New good, but not perfect, guidance from the ABA

The Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility of the ABA has been on something of a bit of a “spree” when it comes to the issuance of ethics opinions. (At least, it feels like it.) In the last 18 months, it has issued 10 opinions.

The most recent one is ABA Formal Op. 487 which offers ethical guidance to lawyers who take cases on a contingent fee basis or, more precisely, lawyers who take cases on a contingent fee basis after some other lawyer in a different firm has previously taken on the same case on a contingent fee basis. The dynamic of what exactly happens in such situations if, ultimately, there is some sort of successful result is largely the stuff of state-specific case law driven by lien laws and the distinction between whether a lawyer ends up being able to seek fees under their contract or under quantum meruit. Despite that, and relegating reference to those issues to a footnote at the end of the opinion, SCEPR has decided this area needs to be filled with guidance.

In doing so, the opinion focuses its attention upon the obligations of the new lawyer to communicate to the client about the potential – as difficult to quantify as it admittedly is – that the first lawyer might still be entitled to an amount of fees in the event of a recovery in the matter.

In giving this guidance, the ABA Formal Opinion certainly isn’t wrong (although I think it is wrong in one particular statement), but it is not entirely helpful and it is certainly not very practical.

Where a client hires successor counsel to handle an existing contingency fee matter, it does not pose an unreasonable burden on the successor counsel to advise the client that the predecessor counsel may have a claim to a portion of the legal fee if there is a recovery. In many instances, precision on this issue may be difficult as successor counsel may need to review the predecessor counsel’s fee agreement and assess its enforceability. Similarly, successor counsel may not be fully familiar with the nature and extent of the prior lawyer’s work on the matter. Successor counsel also will not know the amount of the recovery, if any, at the beginning of the representation. Nevertheless, Rules 1.5(b) and (c) mandate that successor counsel provide written notice that a portion of the fee may be claimed by the predecessor counsel.

That reading of the requirements of Rules 1.5(b) and (c) is not really an obvious and straightforward one. Thus, I don’t think it gives a very compelling foundation for the opinion’s conclusion. The conclusion is still probably correct though. Because there is an ABA Model Rule that provides a pretty compelling rationale for the conclusion even though the opinion rather remarkably never once references it — Model Rule 1.4(b) (“A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”)

As to the one particular statement that I think the opinion simply gets wrong, it is the statement that talks about clients not being able to be exposed to “more than one contingent fee when switching attorneys” and that ordinarily neither the first lawyer nor the second lawyer would ordinarily be entitled to a full contingent fee. I think both of those statements are offered with far too much certainty to comport with reality. It is not at all difficult to come up with scenarios where it is only the work of the second lawyer that provides the reasons for the successful outcome triggering the availability of a contingent fee.

One thing that the opinion does very well though is make clear the way in which the rules don’t work on this topic. The opinion spends a good bit of time explaining something that should have been obvious – but has not been for some courts — the rule on fee sharing between lawyers in different firms does not have any application to this situation.

The opinion adroitly walks through the ways in which ABA Model Rule 1.5(e) is entirely inapplicable to a situation in which the first lawyer on a case has been discharged and a second lawyer has taken over the representation of the client.

Friday follow up: Yesterday’s post

Well, this may be the most rapid Friday follow up in this blog’s history.

A wise and well-connected reader has been in touch to let me know why my analysis yesterday of NYSBA Op. 1160 was all wet. He was, of course, right as I somehow managed to blow past a very important piece of the puzzle regarding the situation NYSBA Op. 1160 was addressing. The inquiring lawyer was actually willing to put together an arrangement that would have made the out-of-state lawyer a part of his “firm.”

I wrote that was not the case prior to discussing the part of the opinion that sought to distinguish prior guidance from about 8 years earlier. Specifically, where I went awry was here:


New York’s 1.5(g) only lets lawyers not in the same law firm (and to be clear the inquirer’s desire to affiliate did not apparently involve actually forming a law firm together) share legal fees if, among other bells and whistles regarding consent and the existence of a writing, the amount of the division of the fee is either proportional to the service performed or (if it is going to be disproportionate in that respect) if both lawyers assume joint responsibility for the work.

The “facts” section of the opinion, however, makes clear that I got that wrong.

The inquirer, an attorney recently admitted to practice in New York, is acquainted with another lawyer. The other lawyer, like the inquirer, resides in New York, but the other attorney is admitted only in another state, not New York, though the latter is admitted to practice in federal courts located in New York. According to the inquirer, the other lawyer is capable of generating business, and the inquirer would like to affiliate with this other lawyer, listing the other lawyer as a partner, associate, counsel, or otherwise, on letterhead showing that the other lawyer is admitted solely in the other state and not New York. The inquirer anticipates that the other lawyer would attend initial meetings with the clients being produced by the other lawyer, but then would not deal with any of the legal work being performed.

I certainly regret my error.

I particularly regret my error because it was part of my thinking when I said at the outset of yesterday’s post that NYSBA Op. 1160 still got the answer right. Now that I actually am paying better attention to the facts, I realize that the opinion absolutely did not get to the correct answer. Instead it was flat wrong.

Rule 1.5(g) wouldn’t be in the mix since that is sharing of fees among lawyers not in the same firm. Likewise, the stated concerns in the opinion about Rule 7.2(a) are irrelevant because that rule surely is not intended to apply to arrangements among lawyers within the same law firm.

There are multi-state law firms all over this nation that have partners who do absolutely nothing on a particular client matter beyond what is described as the role the out-of-state lawyer would have had under the inquiry. Those lawyers most definitely share in the fees of the client when they make rain through something often called “origination credit” by law firms.

Some of those firms most certainly have offices in New York and I just about guarantee that no one would think twice about such internal compensation arrangements in terms of questioning whether they are ethical because all of those lawyers are in the same firm and the decisions they make about how to divide fees are treated as pure business questions of compensation.

The rules in that regard shouldn’t be any different for a firm of two lawyers than for a firm of 2,000.

In a New York (out-of) state of mind…

It has been a minute or two since I’ve stumbled upon an ethics opinion that provides a quick and easy example of how to take an issue, makes it overly complex and in so doing highlight several ongoing problem areas in the regulation of the profession, but ultimately still get to the correct result as to the “yes” or “no” answer to the question addressed.

But along comes New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics Opinion No. 1160. This one seems to me to be just such an opinion so let’s chat about it briefly.

Op. 1160 exists to answer the following question:

May a lawyer admitted in New York affiliate and share legal fees with another lawyer, who, while a resident of this State, is not admitted here, with the affiliation intended solely for the purpose of obtaining clients referred by the non-admitted lawyer?

Now, because the question included the desire to share legal fees with the rainmaking lawyer who was living in but not licensed in New York, the opinion could have chosen to cut to the chase based on a relatively straightforward application of New York’s Rule 1.5(g) which largely tracks ABA Model Rule 1.5(e).

New York’s 1.5(g) only lets lawyers not in the same law firm (and to be clear the inquirer’s desire to affiliate did not apparently involve actually forming a law firm together) share legal fees if, among other bells and whistles regarding consent and the existence of a writing, the amount of the division of the fee is either proportional to the service performed or (if it is going to be disproportionate in that respect) if both lawyers assume joint responsibility for the work.

Given that the inquiry transparently admitted that the rainmaker would not be doing anything beyond landing the client and passing the client on to the New York lawyer for handling, it seems pretty clear that Rule 1.5(g) could only be satisfied if the lawyers would be assuming joint responsibility. Given the lack of a New York license for the rainmaker, that would seem an impossible state of affairs because while landing a client might not cross the line into the unauthorized practice of law in New York, agreeing to have joint responsibility for legal work performed in New York for a New York client would be harder to argue involves staying on the right side of the line. Thus, it feels like the NYSBA committee could have wrapped this one up with a bow in a 1 or 2 pages tops.

In fairness, they almost managed to do something like that when they attempted to explain the difference between this situation and an earlier opinion they issued in 2011:

We examined Rule 1.5(g) in N.Y. State 864 (2011), in which the inquirer wished to accept a referral from an out-of-state lawyer in a personal injury matter. The injury occurred in New York and the referring lawyer proposed that, in the particular matter at issue, the in-state lawyer would “handle” the matter and pay the referring lawyer a portion of any recovery. We endorsed the proposal subject to compliance with Rule 1.5(g)…. Although we have declined to delineate the precise contours of “joint responsibility” under this Rule …, we have made clear that the mere cultivation of client relationships does not qualify as “services performed” by the referring lawyer… Thus, the inquirer’s contemplated action would violate Rule 7.2(a) unless it could be said that the inquirer is ethically permitted to be affiliated with the out-of-state lawyer in the circumstances presented.

Where the committee goes awry is that last sentence which is pretty viciously circular.

It seems like it should have said: Thus, the inquirer’s contemplated action would violate Rule 7.2(a) unless it could be said that the out-of-state lawyer was willing to undertake “joint responsibility” for the matter and if doing so would not constitute the unauthorized practice of law.

They did not write it that way, however. And, as a result, the rest of the pieces of the opinion exist all of which for rhetorical purposes treat the rainmaker, despite being a lawyer licensed in at least one jurisdiction, as a “non lawyer.” And much of which bears the hallmarks of heavy-handedness that often arise in ethics opinions construing restrictions on (1) the ability of lawyers to offer compensation to those who refer them work, (2) the ability of lawyers to ask for work from clients; and (3) the ability of lawyers to practice law remotely.

You can read the full opinion here.

ABA Formal Opinion 16-474: half (or more) of a pretty good opinion

Last week, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued its latest formal opinion – Opinion No. 16-474 addressing the topic of “referral” fees under the ABA Model Rules and, specifically, the intersection of Model Rule 1.5(e) and conflicts requirements under Model Rule 1.7.   Along the way, the opinion also stakes out a position on timing in terms of when the necessary written agreement required under Rule 1.5(e) must be created.

In its evaluation of the intersection of the conflicts rules and 1.5(e)’s requirements, the ABA opinion does a spot-on job of explaining why a lawyer who is going to share a fee, even under the assumption-of-joint-responsibility prong (i.e. something that without the assumption of responsibility would be pure referral fee prohibited under the ethics rules), has to recognize that they are representing the client and, therefore, can’t be involved in the arrangement without also being in compliance with the conflicts rules.

Though really just nitpicking, I do wish the opinion had taken the opportunity to explicitly address a relevant, related topic that I hear lawyers ask about from time-to-time (and that I think, and am happy to be corrected if wrong, the ABA has not previously addressed in a formal opinion) — if you have a conflict preventing taking on a prospective client, is it somehow unethical to give that person a referral to other competent counsel.  Absent truly extraordinary circumstances, if all the lawyer is doing is making a referral to another lawyer of the matter – without any component of fee sharing — then the answer should be that no conflict problem is created at all, and Formal Opinion 474 would have offered a nice opportunity to drive that point home through juxtaposition with any one of the three variations on The Flower Shoppe hypo offered up.

The logic that the opinion offers as to the “timing” question regarding when a writing must be created appears to have two parts to it.

The first is to stress the use of future tense in the text of the rule and in paragraph [7]  of the Comment.  (Rule 1.5(e)(2) – “including the share each lawyer will receive” & Cmt. [7] – “the client must agree to the arrangement, including the share that each lawyer is to receive”)  That logic only goes so far, however.  The language that the opinion stresses to make its point is a part of a rule that speaks separately about the act of the client agreeing to the arrangement and the act of the arrangement being memorialized in a writing.  Thus, placing so much emphasis on the use of “will receive” and “is to receive” isn’t a shatterproof construct beyond proving that a written memorialization that happened after the fee was paid out would be stretching it.

The second piece of the puzzle is the notion — supported by some case law citations in a footnote of the opinion –that the creation of a written agreement to indicate that the lawyer had undertaken joint representation is a meaningless act if it only happens after the representation has come to an end.  That also is a position that is not 100% true.  Given that many courts have allowed litigants to settle a case and then file suit against their lawyers for malpractice – claiming that but for a lawyer’s error, they could have gotten a better outcome — even an 11th hour written agreement to be jointly responsible for the outcome could be a quite meaningful financial commitment by a lawyer.  Further, the opinion stresses only one side of the coin – an arrangement based on assumption of joint responsibility.  If two lawyers and a client are late in papering up a fee sharing agreement based on proportional work performed, then there seems even less reason to insist that Rule 1.5(e) be read to take a later is not better than never approach.  It is also worth noting that even in the absence of such a writing, there are courts that have indicated that the lawyers involved may still be held to their agreement on sharing of fees.  See generally Daynard v. Ness Motley Loadholt Richardson & Poole, P.A., 178 F. Supp. 2d 9 (D. Mass. 2001).

Obviously, the better practice is for the written memorialization of the fee sharing arrangement to be created promptly in connection with the agreement itself, but as with many issues there ought to be some recognition that there is a difference between handling something in a way that is less than ideal and a declaration that conduct is unethical because the agreement, including the confirmation in writing of client consent, “must be completed before or within a reasonable time after the commencement of the representation.”