Ethics Advisory Opinion 14-03

Utah State Bar
Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee

Opinion Number 14-03

Issued April 22, 2014


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?


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”).


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:

  1. Referring Attorney will generate the cases by placing advertising and/or arranging for medical testing and diagnosis of prospective clients and would be entitled to reimbursement from the Receiving Attorney for the costs of doing so.
  2. In return for the Receiving Attorney’s agreement to pay those expenses, the Referring Attorney would be required to exclusively refer to the Receiving Attorney all clients having such Claims who contact the Referring Attorney.  The Referring Attorney would not be allowed to represent such clients himself or to refer such clients to any other attorney.
  3. The Referring Attorney will place advertising, accept incoming calls from potential clients, obtain medical records from potential clients, arrange for medical testing, and perform certain other related tasks, before turning the clients over to Receiving Attorney for further action.
  4. The Receiving Attorney will decide in his sole discretion the venue, jurisdiction, timing, counts, and content of complaints or petitions, joinder of plaintiffs and/or defendants, and any other strategic issues relating to the Claims.
  5. The Referring Attorney will ask clients to sign new fee agreements directly with the Receiving Attorney, identifying the Receiving Attorney as the clients’ attorney, will inform the clients of the division of fees between the two attorneys, and will inform the clients of any other matters deemed by either attorney to be required by the Rules of Professional Conduct.
  6. The Referring Attorney will not be required to perform any services except those specified in the Agreement or required by the Utah Rules or by any other ethical rules governing the Claims or any resulting cases.
  7. The Receiving Attorney will pay the Referring Attorney specified portions of the fees recovered by the Receiving Attorney for the clients on their Claims.



4.         The fee sharing agreement between the two attorneys is governed by Rule 1.5, which provides that there may be a division of fees between lawyers in different firms, but on the following condition:

(e)(1) the division is in proportion to the services performed by each lawyer or each lawyer assumes joint responsibility for the representation;

(e)(2) the client agrees to the arrangement, including the share each lawyer will receive, and the agreement is confirmed in writing; and

(e)(3) the total fee is reasonable.

Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 04-01

March 29, 2004
¶1 Issue:
What action, if any, may a lawyer for an employer ethically undertake on behalf of a vanished former employee who, along with the employer, has been named as a defendant in an action arising when the person was an employee?

¶2 Answer: Under certain narrowly prescribed conditions, an employer’s lawyer may ethically take limited action to protect the interests of the vanished former employee, provided the lack of direct contact with that defendant is brought to the attention of the relevant tribunal.
¶3 Facts: Plaintiff filed suit naming a company and its former employee as defendants. The employer concedes that the former employee was acting in the course and scope of his employment and has asked the company’s lawyers to represent the missing defendant. Absence of a formal answer to the complaint may result in a default judgment being entered against the absent former employee. We have no information about the reasons for the employee’s absence, but we assume that a reasonable effort has been made to locate the person and determine the reason for the absence. We also assume that, at this early stage of the proceeding, the interests of the employer and former employee are not in conflict.1The lawyer requesting this opinion also indicated that the employer has liability insurance that covers the incident giving rise to the lawsuit.2The company has requested that the lawyer represent the missing ex-employee.
¶4 Analysis: This case presents two fundamental, but competing ethical principles: On the one hand, a basic ingredient of the representation of a client is that, under Rule 1.4, the lawyer communicate with the client, keep the client informed about the status of the case, and provide sufficient information to the client that he may make informed decision.3On the other hand, lawyers have a general obligation to advance the administration of justice.4
¶5 A formal application of Rule 1.4, without reference to any other parts of the Rules of Professional Conduct, would produce the following syllogism: The lawyer hasn’t communicated with the absent ex-employee and cannot formally satisfy the requirements of Rule 1.4; a violation of Rule 1.4 constitutes an ethical transgression; ergo, the lawyer may not ethically represent the ex-employee. Yet, we find this result inconsistent with the greater public policy of providing safeguards for an individual’s rights to the extent practicable and when it can be done without infringing on the rights of others. After all, the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct are “rules of reason . . . [that] should be interpreted with reference to the purpose of legal representation.”5
¶6 Further, before a mechanical application of Rule 1.4 to the absent defendant leads us to conclude that lack of initial attorney-client communication mandates no representation, we consider the intent of Rule 1.4. It is constructed around the normal relationship of an attorney-client contact already having been established and provides the guidelines that require a lawyer to keep that client properly informed “to the extent the client is willing and able” to be so informed.6Here, for reasons that are not known—and perhaps not contemplated by the drafters and adopters of the Rules—the (prospective) client is not “willing and able.” Without further analysis, we, therefore, decline to conclude that Rule 1.4 prevents all forms of representation of the missing employee. (more…)