Category Archives: Ethics

Lawyers: Don’t Battle for the Throne

Many business deals begin with a handshake or a quiet conversation. Corporate America is filled with side deals and compromise and promises. Often, these arrangements are perfectly acceptable. But, the intersection between business and politics is a different animal; there are strict regulations regarding governmental contracts and bids and proposals. Transparency is key. Attorneys engaged by governmental contractors must be careful. The recent indictment of a Pennsylvania mayor and an outside attorney in what is being alleged as a pay-to-play scheme is a reminder of the fine line attorneys must walk. In addition to the target-attorney being named, the indictment is littered with references to other attorneys allegedly involved in the scheme. This involvement spans from contributions to the mayor’s various campaigns to presence at meetings to discuss city contracts. While many clients may battle for the throne, attorneys must steer clear of even the appearance of impropriety.

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Ethics of Law Firm Dissolutions

All good things must come to an end. Professional firms are no exception. There are many reasons that a professional firm may close its doors; however, regardless of the cause, professionals must remain cognizant of their ethical duties to third-parties and clients throughout the dissolution process.

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No Office? No Right to Practice

Many attorneys are licensed to practice in multiple states. By extending one’s practice across several jurisdictions, lawyers can expand the scope of services offered to their clients and increase their appeal. However, in order to provide this service, lawyers must comply with certain laws requiring that the attorney maintain a physical office within the state in order to practice there.

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Does Client Know You’re Uninsured?

Between required law school classes and the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination, attorneys are given considerable training on the rules of professional conduct before starting a career. Attorneys get further refreshers on the rules when reviewing potential clients and the occasional issues that arise during representation. But how many attorneys review the rules of professional conduct that apply to the specific jurisdictions in which they practice? Considering the heavy overlap between the different states and model rules of professional conduct, doing so may seem like a waste of time. It isn't. Attorneys who fail to review their particular states’ rules do so at their own risk as distinctive rules do exist in many states.

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Objecting to Objections

Attorneys strive to be zealous advocates for their clients. Not surprisingly, when defending depositions, attorneys are often tempted to object to questions that they perceive to be damaging to their client’s case, even if the question itself is not improper. Attorneys should be cautious, however, to avoid making excessive objections that are not likely to be sustained.

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Fee Shifting with Non-Lawyers

As a general matter, the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit lawyers from sharing fees with non-attorneys. However, there are certain exceptions to that rule. Rule 5.4 states that “a lawyer or law firm may include non-lawyer employees in a compensation or retirement plan, even though the plan is based in whole or in part on a profit-sharing arrangement.” A recent case out of Pennsylvania describes how a non-lawyer attempted to put this exception into action, albeit unsuccessfully.

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Unethical ≠ Negligent

It’s not uncommon to see allegations of ethical breaches incorporated into malpractice claims. Former clients may argue that their attorney’s failure to comply with the rules of professional conduct evidences negligence. Often, however, that’s insufficient to sustain a claim. An ethical breach may be considered by the fact-finder but, without more, is unlikely to support a claim. Consider the recent decision from the New York State Appellate Division which continued a trend of dismissing legal malpractice claims based purely on ethical violations.

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The Ethical Breakup: How to Switch Firms

It's just business, right? Not when it comes to the ethical and professional requirements associated with the transition to a new professional practice. Many professionals are seeking to expand their practice, or move, or add partners in an effort to acquire new talent. Some firms are streamlining and shrinking their practice. Under the right circumstances, departures may lead to mutually beneficial business opportunities for the departing professional and the former firm. In other cases, however, the actions taken by departing professionals could lead to costly litigation.

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Attorney Uses Confidential Info to Complete Insider Trades

The concern for the public’s trust in the legal profession remains a core goal of attorney ethics committees nationwide. Especially with the ease of accessing confidential information, attorney’s protection of client data has truly come into focus in recent years. This week, the Kentucky Supreme Court will decide whether an attorney will be permitted to continue his career in light of allegations that he used confidential client information to complete insider trades. The Kentucky Board of Professional Conduct recommended that the attorney be suspended for two years.

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Referral Fees: The Logistics of Fee Sharing

Fee sharing is not unfamiliar to most attorneys.  Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(e) permits lawyers who are not in the same firm to share or divide a fee.  A typical example is when an attorney refers a case out to “trial counsel”.  But, fee sharing has its restrictions. For example, the Model Rules permit fee sharing only when the fee is reasonable, the client agrees to the arrangement and the division of the fee is proportionate to the share of each lawyer’s services or the lawyers assume joint responsibility for the representation. These requirements create ethical implications for lawyers engaged in fee sharing. Fortunately, the ABA recently provided some guidance. 

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