Sunday, November 11, 2018
Katrina Fischer Kuh is the Haub Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law, Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University
This is the sixth in a series of essays from the Environmental Law Collaborative on the theme: "Environmental Law. Disrupted."
In the spring of 2018, I joined professionals from a number of fields, including law, public health, science, and psychology, at the Witnessing Professionals and Climate Change conference at Princeton University, to contemplate the impact that the global climate crisis has had on our understanding of professional responsibility. In the rich discussion that ensued, Professor Robert Jay Lifton, Lecturer in Psychiatry at Columbia University and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Psychology at the City University of New York, used a phrase—malignant normality—that was referenced throughout the conversation and has resonated with me as I have continued to consider the intersection between climate change and the professional responsibilities of attorneys.
In many important respects, norms of legal professional conduct—as expressed in the AALS Statement of Good Practices by Law Professors in the Discharge of their Ethical and Professional Responsibilities and the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and as exemplified by the actions of many attorneys and professional associations—position the legal profession to provide support and leadership in response to climate change. The AALS Statement of Good Practices provides that law professors have an “enhanced obligation to pursue individual and social justice” and that “engaging in law reform activities or advocating for improvements in law and the legal system is a valued role of legal academics”; the Model Rules encourage attorneys to participate “in activities for improving the law” and allow attorneys when advising clients to “refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client's situation.” And the Environmental Law Institute recently co-sponsored the Second National Conference of Lawyers Committed to Addressing the Climate Emergency, which involved participants from across the professional spectrum, including private practice, academia, and public interest.
In other ways, however, legal professional norms may frustrate an efficacious response by the profession to climate change. For example, little attention has been paid to the role attorneys may have played in the energy industry effort to mislead the public about climate science and whether, if at all, the Model Rules speak to that type of conduct. Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, InsideClimate News, and the Union of Concerned Scientists have extensively documented how some energy industry actors orchestrated a campaign to market lies about climate science to the public. While the role of attorneys in the climate disinformation campaign is not (yet) clear, attorneys were deeply involved in the similar campaign by tobacco companies to lie to the public about the health effects of smoking. Indeed, climate disinformation is but one in a series of revelations about corporate public disinformation efforts which now perhaps includes the safety of opioids as well.
Yet, while many have recognized that attorneys often advise clients regarding public relations, the Model Rules provide little clear guidance about the norms that should govern attorney conduct in this capacity.
- Model Rule 3.3 (Advocate, Candor toward the Tribunal) prohibits a lawyer from knowingly making a false statement of fact or law or offering evidence that the lawyer knows to be false, but is limited to representations to a tribunal.
- Model Rule 3.6 (Advocate, Trial Publicity) prohibits “[a] lawyer who is participating or has participated in the investigation or litigation of a matter” from making an “extrajudicial statement that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know will be disseminated by means of public communication and will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter,” but is limited to lawyers acting directly as spokespeople in the context of an adjudicatory proceeding.
- Model Rule 4.1 (Transactions with Persons Other Than Clients--Truthfulness in Statements to Others) prohibits lawyers from knowingly making a false statement of material fact or law to a third person and from failing to disclose a material fact to a third person when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client. But various requirements embedded in the Rule raise uncertainty as to whether and how it could apply to counseling misleading public communications. It may be difficult to show that the underlying corporate conduct constitutes fraud as this is indexed to the substantive or procedural law of the applicable jurisdiction and information protected by privilege need not be disclosed. Additionally, it is not clear what level of knowledge satisfies the requirement for “knowingly” nor is it clear what would be understood to constitute a material fact in that context.
- Model Rule 8.4 (Maintaining the Integrity of the Profession, Misconduct) provides that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation, or to counsel a client to engage in activity that would violate the Rules of Professional Conduct. This would seem, on its face, to be potentially applicable to attorney involvement in corporate disinformation campaigns. However, Model Rule 8.4 has not been interpreted or applied in a context similar to that of counseling corporate public disinformation. The Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers cautions courts to avoid overbroad readings of the Model Rule and a review of cases and disciplinary proceedings reveals that the Model Rule has typically been applied to conduct of a very different nature, such as when an attorney helps a client structure a fraudulent transfer to avoid a known creditor or backdates documents.
Can attorneys ethically assist their clients in misleading the public through corporate disinformation campaigns designed to distort public opinion, like the climate disinformation campaign? The answer to that question is frustratingly opaque—there is no clear guidance under the Model Rules. In two companion articles, professional responsibility scholar Michele DeStefano Beardslee reported on the results of a study documenting the increasing role of attorneys in managing corporate public relations and analyzed the Model Rules for guidance regarding attorneys functioning in that role. She concluded that “the current ethics rules, adversarial system, and economic incentives almost predestine that attorneys will aid their clients in misleading the public about corporate legal controversies,” observing that “[f]or statements that misrepresent or stretch the truth, the current interpretations of the Model Rules do little to constrain” attorney advocacy in the court of public opinion.
The lack of clear guidance about the ethical obligations of attorneys advising clients in the public relations context may thus be an aspect of our existing professional, normative structure that has contributed to inertia on climate issues. And there are other climate-relevant aspects of legal professional norms that warrant examination. Chief among these is the continued greenhouse gas-intensive travel to professional conferences that is, perhaps, profligate in present circumstances. Critical assessment of these and other legal professional norms is warranted to insure that embedded professional norms, practices, and structures do not inadvertently contribute to a malignant normality that deepens the climate crisis.