Tag Archives: Florida Bar

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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Miami-Dade Circuit Judge’s Facebook “friendship” with Florida lawyer and former judge leads to motion to disqualify and appeal

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent denial of a Motion to Disqualify a Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge who was “friends” with opposing counsel on Facebook as well as the pending appeal.  The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. d/b/a Herssein Law Group and Reuven T. Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No.: _______________, Lower Tribunal No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Third District Court of Appeal) and the Motion for Writ of Prohibition is here:  http://www.almcms.com/contrib/content/uploads/sites/292/2017/07/FILED-HLG-Petition-for-Writ-of-Prohibition-3D17-1421-1.pdf 

According to the Petition, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko is a “friend” of attorney Israel Reyes on Facebook.  Reyes is also a former Miami-Dade judge who served with Judge Butchko and now has a private law firm in Coral Gables.  Reyes represents a USAA employee in the case who retained separate counsel after Herssein apparently accused the employee of witness tampering.  Herssein told the court that he planned to add the employee as a defendant and Reyes entered an appearance on behalf of the employee/non-party.

The Motion to Disqualify filed by the Herssein law firm on behalf of USAA alleged that the Facebook friendship between the judge and Reyes would cause Reyes to be able to influence the judge, and that she could not be impartial.  The judge denied the motion, stating that it was legally insufficient.  The law firm then filed the Petition for Writ of Prohibition with the Third District Court of Appeal.

The Florida Supreme Court’s Judicial Advisory Committee (JEAC) issued an opinion on this issue in 2009.  The JEAC opinion states that judges should not send or accept social media friend requests from lawyers who may appear before them.  The advisory opinion excludes campaign sites created by a committee.  The opinion is JEAC Op. No. 2009-20 (11/17/09) and is here:  http://www.jud6.org/legalcommunity/legalpractice/opinions/jeacopinions/2009/2009-20.htmlt  The opinion states:

“The Committee believes that listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as “friends” on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer “friends” are in a special position to influence the judge.  This is not to say, of course, that simply because a lawyer is listed as a “friend” on a social networking site or because a lawyer is a friend of the judge, as the term friend is used in its traditional sense, means that this lawyer is, in fact, in a special position to influence the judge.  The issue, however, is not whether the lawyer actually is in a position to influence the judge, but instead whether the proposed conduct, the identification of the lawyer as a “friend” on the social networking site, conveys the impression that the lawyer is in a position to influence the judge.  The Committee concludes that such identification in a public forum of a lawyer who may appear before the judge does convey this impression and therefore is not permitted.”

The JEAC applied the same analysis in a 2012 opinion related to professional networking websites, such as LinkedIn, and stated that there is no “meaningful distinction” between Facebook, and LinkedIn.  The opinion is JEAC Op. No. 2012-12 (5/9/12) and is here:  http://www.jud6.org/legalcommunity/legalpractice/opinions/jeacopinions/2012/2012-12.html.  The opinions states:

The Committee continues to believe that the process of selecting persons to be connections on LinkedIn, and the communication by the judge of the list of the judge’s connections to others who the judge has approved, violates Canon 2B.  The Committee does not believe that there is meaningful distinction in this regard between Facebook, and LinkedIn, a site used for professional networking, because the selection and communication process is the same on both sites.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal relied on the 2009 opinion in a 2012 decision disqualifying a judge in a criminal case for being Facebook friends with the prosecutor. The court found the social media connection could “create in a reasonably prudent person a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.”

USAA argued that the 2012 Fourth DCA decision should not apply since it involved a criminal defendant who might have a reasonable fear of prejudice; however, the law firm is more sophisticated and should not have such a fear only because two judges who both previously sat as judges in Miami-Dade County are “friends” on Facebook.

Other states have also provided guidance on judicial social media use and Florida’s opinion is one of the most restrictive.  California, Kentucky and New York have opined that judges may accept Facebook friend requests from lawyers who may appear before them under certain conditions.  California permits judges to be friends with lawyers on Facebook if those pages are used only for professional activities, such as communications with members of a law school alumni group and other factors include how many friends the judge has, whether he or she declines some attorneys’ friend requests but accepts others and how often the attorney appears before the judge.

Bottom line:  As this case illustrates, judges (and lawyers who may appear before them) would be well advised not to be “friends” or otherwise connect on social media and professional networking sites or, if they are already connected and a case is assigned, to immediately remove the connection and disclose it to all parties and provide an option to recuse if the party believes that it would potentially be prejudiced.

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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Florida lawyer accused of “planning” Allied Veterans scam is reinstated nunc pro tunc after criminal charges were reversed

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Order of the Florida Supreme Court reinstating the license of a lawyer who had been charged with felony crimes for allegedly planning Allied Veterans scam and whose conviction was reversed.  The case is The Florida Bar v. Kelly Bernard Mathis, Case No.: SC13-2031 (Supreme Court of Florida, July 17, 2017) and the SC Order is here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2013/2031/2013-2031_disposition_138842.pdf

As some of you may recall, an alleged financial scam involving an entity called Allied Veterans, based in St. Augustine, was in the media extensively a number of years ago.  The alleged scam involved gambling and “internet cafes”.  The lawyer had advised Allied Veterans that the internet cafes were legal and, after a law enforcement investigation, he was charged with planning the scam and with multiple felonies.  In 2013, Attorney General Pam Bondi said that the lawyer was the “mastermind” behind the alleged $300 million racketeering and money laundering scheme with internet cafes where people were actually illegally gambling.

Although 57 people were arrested, the lawyer was the only defendant who went to trial.  He argued that he was giving legal advice to a client and many lawyers were concerned about what that might mean for the potential criminal liability of attorneys who advise clients on a future course of conduct.  The former presidents of the nonprofit pleaded no contest and the former Fraternal Order of Police president and vice president pleaded guilty and faced no prison time.

The criminal prosecutors argued that, although Allied Veterans claimed that it was a nonprofit organization created to help veterans, it had only given about two percent of its profits to charitable causes.  The prosecutors also argued that the lawyer’s law firm had billed the nonprofit about $6 million for his legal services, although his lawyers stated the amount was most likely less than that and that he only billed for actual work his firm had performed.

During the trial, prosecutors presented testimony from witnesses who said that they had purchased hundreds of hours of internet time but never used it because they actually came to gamble. The lawyers wanted to argue in the lawyer’s defense that the lawyer had properly advised Allied Veterans that it was his opinion that offering a sweepstakes game that was legal under Florida law, which permits sweepstakes if they are used to bring a customer into a business that sells a legal product, such as McDonald’s sweepstakes.  The judge rejected their request to make that argument.

After his conviction on 103 criminal counts, the lawyer was sentenced to six years in prison.  He appealed and the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, finding that the trial judge improperly prohibited his lawyers from arguing that the internet cafes were legal and not gambling.  The Attorney General’s office decided not to pursue charges against the lawyer after the conviction was reversed.

In disciplinary matter, The Florida Bar did not oppose the lawyer’s reinstatement and Fourth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon issued a report in March 2017 recommending that the Florida Supreme Court immediately reinstate the lawyer.  In its July 17, 2017 Order, the Florida Supreme Court reinstated the lawyer nunc pro tunc to the date of his felony suspension in 2013.

Bottom line:  This lawyer was charged with multiple felonies and chose to go to trial instead of accepting a plea bargain which would not have resulted in prison time; however, the conviction would most likely have resulted in his disbarment.  After his trial in 2013, the lawyer was convicted and sentenced to 6 years in prison.  He was also automatically suspended because of the felony conviction.  Pursuant to the Florida Supreme Court’s July 17, 2017 Order, the lawyer was reinstated to practice nunc pro tunc to November 28, 2013, the date of his felony suspension.  The lawyer was ultimately suspended and unable to practice for over 3 ½ years for a conviction that was later reversed.

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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Can a lawyer forgive a client’s costs which were contingent on the outcome and the client’s responsibility under the fee agreement?

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss whether a lawyer can forgive a client’s costs client’s which were contingent on the outcome of the matter and the client’s responsibility under fee agreement.  Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 16-1 states that this would be ethical if the client was not unconditionally responsible for the payment of costs under the fee agreement, the cost forgiveness occurs after the settlement. and the lawyer does not receive any fees for the representation.  The Ethics Opinion is here: Florida Bar Ethics Op. 16-1 and it provides a thorough analysis of ethical considerations surrounding the ethics rule which prohibits providing financial assistance to a client.

Under the facts of the ethics opinion, the lawyer represented a client in a negligence case.  After a lawsuit was filed, an appellate decision changed the law and eliminated the cause of action. A settlement was reached and client’s outstanding medical bills and costs were nearly double the amount of the settlement.  The settlement exceeded the amount of costs advanced by the lawyer by a small amount.

The lawyer had paid the litigation costs on behalf of the client and repayment was contingent on the outcome of the matter. The lawyer stated that he or she would not take fee and would like to reduce the amount of costs owed to the lawyer to allow the client to receive some of the settlement proceeds after payment of liens and any other amounts.

The lawyer requested an opinion as to whether he or she could reduce the amount of the costs that the client owes notwithstanding Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 96-1, which discusses Florida Bar Rule 4-1.8(e) (Financial Assistance to Client) and states that a lawyer cannot agree to be unconditionally responsible to pay for a client’s litigation costs.

The opinion reviewed Florida Bar Rule 4-1.8(e) and discussed Michigan Ethics Opinion RI-14 (1989) which sets forth the underlying reasons for the financial assistance rule.  The Michigan Ethics Opinion states:

“Lawyers may not subsidize lawsuits or administrative proceedings brought on behalf of their clients, including making or guaranteeing loans to their clients for living expenses, because to do so would encourage clients to pursue lawsuits that might not otherwise be brought and because such assistance gives lawyers too great a financial stake in the litigation. These dangers do not warrant a prohibition on a lawyer advancing a client court costs and litigation expenses, including the expenses of diagnostic medical examination used for litigation purposes and the reasonable costs of obtaining and presenting evidence, because these advances are virtually indistinguishable from contingent fees and help ensure access to the courts. Similarly, an exception allowing lawyers representing indigent clients to pay court costs and litigation expenses regardless of whether these funds will be repaid is warranted.”

“MRPC 1.8 (e) is the result of the common law rules against champerty and maintenance. Champerty is an investment in the cause of action of another by purchasing a percentage of any recovery. Maintenance is another form of investment by providing living or other expenses to finance litigation. When a lawyer has a financial stake in the outcome of a client’s lawsuit, there is a legitimate concern that the lawyer’s undivided loyalty to the client may be compromised in an effort to protect the lawyer’s personal financial investment in the outcome. Also financial support to a client could interfere with settlement efforts, by enabling the client to prolong the dispute.”

The opinion then discusses Florida Ethics Opinion 96-1, which addressed the issue of financial assistance to clients.

Under the facts in Ethics Opinion 96-1, a lawyer agreed to be responsible for costs in representing a state agency, regardless of whether there was a recovery.  After discussing Rule 4-1.8(e) and the reasons underlying the rule, the opinion concluded that, “under the plain language of Rule 4-1.8(e), it would be ethically impermissible for the inquiring attorney to unconditionally be responsible for all costs and expenses as provided in the proposed agreement.”

The opinion provides the following summary:

“…the committee is of the opinion that the inquirer’s proposal not to seek reimbursement for some of the costs the inquirer has advanced on behalf of the client is permissible under these specific circumstances: where there has been no agreement for the inquirer to be unconditionally responsible for the costs at the outset of representation, the cost “forgiveness” occurs after settlement, and the inquirer will receive no fees for the representation. The committee believes that the rule’s prohibition is inapplicable because there was no agreement at the outset of representation for the inquirer to be responsible for the costs, and the committee believes that application of the exception to Rule 4-1.8(e) leads to the same result, as the recovery is insufficient to cover all medical bills and litigation costs and the repayment of the costs is therefore “contingent on the outcome of the matter” under the rule.”

Bottom line:  Ethics Opinions are not binding; however, this Florida opinion states that it is not unethical for a lawyer to forgive a client’s costs after settlement, even if the costs are the client’s responsibility under the fee agreement, as long as the client was not unconditionally responsible under the fee agreement, the cost forgiveness occurs after the settlement, and the lawyer does not receive any fees for the representation.

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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Lawyer’s ethical duties and responsibilities when a represented person requests a second opinion

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the lawyer’s ethical duties and responsibilities when a represented person contacts the lawyer to obtain a second opinion.  Although a lawyer is permitted to render a second opinion to a represented person who initiates the contact with the lawyer, there are important ethical and practical issues which should be considered before the lawyer agrees to do so.

A threshold issue is whether a second opinion would be an improper communication with a person represented by counsel.  In 2002, the ABA added a sentence to paragraph 4 of the Comment to Model Rule 4.2 which makes it clear that lawyers can provide second opinions if the lawyer is not representing another individual in the same matter.  Model Rule 4.2 has been adopted in substantial form by most jurisdictions, including Florida.  The Comment states:

(4) This Rule does not prohibit communication with a represented person, or an employee or agent of such a person, concerning matters outside the representation. For example, the existence of a controversy between a government agency and a private party, or between two organizations, does not prohibit a lawyer for either from communicating with nonlawyer representatives of the other regarding a separate matter. Nor does this Rule preclude communication with a represented person who is seeking advice from a lawyer who is not otherwise representing a client in the matter.

Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 02-5 (March 3, 2013, rev. August 24, 2011) discusses types of information a lawyer can give to an individual who is seeking a second opinion as well as potential solicitation.  The opinion states that, a lawyer may provide information about the lawyer’s availability and qualifications when contacted by an individual and if the information is requested.

The opinion concludes:

… a lawyer may provide a second opinion to a person who is represented by counsel at the person’s request. In providing the second opinion, the lawyer must give competent advice, and in doing so should carefully consider any limitations with which the lawyer is faced. Rule 4-1.1, Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. The lawyer should scrupulously avoid improperly soliciting the person. The lawyer may discuss what services the lawyer would be able to provide if the represented person requests not merely a second opinion, but also information about the lawyer’s availability and qualifications. Whether or not particular communications between the lawyer and the represented person might be considered tortious interference with an existing lawyer-client relationship is a legal question, outside the scope of an ethics opinion.

As is stated in the above ethics opinion, before giving a second opinion, the lawyer should consider whether he or she can competently render the opinion.  In order to be competent, the lawyer might need to review the client’s file, which may only be available through the client’s current lawyer.

South Carolina Bar Opinion 97-07 (1997) states:

…A lawyer may discuss a pending legal matter with a client who is represented by another attorney. If the client is seeking a second opinion based on a subjective opinion rendered by the client’s attorney, the lawyer should carefully consider the basis of the advice of the client’s attorney and may be required to consult with the client’s attorney in order to give competent legal advice. If so, the lawyer should advise the client accordingly prior to giving any opinion or advice.

A lawyer who provides a second opinion is also creating an attorney/client relationship and attorney/client confidentiality would apply.  The scope of confidentiality is extremely broad and includes all information related to the representation, including the fact that the client came to the lawyer for a consultation; therefore, the lawyer would not be able to contact the person’s current lawyer, unless the client consents or there is an exception to the confidentiality rule.

Oregon State Bar Opinion 2005-81 (Revised 2014) states:

A lawyer may provide a second opinion to a potential client regarding the quality of work done by another lawyer. The lawyer may not inform the other lawyer of the client’s request unless the client consents or another exception to the duty of confidentiality is applicable.

Bottom line:  It is not unethical for a lawyer to provide a second opinion; however, there are important ethical and practical issues that a lawyer should consider before agreeing to do so.

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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Filed under Attorney Ethics, Confidentiality, Florida Bar, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, lawyer confidentiality, Uncategorized

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

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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

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