Ethics Advisory Opinion 14-03

Utah State Bar
Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee

Opinion Number 14-03

Issued April 22, 2014

ISSUE

1.         Do the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit referral agreements between two attorneys that require one of the attorneys (the “Referring Attorney”) to refer to the other (the “Receiving Attorney”) all clients that have a certain specified type of products liability claim?

 OPINION

2.         The Committee concludes that an agreement between two attorneys which requires the Referring Attorney to refer to the Receiving Attorney all clients that have a certain specified type of claim may likely violate various provisions of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct (the “Rules”).

FACTS

3.         The Referring Attorney, licensed to practice in the State of Utah, and the Receiving Attorney, licensed to practice elsewhere, enter into an agreement governed by Utah law (the “Agreement”) to jointly pursue certain kinds of products liability claims (the “Claims”) of individuals located in the State of Utah.  The Agreement provides in relevant part:
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Ethics Advisory Opinion 14-01

Utah State Bar
Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee 

Opinion Number 14-01

 Issued January 15, 2014

ISSUE

1.         Under what conditions is it appropriate for a personal injury lawyer to “outsource the calculation, verification and resolution of alleged health insurance liens and subrogation/reimbursement claims” and pass the outsourced resolution fee to the client as a “cost.”  There are two questions posed to the committee.  First, can the lawyer appropriately outsource the lien resolution?  Second, is the treatment of the lien resolution fee appropriately treated a “cost” to the client?

 OPINION

2.         It is ethical for a personal injury lawyer to engage the services of a lien resolution company that can provide expert advice or to associate with a law firm providing this service.
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Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 12-03

UTAH STATE BAR ETHICS ADVISORY OPINION COMMITTEE

Opinion No. 12-03
Issued December 13, 2012

ISSUE

1. May a community association management company profit from legal work performed by the company’s in-house attorney?

OPINION

2. A community association management company’s profiting from legal work performed by the company’s in-house attorney constitutes the improper sharing of fees with a non-lawyer in violation of Utah Rule of Professional Conduct 5.4(a).[1]

BACKGROUND

3. An attorney is employed as in-house counsel for a community association management company. Although the company does not profit from the legal work the attorney performs, the company believes that other community association management companies routinely profit from the legal work performed by their respective in-house attorneys. Specifically, these companies collect a fee from their clients for legal services at a rate that is higher than the cost the companies incur in employing their corporate attorneys. The issue addressed in this Opinion stems from this practice.

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Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 12-02

UTAH STATE BAR ETHICS ADVISORY OPINION COMMITTEE

Opinion No. 12-02
Issued December 13, 2012

ISSUE

  1. What are the ethical and practical considerations applicable to attorneys representing clients in the state of Utah under flat fee or fixed fee agreements (hereinafter referred to as “flat fee agreements”)?

OPINION

  1. The permissibility of flat fee agreements in Utah is well established, subject always to the requirements of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct. Utah lawyers may use such agreements under circumstances that ensure that clients will not be charged an unreasonable fee, as prohibited by Rule 1.5, and that client funds will not be comingled with the attorney’s funds as prohibited by Rule 1.15. Whether a flat fee arrangement complies with these rules depends heavily on an analysis of the applicable facts and circumstances. Except in rare circumstances where a fee may reasonably be earned upon receipt, as described in this opinion, fee agreements should not describe such fees as “non-refundable,” as such fees are always subject to refund in the event they are or become unreasonable under the particular facts of the case. Representation that a flat fee is nonrefundable is deceptive and violates Rule 8.4.
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Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 07-01

Issued March 9, 2007
¶ 1. Issue:
May a lawyer purchase the exclusive right to referrals generated from the membership base of an organization whose members from time to time may have need of the legal services offered by that lawyer?

¶ 2. Opinion: The proposed arrangement, which contemplates the exclusive funneling of referrals to one lawyer or firm, is not permitted, as it violates Rule 7.2(b), which prohibits a lawyer from giving anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services. The fact that the recommendation is made by an organization does not change the outcome here.
¶ 3. Facts: A Utah for-profit organization provides an array of services to its members, including assistance in finding legal representation for its members for various circumstances, including immigration, criminal defense and personal injury following an automobile accident. This organization has solicited a Utah law firm to purchase the exclusive right to receive referrals generated by its membership base, for members who need legal consultation following an automobile accident.
¶ 4. Analysis: Rule 7.2(b) of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct sets out the basic rule that applies to the issue presented:
(b) A lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services; except that a lawyer may:
(1) pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by this Rule;
(2) pay the usual charges of a legal service plan or a lawyer referral service;
(3) pay for a law practice in accordance with Rule 1.17; or
(4) divide a fee with another lawyer as permitted by Rule 1.5(e).1
This fundamental rule is elaborated upon by Comment [5] to the Rule, which further states: “Lawyers are not permitted to pay others for channeling professional work.”2 Under the plain language of this Rule and the explanatory comment, a lawyer would be prohibited from purchasing exclusive referral rights from the organization, because that would constitute paying another person for recommending the lawyer’s services.3
¶ 5. Rule 7.2(b) contains several exceptions to this blanket prohibition. Subsection 7.2(b)(2) permits a lawyer to “pay the usual charges of a legal service plan or lawyer referral service.” This provision of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct differs from the American Bar Association Model Rule, which permits a lawyer to pay the usual charges of a legal service plan or a “not-for-profit or qualified” lawyer referral service.4 It would be inappropriate to conclude, however, that the difference between the Utah Rule and the ABA Model Rule was intended to permit a lawyer to avoid the prohibition of Rule 7.2(b) through the use of an organization that is not, in fact, a “lawyer referral service” in even the most colloquial sense of the term.
¶ 6. Comment [6] to Rule 7.2 defines a lawyer referral service as “an organization that holds itself out to the public to provide referrals to lawyers with appropriate experience in the subject matter of the representation.” At a minimum, Rule 7.2(b)(2) requires that the lawyer referral service be available to the public and that it provide referrals to multiple lawyers and law firms, not to a single lawyer or a single law firm.
¶ 7. Comment [6] to Rule 7.2 also defines a legal service plan as “a prepaid or group legal service plan or similar delivery system that assists prospective clients to secure legal representation.” Thus, the “plan” under Rule 7.2(b)(2) must be a provider of legal services to plan members using the services of licensed lawyers.5 The organization at issue provides no legal services to its members; the lawyers do not provide legal services “through the plan.”
¶ 8. Conclusion: The organization in this case is not operated as a public service, but rather channels legal work to a single lawyer or firm who has paid the organization for that privilege. The organization is not, therefore, a “legal service plan” or a “lawyer referral service” within the meaning of Rule 7.2(b)(2), and the proposed exclusive funneling of referrals to one lawyer or firm that has paid for the privilege violates Rule 7.2(b)’s prohibition against giving anything of value to another person for recommending a lawyer’s services.6
Footnotes
1 Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 7.2(b) (2006).
2 Id. cmt. [5].
3 “Person” in Utah is generally defined to include any “individual, firm, company, association or corporation.” See, e.g., Utah Code Ann. §§ 48-2a-101(12); 76-1-601 and 78-27-23 (2006).
4 ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct 7.2(b)(2) (2002).
5 Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 7.3, Cmt. [8]. Comment [8] describes lawyers participating in a group or prepaid legal services plan as “provider[s] of legal services through the plan.”
6 As we have concluded that the organization at issue is neither a prepaid or group legal services plan nor a lawyer referral service for which a lawyer may pay the “usual charges” pursuant to Rule 7.2(b), we do not reach the issue of whether this organization violates rule 7.3(a) through its use of in-person or other real-time communications to solicit memberships to the organization.

Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 02-03

(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
¶ 6 The Insurer-Defense Attorney Relationship. We do not decide whether, under Utah law, the insurer may or may not be a co-client of defense counsel. This is a legal question about which the Committee is not authorized to issue an opinion.4Courts in other jurisdictions have addressed the issue,5but the Utah Supreme Court has not determined whether a lawyer employed to represent an insured party in the defense of litigation also represents the insurer. We recognize not only that the Utah Supreme Court has not addressed this matter but that, even if it is assumed that the insurer is not a client, there are significant legal issues pertaining to the relationship between defense counsel and insurer.6The formation of an attorney-client relationship is a matter of substantive law external to the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct and in Utah, as in other states, depends upon the facts of the particular case including the intent and conduct of the parties.7As noted in the Scope comment to the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct:
[F]or purposes of determining the lawyer’s authority and responsibility, principles of substantive law external to these Rules determine whether a clientlawyer relationship exists. Most of the duties flowing from the clientlawyer relationship attach only after the client has requested that the lawyer render legal services and the lawyer has agreed to do so. But there are some duties, such as that of confidentiality under Rule 1.6, that may attach when the lawyer agrees to consider whether a clientlawyer relationship shall be established. Whether a clientlawyer relationship exists for any specific purpose can depend on the circumstances and may be a question of fact.
¶ 7 Our authority does not extend to the determination of legal question.8 Issuance of an opinion on the matters before us does not require that there be a determination of the legal question of whether a lawyer employed as defense counsel represents both insured and insurer. Accordingly, in this opinion, we address the lawyer’s ethical obligations in the event both the insurer and the insured are clients. We also address the lawyer’s ethical obligations in the event only the insured is a client. In the absence of controlling law to the contrary, who the lawyer represents may be determined at the outset by agreement of the insured, the insurer and the lawyer.
¶ 8 Insurance Company Guidelines. The requestors did not provide the Committee with copies of particular guidelines. Instead, they inquired generally about the ethical implications of guidelines, stating that certain tasks will only be paid at specified rates (e.g., written discovery will only be paid at paralegal rates) and that unless preapproval from an adjuster is obtained for certain tasks, defense counsel will not be paid (e.g., pleadings and motions, written discovery, retention of experts, legal research, travel, trial preparation, jury instructions, posttrial motions, appeals).9
¶ 9 The extensive scholarly literature on insurance company guidelines reveals a number of points that are relevant background for our consideration of ethical issues with respect to insurance company guidelines:
* Insurance company guidelines are not identical.
* Insurance companies may not use the same guidelines for every type of insurance defense.
* Considerations of freedom of contract, cost control in the interest of policyholders (including avoidance of unreasonable defense costs), and improving coordination and communications with defense counsel are important motivating factors for insurance companies in promulgating guidelines.
* Insurance company guidelines are similar in some respects to litigation management guidelines established by numerous corporate or governmental entities seeking to control litigation costs.
* There may be a degree of unobvious flexibility in insurance company guidelines, in that insurance companies may permit variance from written guidelines or may reconsider and reverse an initial decision against a particular action upon receiving a satisfactory justification from the defense attorney.
* Insurance company guidelines may include provisions that are unobjectionable from virtually any standpoint, such as:
(a) defining the financial relationship between the insurer and defense counsel (including hourly rates or other fees and permitted charges for expenses);
(b) coordinating the roles of defense counsel and employees of the insurer;
(c) establishing communications procedures between defense counsel and the insurer;
(d) stating the insurer’s objectives, both strategic and financial, with respect to litigation defense;
(e) outlining standard procedures the insurer prefers to follow in handling lawsuits;
(f) identifying which lawyers and nonlawyers will be responsible for the matter;
(g) requiring analysis of the case as a whole and of the need for particular services; and
(h) billing procedures, including frequency of billing and billing format, such as requirements that billings include sufficient information to permit an evaluation of the reasonableness of fees and costs.
On the other hand, many believe that insurance company guidelines may in practice result in an inadequate defense of the insured by requiring or inducing defense lawyers to curtail services for the insured improperly.
¶ 10 The Insurer-Insured Relationship. The insurer and the insured have significant rights and obligations pertaining to the defense of litigation brought against the insured by a third party. For example, in Ellis v. Gilbert,10the Utah Supreme Court stated:
The bare facts of life may as well be faced and reckoned with. If we look behind the facade it is to be seen that where there is insurance, the company actually takes over, employs counsel, investigates the case, interviews the witnesses, controls offers of settlement, and in fact, handles the entire matter.
In Peterson v. Western Casualty and Surety Co.,11while addressing the standard for showing diligence by insurer relying on alleged breach of cooperation clause by the insured, the Utah court noted that an insurance policy providing for interest on judgment “seems to be a recognition of the fact that the delay in payment of the judgment is chargeable to the insurance company, since it controls in the litigation.” In Berlant v. McAllister,12the Court described the insurerinsured relationship as follows:
To begin with we must know that the insurance carrier is obligated by its contract to pay all sums (up to the limits of the policy) which [the insured] may be, or shall become, liable to pay. This means that the carrier cannot be made to pay money until a judgment has been rendered against the insured []. However, this does not prevent the carrier from making a settlement of all claims against its insured before a judgment is rendered. The likelihood of losing the suit, the cost of defending it, and the possibility of settling for a sum less than the foreseeable costs and expenses are all matters which a carrier will consider in determining whether to settle a case or to defend it. The insurance contract provides that the insurer will, at its own expense, investigate, defend or settle any claims against the insured. It does not provide for any representation of its insured in an action against another party. Separate counsel always represents an insured plaintiff when he sues or an insured defendant when he counterclaims. The insurance attorney only represents the insured insofar as any claim is made against him for which the insurance company might be liable.
In Beck v. Farmers Insurance Exchange,13 the Court addressed obligations of the insurer as follows:
In a third-party situation [where the insurer contracts to defend the insured], the insurer controls the disposition of claims against its insured, who relinquishes any right to negotiate on his own behalf. . . . An insurer’s failure to act in good faith exposes its insured to a judgment and personal liability in excess of the policy limits. . . . In essence, the contract itself creates a fiduciary relationship because of the trust and reliance placed in the insurer by its insured. . . . The insured is wholly dependent upon the insurer to see that, in dealing with claims by third parties, the insured’s best interests are protected. In addition, when dealing with third parties, the insurer acts as agent for the insured with respect to the disputed claim. Wholly apart from the contractual obligations undertaken by the parties, the law imposes upon all agents a fiduciary obligation to their principals with respect to matters falling within the scope of their agency.
The Utah Rules of Professional Conduct do not in any way diminish or modify the rights or obligations of the insured or the insurer.
¶ 11 Ethical Obligations Cannot Be Modified by Agreement. A lawyer’s ethical duties under the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct cannot be diminished or modified by an agreement between the attorney and the attorney’s client or between the attorney and a third party. This principle applies equally to agreements concerning insurance company guidelines and fee agreements with insurance companies. For example, an attorney’s obligations to provide competent representation to a client,14to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client,15to exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice,16and to supervise properly subordinate lawyers and nonlawyer assistants17cannot be limited by agreement. With respect to attorneys’ fee agreements, the comment to Rule 1.5 states: “An agreement may not be made whose terms might induce the lawyer improperly to curtail services for the client or perform them in any way contrary to the client’s interests.” Accordingly, notwithstanding any agreement pertaining to fees or pertaining to the manner in which litigation may be conducted, lawyers subject to the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct must at all times comply with them.
¶ 12 Consent For Third-Party Payment. Rule 1.8(f) provides:
A lawyer shall not accept compensation for representing a client from one other than the client unless:
(1) The client consents after consultation;
(2) There is no interference with the lawyer’s independence of professional judgment or with the clientlawyer relationship; and
(3) Information relating to representation of a client is protected by Rule 1.6.
Rule 1.8(f) applies by its terms to a lawyer employed to defend litigation brought by a third party against an insured, whether or not the insurer is a client. Accordingly, an insured must consent to an insurer’s paying a lawyer employed to defend litigation brought by a third party against an insured. For purposes of Rule 1.8(f), the insured manifests this consent by entering into the insurance contract and accepting the representation offered. No new or separate consent is necessary.
¶ 13 Information Under Rule 1.4(b). Under Rule 1.4(b), the insurance defense lawyer must “explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to enable the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.” With respect to the insured as a client, the lawyer must inform the insured sufficiently to enable the insured to make informed decisions regarding the representation. The lawyer could accomplish this by sending the insured a letter at the outset of the representation informing the insured of relevant information. Although doing so would be a prudent practice, we do not hold that a lawyer must provide a written explanation. In ¶ 17 of this Opinion, we discuss the kinds of information that might be included in a letter to the insured at the outset of the representation.
¶ 14 Limitation of Scope Under Rule 1.2. Many perceived issues concerning insurance company guidelines can be resolved with proper attention to limitations on the scope of the representation under Rule 1.2. Under that rule, the scope of the attorney’s representation may be limited by agreement.18The comments to Rule 1.2 specifically refer to the retention of a lawyer by an insurance company to represent an insured:
The objectives or scope of services provided by a lawyer may be limited by agreement with the client or by the terms under which the lawyer’s services are made available to the client. For example, a retainer may be for a specifically defined purpose. Representation provided through a legal aid agency may be subject to limitations on the types of cases the agency handles. When a lawyer has been retained by an insurer to represent an insured, the representation may be limited to matters related to the insurance coverage. The terms upon which representation is undertaken may exclude specific objectives or means.19
Limitations on the objectives or scope of an attorney’s services should be determined jointly by the attorney and the client. The comment to Rule 1.2 states:
Both lawyer and client have authority and responsibility in the objectives and means of representation. The client has ultimate authority to determine the purposes to be served by legal representation, within the limits imposed by law and the lawyer’s professional obligations. Within those limits, a client also has a right to consult with the lawyer about the means to be used in pursuing those objectives. At the same time, a lawyer is not required to pursue objectives or employ means simply because a client may wish that the lawyer do so. A clear distinction between objectives and means sometimes cannot be drawn, and in many cases the client-lawyer relationship partakes of a joint undertaking. In questions of means, the lawyer should assume responsibility for technical and legal tactical issues but should defer to the client regarding such questions as the expense to be incurred and concern for third persons who might be adversely affected.20
¶ 15 If both insurer and insured are clients, both must agree to limitations on the objectives or scope of an attorney’s services. If only the insured is the client, the insured must agree. The lawyer could obtain the insured’s consent at the outset of the representation by sending the insured a letter informing the insured of the relevant limitations. For example, the claims asserted against the insured may include claims that exceed insurance policy limits, claims that are not covered by insurance, or interests of the insured (such as reputation) that the insurer has no obligation to protect. In these situations, special care should be taken to provide information necessary for the insured to understand and agree to any appropriate limitations and to implement means to provide additional representation the insured may desire.
¶ 16 Although doing so would be a prudent practice, we do not hold that a lawyer must provide a written explanation or obtain the client’s consent in writing. In the next paragraph, we discuss the kinds of information that might be included in a letter to the insured at the outset of the representation. The lawyer could inform the insured in the letter that the insured’s consent to the limitations on the objectives or scope of the lawyer’s services will be presumed unless the insured objects within a specified time period. The insured could manifest consent to the limitations by accepting the defense without objection.
¶ 17 Information That Could Be Provided at the Outset. Subject to any limitations on confidential information under Rule 1.6(a),21which may apply if the insurer is also a client, the insurance defense lawyer could provide the insured with information such as the following:
(1) the fact of the lawyer’s selection by the insurer to defend against the claim and appropriate information concerning the lawyer;
(2) the identity of the insurer;
(3) the identity of the lawyer’s client or clients (i.e., whether or not there are multiple insureds who will be clients and whether or not the insurance company will be the lawyer’s client);
(4) relevant policy information, including facts pertaining to the lawyer’s compensation by the insurer;
(5) to the extent they are not disputed by the parties, the insurer’s rights and obligations under the insurance policy with respect to defense and settlement of the litigation;
(6) to the extent they are not disputed by the parties, the insured’s rights and obligations under the insurance policy with respect to defense and settlement of the litigation;
(7) how the representation will be conducted, including any limitations on the objectives or scope of the representation22and the insurer’s normal practices in directing representations including by way of litigation or billing guidelines;
(8) how settlement proposals will be handled;
(9) that, unless the insured objects and subject to the requirements of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, the lawyer intends to proceed in accordance with the directions of the insurer;
(10) issues pertaining to confidential information and obtaining consents to convey confidential information between insured and insurer;23
(11) issues pertaining to avoidance and resolution of conflicts of interest;24
(12) risks to the insured, including the implications of the insurer’s rights, obligations, and procedures and any other relevant risks, such as an excess judgment or noncovered claims; and
(13) the insured’s right to hire a lawyer at the insured’s expense, including for purposes other than defense of the claim.25
While the foregoing items are provided as non-exhaustive illustrations, we do not hold that a defense lawyer must address every item in every case. Under Rule 1.4(b), the insurance defense lawyer must explain the matter to the extent reasonably necessary to enable the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.
¶ 18 Professional Independence Under Rules 1.8(f) and 5.4(c). Rule 1.8(f)(2) requires that a lawyer accepting compensation for representing a client from one other than that client assure that “there is no interference with the lawyer’s independence of professional judgment or with the client-lawyer relationship.” This rule applies to a lawyer employed to defend litigation brought by a third party against an insured, whether or not the insurer is also a client.
¶ 19 Rule 5.4(c) provides: “A lawyer shall not permit a person who recommends, employs, or pays the lawyer to render legal services for another to direct or regulate the lawyer’s professional judgment in rendering such legal services.” Rule 5.4(c) applies to a lawyer employed to defend litigation brought by a third party against an insured, whether or not the insurer is a client. Rule 5.4(c) expressly prohibits a lawyer from permitting a person who employs or pays the lawyer to render legal services for another to direct or regulate the lawyer’s professional judgment in rendering the legal services. Rule 5.4(c) draws no distinction between advice and action and speaks directly to professional judgment in rendering legal services. This is not to say, however, that the scope of the lawyer’s representation may not properly be limited as provided in Rule 1.2. To the extent the scope of the lawyer’s representation properly is limited, the lawyer is not authorized to render services outside the scope of the representation. But agreements respecting insurance company guidelines or flat-fee arrangements with insurance companies cannot free the lawyer from the obligation to exercise independent professional judgment both in setting limits on the representation and in rendering services within the scope of the representation.
¶ 20 Summary of Analysis of Insurance Company Guidelines. With these principles in mind, we conclude that an insurance defense lawyer’s agreement to abide by insurance company guidelines is not per se unethical and that 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.26Obligations of attorneys under the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct cannot be diminished or modified by an agreement between the attorney and the attorney’s client or by an agreement between the attorney and an insurer. Before accepting a representation of an insured party that will be governed in part by insurance company guidelines, a defense lawyer must determine that compliance with the guidelines will not be inconsistent with the lawyer’s professional obligations. 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.
¶ 21 After accepting a representation of an insured party that is governed in part by insurance company guidelines, a defense lawyer must at all times comply with the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, including Rules 1.1 (competent representation), 1.2 (limitation of scope of representation), 1.3 (diligence and promptness), 1.4 (communication requirements), 1.8(f) (consent), and 5.4(c) (no direction or regulation of the lawyer’s professional judgment). If the lawyer determines that the insurer’s interpretation or application of the guidelines in particular circumstances is in any way inconsistent with the lawyer’s professional obligations under the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, and if the insurer will not withdraw its interpretation or application of the guidelines, the lawyer must still act in conformity with the Rules.27
¶ 22 In any case where an insurer’s refusal to authorize services that the lawyer, in her independent professional judgment, believes are necessary to comply with the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, the lawyer should consider the following options:
(1) communicating with the insurer and the insured in an attempt to resolve the matter,28
(2) obtaining the agreement of the insured to pay for the services (perhaps with a reservation of rights to seek payment from the insurer at a later time);
(3) agreeing to provide the services without compensation (and perhaps reserving the right to seek compensation from the insurer at a later time); or
(4) withdrawing from the representation.
If withdrawal is necessary because of an irreconcilable conflict between the insured and the insurer, the lawyer should comply with all applicable provisions of Rules 1.7 and 1.16 and any applicable rules of court.
Flat-fee Arrangements
¶ 23 A Request on Flat-Fee Arrangements. The Committee has also received a separate request for an advisory opinion concerning ethical issues raised by flat-fee arrangements with insurance companies under which counsel is employed to defend a case or a group of cases for a flat fee. Because this request raises some of the same issues and analysis discussed in connection with insurance company guidelines for defense attorneys, we consolidate the two requests to issue a single opinion.
¶ 24 Applicable Rules and Prior Opinion 136. Rule 1.5 of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct addresses ethical issues relating to attorneys’ fees. As we wrote in Opinion No. 136, “Fixedfee contracts . . . are not prohibited by Rule 1.5 of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct” and, further, “The only specific types of fees expressly prohibited by Rule 1.5 are contingent fees in divorce and criminal defense cases.”29
¶ 25 In Opinion No. 136, we addressed the question of whether a client’s advance payment made as a “fixed fee” or “nonrefundable retainer” could be considered to be earned by the lawyer when received and, therefore, not required to be deposited in a trust account. We stated that fixedfee contracts or nonrefundable retainers are not expressly prohibited by Rule 1.5, and that the issue became whether such arrangements should be considered per se unreasonable under the Rule. We adopt a similar analysis here. Rule 1.5 does not expressly prohibit flat-fee arrangements. We conclude, therefore, that flat-fee arrangements, including flat-fee arrangements with liability insurance carriers, are not per se unethical. It does not follow, of course, that all flat-fee agreements are in compliance with the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct.
¶ 26 Improper Curtailment of Services. The comment to Rule 1.5 provides:
An agreement may not be made whose terms might induce the lawyer improperly to curtail services for the client or perform them in any way contrary to the client’s interest. For example, a lawyer should not enter into an agreement whereby services are to be provided only up to a stated amount when it is foreseeable that more extensive services probably will be required, unless the situation is adequately explained to the client.
Thus, Rule 1.5 prohibits flat-fee arrangements with insurers if the proposed arrangement would improperly curtail services to be provided to the client that would normally be within the scope of the representation. For example, a flat-fee agreement that is so low as to induce the lawyer to shirk his duties to the insured would be unethical. A lawyer may, of course, provide the necessary services for little or no additional fee, but the lack of further funding (from the insurer, for example) will not justify cutting corners on the lawyer’s ethical obligation to the client. Such situations should be fully explained to the insured. On the other hand, a flat-fee arrangement that is so high as to result in a clearly excessive fee would also violate Rule 1.5(a).
¶ 27 Compliance with the Rules. Our conclusion that flat-fee arrangements with insurance carriers are not per se unethical does not free a lawyer from strict compliance with the applicable rules or standards of professional behavior. To provide some guidance to members of the Utah Bar, we will address some of the ethical considerations.
¶ 28 Rule 1.1 requires a lawyer to provide “competent representation to a client.” This includes the “thoroughness” and “preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” A lawyer is also required to act with “reasonable diligence and promptness” under Rule 1.3. It is often stated that a lawyer is to represent her client “zealously.”30A lawyer should strictly adhere to these ethical standards, regardless of the nature of the fee arrangement or remuneration paid to the lawyer. Lawyers entering into flat-fee arrangements with insurance companies must use extra caution to assure that the representation they provide to the insured complies with these ethical obligations. Lawyers may not compromise these standards even if the financial arrangement to which they agreed with the insurance company results in a more-than-expected time commitment or worse-than-expected financial result for the lawyer. This also means, of course, that the lawyer should avoid entering into any flat-fee arrangement if there is reasonable cause to believe that future time and financial pressures may prevent the lawyer from providing competent, thorough, diligent and prompt representation to the insured.
¶ 29 Under Rule 1.2, the lawyer must abide by the client’s decisions concerning the objectives of the representation (subject to certain guidelines) and must consult with the client regarding the means by which the objectives of the litigation will be pursued. A lawyer should not enter into a flat-fee agreement with an insurer that would prevent meaningful participation by the insured in determining the objectives of the representation and the means of pursuing them. This may require, as a matter of prudence, consultation with the insured prior to entering into the flat-fee arrangement.
¶ 30 The comment to Rule 1.5 provides, “Where someone other than the client pays the lawyer’s fee or salary . . . , that arrangement does not modify the lawyer’s obligation to the client. . . . [S]uch arrangements should not interfere with the lawyer’s professional judgment.” Rule 1.8(f) expressly requires the lawyer to maintain her “independence of professional judgment” when someone other than the client pays the lawyer’s fee. These rules apply to a lawyer’s representation of an insured, just as they do in all other relevant cases. A lawyer who enters into any type of flat-fee arrangement with an insurer must use caution to assure that she exercises independent professional judgment on behalf of the insured. This is particularly important in situations where the scope of the case has unexpectedly increased beyond the attorney’s original expectations in agreeing to a fixed fee.
¶ 31 It has been suggested that flat-fee arrangements should be prohibited to protect the interests of lawyers in maintaining profitable fee arrangements with insurance companies. It is not this Committee’s role to regulate the competing economic interests of lawyers and insurance companies. Rather, it is our role to interpret the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct and to encourage ethical behavior for the protection of those who receive legal representation. Nothing in the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits flat-fee arrangements, and it would be improper for us to impose such a restriction where the Utah Supreme Court has chosen not to do so. Our discussion of some of the relevant concerns will provide guidance to lawyers and should promote competent representation for insureds who receive legal representation. As in any other case, the disciplinary procedures of the Utah State Bar and other legal proceedings are available to insureds who believe their lawyers have compromised their ethical duties because of a flat-fee arrangement with the insurer.31
¶ 32 In rendering this opinion, this Committee is aware of the arguments concerning economic and market factors vigorously promoted in the literature by both the insurance industry and the insurance defense bar. We are also mindful of our limited role, which is to interpret the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct and provide guidance to the members of Bar. Our role is not to regulate the market for legal services or to influence the economics of purchasing or providing legal services. Lawyers and insurance companies are free to negotiate fee arrangements that suit their respective economic interests so long as no lawyer on either side violates the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct. Insurance companies and lawyers may enter into fee arrangements that limit the amount of compensation the lawyer will be paid. We emphasize, however, that lawyers entering into such arrangements must use care to assure that their representation complies with all applicable ethical standards, even if the fee arrangement requires the lawyer to perform services for a reduced rate or even without compensation.
¶ 33 Conclusion: 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 to improperly 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.
Footnotes
1.See ABA Comm. on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, Formal Op. 99-413; Ala. Ethics Op. RO-98-02; Colo. Bar Assoc. Ethics Comm. Formal Op. 107 (Sept. 18, 1999); Disciplinary Bd., Haw. Sup. Ct., Formal Op. 37 (Mar. 27, 1999); Ind. State Bar Assoc. Legal Ethics Op. 3 of 1998; Iowa Sup. Ct. Bd. of Professional Ethics & Conduct, Op. 99-01 (Sept. 8, 1999); Mass. Bar Op. 00-4; Miss. Bar, Op. 246 (1999); Neb. Advisory Comm., Advisory Op. 00-1; Ohio Op. 2000-3 (June 1, 2000); Penn. Bar Assoc. Comm. on Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility, Formal Op. 2001-200 (June 28, 2001); R.I. Sup. Ct. Ethics Advisory Panel Op. 99-18 (Oct. 27, 1999); Tenn. Bd. of Professional Responsibility, Sup. Ct. of Tenn., Formal Ethics Op. 2000-F-145; Tex. Ethics Op. 533 (Sept. 2000); Vt. Bar Op. 98-07; Va. Leo 1723 (Nov. 23, 1998); Wash. State Bar Assoc. Formal Op. 195 (1999); Wis. State Bar Comm. on Professional Ethics, Formal Op. E-99-1 (Sept. 10, 1999);In re Rules of Professional Conduct and Insurer Imposed Billing Rules and Procedures, 2 P.3d 806 (Mont. 2000). We have been advised that proposed ethics opinions critical of insurance company billing guidelines were rejected by the Florida Bar Association’s Board of Governors at its December 2000 meeting (proposed opinions 99-2, 99-3 and 99-4) and the Supreme Court of Georgia (proposed opinion 99-R2) (unpublished order Sept. 17, 2001).
2.Utah Ethics Adv. Op. 98-11, 1998 WL 779176 (Utah St. Bar), addressed the ethics of a retainer agreement proposed by the Utah State Office of Recovery Services (ORS) for an attorney who would represent both ORS, as statutory lien claimant with prior rights on recoveries, and individual claimants in recovering medical claims. In that context, the Committee held that the State of Utah could propose a retainer agreement, but cautioned that it was not holding that attorneys representing the State may draft retainer agreements that violate the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, noting that it would be unethical for the retainer agreement to (1) require the individual claimants to surrender the right to terminate the lawyer or (2) otherwise cause the attorney executing it to violate the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct. The Committee found that the attorney could not agree to conditions that would violate Rule 1.7(b).
3.In re Rules of Professional Conduct and Insurer Imposed Billing Rules and Procedures, 2 P.3d 806, 817 (Mont. 2000).
4.Utah Ethics Advisory Op. Comm. R. Procedure § I(b)(1) (2001) (“Committee opinions shall interpret the Rules of Professional Conduct adopted by the Utah Supreme Court but, except as necessary to the opinion, shall not interpret other law.”) and id. § I(b)(2) (“The following requests are outside the Committee’s authority: . . . (iii) Requests for legal, rather than ethics opinions.”).
5.See, e.g., Cincinnati Insurance Co. v. Willis, 717 N.E.2d 151, 161 (Ind. 1999); In re Rules of Professional Conduct and Insurer Imposed Billing Rules and Procedures, 2 P.3d 806 (Mont. 2000).
6.See, e.g., Paradigm Insurance Co. v. The Langerman Law Offices, 24 P.3d 593 (Ariz. 2001) (express agreement was not a prerequisite to the formation of an attorney-client relationship; when insurer has assigned attorney to represent an insured, lawyer had a duty to the insurer to benefit both the insurer and the insured when their interests coincided; lawyer had duty to a non-client and could be liable for negligent breach).
7.See generally Breuer-Harrison, Inc. v. Combe, 799 P.2d 716, 727 (Utah App. 1990) (a legal malpractice action):
In general, except where an attorney is appointed by a court, the attorney-client relationship is created by contract. . . . The contract may be express or implied from the conduct of the parties. . . . The relationship is proved by showing that a party seeks and receives the advice of an attorney in matters pertinent to the lawyer’s profession. . . . Such a showing is subjective in that a factor in evaluating the relationship is whether the client thought an attorney-client relationship existed. . . . However, a party’s belief that an attorney-client relationship exists, unless reasonably induced by representations or conduct of the attorney, is not sufficient to create a confidential attorney-client relationship. . . . In sum, “[i]t is the intent and conduct of the parties which is critical to the formation of the attorney-client relationship.”
(Citations omitted.)
8.See note 4, supra.
9.We do not, however, assume that the foregoing summary is a complete statement of insurance company guidelines.
10.429 P.2d 39, 42 (Utah 1967).
11.425 P.2d 769, 77172 (Utah 1967).
12.480 P.2d 126, 127 (Utah 1971).
13.701 P.2d 795, 799-800 (Utah 1985) (citations omitted).
14.Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1 & cmt; Rule 1.2 cmt. Refer to Appendix B.
15.Id. 1.3. Refer to Appendix B.
16.Id. 2.1 (“In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice”).
17.Id. 5.1; 5.3. Refer to Appendix B.
18.Rule 1.2 provides, in pertinent part: “(a) A lawyer shall abide by a client’s decisions concerning the objectives of representation, subject to paragraphs (b), (c), (d), and shall consult with the client as to the means by which they are to be pursued. (b) A lawyer may limit the objectives of the representation if the client consents after consultation.”
19.Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 1.2 cmt. (2002).
20.The client has the ultimate authority to determine the expense to be incurred. In some situations, the client may determine that no expense will be incurred by designating certain actions that will not be taken.
21.Rule 1.6(a) provides: “A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client except as stated in paragraph (b), unless the client consents after consultation.”
22.For example, the defense lawyer could not represent both insured and insurer as to matters such as insurance coverage. In cases where the claim exceeds policy limits or includes non-covered claims, or where the insured desires services outside the scope of the representation to be paid for by the insurer, the defense lawyer should provide the insured with information concerning limits on the representation and available means of addressing such matters.
23.For example, the letter might include information necessary to inform the insured as to issues pertaining to submission of bills to the insurer or to outside auditing services. See Utah Ethics Advisory Op. 98-03, 1998 WL 199533 (Utah St. Bar).
24.For example, if both insured and insurer are clients, Rule 1.8(g) provides, in pertinent part: “A lawyer who represents two or more clients shall not participate in making an aggregate settlement of the claims of or against the clients . . . unless each client consents after consultation, including disclosure of the existence and nature of all the claims . . . involved and of the participation of each person in the settlement.” If both insured and insurer are clients, or if representation of a sole client insured may be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to the insurer, conflicts must be addressed as provided in Rule 1.7.
25.For example, unless the policy provides otherwise, the insurer will likely have no obligation to pay the defense lawyer to assert counterclaims or claims insureds may have against third parties, to protect interests of the insured other than defending against the amount of the claim (such as reputation or other interests), or to defend the insured against criminal charges.
26.In addition, a lawyer governed by the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct (such as a lawyer employed by an insurer) must not propose that a defense lawyer enter into an agreement if compliance with the agreement, including guidelines and other directives of an insurer relating to the lawyer’s services, would impair materially the defense lawyer’s independent professional judgment in representing an insured.
27.We believe that, in many cases, perceived conflicts may be resolved by consultation.
28.Under Rule 1.4(a), the insurance defense lawyer must keep the client or clients “reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.”
29. Utah Ethics Adv. Op. 136, 1993 WL 755253 (Utah St. Bar) (citing Rule 1.5(d)).
30.See, e.g., Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, Preamble.
31.See Fla. Bar Professional Ethics Comm., Op. 982 (1998) (a lawyer may accept a set fee per case from an insurance company to defend all of the insurer’s third party insurance defense work unless the lawyer concludes that her independent professional judgment will be affected by the arrangement); Conn. Bar, Professional Ethics Comm., Op. 9720 (1997) (flat-fee arrangement with insurer permissible; lawyer’s obligations to client remain); Ohio Ethics Op. 977 (1997) (flat-fee arrangement with insurer permissible if agreement is reasonable and adequate, not excessive or so inadequate that it compromises professional judgment; representation must be competent and zealous); Ore. Ethics Op. 199198 (1991) (flat-fee arrangement with insurer permissible provided lawyer fulfills ethical duties to insured); contra, American Insurance Assoc. v. Kentucky Bar Assoc., 917 S.W.2d 568 (Ky. 1996)
APPENDIX A & B
APPENDIX A
Hawaii:
[P]rovisions which prohibit activity which, in the lawyer’s professional judgment, are necessary in the representation of the client or provisions which provide a [disincentive] to perform those tasks are ethically unacceptable. As an example, unreasonable restrictions on preparation and discovery, and the limitation on compensable communication among attorneys in an office regarding a legal matter would, in all likelihood, affect an attorney’s independent judgment on behalf of the client.1
Indiana:
[I]f the negotiated financial terms result in a material disincentive to perform those tasks which, in the lawyer’s professional judgment, are reasonable and necessary to the defense of the insured, such provisions are ethically unacceptable. Especially troublesome are those provisions of the subject agreement which tend to curtail reasonable discussion between members of the defense team on a daytoday basis, and which seek to dictate the use of personnel within the lawyer’s office. Another example of a provision resulting in a material disincentive provides that if the senior litigator performs a particular service, e.g., argument of motions and other court appearances, conduct of depositions, or review of medical records or legal research, which could have been performed ‘suitably’ (in the carrier’s view) by an associate or paralegal, the service may be billed only at the hourly rate for the associate or paralegal. Similarly, the contract provides that once an associate attorney is assigned to a given matter, another associate may not be substituted without prior approval of the carrier. Such impairments of the responsible attorney’s exercise of professional judgment as to the assignment of the most effective member of the litigation team to a given task is ethically impermissible. Lastly, to require, or even permit, counsel to rely upon legal research by an unsupervised paralegal invites legal malpractice—a breach of counsel’s duty to the insured—and is intolerable. Such provisions, even though intended merely to achieve cost efficiency, infringe upon the independent judgment of counsel, and tend to induce violations of our ethical rules.2
Massachusetts:
For example, an insurer’s litigation guidelines may mandate that all deposition notices be drafted by paralegals, although the precise content of some deposition notices may require significant substantive and strategic legal input. If the lawyer has a reasonable basis to believe that the creation of a particular deposition notice presents too complicated a task for a paralegal to perform competently, then the lawyer’s ethical obligations, as described above, compel the lawyer not to delegate that task. In the event that the lawyer’s decision subsequently is challenged by the insurer who is paying his or her fees, then the Committee believes that the lawyer must consider whether the issue is significant enough to warrant withdrawing from the representation under Rule 1.16(a)(1).3
Ohio:
It is improper under DR 5107(B) [Avoiding Influence By Others Than The Client] for an insurance defense attorney to abide by an insurance company’s litigation management guidelines in the representation of an insured when the guidelines directly interfere with the professional judgment of the attorney. Attorneys must not yield professional control of their legal work to an insurer. Guidelines that restrict or require prior approval before performing computerized or other legal research are an interference with the professional judgment of an attorney. Legal research improves the competence of an attorney and increases the quality of legal services. Attorneys must be able to research legal issues when they deem necessary without interference by nonattorneys. Guidelines that dictate how work is to be allocated among defense team members by designating what tasks are to be performed by a paralegal, associate, or senior attorney are an interference with an attorney’s professional judgment. Under the facts and circumstances of a particular case, an attorney may deem it necessary or more expedient to perform a research task or other task, rather than designate the task to a paralegal. This is not a decision for others to make. The attorney is professionally responsible for the legal services. Attorneys must be able to exercise professional judgment and discretion. Guidelines that require approval before conducting discovery, taking a deposition, or consulting with an expert witness are an interference with an attorney’s professional judgment. These are professional decisions that competent attorneys make on a daily basis. Guidelines that require an insurer’s approval before filing a motion or other pleading are an interference with an attorney’s professional judgment. Motion by motion evaluation by an insurer of an attorney’s legal work is an inappropriate interference with professional judgment and is demeaning to the legal profession. If an insurer is unsatisfied with the overall legal services performed, the insurer has the opportunity in the future to retain different counsel.4
Rhode Island:
[Provisions] that require the insurer’s preapproval for specified legal services, extend beyond the financial and working relationship between the insurer and defense counsel, and infringe upon the attorneyclient relationship between the insured and the inquiring attorney. For example, the insurer’s prior approval is required before defense counsel engages in the following: conducting legal research in excess of three hours; filing counterclaims, crossclaims or thirdparty actions; visiting the accident scene; preparing substantive dispositive motions or briefs; customizing interrogatories or document requests; and scheduling depositions. The insurer’s prior approval is also required before defense counsel incurs expenses related to any of the following: retaining expert witnesses; scheduling independent medical examinations or peer reviews; instituting surveillance; and conducting additional investigations. To the extent that the insurer reserves unto itself the right to withhold approval for reasonable and necessary legal services to be provided to an insured, these provisions of the guidelines impermissibly interfere with the independent professional judgment of the inquiring attorney. By agreeing to abide by the preauthorization provisions, an attorney impermissibly abdicates the obligations imposed by Rule 2.1 and Rule 5.4(c). Therefore, the inquiring attorney may not agree to them. Furthermore, such provisions result in a material disincentive to provide legal services that are reasonable and necessary to the defense of the insured. See Indiana Bar Assoc. Op. 3 (1998). A material disincentive creates a conflict of interest pursuant to Rule 1.7.5
Washington:
A billing guideline that arbitrarily and unreasonably limits or restricts compensation for the time spent by counsel performing services which counsel considers necessary to adequate representation, such as periodic review of pleadings, conducting depositions, or in preparing or defending against a summary judgment motion, endeavors to direct or regulate the lawyer’s professional judgment in violation of RPC 5.4(c). A billing guideline that imposes ‘defacto’ or arbitrary rates for certain services performed by a lawyer, such as compensating a lawyer at prevailing paralegal rates when the firm does not employ paralegals, operates as a disincentive to performance of those services on violation of RPC 5.4(c).6
APPENDIX B
Relevant Portions of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct
Rule 1.1—Competence
A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.
The comment to Rule 1.1 provides, with respect to thoroughness and preparation:
Competent handling of a particular matter includes inquiry into and analysis of the factual and legal elements of the problem, and use of methods and procedures meeting the standards of competent practitioners. It also includes adequate preparation. The required attention and preparation are determined in part by what is at stake; major litigation and complex transactions ordinarily require more elaborate treatment than matters of lesser consequence.
The comment to Rule 1.2—Scope of Representation provides, with respect to agreements limiting the scope of representation:
The client has ultimate authority to determine the purposes to be served by legal representation, within the limits imposed by law and the lawyer’s professional obligations. . . An agreement concerning the scope of representation must accord with the Rules of Professional Conduct and other law. Thus, the client may not be asked to agree to representation so limited in scope as to violate Rule 1.1 or to surrender the right to terminate the lawyer’s services or the right to settle litigation that the lawyer might wish to continue.”
(Emphasis added.)
____________________________________________________________________________
Rule 1.3—Diligence
A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.
The comment to Rule 1.3 notes, however, that: “A lawyer has professional discretion in determining the means by which a matter should be pursued. See Rule 1.2.”
____________________________________________________________________________
Rule 1.4—Communication
(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.
____________________________________________________________________________
Rule 1.8—Conflict of interest: prohibited transactions.
. . . .
(f) A lawyer shall not accept compensation for representing a client from one other than the client unless:
(1) The client consents after consultation;
(2) There is no interference with the lawyer’s independence of professional judgment or with the clientlawyer relationship; and
(3) Information relating to representation of a client is protected by Rule 1.6.
(g) A lawyer who represents two or more clients shall not participate in making an aggregate settlement of the claims of or against the clients or in a criminal case an aggregated agreement as to guilty or nolo contendere pleas, unless each client consents after consultation, including disclosure of the existence and nature of all the claims or pleas involved and of the participation of each person in the settlement.
____________________________________________________________________________
Rule 5.1—Responsibilities of a partner or supervisory lawyer
(a) A partner in a law firm shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that all lawyers in the firm conform to the Rules of Professional Conduct.
(b) A lawyer having direct supervisory authority over another lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the other lawyer conforms to the Rules of Professional Conduct.
(c) A lawyer shall be responsible for another lawyer’s violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if:
(1) The lawyer orders or, with knowledge of the specific conduct, ratifies the conduct involved; or
(2) The lawyer is a partner in the law firm in which the other lawyer practices, or has direct supervisory authority over the other lawyer, and knows of the conduct at a time when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fails to take reasonable remedial action.
____________________________________________________________________________
Rule 5.3—Responsibilities regarding nonlawyer assistants
With respect to a nonlawyer employed or retained by or associated with a lawyer:
(a) A partner in a law firm shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer;
(b) A lawyer having direct supervisory authority over the nonlawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer.
(c) A lawyer shall be responsible for conduct of such a person that would be a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if engaged in by a lawyer if:
(1) The lawyer orders or, with knowledge of the specific conduct, ratifies the conduct involved; or
(2) The lawyer is a partner in the law firm in which the person is employed, or has direct supervisory authority over the person, and knows of the conduct at a time when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fails to take reasonable remedial action.
Appendix A Footnotes
1.Disciplinary Bd., Haw. Sup. Ct., Formal Op. 37 (Mar. 27, 1999).
2.Ind. State Bar Assoc. Legal Ethics Op. 3 of 1998.
3.Mass. Bar Op. 00-4.
4.Sup. Ct. of Ohio, Bd. of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline, Op. 2000-3 (June 1, 2000).
5.R.I. Sup. Ct. Ethics Advisory Panel Op. 99-18 (Oct. 27, 1999).
6.Wash State Bar Assoc., Formal Op. 195 (1999).

Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 02-09

Issued September 24, 2002
¶ 1 Issue:
Is it ethical for an attorney to enter into a contingency-fee agreement, under which all fees, expenses and costs of litigation are unconditionally assumed by the attorney?

¶ 2 Opinion: Within broad limitations, the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct permit an attorney and a client to determine the terms of the lawyer’s compensation, and there is no per se restriction prohibiting the attorney from assuming all litigation costs and expenses under a contingency-fee agreement. Such fee agreements, however, must comply with all other applicable provisions of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct concerning fees.
¶ 3 Analysis: We have received a request for an opinion as to the propriety of a lawyer’s entering into a contingent-fee agreement with a commercial client on collection matters that contains the following paragraph:
All fees, expenses and costs, such as filing fees, court disbursements, photocopy costs, telephone expenses, travel, postage, storage, office supplies, and miscellaneous expenses associated with the collection shall be the sole responsibility of the attorney and will not be billed or reimbursed by client.
The issue requires a determination of whether a fee arrangement of this kind is consistent with Rules1.5, 1.7, and 1.8(e) of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct (“The Rules”).1
¶ 4 Lawyers are generally free to determine the terms of their representation with their clients, consistent with the Rules. The Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee has recently addressed this issue in Opinion No.02-03, reaching a conclusion that a flat-fee agreement between a defense lawyer and an insurance company is not per se unethical and cautioning:
A lawyer who enters into any type of flat-fee arrangement with an insurer must use caution to assure that she exercises independent professional judgment on behalf of the insured. This is particularly important in situations where the scope of the case has unexpectedly increased beyond the attorney’s original expectations in agreeing to a fixed fee.2
¶ 6 Our Opinion No.136 also addressed the issue of whether a client’s advance payment, made as a fixed fee or non-refundable retainer, was unethical. The opinion concluded that fixed-fee contracts or non-refundable retainers are not expressly prohibited by Rule1.5. 3
¶ 7 Rule1.5(c) addresses certain requirements related to contingent-fee arrangements, including the requirement that the fee agreement must be in writing, and it must state the method by which the fee is to be determined and how expenses are to be handled.4While Rule1.5(c) anticipates that expenses will be deducted either before or after the contingent fee is calculated, nothing in the rule prohibits the attorney from agreeing to assume those costs and expenses within her contingent fee, or, if no judgment or settlement is obtained, to assume responsibility for those costs and expenses.
¶ 8 As was extensively addressed in Opinion 02-03, a lawyer must ensure that her agreement relating to fees will not require her improperly to curtail services provided to the client that would normally be within the scope of the representation.
¶ 9 Rule 1.7(b) requires a lawyer to decline representation if the representation of the client may be limited, among other things, by the lawyer’s own interest. As we pointed out in Opinion No. 02-03, the economics of any agreement between the lawyer and her client is not the Committee’s business. In the context of our discussion of fee arrangements between lawyers and insurers, we noted:
Lawyers and insurance companies are free to negotiate fee arrangements that suit their respective economic interests so long as no lawyer on either side violates the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct. . . . We emphasize, however, that lawyers entering into such arrangements must use care to assure that their representation complies with all applicable ethical standards, even if the fee arrangement requires the lawyer to perform services for reduced rate or even without compensation.5
¶ 10 We conclude that there is no material difference between the proposed arrangement and a “standard” contingency fee-arrangement under which the attorney essentially “advances” her own services with the potential that she will not be “reimbursed” for her costs of operation (office, overhead, staff, library, etc.). We can see no distinction between a lawyer’s providing all the ancillary services that make up her normal operations in connection with a contingent-fee agreement and the lawyer’s undertaking to pay the costs and expenses directly connected to the representation as part of the bargained-for quid pro quo of the contingent-fee agreement.
¶ 11 An argument has been advanced that the lawyer who undertakes to pay all costs associated with the pursuit of the case is providing financial assistance to the client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation, which is prohibited under Rule1.8(e). This argument fails because it is subject to the exception under Rule1.8(e)(1). The exception states: “[E]xcept [a] lawyer may advance court casts and expenses of litigation the repayment of which may be contingent on the outcome of the matter.” In the proposed arrangement the lawyer is simply advancing court costs and expenses of litigation. If the lawyer is unsuccessful with a case, she is not compensated for costs and expenses; if successful, she is compensated for the costs and expenses as an implicit part of the percentage-fee retained from the recovery. That is, the lawyer’s right to recover costs can be made as contingent as her right to a fee.”6
¶ 12 Additionally, some have argued that the proposed arrangement may create a prohibited “proprietary interest” under Rule1.8(j). Even if it does, we conclude that it falls under the contingent-fee exclusion of Rule1.8(j)(2).7
¶ 13 Finally, we observe that there have been decisions in other jurisdictions that find the arrangement we address here to be an ethical violation.8Those decisions can generally be distinguished as having been decided under more stringent versions of a rule similar to Utah’s Rule1.8(e). In any event, we decline to adopt such a result, as we can identify no substantial public policy that is served by prohibiting this kind of arm’s-length agreement between attorney and client,9so long as it otherwise complies with the our Rules of Professional Conduct concerning fees.10
Footnotes
1.Our opinion here is not limited to contingent fees in commercial collection situations, but has general applicability to contingent-fee arrangements.
2.Utah Ethics Advisory Op. 02-03, at ¶ 30, 2002 WL 340262 (Utah St. Bar).
3.Utah Ethics Advisory Op. 136, 1993 WL 755253 (Utah St. Bar).
4. “A contingent fee agreement shall be in writing and shall state the method by which the fee is to be determined, including the percentage or percentages that shall accrue to the lawyer in the event of settlement, trial or appeal, litigation and other expenses to be deducted from the recovery, and whether such expenses are to be deducted before or after the contingent fee is calculated.” Rule1.5(c).
5.Opinion No.02-03, at ¶ 32 (emphasis added).
6.We also note that we obtain no guidance from the official comment to Rule1.8, as it does not address Rule1.8(e). However, the ABA’s Annotated Model Rules of Professional Conduct (4th ed. 1999), citing Charles W. Wolfram, Model Legal Ethics § 9.2.3 (1986), states: “Rule 1.8 does not require that the client guarantee repayment of the advances; repayment may be made contingent on the outcome of the matter.”
7.“[T]he lawyer may [c]ontract with a client for a reasonable contingent fee in a civil case.”
8.See, e.g., Arizona Comm. on the Rules of Professional Conduct, Op. 95-01, decided under a version of1.8(e) that reads: “A lawyer shall not provide financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation, except that: (1) a lawyer may advance court costs and expenses of litigation, provided the client remains ultimately liable for such costs and expenses . . . .”
9.Indeed, there are the same beneficial public-policy attributes of the proposed arrangement as are often articulated for “standard” contingent-fee arrangements—namely, that it provides access to the judicial system for aggrieved persons for whom access would otherwise not be economic or practicable.
10.For example: “A lawyer shall not enter into an agreement for, charge or collect an illegal or clearly excessive fee. A fee is clearly excessive when, after a review of the facts, a lawyer of ordinary prudence would be left with a definite and firm conviction that the fee is in excess of a reasonable fee,” Rule1.5(a).

Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 98-13

(Approved December 4, 1998)
Issue:
What are the ethical obligations and considerations that govern a law firm’s acceptance of a financial interest such as stock in a client company in return for performing legal services for that company?

Opinion: A law firm’s acquisition of a financial interest such as stock ownership in a client, whether the investment is made directly by the law firm or through a blind trust, holding company, investment partnership or other investment vehicle, and whether the interest is acquired in exchange for legal services or whether the client’s primary attorney is involved in investment decisions concerning the client’s stock, is not per se unethical. However, in all such arrangements, counsel must comply with the requirements of Rules 1.5, 1.7(b) and 1.8(a) of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct.

Factual background:
It is reportedly common for a law firm for example, those representing high-tech, start-up companies in California to acquire financial interests in its clients in connection with legal services rendered to those firms. This may take the form of the client company’s payment of common stock to a law firm for its legal services. Payment arrangements might also be structured as formal purchases of the client company’s stock by the law firm, with an agreement that the cash paid for the purchase price be used by the company to pay legal fees charged by the law firm as services are rendered over time.
There are other variations on this general approach, including the use of mechanisms such as blind trusts, investment partnerships and other vehicles that operate in such a way that the client’s primary attorney is not involved in the firm’s decision on whether to invest in a client.
Analysis: Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 1.5 provides that a lawyer shall not enter into an agreement for, charge or collect an illegal or clearly excessive fee. A fee is clearly excessive when, after a review of the facts, a lawyer of ordinary prudence would be left with a definite and firm conviction that the fee is in excess of a reasonable fee.
This Committee has previously issued Opinion 97-05,1in which it reached the conclusion that accepting payment for legal services in a form other than money is not per se unethical. Nothing in the rules requires that payment be in money. The fundamental requirement is that the fee be reasonable.
We reach the same conclusion with regard to the application of Rule 1.5 to the present question. However, in addition to the factors specifically listed in Rule 1.5 that must be considered to determine the reasonableness of the fee,2the Committee believes that other factors should be considered by the lawyer in determining whether a fee in the form of equity ownership of a client is reasonable. These other factors include: (a) the liquidity of the client’s stock, including whether the client’s stock trades publicly at the time of the fee agreement and, if the stock is not publicly traded, the risk that the client’s stock will not be publicly traded in the future; (b) the present and anticipated value of the client’s stock, including the risks that a proposed patent or trademark may not be granted, that necessary government approvals (such as FDA approvals) may not be received; (c) whether the stock is subject to restrictions after the law firm receives it, and which affect the value of the stock to the lawyer; (d) the quantity of stock owned by the lawyer and whether the lawyer may exercise voting control over the client after receipt of the stock; and (e) any restrictions placed by the lawyer on the consideration paid for the stock.
Certainly, the analysis of whether the fee is reasonable will be more easily made when the client is a corporation whose stock is publicly traded, because the value of the consideration paid by the client can be readily determined. However, it is likely that most instances where the law firm takes the client’s stock in payment of fees will occur with corporations whose stock is not publicly traded. In these instances, determining the value of the consideration paid by the client for the legal fees will be more difficult.
The lawyer and his firm should take steps to avoid confusion about whether the firm is acting as an independent legal advisor or as a business partner. Of course, the law firm must abide by any applicable securities regulations and requirements. In addition, the law firm should consider whether the client should be advised to seek independent counsel concerning the terms of the proposed arrangement for the payment of legal fees to the firm.
It is also true that a simple trade of stock for legal services is more easily assessed for reasonableness than is a purchase of stock with a restriction that the client purchase an equivalent value of legal services. In the latter case, the lawyer receives both the stock and payment for legal services.
The law firm must also take care that any such arrangement does not run afoul of Rule 1.7(b), which provides in pertinent part: “A lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation of that client may be materially limited . . . by the lawyer’s own interest, unless: (1) The lawyer reasonably believes the representation will not be adversely affected; and (2) Each client consents after consultation.”
A lawyer holding stock in a client may be asked to advise the client on matters that may affect the value of the lawyer’s own stock. The official comment to Rule 1.7(b) advises a cautious approach under such circumstances:
Loyalty to a client is also impaired when a lawyer cannot consider, recommend or carry out an appropriate course of action for the client because of the lawyer’s other responsibilities or interests. The conflict in effect forecloses alternatives that would otherwise be available to the client. Paragraph (b) addresses such situations. A possible conflict does not itself preclude the representation. The critical questions are the likelihood that a conflict will eventuate and, if it does, whether it will materially interfere with the lawyer’s independent professional judgment in considering alternatives or foreclose courses of action that reasonably should be pursued on behalf of the client. Consideration should be give to whether the client wishes to accommodate the other interest involved.
If the lawyer’s representation of a corporate client may be materially limited by the lawyer’s interest as a shareholder of the client, the lawyer must not undertake the representation or provide legal advice, unless the lawyer reasonably believes the representation or advice will not be adversely affected, and the client consents after a full disclosure to the client of the possibly adverse consequences of the lawyer’s ownership of the client’s stock. The lawyer should consider whether stock ownership would disqualify the lawyer from representing the client in any existing matters.
Whether the law firm accepts stock in payment of legal fees or actually buys stock in the client, with the funds paid to the client for the purchase earmarked for the payment of legal fees to the client, the law firm must also comply with Rule 1.8(a), which provides:
a. A lawyer shall not enter into a business transaction with a client or knowingly acquire an ownership, possessory, security or other pecuniary interest adverse to a client unless:
1. The transaction and terms on which the lawyer acquires the interest are fair and reasonable to the client and are fully disclosed and transmitted in writing to the client in a manner which can be reasonably understood by the client; and
2. The client is given a reasonable opportunity to seek the advice of independent counsel in the transaction; and
3. The client consents in writing thereto.
The Comment to Rule 1.8 states that “Paragraph (a) does not, however, apply to standard commercial transactions between the lawyer and the client for products or services that the client generally markets to others, for example, banking or brokerage services, medical services, products manufactured or distributed by the client and utility services.”
It could be argued that the acquisition of a client’s stock for cash, or in exchange for legal services valued at the customary and reasonable hourly rates of the lawyer, for the stock price the client generally sells the stock to others is a “standard commercial transaction” not requiring compliance with Rule 1.8(a). However, the Committee believes that Rule 1.8(a) was intended to apply to any transaction with a client in which the lawyer acquires an ownership interest in the client.
Rule 1.8(a) requires that: the transaction be fair and reasonable to the client; the terms of the transaction be fully discussed with the client and transmitted in writing to the client in understandable terms; the client be given a reasonable opportunity to obtain the advice of independent counsel in the transaction; and the client consent to the transaction in writing.
The Committee believes that the same factors discussed above with regard to Rule 1.5 would also apply in determining whether the law firm’s purchase of stock in a client comports with the requirement of Rule 1.8(a) that the terms of the transaction be reasonable and fair.
While owning the stock in a blind trust, holding company, investment partnership or other investment vehicle results in the law firm’s being one step removed from its client, the same analysis must be applied under Rules 1.5, 1.7(b) and 1.8(a). The fee charged must still be reasonable. The lawyer must reasonably believe that the representation of the client will not be adversely affected by the firm’s stock ownership through an investment vehicle, and the client must consent after consultation to the representation. A transaction under which the firm obtains ownership in the client through the firm’s investment vehicle must still be fair and reasonable to the client; the client must be given a reasonable opportunity to seek the advice of independent counsel in the transaction; and the client must consent in writing to the transaction. Furthermore, whether the client’s primary attorney is involved in the investment decision and whether the funds paid for the stock are earmarked for payment of the firm’s fees, while factors in any Rule 1.5, 1.7 and 1.8 analysis, will not be determinative of whether the fee is reasonable, whether there is an impermissible conflict, or whether the transaction between the law firm and client is fair and reasonable to the client.
In other words, the law firm must comply with Rules 1.5, 1.7(b) and 1.8(a), regardless of whether the firm owns the stock outright or through an investment vehicle, whether the client’s primary attorney is involved in the law firm’s investment decision, or whether the firm receives stock directly in payment of fees or buys the stock with the purchase funds earmarked for payment of fees.
Footnotes
1.Utah Ethics Advisory Op. No. 97-05, 1997 WL 223851 (Utah State Bar).
2.
(1) The time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved and the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly; (2) The likelihood, if apparent to the client, that the acceptance of the particular employment will preclude other employment by the lawyer; (3) The fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services; (4) The amount involved and the results obtained; (5) The time limitations imposed by the client or by the circumstances; (6) The nature and length of the professional relationship with the client; (7) The experience, reputation and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services; and (8) Whether the fee is fixed or contingent.
Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 1.5(a).

Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 97-05

(Approved April 25, 1997)
Issue No. 1: Is it ethical for an attorney to receive payment for legal services other than in money?
Opinion: The Utah Rules of Professional Conduct permit an attorney to accept payment for legal services in a form other than money. All arrangements for payment of an attorney’s fees, however, must comply with the applicable provisions of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct concerning fees and the attorney-client relationship.
Issue No. 2: Is it ethical for an attorney to barter legal services through a barter exchange?

Opinion: Although an attorney’s bartering of legal services through a barter exchange is not prohibited per se by the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, such bartering is unethical if the attorney’s conduct or the structure, terms, or conditions of the attorney’s arrangements with the barter exchange violate any of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct.
Analysis: The request for this opinion asks generally, without presenting specific facts and circumstances, whether attorneys ethically may receive payment for legal services other than in money, such as through barter exchanges. The request also asks whether Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 50, issued August 25, 1978, is still valid, noting that questions concerning an attorney’s participation in barter exchanges are of continuing interest in Utah.
Payment of Attorneys’ Fees Other Than in Money. Nothing in the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct requires that an attorney’s fees be paid in money. The fundamental requirement of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct is that an attorney’s fees must be reasonable.1
Rule 1.5(b) requires a written communication concerning the basis or rate of an attorney’s fee when the lawyer has not regularly represented the client and it is reasonably foreseeable that total attorneys’ fees to the client will exceed $750.00. A determination of whether the $750.00 threshold will be met in a particular case requires that attorneys’ fees be evaluated in terms of their dollar amount.
However, Rule 1.5 does not require that payment for legal services be made in money. The following official comment to Rule 1.5 states that an attorney may accept property in payment for fees:
A lawyer may accept property in payment for services, such as an ownership interest in an enterprise, providing this does not involve acquisition of a proprietary interest in the cause of action or subject matter of the litigation contrary to Rule 1.8(j). However, a fee paid in property instead of money may be subject to special scrutiny because it involves questions concerning both the value of the services and the lawyer’s special knowledge of the value of the property.
As this comment illustrates, no arrangement for payment of an attorney’s fees, whether in money, property or services, should violate any of the prohibited transaction rules of Rule 1.8. For example, an arrangement for payment of attorneys’ fees that involves the acquisition of a pecuniary interest adverse to a client in violation of Rule 1.8(a) is prohibited. Any arrangement for payment of attorneys’ fees that involves giving the lawyer literary or media rights in violation of Rule 1.8(d) is prohibited. Accepting reimbursement of costs other than in money in a way that provides for an improper advance of costs or expenses could also violate the financial assistance restrictions of Rule 1.8(e).
If an arrangement for payment of an attorney’s fees in property or services is otherwise appropriate under the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, the attorney should be fully aware of the tax implications of such an arrangement and should comply with applicable tax laws. The application of tax laws to barter arrangements is a matter of substantive law and therefore is not addressed in this opinion. However, it would be professional misconduct for an attorney to engage in a criminal act involving a barter for fees; this would violate Rule 8.4(b) by reflecting adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects. Further, under Rule 8.4(c), it would be professional misconduct for an attorney to engage in any conduct involving participation in a barter exchange that constitutes dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.
Bartering Legal Services Through a Barter Exchange. The Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee has addressed the ethical propriety of an attorney’s participation in a barter exchange on two prior occasions.2
Opinion No. 12 determined that attorneys may not be members of barter exchanges in which they barter their services for other professional services. The barter exchange addressed in Opinion No. 12 did not list names of attorney members as such, but a list of attorney members would have been made available to exchange members upon request. Opinion No. 12 determined that such a listing would violate Canon 27 of the then-applicable Canons of Professional Ethics, which provided: “It is unprofessional to solicit professional employment by circulars, advertisements, through touters or by personal communications or interviews not warranted by personal relations.” The opinion further determined that such a listing would violate several provisions of the Code of Professional Responsibility: (a) the provisions of Disciplinary Rule (“DR”) 2-101(B) prohibiting advertising by attorneys, (b) the provisions of DR 2-103(B) prohibiting attorneys from giving anything of value to an organization to recommend or secure employment by a client; and (c) the provisions of DR 2-103(C) prohibiting attorneys from requesting an organization (other than an approved referral service) to recommend the attorney’s employment.
Opinion No. 50 again determined that attorneys may not join barter exchanges. The barter exchange addressed in Opinion No. 50 consisted of businesses paying a membership fee to the exchange operators and receiving in return a credit in the same amount in an “exchange account.” Thereafter, payment for any services or goods which one member provided to another member of the exchange was reflected as a credit to its exchange account rather than being paid for by the recipient. The exchange charged a percentage fee for each transaction. The exchange issued a monthly newsletter including a general description of the types of businesses associated with the exchange and would have noted that attorneys at law were members of the exchange. Had the arrangement been approved, an exchange member needing legal services would have called the exchange, which would then have given the member a list of the attorney members of the exchange.
Opinion No. 50 reasoned that, in spite of changes in DR 2-101(B) permitting advertisement of legal services under certain restrictions, the restrictions on solicitation contained in DR 2-103 had been virtually unchanged. Opinion No. 50 noted that solicitation of services by an attorney through a barter exchange was still prohibited by the Code of Professional Responsibility and had not been authorized by the then-recent opinion of the United States Supreme Court in In re Primus.3Accordingly, Opinion No. 50 concluded that participation of an attorney in a barter exchange would be improper, expressly basing its conclusion on the solicitation rules of DR 2-103.
Within the past 20 years, other jurisdictions have addressed whether it is ethical for an attorney to barter legal services through a barter exchange, generally concluding that attorneys may not barter legal services through barter exchanges.4Recently, however, the New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics issued its Opinion No. 665 (71-93) (June 3, 1994), permitting New York lawyers to participate in barter exchanges that meet certain requirements. The New York ethics committee concluded that, for a lawyer ethically to participate in a barter exchange, the following requirements must be met: (1) the exchange may not interfere with the lawyer’s professional judgment, (2) the advertising materials for the exchange must comply with New York DR 2-101(A),5(3) the exchange may not refer clients to participating lawyers other than through the use of advertising that complies with the Code of Professional Responsibility,6(4) the exchange and its agents do not engage in in-person solicitation of clients for barter-exchange lawyers, and (5) the lawyer’s fee to the client is reasonable. These conditions are reasonable, and we adopt them in principle.
Rule 7.3 of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct (Direct Contact with Prospective Clients) provides solicitation rules that are different from the solicitation rules in effect when Opinion Nos. 12 and 50 were issued. Due to these changes, the categorical statements in Opinion Nos. 12 and 50 such as “[s]olicitation of services by an attorney is still prohibited” are no longer accurate, and Opinion Nos. 12 and 50 are overruled. However, Rule 7.3 does prohibit certain forms of solicitation, and the fundamental premise of Opinion Nos. 12 and 50 that an attorney may not participate in a barter exchange in violation of current solicitation rules remains valid.
Under current ethical rules governing solicitation of legal services, and given the variety in possible structures, terms, and conditions of barter exchanges, the Committee cannot make a categorical determination that an attorney’s participation in a barter exchange is a violation of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct. A determination of the ethical propriety of an attorney’s participation in a particular barter exchange could only be made following a review of the attorney’s proposed conduct and the structure, terms, conditions of the particular barter exchange under current ethics rules, including: Rule 1.1 (Competence), Rule 1.2 (Scope of Representation), Rule 1.5 (Fees), Rule 1.6 (Confidentiality of Information), Rule 1.7 (Conflict of Interest: General Rule), Rule 1.8 (Conflict of Interest: Prohibited Transactions), Rule 1.9 (Conflict of Interest: Former Client), Rule 1.16 (Declining or Terminating Representation), Rule 3.1 (Meritorious Claims and Contentions), Rule 4.1 (Truthfulness in Statements to Others), Rule 5.5 (Unauthorized Practice of Law), Rule 7.1 (Communications Concerning a Lawyer’s Services), Rule 7.2 (Advertising), Rule 7.3 (Direct Contact with Prospective Clients), Rule 7.4 (Communication of Fields of Practice). Finally, an attorney bartering services through an exchange should be fully informed of the tax implications of such an arrangement and should comply with applicable tax laws.
Footnotes
1.Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 1.5(a).
2.Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 50 (Aug. 25, 1978); Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 12 (Aug. 15, 1973).
3.436 U.S. 412 (1978).
4.See, e.g., Ill. State Bar Op. 583, 1980 WL 130458 (“a lawyer may not join a trade association where he barters legal services for ‘exchange checks’ redeemable only in goods and services from other members of the association”); Cal. State Bar Op. 1977-44, reported in 54 Cal. St. B.J. 182 (1979) (improper for lawyers to participate in a barter exchange because it involves an improper solicitation of business and division of fees); ABA Informal Op. 1430 (Jan. 8, 1979) (improper for lawyers to become members of trade exchanges because such exchanges constitute an improper division of fees); Mass. State Bar Op. 78-6, cited in 63 Mass. L. Rev. 137 (1978) (improper for an attorney to become a member of a service which creates a 10% service charge on all transactions between members and exists to promote the members’ products and services).
5.The corresponding rules in Utah are Rules 7.1 (Communications Concerning a Lawyer’s Services) and 7.2 (Advertising).
6.This corresponds to the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct.

Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 97-06

(Approved May 30, 1997)
Issue:
Under the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, what are the ethical limitations that govern attorneys’ acceptance of clients’ credit cards to pay fees and costs?

Opinion: Generally, attorneys may accept payment for fees and costs by credit card in the same way that other merchants and service-providers do. This general conclusion is, in part, in conflict with Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 21, which is accordingly overruled.
Background: In 1975, the Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee issued Opinion No. 21, which placed significant restraints on the acceptance of credit cards by attorneys in payment of fees and cost. That opinion was issued under the then-effective Code of Professional Responsibility, which, among other differences, is at variance with the current Utah Rules of Professional Conduct in the area of attorney advertising. To the extent the world of communicating about attorneys’ services has changed, this Committee has been asked to revisit the issue of attorneys’ acceptance of credit cards under today’s Rules.
The following specific questions have been asked:
1. May an attorney accept cash or a check from a client to be held against unearned fees or costs when the attorney knows that the client obtained the funds through the use of a credit card?
2. May an attorney enter into a retainer agreement with a client under which the client gives the attorney a credit card number and authorizes the attorney to charge the client’s card when fees are earned or costs incurred?
3. May an attorney suggest to a client that the client use a credit card to pay attorneys’ fees or costs?
4. May an attorney place a notice on bills sent to clients stating that the attorney accepts credit card payments?
5. In accepting credit-card payments, must an attorney enter into a bank charge card-attorney agreement similar to the agreement attached to Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 21, issued February 19, 1975?
Analysis: In 1969 the American Bar Association issued Informal Opinion 1120 which stated that “it is unprofessional for an attorney to subscribe to credit card plans.” That view was reaffirmed in February 1971 by ABA Informal Opinion 1176. However, by 1974 in Formal Opinion 338, the ABA had revisited the issue of attorneys’ accepting credit cards for fee payments in light of the adoption of the ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility, which had replaced the ABA Canons of Ethics. The ABA reversed course and concluded in Opinion No. 338 that “the Code has overruled Informal Opinion 1176 and that the use of credit cards for the payment of legal expenses and services is permitted under the Code.” However, the opinion went on to list six “considerations” to which a credit card plan was required to conform:
1. All publicity and advertising relating to a credit card plan shall be subject to the prior approval in writing of the state or local bar committee having jurisdiction of the professional ethics of the attorneys involved.
2. No directory of any kind shall be printed or published of the names of individual attorney members who subscribe to the credit card plan.
3. No promotional materials of any kind will be supplied by the credit card company to a participating attorney except possibly a small insignia to be tactfully displayed in the attorney’s office indicating his participation in the use of the credit card.
4. An attorney shall not encourage participation in the plan, but his position must be that he accepts the plan for the convenience for clients who desire it; and the attorney may not because of his participation increase his fee for legal services rendered the client.
5. Charges made by attorneys to clients pursuant to a credit card plan shall be only for services actually rendered or cash actually paid on behalf of a client.
6. In participating in a credit card program the attorney shall scrupulously observe his obligation to preserve the confidences and secrets of his client.
ABA Opinion 338 does not cite any provision of the ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility as support for the “considerations,” nor does the opinion cite any provision of the Code as support for any conclusion in the opinion.
The year after Opinion 338 was issued, the Utah State Bar approved Opinion No. 21, which adopted the conclusion of ABA Formal Opinion 338: “We concur with Formal Opinion 338, and accordingly hold that if those requirements [the "six considerations"] are met fully, the use of credit cards for the payment of attorney’s services and charges is proper for members of the Utah State Bar.” Also appended to Opinion No. 21 was a suggested form of “Bank Charge Card-Attorney Agreement.” As with ABA Opinion 338, Utah Ethics Opinion 21 does not cite any provision of the Utah Code of Professional Responsibility (the predecessor to today’s Utah Rules of Professional Conduct) to support the requirements.
Rule 1.5 of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct deals with fees. The rule does not prohibit credit cards. Just as Opinion No. 21 concluded that “the use of credit cards for payment of legal expenses and services is permitted,” Rule 1.5 of the Rules of Professional Conduct currently permits the use of credit cards for payment of legal expenses and services.
The previous opinions of the ABA and the Utah State Bar were written under the prior Canons of Ethics or the Code of Professional Responsibility. Attorney advertising was much more limited in those days under the Code of Professional Responsibility than it is today under the Rules of Professional Conduct. Since then, court decisions,1combined with the adoption of the Rules of Professional Responsibility, have granted attorneys greater freedom in the area of advertising. In light of these changes, the following discusses, in turn, each of the six “considerations” listed in Opinion 21.
1. Current Rule 7.2 deals with advertising by attorneys. It does not require “prior approval in writing of the state or local bar committee having jurisdiction of the professional ethics of the attorneys involved.”
2. Rule 7.2 does not prohibit attorneys from being included in a directory of firms and businesses that accept credit cards. This would not be substantially different from an attorney’s being included in (or actually advertising in) a directory of firms and businesses that have a telephone and accept telephone calls.
3. Rule 7.2 does not limit an attorney to a “small insignia to be tactfully displayed in the attorney’s office indicating his participation in the use of the credit card.”
4. Nothing in the Rules of Professional Conduct explicitly requires an attorney to discourage the use of credit card in payment of fees or services. However, Rule 2.1, Advisor, provides:
In representing a client, an attorney shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice. In rendering advice, an attorney may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation.
Therefore, economic factors of a client’s situation could require an attorney to advise that a client not use a credit card to pay the attorney’s fees and services.
In addition, there is no ethical principle that would prohibit the attorney from passing along any additional costs incurred in accepting credit-card payment. As with most retail merchants, the attorney or law firm might typically forego this charge. But, if a credit-card company charges the attorney, for example, 3% of the gross billings to provide its services, these are legitimate costs that the attorney may pass on to clients. (This could be a direct charge or could, for example, take the form of a discount to cash-paying clients of an equivalent percentage.
5. The Rules of Professional Conduct do not require that the attorney restrict credit card acceptance to those instances in which the attorney is billing only for services actually rendered or cash actually paid on behalf of a client. However, if an attorney accepts credit-card payment as an advance of fees or reimbursements, then the attorney must comply with Rule 1.15, Safekeeping of Property, and with Rule 1.16(d), which deals with refunding any advance payment of fee which has not been earned, upon termination of representation.
6. An attorney does have a duty to preserve confidences in accordance with Rule 1.6, which forbids disclosure of “information relating to representation of a client . . . , unless the client consents after disclosure.” The rule has been read as being broad enough to protect the client’s identity.2It is possible that the acceptance of a credit card will reveal to the credit card company that the client has paid an attorney. Therefore, in an instance where the attorney is aware that the client wishes the fact of his being represented by an attorney to remain confidential, the attorney should alert the client who offers to pay by credit card of the disclosure of his name to the credit-card company to insure that the client consents.
With this discussion as a foundation, we now address directly the questions raised in this request:
1. An attorney may accept cash or a check from a client to be held against unearned fees or costs when the attorney knows that the client obtained the funds through the use of a credit card.
2. An attorney may enter into a retainer agreement with a client under which the client gives the attorney a credit card number and authorizes the attorney to charge the client’s card when fees are earned or costs incurred.
3. An attorney may suggest that a client use a credit card to pay attorneys’ fees or costs.
4. An attorney may place a notice on bills sent to clients stating that the attorney accepts credit card payments.
5. In accepting credit-card payments, an attorney has no obligation to enter into a bank charge card-attorney agreement similar to the agreement attached to Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 21. Indeed, we see no reason that the relationship between the attorney and the bank or credit-card company would be significantly different from that between a card company or bank and other providers of professional services.
For the reasons discussed above, this opinion overrules Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 21.
Footnotes
1.See, e.g., Peel v. Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Comm’n, 496 U.S. 91 (1990); Shapero v. Kentucky Bar Ass’n, 486 U.S. 466 (1988); Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, 471 U.S. 626 (1985); In re R.M.J., 455 U.S. 191 (1982); Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977).
2.Utah Ethics Advisory Committee Op. No. 97-02, 1997 WL 45141 (Utah St. Bar); see Przypyszny, Public Assault on the Attorney-Client Privilege: Ramifications of Baltes v. Doe, 3 Geo. J. Legal Ethics 351 (1989) (discussing a Florida case where lawyers refused to disclose the identity of a client that had allegedly consulted them concerning a hit-and-run.) But cf. In re Subpoena to Testify Before the Grand Jury (Alexiou v. U.S.), 39 F.3d 973 (9th Cir. 1994) (holding that a lawyer had to reveal the identity of the client in a counterfeiting case).
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