Lawyering vicariously.

Lawyers in private practice work in a variety of settings ranging from solo practice to law firms with thousands of lawyers in scores of offices.  Lawyers also practice in a variety of business structures ranging from d/b/a arrangements on one end to Swiss Verein models.

My rough guess would be that the majority of United States private practice lawyers practice in connection with a business entity that provides (or at least is designed to provide) limited personal liability.  In Tennessee, we deviate from ABA Model Rule 1.8(h)’s approach to prospective limitations on liability for legal malpractice by prohibiting them entirely under RPC 1.8(h)(1).  But RPC 1.8(h)(1) does not mean that lawyers (or even a solo practitioner) cannot take advantage of Tennessee’s business organization laws to house their law practice in a professional limited liability company to manage financial risk.  This point is made clear in Tennessee in paragraph [14] of the Comment:

Nor does this paragraph limit the ability of lawyers to practice in the form of a limited-liability entity, where permitted by law, provided that each lawyer remains personally liable to the client for his or her own conduct and the firm complies with any conditions required by law, such as provisions requiring client notification or maintenance of adequate liability insurance.

Not all lawyers practice in such arrangements, however.  Some form traditional partnerships.  Others practice in an even looser fashion through things that are essentially just office-sharing arrangements but are often described, on letterhead or office signs or both, as “an association of attorneys.”  What I didn’t think lawyers would do would be to attempt to set up a version of both things (admittedly, my lack of awareness of this might just be my own ignorance of what is going on in the marketplace).

Three lawyers in middle Tennessee who may or may not be a law firm, appears to be an example of folks who have structured their law practice to do just that.  They hold themselves out to clients on letterhead as an association of attorneys while having also formed an LLC for the purpose of sharing office expenses.  Undertaking such an approach seems to offer the worst of both worlds, and an order denying summary judgment in a legal malpractice case — highlighted by the ABA/BNA Lawyers Manual on Professional Conduct — does not delve into whether the lawyers’ decision not to just become a law firm organized as a PLLC offers any tangible benefits.

What the order clearly does, however, is raise but leave unanswered, whether lawyers simply sharing office space can end up having vicarious liability for legal malpractice committed by one of their number.  The federal district court’s opinion is relatively short and can be read in full here.  Although it does not shut the door to the ability of these lawyers to demonstrate that vicarious liability should not be available, it does cite to existing Tennessee law regarding unincorporated associations to explain that Tennessee law permits such things to be sued as entities and for vicarious liability to arise among members for statutory violations and contract breaches.

In the end, I think with better constructed arguments, the firm in question ought to be able to muster stronger substantive arguments in opposition to vicarious liability than the one rejected by the court.  After all the concept of vicarious liability derives fundamentally from agency principles and one would hope the uninvolved lawyers could demonstrate lack of control or input into handling of the matter, as well as lack of interactions with those involved that would justify any apparent agency basis to justify vicarious liability.  But given the sole argument that the court indicates was teed up – we’re not a partnership and only partnerships can bring about vicarious liability —  the denial of summary judgment certainly appears to be the correct result.

What I’m still struggling to figure out is the reason one would go to the trouble of creating an LLC for office expense sharing, but attempt for that entity to have no relationship to your law practice and, instead, have your law practice be part of an “association of attorneys.”  I am certain that everyone involved is highly intelligent so there has to be a good reason to do so.  The only explanation I can conjure up is that it must be driven by a desire to avoid imputation of conflicts of interest among the lawyers sharing office space.

In Tennessee, our RPC 1.0(c) defines a “firm,” in part, as “a lawyer or lawyers in a law partnership, professional corporation, sole proprietorship or other association authorized to practice law.”  We dedicate a paragraph of the Comment accompanying this rule to giving guidance to lawyers about how the specific facts of their practice setting can impact whether or not they get treated as a “firm” for purposes of the ethics rules:

Whether two or more lawyers constitute a firm within paragraph (c) can depend on the specific facts.  For example, two practitioners who share office space and occasionally consult or assist each other ordinarily would not be regarded as constituting a firm.  However, if they present themselves to the public in a way that suggests that they are a firm or conduct themselves as a firm, they should be regarded as a firm for purposes of the Rules.  The terms of any formal agreement between associated lawyers are relevant in determining whether they are a firm, as is the fact that they have mutual access to information concerning the clients they serve….

Because RPC 1.10 imputes conflicts among lawyers in a firm, if these lawyers had organized themselves as a PLLC, then the conflicts of one would extend to all.  Typically, when handled correctly, a mere “association of attorneys” will not be treated as a firm for RPC 1.10 purposes.  If there’s another explanation out there, I’m missing it.  But, I’m also wondering how much added risk of still being treated as a firm comes from the information sharing necessary on the LLC side to work out expense arrangements.

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