Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent American Bar Association Formal Opinion 487, which provides guidance regarding the requirements of fee divisions in contingency fee matters when the initial lawyer is replaced by a successor lawyer. ABA Formal Opinion 487 is here: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/news/2019/06/FormalOpinion487.pdf
ABA Formal Opinion 487 clarifies that a lawyer, who is a successor counsel in a contingency-fee matter, must notify the client, in writing, that a portion of any fees recovered may be paid to the original counsel. The opinion addresses a common misunderstanding about which model rules apply to successor relationships in contingency fee agreements, and the duties of successor counsel.
The initial lawyer in a contingency fee matter will often assert a lien on the proceeds when the lawyer is terminated or is required to withdraw; however, if the client employs successor counsel, the client may not understand there is a continuing obligation to pay the original lawyer for the value that lawyer contributed or was entitled to under the original contract.
The opinion states that lawyers may erroneously believe that ABA Model Rule 1.5(e) (or its state equivalent) (division of a fee between lawyers who are not in the same firm) governs this situation; however, Rule 1.5(e) only applies when there is division of fees between lawyers from different firms who are simultaneously representing a client or maintaining responsibility for the matter, not when there is successive representation. Rule 1.5(e) specifically requires that lawyers who are simultaneously representing a client and dividing a fee in a matter either divide the fee in proportion to the services delivered or assume joint responsibility for the representation.
When a lawyer no longer represents the client and there is a successor lawyer, there is no joint responsibility since the initial lawyer has no further responsibility after the withdrawal or termination and, according to the opinion, Model Rule 1.5(b) and (c) would apply to the successor lawyer in the fee relationship with the client.
Comment 2 to 1.5 states that, “an understanding as to fees …must be established”; however, the rule provides no specific time frame in which that understanding must occur. The opinion notes that under 1.5(a), client consent must be obtained before the fee is divided, which can occur up to the time of the conclusion of the matter and prior to disbursement of any money.
The opinion states that the duty to disclose the original lawyer’s potential claim and entitlement to some portion of the recovery does not constitute an “unreasonable burden” on successor counsel since, although a client may discharge a lawyer at any time for any reason, the client may be unaware of obligations to pay both the successor lawyer and the initial lawyer. The opinion states that the successor counsel must address and clarify any confusion and inform the client, in writing, that the original attorney may have a claim against the contingency fee.
In many jurisdictions (including Florida), the initial lawyer may or would be entitled to, at a minimum, the quantum meruit value of the lawyer’s services and the exact recovery and division of fees may not be known until the end of the case; however, the successor lawyer still has a duty to inform the client about a potential fee split.
The opinion also observes that, in many instances, the fees paid to both attorneys will not affect the client’s recovery, since a client cannot be required to pay more than one contingency fee when switching attorneys; however, if the client’s original counsel was terminated for cause, the initial lawyer may not have any claim to fees on the recovery.
Finally, according to the opinion, if the successor lawyer is required to negotiate fees with the initial lawyer on the client’s behalf, the successor lawyer must advise the client and obtain a waiver to avoid issues with Rule 1.7 conflict of interest regarding the disbursement of the funds. Also, if a dispute arises regarding the disbursement of the funds, the successor lawyer has the obligation under Rule 1.15(e) to retain the funds in the trust account pending resolution of the dispute (and, in many jurisdictions, including Florida, the lawyer may be required to place the disputed funds in the court registry if the dispute cannot be resolved).
Bottom line: This ABA opinion provides clear guidance on the Model Bar rule requirements when there is division of fees after the initial lawyer withdraws or is terminated and the client hires a successor counsel in contingency matters; however, lawyers must be aware that ABA opinions provide guidance regarding the ABA Model Rules only and each lawyer must research his or her own jurisdiction’s Bar Rules before taking any action.
Be careful out there.
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