Proposed Amendment to the Federal Rules Would Require Disclosure of Third-Party Litigation Funding

On November 7, 2017, the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules established a new subcommittee that will study whether the potential ethical and judicial concerns surrounding third-party litigation funding merit the enactment of amendments to the federal rules that would require disclosure of outside investment in any action filed in federal court. The issue is scheduled for discussion during the committee’s April 10, 2018 meeting in Philadelphia.

The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform has led the charge for an amendment to the rules of civil procedure that might counteract the potential ethical issues raised by the use of third-party funding arrangements in civil actions. Last summer, Lisa Rickard, president of the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform, sent a letter to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requesting that the rules be amended to require disclosure of all compensation agreements that are “contingent on, and sourced from, any proceeds of the civil action, by settlement, judgment or otherwise.”  Rickard’s letter includes a discussion of the following legal ethics concerns:

 (1) Impermissible sharing of legal fees: Model Rule 5.4(a), which bars almost all forms of sharing legal fees with non-lawyers, conflicts with some models of third-party litigation funding which involve plaintiffs’ counsel repaying the funder’s investment out of attorney’s fees;

(2) client confidentiality: the extent that funding arrangements require disclosure of client information to the funder raises confidentiality issues; and

(3) conflicts of interest: attorneys who have contracted directly with a funding company may have duties to that company that are inconsistent with the duties of loyalty to the client, including conflicts that arise when attorney’s are incentivized to recommend clients to work with favored funders.

The Institute proposed a similar amendment to the rules committee in 2014, but it did not receive much attention. The rise in third-party litigation funding in recent years has apparently enlivened opposition, as evidenced by the fact that 29 organizations joined  Rickard’s  letter that  proposes a disclosure requirement be included in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26.

“The industry has grown tremendously,” said Page Faulk, vice president of legal reform initiatives at the Chamber’s institute. “There have been a lot of developments since we originally submitted the petition, and we’re also hearing from other business groups about their concerns.” She added that more judges are also sharing the outlined concerns.

In fact, some courts have begun to address third-party litigation funding issues on their own, with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recently adopting a policy that permits class action defendants to discover whether their opponents are receiving funding from outside investors. And in March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would mandate the disclosure of third-party funding in class actions.

Commercial litigation funders, including industry giants Burford Capital and Bentham IMF, have opposed the proposal, arguing the rule would be invasive and unnecessary.

To read more click here.

Florida Firm Loses Again in Dispute Over Referral Fee Agreement

In a decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Florida law firm Michael E. Criden P.A. lost for the second time in its long-running effort to recover a share of $10 million in fees that another firm, Joseph Saveri Law Firm Inc., received in an antitrust litigation in California. Judge Richard D. Bennett’s decision held, among other things, that a fee sharing agreement with a lawyer’s former firm is not enforceable against his new firm.

Criden, who had established a fee-sharing arrangement with Saveri’s former firm, argued that Saveri should be bound by the terms of the agreement with that firm. Criden also claimed that Saveri agreed to abide by the fee-sharing arrangement when he left his former firm and founded his new and current firm.

However, the court held that Criden’s claims failed under basic principles of California corporate law and the legal ethics rules of the state of Maryland; specifically, Maryland Rule of Professional Conduct 19-301.5(e), which governs attorney fee-sharing arrangements.

Among other things, the court held that the 12.5 percent referral fee Criden sought to enforce violated the proportionality mandate in rule 19-1.5(e). This rule requires fee-sharing to be proportionate to each lawyer’s services, unless each assumes joint responsibility for the representation. What’s more, the client did not consent in writing to the purported fee-sharing arrangement as required by the rule. The opinion also noted that the rules of California and Florida would likewise prohibit Criden from enforcing the purported referral fee agreement.

Read the full opinion here.

Nebraska Lawyers Get the Green Light to Accept Bitcoin

In a recent ethics advisory opinion, the Nebraska Supreme Court Advisory Committee declared that attorneys may accept digital currencies such as Bitcoin as payment for legal services, but must immediately convert the currency into U.S. dollars. The opinion is the first by a state ethics body to consider how the ethics rules apply to lawyers accepting this controversial form of currency.

The fluctuating exchange rate of digital currency implicates ethics rules related to the reasonableness of attorney’s fees. The value of Bitcoin, for example, fluctuates as much as ten percent per day. This volatility in value presents the potential for overpayment for legal services.

To combat this risk, the opinion outlines three steps attorney’s must take when accepting payment in digital currencies: (1) notify the client that the payment will be immediately converted to U.S. dollars, (2) make the conversion through a payment processor, and (3) credit the client’s account at the time of payment. The opinion further advises attorney’s to be “careful to see that [digital currency] is not contraband, does not reveal client secrets, and is not used in a money-laundering or tax avoidance scheme; because convertible virtual currencies can be associated with such mischief.”

Read the full opinion here.

Is Avvo’s Referral Service Ethical? Florida May Add its Voice to the Chorus.

The New York State Bar Association recently joined other states that have found that the use of Avvo’s attorney referral service is impermissible as it violates the professional conduct rules that prohibit sharing fees with nonlawyers or paying a nonlawyer for a referral or recommendation. Avvo presents particular problems for the state bars as Avvo collects different fees depending upon the type of case that is referred to an attorney.

The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors is scheduled to consider programs like Avvo at a December 2017 meeting as part of an ongoing attempt to revise the attorney referral rules in Florida. The Florida Bar Rules currently prohibit attorneys from sharing fees with for profit referral companies.

Proposed Advisory Opinion 17-2, which has yet to be drafted, will address whether attorneys may participate in private lawyer referral services, including services such as Avvo. The Florida Bar has solicited comments from Florida Bar members, pursuant to Procedures 6(d) and (e) of The Florida Bar Procedures for Ruling on Questions of Ethics Comments may include issues to be considered, a proposed conclusion, or suggestions for additional types of fee arrangements. Comments will be considered at The Florida Bar’s Fall Meeting on October 13, 2017

To read The Florida Bar’s notice click here click here.

To read more about the other state opinions concerning Avvo check out the informative blog posts at The Professional Responsibility Blog and the Legal Ethics Alert Blogs here and here.

Florida Contemplates Fee Sharing with Out of State NonLawyers

A proposed advisory opinion by The Florida Bar’s Professional Ethics Committee addresses fee-splitting with out-of-state lawyers when the out-of-state lawyer practices in a law firm with nonlawyer ownership. In the opinion, the committee states that a Florida Bar member should not be subject to discipline simply because a nonlawyer owner of an out-of-state law firm could receive a portion of the legal fees.

Partnerships with out-of-state lawyers are hardly new, but tensions between Florida’s Rules of Professional Conduct, and the organization and ownership of out-of-state-firms led the Florida Bar to clarify the matter.

Under Florida Rule of Professional Conduct 4-5.4, lawyers are prohibited from partnering or sharing legal fees with a nonlawyer. However, some U.S. jurisdictions—Washington, D.C. and Washington state—permit nonlawyer ownership of law firms.

The Florida Bar proposed advisory opinion follows in the footsteps of ABA Formal Opinion 464, and several other jurisdictions, in deciding that nonlawyer ownership of law firms in jurisdictions where permissible should not cause collaborating Florida lawyers to violate the prohibition against fee sharing set forth in Rule 4-5.4.

The underlying policy of Rule 4-5.4  concerns the improper influence of a nonlawyer may on a  lawyer’s professional judgment. However in the scenario analyzed in the proposed opinion, Florida Bar committee believes that a lawyer’s professional independence is not at risk simply because a nonlawyer owner receives a portion of an out-of-state lawyer’s fees.

Ultimately, the proposed opinion encourages attorneys to work with out-of-state lawyers despite differences in ownership structure, and allows clients to maintain flexibility in choosing counsel from other jurisdictions. 

To read the proposed opinion please click here.  

From the Florida Bar webpage:

Pursuant to Rule 4(c) and (d) of The Florida Bar Procedures for Ruling on Questions of Ethics, comments from Florida Bar members are solicited on the proposed opinion. The committee will consider any comments received at a meeting to be held in conjunction with The Florida Bar’s Fall Meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, October 13, 2017, at the Tampa Airport Marriott.Comments should be submitted to Elizabeth Clark Tarbert, Ethics Counsel, The Florida Bar, 651 E. Jefferson Street, Tallahassee 32399-2300, and must be postmarked no later than August 15, 2017.