Billing troubles abound

Inflating the fees

BigLaw firm gets caught in mocking a client about the fees the firm is charging, and get sued. DLA Piper, the world’s largest law firm was representing a client, Mr. Victor, in a potential bankruptcy of one of his companies.  The fees started and never quit.  Victor asked about the size of the bills, and  the number of new lawyers working on the case, the lead lawyers working the case started mocking him. “I hear we are 200k over our estimate – that’s Team DLA Piper” and “churn that bill, baby” emails made their way around the office.

Once DLA Piper filed suit for $675,000 in past due fees, Victor counter-sued for the “sweeping practice of overbilling.”  He got the emails described in his discovery request, along with 250,000 pages of other stuff created in the case. Victor amended his complaint, added fraud and punitive damages request of $22.5M.

Don’t mock your clients, or overbill. And be careful even joking about billing in an email or other discoverable method.
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Losing Half the Billing on a Big Case

The plaintiffs lawyers had a good deal, they thought.  12 law firms came together to file a class action suit against LivingSocial, a daily deal online marketing group.  The issue was expired deals, a customer buys a deal, pays for it and the deal expires before it is used. The question is who gets the money?

46 lawyers worked on the case, and the lawyers and their paralegals racked up over 4,000 hours.  The fee request was $3M.  That is only $750 per hour across the board.  LivingSocial did not object, but Federal Judge Ellen Huvelle in DC did the math, asked a bunch of questions and wrote a 39 page opinion that decided that the lawyers should not get that much money, and criticized lots of what they did and did not do.

Judgge Huvelle said they would have to make due with only $1.35M and leave the other $2.65M in the pot for the class members.

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How much is a name worth?

For Stan Chesley, he thought his name as a “the godfather of the modern class-action lawsuit” ought to get  him something extra.  His fee was only $20M on a $200M case. The phen-fen cases in KY are now notorious, and Chesley’s matter is not the worst.  He got disbarred in KY (his home is Ohio, and what they do is yet to be determined) for an unreasonable fee in the case.

The Court said “his professed ignorance and lack of responsibility for any aspect of the litigation except showing up…” argued against a large fee. Also, the clients signed up for a 1/3 contingency, but the lawyers had charged 49%.  Chesley was to get about $14M if he deserved any fee, but he still charged $20M.

Two lawyers in the case have gone to prison for swindling their clients out of $94M of the settlement funds. Their sentences – 20-25 years.

H/T John Conlon

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Neglect gets 3 years; Lawyer arrested for fraud?; Report your Sex Offender Client? NY says no!

There must have been neglect, statement of proof in the opinion would be nice.

Louis Denney eventually had four DI cases filed, one for each year of 2008, 2009, 2010, and finally one in 2011 that did him in. Unfortunately the Order reads more like a CCS entry, so it is hard to tell what all Denney did. We are told that the Hearing Officer, Judge Jeff Todd issued a 56 page report, Denney appealed and was heard by the Supreme Court, and the court adopted that Report, but we just get a snippet of info on Counts 2,5,7 and 9. The court found violations of Rules 1.2(a), 1.3, 1.4(a) & (b), 1.5(a), 1.15(d), 1.16(a)(3) & (d), 3.1, 3.2, 3.4(c), 4.4(a), 5.4(a), 8.1(b) and 8.4(b).  Denney was a busy guy, and apparently  neglected many of his cases. He did fight the allegations and the Hearing Officer report, but the final order does not offer many details.

There is no link to the 56 page report, so what we know is that Denney: charged unreasonable fees, neglected client cases, failed to do the work for which he was hired, failed to communicate, refused to return unearned fees, disobeyed court orders for accountings, and made scandalous and irrelevant accusations against a judge when the judge refused a continuance, in an attempt to remove the judge from the case.

As a result he is suspended from the practice for three years without automatic reinstatement, and we know  that Justice Rucker would have approved a one year suspension, and Justice David would have disbarred Denney.

What we don’t know that would be educational for lawyers who review disciplinary matters is: How many total counts were found against the respondent; were any counts found for the respondent; what time frame was Denney committing violations, and did he continue to violate the duty to clients after the 2008 complaint (which resulted from his failure to respond to grievance), and was the 2008 issue (or the ’09 or ’10 issues) wrapped into the 2011 matters? Were any clients made whole during this matter or will the ISBA’s Client’s Financial Assistance Fund be involved, if the clients are aware of this benefit?

I imagine writing disciplinary opinions is difficult, but we could learn more if more information and judicial reasoning was put on display in the opinions that are issued. Especially after a well fought hearing.

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Lawyer Arrested for Benefits Fraud…

Shawn Donahue pleaded not guilty to fraud in Harrison County recently.  The Louisville Courier Journal’s story called it welfare fraud, but it appears to be unemployment compensation benefits at issue.

The allegations are that Donahue received UE benefits while still working for a couple local entities that were paying him for legal work. It is alleged that he failed to disclose the earnings. Donahue’s lawyer, Bart Betteau predicted that his client would be cleared of the charges.

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NY Opinion, Lawyer not required to Report Inaccurate reports by Sex Offender

Legal services lawyer is contacted by potential client PC, who is a registered sex offender.  Lawyer is asked to review an administrative filing, made under penalty of perjury, to a state agency. She does, and in confirming the information submitted determines that the allegation of being a felon is inadequate, because pc did not disclose the sex offender status of Level Three Rapist, and pc did not register as required by law, under his properly spelled name.  PC  did not appear for appointment, so Agency decided not to represent him further, but did not report the evidence it found to the agency.

Should lawyer have reported the findings to the state agency? NY Ethics Committee says No! (see Opinion 963) Rules of Professional Conduct # 1.6 deals with confidentiality of client communications, and if PC had not become a client, Rule 1.18 carries duties to prospective clients. The rub is that Rule 3.3 “Conduct before a Tribunal” puts duties to disclose confidential information on lawyers, if the situation meets the standards. Here it is a close call, but since the lawyer did not appear before the tribunal, but only reviewed information submitted to it, and the submission was not by the lawyer, the committee finds that “It would not make sense to require a lawyer to take reasonable remedial measures regarding proceedings before a tribunal in which the lawyer has never appeared on behalf of the client.”

But does the lawyer have to report the failure to register properly with the police?  Rule 1.6(b)(2) in NY and in Indiana, is a permissive rule.  “A lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation of a client to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary: (2) to prevent the client from committing a crime… and in furtherance of which the client has used or is using the lawyer’s services” (Ind. Rule).  NY’s Rule 1.6 does not have the “and in furtherance” language.  Indiana’s does which makes it even less likely that a disclosure would be appropriate even with the permissive disclosure language.

In NY the committee previously opined that past crimes cannot be revealed under this provision, only future crimes. Either way there is no mandatory disclosure, but a permissive disclosure in NY looks to be less risky than in Indiana, where there was no use of the lawyer’s services in furtherance of the misreporting.

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Jeffersonville INNS of Court meeting

Thursday March 21, Ted Waggoner will attend the Jeffersonville IN Inns of Court meeting at the invitation of Judge Terry Cody to speak on the Indiana Attorney Surrogate Rule, and its application to lawyers and law firms.  Ted chairs the Attorney Surrogate Rule Special Committee of the ISBA. 

Contact me for more information about this important rule.

IOLTA UPDATE if you accept Credit Cards: Circular 230 Disclosure: CBS Radio v. Emmis = DQ:

Credit Cards and IOLTA – New Problem

If you have been innovative over the past few years and started to accept credit card payments, and then posted them when required, directly to your IOLTA trust account (thanks Dan Reed and LawPay – a great ISBA member benefit) you better check your merchant account now.

Congress added Section 6050W to the code effective Jan 1, 2013.  As reported in LawBizzCoo, a legal business blog, there is a new requirement that if the credit card processor’s information is not exactly as contained in the IRS’s file (i.e. name change of firm, new address) the processor must withhold 28% of each deposit processed by the credit card company, including funds deposited in IOLTA.

The Disciplinary Commission may start getting notices of bounced checks from banks (required under the rules allowing banks to hold IOLTA funds) and lawyers may start getting certified letters from the Commission.  Those funds are not being mis-deposited, so you cannot just move them, they are held for potential taxes. You have to come up with the funds, and answer the grievance, in short order. Take a moment now and check your EIN letter and your Merchant Account Agreement. Fix it ASAP.

The same will happen to your general account, but that will not automatically involve the DC. It may later, but your landlord will not appreciate the rent check bouncing.

I discussed this with my office manager and she has been on top of it for a while, thanks to AffiniPay (a/k/a LawPay and Dan Reed). Whether you are with LawPay or some other provider, it is your skin in the game. Make sure everything lines up as it should.

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Tax abuse schemes are serious! Up to $190M serious for one lawyer.

The IRS issued one of its worst ideas a few years ago, called the Circular 230 Disclosure. Good in theory, to require lawyers to warn clients and potential clients not to construe information in a letter or email as being tax advice from the author to engage in a tax scheme, unless that is the purpose of the letter. Now a majority of lawyers’ posts of recipes or sports commentary carries a long disclaimer at the end that no client lacking an MBA could understand, and that most posters do not understand, or they would not prize their every utterance so highly!

But, sometimes folks should avoid doing what lawyers like Donna Guerin did, and review the tax code before writing tax schemes.

Ms. Guerin wrote a scheme so good she and her co-author claimed that her law firm’s clients could save millions of dollars in taxes. And she was no fly-by-night lawyer. A partner in the once prestigious BIG law firm Jenkins & Gilchrist, she recently pleaded guilt to criminal tax fraud, will go to prison for 8 years and has agreed to a penalty and restitution of $190 Million. Her partner entered his plea early and only has to pay $1.6 Million.

For my lawyer friends, be careful with the indiscriminate use of the Circular 230 language, and for the lawyers who do tax work, go back and read Circular 230 in-depth. Then be careful.

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Great fight, but Ice goes down.

Speaking last week on the Ethics of Developing and Representing Businesses, I was asked to discuss those lawyers who get disqualified from cases for overlooking and violating a Conflict of Interest. Rules 1.7 & 1.9 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct are pretty clear when lawyers must not violate the pledge of loyalty we take to our clients (see Comment 1 to RPC 1.7). But lawyers continue to lose focus of their duty, often when one engagement is completed and a chance to earn a new fee surfaces in a “new” case.

I have had the call on the Ethics Hotline (facts changed to protect the calling lawyers) where a previous client went to a new lawyer, with a similar problem, and the same or similar issues. The old lawyer gets in the case, deciding that things have changed since the first time these folks met. Then that old lawyer just hates getting the call or letter saying “I think you have a conflict and need to get out of the case.”  Take that call seriously!

One of Indy’s premiere big firms, Ice Miller was hired by Walter Berger, an employee of Emmis Broadcasting Co., to help him in a senior management employment contract in 2002. Emmis had suggested Ice Miller to Berger. In 2005 Berger renewed that contract with Emmis, then several months later left Emmis to go to work for CBS Radio, Inc. Emmis did not like that, hired their lawyers, Another of Indy’s top big firms, Barnes & Thornburg to sue CBS for hiring Berger, (USDC, So. IN, Case No. 1:06-cv-0920) then it discharged B&T and hired Ice Miller to represent it in the case.

Ice shows up in the suit, and CBS and Berger demand it get out of the case due to an alleged conflict of interest. Ice, showing an incredible amount of chutzpah, lashed back with several defenses and a couple of accusations (which to an outsider read like they were based on client confidences), including that there is no conflict because “it is clear” that Berger breached the Emmis contract. The facts and issues were well briefed by both sides (materials in the ICLEF book) and Federal Judge Larry J. McKinney wrote a great explanation of the tests and the considerations involved in a DQ motion, in his 14 page Order. It is available on Pacer, or through Westlaw($$$).

Bottom line, loyalty is paramount, the issues are looked at from the client’s POV, and while case dicta and commentary makes it sound tough for the clients to prevail, in reality it is hard for a lawyer to win on this issue. There are a few outlier cases, but from my study, the issue, once raised, should be seen in the practical light of “how much is it worth to fight this issue, plus the possible ethics complaint, if you win? Is there enough in the case to pay all that?”  After looking at that, you should consider the option to prepare that Motion to Withdraw and have a talk with your now ex-client.

It had to happen; Blogger Beware – the hand you bite may bite back; Durham Suspended; Parenting Time Changes; Indiana Talks.

I knew it would happen

I know this lawyer, and the nice things the hearing officer reported to the Supreme Court about her are true, from my experience. But she got reprimanded. I must admit, the facts are hard to decipher from the recitation of events in the opinion, but it appears that the lawyer took on a big case, apparently too big for a single lawyer to take on in the manner she did. She created a class of 64 plaintiffs who may not have had similar interests (since some had settled their claims before becoming part of the class), and they gave her authority to settle without getting further input from the clients, which is power that a lawyer should not have. The Court says that they insisted on it, and she accepted the authority. During mediation, she had a short period of time to accept or reject an offer that seemed appropriate for all 64 clients. She exercised the authority to settle rather than to leave the offer on the table. (Thanks OC and mediator).

It is not clear who reported the matter, but it does not sound (from the opinion) that any of the clients were upset with the settlement, offended by her actions, or thought any inappropriate action had occurred, but that is not the test under Rule 8.4.  Lawyers must let the clients make the decisions to settle, as painful as that can be from time to time (Rule 1.2(a)). Aggregate settlements are tricky creatures, and must be handled with care and with the informed consent of each client (Rule 1.8(g)). When lawyers fail to get informed consent, it usually leads to the failure to explain a matter so the client can make an informed decision (Rule 1.4(b)).

Although the Disciplinary Commission lawyer argued for and sought a suspension from the practice, the public reprimand seems right.

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Blogger Beware

The National Law Journal reported that a Chicago lawyer and blogger got caught up in a legal matter that prompted her to make allegations that the IL probate process is “a sleazy world of probate” and that there is “malpractice and malfeasance by attorneys and the court.”  Amazingly someone took offense at that.  The lawyer Joanne Denison now faces an ethics complaint.

It seems to stem from the court rejecting an application by Denison to serve as a guardian, after the court found that Denison had notarized the signature of a woman who might have been  suffering from dementia at the time of the signature, and that the document favored the woman’s daughter, a client of Denison, over others in the family.  They thought that was worthy of disqualification from serving as guardian in this matter. Denison went ballistic, created a blog in the name of the potential ward, and started blasting away at the judges and lawyers alike.  She named names and recounted allegations, apparently without due regard to the facts underlying the matters.

The ethics allegation is that the blog contains “comments that are false or made with reckless disregard for the truth.”  Oops.

I will take that into consideration as I write and edit this blog, and invite others to do likewise in their own writings.  As one reply to the NLJ article mentions, Rule 8.3(a) states: “A lawyer who knows that another lawyer has committed a violation of Rule 8.4(b) or Rule 8.4(c) shall inform the appropriate professional authority.”  That is not an invitation to inform via blog.

H/T Patrick Olmstead

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Durham Suspended

Indy Ponzi scheme convict Tim Durham, the subject of a previous post here, was suspended from the practice of law based on his finding of guilt in the $200M fraud case of Fair Finance. Durham was sentenced to 50 years, so unless he was planning a jail-house lawyer routine, this finishes his legal career. The Order is here.

The Indy Star claimed [login required] it was the Disciplinary Commission that suspended him, but we know  that the Supreme Court keeps that power to itself. Durham still has a challenge to the suspension, but…

BTW, this is Durham’s second suspension, the first was due to failure to pay his annual registration fee last October.  Kirkland & Ellis, one of the biggest of BigLaw firms in Chicago, has decided to provide a pro bono appeal for Durham, according to the Indiana Business Journal. If you cannot pay registration for your license, you probably qualify for indigent services.Good to see the poor getting adequate legal representation to protect their rights. It worked so well for Mike Tyson.

Parenting Time changes

Two lawyers in my office have produced a short video on the changes in the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines. The changes go into effect on March 1.

You may want to watch, or link to it. Andy Perkins and Rachel Arndt did a nice job, here.

IndianaTalks.com Interview

Indy lawyer Stephen Terrell will be interviewing me this coming Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 9:00 pm on his weekly online “radio” show. Steve has been on-line for 3 weeks now, and has had some very interesting interviews.  You can listen by tuning your browser to http://www.indianatalks.com/.  Steve discusses information of the week, and then conducts his interview for much of the hour.

Don’t know what we will talk about, but Steve and I, while friends for a decade, disagree about most of the important things in life, and this will be my chance to show him the errors of his ways for you all to hear. Plans are to discuss law, politics and religion. Where could we disagree about any of these matters?

I only hope the Hoosiers have put the Gophers away by 9:00.

Ethics and Conflict Issues in Business Representation; Conour Questions –

BUSINESS ETHICS FOR LAWYERS

I will be doing a seminar on Feb. 28 for ICLEF, the legal education provider created by the Indiana State Bar Association in the 1970s to help get lawyers better prepared to handle their clients’ legal matters. Now a stand-alone not for profit corporation ICLEF is the leading provider of Continuing Legal Education in Indiana..

The seminar title is Developing and Representing the Business Entity, and my portion is Ethics in a Business Practice. We will be discussing the Rules of Professional Conduct, the Traps of working with businesses and the Remedies for lawyers and businesses if unethical events occur.

In focusing on the Rules of Professional Conduct, we will discuss recent cases in state and federal courts where the clients complained that their lawyer had jumped sides, and how the courts and lawyers handled that issue. Motions to Disqualify some of the biggest law firms you know will be reviewed, and we will review how the courts’ findings and orders, when presented with valid conflict issues protect the business or the lawyers.

We will also review other events that may prompt a client to think that the loyalty obligation discussed in comment 1 to Rule 1.7 has been violated.

Program chair, Jeffrey Nickloy (a lawyer I have sent clients to for complex issues) has brought together a faculty of some of the brightest lawyers in Indiana to present on various topics that day. The Business Law Section and the Ethics Committee of the ISBA will be well represented.

Registration materials are available here.

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Bill Conour

The Indianapolis Star had a long story about Bill Conour on Sunday, here.  I never worked with Bill, but you could not be a lawyer in the state for the past 30 years and not know about him, his practice, or his atrium.

I will do a more thorough analysis of his fall, his plea, and his resignation in a few weeks, but I would like a few comments about Bill from those of you who knew him, worked with him, did or did not get cheated by him.

I will say (treading carefully as a Maurer grad, talking about our friends and fellow IU law siblings at McKinney) that the first time I walked into the Inlow Hall atrium, and saw the decor, I overheard a comment (it has been years ago, maybe it was my comment) that “the decor looks like a 1950s prison cell block,” with the metal wrapped columns to the ceiling.  So long as it carries Bill Conour’s name (together with that of his ex-wife Jennifer), the image will fit.

Please share comments on Bill and his situation, if you will.

Win One, Still Trouble; Charge for That? Neglect of Client in several ways

This is a Win?
The lawyer got sued for malpractice for failure to talk client out of a litigation financing deal. The court ruled that he wins since the lawyer did not refer the client to the lender, did not recommend the use of a litigation financing  program, and did not offer an opinion supporting the deal with the lender when the client made the loan.

Elwin Francis suffered a personal injury. He filed suit, but found himself needing funds up front, So, he borrowed funds from Law Bucks, who submitted a lien for $96,000 on the settlement.

The law firm representing Mr. Francis settled the personal injury matter for $150,000, with consent, and when all the expenses were  paid, Mr. Francis got a check for $111. He did not think that was enough, so he sued his lawyers. [Apparently the client forgot the $$ he got from Law Bucks]. The NY court looked at the documents, at the duty that the lawyer took on in representing Mr. Francis, and at the facts to see if there was conflicting duties that extended to Law Bucks, and found there was no endorsement or contacts between the firm and Law Bucks.

Getting sued by a client is trouble, but winning is good.

Lesson for us?  Stay out of endorsing a lender in a litigation financing program. You may become the guarantor.

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Charge for that?

Rule 1.8(j) has been around for a while. It is a pretty straightforward rule: “A lawyer shall not have sexual relations with a client unless a consensual sexual relationship existed between them when the client-lawyer relationship commenced.”  Pretty close to a “Thou shalt not ….” with fewer exceptions than the Rule on Hearsay.

Tom Lowe, a lawyer from Minnesota is old enough to have been around when the MN Supreme Court enacted that rule there.  Sexual relations rulings in ethics cases have been around for decades, and the Rule changes started popping up in several states in the late 1990s (IL 1997, Kan 1998). The no-sex Rule came about as a part of the McCrate Amendments to the Model ABA Rules of Professional Conduct in 2002. Indiana adopted the current Rule 1.8(j) on Sept. 30, 2004, as part of the comprehensive update of the RPC (at p. 39 of the Order)*

So Lowe not only violated that rule, but, to add insult to injury he added the time he spent with her (a family law client) while he breached the rule to her bill.  [insert your inappropriate hourly billing (or quarter-hour or one/tenth hour) or other time based billing quip at this spot – I am trying desperately to leave those and other puns out of the post.]

There are important reasons for the rule about sex with a client, and I am not making fun of those, but his billing for his time?  That reminds me of this song…

Lowe got an indefinite suspension of his license, with a minimum period of 15 months before he may apply for renewal. Well done MN.

* I chaired the ISBA subcommittee that reviewed the ABA proposals and led to the addition of 1.8(j) to the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct. Thanks to my subcommittee.

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Client Neglect Stemming from Mental Health Issues

The front page of the Indiana Judges & Lawyers Assistance Program website states: Research has shown that lawyers may suffer from substance abuse and depression at a rate higher than the general population. Experience has shown that lawyers may be more reluctant than others to seek help for their own problems.

One of the critical consequences of mental health problems is the impact on our clients.  As stated by JLAP Ex. Dir. Terry Harrell: “When I hear that a good lawyer, with no history of neglecting clients, is not returning telephone calls — my radar goes up and I start looking for other signs of depression.” She shares statistics on the increased level of mental health problems that should cause every lawyer to take a slow look in the mirror. Women lawyers appear to have a 10% greater problem than the general female population, while male lawyers  reportedly suffer a problem with depression at a rate more than 200% of the general male population.

When lawyers neglect clients for any reason the clients often get upset. If there is not a good reason for the perceived neglect (such as, “I am in trial all month…”) and the client does not see a way to successfully get the lawyer’s attention, a complaint to the Disciplinary Commission may be their only recourse.

Several cases recently have highlighted the issue of mental health, and I will focus on one. This lawyer (I don’t need to name him) recently stipulated to the following facts: The misconduct includes neglecting clients’ cases, failing to do the work for which he was hired, failing to respond to clients’ requests for information, failing to inform clients of the status of their cases, failing to safeguard unearned fees by placing them in a trust account, and failing to completely refund unearned fees. Respondent knew he was suffering from depression and other health related issues that interfered with his ability to attend to his clients’ needs.”

The lawyer and the Commission agreed that these violations of the Rules occurred: “The parties agree that Respondent violated these Indiana Professional Conduct Rules prohibiting the following misconduct: Rule 1.3: Failure to act with reasonable diligence and promptness. 1.4(a)(3): Failure to keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter. 1.4(a)(4): Failure to comply promptly with a client’s reasonable requests for information. 1.15(a): Failure to safeguard property of a client. 1.16(a)(2): Failure to withdraw from representation when the lawyer’s physical or mental condition materially impairs the lawyer’s ability to represent the client. 1.16(d): Failure to refund an unearned fee promptly upon termination of representation. 3.2: Failure to expedite litigation consistent with the interests of a client.”  That is quite a list.

There is the specific requirement under Rule 1.16(a)(2) that states the affirmative duty that a lawyer “shall not represent a client…if: (2) the lawyer’s physical or mental condition materially impairs the lawyer’s ability to represent the client.”

We need to talk about this situation more.  There was this previous post on Age Related Issues in the Law, but it did not tie the violation to 1.16(a)(2). Apparently we need to have more discussion about this.  There are 10,000 Baby Boomers hitting 65 every day. They are not all lawyers, but enough of them are for problems to show up..  65 is not the magic age where age related cognitive disorder hits, but it is one birthday closer to the issue showing up.

Mental illness extends far beyond age related disorder, and beyond depression, bi-polar disorder and other issues.  But it hits lawyers in greater numbers than the general population.  When it hits, all the suffering lawyer’s clients are affected. Be aware.

IN Re: Kendall Redux

Kendall – Redux

The 2004 case of In Re Michael Kendall (see 3-24-04 entry) is a landmark case among Indiana’s legal fee cases.

Kendall’s law firm went bankrupt, and several clients’ fees could not be refunded, having been deposited into his general account. The issue was whether those funds should have been safe in a trust account. In a 13 page opinion. the Supreme Court expounded on the proper use of “flat fees” “non-refundable retainers” and how lawyers can protect their livelihoods.

The hearing officer had found violations of Rule 1.4 on communicating with clients, but on the big fee issues, Rules 1.5 & 1.15, found no violation.  The Disciplinary Commission appealed those findings, and the Supreme Court found there were violations of Rules 1.5, & 1.15. The court distinguished Kendall’s actions from those found in the In the Matter of Stanton case, when flat fees for criminal matters, deposited in the lawyer’s general account was permissible. Kendall deposited advance fees for hourly work in the lawyer’s general account.

FLAT FEES

The court’s discussion starts with a helpful paragraph:  Advance fee payments are subject to different requirements, depending upon the terms of the agreement between the lawyer and the client.  This discussion will distinguish between the advance fees charged by the respondent here (that were to be earned in the future at an agreed rate) and advance fees that are agreed to cover specific legal services regardless of length or complexity (fixed or “flat” fees). 

After the discussion the Court held: “We therefore hold that Prof. Cond. R. 1.15(a) generally requires the segregation of advance payments of attorney fees, as discussed below….  Except in the case of flat fees governed by Stanton, a lawyer’s failure to place advance payments of attorney fees in a separate account violates this rule.”

The per curiam opinion, authored by now Chief Justice Dickson, defined a “flat fee” that could be charged, and once collected placed in the firm’s general account, as follows: “As distinguished from a partial initial payment to be applied to fees for future legal services, a flat fee is a fixed fee that an attorney charges for all legal services in a particular matter, or for a particular discrete component of legal services.”

Are you paying attention reader? Flat fees can be charged and put in the general office account.  But they must qualify as flat fees.  And you must explain, accurately, how that works, so the client is not misled.

UNREASONABLE FEES = NON-REFUNDABLE RETAINERS?

Kendall’s other mistake was to use language in his fee agreement that must have been common (considering how often the issue arises), a provision that fees paid were non-refundable unless otherwise provided by law.  That language is a huge red-flag, and while the Supreme Court has not yet said the term “non-refundable retainer” is forbidden, they have not approved it in recent history when addressing the situation.  In Kendall they held that even though the Commission never proved he had taken and kept a non-refundable retainer, and never failed to resolve a retainer when he was discharged before the completion of the case, the Court  still found the fee agreement that included a threat that the fees paid could not be refunded was unreasonable and in violation of Rule 1.5.

In language that I still find confusing, the court said the following two things: 1) “In discussing [in Thonert] the nonrefundability provision, we observed: We do not hold that unrefundable retainers are per se unenforceable.  There are many circumstances where, for example, preclusion of other representations or guaranteed priority of access to an attorney’s advice may justify such an arrangement.  But here there is no evidence of, for example, any value received by the client or detriment incurred by the attorney in return for the nonrefundable provision, other than relatively routine legal services.  [Thonert] 682 N.E.2d at 524.  Where a retainer is thus justified, a lawyer would be well advised to explicitly include the basis for such non-refundability in the attorney-client agreement; and 2) We hold that the assertion in an attorney fee agreement that such advance payment is nonrefundable violates the requirement  of Prof. Cond. R. 1.5(a) that a lawyer’s fee “shall be reasonable.”

How clear is that? The non-refundable retainer fee may be permissible, but to say so in the fee agreement violates the reasonable fees requirement.

Word that part of your fee agreement carefully, yet make it clear for the average client.

And remember, even though the Court did not say it out loud, no fee is Non-Refundable.

CONCLUSION

Michael C. Kendall, in the face of other undisclosed charges recently filed by the Disciplinary Commission, tendered his resignation of his license to practice law. On Jan. 28, 2013 the Supreme Court accepted his resignation, and said that he may not apply for reinstatement for at least five years.

I don’t know Michael C. Kendall, but the 2004 opinion included the following paragraph: The hearing officer received significant evidence of Kendall’s professional reputation.  Several highly respected witnesses testified favorably for Kendall, praising his history of ethical practice, his integrity, his significant public service, and his strong dedication, care, and commitment to his clients’ cases.  The hearing officer recognized that Kendall “deserves sanction” but noted that the “accolades from the various witnesses were impressive and unchallenged,” and urged that “the penalty needs to be tempered by what seems to be the Respondent’s superior ethical history until this recent period.”  Findings at 23. 

A few years ago a friend of mine had some troubles, and got a reprimand. Folks tried to help, but a second round of complaints hit. He resigned his license to practice as a lawyer. It was right for him. I hope this was right for Kendall.

Zealous Representation?; Alabama joins Indiana on Group Coupon issue; Who is the client?

Zealous? Don’t Talk to me about Zealous! -1-

Wisner v. Laney is an important case on lawyer civility, but an opinion with a problem. First, the issue.  As stated in the opinion, counsel for both sides went over the line. Plaintiff’s counsel was ordered to apologize to the jury for comments about the defense counsel.

Defense counsel still thought that the opponent went too far, and the trial court should have either called a mistrial or dismissed the case. That did not happen. As stated by Justice David, “Again, the trial court judge is in the best position to determine when enough is enough and whether or not the behavior of counsel would warrant a new trial.” and “we nonetheless express our displeasure with the conduct of counsel, particularly that of plaintiff’s counsel.” Also the court found: “Although plaintiff’s counsel’s behavior was most troubling, both attorneys should have acted in a manner more becoming of our profession.”

Now the problem: in the conclusion the court says: “The duty to zealously represent our clients is not a license to be unprofessional.”  In the 2004 amendments to the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct the Supreme Court deleted the word and standard of “zealous” representation from the Preamble, in favor of an “effective advocate” standard. The ABA Model Rules still use the term “zealous” three times in the Preamble. Section 2 of the MRPC states in part: “As advocate, a lawyer  zealously asserts the client’s position under the rules of the  adversary system.” It is also found in Sections 8 & 9 of the MRPC.  One example of the change in Indiana’s Rule 8 is: “a lawyer can be a zealous an effective advocate”.

So now the court reintroduces the issue of zealous advocacy in the most recent “civility” opinions issued by the court. Was that intentional by the court, or a lapse to the language lawyers used a decade or more ago?

1. Bad take-off on the Jim Mora Playoffs speech from 2001

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GROUP COUPON OPINION SPREADS

Alabama State Bar’s ethics committee joined Indiana in banning lawyers from participating in daily deal coupon programs such as Groupon. An issue that has been ruled on by several states, first Indiana and now Alabama have found the deal plans contain too many “ethical landmines” to pass muster.

Indiana’s 2012 opinion was the first to take aim on the practice, calling it fraught with peril, and identifying eight Rules in the Indiana RPC, plus one guideline that were in peril with the proposal.  NY, NC and SC looked at fewer issues in approving the proposal.   The Legal Examiner in Alabama had an article that hit the highlights of that state committee’s ruling.

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WHO IS THE CLIENT?

Ethical questions to the ISBA Hotline panel are often explored in more detail by asking the caller “Who is your client?”  A recent Minn. case discussed in the Jan. Minn. Ethics Update takes that question a step further.

In Fredrikson & Byron v. Saliterman the law firm started working with the owner and CEO of “LOS” in an arbitration matter where LOS was one of the parties. Saliterman, the contact and CEO of LOS had separate legal counsel in the arbitration. He received LOS’s engagement letter, addressed to him, and it said, among other things, “Thank you for selecting F&B to represent you in the litigation matter concerning [LOS].”

When the matter was over, and LOS was insolvent, Saliterman was billed for the legal  fees due.  The question addressed by the trial and appellate courts was “Who was F&B’s client?” The appellate court decided that ambiguity in a fee agreement goes against the law firm, so F&B did not get paid.

The lesson?  Make sure your engagement letters identify, by name, the client, such as, “In this matter the firm of XYZ is representing only [client’s name].”  If you want a guarantor for payment, get a payment guaranty from the CEO in the CEO’s personal capacity, (or parent in a child’s matter) and not as the representative of the business entity.

Happy New Year; New Rules; Be Honest; Tell Your Friends

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION.

I wish you and your staff a Happy New Year. If you read this blog I know you also read other blogs, and many of them have offered resolution suggestions for the new year. Here is mine.

I was at a closing last week and the seller asked if I had set any resolutions for 2013. My reply was “Work hard, and keep out of trouble.” Thinking about that later, I need to revise that first one to “Work smarter.” I have reached the age where working harder is not going to do it any longer. And the issues my clients have are not solved by working harder, so I must continue to work smarter.

Good luck to you and your clients, the kind of luck that comes from working smarter.

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NEW RULES (redux)

In the last post I suggested that we all read the new rules issued for 2013. Just in case you got too wrapped up in parties, parades and football, I thought I would remind you to take a look. Stay on top and be ready.  Your judge might be expecting that from you. Your client’s new lawyer will if pursuing a malpractice claim, for any reason.

Don’t forget the new Parenting Time Guideline changes go into effect on March 1, 2013 as well.

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BE HONEST AND EXPLAIN THE REAL BASIS FOR YOUR FEE

Finally a story out of Cincinnati. Kathleen Mezher offered a free consultation to  potential clients coming to her law office. Lots of lawyers do this. But do they follow her improper practice of billing for that time if the client signs up? Do they explain the fees kick in when the client signs up? Do you?

In this case, a potential client came in to discuss her mother’s estate. The meeting was advertised as a free consultation. The potential client showed up, discussed the proceedings with the associate lawyer Espohl and agreed to hire the firm. She then talked in more particulars about the estate proceedings, left some important papers and then waited. Three weeks later the client decided to go someplace else and asked for the papers to be returned. The client got her papers, and a bill for $375, of which $250 was charged for the “Attorney Client consultation” that had been identified as a freebie.

The event was called the “failure to communicate the basis of a fee and misleading communication about a fee” by the Ohio Supreme Court, violating Rules 1.5(b) and 7.1. Mezher and her associate Espohl both got public reprimands for their actions. The court opinion speaks in detail about the need to communicate to the client if a free consultation can turn into a client interview for which payment is required. Here the lawyers did not have a good policy for that change in circumstances, or adequately explain that policy to the clients.

Well worth the read, especially if you offer free consultations. 

Query: If your first engagement is a free consultation, then you start to charge a fee for that meeting, is that a change in fee arrangements that also requires a Rule 1.8 warning under Indiana’s more strict view?  What would the Disc. Comm. think? Do you want to be the test case?

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TELL YOUR FRIENDS

If you enjoy the information you get in this blog, please tell your friends, or better yet forward to you friends, the blog that is about those who might be Lawyers With Troubles. Maybe it will help a fellow lawyer avoid a problem.  They can go to the site www.lawyerswithtroubles.wordpress.com and sign up.

Stay Up on the Rules; Trust Account is for Client Funds; How Much is Take Home Anyway?

Ten New Rules
Indiana Supreme Court has amended ten of the Rules lawyers need to know effective Jan. 1, 2013.  You can review them here and realize that service of pleadings on fellow lawyers is now permissible through email, if agreed. PDF format becomes a standard, and several changes to the RPC, including Rule 5.5 on cross-state practice will go into effect.

If you don’t take the occasion to read the various rules that affect your profession, and you life as a lawyer, you have several days in the next two weeks to take that opportunity. Out of the office, often with a book in hand, you might choose to make that book (or tablet) the Rules of Court, and the link above to make sure you are reading the most current rules.

And for a kick, read the Administrative Rules (you may skip the details of Rule 7(d), 8(b), and App to Rule 1 – unless you are a judge) and the Admission and Discipline Rules, in addition to the RPC.  Finish by going back and reading Rule 22 of the A&D Rules. That is the Oath of Attorneys. You took that oath when you were admitted (you might have a copy on your wall someplace), and you would have repeated it if you attended an Indiana Bar Foundation Fellows dinner. At the dinner a Supreme Court Justice leads the crowd in a recitation of the Oath.  A good moment for all in attendance.

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YEAR END TRUST ACCOUNT ALERT

Year end temptations get to some lawyers, the temptation to leave earned funds in the trust account a few weeks longer to move income into next year.  You may want to read the opinion: In the Matter of Jacob Dunnick.

Dunnick was trying to avoid having an IRS lien enforced, and so he started operating his office general funds and paying his office bills out of his trust account. He wrote a check to the Commission for Continuing Legal Education out the funds in his trust account, and the Commission reported him under Rule 8.3. A couple of months later Dunnick bounced a check on the trust account, and under the IOLTA Rule (1.15), that is an automatic report to the DC from the depositor bank.

For playing with his trust funds like this, Dunnick gets a real 60 day suspension (six months, stayed, 60 days served, one year probation). He will need to work with a CPA to quarterly audit and report the trust account to the DC, and he must take the Trust Fund Management class.

Prior lawyer-clients of mine have reported that the Trust Fund Management class is quite worthwhile. If you are uncertain about the means and methods of handling the trust funds or other property that you obtain from your clients, you should keep an eye out for the class. Or you might buy and read the classical treatise on the issue “The ABA Guide to Lawyer Trust Accounts” available through Amazon or the ABA (where you will be surprised to find the price is about 1/2 the Amazon price, and there is $10 off if you belong to the LPM Section).

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Finances causing Troubles?

I ran across an interesting article on Inc.com’s website.  Maybe it fits your needs, maybe it does not, but I know many lawyers who suffer from the problem of inadequate fees, and I have spoken about the issue at the ISBA SSF Conference in years past.

“You Don’t Charge Enough. Here’s How to Fix That.” tackles a problem that affects many lawyers, we let the jokes and the reputation as sharks keep our fees too far below the value that our services provide to our clients. A worthwhile read before you set your office budget for 2013.

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And on that note, I want to wish you the best of the holidays.  As noted Indiana lawyer Derrick Wilson said “Make sure you wish the readers a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus or holiday of their choice.”  And so I do (once again, following the sage advice of Mr. Wilson…)