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Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Are Verbal Fee Splits Among California Law Firms Okay?

Posted on: July 18th, 2019

By: Greg Fayard

The answer to this question is now “no.” When different law firms split a legal fee–say a contingency fee–verbal “gentlemen’s agreements” are not permitted under California’s new ethics rules. The old ethics rules allowed different law offices to verbally agree to a referral fee wherein the referring lawyer would get, say, 5% of any total recovery by another, unaffiliated lawyer. New Rule 1.5.1, now requires that the unaffiliated lawyers splitting or dividing such a fee have their own agreement in writing. Further, the client has to consent in writing to that fee split. The written disclosure to the client must disclose the terms of the fee split and the identity of the lawyers who are splitting the fee. As long as the total fee charged by all lawyers is not increased due to the agreed split, fee sharing among different law offices is permissible under California’s ethical rules.

The agreement among unaffiliated law offices need not be signed, however. An informal e-mail setting forth the terms of the fee split could suffice.

The lesson here is casual, oral arrangements among California law firms to split legal fees are no longer permitted under the ethical rules.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected], or any other member of our Lawyers Professional Liability Practice Group, a list of which can be found at www.fmglaw.com.

Can a California Supervising Lawyer Be Disciplined for an Associate’s Misconduct?

Posted on: June 28th, 2019

By: Greg Fayard

The answer to this question is yes, in certain circumstances. This is a change under the current rules of professional conduct for lawyers compared to the prior rules, which expired last October 31, 2018.

Rule 5.1 says supervising lawyers must make reasonable efforts to ensure the firm has measures to ensure all lawyers comply with the ethical rules. Such measures include policies and procedures on conflicts of interest, a calendaring system, guidelines on workloads and proper supervision of inexperienced lawyers. However, a supervising lawyer can be responsible for a subordinate lawyer’s violation of an ethical rule if the supervising lawyer ordered the violation, or knew the relevant facts and conduct and ratified it, or knew of the violative conduct at a time when its consequences could have been avoided but failed to mitigate it or take remedial action. A “supervising” lawyer is a case-by-case question of fact.

Where the potential ethical violation, however, was a reasonable resolution to a problem, or an arguable question of professional responsibility, then the supervising lawyer would not be subject to discipline for the subordinate’s ethical lapse.

The point is: supervising lawyers now have some responsibility for the ethical breaches of junior lawyers, or those they supervise. An experienced lawyer for example, who is supervising another experienced lawyer but who is practicing in a new area, could be disciplined for that equally seasoned lawyer’s ethical lapse. Rule 5.1 does not only apply to the experienced lawyer supervising a less experienced lawyer.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected], or any other member of our Lawyers Professional Liability Practice Group, a list of which can be found at www.fmglaw.com.

Can a California Lawyer be Disciplined for a Paralegal’s Misconduct?

Posted on: March 27th, 2019

By: Greg Fayard

In some circumstances, a California lawyer can be disciplined by the State Bar for a paralegal’s misconduct. This type of discipline was not possible under the State’s old lawyer-ethics rules. Rule 5.3 of the new rules requires attorney-managers to make sure nonlawyers—such as law students, investigators, legal assistants or paralegals—are not violating any ethical rules. A supervising lawyer, which could be an associate (so long as he or she has direct supervisory authority over the nonlawyer), can be responsible for the ethical breach of a paralegal if the lawyer is aware of an ethical violation, had a chance to avoid or mitigate the ethical lapse, but did nothing.

For example, if a paralegal is disclosing confidential client information without the client’s consent (a clear ethical breach, see Rule 1.6) and the paralegal’s supervisor knew about it, but did nothing, the supervising lawyer can be disciplined for the paralegal’s misconduct.

California lawyers, therefore, are obligated to make reasonable efforts to ensure that their law office has measures which assure that nonlawyer conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of lawyers. This directive applies to both nonlawyer employees and independent contractors. Further, under Rule 5.3, any measures ensuring nonlawyer ethics compliance should consider whether the nonlawyers have legal training.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected].

Can California Associate Attorneys Be Disciplined For Their Boss’s Misconduct?

Posted on: February 27th, 2019

By: Gregory Fayard

The answer to this question is yes, in certain circumstances. In November 2018, after 29 years, California enacted new rules of professional conduct for lawyers. The new rules have some major changes from the old rules. One of the biggest changes applies to associate attorneys who are just doing what their boss-lawyer tells them. But what if the associate’s boss is instructing the associate to do something obviously unethical? In that case, the associate can be disciplined by the State Bar. The new rule on this point is 5.2. For example, if the associate’s boss advises the associate to lie to a client, or forge a signature, or divulge client secrets, then those breaches are so obvious the associate could be disciplined. All California lawyers must comply with ethics rules, even if acting at the direction of another. The Nuremberg defense does not fly.

What about a close call? What if the associate’s boss tells the associate to do the bare minimum on a case? That order arguably violates a lawyer’s duty of diligence (Rule 1.3). Or, what if the associate’s boss orders an associate to do everything and anything on a file? That order might violate Rule 3.2 which says lawyers shall not do tasks whose substantial purpose is to prolong or cause needless expense. In these two situations, the ethical breach is an arguable question—a “close call” if you will. In these situations the California associate would have a good argument for not being disciplined.

The new California rules of professional conduct, however, have created a potentially awkward employment situation for associates: if the subordinate lawyer believes his or her supervisor’s solution to an ethics issue would violate an ethical rule, “the subordinate is obligated to communicate his or her professional judgment regarding the matter to the supervisory lawyer.”  (See Comment to Rule 5.2.)

What should California lawyers keep in mind, then?

  1. Don’t blindly follow directions from your supervisor without thinking of the ethical implications;
  2. Doing something obviously unethical can get you in trouble with the State Bar even if the direction came from your boss;
  3. You probably will not be disciplined if an ethical question can be answered more than one way;
  4. You may have to have a talk with your boss if he or she is doing something obviously unethical.

My next blog will discuss whether a supervising lawyer in California can be disciplined for an associate’s unethical lapse.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected].

Cal. Attorney Sanctioned $50,000 for Reckless and Malicious Conduct at Deposition

Posted on: February 18th, 2019

By: Jenny Jin

A California Court of Appeal upheld a $50,000 sanction against an attorney based on conduct at a deposition.

On February 4, 2019, the Court of Appeal issued its opinion in the case Anna Anka v. Louis Yeager. This case involved a child custody dispute between Paul Anka’s ex-wife, Anna Anka, and her first husband, Louis Yeager. As part of this dispute, the trial court had ordered that a confidential child custody and evaluation report be performed. Mrs. Anka was then subsequently involved in a second child custody dispute with her second husband/now ex-husband, Paul Anka.

Mrs. Anka was represented by the same attorney in both custody disputes. Mrs. Anka’s attorney took Mr. Yeager’s deposition as part of Mrs. Anka’s second custody dispute. During the deposition, Mrs. Anka’s attorney asked Mr. Yeager a series of questions to attempt to elicit confidential information regarding the contents of the evaluation and report from the first child custody dispute. Mr. Yeager testified that he could not recall the information. However, the trial court still sanctioned Mrs. Anka and her attorney $50,000 jointly and severally for her attorney’s reckless and malicious line of questioning that was orchestrated to elicit confidential child custody information.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the $50,000 sanctions against the attorney, but reversed the sanctions award as to Mrs. Anka. The Court found that the disclosure of confidential information was due solely to the attorney’s reckless and malicious conduct during the deposition. The Court opined that “besides being an advocate to advance the interest of the client, the attorney is also an officer of the court” and further that “counsel’s zeal to protect and advance the interest of the client must be tempered by the professional and ethical constraints the legal profession demands.” The Court held that the attorney’s conduct in eliciting confidential information during the deposition was not only reckless, but was intentional and willful.

The takeaway from this case is that in both California and across all states, there are real ethical limitations to zealous representation during depositions. Attorneys must remember to balance their duty to zealously represent their client’s interests with their duty as officers of the court to conduct themselves with integrity, courtesy, and professionalism.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jenny Jin at (415) 352-6451 or [email protected].