Starting Your Own For Profit Referral Service

Have you ever thought about starting your own for-profit lawyer referral service? Using staff to screen incoming calls and match potential clients to lawyers?

OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-168, revised June 2018, contemplates exactly this scenario. While permitted, there are restrictions. Read on.

Can I own a for-profit lawyer referral service?

Yes! However: lawyers are not permitted to use other businesses (such as a lawyer referral service) for in-person solicitation of legal work. Nor may lawyers misrepresent the nature of services provided. OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-10; OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-106 (rev 2016); OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-108 (rev 2015).

Can I manage a for-profit lawyer referral service?

Yes! General management and administration of a lawyer referral service is ethical. This includes duties such as hiring staff or supervising operations.

May I operate my for-profit lawyer referral service at the same premises as my law practice?

Yes! Since lawyers are allowed to office share with non-lawyers, there is no ethical barrier to operating a referral service at the same physical location as your law practice.

What ethical issues might arise in operating a for-profit lawyer referral service?

Lawyer-owners should avoid participating in the actual screening of incoming inquiries (potential clients). This eliminates two risks.

  • Receiving confidential information which could create a conflict of interest
  • Creating a lawyer-client relationship

Lawyer-owned and operated referral services must be separate independent incorporated entities – not merely DBAs (assumed business names) registered to the lawyer. See In re Fellows, 9 DB Rptr 197, 199-200 (1995).

Do not give legal advice through your lawyer referral service! As OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-168 explains, “a referral service is not licensed to practice law and a lawyer may not assist a nonlawyer in the unlawful practice of law.”

In my opinion

If you decide to operate a lawyer referral service, consider taking these extra steps to minimize your liability.

  • Create your referral service with the same formality as you would an independent business for one of your clients. This isn’t the time for shortcuts. Have a business plan, mission statement, marketing plan, budget, financial projections, etc. If this is a co-venture among you and your lawyer friends, have a written “partnership” agreement or equivalent!
  • Keep independent records and books.
  • Set up the service in a separate physical location. Is it ethically necessary? No, but it’s smart. Keeping the businesses physically separate minimizes confusion and increases the appearance of neutrality. (The service isn’t there to feed clients to you – it exists to refer clients to others.)
  • Consider hiring separate staff for the referral service. This will offer further protection against potential conflict of interest arguments. If neither you nor your legal staff are involved in screening, you can’t possibly receive confidential information. Besides, your staff may not have the time to handle the additional workload. Referral services are busy. Do you want your paralegal or legal secretary to answer referral calls or get your work done? They may not be able to do both.
  • Train referral staff on unlawful practice of law issues and other concerns related to the service. For example, what should they do if a client comes to your referral business in person and wants to talk to a lawyer now!
  • Use disclaimers in your advertising, on your website, in online forms, or as part of a recorded greeting heard by all callers. See this language posted on the Oregon State Bar Lawyer Referral Service (OSB LRS) web page.
  • While the assertion of negligent referral is a rare thing, the right client in the right circumstance may make a claim. Be prepared and inquire into proper business insurance coverage. Don’t assume your professional liability extends to your independently owned and operated lawyer referral service.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

 

 

When Opposing Counsel Doesn’t Respond

Quote

A recent post in NW Sidebar posed this interesting question.

While it is rare for opposing counsel to go MIA, it does happen. What steps should you take? Can you contact the adverse party directly?

Cut and dried rule

Oregon RPC 4.2 and Washington RPC 4.2 make no bones on this point. Direct contact with an adverse party is not permitted if you know the party is represented.  Exceptions are made in the case of consent, court order, if “authorized by law,” or when a notice must be sent directly to a party pursuant to a written agreement.

What to do

Post author Sandra Schilling makes some excellent recommendations:

  • Remember that non-communication from opposing counsel may be a deliberate strategy or delaying tactic. While lawyers have ethical duties of communication and due diligence toward clients, there is no specific rule requiring lawyers to respond to one another.
  • Make repeated efforts at contact. Warn opposing counsel of the consequence of continued nonresponse (you will contact the adverse party directly). Document your efforts.
  • Wait a reasonable amount of time.
  • Seek a court order if possible.
  • Otherwise, consider if the circumstances have abrogated your initial knowledge of representation. As Schilling points out, to “know” is to have “actual knowledge” under the rules. Your “actual knowledge” may be inferred from the changed circumstances (repeated attempts to contact, warnings to opposing counsel, and counsel’s nonresponse).
  • If you make direct contact with the adverse party, make sure you tell them to refer the communication to their attorney if they are still represented, and ask for documentation of termination if they say they aren’t.

I would add: at any point along the way feel free to use the Oregon Ethics Hotline: 
1-503-431-6475 or 1-800-452-8260.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

Credit Card Surcharges Revisited

Remember the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlement?

Processing credit card payments is a fact of life for today’s law firm. So are costly surcharges – the fee assessed by your bank or credit card processor for the privilege of accepting this form of payment.

In 2015 – 2016, some Oregon law firms took the position that the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlement (PCIFS) permitted them to pass on credit card surcharges to clients.  As a reminder, the PCIFS was a class action settlement among merchants, Visa, MasterCard, and other defendants. American Express and Discover were not part of the litigation.  Applying the conditions of the settlement to a service-based industry like the legal profession was always tenuous at best.

Regardless, using the PCIFS as a justification for passing on credit card surcharges became moot in mid-2016 when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded approval of the settlement.

The Post-PCIFS Era

If you’ve read my blog before, you know I’m an ardent advocate of absorbing credit card surcharges as a cost of doing business. This doesn’t mean watching money fly out the door without recourse.  It does mean you shouldn’t pass on surcharges as a separate cost item to the client.  Consider:

  • Assessing surcharges (or crediting clients for the net amount less fees) involves extra administrative and bookkeeping steps.  If you get the math wrong and the transaction involves trust account funds, you could face disciplinary action.
  • Firms who want to charge for credit cards often bill clients for postage, faxing, scanning, and photocopying.  These items already rate high on the client annoyance scale.  Pass on surcharges and that scale may tip.
  • Ethically, clients are not obliged to pay any cost to which they did not agree.  If you did not include the right to assess surcharges in your fee agreement, you cannot unilaterally pass on the cost after the fact.  Granted, you can fix this by modifying your fee agreement – but it isn’t necessarily advisable and may not be successful.  See OSB Formal Opinion 2005-97.
  • Fees can be adjusted to reflect this, and other, costs of doing business.
  • Surcharges are outright illegal in some states and capped in others.
  • Passing on surcharges may trigger compliance with Regulation Z of the Truth in Lending Act:

Passing the merchant fee on to the client or crediting the client for the net amount of the transaction only … may implicate Regulation Z of the Truth in Lending Act, 12 CFR §226.  As a result, you may be compelled to offer cash discounts to all clients and make specified disclosures to your clients who pay by credit card.  See CONSUMER LAW IN OREGON ch 14 (Oregon CLE 1996 & Supp 2000).  OSB Legal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-172.

As Before: Proceed at Your Own Risk

If you want to assess surcharges, do your own research and proceed at your own risk.

I leave you with these words of wisdom from LawPay, a popular credit card processor serving the legal profession:

While your state may allow you to pass on transaction fees to clients, think carefully before doing so. Potential clients will not expect a higher fee simply because they use a different form of payment. In today’s market the best practice may be to simply absorb these fees yourself as the cost of doing business.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

Digital File Retention

 

If your answer to the poll was “yes,” or “I should,” give yourself a pat on the back.

If you don’t have a digital file retention policy, or more specifically, don’t believe you need a policy, please consider the following:

The more data you store, the more you must protect, and it isn’t free

Data protection is costly and doesn’t end with buying a server. If your firm stores digital files in-house, you must maintain your investment.  This means replacing obsolete storage media, preserving and testing backups, purchasing cybersecurity coverage, investing in and updating security software, budgeting for internal or outsourced IT services, and recovering from data theft, data breach, or system crashes if they occur. Cloud storage may alleviate some of this, although best practices dictate that cloud storage should be secondary to keeping on-premise copies of your data.

The duty to safeguard

Protection isn’t just a matter of out-of-pocket expenses, it has real ethical significance:

Taken together, Rule 1.6(c) and Rule
5.3 require a lawyer to take steps to prevent
disclosure of client information
through the misuse of technology, by
themselves or by any technology vendor
on which the lawyer relies. A lawyer’s
reasonable efforts to protect client data
might include reviewing a third-party
vendor’s terms of service to ensure that
they comply with industry standards relating
to confidentiality and security, and
that those standards are consistent with
the lawyer’s own professional obligations.

Mark Johnson Roberts, “Electronic Competence: As Technology Advances, So Must a Lawyer’s Understanding of It,” OSB Bulletin (June 2017).

If you place no limitations on digital file storage and something bad happens, more client data is exposed. Why would you want to take that risk?

Keep it and retrieve it

If you get into the perpetual storage business, be prepared to retrieve what you keep. Adhering to file retention recommendations and ethical requirements is one thing. Digging up records from 20, 30, or 40 years ago because you’ve chosen not to enforce a destruction policy is something else.

Setting reasonable digital file retention policies

For guidance on file retention, contact your local ethics hotline or professional liability carrier.  In Oregon, the following resources are available from the Professional Liability Fund. Select Practice Management > Forms.

  • Checklist for Scanning Client Files
  • File Retention and Destruction Guidelines
  • Production of Client File
  • Retention of Electronic Records

Mid-size and larger firms should consider a membership in ARMA, the Association of Records Managers and Administrators.  Another good resource is AIIM, the global community of information professionals.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

 

 

Oregon eService CLE

Registration is now open for
Oregon eService, scheduled for June 6, 2018 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m., PDT.

This live, online webinar is for experts and novices alike. An opportunity to polish skills and apply tips straight from the courthouse or understand eService from the ground up.

Topics include:

Using eService

  • How to eServe in four easy steps
  • Service of process in the eFiling world: UTCR 21.100
  • Six compelling reasons to use eService

Identifying eService Exceptions

  • To eServe or not to eServe

Responding to Service Contact Issues

  • Requirements of UTCR 21.100(2)(a)
  • Pursuing sanctions under UTCR 1.090(2)
  • Best practice recommendations

Deliberating the Case of: eService vs. Service by Email

  • UTCR 21.100(4) vs. ORCP 9G
  • Pros, cons, and myths of service by email
  • Best practice recommendations

Drawing on Courthouse Wisdom: Do’s and Don’ts

  • How to use the “filing on behalf of” field
  • Should you or shouldn’t you serve yourself?
  • Multiple service methods
  • How to copy firm members on filings
  • Proper Certificates of Service
  • And more!

Getting Help and Improving eFile & Serve

  • Get assistance and give your input

Register Now
$25 – Visit the Upcoming CLE page or choose the registration link below. Secure payment processing powered by Eventbrite. Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express accepted. Program materials included in the registration price.

REGISTER NOW
Oregon eService CLE

 FAQs

Are group discounts available?
Discounts are available to firms who register 5 or more attendees. Contact me for a discount code before you register: beverly@oregonlawpracticemanagement.org.

Do the Programs Include Written Materials? 
Yes. Written materials are distributed electronically to attendees.

Are questions welcome?
Absolutely. Questions may be submitted any time during the live event or afterward via email. Attendees are also encouraged to participate in live, anonymous polling.

Where is the program being held?
This program is a live, online webinar.

MCLE Credits
1.25 practical skills/general MCLE credits have been approved by the Oregon State Bar.

Can’t Attend?
Video and audio recordings will be available to download along with the program materials shortly after the live program event.  Price: $25. Contact me or visit my online CLE store to place an order.