Category Archives: Lawyer ethics opinions

Indiana ethics opinion finds that AVVO Advisor services may violate referral, fee splitting, and advertising rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss recent (April 2018) Indiana Ethics Opinion 1-18 which found that AVVO’s client referral services may violate Indiana Bar rules related to fee sharing with a non-lawyer, improper referral fees to a non-lawyer entity, potentially misleading communications, and the lawyer’s obligations related to professional independence and disclosure of limited representation. The Indiana ethics opinion is here:  https://www.in.gov/judiciary/discipline/files/dc-opn-1-18.pdf

The ethics opinion describes and summarizes the AVVO Advisor program (and any other similar online non-lawyer legal referral services) business model as follows:

Technology and increasing competition in the legal profession and business in general have driven the expansion of a variety of online legal services. Significant growth has been apparent among online service providers offering consumers fixed-fee, limited scope services provided by local attorneys. Typical business models set a fixed fee for various legal services with a local attorney performing the actual legal work. The company, not the attorney, defines the types of legal services offered, the scope of the representation, the fees charged, and other parameters of the legal representation.

Common features of these arrangements include: 1) prearranged fees established by the online company; 2) a “marketing fee” received by the online company; 3) addition of a local attorney to a database accessible to and used by the prospective client to select the attorney; and 4) a caution from the online company that an attorney may decline representation, but that repeated refusals could result in the removal of the attorney’s name from the database.

According to the AVVO webpage, “Avvo Legal Services is currently available in these US states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.” The listed practice areas include:  “Bankruptcy and debt, Business, Criminal defense, Divorce and separation, Family, Estate planning, Immigration, Landlord or tenant, Real estate” and states “If you need to update your practice area percentages, simply edit your Avvo profile.”

Under the AVVO Advisor business model, the potential client visits the AVVO website, selects the legal services needed, and pays Avvo a fixed fee.  Avvo then arranges for an “experienced lawyer” to return the prospective client’s call “within minutes.”  If a lawyer decides to participate, he or she agrees to provide certain legal services for a fixed fee.  Examples include a $39.00 flat fee for a “15-minute Family advice session”; a $995.00 flat fee for filing of an “uncontested divorce”; and a $295.00 flat fee for creating a “last will and testament”.

After the lawyer provides the legal services, Avvo sends the lawyer “100% of the client’s payment” and the lawyer sends to AVVO,  “(as) a completely separate transaction”, a “per-service marketing fee.”  According to AVVO’s “Attorney FAQ for Avvo Legal Services”, “Prices for these (legal) services vary from $295 for services like creating a last will and testament (individual), up to $2995 for preparing and filing a family green card application. Any applicable filing fees are not included in the price of the service; clients should pay those separately”.

“You (the lawyer) pay a marketing fee. As a separate transaction, we withdraw a per-service marketing fee from your withdrawals account. Fees are $40 – $400, depending on the service.”  The Attorney FAQs also state that “Attorneys in Florida who offer 15-minute advice sessions must carry at least $100,000 in legal malpractice insurance. This requirement does not currently apply to document review or start-to-finish services.”

Bottom line:  Indiana has now joined a lengthening list of jurisdictions which have published ethics opinions stating that the “AVVO Advisor” business model may violate lawyer ethics rules, including, in this opinion, the Indiana Bar rules related to fee sharing with a non-lawyer, payment of referral fees to a non-lawyer entity, potential misleading communications, and the lawyer’s obligations related to professional independence and disclosure of limited representation.  Other jurisdictions may publish ethics opinions in the future.  Stay tuned…

…and be very 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

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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ABA Formal Opinion 479 addresses when lawyers may use “generally known” information related to a former client

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss ABA Formal Opinion 479, which was published on December 15, 2017 and addresses when a lawyer may use information related to the representation of a former client which is to the actual or potential disadvantage of the former client when the information has become “generally known”.  The ABA opinion is here: ABA Formal Opinion 479

ABA Model Rule 1.9(c)(1) provides that a lawyer “shall not use information relating to former client’s representation to the disadvantage of the former client except as (the Model) Rule would permit or require with respect to a [current] client, or when the information has become generally known.”

The opinion also states that the “generally-known” exception to Rule 1.9 was first included in the 1983 ABA Model Rules; however, there is no consensus regarding when information is “generally known.” New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois Bar opinions and ethics commentators agree that “generally known” means “more than publicly available or accessible. It means that the information has already received widespread publicity.”

According to the opinion, the “generally known” exception to the obligations related to former-client confidentiality is limited to the following:

(1) use of the former client information, not the disclosure or revelation of the information,

(2) use of the information only if the information has become widely recognized by the public in the relevant geographic area or widely recognized in the former client’s industry.

The opinion quotes an ethics commentator:

“[T]he phrase “generally known” means much more than publicly available or accessible. It means that the information has already received widespread publicity. For example, a lawyer working on a merger with a Fortune 500 company could not whisper a word about it during the pre-offer stages, but once the offer is made—for example, once AOL and Time Warner have announced their merger, and the Wall Street Journal has reported it on the front page, and the client has become a former client—then the lawyer may tell the world. After all, most of the world already knows. . ..[O]nly if an event gained considerable public notoriety should information about it ordinarily be considered “generally known.”

The fact that information has been discussed in court or may be accessible in public records does not necessarily make the information widely recognized (and “generally known”) under Model Rule 1.9(c) since information that is publicly available is not necessarily widely recognized and, if a search of court records or library shelves is required to find the information, it would not be  widely recognized.

Bottom line: This ABA opinion provides guidance on important ethics issues related to when a lawyer is permitted to use information that is detrimental to a former client when it has become “generally known” and provides guidance.  Although the opinion (and most state Bar rules) permit lawyers to use, but not disclose, “generally known” information even if it disadvantages a former client, lawyers should always carefully consider whether this would be prudent and, if the lawyer decides to do so, obtain the client’s consent in advance.

This ABA opinion is not binding and the analysis is applicable in most, if not all jurisdictions, including Florida; however, lawyers should consult the rules and ethics opinions of their jurisdiction for further guidance.

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

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

 

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New York Bar opinion states that lawyers must take reasonable steps to protect confidential information in a border search

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New York City Bar Association ethics opinion which states that lawyers must take reasonable precautions to protect attorney/client confidential information if the lawyer is searched by U.S border/customs agents (and/or agents of other countries).  The ethics opinion is NYCBA Formal Opinion 2017-5:  An Attorney’s Ethical Duties Regarding U.S. Border Searches of Electronic Devices Containing Clients’ Confidential Information and it is here: NYCBA Opinion 2017-5.

The opinion states that the lawyer should take reasonable precautions, which will be dependent upon various factors, including the sensitivity of the information, the likelihood of disclosure, and the cost and difficulty caused by implementation of the precautions.  The opinion further states that the simplest way to avoid the issue is to not possess any client confidential information when crossing the border and options would include carrying a “burner” telephone, laptop computer, or other digital device, removing confidential information from digital devices, signing out of cloud-based services, uninstalling applications allowing remote access to confidential information, storing confidential information in secure online locations rather than locally on digital devices, and using encrypted software.

If a border agent asserts lawful authority to search an electronic device containing confidential data, the opinion states that the lawyer should try to prevent disclosure which would include advising the border agent that the device contains confidential information and files, requesting that the confidential information and/or files not be searched or copied and, if the agent is not deterred from conducting the search, asking to speak to the agent’s superior. The lawyer should also carry proof of his or her Bar membership to support the argument.

The opinion states that lawyers should also consider having printed copies of the border agency’s policies and/or guidelines on border searches available since, under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection guidelines, agents who are advised of a confidentiality claim state that an agent should seek further review to determine whether there is a “suspicion” that the asserted confidential material may constitute evidence of a crime or pertain to matters within the agencies’ jurisdiction.

“Although it is uncertain how border agents apply this ‘suspicion’ standard in actual searches, attorneys should take advantage of this possible avenue for preventing the disclosure of clients’ confidential information.”  Finally, if confidential information is seized or compromised during a search, the affected clients should be promptly notified.

Bottom line:  This ethics opinion appears to be the first to address the issues related to searches of a lawyer’s electronic devices during a border search.  According to the opinion, lawyers who travel outside of the United States should take reasonable measures to avoid disclosure of client information if U.S. border agents (or border agents of another country) search their electronic devices and, if confidential or privileged material is disclosed, lawyers must notify the affected clients.  My recommendation to lawyers is to avoid the issue by carrying “burner” devices and not having any client confidential information when crossing the border or, if that option is not feasible, storing confidential information in a secure online location and/or using encrypted software.

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

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Potential Florida Bar ethics advisory opinion 17-2 will address lawyer referral fees and private client matching services

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss recent decision by the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors (BOG) to consider a potential ethics advisory opinion to address the ethics issues surrounding lawyer referral fees and private client matching services.  The advisory opinion has not been drafted; however, the draft opinion will be identified as Proposed Advisory Opinion 17-2.

The Bar review began after a lawyer sent an ethics inquiry to The Florida Bar asking whether lawyers could participate with a private lawyer referral service which planned to charge a different set fee depending upon the type of case referred.  The lawyer referred to the system “as a ‘pay-per-lead’ structure.”

The lawyer’s inquiry was referred to the BOG and, at its July 21, 2017 meeting in Miami, the BOG unanimously approved the recommendation of the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics (BRCPE) that it be directed to prepare an advisory opinion on the inquiry, specifically whether lawyer referral services can charge a fee per referral and impose different fees for different types of cases.  The BRCPE has authority to decline drafting an opinion and the BOG could also decide not to issue the opinion if it is drafted.

If an ethics advisory opinion is drafted, it will address the ethics issues created when online entities (such as AVVO) rolled out programs which attempt to match potential clients with lawyers and which make different payments depending on the type of case.  The opinion would also address the Bar rules related to advertising and referral services.  Lawyers and others will be able to comment on the issues before any opinion is drafted and/or approved.

The Florida Bar Rules have long prohibited lawyers from sharing fees with private referral services.  The Bar’s Standing Committee on Advertising (SCA) also rejected “pay-per-lead” plans on previous appeals and the BOG rejected an appeal from a referral service that proposed a payment of $300.00 to participating lawyers for each referred and accepted case in 2012.

Other jurisdictions have published ethics opinions addressing these issues or are in the process of reviewing them.  As I reported in a recent Ethics Alert blog, New York Ethics Opinion 1132 (published August 8, 2017) found that New York lawyers are prohibited from participating in AVVO’s client referral services.  The opinion found that lawyers who participate in AVVO’s client referral services (and any similar services) would violate the New York Bar rules since they involve AVVO’s improper “vouching” for (recommendation of) the lawyer, improper lawyer referral fees, and improper fee sharing with a non-lawyer.

As background, The Florida Bar filed a petition with proposed Bar rule amendments with the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 addressing, inter alia, referral services that offer both legal and medical or other non-legal services. Those proposed rules would have allowed lawyers to participate in those services, as long as clients were informed about potential conflicts, there was no quid pro quo requiring the lawyer to send a referred client for medical or other services offered by the referral agency, and the lawyer’s independent judgment was not affected.

The Florida Supreme Court published an opinion on September 24, 2015 which declined to implement the rule revisions and instructed the Bar to draft rules that “preclude Florida lawyers from accepting referrals from any lawyer referral service that is not owned or operated by a member of the Bar.”    That opinion is here: 9/24/15 SC Opinion

The Florida Bar then filed revised rule amendments designating private entities which match lawyers with potential clients as “qualified providers” and requiring those entities to comply with the Bar rules, including a required review of the advertisements. Participating lawyers would not have been required to carry malpractice insurance.

The Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument in April 2017 and then published an order dismissing the petition on May 3, 2017. That order is here: 5/3/17 SC Order.  The order stated: “In this case, the Bar proposes amendments to rule 4-7.22 that do not comply with the Court’s direction concerning lawyer referral services that are not owned or operated by a member of the Bar and that seek to expand the scope of the rule to include “matching services” and other similar services not currently regulated by the Bar.

The May 3, 2017 Order also stated that the dismissal was without prejudice “to allow the members of this Court to engage in informed discussions with the Bar and those who are in favor or against the proposed regulation of matching and other similar services. The Court lacks sufficient background information on such services and their regulation at this time.”  A meeting was held at the June 2017 Bar Annual Convention in Boca Raton to discuss the issues and was attended by Justices, Bar officials, and representatives of private referral services.

The Bar’s Notice of the proposed ethics advisory opinion was published in the August 15, 2017 issue of the Florida Bar News.  The Bar’s Notice is here: 8/15/17 Notice of Proposed advisory opinion 17-2.

According to the Notice:  “The Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics will consider adopting a proposed advisory opinion at the direction of The Florida Bar Board of Governors based on an inquiry by a member of The Florida Bar, at a meeting to be held on Thursday, December 7, 2017, from 1-3 p.m. at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island.” and “comments from Florida Bar members are solicited on the issues presented. Comments must contain Proposed Advisory Opinion number 17-2, must clearly state the issues for the committee to consider, may offer suggestions for additional fee arrangements to be addressed by the proposed advisory opinion, and may include a proposed conclusion. Comments should be submitted to Elizabeth Clark Tarbert, Ethics Counsel, The Florida Bar, 651 E. Jefferson Street, Tallahassee 32399-2300, and must be postmarked no later than 30 days from the date of this publication.”

Bottom line:  If the ethics opinion is drafted and approved, Florida will join the growing list of jurisdictions addressing “marketing fees” taken from fees paid by private online entities to lawyers participating in client generation services.  This ethics opinion (like all ethics opinions) would be advisory and for guidance only.

Stay tuned and 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

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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New York ethics opinion finds that fees paid to Avvo for legal services violate referral, fee splitting, and advertising Bar Rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss recent (August 8, 2017) New York Ethics Opinion 1132 which found that lawyers in New York are prohibited from participating in AVVO’s client referral services.  This opinion found that the referral services violate the Bar rules since they involve improper “vouching for” (and recommendation of) the lawyer, improper lawyer referral fees, and fee sharing with a non-lawyer.

The companion New York Ethics Opinion 1131 (August 8, 2017) sets forth the structures of various web-based services and attempts to explain how those services could comply with the New York Bar Rules.  Both New York State Bar Ethics Opinions are here: http://www.nysba.org/EthicsOpinion1132/ and here: http://www.nysba.org/EthicsOpinion1131/ .

NYSBA Ethics Opinion 1132 states that, since Avvo Legal Services provides ratings of lawyers using the service based on various qualifiers such as years in practice, information provided by the lawyers, volunteer bar work and other publicly available information, and offers to find a client “the right” lawyer with a money-back guarantee, there is an implied recommendation as to the lawyer’s “credentials, abilities, competence, character, or other professional qualities”; therefore, the marketing fee is “an improper payment for a recommendation in violation the New York  Bar Rules.

The opinion also states that since “the Avvo website also extols the benefits of being able to work with highly rated lawyers,” it creates a reasonable impression that it is recommending its top-rated lawyers. and the satisfaction guarantee “also contributes to this impression.”

“Avvo is giving potential clients the impression that a lawyer with a rating of ‘10’ is ‘superb,’ and is thus a better lawyer for the client’s matter than a lawyer with a lower rating. Avvo is also giving potential clients the impression that Avvo’s eligibility requirements for lawyers who participate in Avvo Legal Services assure that participating lawyers are ‘highly qualified.’” The opinion states that Avvo Legal Services’ “satisfaction guarantee” also contributes to the impression that Avvo is recommending its lawyers’ services “because it stands behind them to the extent of refunding payment if the client is not satisfied.”

According to the opinion, Comment 1 of New York Rule 7.2 prohibits a lead generator not only from stating that it is recommending a lawyer, but also from implying or creating a reasonable impression that it is making such a recommendation.

NYSBA Ethics Opinion 1132 concludes:

“This opinion does not preclude a lawyer from advertising bona fide professional ratings generated by third parties in advertisements, and we recognize that a lawyer may pay another party (such as a magazine or website) to include those bona fide ratings in the lawyer’s advertisements. But Avvo Legal Services is different.  It is not a third party, but rather the very party that will benefit financially if potential clients hire the lawyers rated by Avvo.  Avvo markets the lawyers participating in the service offered under the Avvo brand, generates Avvo ratings that it uses in the advertising for the lawyers who participate in Avvo Legal Services, and effectively ‘vouches for’ each participating lawyer’s credentials, abilities, and competence by offering a full refund if the client is not satisfied. As noted earlier, Avvo says: ‘We stand behind our services and expect our clients to be 100% satisfied with their experience’” Accordingly, we conclude that lawyers who pay Avvo’s marketing fee are paying for a recommendation, and are thus violating Rule 7.2(a).”

NYSBA Ethics Opinion 1131 sets forth the structures of various web-based services and attempts to explain how those services could potentially comply with the New York Bar Rules.  That opinion concludes:

“A lawyer may pay a for-profit service for leads to potential clients obtained via a website on which potential clients provide contact information and agree to be contacted by a participating lawyer, as long as (i) the lawyer who contacts the potential client has been selected by transparent and mechanical methods that do not purport to be based on an analysis of the potential client’s legal problem or the qualifications of the selected lawyer to handle that problem; (ii) the service does not explicitly or implicitly recommend any lawyer, and (iii) the website of the service complies with the requirements of Rule 7.1.  A lawyer who purchases such a lead to a potential client may ethically telephone that potential client if the potential client has invited the lawyer selected by the service to make contact by telephone.”

The opinions also briefly discuss the potential confidentiality issues related to AVVO’s “money back guarantee”.

Bottom line:  New York has now joined the list of jurisdictions finding that Avvo’s “marketing fee” taken from fees paid to lawyers using its client generation services violate ethics rules and are impermissible referral fees.  This New York ethics opinion (like all ethics opinions) is advisory only; however, it is the most recent finding that the fee charges in AVVO’s plan constitute improper referral fees and fee sharing.  Other jurisdictions (such as a pending North Carolina opinion) may also publish ethics opinions in the future.  Stay tuned…

…and 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

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Proposed Florida Bar Advisory Opinion finds that lawyers may share fees with lawyers in firms owned with non-lawyers

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss Proposed Florida Bar Advisory Ethics Opinion 17-1 (June 23, 2017) which states that Florida Bar members may divide fees with out of state lawyers who are members of law firms which have non-lawyer ownership as permitted in the jurisdiction where the law firm is located.

The proposed ethics opinion is here:  https://www.floridabar.org/news/tfb-news/?durl=%2Fdivcom%2Fjn%2Fjnnews01.nsf%2F8c9f13012b96736985256aa900624829%2Fda5da7932958bb6a852581560062520c.  The proposed opinion is not final.  See below for details and opportunity to comment.

One of the issues that Florida lawyers who wish to co-counsel with out of state lawyers face is whether the lawyer can share fees with other lawyers who are members of law firm with non-lawyer owners as permitted in that jurisdiction.  Non-lawyer ownership of law firms is currently permitted in Washington, D.C. and the State of Washington in the U.S., the Canadian provinces Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, the countries of England, Wales, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, Brussels, and New Zealand.

The Professional Ethics Committee was asked by the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors to opine on whether Florida lawyers are permitted divide fees with out-of-state lawyers who are members of law firms in which there is nonlawyer ownership because nonlawyer ownership is allowed in the jurisdiction where the other law firm is located.  The proposed opinion found that such fee sharing “in accordance with Florida rules, law, and ethics opinions does not violate the prohibition against fee sharing set forth in Rule 4-5.4.” (emphasis supplied)

According to the proposed ethics opinion,

“Florida Bar members frequently work with lawyers outside their firms in representing clients. Florida Bar members also co-counsel cases with lawyers who are admitted solely in jurisdictions outside of Florida. Lawyers admitted solely in jurisdictions outside Florida are authorized to provide legal services in Florida under limited circumstances. Co-counselling with out-of-state lawyers thus raises potential concerns regarding assisting in the unlicensed practice of law and improper division of legal fees. Florida Bar members may divide fees with lawyers from other jurisdictions only where the out-of-state lawyers are providing legal services to the same client that the out-of-state lawyers are authorized by other law to provide and only in compliance with Florida Bar rules. See, Rules 4-1.5(g), 4-5.4(a), 4-5.5, and Florida Ethics Opinions 90-8, 88-10, and 62-3.

“Florida Bar members are prohibited from partnering or sharing legal fees with nonlawyers. See, Rule 4-5.4. Most U.S. jurisdictions share a similar prohibition. The only United States jurisdictions that currently permit nonlawyer ownership of law firms are Washington, D.C. and Washington state. Nonlawyer ownership of law firms is permitted in Canadian provinces Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, England, Wales, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, Brussels, and New Zealand.

“Requirements and limitations on nonlawyer ownership vary in jurisdictions that allow it.

“This opinion addresses Florida Bar members in co-counseling and dividing fees with out-of-state lawyers with whom the Florida Bar members are permitted to divide fees as noted above, and in which the out-of-state lawyers practice in law firms with nonlawyer ownership as permitted by the other jurisdiction.

“The committee is of the opinion that sharing fees with an out-of-state lawyer in accordance with Florida rules, law, and ethics opinions does not violate the prohibition against fee sharing set forth in Rule 4-5.4. A Florida Bar member should not be subject to discipline merely because a nonlawyer ultimately may receive some part of the out-of-state lawyer’s fee solely by virtue of being an owner of the out-of-state law firm. The Florida Bar member has no control over the organization and ownership of the out-of-state firm. The out-of-state law firm may be organized in accordance with the rules of its own jurisdiction. The fact that the nonlawyer ownership would not be permitted in Florida should not impact what the out-of-state lawyer is permitted to do under the rules of that jurisdiction. To opine otherwise unnecessarily places Florida Bar members at risk and deprives clients of counsel of their own choosing from other jurisdictions.

“Other jurisdictions that have addressed the issue have reached similar conclusions. See, ABA Formal Opinion 464 (2013); New York City Bar Formal Ethics Opinion 2015-8 (2015); and Philadelphia Bar Association Ethics Opinion 2010-7 (2010).

“ABA Formal Opinion 464 also cautions lawyers that they:

. . .must continue to comply with the requirement of Model Rule 5.4(c) to maintain professional independence. Even if the other law firm may be governed by different rules regarding relationships with nonlawyers, a lawyer must not permit a nonlawyer in the other firm to interfere with the lawyer’s own independent professional judgment. As noted above, the actual risk of improper influence is minimal. But the prohibition against improper nonlawyer influence continues regardless of the fee arrangement.

“The committee agrees with and adopts the reasoning of the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility in formal opinion 464 above.

“Finally, the committee notes that this opinion does not address a Florida Bar member becoming a partner, shareholder, associate, or other formal arrangement in a law firm that is permitted to have nonlawyer ownership in its home jurisdiction and does so in compliance with the rules of its home jurisdiction. Neither does this opinion address the issue of a Florida Bar member who also is admitted to practice in another jurisdiction where nonlawyer ownership is permitted joining a law firm with nonlawyer owners under the rules of the other jurisdiction.”

___________________

1Alternative Law Business Structures ABA Issue Paper (April 5, 2011) available at:http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/ethics_2020/abs_issues_paper.authcheckdam.pdf.

Bottom line:  This ethics opinion finds that sharing fees with lawyers who are members of law firms which have non-lawyer ownership does violate not the prohibition against fee sharing set forth in Florida Bar Rule 4-5.4; however, the opinion is not final.

According to the Bar’s Notice:

“Pursuant to Rule 4(c) and (d) of The Florida Bar Procedures for Ruling on Questions of Ethics, comments from Florida Bar members are solicited on the proposed opinion. The committee will consider any comments received at a meeting to be held in conjunction with The Florida Bar’s Fall Meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, October 13, 2017, at the Tampa Airport Marriott. Comments must contain the proposed advisory opinion number and clearly state the issues for the committee to consider. A written argument may be included explaining why the Florida Bar member believes the committee’s opinion is either correct or incorrect and may contain citations to relevant authorities. Comments should be submitted to Elizabeth Clark Tarbert, Ethics Counsel, The Florida Bar, 651 E. Jefferson Street, Tallahassee 32399-2300, and must be postmarked no later than 30 days from the date of this publication.”

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

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Proposed Florida Bar Advisory Opinion finds that lawyers may share fees with lawyers in firms owned with non-lawyers

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss Proposed Florida Bar Advisory Ethics Opinion 17-1 (June 23, 2017) which states that Florida Bar members may divide fees with out of state lawyers who are members of law firms which have nonlawyer ownership as permitted in the jurisdiction where the law firm is located.

The proposed ethics opinion is here:  https://www.floridabar.org/news/tfb-news/?durl=%2Fdivcom%2Fjn%2Fjnnews01.nsf%2F8c9f13012b96736985256aa900624829%2Fda5da7932958bb6a852581560062520c.  The proposed opinion is not final.  See below for details and opportunity to comment.

One of the issues that Florida lawyers who wish to co-counsel with out of state lawyers face is whether the lawyer can share fees with other lawyers who are members of law firm with non-lawyer owners as permitted in that jurisdiction.  Non-lawyer ownership of law firms is currently permitted in Washington, D.C. and the State of Washington in the U.S., the Canadian provinces Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, the countries of England, Wales, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, Brussels, and New Zealand.

The Professional Ethics Committee was asked by the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors to opine on whether Florida lawyers are permitted divide fees with out-of-state lawyers who are members of law firms in which there is nonlawyer ownership because nonlawyer ownership is allowed in the jurisdiction where the other law firm is located.  The proposed opinion found that such fee sharing “in accordance with Florida rules, law, and ethics opinions does not violate the prohibition against fee sharing set forth in Rule 4-5.4.” (emphasis supplied)

According to the proposed ethics opinion,

“Florida Bar members frequently work with lawyers outside their firms in representing clients. Florida Bar members also co-counsel cases with lawyers who are admitted solely in jurisdictions outside of Florida. Lawyers admitted solely in jurisdictions outside Florida are authorized to provide legal services in Florida under limited circumstances. Co-counselling with out-of-state lawyers thus raises potential concerns regarding assisting in the unlicensed practice of law and improper division of legal fees. Florida Bar members may divide fees with lawyers from other jurisdictions only where the out-of-state lawyers are providing legal services to the same client that the out-of-state lawyers are authorized by other law to provide and only in compliance with Florida Bar rules. See, Rules 4-1.5(g), 4-5.4(a), 4-5.5, and Florida Ethics Opinions 90-8, 88-10, and 62-3.

“Florida Bar members are prohibited from partnering or sharing legal fees with nonlawyers. See, Rule 4-5.4. Most U.S. jurisdictions share a similar prohibition. The only United States jurisdictions that currently permit nonlawyer ownership of law firms are Washington, D.C. and Washington state. Nonlawyer ownership of law firms is permitted in Canadian provinces Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, England, Wales, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, Brussels, and New Zealand.

“Requirements and limitations on nonlawyer ownership vary in jurisdictions that allow it.

“This opinion addresses Florida Bar members in co-counseling and dividing fees with out-of-state lawyers with whom the Florida Bar members are permitted to divide fees as noted above, and in which the out-of-state lawyers practice in law firms with nonlawyer ownership as permitted by the other jurisdiction.

“The committee is of the opinion that sharing fees with an out-of-state lawyer in accordance with Florida rules, law, and ethics opinions does not violate the prohibition against fee sharing set forth in Rule 4-5.4. A Florida Bar member should not be subject to discipline merely because a nonlawyer ultimately may receive some part of the out-of-state lawyer’s fee solely by virtue of being an owner of the out-of-state law firm. The Florida Bar member has no control over the organization and ownership of the out-of-state firm. The out-of-state law firm may be organized in accordance with the rules of its own jurisdiction. The fact that the nonlawyer ownership would not be permitted in Florida should not impact what the out-of-state lawyer is permitted to do under the rules of that jurisdiction. To opine otherwise unnecessarily places Florida Bar members at risk and deprives clients of counsel of their own choosing from other jurisdictions.

“Other jurisdictions that have addressed the issue have reached similar conclusions. See, ABA Formal Opinion 464 (2013); New York City Bar Formal Ethics Opinion 2015-8 (2015); and Philadelphia Bar Association Ethics Opinion 2010-7 (2010).

“ABA Formal Opinion 464 also cautions lawyers that they:

. . .must continue to comply with the requirement of Model Rule 5.4(c) to maintain professional independence. Even if the other law firm may be governed by different rules regarding relationships with nonlawyers, a lawyer must not permit a nonlawyer in the other firm to interfere with the lawyer’s own independent professional judgment. As noted above, the actual risk of improper influence is minimal. But the prohibition against improper nonlawyer influence continues regardless of the fee arrangement.

“The committee agrees with and adopts the reasoning of the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility in formal opinion 464 above.

“Finally, the committee notes that this opinion does not address a Florida Bar member becoming a partner, shareholder, associate, or other formal arrangement in a law firm that is permitted to have nonlawyer ownership in its home jurisdiction and does so in compliance with the rules of its home jurisdiction. Neither does this opinion address the issue of a Florida Bar member who also is admitted to practice in another jurisdiction where nonlawyer ownership is permitted joining a law firm with nonlawyer owners under the rules of the other jurisdiction.”

___________________

1Alternative Law Business Structures ABA Issue Paper (April 5, 2011) available at:http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/ethics_2020/abs_issues_paper.authcheckdam.pdf.

Bottom line:  This ethics opinion finds that sharing fees with lawyers who are members of law firms which have non-lawyer ownership does violate not the prohibition against fee sharing set forth in Florida Bar Rule 4-5.4; however, the opinion is not final.

According to the Bar’s Notice:

“Pursuant to Rule 4(c) and (d) of The Florida Bar Procedures for Ruling on Questions of Ethics, comments from Florida Bar members are solicited on the proposed opinion. The committee will consider any comments received at a meeting to be held in conjunction with The Florida Bar’s Fall Meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, October 13, 2017, at the Tampa Airport Marriott. Comments must contain the proposed advisory opinion number and clearly state the issues for the committee to consider. A written argument may be included explaining why the Florida Bar member believes the committee’s opinion is either correct or incorrect and may contain citations to relevant authorities. Comments should be submitted to Elizabeth Clark Tarbert, Ethics Counsel, The Florida Bar, 651 E. Jefferson Street, Tallahassee 32399-2300, and must be postmarked no later than 30 days from the date of this publication.”

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

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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