Two smart, practical ABA Ethics Opinions in a row. (And a bonus “beg to differ”.)

So, this week the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued Formal Op. 476 addressing the need to protect client confidentiality when a lawyer seeks to withdraw for reasons involving the client’s failure to pay.  As explained below, it is a solid, practical opinion touching on a subject often overlooked by lawyers who are just trying to get out of a case with as little additional wasted time and expense.

It comes on the heels of an opinion from earlier this month about a lawyer’s obligation to hold fees to be shared with a lawyer from another firm separate from the lawyer’s own funds, ABA Formal Op. 475, which — despite what this solo and small-firm centric blogger wrote recently — is also a practical, well-constructed, and correct opinion.  I have to beg to differ with the My Shingle piece because it misses the boat on the primary type of situation the ABA Formal Op. 475 is vital to addressing — where lawyers in different firms are sharing fees in a contingency case.  When you come at the question from that perspective as a starting point, the answer offered in the opinion is clearly the only answer that can be correctly offered.  The My Shingle complaints are readily resolved by simply working out a better front-end arrangement with a client about payment to multiple lawyers.

(N.B. – it can’t just be coincidence that these two opinions appear to be the first two in which my friend, Doug Richmond, shows up as a member of the committee involved in the issuance.  Doug is an excellent lawyer – as of course are all the lawyers on the committee — but Doug also has a flair for delivering practical advice through clear, straightforward written work product that leaves the reader with an abiding sense that the conclusion reached was inescapable.)

ABA Formal Op. 476 also does a nice job in tackling and acknowledging the interplay between trial court and lawyer in these circumstances.  The opinion truly can be well summed up if you lack the time or wherewithal to read it in full by simply quoting its “Conclusion,” section:

In moving to withdraw as counsel in a civil proceeding based on a client’s failure to pay fees, a lawyer must consider the duty of confidentiality under Rule 1.6 and seek to reconcile that duty with the court’s need for sufficient information upon which to rule on the motion.  Similarly, in entertaining such a motion, a judge should consider the right of the movant’s client to confidentiality.  This requires cooperation between lawyers and judges.  If required by the court to support the motion with facts relating to the representation, a lawyer may, pursuant to Rule 1.6(b)(5), disclose only such confidential information as is reasonably necessary for the court to make an informed decision on the motion.

As it stands, I really only have one item of criticism regarding Formal Op. 476 at all.  Yet it feels almost like nitpickery … in that I would have liked to see the opinion manage more clearly to stress that the need for protecting client confidences and discretion in any disclosure to a court regarding withdrawal applies to more withdrawal situations than merely not being paid.  Far too many times than I care to count have I been sitting in a courtroom and listened to a lawyer in the context of seeking withdrawal in some matter on the docket ahead of my case say too much, unprompted about their communications (or lack thereof) with the client.  The opinion says it is limiting itself to the deadbeat client situation because in other situations other rules and principles may apply, but I think there would have been value in exploring the commonalities.

The only other thing I’d like to use ABA Formal Op. 476 as a springboard to say involves highlighting an aspect of the rule we have here in Tennessee and how it provides a very helpful, practical mechanism for doing what the ABA Opinion actually encourages when it says:  “Of course, where practicable, a lawyer should first seek to persuade the client to take suitable action to remove the need for the lawyer’s disclosure.”  In the context of the ABA Formal Op. that would appear to be either: (1) pay the lawyer; (2) hire other counsel that can substitute in lieu of withdrawal, or perhaps (3) fire the lawyer so that withdrawal becomes mandatory.

In Tennessee, we offer another option as our RPC 1.16(b) also lists as a trigger for discretionary ability to withdraw merely that the client has provided informed consent confirmed in writing to withdrawal by the lawyer.  Such a clear escape valve in the rule permits a lawyer – even in a situation in which the client has become a deadbeat – to be able to counsel the client and explain that if the client will go ahead and provide informed consent to withdrawal, and show that consent by signing the motion itself, it can go an exceedingly long way in eliminating the risk that the lawyer will have to say anything about the client’s failure to pay in response to an inquiry from the court.

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