ETHICS OPINION 199
NUMBER 199 1922
Question. In the opinion of the Committee is it professionally improper for an attorney, voluntarily and unsolicited, to communicate to strange persons apparently ignorant of facts upon which claims of substantial right might be urged or prosecuted by them, such facts within the knowledge of the attorney and properly learned by him, without soliciting employment to prosecute such rights?
Would it make a difference if the circumstances would naturally indicate the probability that the result of such communication would be the employment of the attorney to prosecute the right?
Would it make a difference if the claim predicated upon the facts should be against the national Government; or that the facts were ascertained by the attorney from unsolicited remarks of government employees having knowledge of the facts?
Would it make a difference if the government is about to collect an illegal tax—conceded by government officials to be illegal—simply because the tax payer did not know how to state his case and the government officials do not feel justified or authorized to tell him how to do it?
Answer, In the opinion of the Committee, except in rare cases warranted, for example, by ties of blood, personal relationship, or trust obligations, it is professionally improper for an attorney under no moral duty or obligation to do so to volunteer to a stranger facts within the knowledge of the attorney and properly learned by him upon which claims of substantial right may be urged and prosecuted. As the question does not disclose any of the exceptional circumstances, the Committee believes that the first inquiry should be answered in the affirmative and the others in the negative. The Committee does not consider that the question involves the disclosure of information of public interest by speeches or articles in the press or in magazines.
A majority of the Committee has adopted the following reasons for the foregoing answer:
Canon 28 of the Canons of Ethics adopted by the American Bar Association is as follows:
It is unprofessional for a lawyer to volunteer advice to bring a law suit, except in rare cases where ties of blood, relationship or trust make it his duty to do so. Stirring up strife and litigation is not only unprofessional, but it is indictable at common law. It is disreputable to hunt up defects in titles or other causes of action and inform thereof in order to be employed to bring suit, or to breed litigation by seeking out those with claims for personal injuries or those having any other grounds of action m order to secure them as clients, or to employ agents or runners for like purposes, or to pay a reward, directly or indirectly, to those who bring or influence the bringing of such cases to his office, or to remunerate policemen, court or prison officials, physicians, hospital attaches or others who may succeed, under the guise of giving disinterested friendly advice, in influencing the criminal, the sick or the injured, the ignorant or others, to seek his professional services. A duty to the public and to the profession devolves upon every member of the Bar, having knowledge of such practices upon the part of any practitioner, immediately to inform thereof to the end that the offender may be disbarred.
In the final report of the Committee on Code of Professional Ethics submitted to the American Bar Association at the annual meeting at Seattle, Washington, in August, 1908, at which the Canons of Ethics were adopted, it was recommended that certain quotations from Sharswood, Ryan and Lincoln be printed with the Canons facing the preamble, and this suggestion was adopted by the Association. The quotation from Abraham Lincoln, which is one of the three, is particularly apposite to Canon 28. It is as follows:
Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser in fees, expenses and waste of time. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this. Who can be more nearly a fiend than he who habitually overhauls the register of deeds in search of defects in titles, where upon to stir up strife and put money in his pocket? A moral tone ought to be enforced in the profession which would drive such men out of it.
In the opinion of a majority of the Committee the Canon above quoted is expressive of a sound principle; and for an attorney voluntarily and unsolicited to communicate to a stranger, under the circumstances mentioned facts within the knowledge of the attorney, upon which claims of substantial right might be urged or prosecuted, is tantamount to volunteering advice to bring a law suit and is comprehended within the condemnation of Canon 28.
Therefore, as the question does not disclose any of the exceptional circumstances specified in Canon 28, the Committee believes that the first inquiry should be answered in the affirmative and the others in the negative.