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

Limiting Exposure to Conflicts

Join me for a CLE on Wednesday, October 25, 2017 about limiting exposure to conflicts.  Learn the ethical principles behind conflict management, avoiding common conflict traps, and how to select and operate an effective conflict system. Topics include:

Laying the ethical foundation

  • Who is the client?
  • What is the client’s status: prospect, current client, or former client?
  • Why does it matter?

Choosing a reliable system

  • The In Re Knappenberger standard
  • DIY vs. stand-alone vs. practice management software
  • How to choose the best system for your firm

Understanding conflict tracking

  • When to run a conflict check
  • How to use your system effectively
  • Parties to include in your conflict system

Avoiding common conflict traps

  • Former client conflicts
  • Acting in dual roles
  • Doing business with clients
  • Representing multiple clients in the same matter
  • Firm transitions
  • Acting as a contract lawyer
  • Office sharing arrangements

Date/Time/Location

Wednesday, October 25, 2017 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time. This is a live, online webinar. Watch from your desktop computer or mobile device. Connect to audio via telephone or computer/device speakers.

Who Should Attend?

Lawyers, office administrators, or staff – anyone interested in learning more about proper conflict system management.

Group Discounts

Discounts available to firms who wish to register 5 or more attendees. Contact organizer to arrange a discount code before registering: beverly@oregonlawpracticemanagement.org.

Does the Program Include Written Materials?

Yes. Written materials will be distributed electronically to all registered attendees prior to the event.

Ask Questions/Participate in Live Polling

Questions are welcome during the live event. Attendees are also encouraged to participate in live, anonymous polling.

Registration Fee

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

Eventbrite - Limiting Exposure to Conflicts

MCLE Credits
.50 ethics .50 practical skills pending.

Can’t Attend?

Video and audio recordings of Limiting Exposure to Conflicts will be available to download along with the program materials following the October 25 CLE. Price: $25. Contact me or visit my online CLE store after October 25.

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

Should You Barter Your Legal Services?

Bartering is “… A method of exchange by which goods or services are directly exchanged for other goods or services without using a medium of exchange, such as money.” [Wikipedia].

For a lawyer, bartering might consist of swapping services with someone like a Web designer. In exchange for setting up a business entity, you receive a new Website.

What are the Ethical Implications of Bartering?

When a lawyer accepts in-kind payment for legal services, whether the payment consists of the client providing services to the lawyer or an ownership interest in the client’s business, the lawyer is going beyond simply establishing a contract for legal services, and instead is doing business with a client. When entering into a business transaction with a client, lawyers must follow the requirements of RPC 1.8(a).  [Excerpted from Alternative Pricing Models: What’s in a Fee?]

This means:

  • The terms of the agreement must be reasonable and fair.
  • Your fee agreement must be in writing.
  • You must obtain the informed consent of your client to proceed (usually contained within the fee agreement).
  • You must recommend that the client consult with another attorney in deciding whether consent should be given.
  • You must fully disclose the details of the business transaction and each party’s role (part of informed consent).

Bartering and Professional Liability Exposure

Prior to 2016, Oregon lawyers were required to provide the Professional Liability Fund [PLF] with copies of business transaction disclosure letters or risk exclusion of coverage. The reporting requirement to the PLF has been removed for plan year 2016. Lawyers are no longer required to provide the PLF with copies of disclosure and consent letters when engaging in business transactions with clients.  As a courtesy, the PLF continues to offer a sample disclosure letter on its Website.

Beyond the Obvious Ethical Traps and Liability Exposure

Barter exchanges have practical implications.  Ask yourself:

  • If you do not complete the work for the client, how will you “refund” a portion of your “fee?”
  • Are you prepared to keep the proper records?
  • Do you understand the tax requirements for barter exchanges and the penalties for failure to report?

If you plan to barter with a client in exchange for legal services, be prepared:

  1. Read Alternative Pricing Models: What’s in a Fee? by Helen Hierschbiel.
  2. Obtain a copy of the sample disclosure letter on the PLF Website.
  3. Understand how your professional liability coverage works.  The PLF Primary and Excess Plans are available on the PLF Website.  Call the PLF with coverage questions: 530-639-6911 or 800-452-1639 (Toll-Free in Oregon.)
  4. If you’re still foggy on the ethics, contact Oregon State Bar General Counsel.
  5. If you need help with tax-related recordkeeping and reporting, speak with your accountant or a tax lawyer.
  6. Learn the ins and outs of bartering – if you are trading legal services for a new Website, verify that your potential client can do the job.  Check out these informative sites and posts: BarterQuest – when, where, and how to barter; How to Barter AnythingHow to Barter for Goods & Services – Tips and Methods to Trade; and Barter 101: Trading For Services.

Nothing prohibits bartering with a client for legal services, but like so many alternative fee approaches, be sure you know what you are doing before you enter into an agreement you might regret.

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

Postscript

For more on the topic of engaging in business with clients, see Too Good to Be True: The Ethics of Business Transactions With Clients.