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New York State Bar Association v Avvo: Will the Uberization of Immigration Law Practice Overcome Outdated Advertising Rules Governing Lawyers

Companies like Avvo are using their marketing platform to provide more opportunities for younger and solo lawyers to gain clients and thus level the playing field.  Avvo Legal Services seeks to disrupt the traditional legal model where a client seeks out a lawyer based on his or her reputation rather than on a web-based network, and the lawyer sets the fee. One of the immigration services Avvo offers is a “family based green card” for $2995 that involves preparing and filing the requisite forms, but no representation at an adjustment of status interview or to respond to a Request for Evidence.  The consumer pays $2995 to Avvo directly, but may choose the attorney in the Avvo network that they want to work with. That attorney has 24 hours to directly contact the consumer/client, and do the work as they would any other client. When the work is completed, Avvo releases the funds to the attorney, and in a separate transaction withdraws from the attorney’s account a $400 marketing fee.

Under this unique business model, which I have termed as the Uberization of immigration practice in a prior blog,  the immigration attorney is contracting with Avvo as a vendor to gain clients and business through its superior marketing reach. Avvo views this new service as benefitting both lawyers and clients. The lawyer will rely on Avvo to get business and also get paid easily, without keeping track of billable hours or worrying about trust accounts. It would also help lawyers build their practices as it would lead to further work by the same client, according to Avvo.  The client is also benefitted as s/he will get access to a legal service that is both affordable and fixed, and will also understand exactly what legal service is being purchased. Avvo Legal Service should be distinguished from the “Avvo rating” a lawyer may receive, which is ethically permissible.

The question is whether paying the marketing fee to Avvo is ethically impermissible when an attorney receives a matter through the Avvo legal services platform.  The New York State Bar Association issued Ethics Opinion 1132 holding that a lawyer may not pay the current marketing fee to participate in Avvo Legal Services because the fee includes an improper payment for a recommendation in violation of New York Rule 7.2(a). Under 7.2(a), “a lawyer shall not compensate or give anything of value to a person or organization to recommend or obtain employment by a client, or as a reward for having made a recommendation resulting in employment by a client…” At issue for the NYSBA Committee on Professional Ethics was whether the lawyer is paying the fee to obtain marketing and advertising services from Avvo or whether it was giving Avvo something of value to recommend the lawyer to clients. The former scenario would not be a violation of Rule 7.2(a) while the latter would be. The NYSBA, in concluding that paying a marketing fee violated Rule 7.2(a),  analyzed Avvo’s business model in great detail. Avvo gives each lawyer a rating from a scale of 1 to 10. While Avvo never describes a rating as a recommendation, the NYSBA opined that the Avvo website extols the benefits of being able to work with highly-rated lawyers.  While a lawyer is not precluded from advertising bona fide professional ratings generated by third parties in advertisements, Avvo is not a third party, according to the NYSBA,  as it benefits financially if potential clients hire the lawyers rated by Avvo. The NYSBA’s conclusion was bolstered by Avvo’s satisfaction guarantee by which the client is guaranteed a refund of the full amount, even Avvo’s marketing fee, if the client is not satisfied. “This guarantee contributes to the impression that Avvo is ‘recommending’ the lawyers on its service because it stands behind them to the extent of refunding payment if the client is not satisfied,” according to the NYSBA.

While the NYSBA dwelt a lot on what constitutes a recommendation under Rule 7.2(a), it skirted discussing whether the Avvo service would in reality compromise the attorney’s ability to competently represent the client. That analysis is more relevant than whether there was a violation of an archaic advertising rule.  There is a growing recognition that the advertising rules governing lawyers are outdated and need an update in light of the use of social media by attorneys to both market and communicate with clients. Many immigration lawyers, firms, and non-profits providing legal services to indigent clients rely on social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. They use social media not just for advertising but also as part of advocacy efforts to raise awareness on immigration issues. If any message disseminated on social media constitutes an attorney advertisement, it triggers additional requirements that may be impossible to comply with in a social media post. Reform of the advertising rules should focus primarily on lawyer communications that are false or misleading. All other requirements in an advertisement such as requiring the words “Attorney Advertising” and requiring the name, principal law office address and telephone number of the law firm are outdated in an era dominated by tweets.

Rather than focus on the advertising rules that are outdated, including splitting hairs on what constituted a recommendation under Rule 7.2(a), the NYSBA could have opined on other aspects of the Avvo service that limits both the competence and independence of the attorney.

The NYSBA highlighted three salient issues, which it said it was not deciding on:

  • The fact that Avvo sets the amount of the legal fee for each service raises questions about whether a participating lawyer can deliver competent legal services for Avvo’s chosen price and whether a lawyer is allowing Avvo to interfere in the lawyer’s independent professional judgment regarding how much time to spend on a matter.
  • The marketing fee raises questions about whether lawyers who participate in Avvo Legal Services are improperly sharing legal fees with a nonlawyer.
  • Avvo’s satisfaction guarantee raises questions about confidentiality. If clients call Avvo to complain, does the “documentation” that Avvo asks for or receives include “confidential information” within the meaning of Rule 1.6(a)?  How does Avvo avoid receiving confidential information when evaluating whether to refund the legal fee a client has paid through Avvo?

Even if we leave alone the concerns of fee splitting with a non-lawyer, a “family -based green card” is not like ordering a ride through Uber, where you know that any driver in a functioning vehicle and GPS, will take you to your destination.  But unlike an Uber car ride, there are many traps and pitfalls in family -based immigration practice, even when it appears relatively straight forward. One’s eligibility for adjustment of status based on a marriage to a US citizen spouse is also subject to variables. If the client’s arrival in the US was not through a straight forward inspection at a port of entry, then the case immediately becomes more complex. If the client is potentially inadmissible for a host of reasons, including claiming to be a US citizen when seeking employment many years ago, that too would throw the Avvo $2,995 family based green card package out of the window. The client will disappointingly realize that the Avvo family green card package and price is virtually meaningless, and would rather seek out an attorney who has the reputation and expertise to handle difficult family -based immigration cases. There are other variations even if the client appears prima facie eligible to adjust status. For example, the marriage may have been bona fide at its inception, but the spouses are quarreling and living separately, and still desire to cooperate on the green card for the sake of the children. This too requires the agile immigration attorney to appropriately advocate for the client by educating and allaying the suspicion of malevolent intent by a USCIS examiner that the marriage presently under consideration not be viable so long as it was bona fide at its inception. See Matter of Boromand, 17 I&N Dec. 450 (BIA 1980); Matter of McKee, 17 I&N Dec. 332 (BIA 1980).

There are other problematic aspects of immigration legal services provided by Avvo.  It offers a 15-minute immigration advice session for $39. After 15 minutes, the telephone line gets cut off. It is difficult to provide a comprehensive consultation on an immigration law issue in 15 minutes. While the client may have the option of following up with the attorney, the very fact that Avvo suggests that a 15-minute consultation can satisfy the client’s need in a complex area of the law may be misleading. Avvo also provides a service where an attorney will review immigration applications that the client has prepared pro se, but that is fraught with dangers and pitfalls as referenced in the marriage example preceding. 8 CFR 1003.102(t) provides for sanction of an immigration practitioner who fails to submit a Notice of Entry of Appearance as Attorney or Representative who has engaged in practice or preparation. Under the terms of the Avvo arrangement, since the client will be filing pro se after the attorney reviews it, the attorney will not be able to submit a Notice of Appearance if the attorney’s review of the form is considered to be “practice or preparation.” Presumably Avvo, as an intermediary in connecting a potential client to a lawyer and as a non -legal entity, would not be entering a Notice of Appearance.

The NYSBA opinion has been issued by a voluntary organization and is non-binding. To the best of this author’s knowledge, no New York lawyers have been disciplined because they paid a marketing fee to Avvo. Other state bars have also issued opinions,  here, here and here,  that raise concerns about fee splitting. Fee splitting is a concern if it undermines the independence of the lawyer. Avvo says it does not as it is made totally transparent to the consumer of legal services and could be a violation of the First Amendment. The key issue is that a client who uses Avvo Legal Services should be made completely aware of the scope of the services and its variation, which at least in the immigration context, may not be the case. Perhaps, one way to alleviate the concern of a bar association’s professional ethics committee is to make sure that the lawyer and prospective client have a phone call first to discuss the scope of the matter before the client purchases the service on the Avvo platform. If the issues presented by the prospective client are more complex than advertised, then Avvo should provide the ability for the lawyer to modify the fees based on the new scope of representation. As Avvo has pointed out, the NYSBA opinion “actively discourages lawyers from using technology to reach out to clients who see an increasing gap between them and meaningful access to the legal system.”     This may be true, but the consumer must also be made aware whether his or her case fits the service that Avvo markets on behalf of the law. A lawyer may undertake limited representation and unbundle legal services, which Avvo facilitates, but the limitation must be reasonable under the circumstances pursuant to New York Rule 1.2(c). Thus, the 15-minute consultation should probably be extended to at least 30 minutes or even longer. Perhaps, the service promoted by Avvo of reviewing a pro se client’s naturalization or I-130 petition should be halted unless some understanding is reached by the disciplinary counsel in the Department of Homeland Security and the Executive Office for Immigration Review regarding the scope of 8 CFR 1003.102(t).

NYSBA Formal Opinion 1132 against Avvo will not be the last word. The professional ethics committee of the NYSBA too acknowledges that the “lawyers and clients who are using Avvo Legal Services suggest that the company fills a need that more traditional methods of marketing and providing legal services are not meeting” and “[f]uture changes to Avvo’s mode of operations – or future changes to the Rules of Professional Conduct – could lead us to alter our conclusion.” For now, at least, lawyers who choose to pay a marketing fee to Avvo after they connect with a client through its platform do so at their own peril. Avvo, though, has promised to defend these lawyers if disciplinary action is taken against them.

Immigration Inadmissibility, Legal Ethics And Marijuana

Although medical and recreational marijuana activities are illegal under federal law, at least 25 states have legalized marijuana for medical use. Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have gone even further by legalizing some forms of recreational marijuana, including its production and sale.

This conflict between federal and state law creates a curious anomaly for the foreign national who wishes to enter the United States either as a temporary visitor or as a temporary resident. If a foreign national wishes to invest in a marijuana business in a state where it is legal, and even endeavor to obtain an E-2 investor visa, this person would likely be rendered inadmissible under federal statutory immigration provisions.

Under 212(a)(3)(A)(ii) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), foreign nationals can be found inadmissible if the authorities know, or have reasonable ground to believe, that they seek to enter the United States to engage in any unlawful activity. Also, under INA 212(a)(2)(C), a foreign national can also be deemed inadmissible if the authorities know or have reason to believe that the person is or has been an illicit trafficker in any controlled substance as defined under 21 U.S.C. 802, which includes marijuana.

If the foreign national has actually used marijuana in a state where it is legal, or undertaken other legal business activities involving marijuana in that state, this person can be found inadmissible for admitting to committing acts which constitute the essential elements of a law relating to a controlled substance pursuant to INA 212(a)(2)(A)(i)(II).

The Department of Justice has set forth guidance in a Memorandum by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole (“Cole Memorandum”) explaining circumstances where it will exercise prosecutorial discretion and not enforce the law. Specifically, the Cole Memorandum states that it will defer to state law enforcement concerning state laws with respect to marijuana activities, although such discretion will not be applied relating to the following eight circumstances:

  1. Distribution to minors;
  2. Money flows to criminal enterprises;
  3. Prohibition diversion of marijuana from states where marijuana is legal to other states;
  4. Use of legal marijuana as a pretext for trafficking other illegal drugs or activity;
  5. Preventing violence or the use of firearms in connection with marijuana collection or distribution;
  6. Preventing drugged driving or other public health issues;
  7. Preventing marijuana growth on public lands; and
  8. Preventing marijuana possession on federal property.

Although the Cole Memorandum makes clear that it will not enforce marijuana activities that do not implicate its eight priorities in states where it is legal, it still considers manufacture, possession and distribution of marijuana as a federal crime. Thus, it may be difficult for a non-citizen who has been denied a visa to invoke the Cole Memorandum as a defense in demonstrating that the proposed marijuana activities will not be considered as an unlawful activity. Until there is a federal law that legalizes specific marijuana activities, the foreign national will find it extremely difficult to be admitted into the United States to pursue such activities even in states where it is legal.

It is also likely that a consul may question one who wishes to enter to undertake marijuana activities whether he or she has personally used marijuana, which could then potentially count as an admission to a violation of a law involving a controlled substance. However, in order to count as an admission, the BIA set forth the following requirements for a validly obtained admission: (1) the admitted conduct must constitute the essential elements of a crime in the jurisdiction in which it occurred; (2) the applicant must have been provided with the definition and essential elements of the crime in understandable terms prior to making the admission; and (3) the admission must have been made voluntarily. See Matter of K-, 7 I&N Dec. 594 (BIA 1957). If this strict protocol is not adhered to, then a non-citizen should arguably not be considered to be have admitted to committing acts which constitute the essential elements of a law relating to a controlled substance pursuant to INA 212(a)(2)(A)(i)(II).

If the foreign national wishes to directly set up or be involved in a marijuana business in a state where it is legal, which includes its sale or distribution, this would most likely be problematic under federal immigration law. The question is whether activities that are more remote, such as a foreign national seeking to enter the United States on an H-1B visa to join an advertising firm as a creative director where one of its clients is a marijuana business in Colorado, would be considered equally problematic under federal immigration law. The H-1B worker will direct the advertising strategy for this client among several other clients, who are not in the marijuana business. Such a person seeking admission under the H-1B visa who is remotely connected to the marijuana business in another capacity should not be found inadmissible under the immigration laws.

The same reasoning should apply to a foreign national lawyer who will be employed in a New York law firm that specialized in health law. The law firm requires its lawyers to advise hospital clients in complying with New York’s Compassionate Care Act (“CCA”) – a law permitting the use of medical marijuana in tightly controlled circumstances. Under the CCA, health care providers and other entities may apply to be selected as Registered Organizations authorized to manufacture and dispense medical marijuana. The lawyer will assist clients, among other things, in applying to be selected as a Registered Organization, and would also advise thereafter with respect to compliance.

New York Rule of Professional Responsibility 1.2(d) provides:

A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is illegal or fraudulent, except that the lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client

Rule 1.2(d), variations of which are incorporated in most state bar rules of professional responsibility, is one of the most important ethical rules. It point-blank prohibits a lawyer from advising a client to engage in illegal or fraudulent conduct. Rule 1.2(d), however, provides an exception for the lawyer to discuss the consequences of the proposed illegal conduct even though it does not allow the lawyer to assist the client with respect to the illegal conduct. It would be difficult for a New York lawyer to comply with Rule 1.2(d) with respect to advising a client under the CCA, as it would require the lawyer to counsel the health care client about medical marijuana activities that the lawyer knows is illegal under federal law although it is legal under the New York law. Under the CCA, the lawyer would not be able to competently represent the client by resorting to the exception under Rule 1.2(d), which is to “discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of [illegal] conduct with a client.” Such a Registered Organization client would require active advice regarding the manufacture and distribute medical marijuana in compliance with the CCA.

New York State Bar Ethics Opinion 1024 endeavors to resolve this conundrum for the New York lawyer by permitting him or her to “assist a client in conduct designed to comply with state medical marijuana law, notwithstanding that federal narcotics law prohibits the delivery, sale, possession and use of marijuana and makes no exception for medical marijuana.” N.Y. State 1024 took into consideration the Cole Memorandum’s potential non-enforcement of federal law in states where marijuana activities have been rendered legal. While lack of rigorous enforcement of a law does not ordinarily provide a green light for the lawyer to advise a client to engage in activities that violate the law, N.Y. State 1024 took into consideration that New York state had explicitly authorized and regulated medical marijuana, and the federal government had indicated in the Cole Memorandum that it would not take measures to prevent the implementation of state law. Accordingly, pursuant to N.Y. State 1024, a lawyer may give legal assistance to a client regarding the CCA that goes beyond “a mere discussion of the legality of the client’s proposed conduct.” Consistent with similar opinions from ethics committees in Arizona and Kings County, Washington where recreational marijuana activities have been legalized, N.Y. State 1024 held that “state professional conduct rules should be interpreted to promote state law, not to impede its effective implementation.” This is not to say that all ethics opinions are in concert with N.Y. State 1024. A recently issued Ohio ethics opinion goes the other way by limiting the lawyer’s advice to determining the scope and consequences of medical marijuana activity, which is legal in Ohio. It also goes on to state that a lawyer who personally uses medical marijuana, even if legal in Ohio, may adversely reflect on a lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, and overall fitness to practice law. Just as lawyers are caught in a state of flux due to the conflict between state and federal law, so are other professionals, such as Certified Public Accountants. Businesses engaging in legal marijuana activities in states where it is legal are not allowed to take business expense deductions for federal income tax purposes for activities illegal under federal law, although they have to declare income from both legal and illegal activities, but may be allowed to deduct expenses under state law.

Keeping this framework in mind, if a foreign lawyer applies for an H-1B visa to join a New York law firm that has among its clients Registered Organizations that need advice regarding compliance under New York’s CCA, would that lawyer be found inadmissible when applying for the H-1B visa at an overseas US Consulate? She should not, but if found inadmissible, this lawyer should forcefully make the case that her conduct would be found ethical pursuant to N.Y. State 1024, and thus should not be considered to be coming to the United States to engage in unlawful activity pursuant to INA 212(a)(3)(A)(ii). It is more likely that visa applicants will be denied entry if they are entering the United States to directly invest in a marijuana business, but probably less likely to be denied if they are performing activities that are more attenuated such as the New York lawyer advising compliance under the CCA or a computer professional who will be designing a social networking site for marijuana consumers. Just as some state bar ethics committees are finding ways to justify a lawyer’s conduct with respect to advising on marijuana activities deemed legal in many states, but illegal under federal law (although not always enforced if the state considers the activity legal), lawyers who represent visa applicants should also be advancing similar arguments with the immigration agencies.   Until such time that there is a change in the federal law that legalizes marijuana activities, lawyers should be pushing the envelope on behalf of clients who seek visas relating to lawful marijuana-based activities in certain states, while at the same time strongly cautioning them of the risks of adverse immigration consequences. Finally, lawyers advising such clients must carefully consult with ethics opinions in their states to determine what they can and cannot do under Rule 1.2(d).

WAS THE ATTORNEY REALLY INEFFECTIVE IN KOVACS v. UNITED STATES?

In Kovacs v. United States, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed a lower district court’s decision denying a writ of error coram nobis to vacate a 1999 guilty plea to misprision of felony on the ground that his lawyer rendered ineffective assistance.

While the outcome of the Second Circuit’s decision is extremely beneficial for the petitioner Stephen Kovacs, who would otherwise suffer adverse immigration consequences, it does not appear that his attorney Robert Fink rendered ineffective assistance. When Kovacs, a lawful permanent resident, took the guilty plea for misprision of felony in 1999 it was not considered a crime involving moral turpitude, and would not have then resulted in adverse immigration consequences. Indeed, after taking the plea in 1999, Kovacs, an Australian national, continued to travel internationally without incident when in 2009 immigration officials questioned his ability to reenter the country on the ground that misprision of felony is considered a crime of moral turpitude.

The writ of coram nobis is an extraordinary remedy that is sought to correct errors, such as a criminal conviction, based on the following three factors: 1) there are circumstances compelling such action to achieve justice, 2) sound reasons exist for failure to seek appropriate earlier relief, and 3) the petitioner continues to suffer legal consequences from his conviction that may be remedied by granting the writ. See Foont v. United States, 93 F.3d 76, 79 (2d Cir. 1996).

Kovacs’ key argument for why he deserved to be granted the writ of coram nobis is that his attorney at that time, when he took the guilty plea for misprision of felony, was ineffective under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). A claim of Strickland ineffectiveness involves a demonstration that: 1) the defense counsel’s performance was objectively unreasonable; and 2) the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.

The Second Circuit agreed that Fink’s representation of  Kovacs, when he took the guilty plea for misprision of felony, was ineffective under the Strickland test. The Court relied on United States v. Couto, 311 F.3d 179, 188 (2d Cir. 2002), which held that an affirmative misrepresentation of the deportation consequences of a guilty plea fell outside the range of professional competence and thus met the Stricklandtest.

There is, however, surprisingly no discussion in the Court’s decision on why Fink’s assistance of Kovacs was ineffective in 1999. It was only in 2006 when the Board of Immigration Appeals in Matter of Robles, 24 I&N Dec. 22 (BIA 2006) determined that a misprision of felony conviction under 18 U.S.C. §4 was a crime involving moral turpitude. In 1999, when Kovacs took the misprision plea, the BIA’s holding in Matter of Sloan, 12 I&N Dec. 840 (A.G. 1968, BIA 1966), established that misprision of felony was not a crime involving moral turpitude. Matter of Sloan was only overruled by Matter of Robles many years later! Robles also retroactively applied to non-citizens previously convicted of misprision of felony.  Any competent and diligent attorney in 1999 could have relied on Matter of Sloanin advising the non-citizen client to take a plea for misprision for felony as it did not have adverse deportation consequences at that time. To make this more bizarre, the Ninth Circuit in Robles-Urrea v. Holder, 678 F.3d 702 (9th Cir.2012),  ultimately overturned the BIA in the same case by holding that misprision is not categorically a crime involving moral turpitude because it does not require a specific intent to conceal the felony, but only knowledge of the felony. Therefore, based upon an analysis of minimal conduct necessary to be implicated under the misprision statute, the Ninth Circuit held that such conduct is not inherently base, vile or depraved to be considered morally turpitudinous.   Even if a Circuit Court has overruled a BIA decision, it would only be inapplicable within the jurisdiction of that Circuit Court, which in Robles-Urrea is the Ninth Circuit, but the overruled BIA decision is still applicable everywhere else in the country.

The grant of a writ of coram nobis is undoubtedly a wonderful outcome for Kovacs whose circumstances were very sympathetic, but the question is whether his attorney was ineffective in 1999, and affirmatively misrepresented the deportation consequences so as to be judged to have rendered ineffective assistance. This did not appear to be the case on the part of his attorney under Matter of Sloan, the precedential decision at that time. Moreover, the holding in Matter of Sloan is still considered good law in the Ninth Circuit.  Perhaps there may have been some sort of strategic collusion here that is not readily apparent to an objective reader of the decision.  Fink may have wanted to help his former client and did not come in the way. The government also may not have wanted to impede the retroactive applicability of Matter of Robles. When an attorney’s incompetence is not so clear cut, the non-citizen affected by the criminal conviction may consider seeking alternative remedies such as challenging the retroactive holding of the BIA. It may sometimes be impermissible for an agency to make a retroactive ruling that affects reasonable reliance interests. SeeHeckler v. Community Health Servs. of Crawford County, Inc., 467 U.S. 51, 60 n.12 (1984),  Miguel-Miguel v. Gonzales, 500 F.3d 941, 950-953 (9th Cir. 2007),  Lehman v. Burnley, 866 F.2d 33, 37-38 (2d Cir. 1989). If the plea occurred before the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), then  non-citizen LPRs who have been convicted of  crimes involving moral turpitude can still be admitted if their trips overseas were brief, casual and innocent. See Vartelas v. Holder, 132 S. Ct. 1479 (2012).  If the conviction occurred after the passage of IIRIRA, then a non-citizen may still seek a waiver under INA 212(h) to overcome the inadmissibility caused by the crime of moral turpitude.

This is not to suggest that non-citizens should be reluctant to seek to vacate their criminal convictions based on ineffective assistance of counsel. In Padilla v. Kentucky, 130 S. Ct. 1473 (2010), the Supreme Court allowed a non-citizen’s plea to be vacated upon ineffective assistance of counsel when his attorney did not advise him about the immigration consequences of his plea. Later, in Chaidez v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 1103 (2013), the Supreme Court clarified that Padilla would not be applied retroactively to criminal cases that were already final when Padilla was decided. However, Chaidez’s preclusion against retroactivity is inapplicable when the attorney affirmatively misadvised the non-citizen about the immigration consequences of the criminal plea, as was the case in Kovacs, rather than fail to provide any advice. Still, that advice ought to have been wrong before an ineffective assistance claim can pass muster. While an attorney who is found to have rendered ineffective assistance in the criminal context will likely not be disciplined, one would not want to be publicly found by a Court of Appeals to have been incompetent and rendered ineffective assistance several years later just because the law changed retroactively. An attorney, besides being expected to thoroughly research the prevailing law at a given point in time, ought not to be expected to gaze into a crystal ball to determine whether the law can change many years later in order to avoid being ambushed by an ineffective finding!

WHEN IS A TWEET AN ATTORNEY ADVERTISEMENT?

Immigration attorneys have naturally adapted to the internet faster than attorneys in other practice areas. They were the among the first to set up their own web sites, and with the advent of social media have also happily adapted to Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and other social networks. Using social media helps an immigration attorney to reach out to an audience very quickly, without expending huge marketing resources. Moreover, since the client base of an immigration attorney is not bound by a particular area or state (as immigration practice is mostly based on federal law), and can also be located across the globe, social media can help an immigration attorney reach out to them.

Still, an attorney needs to be mindful of the various ethical rules that would be applicable when using social media. This advisory will focus on the ethical rules concerning advertising, and reference will be made to the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct and the New York Rules of Professional Conduct, although attorneys are advised to also refer to their own state bar rules of professional conduct.

While this advisory is applicable to all social media messaging, Twitter will be its particular focus since it poses unique challenges compared to other social media. Twitter only allows one to communicate within 140 characters, which can be particular problematic if such messaging needs to include the various disclaimers following an attorney advertisement. Twitter is also more open than other social media sites since a follower does not need permission to follow you. Moreover, even non-followers can view your tweets, which can be constant and numerous. The whole essence of Twitter is to effectively fit your message within a limited number of characters while ethics rules constraining attorney advertising require a lot more verbiage.

While lawyers are permitted to advertise their services, they are bound by various ethical constraints.

Model Rule 7.1 states:

A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.

 

Also, many jurisdictions require that when a lawyer advertises his or her services, the words “Attorney Advertising” be stated in such a communication.

For example, this is what New York’s Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 7.1(f) requires:

Every advertisement other than those appearing in a radio, television or billboard advertisement, in a directory, newspaper, magazine or other periodical (and any web sites related thereto), or made in person pursuant to Rule 7.3(a)(1), shall be labeled “Attorney Advertising” on the first page, or on the home page in the case of a web site. If the communication is in the form of a self-mailing brochure or postcard, the words “Attorney Advertising” shall appear therein. In the case of electronic mail, the subject line shall contain the notation “ATTORNEY ADVERTISING.”

 

However, not every communication made by a lawyer would constitute an advertisement. If a lawyer wishes to quickly share an article in the New York Times as soon as it appears on comprehensive immigration reform onTwitter, would it constitute advertising? This lawyer may have a completely altruistic motivation, which is to share a timely and interesting article on immigration reform to her community of 3,000 followers on Twitter.On the other hand, the lawyer also hopes that by sharing this article, people would realize that the lawyer is on top of the latest developments and may be more inclined to retain her services. Thus, while such a communication does not overtly invite people to employ this lawyer’s services, it might be the underlying motivation of the lawyer to brand herself as someone who is on the top of her game and hope that people would reach out to her.

When does a tweet constitute an advertisement that will be subject to the various ethical constraints? For instance, New York Rules of Professional Conduct at Rule 1.0 defines advertisement as:

“Advertisement” means any public or private communication made by or on behalf of a lawyer or law firm about that lawyer or law firm’s services, the primary purpose of which is for the retention of the lawyer or law firm. It does not include communications to existing clients or other lawyers.

 

It is thus unclear whether the sharing of the New York Times article would constitute an advertisement as it does not suggest that its primary purpose is for the retention of the lawyer, and then require the attorney under the New York rules to indicate “ATTORNEY ADVERTISING.” Such a requirement with respect to a tweet, which only allows 140 characters, would also diminish the value of the impromptu and conversational tone of the Twitter message, although one should be cautioned that a disciplinary committee would not be concerned about a lawyer’s desire to preserve the spontaneous character of a tweet if it violated the constraints on attorney advertising.

If every tweet is considered an attorney advertisement, it would be virtually impossible to tweet anything at least under the New York Rules of Professional Responsibility. For instance, under New York Rules of Professional Conduct 7.1(d) and (e), statements that are likely to create an expectation about results the lawyer can achieve have to be accompanied by the following disclaimer: “Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.” Moreover, under 7.1(h) all advertisements shall include the name, principal law office address and telephone number of the lawyer or law firm whose services are being offered. Finally, 7.1(k) requires a copy of all advertisements to be retained for a period of 3 years following initial dissemination. This would require an attorney to keep a copy of each of his or her thousands of tweets for 3 years!

Fortunately, the State Bar of California Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility recently issued a helpful ethics opinion clarifying under what circumstances would an attorney’s postings on social media websites be subject to the standards governing attorney advertising. The opinion provides the following examples of an attorney’s postings on her Facebook page, which has about 500 friends.

Example 1
 “Case finally over. Unanimous verdict! Celebrating tonight.”
Example 2

 

“Another great victory in court today! My client is delighted. Who wants to be be next?”
Example 3
 “Won a million dollar verdict. Tell your friends and check out my website.”
 Example 4
 “Won another personal injury case. Call me for a free consultation.”
 Example 5
“Just published an article on wage and hour breaks. Let me know if you would like a copy.”

 

California’s Rule 1-400 defining “communications,” which is similar to the New York rule 7.1(f), provides that “any message or offer made by or on behalf of a member concerning the availability for professional employment of a member or a law firm directed to any former, present or prospective client…”

The key determining factor, therefore, is whether an attorney communicates in such a way so as to make himself available for professional employment or for the purpose of retention of his services. Under this standard, according to the California ethics opinion, the following Facebook messages may or may not be communications:

“Case finally over. Unanimous verdict! Celebrating tonight.”

Example 1 is not a communication as it is not a message or offer “concerning availability of professional employment” regardless of the attorney’s subjective intent in sending it.  The opinion thus makes an important point. The communication must overtly suggest that the lawyer is available for professional employment, regardless of whether this was the attorney’s underlying motive in doing so.

“Another great victory in court today! My client is delighted. Who wants to be be next?”

The verbiage in Example 2 “Another great victory in court today! My client is delighted” standing alone is not a communication, but because of the additional text “Who wants to be next?” makes it a communication as it suggests availability for professional employment. Moreover, the opinion goes on to state that an attorney cannot disseminate communications regarding client testimonials unless there is an express disclaimer. The statement further violated California ethical rules as it included guarantees or predictions regarding the representation, which can be deceptive. The statement regarding “Who wants to be next” can be interpreted as who wants to be the next victorious client.

“Won a million dollar verdict. Tell your friends and check out my website.”
“Won another personal injury case. Call me for a free consultation.”

It is readily obvious that both Example 3 and Example 4 constitute communications and are thus subject to the restraints on attorney advertising.  Directing friends to “check out my website” suggests that people may consider hiring her after looking at her website. Even directing people to call for a free consultation can be viewed as a step towards seeking potential employment, and thus such anoffer also constitutes a communication.

“Just published an article on wage and hour breaks. Let me know if you would like a copy.”

According to the opinion, Example 5 did not constitute a communication since the attorney is merely relaying information regarding an article that she has published and is offering a copy. Even communications relating to availability of seminars or educational programs, or mailing bulletins or briefs, do not entail attorney advertising, according to the opinion.

Most immigration attorneys who use social media generally share articles and information, and under this California opinion, may not be constrained by the rules relating to attorney advertising. Still, it is unclear whether other states will follow this logic and important distinction.

Comment 8 to  New York Rules of Professional Responsibility Rule 7.1 is worth noting:

The circulation or distribution to prospective clients by a lawyer of an article or report published about the lawyer by a third party is advertising if the lawyer’s primary purpose is to obtain retentions. In circulating or distributing such materials the lawyer should include information or disclaimers as necessary to dispel any misconceptions to which the article may give rise. For example, if a lawyer circulates an article discussing the lawyer’s successes that is reasonably likely to create an expectation about the results the lawyer will achieve in future cases, a disclaimer is required by paragraph (e)(3). If the article contains misinformation about the lawyer’s qualifications, any circulation of the article by the lawyer should make any necessary corrections or qualifications. This may be necessary even when the article included misinformation through no fault of the lawyer or because the article is out of date, so that material information that was true at the time is no longer true. Some communications by a law firm that may constitute marketing or branding are not necessarily advertisements. For example, pencils, legal pads, greeting cards, coffee mugs, T-shirts or the like with the law firm name, logo, and contact information printed on them do not constitute “advertisements” within the definition of this Rule if their primary purpose is general awareness and branding, rather than the retention of the law firm for a particular matter.

It is advisable that any communication on Twitter, as well as other social media websites, should comport with the last example in the California opinion involving the sharing of information. However, any information written about a lawyer by a third party, which the lawyer then distributes, may constitute advertising. On the other hand, as noted in Comment 8, “[s]ome communications by a law firm that may constitute marketing or branding are not necessarily advertisements.”    A lawyer who chooses to communicate on Twitter in a way that would invite followers to use his services is doing so at his own peril.  It would be impossible to include all the disclaimers required by the ethical constraints in a tweet that can comprise only 140 characters! It is also debatable whether putting a one-time disclaimer in the Twitter header profile would suffice, such as “Tweets = ATTORNEY ADVERTISING.”  Twitter also does not allow you to include more than 160 characters of information in the profile such as the attorney’s address and other disclaimers.Moreover, a disciplinary authority might opine that every tweet ought to have included the required disclaimers since people viewing it in their Twitter feed will not bother to look at the header profile of the attorney. Still, putting a disclaimer in the profile would probably be the best good faith option for an attorney who wishes to use Twitter for attorney advertising. Indeed, New York’s Professional Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 7.1(f) requires the “Attorney Advertising” notation only on the home page of the law firm’s website, and by analogy, it could be argued that putting this notation only in the Twitter profile may comply with the rule. Another option with respect to a tweet that is an advertisement is to provide a link to another site that contains all the additional disclaimers, if applicable.

In conclusion, social media, especially Twitter, provide a valuable tool for an immigration attorney with limited resources to reach out to a global audience. In order not to get snared by the advertising constraints,  it is best for immigration attorneys to use social media to share information for marketing and branding, which in turn will create awareness of the attorney’s expertise and knowledge in the field. Until the ethics rules catch up, it would also be consistent with the spontaneous character of social media sites, especially Twitter, to use it to share information rather than to engage in outright advertising. Using Twitter in this way is likely to attract more followers than if the attorney used it for blatant advertising purposes only. Also, a tweet involving useful information is more likely to be “retweeted” than an advertisement.  There are other sources for attorney advertising, which unlike Twitter, would not constrain an attorney to include all the necessary disclaimers and requirements under the ethical rules.

Crime Without Punishment: Have You Ever Committed A Crime For Which You Have Not Been Arrested?

Advising a client on how to answer Kafkaesque questions on immigration forms regarding potential past criminality can pose a dilemma for the ethically-minded immigration attorney and the processes raises a multitude of complex issues cutting across various areas of law.

For example, the Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, asks broadly “Have you ever committed a crime or offense for which you have not been arrested?” One would be hard pressed to find a person who has never committed an offense for which she has not been arrested. Multitudes of New Yorkers must have committed the offense of jay walking with full sight of a police officer who never bothered citing the offender. Some states criminalize “fornication” (sexual intercourse between unmarried persons) despite this type of law’s dubious constitutionality. New York criminalizes adultery no matter how long ago a person separated from the spouse. Does an immigration attorney have to plumb a client’s sexual past to answer the question on the N-400 application? Must the lawyer then also report the client’s other past potential offenses such as speeding?

The question on the I-485 application asks more narrowly if one has knowingly “committed any crime of moral turpitude [“CIMT”] or drug-related offense” which did not result in arrest. Given the heavy litigation in this area, only a lawyer with experience could recognize a CIMT. Under the categorical approach, which requires consideration of the minimal conduct implicated by a penal law, even if one has engaged in “theft,” a temporary taking of another’s belongings (rather than a permanent one) may not be morally turpitudinous. See e.g. Wala v. Mukasey, 511 F.3d 102 (2d Cir. 2007). Regarding a “drug-related offense,” if your client smoked pot at a concert during college, how do you assess whether the act was a crime within that jurisdiction back then? In a complex penal law system, requiring the prosecutor to determine the applicable law and demonstrating each element of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, without a lab test can the client know beyond a reasonable doubt that the substance was pot and not say oregano?

ABA Model Rule 3.3(a)(1) states that “[a] lawyer shall not knowingly make a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal or fail to correct a false statement of a material fact or law previously made to the tribunal by the lawyer…” Criminal penalties may attach to a lawyer who knowingly falsely prepares an application for a client. See 18 USC 1001, 18 USC 1546 or 18 USC 371. Whether a lawyer can be accused of unethical or criminal conduct without knowing that a crime occurred is unclear; an overzealous prosecutor or bar investigator might pursue it.

The question of knowingly committing a crime for which one has never been arrested derives from INA § 212(a)(2), which makes inadmissible one who admits having committed certain crimes. Thus, a non-citizen, including an LPR, need not have a criminal conviction to be found inadmissible; he or she can be equally snared for having admitted to the commission of a crime. Yet, the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”) has established stringent requirements for a validly obtained admission: (1) the admitted conduct must constitute the essential elements of a crime in the jurisdiction in which it occurred; (2) the applicant must have been provided with the definition and essential elements of the crime in understandable terms prior to making the admission; and (3) the admission must have been made voluntarily. See Matter of K-, 7 I&N Dec. 594 (BIA 1957). It would be very difficult for an applicant to satisfy the requirements of an admission while completing the form.

The requirements established by the BIA to corral the unwieldy question suggests that it defies a straightforward answer. Even in what seems an obvious admission of crime – your client arrives to sign the form and reports having just killed someone, might she have committed an act of self-defense if she was in a city with a Stand Your Ground law?

This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in AILA’s Immigration Practice News (June 2012). Copyright © 2012, American Immigration Lawyers Association. All rights reserved. Reprinted, with permission, from AILA’s Immigration Practice News, (June 2012), available from AILA Publications, http://agora.aila.org.

The author thanks his associate, Myriam Jaidi, for assistance on this article.

THE ROLE OF THE IMMIGRATION LAWYER IN ADVISING UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS

By Cyrus Mehta

Immigration lawyers commonly encounter a client who is undocumented and asks about options to obtain status. If in the event there are no options, the next question is whether there are any options that might arise in the future. In the course of counseling the client who is not in status, can the attorney recommend that this person remain in the U.S. in this unlawful status until a benefit “may” accrue in the near or distant future? Even if the attorney may not directly advise the client to remain in the U.S. in violation of the law, would an attorney advising the client of a potential future immigration law be implicitly encouraging the client to remain in violation of the law, and also be implicating any ethical obligations?

This situation indeed is one of the great paradoxes in immigration practice, since an individual who is in undocumented status need not expect to remain eternally undocumented. A classic example is one who is “grandfathered” under § 245(i) of the INA. So long as an immigrant visa petition or labor certification was filed on behalf of this person on or before April 30, 2001 that was “approvable as filed,” and if the principal applicant, for whom the labor certification was filed was physically present in the U.S. on December 21, 2000 (in cases where the labor certification or petition was filed after January 14, 1998), this individual can ultimately adjust status in the U.S. when she is eligible to do so.

In the meantime, while this individual is waiting to become eligible for adjustment of status, he or she continues to remain unlawfully in the U.S. and may also be placed in removal despite having an approved petition, but unable to adjust status until the priority date becomes current. We encounter yet another paradox when such a person who is potentially eligible under § 245(i) is issued a Notice to Appear and is placed in removal proceedings. The Board of Immigration Appeals has held that it may be an abuse of discretion for an Immigration Judge to deny a continuance to a respondent who has a prima facie approvable visa petition, in both the family and employment context, and is also potentially eligible for adjustment of status. See e.g. Matter of Hashmi, 24 I&N Dec. 785 (BIA 2009); Matter of Rajah, 25 I&N Dec. 127 (BIA 2009).

Indeed, being documented or undocumented is part of the same continuum. A thoroughly undocumented person, when placed in removal proceedings, can seek cancellation of removal under stringent criteria pursuant to INA §240A(b), such as by being physically present in the U.S. on a continuous basis for not less than 10 years, by demonstrating good moral character during this period, by not being convicted of certain offenses and by demonstrating “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to the alien’s spouse, parent, or child,” who is a citizen or a permanent resident. Similarly, the undocumented person can also apply for asylum within one year of his or her arrival in the US, and can do so even later, if exceptional or extraordinary circumstances are demonstrated. Conversely, a documented person, such as one in H-1B status can according to the government also technically be considered not in status, during the pendency of an extension request, although this position has been successfully challenged.

Such a person whose visa has long since expired could also possibly get wrapped up in a romantic encounter with a U.S. citizen, marry, and dramatically convert from undocumented to permanent resident within a few months. At times, Congress bestows such permanent residency, as we have already seen, through section 245(i) or the LIFE Act, or a person can obtain Temporary Protected Status (TPS), if a calamity were to befall his or her country such as the recent TPS program and its extension for Haitians after the devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010. Millions of undocumented immigrants, including children, who have fallen out of status or entered without any status, are waiting for Congress to pass legislation that could legalize their status. Immigration lawyers also advocate on their behalf, and help them draft petitions and accompany them to the offices of elected representatives.

The following extract from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plyer v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), which held that undocumented children could not be deprived of a public education, is worth noting:

To be sure, like all persons who have entered the United States unlawfully, these children are subject to deportation. But there is no assurance that a child subject to deportation will ever be deported. An illegal entrant might be granted federal permission to continue to reside in the country, or even become a citizen.

Against this backdrop, the immigration lawyer must be mindful of certain limitations. On the one hand, a lawyer is under a duty to act zealously. According to Rule 1.3 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.” Comment 1 to Rule 1.3 provides, “A lawyer should …take whatever lawful and ethical measures are required to vindicate a client’s cause or endeavor. A lawyer must also act with commitment and dedication to the interests of the client and with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf.” On the other hand, a lawyer can only zealously represent his or her client within the bounds of the law. Under Model Rule 1.2(d), “A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent, but a lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client and may counsel or assist the client to make a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law.”

The key issue is whether counseling a client to remain in the U.S., even indirectly (such as by advising of future immigration benefits), is potentially in violation of Model Rule 1.2(d) or its analog under state bar ethics rules.

While practitioners must ascertain the precise language of the analog of Model Rule 1.2(d) in their own states, one can argue that overstaying a visa is neither “criminal” nor “fraudulent” conduct. Even while an entry without inspection (EWI) might be a misdemeanor under INA §275, it is no longer a continuing criminal violation to remain in the U.S. after the EWI. Although being unlawfully present in the U.S. may be an infraction under civil immigration statutes, it is not criminal or fraudulent, and given the paradoxical situation where an undocumented noncitizen can eternally hope to gain legal status, a lawyer ought not to be sanctioned under Model Rule 1.2(d) or its state analog with respect to advising individuals who are not in status in the U.S.

Of course, the most prudent approach is to refrain from expressly advising or encouraging a client to remain in the U.S. in violation of the law; and instead, present both the adverse consequences and potential benefits to the client if he or she chooses to remain in the United States in violation of the law. In fact, adopting such an approach becomes imperative when remaining in the U.S., in certain circumstances, does constitute criminal conduct. For instance, failure to depart after a removal order within 90 days under INA §243 renders such conduct a criminal felony. Even here there is an exception at INA §243(a)(2), which provides: “It is not in violation of paragraph (1) to take any proper steps for the purpose of securing cancellation of or exemption from such order of removal or for the purpose of securing the alien’s release from incarceration or custody.” Moreover, there are provisions that allow a person who received a final removal order many years ago to reopen if the government consents to such reopening and there is available relief against deportation. See 8 C.F.R. § 1003.2(c)(3)(iii); 8 C.F.R. § 1003.23(b)(4)(iv).

The latest Immigration and Customs Enforcement Memo on prosecutorial discretion by John Morton, June 17, 2011, instructing officials to exercise prosecutorial discretion in a number of situations also behooves the immigration attorney to zealously advise his or her clients of all options notwithstanding INA §243. The ICE Memo instructs that an individual who is removable, but is on low enforcement priority, can ask ICE for supervised release (and can then request employment authorization), deferred action or can seek to reopen with the government’s consent the removal order if there is relief available.

What about a state law that makes it criminal for an unauthorized immigrant to remain in the state? We can argue at this point that the major provisions of the laws of Arizona, Georgia and Indiana have been enjoined as being unconstitutional. Many of these state laws could snare people who may not technically be registered under federal law, but may be allowed to remain in the US by the federal government and even be given employment authorization such as battered spouses who have filed self-petitions under the Violence Against Women Act, U visa applicants (victims of certain crimes ) or TPS applicants. Moreover, while a state may seek to banish the so called individual from its territory, under the federal immigration system, he or she must first be placed in proceedings. While in proceedings, this individual can then potentially apply for relief such as cancellation of removal, and can get employment authorization even while continuing to remain unlawfully present. The author commends readers to David Isaacson’s A PRELIMINARY LOOK AT SOME OF THE CONSTITUTIONAL AND PRACTICAL PROBLEMS WITH ALABAMA’S NEW IMMIGRATION LAW in order to fully understand the contradictions between a state’s immigration law and the federal immigration law.

In closing, Comment 9 to Model Rule 1.2(d) is a golden nugget, which summarizes the delicate balance that the attorney ought to strike when representing a client who may be undocumented but who has potential relief in the future:

Paragraph (d) prohibits a lawyer from knowingly counseling or assisting a client to commit a crime or fraud. This prohibition, however, does not preclude the lawyer from giving an honest opinion about the actual consequences that appear likely to result from a client’s conduct. Nor does the fact that a client uses advice in a course of action that is criminal or fraudulent of itself make a lawyer a party to the course of action. There is a critical distinction between presenting an analysis of legal aspects of questionable conduct and recommending the means by which a crime or fraud might be committed with impunity.

(This blog include extracts from How To Walk The Ethical Line – Being Less Stressed Out, by Cyrus D. Mehta, Sam Myers, and Kathleen Campbell Walker, AILA’s Immigration Practice Pointers (2011-12 Edition)).