Law Practice Management

If you believe that you may have materially erred in a current client’s representation, your duty of communication under Rule 1.4 requires you to inform the client.

That’s the unsurprising conclusion that the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility reached in its latest opinion, issued April 17.

Of note, though, is that the Committee firmly concluded that no similar duty applies to former clients. Also interesting is the excursion into substantive law that the Committee takes in order to delineate when a current client becomes a former client.

What we have here is a duty to communicate…

Even if you’ve only seen the Paul Newman classic Cool Hand Luke on YouTube clips, you know the classic line about communication. Not failing to communicate is important whether you’re on a chain gang or just working hard for your client.

As the ABA Committee said in the opinion, unfortunately, “even the best lawyers may err in the course of clients’ representations,” and if material, you have to ‘fess up to the client. “An error is material if a disinterested lawyer would conclude that it is (a) reasonably likely to harm or prejudice a client; or (b) of such a nature that it would reasonably cause a client to consider terminating the representation even in the absence of harm or prejudice.”

The Committee identified several parts of Rule 1.4 that potentially apply where a lawyer may have erred in the course of a current client’s representation:

  • the duty to reasonably consult with the client about how the clients objectives are to be accomplished;
  • the duty to keep a client reasonably informed about the matter;
  • the duty to comply with reasonable requests for information; and
  • the duty to explain a matter so that the client can make informed decisions about the representation.

Errors exist along a continuum, the Committee said, ranging from errors like missing a statute of limitations, which can undermine the client’s objective, to minor typographical errors, or missing a deadline that only causes delay.
It’s not only errors that could support “a colorable legal malpractice claim” that must be communicated – because an error can “impair a client’s representation even if the client will never be able to prove all the elements of malpractice.”

Rather, the measure of the obligation to disclose errors to current clients is the materiality of the error.

But not to former clients

Significantly, “nowhere does Rule 1.4 impose on lawyers a duty to communicate with former clients.” That led the Committee to conclude that although a lawyer must inform a current client of a material error, there is no similar duty to former clients.

But how do you distinguish between current and former clients? For instance, if you represent a client only “episodically,” is the client a “current client” in between times?

Interestingly, the Model Rules themselves, and their state analogs, decline to touch those issues; rather, in order to determine whether a lawyer-client relationship exists, a lawyer must consult “principles of substantive law external to these Rules,” says section 17 of the Scope section.

The Committee, however, was not reluctant to deal with substantive law principles, and undertook a case analysis, concluding that “if a lawyer represents a client in more than one matter, the client is a current client if any of those matters is active or open,” and that the “episodic” client’s reasonable expectations guide whether it is a current or former client.

Calling all gurus

Once you’ve determined that you have a duty to communicate with a current client about a material error you’ve made, or even during the process of that decision, you are going to want to get some expert ethics advice. In its opinion, the Committee points to the confidentiality exception that Rule 1.6(b)(4) extends, permitting a lawyer to reveal client confidential information to get legal advice about complying with the Rules.

We’ve also written before about the trend toward upholding the in-house firm counsel privilege, which can allow that type of advice to fall within the attorney-client privilege.

In any event, this is an area where it pays to tread carefully, in order to maintain the rights of both lawyers and clients.

The concept of “unbundled” legal services is laid out in Model Rule 1.2(c), which provides that lawyers may limit the scope of their representation in reasonable ways, if the client gives informed consent.  The rule opens the way to representing a client as to one phase of a matter, or as to certain issues or tasks.

A New York appellate ruling last month, however, demonstrates that an intended limited-scope arrangement can come back to bite you if you’re not careful to lay out in detail — in writing — what you are and are not going to undertake, and the client’s express buy-in to the plan.

Negligence?  Or thrift?   

The January 11 opinion of New York’s First Department reverses the grant of summary judgment in favor of the client on its malpractice claim, and gives the law firm a chance to prove at trial that client thriftiness — and not sloppy lawyering — was the cause of the client’s alleged $85 million loss on a soured loan transaction.

The plaintiff, a venture capital fund, hired the firm to document loans that the fund was making to a third party borrower.  The loans, totaling about $4.5 million, were to enable the third party to finance the purchase of several portfolios of life insurance policies,  secured by the policies themselves, with a face value of $84 million.  But the fund’s security interests in some of the loans were never perfected, because collateral assignment forms weren’t filed with the insurance carriers for the policies.  The borrower defaulted on the loans, defaulted on a subsequent settlement, and was uncollectible.  The underwriting insurers refused to pay proceeds of the collateral to the fund, because they had no records that the collateral had been assigned.

The question was, Whose fault was the slip-up?  The fund pointed at the lawyers, saying that filing the collateral forms was the firm’s responsibility.  It sued for legal malpractice, eventually moving for summary judgment on liability.

In the trial court, the law firm argued that it was not responsible for filing the collateral forms — that the fund expressly limited the scope of the representation as a cost-saving strategy, and further habitually minimized the role of outside counsel to “minimize legal spend.”  The firm said that it was retained only to draft the loan documents, and that the limited representation was at the client’s express instruction.

Significantly, there was no retention letter documenting the engagement or its scope.  The trial court granted judgment in favor of the fund.

Let’s have some paper with that….

This has a happy ending for the law firm — at least for now.  The reviewing court noted New York’s version of Model Rule 1.2(c), and said that if the firm “wanted to limit the scope of its representation, it had a duty to ensure that [the client] understood the limits.”  But the appellate division nonetheless reversed the summary judgment, holding that there were enough factual issues to justify trial — raised by warring e-mails between the client and the law firm, some of which suggested that the fund was looking to the firm to perfect its security interests, and some of which showed the contrary.

One fact that stands out, though, is the absence of an engagement letter that would have defined the scope of the representation and reflected the client’s assent.  That could have protected the law firm here.  As it is, despite beating summary judgment, the firm could still be at risk for an adverse trial verdict, absent some settlement.

Don’t be like the shoemaker’s children.  We would always counsel our clients to “get it in writing.”  When providing limited scope representation, the case for doing so is compelling.

Here’s a year-end reminder to in-house counsel:  make sure that you are properly registered and licensed, or you may run into disciplinary problems.  An Ohio lawyer who worked in a company’s law department learned that the hard way earlier this month, when she received a two-year suspension from the Ohio Supreme Court, with six months stayed.

If I don’t open that scary envelope…

The lawyer was suspended in 2013 because she failed to renew her registration with the state supreme court.  A year later, while still lacking any license, she got a second suspension based on her failure to complete CLE requirements.  She later stipulated that although she didn’t open letters she received from the supreme court, she was aware of her suspension.

A year after that, still without an Ohio or any other license, she started working for a company’s law department as staff counsel and (ironically) director of institutional compliance.

Shortly after being hired by the company, the lawyer completed a securities industry application form, and falsely stated that her authorization to act as an attorney had never been revoked or suspended.

In 2015, after the lawyer had been working for the company for about a year, the GC noticed that she hadn’t received a request from the lawyer to reimburse her Ohio attorney-registration fee for the upcoming biennium.  When the GC checked the supreme court’s website, she learned that the lawyer had been suspended since 2013.

The lawyer later admitted that she had known about her suspension, and that before filling out the securities application form falsely, the lawyer had delayed completing it, because she knew that it asked about prior suspensions.

The company fired the lawyer immediately.

Making a bad problem worse

The disciplinary case proceeded by stipulation, and the supreme court found numerous ethics rule violations, including of the state’s versions of Model Rule 5.5(a) (unauthorized practice); Rule 5.5(b) (misrepresenting oneself as authorized to practice law); Rule 8.1 (false statements in connection with a disciplinary matter); and Rule 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation).

As in many disciplinary cases, the initial problem (failing to register) was made a lot worse by what my family calls “avoidant behavior” — like the lawyer’s failure to open the letters from the supreme court informing her of the suspension and what to do to cure it.  And of course, things were made even worse by the subsequent misrepresentation on the securities registration form.  An emotional shut-down in the face of a mistake can be a normal human reaction, but fighting against it is the best course. (That’s easy to say, I know.)

As a side note, the lawyer here was working for a corporate employer in Ohio and was (or should have been) licensed in Ohio.  Most jurisdictions permit a lawyer to work in-house with a license from a different jurisdiction — as long as you are validly licensed by the highest court of some jurisdiction.

But it’s dangerous to let that license lapse through inattention.  And many jurisdictions also have special in-house counsel registration requirements in their court rules or other regulations. (The ABA Center for Professional Responsibility has a list with links, here.)

Pay attention to all those requirements, and reach out for help if you have dropped the ball in meeting them.

One of 2017’s biggest legal trends is the upswing in law firm merger activity.  Altman Weil’s MergerLine site reports 76 deals announced through 2017 Q3, the most ever recorded through three quarters, with a prediction that there might be 100 mergers by year-end, surpassing the 2015 high of 91.

Firm mergers raise lots of conflicts issues, and some mergers are scuttled when they can’t be resolved.  Another issue that can be troublesome in the courtship stage involves the considerable amount of financial information disclosed, namely:  How can firms that are exploring a merger guard against the possibility that revealing financial information to each other might lead to poaching each other’s top rainmakers in the event that the merger doesn’t go forward?  Can firms enter into non-solicitation agreements, to alleviate this reasonable concern?

Issue of lawyer mobility

A new ethics opinion from the North Carolina state bar addresses agreements, made as part of merger negotiations, not to solicit or hire lawyers from each other for a specified period of time in the event that the firms decide not to merge.

The ethics issue arises under Model Rule 5.6(a), which prohibits a lawyer from offering or making an agreement that restricts the right of a lawyer to practice after terminating an employment relationship (except for retirement benefits agreements).

The rationale is that agreements that impose practice restrictions after a lawyer leaves a firm limit a lawyer’s professional autonomy; and more important, they limit the freedom of clients to choose a lawyer.

De minimis restriction

The North Carolina opinion reviewed an agreement between two firms exploring a merger.  In addition to customary terms barring disclosure of confidential client and proprietary firm information, if the firms decided not to merge, each firm agreed not to:

  • induce or solicit each other’s lawyers or other employees to join either firm;
  • hire or engage each other’s personnel as partners or counsel;
  • for the term of the merger exploration agreement (one year) and for two years after termination of the agreement.

The Committee noted the reality of the merger marketplace, surmising that “the non-solicitation provision was included in the agreement to foster the trust necessary for both firms to disclose financial information about [lawyer] productivity”  without fear that if negotiations fell apart, one or both firms would try “to lure highly productive lawyers or ‘rainmaker’ lawyers away” from each other.

The proposed agreement was permitted under the Tar Heel State’s adoption of Rule 5.6, the Committee said, viewing it as a matter of first impression.  First, the agreement imposed only a de minimis restriction on the mobility of the two firms’ lawyers.  “If there is a reasonable business purpose,” the Committee said, a “restriction that impacts lawyer mobility may be permissible.”  This one was for a relatively short, defined period of time, and only affected employment with one other law firm.

In addition, the Committee said, the restriction on lawyer mobility did not impair client choice:  it would not prevent or inhibit a client from following a lawyer who left one of the firms in order to take a position with a firm that wasn’t subject to the agreement.

The Committee cited the ethics rules as “rules of reason” (as noted in their scope section).  Under that rubric, and with its limited impact, the “no poach” provision passed muster.

Any more out there?

I’m not aware of other ethics opinions that deal with this aspect of Rule 5.6(a), or a no-poach clause.  If your firm is part of the hot merger marketplace, it would be wise to tread carefully and seek advice before including such a clause in your agreement with a potential merger partner.  And of course, as always, check your jurisdiction’s version of the rules.

If the clerk of courts e-mails you an order that your client must pay $1 million in attorney fees to the opposing party, but your spam filter catches the e-mail and then deletes it after 30 days without alerting you, and you therefore fail to appeal the order in time — well, your client may be out of luck, as a Florida court of appeals ruled recently.  (There is a motion for rehearing pending.)

Spam canned?

The ruling thus far is a cautionary tale and shines a light on some ethics duties as they might apply to your process for handling and keeping on top of spam e-mail — especially the duties of diligence (Model Rule 1.3) and competence (Model Rule 1.1, and see cmt. 8 on technology).

The facts:  Company sued Utility Authority, and Company won.  Company’s Lawyer moved for attorney fees, and after more than a year, the trial court granted them — reportedly as high as $1 million.  It’s worth noting that during the time that his client’s fee motion was pending, Company’s Lawyer had the firm’s paralegal check the court’s on-line docket every three weeks for a ruling.

When the court finally issued the ruling, the clerk e-mailed it to all counsel.  Technology experts who later testified said that the e-mail server at the Utility Authority’s Lawyer’s firm received the e-mail. But the firm’s e-mail filtering system was configured to drop and permanently delete e-mails perceived to be spam without further alert.

Apparently that’s what happened to the e-mailed attorney-fee order.  After 30 days passed without the fee award being paid (i.e. after the time to appeal the order had run), Company’s lawyers contacted opposing counsel.

No relief

The Utility Authority moved for relief from the judgment, arguing that its lawyers didn’t receive the order in time to file an appeal.  The trial court rejected the argument, and the court of appeals agreed:  this was not “mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect,” it held.  The Utility Authority’s Lawyer’s firm did receive the order — the equivalent, the court of appeals said, of placing a physical copy of the order in a mailbox.  The e-mail just went right to spam, from where it apparently was deleted without further notice.

At the hearing on the motion, the law firm’s former IT consultant testified that he advised against that configuration; the firm rejected the advice, as well as advice to get a third-party vendor to handle spam filtering, and advice to get an online backup system that would have cost $700-1200 per year.  Financial considerations played a part in these decisions, the court found.

The decision to use this filtering configuration despite warning was a conscious decision to use “a defective e-mail system without any safeguards or oversight in order to save money.  Such a decision cannot constitute excusable neglect,” said the court of appeals.

Adding further sting, the court noted the Company’s Lawyer had a paralegal regularly check the court’s online docket during the long pendency of the fee motion.  If the Utility Company’s Lawyer had done something similar, the court said, he would have received notice of the fee order in time to appeal.  “The neglect” of that duty “was not excusable.”

Spam:  not tasty but good to check

The harsh result here may yet be ameliorated if the court of appeals grants rehearing.  In the meantime, however, the scary scenario points to the need to pay attention to your firm’s  technology and processes for handling spam.  And old-fashioned procedures like checking the court’s docket can also help avoid an unpalatable spam situation.

Putting your law firm name on coffee mugs and giving away donuts to prospective clients is apparently not enough anymore.  Recent firm branding campaigns have included sponsorships of pro golfers and cricket players, including emblazoning the bats with the firm name.

That may be the trend of the future in Biglaw, but a much more modest marketing effort recently landed an Ohio lawyer in disciplinary trouble.

No Justice, no peace?

According to the opinion, from 1981-1997, the lawyer in question practiced with another attorney, who eventually became (and continues to be) a Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.  Fast forward to 2015.  With the permission of the Justice, the lawyer began using their old firm name, including on business cards, and hung a sign outside the office saying “O’Neill & Brown Law Office (Est. 1981).”

That only lasted for a few weeks before the local bar association began investigating.  After the disciplinary authorities advised the Justice that the sign violated Ohio ethics rules, the Justice instructed the lawyer to remove his name from the sign, and eventually the lawyer did so.

False and misleading

The Ohio Supreme Court (with the Justice in question not participating) agreed with the Board of Professional Conduct that the firm name on the sign and business card, and the reference to the firm having been established in 1981 were false or misleading communications that violated Ohio’s version of Model Rule 7.1.  The court also found a violation of Rule 7.5(c), which prohibits using a judge’s name in a firm name or other firm communication, unless the judge regularly and actively practices with the firm.

By a 4-3 vote, the court imposed a two-year stayed suspension on the lawyer.  A significant aggravating factor contributed to the sanction:  this wasn’t the lawyer’s first rodeo — he’d been disciplined several times before, according to the opinion, including a previous suspension for threatening a judge who served as chair of the local bar grievance committee.  But in mitigation, the court noted that his conduct “did not involve the provision of legal services,” that no clients were harmed, and that the Justice participated in the decision to use the “O’Neill & Brown Law Office” name on the sign.

The three-judge minority would have imposed an “indefinite” suspension, which in Ohio is a term of at least two years.

Stick to the tchotchkes

A good lesson here.  A prominent legal moniker on your office sign may be good marketing, but it would be best to stick to the coffee mugs — or cricket bats.

Hot on the heels of the publicity for Brian Cuban’s new book, “The Addicted Lawyer:  Tales of the Bar, Booze, Blow and Redemption,” comes the searing account in the New York Times of the 2015 death of a former IP partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, who secretly battled drug addiction and reportedly died of a bacterial infection that often afflicts intravenous drug users.

Cuban’s book (he is the brother of billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban) is, by all accounts, a story of perseverance and recovery; Cuban redeemed his life, although he does not practice law any longer.

But the New York Times article, authored by the Wilson Sonsini partner’s ex-wife, is a harrowing call to arms about the need to do a better job — in the organized bar, in BigLaw, small law, corporate law and everywhere else — of identifying and helping addicted lawyers.

“Last call” — dial-in to a work conference

The Wilson Sonsini partner, identified in the NYT article only as “Peter,” is described as successful, driven and work-obsessed.  After a stellar law school career, in which he graduated first in his class, he replicated that success in a legal career that saw him regularly working 60-hour weeks over the next 20 years.

His ex-wife, with whom Peter maintained good relations, found him dead on the floor in his house, near half-filled syringes, a tourniquet, and crushed pills.  She had no idea that he was struggling with a severe addiction — reflected in detailed notes the lawyer kept of the times and amounts of his drug injections — although she writes that she noticed wild mood-swings in the months before his death, and voice mails consisting of “meandering soliloquies.”

Most poignantly, the lawyer kept working right up to the end.  The last call he made from his cellphone, his ex-wife wrote, was to dial in to a work conference call, even though he was “vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness.”

At Peter’s memorial service, his ex-wife wrote, while a weeping young associate eulogized the partner he had come to know, firm lawyers were bent over their own cellphones, tapping out e-mails — unable to put down their work even then.

Grim statistics

The statistics on lawyers and alcohol abuse are grim, and well-known.  More than a fifth of all lawyers are problem drinkers, according to last year’s joint report of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Lawyers.

The statistically-robust report drew responses from 12,825 licensed and practicing lawyers from 19 states.  But only 25 percent of respondents answered questions about drug use — out of fear of answering, according to the study’s lead author.  Quoted in the NYT story, he said that  “I think the incidence of drug use and abuse is significantly underreported,” because in contrast to alcohol use, drug use is illegal.

In his book, Cuban describes snorting cocaine in his former law firm’s bathroom, to keep going after boozing it up and using drugs the night before.  Other memoirs, like “Girl Walks Out of a Bar,” by a former Pillsbury Winthrop lawyer, underscore the reality of lawyer drug addiction.

What is the profession doing to help?

Accounts like Cuban’s and the death of the Wilson Sonsini lawyer spotlight the need for the legal profession to step up its efforts to help.  The ABA’s Model Rule on Continuing Legal Education calls for just one credit of CLE every three years on mental health or substance abuse.

Some states, like my home state of Ohio, have moved away from a specific substance-abuse requirement;  since rule amendments in 2014, many subjects qualify to meet our “professional conduct” CLE requirement, so a lawyer never needs to have any substance abuse CLE.

Yet, in the days before that change was made, when lawyers still needed to get one hour of  substance abuse training every two years, each time I spoke on ethics at a CLE seminar, I observed at least one lawyer going up afterwards to the person who had spoken on substance abuse, and speaking earnestly.  These were lawyers in trouble — and we need to do more to help them.

Jurisdictions like Illinois seem to be moving in the right direction, as reported by Chicago ethics lawyer Allison WoodUnder amended rules, Illinois lawyers are now required to take one hour of mental health and substance abuse CLE as part of their six-hour professional responsibility requirement.  Both the directive to have at least some substance abuse training, and the size of the PR requirement are laudable.

Law firms also have a huge role to play — there’s room to ask whether firm culture “enables” alcoholism.  De-emphasizing the historic link between lawyering and drinking , including at firm events, would help.  So would increasing access to law firm employee assistance programs, as highlighted in guidelines here, from Massachusetts “Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.”

And as I have done before, here’s a state-by-state list of links to lawyer assistance organizations.  No problem is ever made worse by seeking help.

Being inexperienced can contribute to getting into disciplinary trouble, but it can also be a mitigating factor in a bar disciplinary case.  That’s the message of a recent opinion of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which imposed a six month suspension from state practice as reciprocal discipline on a lawyer who had already been suspended from federal bankruptcy court practice for five years.

Raising the risk?

Something like 37,000 students likely graduated from law school this year; that’s a lot of newly-minted JD’s coming into the world of practice.  And while they might know more about legal ethics when they graduate than they ever will again (as I tell the law students I teach as an adjunct ethics prof), it’s also surely true that simple inexperience can play a role in going astray and getting into disciplinary trouble.

For one thing, with the legal job market being what it is, many new lawyers will likely be hanging out their own shingles.  There are lots of opportunities for a novice to get mentoring, advice, and hand-holding from more-veteran members of the  bar.

But failing to take advantage of those resources can mean that an inexperienced solo lawyer is stuck in an echo-chamber, without the corrective that a more-seasoned viewpoint can contribute.  And even in a firm, it’s easy to make a mistake if the proper supervision is lacking.

Sooner State of confusion 

The lawyer in this disciplinary case was admitted to the Oklahoma bar and started practicing in 2013.  About 18 months later, she got her first client — a couple who were attempting to set aside a bankruptcy court order.

Her attempt on the couple’s behalf went badly wrong, and then spiraled out of control:  the bankruptcy court found the lawyer’s set-aside motion to be without any legal or factual basis; she missed the deadline to supplement the filing; and then she sued the trustee, the judge, the state courts of two counties and the layers representing the creditors.

The court dismissed that suit with prejudice, and the creditors moved for sanctions against the lawyer in the bankruptcy court, asserting among other things that she had filed frivolous litigation, misrepresented facts, and had threatened the bankruptcy trustee and attorneys with criminal prosecution in bad faith.

Before the sanctions hearing, the lawyer entered into a settlement, accepting a five-year suspension from practice in both Oklahoma bankruptcy courts.

Inexperience counts

It’s a little-known fact that drawing professional discipline in one jurisdiction where you are admitted to practice (including before federal courts), can bring reciprocal discipline in other jurisdictions where you are admitted.  That’s what happened here.

In response to the state bar’s disciplinary charges, the lawyer creatively argued that because her bankruptcy suspension was a result of an agreed settlement and not an “adjudication,” there was no basis for reciprocal state discipline.  The Oklahoma supreme court swept that argument aside, and held that her conduct violated the Sooner State’s versions of Model Rules 1.1 (competence); Rule 3.4 (unfairness to opposing parties and counsel; and Rule 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

But in weighing the appropriate reciprocal discipline, the court significantly took as a mitigating factor that the lawyer “was new to the practice of law and without supervision or training.”  Without intending to hold “new legal practitioners to different standards from  more seasoned lawyers,” the court nonetheless took account of the fact that the lawyer “was practicing on her own with little prior training or supervision and refused to ask for help.”

Thus, although acknowledging that the lawyer exceeded the bounds of zealous advocacy, and “displayed a lack of competency and insolence in the practice of bankruptcy law,” the court imposed only a six-month suspension from practice.

Don’t let this happen to you 

If you’re a newbie, recognize the limits of your knowledge and get help.  Don’t count on your inexperience to save you from harsh professional discipline; you don’t want to go there in the first place.  If you practice by yourself, take advantage of all the formal and informal mentoring and training resources available via state and local bar associations and law schools.

My hometown Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, for instance, has a solo and small firm practice section.  The Ohio Supreme Court has a lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring program, linking veteran lawyers with new practitioners.  Last, here are other mentoring programs, listed by state.

Just last month, we wrote about a North Carolina draft proposal that would ease the way via its ethics rules for Avvo and other on-line legal services to operate there.  Now, after a joint opinion from three New Jersey Supreme Court committees, the Garden State has turned thumbs down on such law platforms, citing issues including improper fee-sharing and referral fees.

Nix on Avvo, LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer

The joint opinion bans participation in Avvo’s programs because of the “marketing fees” it collect from lawyers in exchange for participating in two of its offerings:  “Avvo Advisor,” in which clients talk to lawyers for 15 minutes for $40, with Avvo keeping $10; and “Avvo Legal Services,” where clients pay a flat fee to Avvo for access to affiliated lawyers, and then Avvo pays the lawyer net of its own fee.

The committees found that this arrangement violates New Jersey’s version of Model Rule 5.4(a), barring fee-splitting with non-lawyers, and it mattered not that Avvo called its cut a “marketing fee”:  irrespective of its label, said the committees, “lawyers pay a portion of the legal fee earned to a nonlawyer; this is impermissible fee sharing.”  In addition, said the committees, these payments signal a “lawyer referral service,” and payment of an “impermissible referral fee” under New Jersey’s Rules 7.2(c) and 7.3(d).

Icing the cake, the committees also raised a trust account issue, saying that Avvo’s practice of holding the lawyer’s fee until the conclusion of the matter violates the attorney’s duty to maintain a registered trust account and to hold client funds in it until the work is completed.

Avvo wasn’t the only on-line platform tagged — Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom also were placed off-limits to New Jersey lawyers, but for a different reason.  While they do not require payment from lawyers to participate, and do not share the clients’ monthly subscription fees with lawyers, Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom are “legal service plans” that have not been registered with or approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court, said the committees.  That places them outside the pale, even while not violating the fee-sharing prohibition.

A notice to the bar from the supreme court’s administrative office accompanied the joint opinion, listing the 46 state-approved legal service plans, including those offered through unions and government agencies.

What next?

As we’ve noted, the ABA’s Futures Commission sees the continuing onslaught of on-line platforms as something that is here to stay.  Nonetheless, this New Jersey ethics opinion joins other cautionary or negative ones issued by regulators in Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.  Against that backdrop, North Carolina’s recent consideration of rule changes may appear to be the outlier (although an Oregon state bar association task force also recently recommended ethics rule amendments that would be friendly to on-line service legal platforms).

Avvo responded to the New Jersey opinion, telling the New Jersey Law Journal that it is “attempting to address the pressing need for greater consumer access to justice, and we will continue to do so despite this advisory opinion.”

Will market pressure become a tsunami that will eventually sweep legal ethics considerations away?  It may take awhile to tell, but until then, look for more ethics opinions to come out with differing views, potentially creating a patchwork of inconsistent state approaches.  We’ll be watching with great interest.

Beach Office 1Practicing law out of a “virtual law office” (“VLO”), without being tied to the overhead expense of a brick-and-mortar facility, is increasingly attractive to lawyers in many stages of their careers:  junior lawyers hanging out their shingles in a tough market; senior lawyers who want to keep practicing, but in a flexible format; and mid-career lawyers who are attracted to the increased options for leveraging their practices by using cutting-edge technology.

Ohio’s Board of Professional Conduct is the latest to issue an ethics opinion on the subject.  But by not discussing an inherent issue — multi-jurisdictional practice and possible unauthorized practice — the Ohio opinion leaves some gaps.

VLO:  OK in OH

The Ohio Board’s opinion lays out the basic concepts of a VLO:  it typically involves communicating with clients “almost exclusively” in a non-face-to-face way, using various forms of technology, including secure internet portals, and without “a physical office where the lawyer works, meets with clients, and stores client files.”  Following the lead of several earlier ethics opinions, including from Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Washington, the Ohio Board in general greenlights VLO’s for lawyers in the Buckeye State.

The Board pointed to several ethics duties inherent in operating a VLO:

  • maintaining the technological competence needed to operate the VLO;
  • using reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertently disclosing client information;
  • discussing at the outset of the representation the office technology the lawyer uses;
  • keeping up adequate communication with the client, “regardless of the type of technology used;” and
  • making reasonable efforts to ensure that technology vendors are providing their services “in a manner compatible with the lawyer’s professional obligations,” as required by Ohio’s version of Model Rule 5.3(a).

“Office address” requirement

Some jurisdictions — but not Ohio — have bar rules or court rules requiring a lawyer to have a “bona fide office,” interpreted as traditional office space.  Such rules clearly limit the ability to operate through a VLO.  But even without a bona fide office requirement, a corollary issue lurks:  most state versions of Model Rule 7.2(c) require legal marketing materials to include the “office address of … [a] lawyer … responsible” for the advertising.

The Oho Board resolved that issue, saying that the language does not require a physical address, and can also include the lawyer’s home address, the address of shared office space or even a registered post office box.  In order to avoid being misleading, lawyers who have untethered themselves from physical offices must state in their advertising that they are able to meet in person with clients “by appointment only.”

VLO’s and UPL/MJP

The Ohio Board’s opinion doesn’t discuss multi-jurisdiction practice, or when an Ohio lawyer’s operation of a VLO might risk crossing the line into the unauthorized practice of law (“UPL’) in another state.  That’s somewhat puzzling — first, because Model Rule 5.5(a) (as adopted in Ohio and elsewhere), bars lawyers from practicing in a jurisdiction in violation of regulations in that jurisdiction; and second, because the Board previously dealt with the flip side of the VLO/UPL issue.  In 2011, the Board opined that out-of-state lawyers who represented Ohio residents through a VLO had impermissibly established a “systematic presence” in Ohio for the practice of law, in violation of Ohio’s version of Model Rule 5.5(b).  The Board said that “‘systematic and continuous presence’ includes both physical and virtual presence in Ohio.”

Most jurisdictions have adopted some version of the rule prohibiting out-of-state lawyers from establishing a systematic presence in that jurisdiction.  Therefore, if another state were to adopt Ohio’s stance that “systematic presence” includes virtual presence, Ohio lawyers could risk a UPL finding if they provide services to clients in that state through an Ohio-based VLO.  That’s a risk that the Ohio Board could have cautioned about.

Ethics opinions from California and Illinois (citing the 2011 Ohio opinion) have discussed the UPL issues with VLO’s.

The ABA’s Task force on E-Lawyering has advised in its Suggested Minimum Standards for Delivering Legal Services On-Line that lawyers operating VLO’s should avoid UPL by serving “only clients who are residents of the state where the firm is authorized to practice, or clients who have a matter within the state where the law firm is authorized to practice.”

That seems like a good way to stay out of border-crossing trouble, and to minimize UPL risks while using technology to engage in virtual practice, with its potential benefits.