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Attribution When Using the Written Work of Another

Adopted: October 23, 2009

Opinion rules that it is not an ethical violation when a lawyer fails to attribute or obtain consent when incorporating into his own brief, contract, or pleading excerpts from a legal brief, contract, or pleading written by another lawyer. .

Editor's note: The original version of this opinion was adopted by the State Bar Council on January 23, 2009, and withdrawn by the council on July 24, 2009, in order to publish this proposed revision.

Inquiry #1:

Lawyer A submitted a brief to the trial court that contained eight pages, verbatim, from an appellate brief previously drafted and filed by Lawyer B in an unrelated case. Lawyer B does not work for Lawyer A's firm. Lawyer A did not credit Lawyer B for the copied portion of the brief, or obtain Lawyer B's permission to incorporate the eight pages, entirely unchanged, into his own brief. Lawyer A added references to additional relevant case law. Lawyer A properly cited all court opinions, legal treatises, and published or copyrighted works upon which he had relied. The only pre-existing writings included within his brief without attribution were the relevant legal arguments submitted by Lawyer B in an earlier appeal.

Did Lawyer A violate any Rule of Professional Conduct through his unattributed use of eight pages of Lawyer B's brief? 

Opinion #1:

No. It is not dishonest or unethical for a lawyer to incorporate excerpts from the written work of another lawyer in a brief or other written document without attribution. No opinion is expressed, however, on the legal question of whether a lawyer has intellectual property rights in the lawyer's written works including briefs, pleadings, discovery, and other legal documents. 

Lawyers often rely upon and incorporate the work of others when writing a brief, whether that work comes from a law firm brief bank, a client's brief bank, or a brief that the lawyer finds in a law library or posted on a listserv on the Internet. By its nature, the application of the common law is all about precedent, which invites the re-use of arguments that have previously been successful and have been upheld. It would be virtually impossible to determine the origin of the legal argument in many briefs. Moreover, the utilization of the work of others in this context furthers the interests of the client by reducing the amount of time required to prepare a brief and thus reducing the charge to the client.See RPC 190 (1994). It also facilitates the preparation of competent briefs by encouraging lawyers to use the most articulate, carefully researched, and comprehensive legal arguments. 

When using the work of another, the lawyer must still provide competent representation. Rule 1.1. This means that the lawyer must verify any citations in the excerpt to insure that the content and interpretation of caselaw, statute, and secondary sources is correct.

Although consent and attribution are not required, if a lawyer uses, verbatim, excerpts from another's brief and the lawyer knows the identity of the author of the excerpt, it is the better, more professional practice, for the lawyer to include a citation to the source.

Inquiry #2:

If Lawyer B, or another lawyer, learns that Lawyer A submitted a brief to the court that contained verbatim portions of a brief previously drafted and filed by Lawyer B, does the lawyer have a duty to report Lawyer A to the State Bar?

Opinion #2:

No. See Opinion #1 above.

Inquiry #3:

Lawyer A's law firm maintains a "brief bank," consisting of memoranda of law and briefs previously written by members of the firm and filed with trial or appellate courts. Is it a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyer A to use, verbatim, a portion of a memorandum or brief contained in the brief bank without attribution?

Opinion #3:

No. See Opinion #1 above.

Inquiry #4: 

Is it a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyer A to sign his name to a brief, written by an associate at Lawyer A's direction and under Lawyer A's supervision, without including the associate's name on the brief?

Opinion #4:

No, so long as Lawyer A does not charge the client for work he did not perform.

Inquiry #5:

Is it a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyer A to copy, verbatim and without attribution, clauses from a contract, pleading, discovery request, or other similar document prepared by someone else for use in a similar document that Lawyer A is preparing for a client?

Opinion #5:

No. It is not dishonest or misleading to incorporate such clauses in similar documents without consent of the author or attribution. See Opinion #1 above. 

Inquiry #6:

May a law firm distribute a "canned" newsletter to its clients that is obtained from a commercial publishing company without disclosing that the lawyers in the law firm did not actually author the material?

Opinion #6:

No. If the content of a newsletter is portrayed as the original work of the firm's lawyers, the distribution of the newsletter under the law firm's name, without disclosing the true authorship of the material contained in the newsletter, is misleading and a violation of Rule 7.1(a).

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