Should You Take a Cue from Uber?

Getting your “side hustle” on is Uber’s way of suggesting that you join their team to earn extra money. Lawyers sometimes face this dilemma when first transitioning into private practice – giving up a regular paycheck is a high price to pay in exchange for the uncertainty of going solo.

For other lawyers, the practice of law is a second career.  Does this mean they are required to relinquish their first?

Not necessarily.  However, practicing on the side or in addition to another career, does raise some red flags.

Conflicts of Interest

Assuming your employer agrees to let you “moonlight” (and that’s a big assumption), you must address potential conflicts.  At first blush, you might think this concern applies only to lawyers who currently work in a law firm and wish to “work on the side” in a solo practice.  Not true!  If your other job is working as a real estate broker, mortgage broker, financial planner, psychologist, mediator, arbitrator, etc., you must also screen for conflicts.

In her article, Multidisciplinary practice: When Wearing Two Hats May Get You Burned  Helen Hierschbiel points out:

Recognizing and avoiding conflicts of interest is one of the more common concerns for lawyers who have side businesses, particularly when their clients do business with those other companies. Oregon RPC 1.7(a)(2) provides that a current conflict of interest exists if “there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer…” Thus, when there is a significant risk that a lawyer’s personal or other financial interests in a non-legal business will materially limit the lawyer’s responsibilities to a client, that lawyer has a conflict under RPC 1.7(a)(2).

In addition, when a lawyer’s side business is doing business with the lawyer’s client, consideration must be given to the limitations set forth in RPC 1.8(a), which provides more stringent requirements for obtaining client consent than those under RPC 1.7(b). RPC 1.8(a) provides:

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 in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client;

2. The client is advised in writing of the desirability of seeking and is given a reasonable opportunity to seek the advice of independent legal counsel on the transaction; and

3. The client gives informed consent, in a writing signed by the client, to the essential terms of the transaction and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction.

Note:  Learn more about this issue and other common conflict traps by attending Limiting Exposure to Conflicts on October 25, 2017.

Other Ethical Concerns

A “side practice” coupled with another job also raises potential concerns about advertising, solicitation, and fee sharing.  Here are Helen’s comments:

Advertising
“Oregon RPC 7.1 generally provides that any communication about a lawyer may not be false or misleading. Determining whether a statement is false may be simple, but assessing whether it is misleading can be more difficult. The cautious approach in making that assessment requires considering how the statement is likely to be interpreted by an unsophisticated consumer. Thus, OSB Formal Op 2005-108 concludes that a lawyer who has an active mediation practice may advertise the practice under “counselors — marriage, family, child and individual” sections of the yellow pages as long as the advertisement reflects the lawyer’s status as a lawyer offering mediation services.”

Solicitation
“Lawyers should also take care to observe the ban on in-person solicitation of legal business when providing non-legal services. The non-legal business may not be used to solicit clients with legal needs in a manner that violates RPC 7.3… (L)awyers would be wise to exercise extra caution when confronted in their non-legal business with an individual who has legal needs as well.”

Fee Sharing
“… (L)awyers should be mindful when setting up an ancillary business, not to allow non-lawyers any control or influence over their law practice.”

Employment Law and Liability Implications

Before you set up a side practice, check your employer’s policy and personnel manuals.  Some employers prohibit moonlighting altogether, others require preapproval of “outside employment activities.”  If you are a contract lawyer and a true independent contractor you should be completely free to have your own solo practice and perform contract work for other lawyers.  Be sure the principal lawyers who hire you agree.  Contact the OSB Professional Liability Fund for more information on setting up a contract practice.

Query:  If a lawyer commits malpractice in the course and scope of his or her “side practice,” could the lawyer’s primary law firm employer be held vicariously liable?  (Food for thought…. as clients have attempted to hold firms responsible for the negligence of “sole practitioners” who were leasing space in the firm’s office suite.)

Professional Liability Coverage

Lawyers engaged in the private practice of law in the State of Oregon are required to carry professional liability coverage through the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund.  This requirement applies equally to full-time and part-time practitioners.  In other words, if you are a lawyer in private practice in Oregon (as defined in the PLF plan), it does not matter whether you provide legal services 50 hours per week or 10 hours per week – coverage is required in either case – and the cost of coverage does not vary based on the hours worked.  With that said, liability coverage in Oregon is complex.  Your best bet is to contact the Professional Liability Fund for more information.

Is it Worth it?

It may not be.  If you are not an active member of the Oregon State Bar, it will be necessary to pay bar dues.  If you intend to engage in the private practice of law and require professional liability coverage, the cost is currently $3500 per year (assuming coverage is not prorated and no discounts apply).

To assess whether a “side practice” makes sense, go through all the steps you would normally follow to set up a full-time law practice.  This includes forming an entity (or not), naming your business, choosing a space option, developing a business plan and budget, opening appropriate bank accounts, consulting with a CPA, creating (and implementing) a marketing plan, and establishing office systems.  If it sounds like your proposed “side practice” is getting more complicated by the minute, it is.  Don’t assume setting up a “side practice” is any less work than committing to the full-time private practice of law.

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis
Eventbrite - Limiting Exposure to Conflicts

Negative Online Reviews

We all know that negative online reviews can be hurtful and maddening.  Last month I highlighted suggestions from the July Oregon State Bar Bulletin article by Linn Davis, with a few additions of my own.  Because I know this topic strikes a nerve, I wanted to share some further advice from our friends at NW Sidebar.

  • A reasonable and measured response is key. Blasting people who give you a negative review is not a good business model. You can try contacting the review site and asking for the review’s removal if you can prove the review is false, defamatory or written by a competitor. This, however, may not be successful, especially if the review is anonymous. See Thomson v. Jane Doe, 189 Wn. App. 45, 356 P.3d 727 (2015) , when the court refused to force disclosure of an anonymous online reviewer’s identity.
  • You can respond directly to the review on the site. Be courteous and explain that due to your duty of confidentiality, you can’t address the facts of the complaint, but that you do not believe it presents a fair and accurate portrayal of the events. Make clear that you are always available to meet with former clients and address any concerns they may have.
  • If possible, try to contact the reviewer directly and seek to ameliorate the situation or explain to them further why the representation unfolded as it did. If this is successful, don’t hesitate to ask for an updated review.
  • Try to avoid further negative reviews by soliciting client feedback directly as the representation continues and in exit interviews. Try to give your clients every opportunity to air their grievances with you and your firm directly so they don’t have the need to vent in public.
  • Lastly, the best antidote to a negative review is positive reviews. Keep your profile updated and facilitate the opportunity for your other clients to post their own satisfied reviews.

via Responding to Negative Online Reviews — NWSidebar

As I’ve said before, I am not a fan of engaging with the reviewer/client online.  However, the idea of soliciting client feedback during and after the course of representation is stellar.  As Sandra Schilling notes, this is about giving your clients the opportunity to vent so they don’t feel the need to blast you online.  I would add: it may also be preemptive. While there will always be clients who are perpetually unhappy, most people are reasonable.  If you learn about a client’s dissatisfaction early, you can intervene and repair the relationship.  The unappealing alternative is to allow the client’s bad feelings to fester – never a good solution.

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis

Support Your Local Bar Association

If you’re newly admitted, recently moved, or just transitioned to private practice the best way to get connected to your new community is to join the local bar association.

A quick visit to the Oregon State Bar website reveals that not all local bars are active at this time, but don’t despair.

If your local bar association is up and running

Join!  Attend events, including social gatherings and CLEs. Get involved and meet local judges and practitioners.

If your local bar association is inactive

This is your golden opportunity to get it up and running.

  • Hold an open house at your office
  • Organize and deliver a CLE
  • Host an after-hours social event
  • Invite locals to a no-host coffee hour at a local business
  • Organize a themed lunch gathering where attendees share tips on marketing, technology, or other relevant subjects

Don’t let inertia prevail – find ways to connect!  Get started by introducing yourself to the local judiciary and courthouse staff.  Visit local law offices (if geographically feasible). Otherwise, make calls and send emails or even letters.

One easy way to find other lawyers in your area is to access the Member Directory PDF behind the secured login on the OSB website.  Listings of lawyers organized by city begin on page 278.  Take note that the directory does not include the latest contact information.  Another option is to search by city using the online directory. 

Given your objective, you should also consider contacting Member Services at the OSB.  They may be willing to pull a current list of attorneys by county or city for you.

Local bar associations offer many advantages

  • Community
  • Networking
  • Local cost CLE
  • Member benefits
  • Volunteer opportunities
  • Connection to the local judiciary (for discussion/resolution of practice issues in the judicial district)
  • And more!

Join started today!

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Your Online Reputation

The July issue of the Oregon State Bar Bulletin features an excellent article by Linn Davis entitled “Responding to Negative Online Reviews: Reputation Management.”  If you’ve ever received a negative review, or fear that negative content is inevitable, this post is for you.

While Davis’ article focuses on ethical dos and don’ts, it also contains solid practical advice.  The following excerpt describes what you cannot do, what you should not do, how to preempt negative reviews, and how to respond to a negative review. Also included are my two cents on best practice recommendations.

What You Cannot Do

  • Reveal information relating to the representation of a client
  • Post inaccurate content
  • Allow misleading information that creates false expectations regarding fees, results, or your firm’s resources
  • Use subterfuge (employees posing as satisfied clients offering glowing reviews)
  • Fail to promptly update information when it changes
  • Engage in real-time interactions that violate in-person solicitation rules

What You Should Not Do

  • Sue the source of the negative review for defamation
  • Attempt to restrict clients from posting negative reviews
  • Form an unintended attorney-client relationship in an online legal forum
  • Fail to screen for conflicts in an online legal forum
  • Offer incentives for a positive review without considering the ethical and legal implications. See Oregon RPC 1.8(a), and 16 CFR Part 255 relating to FTC regulation of endorsements.

How to Preempt Negative Reviews

  • Contribute accurate and valuable information regarding yourself and your firm
  • Use disclaimers when participating in online legal forums
  • Provide clients with professional and competent work product

How to Respond to a Negative Review

One possibility is to do nothing.  As Davis points out, “not every opinion (on the Internet) must be contested.”  If, however, you feel you must respond, Davis offers three ethically permissible approaches:

  • Encourage the client to contact you to resolve the concerns expressed (this could be done online or offline)
  • Post that you disagree with the client’s account but are prevented by your professional standards from responding in a public forum without the client’s consent
  • Direct readers to other forums where your representation is regarded more “fully, accurately, and favorably”

Best Practices – My Two Cents

If the negative review comes from a client:

Your best tactic is to encourage the client to contact you. I suggest doing this privately and leaving the online post alone.  Why?  Responding to a negative review in any fashion will cause it to rank higher in search results.  Remember: search engines use algorithms based on quantity and quality. The more online engagement surrounding a negative thread, the more prominent it will become.

The good news is that you can exploit the quantity/quality preference of search engines by contributing your own accurate and valuable information.  In addition to Davis’ suggestions about adding basic biographical data and a description of your services, list yourself on free online legal directories, blog, update your Website, post to social media, share photos, and reshare/repost content.  It will take time and effort, but your content can and will push the negative review below the first page of search results.

If the negative review comes from a non-client:

I’ve known many lawyers who received negative “reviews” from non-clients – either disgruntled opposing parties or those who are motivated to attack the lawyer because of her practice area or representation of a particular client. Examples include immigration law, debt collection, or defending a client accused of a crime. Other than overwhelming the negative review with your own positive content, there isn’t much you can do when a non-client complains. Responding will only spur on the commentor.

Parting Thoughts

While it is important to monitor what people are saying about you online, try to have a thick skin. I know that negative reviews can be hurtful and maddening – especially when the source is motivated to keep attacking.  However, and pardon my French, but most of us can spot a “whack job.” Therefore, if a potential client decides not to meet with you because of what he sees or reads on the Internet, it’s probably a good thing.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Are Limited License Legal Technicians Coming to Oregon?

With the success of the Washington Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) experiment, will Oregon finally dip its toe into paraprofessional licensing? The answer appears to be yes.

In June 2017 the OSB Futures Task Force submitted its report to the OSB Board of Governors. Among the recommendations: implementation of a paraprofessional licensing (LLLT) program in Oregon.

The task force recommended the BOG appoint a committee to develop a detailed implementation plan. The plan would include draft rules of admission, practice, and professional conduct for approval by the Supreme Court and adoption by the BOG. ORS Chapter 9 would be amended to provide for licensure of paraprofessionals who would be authorized to provide limited legal services, without attorney supervision, to self-represented litigants in family law and landlord-tenant proceedings. Consumer protection measures would also be enacted.

Why Do We Need LLLTs (Paraprofessionals)?

Short answer: access to justice. As detailed in the task force report, the number of self-represented litigants continues to grow. Legal Aid, pro bono services, and limited scope representation only meet a small part of the need.

Minimum Qualifications and Licensing

The task force report lays out a series of minimum qualifications for paraprofessionals or LLLTs. Licensing would include “liability insurance in an amount to be determined,” preferably through the Professional Liability Fund, and continuing legal education. To protect the public from confusion, LLLTs would be required to use written agreements with mandatory disclosures.

Scope of Services

“Licensees should be able to select, prepare, file, and serve forms
and other documents in an approved proceeding; provide information and advice relating to the proceeding; communicate and negotiate with another party; and provide emotional and administrative support to the client in court. Licensees should be prohibited from representing clients in depositions, in court, and in appeals.”

Proposed Expansion of Washington’s LLLT Program

BOG approval of a LLLT/paraprofessional program seems greater than 50-50. As we await the outcome in Oregon, Washington is seeking to update its program. Under draft amendments, the LLLT role would expand to permit:

  • Accompanying and assisting clients in specific court proceedings, mediation, settlement conferences, and arbitration proceedings.
  • Attending, but not participating in, depositions.
  • Communicating with opposing counsel and parties on procedural matters and negotiations.
  • Gathering information on the value and potential encumbrances on a home.
  • Presenting agreed, uncontested, and default court orders.
  • Assisting clients seeking nonparental custody or major modifications up to the point of the adequate cause hearing.
  • Dividing single-family residential dwellings which have no more than twice the homestead exemption in equity.

Washington bar members have until July 17 to submit comments.

Parting Thoughts

At its June meeting, the BOG accepted the OSB Futures Task Force report. As noted on the OSB website, “the board will be looking at those recommendations throughout the year and likely into 2018.” Comments are encouraged and may be submitted to president@osbar.org.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017