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Should bar regulators use tech tools to search for ethics violations on law firm websites?

Posted Feb 15, 2013 11:06 AM CDT
By Sarah Mui

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Red-light cameras (so to speak) for lawyer websites?

At My Shingle, Washington, D.C., solo Carolyn Elefant took note of a new tool by legal document start-up Docracy that tracks updates to websites' terms of service agreements at more than 900 social media sites. The tool got her thinking.

"Docracy’s TOS tracker makes fairly clear that the technology needed to track changes on websites is readily available and not all that difficult to develop or implement," she wrote. So perhaps it's something that bar regulators could use to monitor law firm websites for noncompliant advertising practices. A tool like this could do the job more thoroughly and impartially than regulators could do on their own, she writes. And "subjecting all lawyers equally to oversight might eliminate the current disciplinary system of selective prosecution which is often motivated for political or anti-competitive reasons (most lawyer websites are reported not by misled consumers but by disgruntled competitors)."

However, Elefant emphasizes she would never endorse such a system. "One need look no further than the way that municipalities have converted red-light cameras into cash cows to fill their coffers to get a sense of where technology-enabled ethics enforcement might lead if applied to lawyers."

But New York City solo Scott Greenfield thinks it could work. "This concern is certainly valid, but seems fairly easy to address," Greenfield writes at Simple Justice. "While Carolyn is thinking of the bots as not only identifying potential ethical violations, but evaluating compliance on their own, it seems to me that the role could be far more limited, just raising red flags of potential violations, which would then be kicked to the disciplinary staff for review. In other words, the red-light camera issue wouldn't arise because there would never be a violation found based solely on a bot's say-so. Indeed, without a due process component, which is wholly missing from red-light camera violations, nobody should be found to be in violation of anything."


Infamous client, infamous law firm

The world was stunned Thursday after South African Olympian and double amputee Oscar Pistorius was arrested and charged with murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, a model and a law school graduate. Above the Law blogger Elie Mystal visited Pistorius' website and saw something ironic.

Pistorius was "a famous client of the now-defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf," Mystal wrote. "That’s a firm that knows a little something about a fall from grace. But in a world where sports icons seem to be competing to become the biggest disappointment, the story of Pistorius and his model/lawyer girlfriend seems to win the race to the bottom."

At the Web page Pistorius has devoted to Dewey, he thanks them for their successful pro bono efforts to get the International Association of Athletics Federations' ban against his competition in "able-bodied events" lifted. "The role they played in my successful appeal has not only had a major impact on my career, but also on those of disabled athletes around the world," Pistorius wrote.


It's all about the Hamiltons

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Last Saturday, many people in Connecticut were dealing with Winter Storm Nemo. Hartford, Conn., lawyer Ryan McKeen pointed out at A Connecticut Law Blog that those whose roads weren't plowed had some legal recourse.

"Connecticut is the land of arcane laws. Perhaps none as arcane as Conn. Gen. Stat. § 13a-107," McKeen wrote. According to the law, a Connecticut town's selectmen are under obligation to clear impassable roads within a reasonable amount of time. And "any selectman who fails to open any highway so blocked, when requested in writing so to do by six taxpayers residing on or near such highway, shall be fined ten dollars."

McKeen notes that the 1963 law doesn't make much more sense then than it does now. "The law was enacted before email. If a road is impassable, how is a person to write to his selectman?"

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