Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent ABA Formal Ethics Opinion which addresses the ethical requirements when a lawyer receives an earned fee that is subject to a fee sharing arrangement and both lawyers have an interest in the fee. The opinion is ABA Formal Opinion 475 (December 7, 2016) and is online here: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/professional_responsibility/aba_formal_opinion_475.authcheckdam.pdf. The opinion discusses the ABA Model Rules which apply when lawyers agree to properly share a fee and one lawyer receives the earned fee.
According to the ABA opinion, “Model Rule 1.5(e) provides for the division of fees between lawyers who are not in the same firm. A division of a fee “is a single billing to a client covering the fee of two or more lawyers who are not in the same firm.” Rule 1.5(e) provides that such agreements are permissible only if the division is proportionate to the services performed by each lawyer or both lawyers assume joint responsibility for the representation, the client agrees to the arrangement including the share each lawyer ‘will receive, the arrangement is confirmed in writing, and the total fee is reasonable. Model Rule 1.15(a) provides in pertinent part that a lawyer shall hold property of…third persons that is in a lawyer’s possession in connection with a representation separate from the lawyer’s own property.’”
The opinion states that “(t)he receiving lawyer…must, under Rule 1.15(a), deposit the funds in which co-counsel holds an interest in an account (typically a trust account) separate from the lawyer’s own property. Rule 1.15(d) requires the lawyer who receives the earned fees subject to a division agreement to promptly notify the other lawyer who holds an interest in the fee of receipt of the funds, promptly deliver to the other lawyer the agreed upon portion of the fee, and, if requested by the other lawyer, provide a full accounting.”
“Finally, if there is any dispute as to the interest of the receiving lawyer and the lawyer with whom the receiving lawyer is dividing a fee, Rule 1.15(e) requires that the receiving lawyer keep the disputed funds separate from the lawyer’s own property until the dispute is resolved.”
Bottom line: “A lawyer may divide a fee with another lawyer who is not in the same firm if the arrangement meets the requirements of Model Rule 1.5(e). When one lawyer receives an earned fee that is subject to such an arrangement and both lawyers have an interest in that earned fee, Model Rules 1.15(a) and 1.15(d) require that the receiving lawyer hold the funds in an account separate from the lawyer’s own property, appropriately safeguard the funds, promptly notify the other lawyer who holds an interest in the fee of receipt of the funds, promptly deliver to the other lawyer the agreed upon portion of the fee, and, if requested by the other lawyer, provide a full accounting”. (Most states, including Florida, the same or substantially similar rules).
Lawyers must be aware that, according to this recent ABA opinion (which is not binding), when there is a fee sharing arrangement (referral or co-counsel fee), and the lawyer receives funds to which another lawyer has an interest, the receiving lawyer must hold the funds in a separate account, safeguard the funds, promptly notify the other lawyer, and provide an accounting if requested by the other lawyer.
Be careful out there.
Disclaimer: this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.
Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
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Clearwater, Florida 33761
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