements in its marketing materials (i.e., that the company is an “end-to-end” vendor or can provide “soup-to-nuts” solutions) without including a UPL disclaimer. This disclaimer must appear on the same page, in the same font, and in proximity to the potentially misleading statement. Statements regarding the legal expertise of the company’s staff also must contain similar disclaimers. Opinion, at 8–9.
Although the committee previously examined Rule 49 and its applicability to legal-services providers in 1999 and 2005, the committee saw fit to re-examine its prior decisions because companies providing discovery services “have dramatically expanded the scope” of their offerings. Opinion, at 4. The committee noted that these companies “offer a host of related services, from e-discovery consulting to database management to the eventual production of documents in litigation,” and that the companies also may “offer the physical space where the document review will take place, computers for conducting the review, and servers for hosting the document review.” Id.
The committee was concerned with the companies’ use of broad language in their marketing materials, including “one-stop shopping” and “comprehensive review and project management,” and about the marketing of companies’ management staff as having legal expertise that would be used in the discovery process. Opinion, at 4–5. Although the committee noted that some services provided by the companies may not “cross the line into legal practice,” such as administrative tasks, allowing discovery companies to make broad-based statements could mislead the public by implying that the companies are providing a legal judgment. Opinion, at 6.
Opinion 21-12 provides clarity to discovery-services vendors by outlining more clearly their role in the discovery process, which is limited to administrative, technical, and logistical functions. The opinion also will assist attorneys overseeing such projects by reminding them of their supervisory role over document reviews.
So, what do you think? Is this a good idea? Should it be adopted in other jurisdictions? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.
Source: American Bar Association
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