ABA Formal Opinion 484 provides guidance when a client may need third party legal fee financing

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss ABA Formal Opinion 484, which addresses third party financing of the lawyer’s fees and concludes that a lawyer may refer a client to a fee financing companies even if the lawyer owns a financial interest in the lender or broker if the lawyer complies with ethical obligations, including fairness and full disclosure.  ABA Formal Opinion 484 is here: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/professional_responsibility/aba_formal_opinion_484.pdf

American Bar Association Formal Opinion 484, which was released on November 27, 2018, concludes that lawyers may refer clients to fee financing companies even if the lawyer owns a financial interest in the lender or broker with certain caveats and requirements.

The opinion outlines the various ways that fee financing services are being used, including a client’s direct application for a loan from a financing company to cover the lawyer’s fees, which the client then pays back to the lender with interest rates between 5 and 15 percent. In another situation, the lawyer pays an initial fee to a finance company in order to submit loan applications from clients and, if the client receives the loan, the lawyer receives the funds minus a 10 percent financing fee.  In a similar arrangement, the lawyer assists a client to set up what is amounts to a retainer or voucher for the fees through a lender minus a service charge.

In other situations, the funds loaned to the client may go directly to the client and the lawyer is notified, sometimes through an online portal a service, for which the lawyer pays. There are also “same as cash” programs, where the lawyer helps the client apply for the loan and, if a loan is made, the financial relationship remains between the lender and the client.  Finally, a lawyer may work with a financial brokerage company that helps find legal fee financing options.

In the above arrangements, the attorney making the referral does not have an ownership or financial interest in the lender or broker and must explain the arrangement so the client can make an informed decision.  The opinion states that these arrangements are permissible only if other Model Rules of Professional Conduct are met, including: Model Rule 1.2(c) (Scope of Representation and Allocation of Authority Between Client and Lawyer); Model Rule 1.4(b) (Communications); Model Rule 1.5(a) and (b) (Fees); Model Rule 1.6 (Confidentiality of Information); Model Rule 1.7(a)(2) (Conflict of Interest: Current Clients); and Model Rule 1.9(a) (Duties to Former Clients).

In a footnote, the opinion refers to Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 16-2 and states that this opinion “reason(ed) that legal fee financing is not impermissible fee sharing because it is a form of credit plan and Florida ethics rules permit lawyers to accept payments through credit plans, which include credit cards.”  That opinion specifically addressed the fees of a criminal defense lawyer.  Florida Bar Ethics Op. 16-2 is here:  https://www.floridabar.org/etopinions/etopinion-16-2/

The opinion only addresses situations where a lawyer is being paid from funds that a client borrowed and does not address a nonrecourse cash advance to a litigant in exchange for a percentage of the judgement or settlement.  According to the opinion, if a lawyer recommends a fee financing or brokerage company in which the lawyer has an ownership or financial stake, the lawyer must disclose the relationship, ensure fair and reasonable terms, advise the client to seek independent legal advice on the transaction, and obtain the client’s  written informed consent.

The ABA formal opinion further states that if a lawyer charges a higher fee to account for any transactional costs or subscription fees the lawyer must pay the lender, that fee must be reasonable and disclosed to the client. Additionally, the opinion cautioned that lawyers should not “recommend the finance company or broker to the client even though fee financing is not in the client’s interests because the client’s arrangement of financing best assures payment or timely payment of the lawyer’s fee.”

“Finally, although not among the fee financing scenarios of which the Committee has been made aware, it is conceivable that a lawyer might acquire an ownership or other financial interest in a finance company or brokerage, or wish to form such a business. If a lawyer did so and referred a client to that entity, the lawyer would be entering into a business transaction with the client or would be acquiring a security or pecuniary interest adverse to the client, or both. In those situations, the lawyer would need to comply with Model Rule 1.8(a) (which is substantially the same as Florida Bar Rule 4-1.8(a).”

Bottom line:  This ABA opinion sets forth the lawyer’s obligations related to third party financing of the lawyer’s fees and concludes that a lawyer may refer a client to a fee financing company even if the lawyer owns a financial interest in the lender or broker if the lawyer complies with all ethical obligations.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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About jcorsmeier

Joseph A. Corsmeier is an “AV” rated attorney practicing in Clearwater, Florida. He concentrates his practice primarily in the areas of defense of attorney disciplinary matters before The Florida Bar, attorney admission matters before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, and professional license and disciplinary matters before the Boards of the State of Florida. He provides expert analysis and opinion on conflict of interest and other attorney disqualification and legal malpractice issues and he testified as an expert in the Florida courts. He served as an Assistant State Attorney in the Sixth Judicial Circuit from 1986 to 1990 where he prosecuted felonies exclusively from June 1987, and as Bar Counsel for The Florida Bar’s Department of Lawyer Regulation from 1990 to 1998. He also practices in the areas of estate planning and Medicaid qualification, workers’ compensation, and labor law. Mr. Corsmeier is the author of numerous articles for various bar publications, has spoken at numerous local and statewide seminars on various topics, including ethics and professionalism, and was an instructor of legal ethics for paralegals at Rollins College until the Tampa campus closed. He received his undergraduate degree from Florida State University and his J.D. from Mercer University. He is admitted to practice in all Florida Courts, the Supreme Court of the United States, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and the Middle District of Florida. He is a member of The Florida Bar, American Bar Association, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, and the Clearwater and St. Petersburg Bar Associations.
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