Jul 21, 2016

The American Bar Association's Ill-Advised Speech Code Proposal

In early August, the American Bar Association's House of Delegates will vote on a proposed amendment to Rule 8.4 of the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility. The proposed new rule would subject lawyers to professional discipline for "harassment" or "discrimination," even if the conduct was unintentional or committed unknowingly, and even if the harassment or discrimination is not prejudicial to he administration of justice. The current rule subjects a lawyer to discipline "in the course of representing a client" if the conduct is "prejudicial to administration of justice." The proposed rule significantly expands these limiting conditions. 

The rule proposes that any conduct "related to the practice of law," including running a law firm, representing a client, or even engaging in social conduct as a lawyer, could be disciplined. The rule also expands the classes against which unknowing "discrimination" is prohibited to include "socioeconomic status," "gender identity," and "sexual orientation." Given the current cultural winds, this rule is a dangerous minefield for lawyers, particularly those who don't see "gender identity" or "sexual orientation" as cultural "causes" to be celebrated. It is an ill-advised attempt at thought policing. 

Tellingly, the ABA Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility removed the requirement that the discriminatory conduct, in order to subject a lawyer to discipline, must be "prejudicial to the administration of justice." What results is a straight up speech code, wherein lawyers can be subject to discipline for failing to tow the current cultural orthodoxy regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, regardless of whether the "discrimination" creates injustice or harm.

The rule is so poorly drafted that the ABA's own Standing Committee on Professional Discipline opposes it, citing a lack of demonstrated need for the rule, clear first amendment concerns, and the proposed rule's contradiction of other rules that give lawyers broad leeway in accepting or rejecting clients.  

Brad Abramson, a Senior Counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, has been following this issue for several years. About three years ago, a handful of states moved to enact similar changes, and Brad has been on top of the issue ever since. Now that the ABA is following suit, there is a danger that many more states will jump on the bandwagon, since the Model Rules really do serve as a model for many states' ethics regimes. 

On the latest Cross & Gavel Audio podcast, I talk with Brad about the proposed rule and its specific dangers to practicing lawyers. We discuss the proposal's break with the tradition of lawyer autonomy, its Constitutional difficulties, and the specific changes the new rule would make. We also speculate as to why the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility would ignore 477 lawyers' comments opposing the rule (there were only 17 in favor of the change) when revising it. 

Have a listen, here, or use the player embedded below. Or subscribe on your phone's podcast app.

Most important, if you are an attorney reading this, please contact your delegate to the ABA House of Delegates, who will be voting on the proposal on August 8 or 9. A list of delegates with email addresses can be found here. Urge a "NO" vote on the proposed amendment, Resolution 109, at the ABA House of Delegates meeting.

For more information, see the detailed comments submitted by the Christian Legal Society and ADF.

* * * * 
If you need talking points, here they are:

The proposed rule:
  1. Moves the non-discrimination language from the comments to the black-letter text of the rule;
  2. Removes the mens rea requirement that any discrimination is done “knowingly”;
  3. Adds “ethnicity,” “gender identity,” and “marital status” as classes to be protected; and
  4. Broadens the application of the rule to all “conduct related to the practice of law,” regardless of whether it is prejudicial to the administration of justice.

The Standing Committee submitted the proposal for comments. Hundreds of lawyers commented, and the comments were overwhelmingly opposed to the proposed change. (To see the comments to the proposed rule, including the letter from the Christian Legal Society, go here). The Committee ignored the overwhelmingly negative comments and submitted it to the ABA House of Delegates for a vote.

1. The proposed rule is opposed by the ABA Standing Committee on Discipline.

  • “The Proposal Continues to Suffer from Vagueness That Raises Enforceability and Possible Constitutional Concerns.”
  • "The Discipline Committee Supports Retention of the Mens Rea Requirement for Harassment and Discrimination.”
  • “Categories of Individuals Not Yet Afforded Constitutional Protection [may] Raise Constitutional Concerns.”
  • The “Proposed Model Rule 8.4(g) and Comment Do Not Adequately Address Other Issues, Including Lawyers’ Decisions to Decline a Representation.”

2. The proposed rule would limit the autonomy of lawyers in accepting and declining representation and conflicts with current ethics rules.

For more on this issue, see section E of the Committee on Discipline Letter and pp. 3-4 of March 10, 2016 Christian Legal Society Letter to ABA Ethics Committee

3. In the context of professional relationships, the terms “harass” and “discriminate” are vague and overly broad, as is the proposed standard “in conduct relating to the practice of law.” This raises Constitutional concerns and enforceability issues.

See the discussion at pp. 5-14 of the CLS Letter and sections A, B, and D of the Committee on Discipline Letter.

4. The proposed rule likely impinges on First Amendment rights of attorneys. It would have a chilling effect on speech, and it may subject a lawyer to discipline for serving on boards of religious institutions or for public speech on political, social, cultural, and religious topics.

See the discussion at pp. 5-14 of the CLS Letter.

5. The rule is not carefully drafted to avoid unintended consequences regarding employment issues, peremptory jury challenges, and socio-economic “discrimination.”

For example, law professor Eugene Volokh points out:

I can’t imagine, of course, that the drafters were indeed intending to ban law firms from preferring employees with higher-status educations or past employment history, or from preferring wealthier partners, or from giving a break to poorer would-be employees or clients. But that’s what the prohibition seems to cover. And if it isn’t meant to cover that, I’m not sure what exactly it is meant to cover, at least as applied to “the operation and management of a law firm” -- and in any event, its intended scope should be more clearly stated.

6. The proposal, according to the Resolution of the ABA Ethics Committee itself, is not prompted by any actual discrimination or concerned with correcting existing inequities in the administration of justice. It therefore is not a matter appropriate to the Rules of Professional Responsibility.

The Resolution admits that the rule change is proposed in order to “reflect the monumental achievements that have been accomplished to protect clients and the public against harassment and intimidation” and cites no instances of injustice that the current rule has left unaddressed.

If you want more, listen to my podcast with Brad Abramson:


  1. Time for a competing accrediting organization. For instance, a group of doctors got sick of the rediculous requirements of their accrediting org and recently set up a new one. The shift to that new org was so dramatic that the old org started backpedaling immediately.

  2. There have been a few unsuccessful such efforts, but that's an idea that should have legs more and more. The first step is for states to stop following the ABA lead on proposals such as this.