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

 

 

An Oldie and a Goodie: Empowering Law Practice Management Tips

Whilst strolling through the Internet one day, I came across this post by Peggy Gruenke at Attorney at Work. Twenty simple ideas that are timeless and critically important if you want your law firm to succeed. Here are a few of my financial-themed favorites with thoughts of my own.

Peggy’s five financial tips – greatly condensed

  • Write a business plan
  • Create a budget
  • Know your overhead costs
  • State your fee with authority
  • Bill early, often, and strategically

Money and goals

As the business owner, your goal is to see the big picture.  Who are you? Why are you unique? Who are you best equipped to serve? This is the purpose of a business plan, according to Peggy Gruenke.

My input? Don’t be intimated! Your business plan does not have to be a magnum opus. You can get it done in a few pages. Creating a business plan will give you:

  • Clarity about what you want to do
  • Control over your own fate
  • A strategy for staying organized and on track
  • Accountability
  • A way to measure and monitor your progress
  • A path to help you move forward

Want help? See my business plan checklist – originally designed for law students, but easily conformed to active law practices.

Budgeting and costs

Budgeting can be as simple as a basic spreadsheet. Track what comes in and what goes out. Don’t bother with incorporating prior years (unless you have a driving reason to do so). Just start now. Toward year-end use your 2018 data to create projections for 2019.

As Peggy says, “You should know (by heart) how much money you need to make to keep the doors open.”

To get started, revisit this article by yours truly, Dee Crocker and Sheila Blackford.  As motivation, consider this excerpt:

Every law office should have a budget. Without one, it’s easy to overspend and hard to plan for future purchases. Knowing your overhead costs will help you decide how much revenue you need to make and how much you need to charge to bring in that amount. Failure to budget can cause financial problems. Lawyers with financial problems may take on new clients who have money in hand, leaving the work for existing clients unfinished. This can lead to disciplinary complaints from clients whose work is not completed.

I guarantee that your monthly “budget to actual” report, which compares actual spending against budget projections, will become your new best friend.

Stating your fee with authority

When a prospective client tells you that Lawyer Smith is willing to do the same work for $2,000 less, tell the person kindly that he can then retain Lawyer Smith. When you reduce your fee, you will have lost the trust of your prospective client. Odds are, in time, that client will leave Lawyer Smith and retain you to handle the mess that Lawyer Smith made.

Set a fee and stick to it! I know this can be hard, especially if you’re new to solo practice. Know in advance what you propose to charge, don’t make it up on the fly. Be matter-of-fact, business-like, and deliver the number without hesitation. You’re always free to make adjustments with the next case, but don’t waiver with the client sitting in front of you. For help in getting started, see this post.

Bill early and often

When you are ready to bill, issue invoices as soon after the event as possible: “As each day passes after an event, the perception of your value is diminished. If you send out the bill even two weeks afterward, the client won’t perceive the value to be as high.” (Peggy’s words of wisdom.)

There is no reason you can’t deliver your final bill with transactional documents. Take advantage of the arc of client gratitude while it is still in your favor!

Looking for more billing tips? Check out this resource.

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

Best Practices for Docketing, Conflicts, Disengagement, and File Retention

This is the last call for Best Practices for Docketing, Conflicts, Disengagement, and File Retention scheduled for April 11, 2018 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., PDT. This live, online webinar is the second in a two-part series on effective and ethical office systems.
Topics include:

Docketing

  • Learning the attributes of effective docketing systems
  • Appreciating the duty of due diligence
  • Docketing tips for eCourt practitioners: knowing where to go, forwarding notices, calculating deadlines, understanding the Register of Actions, enlisting proper email management

Conflicts

  • Recognizing ethical traps
  • Establishing system objectives: who to screen and when to screen
  • Comparing software applications
  • Streamlining conflict checking using forms, checklists, procedures, and letters
  • Recording conflict results

Disengagement and file retention

  • Meeting your ethical obligations under Oregon RPC 1.16
  • Simplifying disengagement with forms
  • Protecting clients and limiting liability exposure
  • Creating policies, procedures, and checklists
  • Accessing resources

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
Best Practices for Docketing, Conflicts, Disengagement, and File Retention

 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 are the programs being held?
This program will be a live, online webinar.

MCLE Credits
1.0 practical skills pending.

Can’t Attend?
Video and audio recordings of the April 11 CLE 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.

Best Practices for Client Intake, Engagement, and Workflow

This is the last call for Best Practices for Client Intake, Engagement, and Workflow scheduled for March 28, 2018 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., PDT. This live, online webinar is the first of a two-part series on effective and ethical office systems.
Topics include:

Intake

  • Recognizing objectives and ethical traps
  • Implementing the 7 key elements of effective intake forms
  • Building in accountability to prevent mistakes
  • Automating intake with ease

Engagement

  • Documenting representation: why bother?
  • Appreciating the ethical implications of engagement vs. nonengagement
  • Finding alternatives when a nonengagement letter can’t be sent
  • Modernizing the engagement process using forms, brochures, automation, and eSignatures

workflow

  • Identifying barriers to improving productivity: what’s stopping us?
  • Exploring the connection between bar complaints and poor workflow management
  • Setting objectives using automation, integration, and delegation
  • Using technology and staffing to improve workflow

Your office systems are the backbone of everything you do. Don’t miss out!

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
Best Practices for Client Intake, Engagement, and Workflow

Coming April 11, 2018 –
Best Practices for Docketing, Conflicts, Disengagement, and File Retention

In this second part of our two-part series, we will cover:

Docketing

  • Learning the attributes of effective docketing systems
  • Appreciating the duty of due diligence
  • Docketing tips for eCourt practitioners: knowing where to go, forwarding notices, calculating deadlines, understanding the Register of Actions, enlisting proper email management

Conflicts

  • Recognizing ethical traps
  • Establishing system objectives: who to screen and when to screen
  • Comparing software applications
  • Streamlining conflict checking using forms, checklists, procedures, and letters
  • Recording conflict results

Disengagement and file retention

  • Meeting your ethical obligations under Oregon RPC 1.16
  • Simplifying disengagement with forms
  • Protecting clients and limiting liability exposure
  • Creating policies, procedures, and checklists
  • Accessing resources

This program is scheduled for Wednesday, April 11 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., PDT.

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
Best Practices for Docketing, Conflicts, Disengagement, and File Retention

 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 are the programs being held?
Both programs are live, online webinars.

MCLE Credits
1.0 practical skills pending for each program.

Can’t Attend?
Video and audio recordings of the March 28 and April 11 CLEs will be available to download along with the program materials shortly after the live program events.
Price: $25. Contact me or visit my online CLE store to place an order.