A recipe for ethical lawyering?

Now that the Ethics Roadshow is complete in all of the cities where it was staged, I want to repackage the main idea from this year into a post and make a similar ask of my readers that I made of the attendees as to feedback on the point.

The title of the Roadshow this past year was “Back to Basics: Sailing the Five Cs of Ethical Lawyering,” but the main ultimate question or conceit when boiled down was whether the 5 Cs I had identified could provide not only a basic road map for being an ethical lawyer no matter the nature or setting of your practice but could also provide the ingredients of a recipe that can be used to justify the existence of those pieces of the ethics rules that are absolutely worth keeping moving forward in discussions about the future of legal ethics and lawyer regulation. 

The 5 Cs as put forth as the ingredients of the recipe were:

  • Be COMPETENT at what you do
  • Recognize and respect your obligations of CONFIDENTIALITY
  • COMMUNICATE appropriately with your clients (and others) both as to content and frequency
  • Employ CANDOR in all situations in your practice [If you absolutely cannot be 100% truthful, and can’t simply stay silent, then don’t be false.]
  • Avoid CONFLICTS for which you don’t have, or cannot get, consent.

Recognizing that some people might immediately think of another important “C,” avoiding commingling I then offered thoughts about how quite clearly rules about trust accounting could be readily reverse-engineered by combining ingredients.  I initially suggested that Competence + Candor + Communication could do the trick; some others suggested that particularly the requirement to avoid commingling could be described as Candor + Communication + Conflicts.

There are a number of different groups at work on trying to make progress on what the modern regulation of the practice of law should look like.  One of those is APRL’s Future of Lawyering Committee.

I’m fortunate to be a member of that committee and our mission is this:

[T]o explore the evolving nature of technology and its impact on the delivery of legal services and access to justice.  Our goal is to develop specific proposals for amending the legal ethics rules and reforming the lawyer regulatory process.

And so my ask of you is the same as my ask of attendees: Unless a rule is truly, and absolutely, required in order to protect consumers of legal services, shouldn’t the rules worth revisiting be the ones that are hard, if not impossible, to describe using a combination of ingredients from this recipe?

TN’s Approach to Nonrefundable Fees – A Reminder

Near the end of February 2015, the New York City Bar put out its Formal Opinion 2015-2 evaluating a question of propriety of a flat, nonrefundable monthly fee in a retainer agreement and reached the conclusion that a particular one that was something of a “hybrid” was problematic.  Although the NYC opinion makes for a good read, it is of limited utility in evaluating these issues in Tennessee.

While New York has an RPC 1.5(d)(4) that prohibits non-refundable retainer fees, Tennessee has gone in a significantly different direction.  RPC 1.5(f) in Tennessee makes nonrefundable fees enforceable provided that they are reasonable in amount and that the fee is “agreed to in a writing, signed by the client, that explains the intent of the parties as to the nature and amount of the nonrefundable fee.”  Tennessee lawyers, of course, still have to tread carefully in this area — especially with respect to avoiding problems of commingling by depositing a fee designated as nonrefundable (and therefore earned upon payment) into a client trust account rather than into an operating account where it belongs.