OPINION NO. 08-01
For Dissent Opinion
Issued April 8, 2008
1. Issue: May an attorney provide legal assistance to litigants appearing before a tribunal pro se and prepare written submissions for them without disclosing the nature or extent of such assistance? If so, what are the attorney’s obligations when full representation is not undertaken?
2. Opinion: Under the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, and in the absence of an express court rule to the contrary, a lawyer may provide legal assistance to litigants appearing before tribunals pro se and help them prepare written submissions without disclosing or ensuring the disclosure to others of the nature or extent of such assistance. Although providing limited legal help does not alter the attorney’s professional responsibilities, some aspects of the representation require special attention.
3. Background: Our Committee has previously issued three opinions regarding limited-scope legal representation under certain circumstances regarding various aspects of limited-scope legal representation.1 These opinions were issued under the Utah Code of Professional Responsibility that was superseded by the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, adopted by the Utah Supreme Court in 1988 and modified in certain respects by amendments that were adopted by the Court in November 2005. A synopsis of those opinions is found in Appendix A to this Opinion. In this opinion, we undertake a more comprehensive analysis of the “behind the scenes” limited representation under the current Utah rules.
4. Recently, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has issued Formal Opinion 07-446 (May 5, 2007), comprehensively discussing assistance to pro se parties and expressly superseding ABA Informal Opinion 1414, which disapproved certain undisclosed assistance of pro se litigants under the prior Code of Professional Conduct. ABA Opinion 07-446 concluded that under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, “a lawyer may provide legal assistance to litigants appearing before tribunals ‘pro se’ and help them prepare written submissions without disclosing or ensuring the disclosure of the nature or extent of such assistance.”
5. Analysis: In addressing the issue posed, we begin by recognizing that a new regulatory framework is in place nationally and in Utah that provides directly for limited-scope legal representation of clients who, for various reasons, engage lawyers for narrowly circumscribed participation in their legal affairs.
6. Rules of Professional Conduct: Rule 8.4(c) of the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” However, none of the comments to that rule suggest that failure to notify opposing parties and the court of limited assistance to a pro se party involves such dishonest conduct.2 Recently issued ABA Formal Opinion 07-446 expressly concludes that it does not: “[W]e do not believe that nondisclosure of the fact of legal assistance is dishonest so as to be prohibited by Rule 8.4(c).” Because the Rules of Professional Conduct include comments that explain and illustrate “the meaning and purpose of the rule” and “are intended as guides to interpretation,”3 and because the ABA drafters certainly knew of Informal Opinion 1414, it would have been obvious to include this example to illustrate dishonest conduct if that had been intended. (more…)
(Issued February 27, 2002)
1 Issue: What are the ethical obligations of an insurance defense lawyer with respect to insurance company guidelines and flat-fee arrangements?
2 Opinion: An insurance defense lawyer’s agreement to abide by insurance company guidelines or to perform insurance defense work for a flat fee is not per se unethical. The ethical implications of insurance company guidelines must be evaluated on a case by case basis. An insurance defense lawyer must not permit compliance with guidelines and other directives of an insurer relating to the lawyer’s services to impair materially the lawyer’s independent professional judgment in representing an insured. If compliance with the guidelines will be inconsistent with the lawyer’s professional obligations, and if the insurer is unwilling to modify the guidelines, the lawyer must not undertake the representation. Flat-fee arrangements for insurance defense cases are unethical if they would induce the lawyer improperly to curtail services for the client or perform them in any way contrary to the client’s interests. Obligations of lawyers under the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, including the duty zealously to represent the insured, cannot be diminished or modified by agreement. Insurance Company Guidelines
3 Opinion Request Concerning Insurers’ Guidelines. The Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee has received a request for an ethics advisory opinion concerning insurance company guidelines for counsel who are employed to defend litigation brought by a third party against an insured. The requestors state that insurance companies doing business in Utah have incorporated in their defense-counsel retainer agreements certain billing protocols or guidelines governing attorneys’ procedures and payments that raise ethical issues.
4 Prior Opinions. Although issues pertaining to insurance company guidelines have been the subject of considerable discussion elsewhere,1 they have not been addressed directly by this Committee.2 When ethical concerns about insurance company guidelines have been raised in ethics opinions from other jurisdictions, the opinions are generally consistent with the summary set forth in ABA Opinion No. 01-421:
A lawyer must not permit compliance with “guidelines” and other directives of an insurer relating to the lawyer’s services to impair materially the lawyer’s independent professional judgment in representing an insured.
Although most of the ethics opinions on insurance company guidelines take a general approach, a few—while acknowledging that certain guidelines may be appropriate—have taken issue with particular guidelines. For purposes of illustration, portions of selected ethics opinions from other jurisdictions are set forth in Appendix A. We do not intend to imply agreement with the conclusions of these opinions. Rather, we wish to describe more fully the kinds of concerns that have been raised elsewhere, many of which are raised directly in the request before us.
5 Montana Supreme Court Decision. The Montana Supreme Court has issued an opinion that addresses these topics, but only after having determined that the insured is the sole client of the defense lawyer. Under that structure, the court noted that defense counsel (a) does not have a “blank check” to escalate litigation costs, (b) should consult with the insurer, (c) must charge reasonable fees, and (c) can be held accountable for its work. The Montana court then held that “defense counsel in Montana who submit to the requirement of prior approval [obtaining consent of the insurer prior to taking certain actions] violate their duties under the Rules of Professional Conduct to exercise their independent judgment and to give their undivided loyalty to insureds.”3 (more…)
Issued December 18, 2002
1 Issue: May a lawyer review pleadings prepared by a non-lawyer mediator for simple, uncontested divorces and advise the mediator on how to modify the pleadings for filing in court?
2 Conclusion: (1) As lawyer for the mediator, a lawyer may advise the mediator on the issues likely to arise in the course of the mediation, but may not advise the mediator how to prepare the divorce agreement and court pleadings for particular parties who are clients of the mediator. This would constitute assisting in the unauthorized practice of law and would violate Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 5.5. (2) An attorney may provide representation to a party engaged in a divorce mediation that is limited to advising the party and assisting with pleadings, but may not so limit the representation without first fully informing the party of the proposed limitation and obtaining the party’s informed consent.
3 Background: A divorce mediator has requested that a lawyer perform a limited service: review pleadings prepared by the mediator and amend them as needed. Prior to the attorney’s involvement, the mediator would meet with the divorcing parties and assist them in reaching a settlement of all issues in their divorce. Then, the mediator would draft the parties’ agreement, which would be filed with the court or incorporated into the judgment of the court. Finally, the mediator would draft the various additional court documents (e.g., complaint, findings of fact and conclusions of law, judgment) needed for the parties’ divorce. The mediator would inform the divorcing parties that the pleadings were not prepared by an attorney, but had been reviewed by an attorney for “sufficiency.” The divorcing parties would pay the attorney a small fee for this service.
4 Analysis: The request raises the following issues:
* Whether the lawyer is representing the mediator or the divorcing parties.
* Whether this plan involves the lawyer’s assisting in the unauthorized practice of law in violation of Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 5.5.
* Whether this plan constitutes an appropriate limitation on the lawyer’s representation for the client under Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 1.2 and 1.1.
A. Whether the lawyer is representing the mediator or the divorcing parties.
5 The original request appears to presume that the lawyer is advising the mediator. However, the advice sought from the Committee focuses on the agreement and pleadings for a divorce between two particular parties. Here, we consider the ethical constraints on both possible relationships.
B. Whether the lawyer, in advising the mediator, is assisting in the authorized practice of law.
6 Rule 5.5 provides that a lawyer shall not “assist any person in . . . the unauthorized practice of law.” However, the Comments to Rule 5.5 state that the rule “does not prohibit lawyers from providing professional advice and instruction to nonlawyers whose employment requires knowledge of law.” Accordingly, it should be permissible for a lawyer to form an attorney-client relationship and provide a mediator with professional advice that the mediator needs for this occupation. In order to understand the limits of what is appropriate legal advice to give a mediator, we first examine what constitutes the practice of mediation under Utah law and current codes of conduct for mediators. (more…)
(Approved April 17, 1998)
Issue: Is it unethical for a defense attorney to offer a “full satisfaction” settlement, conditioned upon plaintiff’s waiving a claim for attorneys’ fees against a defendant?
Opinion: It is not unethical for a defense attorney to present an offer of settlement conditioned on waiver of attorneys’ fees. The defense attorney in such a case has an obligation to represent the defendant zealously within the limits of the law.1Moreover, it is the defendant and not the defense attorney who controls settlement offers. The defense attorney in such a case is bound to convey settlement proposals, and to accept settlement offers, as dictated by the client.2
This answer, however, does not fully address possible ethical issues raised in a situation in which a client is a plaintiff pursuing a claim under which the plaintiff may be able to recover attorneys’ fees for pursuing the cause of action. Such a circumstance could arise, for example, in many civil rights and employment discrimination actions.
Practitioners representing plaintiffs in such circumstances should be aware of a potential conflict of interest between the plaintiff’s attorney and the client if the plaintiff receives a settlement offer that is conditioned on a waiver or dismissal of the claim for attorneys’ fees. This conflict of interest can arise where the plaintiff’s attorney has pursued the case in anticipation of recovering attorneys’ fees from the defendant at the conclusion of the proceedings.3
Plaintiffs’ attorneys in such circumstances should be aware that this potential for a conflict of interest can be resolved by full disclosure in advance of this potential problem and the execution of an appropriate attorney-client fee agreement addressing this eventuality. So long as an attorney complies with the requirements of Rule 1.5 regarding fees,4the establishment of fees between lawyer and client and the method by which those fees are to be collected are matters of business and contract between the attorney and the client.
Attorneys representing plaintiffs in such cases are advised, however, to review carefully the language of Rule 1.2 5regarding the scope of representation of clients-specifically the requirement that a lawyer must abide by a client’s decision to accept or reject an offer of settlement of a legal matter.
It is not the purpose of this opinion to advise attorneys of all the possible ways to address the issue raised here; it is merely to alert practitioners to this issue. However, it is possible to address the problem by recognizing the issue early in the representation and agreeing with the client in advance concerning how the client will pay the attorney’s fee if attorneys’ fees are not recovered from the defendant. This might be accomplished by an agreement that the attorney would normally be paid on a contingent-fee basis, but alternately on an hourly fee basis if there is no recovery of attorneys’ fees from the defendant.
It is important to note also what a practitioner cannot do to resolve this problem. It would be unethical for an attorney to contract in advance with a client that the client may not accept or that the attorney may veto a particular offer in settlement of a case. An attorney must convey all offers of settlement to a client, and the client must always have final say whether or not it will be accepted.6This ultimate client authority cannot be contracted away. (more…)
(Approved December 4, 1998)
Issue: Is it unethical for a lawyer in a divorce case to advise a client that she may obtain a protective order pro se or to allow the client to appear pro se in the protective-order case, while the lawyer continues to represent the client in the divorce proceeding?
Opinion: Because a protective-order proceeding is a separate legal action from a divorce proceeding and is clearly delineated as such by state statute, an attorney who represents a client in a divorce proceeding is not automatically counsel for that client within the protective-order proceeding. Further, an attorney representing a client in a divorce proceeding is not ethically bound to represent the same client in a protective-order proceeding filed between the same parties. The lawyer may advise the client of her right to obtain a protective order and to do so pro se. Analysis: Chapter 3 of Title 30 of the Utah Code governs divorce proceedings,1and Chapter 6 of Title 30 establishes a procedure for obtaining a “protective order” in a protective order or “cohabitant abuse” proceeding.2Sometimes, the relief sought in a protective-order action will overlap with or will be identical to relief sought in a divorce proceeding. The Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee has been asked whether an attorney who is representing a client in a divorce proceeding is required to represent the same client in a protective-order proceeding involving the same opposing party as the divorce proceeding. The request notes that, because the relief sought in the protective-order action may duplicate the relief sought in the divorce action, it may cause difficulty for one or both litigants to the actions, or to the court, if a party appears pro se seeking the issuance of relief pursuant to a protective order.
A lawyer has an obligation to advise a client of all lawful options to resolve a legal problem.3If an attorney believes that a protective order is appropriate in a case, the Rules of Professional Conduct may, therefore, require the attorney to advise the client of the option of obtaining a protective order. Because the protective-order system in Utah allows pro se litigants to obtain protective orders at no cost through the assistance of the court and without incurring attorney’s fees, an attorney may properly advise a client that she has the option not only of obtaining a protective order, but of obtaining one either through counsel or pro se. If an attorney advises a client of the availability of the protective-order system and of the possibility of obtaining a protective order without counsel, the attorney is not breaching any of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
It goes without saying that a lawyer cannot accept representation in a case, promise to represent a client in a protective-order proceeding, and then fail to do so. This would clearly be a violation of Rules 1.1, 1.2 and 1.4. Conversely, however, if the lawyer advises the client of the option of obtaining a protective order, and the client specifically elects to do so pro se, the attorney is ethically prohibited from interfering in the client’s decision, since this would violate the specific instructions from the client as to the scope and direction of the representation.4Once an attorney has advised a client of all her options in any case, it is exclusively the client’s right to determine whether to pursue one course of action or another, and whether to pursue relief pro se or with counsel. Under Rule 1.2(a), the lawyer is bound by the client’s determinations in this regard and may not act adversely to the client’s specific instructions. Indeed, it might violate a lawyer’s ethical obligations to insist upon appearing for a client in a protective-order case, if the client specifically instructed the attorney not to do so. (more…)
(Approved July 28, 1997)
The Opinion is the result of a specific inquiry from a Utah attorney who has proposed to provide legal services as outlined in the Facts section in the body of the Opinion. The Opinion addresses the ethical considerations of a lawyer who plans to perform certain estate-planning legal services in conjunction with a non-lawyer estate-planning professional who is not employed or retained by the lawyer. In general, we find that the lawyer must perform an independent role as legal advisor to the client, assuring that the estate plan and associated documents are legally appropriate to accomplishing the client’s objectives.
An estate-planning lawyer (“Lawyer”) has been approached by non-lawyer estate-planning professionals (“Estate Planner”) to provide legal services to clients referred by Estate Planner, using the following procedures:
* Estate Planner will identify clients who require estate-planning services using advertisements, cold calls and other solicitation procedures. Estate Planner will meet with the client, complete with her a personal questionnaire form approved by Lawyer, and come to agreement with her about appropriate estate-planning vehicles to accomplish the client’s estate-planning goals.
* Estate Planner will discuss with the client whether the client has an attorney she would like to use to complete the estate-planning documents. In the event the client does not desire to use another attorney, Estate Planner will recommend that she retain Lawyer to perform the necessary legal services.
* If the client has indicated a desire to retain Lawyer to prepare the estateplanning documents, Estate Planner will telephone Lawyer and describe the client’s estate-planning objectives and the estate-planning vehicle being recommended by Estate Planner and will obtain a quotation from Lawyer as to the legal fees he will charge to perform the legal services of preparing final estate-planning documents. Lawyer anticipates that most fee quotations will be a fixed fee of less than $750. With respect to more complicated estates, Lawyer may quote an hourly fee or a fixed fee in excess of $750. In such cases, Lawyer will send a letter to the client confirming the amount or basis for the fee. Lawyer will obtain the name of the prospective client from Estate Planner and will perform a conflicts check.
* After conflicts have been cleared and Estate Planner’s client has agreed to be represented by Lawyer, Estate Planner will use a form prepared by Lawyer to create a “first draft” of the estate-planning documents. Estate Planner will not use Lawyer’s forms unless the client has agreed to retain Lawyer to perform the legal services.
* Estate Planner will deliver the “first draft” of the appropriate documents, together with the personal questionnaire to Lawyer. Lawyer will then telephone the client and verify that the client intends to retain Lawyer to perform the legal services of completing the estate-planning documents. If Estate Planner’s client agrees to be represented by Lawyer, Lawyer will (a) review the personal questionnaire, (b) review the first-draft of the estate-planning documents prepared by Estate Planner, (c) verify with the client the information set forth in the personal questionnaire, (d) inquire into the client’s estate-planning goals and objectives, and (e) if appropriate, discuss alternative estate-planning vehicles to the first-draft documents prepared by Estate Planner. In most cases, these communications will be by telephone, not in person. (more…)
(Approved August 30, 1996)
Issue: What are the ethical implications of federal funding reductions and practice restrictions to Utah Legal Services lawyers?
Opinion: A Utah Legal Services lawyer must give all clients adequate notice of legislative changes and the effect they will have on a client’s representation. Funding reductions and practice restrictions may necessitate withdrawal from pending matters and intake restrictions on new matters. The attorney must make reasonable efforts to arrange for substitution of lawyers to handle pending matters, such as referring them to the Utah State Bar’s statewide pro bono coordinator. Analysis: Congress has imposed dramatic funding cutbacks and imposed certain practice restrictions as part of the fiscal-year 1996 appropriations bill signed into law on April 25, 1996. Some of the practice restrictions are: a ban on advocacy before legislative or administrative rule-making bodies; a ban on initiating, participating or engaging in new class actions; a ban on collecting attorney fees; a ban on welfare reform litigation; a ban on abortion representation; a ban on prisoner representation; a ban on representation of certain aliens; and a requirement to make pre-litigation disclosures.
Two formal opinions of the ABA address the subject of funding reductions and practice restrictions and give reasonable guidance in this area.1
A. Giving Notice of Practice and Budgetary Limitations. Rule 1.4, Communication, Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, provides:
(a) A lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.
(b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to enable the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.
A legal services attorney has an obligation to make an assessment with respect to ongoing provision of legal services to existing clients in light of funding reductions and new practice restrictions. Under Rule 1.4(a), the attorney is required to provide to existing clients and new clients as they are accepted notice of the risk or the likelihood that representation may be limited or terminated. When the risk is known and cutbacks must be made, clients must be promptly advised of terminating representation.
Rule 1.16, Declining or Terminating Representation, provides:
(a) Except as stated in paragraph (c), a lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if:
(1) the representation will result in violation of the rules of professional conduct or other law; . . .
(b) Except as stated in paragraph (c), a lawyer may withdraw from representing a client if withdrawal can be accomplished without material adverse effect on the interests of the client, or if: . . .
(5) the representation will result in an unreasonable financial burden on the lawyer or has been rendered unreasonably difficult by the client; or
(6) other good cause for withdrawal exists.
(c) When ordered to do so by a tribunal, a lawyer shall continue representation notwithstanding good cause for terminating the representation.
(d) Upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall take steps to the extent reasonably practicable to protect a client’s interests, such as giving reasonable notice to the client, allowing time for employment of other counsel, surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled and refunding any advance payment of fee that has not been earned. The lawyer may retain papers relating to the client to the extent permitted by other law. (more…)