Frustrations with Formal Ethics Opinion 2017-F-164

Recently (and one of the frustrations I have with this opinion I am now writing about is, that “recently” is about as specific as I can pin things down in terms of the date of issuance), the Board of Professional Responsibility in Tennessee issued a Formal Ethics Opinion giving some guidance on the ability of a Tennessee lawyer to be a part of a multi-state law firm using a trade name.

It is, on the whole, an adequate ethics opinion in that it essentially gets the answers to the questions it raises correct, but it is more frustrating than it is adequate given how it addresses the issues and, as hinted at above, how it was surfaced by the Board as having even been issued.

First, here are my frustrations with the substance.  Here are the questions FEO 2017-F-164 tackles:

I. Do the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct allow a partnership between a Tennessee Professional Services Corporation and a Florida Professional Services Corporation?

II. Can the partnership ethically use a trade name?

III. Can the Florida office of the partnership ethically lease space from SETCO Services, a title company?

Admittedly, the Board gets the answers to each of these questions correct.  Those answers are, of course, “yes,” “yes,” and “yes.”  But the opinion does not do the best job of showing its work as to some of the answers, completely ignores the fact that the questions being answered also can’t be addressed without taking a look at Florida’s analogous ethics rules, and, as to the third question, misrepresents to an extent how RPC 5.7 actually works in Tennessee, appears to assume more facts beyond the facts indicated in the opinion.

As further background to understand my griping, here is the entirety of the facts provided by the Board about the request that has been directed to them:

The requesting lawyer proposes a 50%-50% partnership between a Tennessee Professional Services Corporation (PA) and a Florida Professional Services Corporation (PA) that will operate under a trade name, SETCO Law. The Florida PA will lease space from SETCO Services, a title company, for which the requesting lawyer is in-house counsel, in Destin, Florida. The Tennessee PA will lease space from another law firm, Brannon Law, located in Memphis, TN.

The proposed Firm will have a separate computer system, including secure email system, apart from SETCO Services and can only be accessed by employees of the Firm. The Firm will have its own logo which will be conspicuous within the building. All clients, before engagement with the Firm, will be provided with a written engagement letter that provides in detail that SETCO Law is an entity separate and apart from SETCO Services and Brannon Law and that engagement with the Firm is in no way tied to any affiliation with SETCO services or any services provided therefrom.

The first two questions are readily capable of dispatch under Tennessee’s rules given that we are very reasonable on questions of trade names and, of course, do not present any unreasonable barriers to lawyers being part of a multi-state law firm.  However, it is exceedingly unhelpful for this opinion to be issued and make no reference to the fact that a lawyer seeking guidance about the second question needs to take a look at Florida’s ethics rules as well and that makes no reference at all to the fact the lawyer ought to also be educated about RPC 8.5 and how that rule provides for choice of law determinations when more than one jurisdiction’s ethics rules may be applicable to the conduct of a lawyer.

The method of addressing the third question though presents the most frustrating piece from a substantive standpoint.  This is because the third question only asks whether or not the law firm’s Florida office can lease space from a title company.  The answer to that question is: of course they can.  The first paragraph of that part of the opinion gets the answer exactly right:

No ethical rules restrict the location of the office of a lawyer. Nothing prevents a lawyer from entering into a landlord-tenant relationship and having an office in the same building as a land title company.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with those two sentences but instead offers further advice and guidance about RPC 5.7 with respect to law related services.  That advice and guidance is fine – in a vacuum but this opinion isn’t in a vacuum – but the opinion reads as certain things being mandatory in order to be able to lease the space, rather than being explained as being important in evaluating whether or not acts undertaken by a lawyer affiliated with the title company can be treated as providing services that are separately distinct from the delivery of legal services so that only some, but not all, of the Tennessee ethics rules apply to that conduct.  Nothing about RPC 5.7 requires a lawyer to do any of those things simply to be able to lease office space from someone.

And that would be bad enough but, again, the opinion completely overlooks or ignores that the office space lease question involves the office in Florida and so there is no compelling analysis given why it would be Tennessee’s RPC 5.7 that would govern at all, rather than Florida’s version of any such rule.

Having now unburdened myself on the substantive flaws, I’d like to offer a quick word about the frustrating problem with the process.  For whatever reason, the Board of Professional Responsibility did not publicize the issuance of this opinion until they happened to insert it in a regular quarterly publication that is a much larger document.  And even then what has been published is an unsigned, undated version of the opinion.  Seems very difficult to understand why that approach was undertaken.

Should you want to go read for yourself the undated, unsigned Formal Ethics Opinion 2017-f-164, you can do so at that link.

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