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March 2021 - Page 4

Ethics and the Law: Bad Reviews

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QUESTIONS PRESENTED

May a Texas lawyer respond publicly to a former client’s adverse comments on the internet? If so, what information may the lawyer disclose?  

STATEMENT OF FACTS

A former client posted negative comments about a Texas lawyer on an internet review site. The lawyer believes that the client’s comments are false. The lawyer is considering posting a public response that reveals only enough information to rebut the allegedly false statements.   

DISCUSSION

The internet allows consumers to publish instant reviews and comments about goods or services. Once posted, consumer reviews are usually searchable, easily accessible to other potential consumers, and effectively permanent. With the internet becoming an increasingly common source of referrals for legal services, consumer reviews on various sites have assumed a greater importance for attorneys in recent years.

Vendors of commercial goods or services are relatively free to respond to negative reviews as they see fit. But when a former client posts a negative review about a lawyer, the lawyer’s duty of confidentiality limits the information the lawyer may reveal in a public response.  

In general, Rule 1.05 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct defines the scope and extent of a Texas lawyer’s duty of confidentiality. Rule 1.05(a) broadly defines “confidential information” to include not only information protected by the lawyer-client privilege but also “all information relating to a client or furnished by the client, other than privileged information, acquired by the lawyer during the course of or by reason of the representation of the client.”  

A lawyer may not publicly reveal the confidential information of a former client unless expressly permitted by an exception stated in Rule 1.05. Absent an applicable exception found in Rule 1.05, a lawyer may not post a response to a negative review that reveals any information protected by the lawyer-client privilege, or otherwise relating to a client or furnished by the client or acquired by the lawyer during the course of or by reason of the representation of the client. This is true even though the information may have become generally known. Compare Rule 1.05(b)(3) (allowing lawyer to use confidential information to the disadvantage of a former client after the information has become generally known) with Rule 1.05(b)(1) (generally prohibiting revelation of confidential information absent an applicable exception).

No exception in Rule 1.05 allows a lawyer to reveal information in a public forum in response to a former client’s negative review. The only exceptions potentially applicable to the facts presented in this Article appear in Rule 1.05(c) and (d):

(c) A lawyer may reveal confidential information:

(5) To the extent reasonably necessary to enforce a claim or establish a defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client.

(6) To establish a defense to a criminal charge, civil claim or disciplinary complaint against the lawyer or the lawyer’s associates based upon conduct involving the client or the representation of the client. 

(d) A lawyer also may reveal unprivileged client information:

(ii) defend the lawyer or the lawyer’s employees or associates against a claim of wrongful conduct;

(iii) respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client; or

(iv) prove the services rendered to a client, or the reasonable value thereof, or both, in an action against another person or organization responsible for the payment of the fee for services rendered to the client.”

It is the opinion of the Committee that each of the exceptions stated above applies only in connection with formal actions, proceedings, or charges. The exceptions to Rule 1.05 cannot reasonably be interpreted to allow public disclosure of a former client’s confidences just because a former client has chosen to make negative comments about the lawyer on the internet. This approach is consistent with the guidance issued by the ethics authorities in other jurisdictions.

See, e.g., Los Angeles County Bar Association Professional Responsibility and Ethics Committee Formal Opinion No. 525 (Feb. 2013); Bar Association of San Francisco Ethics Opinion 2014-1 (Jan. 2014); New York State Bar Association Ethics Opinion 1032 (Oct. 2014); and Pennsylvania Bar Association Formal Ethics Opinion 2014-200 (2014).

Accordingly, a lawyer may not reveal confidential information, as that term is defined in Rule 1.05, merely to respond to a former client’s negative review on the internet. A lawyer may, however, post a response to a former client’s negative review so long as the response is proportional and restrained and does not reveal confidential information or violate any other provision of the Texas Disciplinary Rules. For example, it would not violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules to post the following response, suggested in Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Formal Ethics Opinion 2014-200 (2014):

“A lawyer’s duty to keep client confidences has few exceptions and in an abundance of caution I do not feel at liberty to respond in a point-by-point fashion in this forum.  Suffice it to say that I do not believe that the post presents a fair and accurate picture of the events.”

Nothing in this article is intended to suggest that a lawyer may not seek judicial relief against a former client who commits defamation or other actionable misconduct through an internet publication.  

CONCLUSION

Under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, a Texas lawyer may not publish a response to a former client’s negative review on the internet if the response reveals any confidential information, i.e., information protected by the lawyer-client privilege, or otherwise relating to a client or furnished by the client or acquired by the lawyer during the course of or by reason of the representation of the client. The lawyer may post a proportional and restrained response that does not reveal any confidential information or otherwise violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.

INQUIRY TO TCDLA ETHICS COMMITTEE FROM AGGRIEVED LAWYER

Attached is the review my client left.  My question is whether I can disclose in my response the fact that her case was dismissed and expunged.

I was hoping to receive the same level guidance, representation, and communication from [attorney X] as his previous reviews have indicated. It is very disappointing to be writing this review. I am confused as to why I had a completely lackluster and different experience. Any time I had a question for him I would receive a curt clipped response as if I was bothering him. I always had the feeling I had made a bad decision in having him represent me because of this. To his credit he was very responsive in texting back and performed the basic functions of his role, which for my issue were not very complicated. He did not spend $2500 worth of time on me and if so, I’ve yet to see his hours. Unfortunately, he did not communicate on issues that he knew about at the time would still impact me. I received very little communication on what to look out for and when asked about it he shared that because he gave me a discount, I should have no problem paying to have an error removed from my background now. Time is one thing that cannot be recovered. He was more focused on money though. I received the bare minimum from him. Overall, I feel he was apathetic and unhelpful in his representation of me. I hope no other client is treated this way.

RESPONSE OF COMMITTEE MEMBER JOE CONNORS

Please get back to us later after your ex-client then files another on-line response with many more details to further denigrate you in so many new ways.

Like the other responses from the Ethics Committee attorneys who took time to share their experience and knowledge with you, I also suggest YOUR SILENCE would be best. It will stop this matter now rather than its continuing with another bad post by your ex-client.

You asked for our advice but refuse to follow it so be forewarned: “This one is not over with posting your fine words.”

I have been there where you currently are. My silence stopped the need for my denigrating ex-client and non-client to get in each last evil word on-line about how bad I was. You ought to just be silent, I request. 

REPLY OF INQUIRING ATTORNEY

Aside from ethics rules, I believe it is a misdemeanor to divulge an expunction.  So, I do not think it would be wise to include in a response that I got a criminal case dismissed and expunged. I will just use the one suggested by Ethic opinion 662:

A lawyer’s duty to keep client confidences has few exceptions and in an abundance of caution I do not feel at liberty to respond in a point-by-point fashion in this forum.  Suffice it to say that I do not believe that the post presents a fair and accurate picture of the events.

RESPONSE OF COMMITTEE MEMBER BETTY BLACKWELL

I have just recently reviewed the State Bar rules about this, and they are extremely strict.  About the only answer you can give is that “professional rules do not allow me to respond as I would like.”

Anything you post on the website can be seen as a violation of confidentiality.  The only other thing they recommended was reaching out directly to the client and asking if you could talk to her about the review.  But it is really not recommended and could be an ethical violation to respond on the site where the review is posted,

I’m so sorry.  We have all had them.  It is frustrating, but better to ignore.

I have been told the best thing to do is get better reviews posted.  The bar does say that it is okay to request clients to post good reviews, though it is not okay to pay for good reviews.

Federal Corner: If You Have a Cell Phone Search Issue, Assume the Governor is Aware of Morton

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On February 2, 2021, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that an officer’s affidavit provided probable cause to search the contacts, call logs, and text messages on the defendant’s cell phone, but not to search for photographs on the cell phone; and, also, that the good faith exception did not apply to allow the admission of the photographs that were found on the cell phone.  United States v. Morton.1

A week or so later, I asked an AUSA whether he had read Morton.  He replied that he and the other lawyers in the office – and one of the magistrate judges in the division – had read it and were concerned about its implications.  If you have a case that involves the search of a cell phone, Morton is a “must read.”  It is another Leon2 case, but one in which the defendant prevailed.

Judge Jolly’s opinion reads, in part, as follows:

An Overview of the Opinion

In this appeal, we are asked to determine whether the good faith exception to the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule allows officers to search the photographs on a defendant’s cellphones for evidence of drug possession, when the affidavits supporting the search warrants were based only on evidence of personal drug possession and an officer’s generalized allegations about the behavior of drug traffickers—not drug users. We hold that the officers’ affidavits do not provide probable cause to search the photographs stored on the defendant’s cellphones; and further, we hold that the good faith exception does not apply because the officers’ reliance on the defective warrants was objectively unreasonable. And while respecting the ‘great deference’ that the presiding judge is owed, we further hold that he did not have a substantial basis for his probable cause determination with regard to the photographs. We thus conclude that the digital images found on Morton’s cellphones are inadmissible, and his conviction is therefore VACATED. Accordingly, the case is REMANDED for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

The Facts in the Case

Brian Matthew Morton was stopped for speeding near Palo Pinto, Texas. After the officers smelled marijuana, he gave consent to search his van. Officers found sixteen ecstasy pills, one small bag of marijuana, and a glass pipe. When, however, they discovered children’s school supplies, a lollipop, 14 sex toys, and 100 pairs of women’s underwear in the vehicle, they became more concerned that Morton might be a pedophile.  After arresting Morton for drug possession, one of the officers, Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Trooper Burt Blue, applied for warrants to search Morton’s three cellphones that were found in the van. Trooper Blue’s affidavits for the search warrants mentioned no concerns about child exploitation; instead, the warrants purported to seek more evidence of Morton’s criminal drug activity based on Trooper Blue’s training and experience—fourteen years in law enforcement and eight years as a ‘DRE-Drug Recognition Expert’—as well as the drugs found in Morton’s possession and his admission that the drugs were in fact marijuana and ecstasy.

The Affidavits and the Warrants

The affidavits and warrants were identical to each other except for naming different cellphones to be searched. The paragraph of the affidavits describing the objects of the search reads:

It is the belief of affiant that suspected party was in possession of and is concealing in the cellphones … evidence of the offense of Possession of ecstasy, possession of marijuana and other criminal activity; to wit telephone numbers, address books; call logs, contacts, recently called numbers, recently received calls; recently missed calls; text messages (both SMS messages and MMS messages); photographs, digital images, or multimedia files in furtherance of narcotics trafficking or possession.3 (emphasis in the opinion)

In full, the sole paragraph in each affidavit purporting to provide probable cause to search Morton’s photographs reads:

Affiant knows through training and experience that photographic images taken on cellular telephones can be stored in the telephones sic memory and retained for future viewing. Affiant also knows through training and experience that criminals often take photographs of co-conspirators as well as illicit drugs and currency derived from the sale of illicit drugs. Affiant believes that photograph images stored in the cellular telephone may identify other co-conspirators and show images of illicit drugs and currency derived from the sale of illicit drugs.4 (emphasis in the opinion)

The Search and the Indictment That Followed

Relying on these affidavits, a judge issued warrants to search Morton’s phones. While searching the phones’ photographs, Trooper Blue and another officer came across sexually explicit images of children. The officers then sought and received another set of warrants to further search the phones for child pornography, ultimately finding 19,270 images of sexually exploited minors. The government then indicted Morton for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(2) for the child pornography found on his three cellphones. The subject of drugs had vaporized.

The Motion to Suppress; the Guilty Plea; and, the Appeal

In pretrial proceedings, Morton moved to suppress this pornographic evidence. He argued that the affidavits in support of the first set of warrants failed to establish probable cause to search for his additional criminal drug activity. The government responded by stating that the warrants were supported by probable cause and, if not, then the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule—first announced by the Supreme Court in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 104 S.Ct. 3405, 82 L.Ed.2d 677 (1984)—should apply. The district court ruled in favor of the government, and Morton later pled guilty to the child pornography charge while reserving his right to appeal the district court’s suppression decision. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, and this appeal of the suppression ruling followed.

Appellate Review of the Denial of a Motion to Suppress

… In reviewing a district court’s denial of a suppression motion for evidence obtained pursuant to a search warrant, our precedent usually applies a two-step test. United States v. Allen, 625 F.3d 830, 835 (5th Cir. 2010). First, we decide whether the good faith exception should apply. Id. If the good faith exception applies, then no further inquiry is required. Id. If the good faith exception does not apply, we proceed to a second step of analysis, in which we review whether the issuing judge had a substantial basis for determining that probable cause existed. Id.

The Good Faith Exception

The good faith exception to the suppression of evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment arises when an officer’s reliance on a defective search warrant is ‘objectively reasonable.’ United States v. Sibley, 448 F.3d 754, 757 (5th Cir. 2006). In such a case, the evidence obtained from the search ‘will not be excluded.’ Id. This court has decided that the good faith exception applies to most searches undertaken pursuant to a warrant unless one of the four situations enumerated in Leon removes the warrant from the exception’s protection. Leon, 468 U.S. at 923, 104 S.Ct. 3405; see Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154, 171, 98 S.Ct. 2674, 57 L.Ed.2d 667 (1978). Only one of these ‘exceptions to the good faith exception’ is relevant here: Morton alleges that the warrant ‘so lacked indicia of probable cause’ that the officers’ reliance on it was ‘entirely unreasonable.’ Leon, 468 U.S. at 923, 104 S.Ct. 3405.  (emphasis added.)

 Indicia of Probable Cause

To determine if there were indicia of probable cause, the reviewing court will usually be required to look at the affidavit supporting the warrant, but, even so, all of the circumstances surrounding the warrant’s issuance may be considered. United States v. Payne, 341 F.3d 393, 400 (5th Cir. 2003); United States v. Fisher, 22 F.3d 574, 578 (5th Cir. 1994). Affidavits must raise a ‘fair probability’ or a ‘substantial chance’ that criminal evidence will be found in the place to be searched for there to be probable cause. Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364, 371, 129 S.Ct. 2633, 174 L.Ed.2d 354 (2009) (cleaned up).

Trooper Blue’s Affidavits

Here, as suggested by this court’s precedent, we turn to Trooper Blue’s affidavits supporting the search warrants. The affidavits seek approval to search Morton’s contacts, call logs, text messages, and photographs for evidence of his drug possession crimes. As the government properly conceded at oral argument, separate probable cause is required to search each of the categories of information found on the cellphones. Although ‘treating a cell phone as a container … is a bit strained,’ the Supreme Court has explained that cellphones do ‘collect  in one place many distinct types of information.’ Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373, 394, 397, 134 S.Ct. 2473, 189 L.Ed.2d 430 (2014). And the Court’s opinion in Riley went to great lengths to explain the range of possible types of information contained on cellphones. (emphasis added.)

Riley made clear that these distinct types of information, often stored in different components of the phone, should be analyzed separately. This requirement is imposed because ‘a cell phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible.’ … Absent unusual circumstances, probable cause is required to search each category of content. Id. at 395, 134 S.Ct. 2473 (stating that ‘certain types of data’ on cellphones are ‘qualitatively different’ from other types); id. at 400, 134 S.Ct. 2473 (analyzing data from a phone’s call log feature separately)… (emphasis added.)

This distinction dovetails with the Fourth Amendment’s imperative that the ‘place to be searched’ be ‘particularly described.’ U.S. CONST. amend. IV.; cf., e.g., United States v. Beaumont, 972 F.2d 553, 560 (5th Cir. 1992)…

Here, this observation means that the facts as alleged in Trooper Blue’s affidavits must raise a ‘fair probability’ or a ‘substantial chance’ that evidence relevant to Morton’s crime—that is, simple drug possession—will be found in each place to be searched: his contacts, his call logs, his text messages, and his photographs. There must be a specific factual basis in the affidavit that connects each cellphone feature to be searched to the drug possession crimes with which Morton was initially charged.  (emphasis added.)

The affidavits successfully establish probable cause to search Morton’s contacts, call logs, and text messages for evidence of drug possession. In attesting that probable cause exists, officers may rely on their experience, training, and all the facts available to them.

But the affidavits also asserted probable cause to believe that the photographs on Morton’s phones contained evidence of other drug crimes, and on this claim, they fail the test of probable cause as related to the crime of possession. That is, they fall short of raising a ‘substantial chance’ that the photographs on Morton’s phones would contain evidence pertinent to his crime of simple drug possession. As we have said, officers are permitted to rely on training and experience when attesting that probable cause exists, but they must not turn a blind eye to details that do not support probable cause for the particular crime. Bigford v. Taylor, 834 F.2d 1213, 1218 (5th Cir. 1988)…  (emphasis in the opinion)

Here, Trooper Blue supplied two facts to provide probable cause to search the images on Morton’s phones. First, Morton was found with less than two ounces of marijuana, a pipe, and sixteen pills that Morton stated were ecstasy. Second, based on Trooper Blue’s training and experience, ‘criminals often take photographs of co-conspirators as well as illicit drugs and currency derived from the sale of illicit drugs.’ This background led Trooper Blue to assert thatphotograph images stored in the cellular telephone may identify other co-conspirators and show images of illicit drugs and currency derived from the sale of illicit drugs.’ These photographs would, in turn, be evidence of ‘other criminal activity … in furtherance of narcotics trafficking’ and Morton’s drug possession crimes. The search warrant is thus expanded to seek information of an alleged narcotics trafficking conspiracy based solely on Morton’s arrest for, and evidence of, simple drug possession.  (emphasis added.)

The Syllogism Fails to Provide Adequate Grounds For the Extensive Search

The syllogism that Trooper Blue offers to gain access to Morton’s photographs does not provide adequate grounds for the extensive search. In short, the syllogism is (1) Morton was found with personal-use quantities of drugs; and (2) drug dealers often take photos of drugs, cash, and co-conspirators; it therefore follows that (3) the photographs on Morton’s phones will provide evidence of Morton’s relationship to drug trafficking. The fallacy of this syllogism is that it relies on a premise that cannot be established, namely that Morton was dealing drugs. And here, Trooper Blue disregarded key facts that show that the evidence did not support probable cause that Morton was a drug dealer.

To begin, the quantity of drugs Morton possessed can best be described as personal-use: a single small bag of marijuana and a few ecstasy pills. Further, Morton did not have scales, weapons, or individual plastic bags that are usually associated with those who sell drugs. It is also significant that the officers arrested Morton for possession of marijuana and ecstasy but not distribution of these drugs. Compare TEX. HEALTH & SAFETY CODE §§ 481.121, 481.116 with id. §§ 481.120, 481.113.  In sum, indications of drug trafficking were lacking: no significant amount of drugs; paraphernalia for personal use, not sale; and no large amounts of cash. Or precisely: there was no evidence supporting drug trafficking.

Since it seems that no evidence supported probable cause to believe that Morton was dealing in drugs, the affidavit leaves us with only the allegations that (1) Morton was found with drugs so (2) it therefore follows that the photographs on Morton’s phones will provide evidence of Morton’s crime of drug possession. With only this bare factual support that Morton possessed drugs, the affidavits contain nothing to link Morton’s marijuana and ecstasy with the photographs on his phones. The affidavits thus do not create a ‘fair probability’ or a ‘substantial chance’ that evidence of the crime of drug possession will be found in the photographs on Morton’s cellphones. Therefore, under these facts and based on the specific language in these affidavits, we hold that probable cause was lacking to search Morton’s photographs for proof of his illegal drug possession.  (emphasis added.)

The Good Faith Exception Does Not Save the Day

Having demonstrated that the warrants to search the photographs stored on Morton’s cellphones were not supported by probable cause, we next turn to the question of whether the evidence produced by the search may nevertheless be admitted based upon the good faith exception. To resolve this question, we ask whether the officers’ good faith reliance on these defective warrants was objectively reasonable. … In reviewing whether an officer’s reliance is reasonable under the good faith exception, we ask ‘whether a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that the search was illegal’ despite the magistrate’s approval. United States v. Gant, 759 F.2d 484, 487–88 (5th Cir. 1985).

The facts here lead to the sensible conclusion that Morton was a consumer of drugs; the facts do not lead to a sensible conclusion that Morton was a drug dealer. Under these facts, reasonably well-trained officers would have been aware that searching the digital images on Morton’s phone—allegedly for drug trafficking-related evidence—was unsupported by probable cause, despite the magistrate’s approval. Consequently, the search here does not receive the protection of the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule.

The Magistrate Did Not Have a Substantial Basis for Determining That Probable Cause to Search the Cell Phone Existed

However, the good faith exception, applicable to the officers, does not end our analysis. As we have said, if the good faith exception does not save the search, we move to a second step: whether the magistrate who issued the warrant had a ‘substantial basis’ for determining that probable cause to search the cellphones existed. United States v. Allen, 625 F.3d 830, 835 (5th Cir. 2010). While the good faith analysis focuses on what an objectively reasonable police officer would have known to be permissible, this second step focuses on the magistrate’s decision. The magistrate is permitted to draw reasonable inferences from the material he receives, and his determination of probable cause is entitled to ‘great deference’ by the reviewing court in all ‘doubtful or marginal cases.’ United States v. May, 819 F.2d 531, 535 (5th Cir. 1987); see 2 WAYNE R. LAFAVE ET AL., CRIMINAL PROCEDURE § 3.1(c) & n.78 (4th ed. 2019).

Here, even giving the magistrate’s determination the deference due, we hold that the magistrate did not have a substantial basis for determining that probable cause existed to extend the search to the photographs on the cellphones. Even if the warrants provided probable cause to search some of the phones’ ‘drawers’ or ‘file cabinets,’ the photographs ‘file cabinet’ could not be searched because the information in the officer’s affidavits supporting a search of the cellphones only related to drug trafficking, not simple possession of drugs. There was thus no substantial basis for the magistrate’s conclusion that probable cause existed to search Morton’s photographs, and the search is not saved by the magistrate’s authority. The search was unconstitutional, not subject to any exceptions, and the evidence must be suppressed as inadmissible. (emphasis added.)

What the Court Has Said

Today, we have held that a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that probable cause was lacking to search the photographs stored on the defendant’s cellphones for evidence related to drug possession, which was the only crime supporting a search. Moreover, we have held that any additional assertions in the affidavits were too minimal and generalized to provide probable cause for the magistrate to authorize the search of the photographs. Because the officers’ search of the stored photographs pursuant to the first warrants was impermissible, obviously the use of that information—which was the evidence asserted to secure the second set of warrants—tainted the evidence obtained as a result of that second search, making it the unconstitutional ‘fruit of the poisonous tree.’ See, e.g., United States v. Martinez, 486 F.3d 855, 864 (5th Cir. 2007). Therefore, the evidence obtained as a result of the second set of warrants is inadmissible.  (emphasis added.)

My Thoughts

  • Any analysis of a cell phone search issue should begin with a review of Riley and, now, Morton
  • Any cell phone search can include looking at contacts, cell logs, text messages and photographs.
  • The affidavit prepared by the individual seeking a search warrant for a cell phone, absent unusual circumstances, must show probable cause for searching for each of these distinct types of information.
  • As Judge Jolly noted, “…we ask whether the officer’s good faith reliance on these defective warrants was objectively reasonable… In reviewing whether an officer’s reliance is reasonable under the good faith exception, we ask ‘whether a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that the search was illegal’ despite the magistrate’s approval.”  As criminal defense lawyers, we should like this question.  The Government does not.

From the Front Porch: Mending Fences

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If you practice in a small town, sooner or later, you’re going to tear your britches with the prosecutor or the judge. Sometimes, you tear your britches with both. Me? I’ll take the 5th (as always). In a big city, this is not so much of a problem. Prosecutors come and go, and your cases are probably so spread out that you may not see that pesky judge for awhile. In the big city, things can cool off organically. The conveyor belt of problems will often quickly remove yesterday’s problem with today’s, then tomorrow’s. And as a learned attorney in Nacogdoches once said, “Time is a soothing balm.”

However, in a small town, time’s soothing balm may not always be so soothing. You may be dealing with that judge or prosecutor for the next 20 years or more. Literally! In my experience, rural practitioners seem to have a long memory. So, what do you do when you get crossways with the powers that be? Telling them to just go to hell doesn’t work in the long run. Unfortunately, and inextricably, they hold the keys to what ultimately happens to your clients. In my experience, there are three things that you can do to mend fences when things go south.

If you are wrong, admit it. No one likes to admit when they have made a mistake. But, hey, we’re all human. You may perceive that admitting when you made an error bruises your public perception. On the contrary, it enhances it. The worst thing you can do is wrongfully blame someone else, make excuses, etc. This makes you look far weaker in the long run. If you make a mistake, own up to it.

If they are wrong, don’t rub it in. Just as the rationale for #1, we are all human. If they don’t realize their mistake, you can point it out gracefully without making them lose face. If they own up to it, don’t rub it in. As stated before, you may be dealing with these people for a long, long time. Be graceful and dignified about their mistakes, just as you should be with yours.

Whether it is 1 or 2, don’t let your emotions dictate how you respond. This is probably the toughest advice to follow. Whether it’s extreme anger or fear, it is best not to show this to the other side. When I first started practicing, I often needed to leave the courthouse and drive around the block to cool off. One time, I almost hit my colleague driving around doing the same thing (I’m not kidding). With today’s zoom hearings, it’s even easier. Just mute your app, turn off the video, and let loose. Compose yourself and boogie on.

We are all going to be in this position sooner or later. Avoid the temptation to act like a jackass. Because our jobs inherently involve conflict, at some point in time, some fences will need mending. But our actions determine whether we need a small repair or if we need to fix the whole damn fence! If you practice in a small town, you probably are doing so to avoid the big-city headaches. I’ll take our unique rural problems over the big city headaches any day! I hope this helps you a little when you suit up and take on the state – even if only from the waist up in our current age of Zoom. Take care, good luck, and have fun!

Shout Outs

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Congratulations to Amber Vazquez, who freed her client, James, after 17 months in jail awaiting sentencing. James is a felon who was arrested while possessing drugs and a gun. He was facing five to 10 years in prison. Judge Albright granted James probation on Feb. 3. Congratulations, Amber!

Congratulations to Stephanie Gonzales and Jeff Daniel Clark, who appealed and won on behalf of their client in Wheeler v. State. Stephanie’s cross-examination of the police officer at the MTS hearing has been called “brilliant” and “tremendous.” Awesome work!

Congratulations to the A Team – that is, TCDLA’s Ethics Committee for their continued hard work in aiding lawyers caught in ethical quandaries. The Ethics Committee includes Robert Pelton, Joe Connors, Keith Hampton, John Wright, Betty Blackwell, Laura Popps, Jack Zimmermann, Chuck Lanehart, Joe Pelton, Robyn Harlin, Stephen Doggett, Audrie Lawton, and Greg Velasquez.