Lawyer Transitions: Departing Your Firm

The days of spending an entire career at one firm are long gone.  By the end of three years, nearly half of all associates leave.  Partners bail out for many reasons – compensation, lifestyle choice, and conflicts with other partners – to name a few.

No matter who you are, tread lightly when you leave.  Departing lawyers have ethical, contractual, and legal responsibilities.

If you are a partner

Conduct your partnership withdrawal in a manner that honors the contractual and fiduciary responsibilities owed to your fellow partners.  Contractual duties are controlled by your written partnership agreement.  Fiduciary duties are described in case law and codified by statute in Oregon’s Revised Partnership Act.

If you are not a partner

Review your employment contract, employment letter, office policies, office procedures, or any other applicable terms that may control the process for terminating your relationship with your current firm or your obligations upon departure.

Are issues likely to arise?

Consult outside counsel experienced in the areas of lawyer mobility, partnerships, fiduciary duties, lawyer separation, and law firm dissolution.

Give notice before you contact clients

Inform the firm of your decision to leave before contacting any clients.  Failing to give adequate and timely notice to your firm or partners before you contact clients is a violation of the duty of loyalty owed by a lawyer to his or her firm based on their contractual or agency relationship.  It may also constitute conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation in violation of Oregon RPC 8.4(a)(3).

Although there is no explicit rule requiring lawyers to be candid and fair with their partners or employers, such an obligation is implicit in the prohibition…against dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Moreover, such conduct is a violation of the duty of loyalty owed by a lawyer to his or her firm based on their contractual or agency relationship.” In re Complaint as to the Conduct of Murdock, 328 OR 18, 25 (1998), citing, In re Smith, 315 Or 260, 266 (1992). See also OSB Formal Op No 2005-70; ABA Formal Op No 99-414.

Assessing your client caseload

Undoubtedly there are clients you would like to take with you, but there may also be clients you prefer to leave behind.  Draft a client notification letter informing clients of your departure.  Schedule a meeting with your supervising partner or other appropriate member(s) of the firm.  Bring a printout of your current cases and your draft client letter.  This meeting must occur before you contact any clients.  [Note: more than one notification letter will be necessary if you intend to keep some clients and leave others behind.]

For clients transitioning to your new firm

Make arrangements to obtain trust funds, copy paper and digital records, and sign new fee agreements.  Checklists documenting the steps to take when leaving a firm are available from the OSB Professional Liability Fund.

For clients you are leaving behind

Properly document client files by preparing memos describing the status of each case and any upcoming deadlines.  If you are attorney of record, withdraw or confirm that a substitution of counsel has been filed where necessary.  Otherwise, you remain on the hook.  Check out the resources available from the OSB Professional Liability Fund describing a lawyer’s duties upon withdrawal and termination of representation.  If in doubt, contact the OSB General Counsel’s office or consult with outside counsel.

Transition don’ts

  • Misleading clients about their right to choose counsel
  • Contacting clients before speaking to your firm about your departure
  • Taking client files without the knowledge or consent of the firm
  • Taking client money without the knowledge or consent of the firm
  • Taking firm property, including forms, research, or other materials, without the consent of the firm

Transition Dos

  • Put clients first.  Whether you are making a lateral move to another firm or setting up your own practice, remember that the client’s freedom of choice in selection of counsel is paramount.
  • Keep the transition as amicable, professional, and stress-free as possible. Contentious withdrawals alienate clients and damage relationships.
  • Remember to take a list of clients with you so you can screen for conflicts at your new firm.

Handled properly, your departure should be smooth and uneventful.

 

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis

 

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
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Is “Diverse” Hiring Really What You Want?

What does diversity mean to you?

Diversity is defined as “The fact or quality of being different; having a variety.” It can only be applied to a group of things or people in order to highlight the presence or absence or difference or variety.

The reality is that a roomful of black women is no more diverse than a roomful of white men. And yet, we tend to describe programs as being aimed at “diverse attorneys” and state that we would really like to make a “diversity hire” in this position. But when you stop to think about it, what do we really mean?

If a program is for diverse attorneys, it must be for all attorneys and hopefully the group will represent a large variety of people. Is that really what we mean? No, it isn’t. What we mean is that the program is for attorneys who are underrepresented or marginalized in the field of law. Why not say that? Or better yet, let’s actively state what we mean. Is the program really aimed at women and people of color? Then let’s just say so. Let’s not seek a diversity hire; let’s seek to create a diverse workforce. Or we can talk about diversifying our employees.

Thought provoking and to the point.  As lawyers, we know language matters.  Perhaps it is time to change ours.  Read more here: Is “Diverse” Really What You Mean? — NWSidebar.

Choice of Entity for New Lawyers

coffee-cup-and-docs-bought-at-ssChoosing a legal structure and entity type for your law firm seems like an easy decision. But is it? Consider the following scenarios:

New lawyer establishes law practice with the goal of becoming an associate

If this is you, being a straight-up sole proprietor may be the best choice, assuming you have no employees.

A sole proprietorship is the simplest and most common structure chosen to start a business:

  • No formal action is required to start your business
  • It’s inexpensive
  • No papers to file
  • Nothing to dissolve
  • Simple tax preparation

When you’re ready to make the move from running your own practice to becoming an associate, the transition couldn’t be any easier.

On the downside, sole proprietorship means you have unlimited contractual liability and potentially higher taxes.

But how significant is the liability exposure?

Lenders, property managers, and others with whom you do business will typically require a personal guarantee for loans, leases, or other business transactions.  A personal guarantee means YOU are on the hook, even if you form a professional corporation or single-member limited liability company. As a result, contractual liability protection doesn’t count for much in evaluating whether to form an entity.

The real choice between sole proprietorship and forming a PC or single-member LLC comes down to taxes and the trade-off between potentially saving money (with entity formation) and simplicity (going with the sole proprietorship model).  Talk to a CPA so you can make an informed decision.

What if I’m planning to practice business law or intellectual property?

Why would your area of practice make a difference?  And didn’t we just say entity choice is driven by risk aversion – wreaking whatever benefit you can from contractual liability protection – and saving money – courtesy of a lower tax burden?  So what difference could practicing business and IP law possibly make?

If your goal is to help clients form entities and protect intellectual property, it could look a little odd that you haven’t followed the usual formalities in establishing your own business.

Fair or not, client perception counts.  So does marketing.  And part of marketing is how you brand your law firm.  Appending a PC or LLC designation to your business name may actually be an important part of how you choose to present yourself to potential clients.

If you plan to have employees …

This is an entirely different ballgame.  Without a doubt, form an entity. If you are a solo, choose a PC or single-member limited liability company (LLC).

Both entity types offer liability protection for non-professional torts committed by your employees.  The contractual liability protection discussed above will also kick in.  Talk to a CPA, but the likelihood is that forming an entity will also result in a noticeable tax savings.

If you plan to practice with others …

This is another occasion when forming an entity is a no brainer.  Do it for the avoidance of liability discussed in the preceding paragraph and for the limitation on vicarious liability.  The ideal structure may be to form a sole owner PC or single-member LLC that belongs to the firm’s entity. This may allow you, as the individual lawyer, to completely escape personal vicarious liability.

Multi-tier entities are complex, administratively messy, and no longer have the tax benefits they once enjoyed.  BUT avoiding vicarious liability is a big plus.  To learn more about this strategy, read Choice of Entity for a Legal Practice and Lawyers as PCs, LLCs, & LLPs in Oregon, referenced below.

Being fully informed in the premises

This post skates over some pretty significant content that deserves more in-depth thought.  Do your homework.  Recommended reading includes:

  • Sole Proprietorship as a business structure choice, courtesy of the Small Business Administration.  While you’re on the SBA site, poke around.  There is a ton of great content here.  And don’t forget about the help and resources available from the Small Business Development Center.
  • Law Firm Choice of Entity, from the ABA Young Lawyers Division.
  • Choice of Entity for a Legal Practice in Oregon, available on the PLF website. Select Practice Management > Forms > Entity Formation for Lawyers.
  • Lawyers as PCs, LLCs, & LLPs in Oregon, available on the PLF website.  Select Practice Management > Forms > Entity Formation for Lawyers.
  • Tax Considerations for Choice of Business Entity, Chapter 3 of the OSB CLE Seminar Handbook Broadbrush Taxation: Tax Law for the Nonspecialist (2015). Available in BarBooks behind the member login on the OSB website.

Most importantly

Talk with a CPA.  I can’t say this enough.  This is one of the best investments you can make in getting your practice up and running.  A CPA can help you determine whether forming an entity will result in tax savings.  He or she can also help you select an entity type – which is highly driven by tax considerations.

You’ll also learn about property tax, business income tax, business licensing, and other obligations you may not be familiar with – all of which are determined by where your business is located.

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis

Practical Advice for Virtual Law Offices

Last week we discussed the ethical implications of WSBA Advisory Opinion 201601, “Ethical Practices of the Virtual Law Office.”  As the Committee on Professional Ethics noted, virtual practitioners must take care with supervision, confidentiality, avoiding misrepresentation, and conflicts of interest.  Understandable, but what exactly does that mean?  Here is some practical advice.

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Adequate supervision in a virtual workplace

In a virtual workplace lawyers and staff don’t work in proximity.  How do you ensure that remote workers receive “adequate supervision?”  The WSBA opinion mentions taking “additional measures,” but does not describe what those may be. Virtual employers should consider the following:

  1. Establish policies just as you would in a traditional office setting:  dedicated working hours when employees are expected to be within reach of their phones or computers; vacation allowance; sick leave policy; how you will measure performance; and so on.
  2. Create procedures for employees to follow.  Specifically, how will you distribute assignments and exchange completed work?  Technology is bound to be the solution, so see the discussion below about confidentiality.  Remember to address the “mundane” office tasks too: calendaring, accounting, conflict checking, etc.
  3. Require all remote workers to sign a confidentiality pledge or agreement.  The Professional Liability Fund has samples on its website.
  4. Get fully educated about legalities:  “In 2011, an Oregon appeals court found in favor of a J.C. Penney Co. Inc. home decorator who was injured after she tripped over her dog while working at home. Although the state workers’ compensation board had held her injuries were not work-related, the appeals court reversed, finding the employee had been working from her home as a term and condition of employment.”
    On-the-job injuries aren’t the only problem: be aware of Fair Labor Standards Act troubles, choice of jurisdiction, protecting proprietary information [forms bank, brief bank, customized practice management software], and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The list doesn’t end there.
  5. Talk to an employment lawyer about securing your right to inspect employees’ remote workplaces and monitoring employees’ use of technology.
  6. Don’t neglect the need for face time. Management experts recommend regular web meetings and occasional in-person meetings for an optimal virtual workplace.
  7. Revisit your ethical responsibilities as a supervisor in Oregon.

Confidentiality

Advisory Opinion 201601 revisits the ethical requirements for cloud computing and email communication, the gist of which is:

  • A lawyer may use online data storage systems to store and back up client confidential information as long as the lawyer takes reasonable care to ensure that the information will remain confidential and the information is secure from risk of loss.
  • Email communication with clients is allowed, except lawyers must warn clients if they believe there is a significant risk of third party access.

Oregon takes a similar stance on cloud computing:  “Lawyer may store client materials on a third-party server as long as Lawyer complies with the duties of competence and confidentiality to reasonably keep the client’s information secure within a given situation.” OSB Formal Opinion No. 2011-188 [Revised 2015.]  For more details, see this post.  See Also OSB Formal Opinion No. 2016-191, “Client Property: Electronic-Only or “Paperless” Client Documents and Files,” which includes a further discussion about electronic client files.

As to email, Oregon lawyers are forewarned to:

  1. Use proper security measures in cases where information is “particularly sensitive or subject to a confidentiality agreement.”
  2. Avoid email entirely if a client requests it.
  3. Scrub for metadata.

See “Safeguarding Client Information in a Digital World,” and “Competency: Disclosure of Metadata,” OSB Formal Opinion No. 2011-187 [Revised 2015].

No mention is made about a duty to warn clients of third party access where the lawyer believes there is a significant risk.  However, it would be foolish not to do so.  Consider the example mentioned in the WSBA opinion: where the lawyer knows her client is using an employer-provided email account.

We’ve discussed this issue before. Your email may not be protected by lawyer-client privilege if your client is reading it at work.  Before you begin communicating by email, take note of the client’s address.  Does the domain correlate to their place of employment?  Don’t use it!  Even if the address is @gmail.com or a similar web-based service, don’t assume your client only reads and prints email at home.  Have a discussion about where, when, and how your client reads your confidential communications and follow the other advice mentioned here.

Another quick word about using the cloud

Virtual practices could not exist without the cloud, a VPN, or some means of hosting and exchanging client information.  Beyond the basics of taking reasonable care to protect confidentiality, implement policies and procedures as described above.  Focus on security and steps to take when a virtual employee stops working for you.  Remote workers can put your law practice at risk if they upload or exchange content that contains malware or ransomware. A study commissioned by a security firm in the UK and Germany found:

  • One in four employees admitted breaking security policies.
  • Nearly two in five said either they, or someone they know, have lost or had stolen a device in a public place.
  • Three-quarters of these devices – such as laptops, mobile phones and USB sticks – contained work-related data, including confidential emails (37%), confidential files (34%) and customer data (21%).
  • Approximately one in ten lost financial data or access details such as login and password information, exposing even more confidential information to the risk of breach.

It is equally important to have a checklist for departing staff that ensures revocation of login credentials, return of workplace property, and disposition of ongoing email or voice communications directed to someone who no longer works for you.

Consider talking to an employment law attorney, or as a starter, see the Professional Liability Fund’s (PLF’s) Checklist for Departing Staff.

Duty to avoid misrepresentation

Advisory Opinion 201601 warns that lawyers may not imply the existence of a physical office or formal law firm where none exists. Therefore, unless you’ve arranged for ready access to meeting spaces or the ability to see clients on a drop-in basis, don’t imply those resources exist.  Posting or implying that you are part of a firm on your website, social media, or elsewhere is also a no-no.  (The same is true for office sharers, an example given in the ethics opinion.)

Avoiding conflicts of interest

Advisory Opinion 201601 points out that virtual offices must ensure that the conflicts checking system is equally accessible to all members of the practice, lawyers and staff, and that such access is reliably maintained.  This only makes sense.

Be sure to add your calendaring system, billing system, client matter records, and everything else you need to operate virtually as a law practice.  All of it must be equally accessible and reliably maintained.

Will the cloud be your savior when it comes to accessibility and reliability?  Probably, but it can’t help you with issues like when to run a conflict check, how to run a conflict check, or the need to circulate a new client list to everyone in the office.  As noted above, procedures will be key!  For help, contact a friendly practice management expert, like myself or one of the advisors at the PLF. While you’re on the PLF site, check out the many publications, practice aids, and forms that will assist you with establishing office protocols.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017