NYSBA Crowdfunding Ethics Opinion

In January and April I blogged about the ethics of crowdfunding. In May, when I co-authored Tread Carefully: Crowdfunding Your Law Practice with Amber Hollister, we reported:

No jurisdiction, including Oregon, has published an ethics opinion or other formal guidance on the propriety of crowdfunding. As with all legal applications of new technologies, the ethics law can be slow to catch up with modern-day practice. Nevertheless, a preliminary look at crowdfunding suggests that it is not per se prohibited by the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct. As with any novel approach to practicing law, whether crowdfunding is permissible depends on the type of funding model used by the lawyer and the specifics of how the lawyer implements the fund-raising campaign. Wise lawyers will proceed with extreme caution.

This changed in late June, when the NYSBA issued Ethics Opinion 1062.  The opinion digest states:

A law firm may engage in certain types of crowdfunding but not others.  Any form of fundraising that gives the investor an interest in a law firm or a share of its revenue would be prohibited.  However, in some circumstances a law firm may give the funding source some kind of reward. For example, a law firm may send a funder non-confidential memoranda discussing legal issues (provided the law firm complies with any applicable advertising rules), or may agree that the law firm will provide pro bono legal services to certain charitable organizations, provided that the lawyer complies with Rule 1.1 regarding competence and the representation does not involve conflicts in violation of Rule 1.7 or Rule 1.9.

The NYSBA opinion is the first of its kind in the nation.  It addressed the issues of competence and conflicts head-on, but did not touch on some other points that my co-author and I raised relating to trust accounting, third-party payment, fees, advertising/promotion, use of disclaimers, and taxation.  Lawyers interested in crowdfunding would be well-advised to give our article a second look.

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