Monthly Archives: March 2017

Ethical issues and requirements for lawyers in compensating nonlawyer employees

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the ethical considerations for lawyers when compensating non-lawyer employees.  State Bar disciplinary rules, including Florida Bar Rule 4-5.4(a), prohibit lawyers from sharing legal fees with nonlawyers.  The Comment to the Florida Bar Rule states, “The provisions of this rule express traditional limitations on sharing fees.  These limitations are to protect the lawyer’s professional independence of judgment….”  Notwithstanding this prohibition, the Bar rules provide for exceptions.

Florida Bar Rule 4-5.4(a)(4) states that “bonuses may be paid to nonlawyer employees for work performed, and may be based on their extraordinary efforts on a particular case or over a specified time period. Bonus payments shall not be based on cases or clients brought to the lawyer or law firm by the actions of the nonlawyer. A lawyer shall not provide a bonus payment that is calculated as a percentage of legal fees received by the lawyer or law firm…”

In Florida Bar Ethics Op. 02-1 (1/11/02), the lawyer requested an ethics opinion regarding the following question:  “May I bonus a non-lawyer employee based on the number of hours the non-lawyer employee has worked on a case for a particular client?”  The lawyer stated that “I would like to bonus my employees based on their own productivity. I would not be utilizing any portion of the fees received by me for that purpose.”

The opinion concluded:

“Based on the rules and opinion, the inquiring attorney may pay the legal assistant a bonus based on the legal assistant’s extraordinary efforts on a particular case or over a specific period of time. While the number of hours the legal assistant works on a particular case or over a specific period of time is one of several factors that can be considered in determining a bonus for the legal assistant, it is not the sole factor to be considered. It must be remembered that the rule allows a bonus to be paid to a nonlawyer based on “extraordinary efforts” either in a particular case or over a specific time period. A bonus which is solely calculated on the number of hours incurred by the legal assistant on the matter is tantamount to a finding that every single hour incurred was an “extraordinary effort”, and such a finding is very unlikely to be true. Therefore, unless every single hour incurred by the legal assistant was a truly extraordinary effort, it would be impermissible for the inquiring attorney to pay a bonus to his legal assistant calculated in the manner the inquiring attorney has proposed. However, the number of hours incurred by the legal assistant on the particular matter or over a specified time period may be considered by the lawyer as one of the factors in determining the legal assistant’s bonus.” (emphasis added). 

Florida Bar Rule 4-5.4 (b) – Qualified Pension Plans, states that a “lawyer or law firm may include nonlawyer employees in a qualified pension, profit-sharing, or retirement plan, even though the lawyer’s or law firm’s contribution to the plan is based in whole or in part on a profit-sharing arrangement.”

ABA Model Rule 5.4(a)(3) states that: “A lawyer or law firm may include nonlawyer employees in a compensation or retirement plan, even though the plan is based in whole or in part on a profit sharing arrangement…”  ABA Informal Opinion 1440 also states that a compensation plan proposed for an office administrator which relates to the net profits and business performance of the firm and not to the receipt of particular fees does not violate the model rules.

Other state bar opinions address when nonlawyers can participate in such compensation plans.  New York State Bar Assoc. Ethics Op. 887 (2011) states that a law firm may pay a marketing employee a bonus based on the firm’s profits, the profits of a department, or as a percentage of the marketer’s salary; however, the bonus cannot be based on referrals of specific legal matters or on firm profits that come from cases that the marketer brought to the firm.  District of Columbia Ethics Op. 322 (2004) states that a nonlawyer employee may not be paid a bonus based on fees the firm receives from a specific case or series of related cases, but may be paid a bonus contingent upon the firm’s overall profitability.

Unless there is an exception, lawyers are prohibited from paying nonlawyers a bonus that is based on the referral of specific clients to the firm.  Florida Bar Rule 4-1.17(b) -Payment for Referrals- states that a lawyer “may not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services, except that a lawyer may pay the reasonable cost of advertising permitted by these rules, may pay the usual charges of a lawyer referral service, lawyer directory or other legal service organization, and may purchase a law practice in accordance with rule 4-1.17.”

A lawyer cannot circumvent the Rule by providing non-monetary “gifts” to nonlawyer employees.  Such gifts would most likely be considered to be something “of value” under Florida Bar Rule 4-1.17(b) and would therefore by prohibited under that rule as well. The key issue is whether something “of value” is exchanged for future referrals.

Examples include: Maryland Ethics Op. 2000-35 (2001)- lawyers who participate as panelists in seminars offered by accounting and financial services company, in exchange for referrals, could be interpreted as giving “something of value” to accounting firm; Pennsylvania Bar Association in Op. 2005-81- a lawyer may not give a nonlawyer employee a paid day off for referring a new client to the firm; and Connecticut Informal Ethics Op. 92-24 (1992)- a lawyer may not give indirect benefits, including gifts, to a client who made referrals to a lawyer.

Bottom line:  Lawyers must be aware of the Bar rules governing compensation to non-lawyers in order to fully comply with the rules and avoid an unintentional failure to comply.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Attorney Ethics, Ethics and nonlawyer compensation, Florida lawyer ethics nonlawyer compensation, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Non lawyer compensation

Georgia Supreme Court rejects lawyer’s agreement for reprimand for threatening and improper e-mails in his divorce case

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent opinion of the Georgia Supreme Court rejecting an agreement between a lawyer and the Georgia Bar for a reprimand as a sanction for the lawyer’s “inappropriate threatening language, intimidation and personal attacks directed to opposing counsel” during his divorce case. The case is In the Matter of John Michael Spain, No. S17Y0010 (February 27, 2017) and the Court’s opinion is here:  http://www.gasupreme.us/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/s17y0010.pdf

The lawyer, who was admitted in Georgia in 1999, sent the e-mails over a period of two days while he was representing himself in his divorce matter.  He pled no contest to misdemeanor charges of stalking and harassing communications related to the e-mails and was sentenced to one year of probation on each count to be served consecutively.

In the agreement with the Georgia Bar, the lawyer admitted that the e-mails included “inappropriate threatening language, intimidation and personal attacks directed to opposing counsel, including inappropriate remarks about counsel and members of her family, and ad hominem statements about his wife.”

The lawyer cited as mitigating factors that he had no prior discipline and that he was suffering from his personal and emotional problems related to the marriage and stated that he has received professional help for his problems and he has retained a lawyer to represent him in the divorce.  He also stated that acted in good faith to rectify the consequences of his conduct by entering the pleas, that he has cooperated fully with the Bar, that his misconduct did not involve his practice or his clients, that he was deeply remorseful and recognized that his conduct was contrary to his professional obligations and longstanding personal values, and that he wished that he could reverse his actions.

The Georgia Bar agreed to the reprimand under the “unique set of circumstances’; however, after reviewing the record and relevant cases, and analyzing the facts, the opinion rejected the petition for voluntary discipline for a reprimand.

Bottom line:  This case involves some allegedly egregious conduct by a lawyer who was representing himself in his own divorce proceeding.  A lawyer is responsible for his or her actions, even if the conduct occurs outside of the representation of a client if they result in violations of the Bar Rules.  This also appears to clearly demonstrate the application of the old proverb, commonly attributed to Abraham Lincoln (although likely much older), that: “A man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client”.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer criminal conduct, Lawyer derogatory remarks, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer discipline for criminalconviction, Lawyer disparaging statements to opposing counsel in own divorce, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer threatening e-mails, Lawyer threats and discipline

Florida judge suspended for six months for judicial campaign violations and Bar Rule violations while he was a practicing lawyer

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent opinion of the Florida Supreme Court reprimanding and suspending a judge for six (6) months for violating the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct Canons related to judicial candidates and the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar while he was a practicing lawyer for, inter alia, making improper and false statements as a candidate, and failing to withdraw from a lawsuit where he had a conflict of interest.  The case is Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 13-25 Re: Andrew J. Decker, III, No. SC14-383 (March 2, 2017) and the Court’s opinion is here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2014/383/2014-383_disposition_138059.pdf

The investigation into the alleged misconduct began before the judge was elected as a Third Judicial Circuit judge in 2012.  The judge was alleged to have had a conflict of interest while he was representing clients as a lawyer and of, among other things, falsely stating that he had never been accused of conflict of interest and stating that he was “pro-life” and Republican at campaign events before his election in 2012.  The judge maintained that his comments regarding his party and his views regarding abortion were “political speech” protected by the First Amendment.

The judge was also named in an inquiry by a Florida House committee regarding the time it takes to investigate and resolve allegations against judges.  Former Duval Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey was also named; however, he resigned the day before the committee began the inquiry.

In March 2015, after an investigation, the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) recommended a 90-day suspension without pay; however, the opinion rejected that recommendation and imposed a six (6) month suspension, reprimand, and required payment of the JQC’s costs.

According to the opinion:  “All the violations established in this case demonstrate a pattern of poor judgment, and lack of concern for jointly represented clients and for other counsel and their clients.”  “Judge Decker’s misconduct unquestionably warrants the imposition of a serious sanction.”  The opinion also indicated that the judge’s misconduct did not result in any harm to his clients or anyone else and: “Although the series of acts by Judge Decker involving misconduct requires the imposition of a serious sanction, we have concluded it does not merit removal from office.”

Bottom line:  This case is interesting since all judicial candidates and judges are subject to investigation by the JQC  for alleged violations of the Judicial Canons for alleged misconduct while they are candidates or while they are on the bench.  They also can (and have been) prosecuted by The Florida Bar for misconduct before they are sworn in as a judge.  In this case, the Court suspended the judge for conduct both as a practicing lawyer and as a judicial candidate; however, The Florida Bar will have jurisdiction to prosecute the judge for Florida Bar Rule violations after he is no longer a judge.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Filed under Florida Judge candidate misconduct, Florida judge ethics, Florida Judicial Canons, Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Judicial candidate misconduct, Judicial ethics