f/k/a . . . the archives

June 29, 2005

our outsourcing decision affirmed (by me)

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 6:11 pm

In Comments here and here, respectively, Lisa Solomon and Carolyn Elefant

have disagreed with yesterday’s post when outsourcing, just pass on the cost 

(June 28, 2005).  I believe a lawyer/firm should (1) tell a client whenever legal

services are going to be done by a “temporary” lawyer outside of the firm (or,

as in the article that touched off the topic, by individuals overseas not licensed

to practice in the firm’s jurisdiction); and (2) charge the client no more than the

actual amount paid for the outsourced services (plus any properly allocated

overhead), unless the client is fully informed that a surcharge is being added

and told the amount of the surchage.

 

First, let me reiterate a few tenets from my philosophy of “legal ethics”:



  • For me, what is “ethical” is broader than “what you can

    get away with under the Rules or Code.”  [Carolyn asked

    "What's the most equitable -- and ethical -- result?"]



  • The legal profession continually fails to apply fidicuary principles

    in the context of fees — which is where it often means the most

    to clients. (see prior post)




  • The good ficudiary keeps the client fully informed and follows

    all the “shoulds”, not just the “musts” found in ethical opinions.





  • When it comes to fees, it is particularly obvious that lawyer

    self-regulation has left the foxes guarding the hen house, with

    only a few sleepy watchdogs watching the foxes.

That being said, the opinions cited by Lisa Solomon are not convincing

regarding what a law firm’s obligation should be to a client when legal

services are provided by temporary lawyers or off-shore lawyers. ABA

Ethics Opinion 88-356, which is stressed by Lisa, is particularly unpersuasive 

 

 

DISCLOSURE of OUTSOURCED Legal Services

 

 

Op. 88-356 correctly concludes that “where the temporary lawyer is performing

independent work for a client without the close supervision of a lawyer

associated with the law firm, the client must be advised of the fact that the

temporary lawyer will work on the client’s matter and the consent of the client

must be obtained.”  Disagreeing with this limited obligation, ethics committees in 

numerous states have correctly expanded the disclosure-agreement mandate to

all or virtually all utilization of out-of-firm legal service providers.



  • See Oliver v. Board of Governors, Kentucky Bar Ass’n, (Ky. 1989),

    779 SW 2d 212 (disclosure should be made of a firm’s intention to use a

    temporary attorney “in any capacity, in order to allow the client to make

    an intelligent decision whether on not to consent to such an arrangement.”  

    Ill. St. Bar Ass’n Advisory Op. on Prof. Conduct Op. 92-97 (Jan. 22, 1993);

    Ohio Bd. of Comm’rs on Grievances and Discipl. Op. No. 90-23 (Dec. 14,

    1990) (requiring disclosure of temporary lawyers under Code of Prof.

    Conduct); Bar of City of New York Comm. on Prof. and Judicial Ethics,

    Op. No. 1988-3 (Mar. 31, 1988), reaff’d, Ethics Op. 1989-2 (May 10,

    1989) (“The Committee continues to believe that the law firm has an ethical

    obligation in all cases . . . to make full disclosure in advance to the client of

    the temporary lawyer’s participation . . . and to obtain the client’s consent.”);  

    D.C. Ethics Opinion 284 (disclosure required “whenever the proposed use

    of a temporary lawyer to perform work on the client’s matter appears

    reasonably likely to be material to the representation or to affect the

    client’s reasonable expectations.”);  “Contract Lawyers in Kentucky, by

    Del O’Roark, KBA Bench & Bar, Vol. 61 No. 2, Spring 1997; and  “The

    Economics and Ethics of Hiring a Temporary Lawyer,” by Peter Gardner, re

    Vermont and New Hampshire, and fn. 31 on other sources).

 

PERMISSIBLE FEES on OUTSOURCED Legal Services

 

 

Once you have disclosure to the client of the use of outsourcing for legal services, you

will surely be faced with (1) a client smart enough to ask, “how much will the cost you

and how much will you charge me? or (2) a client not smart enough to ask that question.

In either situation, the ethical fiduciary will fully inform the client of the financial arrange-

ment (what else is a fiduciary for?), allowing the client to enter into informed decision-

making or negotiation. 

 

commandments Lisa Solomon points primarily to ABA Op. 88-356 for the proposition that no disclosure

is necessary of the amount paid by the firm for the services, and the conclusion that profit

can be added to the cost entailed by the firm.  Unfortunately, there is very little reasoning

in the ABA Opinion.  Here’s the entire discussion.


“Assuming that a law firm simply pays the temporary lawyer reasonable

compensation for the services performed for the firm and does not charge

the payments thereafter to the client as a disbursement, the firm has no

obligation to reveal to the client the compensation arrangement with the

temporary lawyer.  Rule 1.5(e), relating to division of a fee between lawyers,

does not apply in this instance because the gross fee the client pays the firm

is not shared with the temporary lawyer.  The payments to the temporary

lawyer are like compensation paid to nonlawyer employees for services and

could also include a percentage of firm net profits without violation of the Rules

or the predecessor Code.”

The same approach is taken by other Committees after Op. 88-356.  Beyond saying

that the total fee has to be reasonable, there are two themes:


(1)  Just don’t call it a disbursement, and you can charge more than cost;

(2)  It’s not a “split fee”, so you don’t have to disclose anything about the

financial situation.

This is, for me, not the reaction of a proud profession of fiduciaries who always put

the client’s interests first.  It’s lawyers “lawyering” and using semantics to get more

money from their clients.  The Virginia Bar Ethics Opinion 1712 (1998) spelled out

the ploy:  



“Whether a law firm retaining a Lawyer Temp must

disclose its payment arrangement with the staffing agency

to the client depends on the particular facts.  ABA Opinion

88-356 stated, and California Formal Opinion 1994-138

agreed, that when the hiring firm does not charge the Lawyer

Temp’s compensation to the client as a disbursement, there

is no obligation to disclose the compensation arrangement

with the Lawyer Temp to the client.  On the other hand, if

the payment made to the staffing agency isbilled to the client

as a disbursement, or a cost advanced on the client’s behalf

(for example, “To-Reimbursement of costs advanced to staffing

agency for temporary lawyer”), then the hiring firm must disclose

the actual amount of the disbursement and also disclose any

mark-up of  or surcharge on the amount actually disbursed to

the staffing agency.”

 

“. . . Since the charge is not represented to be the hiring law

firm’s actual disbursement of funds for client-reimbursement,

the hiring firm does not thereby misrepresent as an out-of-pocket

disbursement what is actually its out-of-pocket disbursement

plus a mark-up.”

 

The Virginia committee says whether there is a need to disclose the  honest

financial arrangement for the temporary services  “depends on the facts.

However, the facts are the same — it is only the nomenclature used on the

Billing Invoice that is different. 

 

A similar bit of lawyering is done with the “fee split” issue.  The Committees

should be saying: “What is this situation most like?  Isn’t it very analogous to

a fee split?  The money that the client pays for the package of legal services

goes in reality to two different legal service providers.  We should give the

client the same treatment afforded in Rule 1.5(e) –  full disclosure of the

arrangement and the right to consent to it — “including the share each lawyer

will receive” — before the arrangement is made.   

 

Instead, the Friendly Watchdogs say, “Hey, it’s not a fee split, the client just

pays a single bill to the original law firm.  See [how clever we are], no fee is

actually split.”  So eager were they to find this loophole, none of the Ethics

Committees have bothered to acknowlege the wording in Comment [7] to

Model Rule 1.5.  It says very clearly:


“A division of fee is a single billing to a client covering the fee of

two or more lawyers who are not in the same firm.”

It is difficult to say which principal (other than the one saying the client always

gets the short side of the wishbone) is being served by ignoring how much this

“division of fee” parallels the Temporary/Outsourced Lawyer situation — where

the client receives a single billing covering the legal services of both the original

firm and the “temporary lawyer.”   




  • Surely, the client’s right to disclosure and consent can’t depend on

    whether the Temporary Lawyer is paid before or after the client

    pays the bill that charges for the Temp’s legal services.

The Virginia ethics committee, along with Carolyn Elefant, make an analogy,

to billing for associate hours, which is more than the associate is paid per

hour in salary.   Ethics Opinion 1712 gushes:


“That the associate is an employee and the Lawyer Temp is

an independent contractor seem to be a distinction without a

difference in terms of non-disclosure of the spread between

compensation paid and rates charged.  In each instance the

spread, or the mark-up, is a function of the cost of doing

business including fixed and variable overhead expenses, as

well as a component for profit. In each instance, too, DR 2-

105(A)(1) mandates that a lawyer’s fees shall be reasonable.”

spiltBucketG   With all due respect, there seem to be quite a few important differences:


tiny check Virtually every client is well aware that billing rates for associates

are higher than associate hourly pay.  They expect that the lawyer

is paying benefits, and overhead and trying to make a profit from

the working of associates.

 

tiny check Some savvy clients are very much aware of how much associates

are likely to be making and may very well negotiate their hourly rates

using that information.

 

tiny check  The firm has significant overhead expenses and sunk costs related to

each associate, and has every right to make a profit for taking the

entrepeneurial risk and using the resources well.  The firm also cannot

readily lay off associates when times get slow — not without greatly

affecting morale and perhaps provoking law suits.


Firms often point to figures showing that per-associate

overhead is an enormous percentage of their hourly billing

rates.  Why aren’t they willing to disclose similar ratios for

cost-plus-profit billing that is based on $10 per hour legal

services performed in India? 

tiny check  The firm has virtually no overhead expenses or sunk costs related to the

Temp — independent contractor — lawyer.  The firm can also use temporary

services when needed and eschew them when not needed.  There is no

entrepeneurial risk.  The risk of not being fully paid for the disbursements

for temporary lawyers is not different than other kind of third-party costs.

The firm has ways to guard against that risk.

 

tiny check  Most clients would be surprised and irked to know that a law firm was

attempting to create profit-centers for services that are obtained outside the

firm — especially if such services have traditionally been reimbursed by the

client as disbursements and costs that are charged separately. 

Let’s end with Carolyn’s ultimate question: “Finally, if profit is what it takes to encourage

this type of arrangement – which is clearly beneficial to a conventional law firm set up,

then why not reward those attorneys who do it? ”  There are already plenty of reasons

for law firms to use these arrangements.  As Del O’Roark points out, “contract lawyering

offers flexibility to the profession. It allows a firm to leverage its output in peak times or

meet one-time requirements for a lawyer with special expertise without taking on all the

overhead.”  Peter Gardner echoes these conclusions:


“It appears that temporary lawyers can, indeed, be an integral part

of a firm’s business strategy as long as applicable professional ethics

provisions are understood and complied with. A temporary lawyer is

typically an experienced independent contractor who provides consistent,

high quality work product on specific or general projects for law firms

and solo practitioners (I will refer to both as “firms”). A temporary lawyer

enables a firm to manage work flow and resources efficiently and cost-

effectively, and may even be less expensive to a client than were a firm

to engage outside counsel.”

“Outsourcing” can make a law firm more competive — more responsive to the needs

of the client (so long as quality is assured and efficiencies realized).  Firms should not

need extra inducement to adopt the practice. 

 

If traditional rules on the treatment of disbursements and dividing fees make sense  complaint bill

ethically — and I believe they do — they should be followed regarding outsourcing and

the use of temporary lawyers.  Fully-informed clients should be allowed to make 

reasoned decisions and to bargain from strength with their fiduciary-lawyers. We

should not leave the decision to use a temporary lawyer or off-shore legal service

provider solely to the lawyer.  And, we should not leave it to the lawyer to decide

the size of any mark-up above the firm’s costs for such services.


 

4 Comments

  1. I continue to disagree with your analysis on this issue, as well as your conclusion that a lawyer may not charge a client more than the amount actually paid for outsourced legal services unless the client is told the amount of the surcharge.

    (

    Comment by Lisa Solomon — June 29, 2005 @ 11:07 pm

  2. I continue to disagree with your analysis on this issue, as well as your conclusion that a lawyer may not charge a client more than the amount actually paid for outsourced legal services unless the client is told the amount of the surcharge.

    (

    Comment by Lisa Solomon — June 29, 2005 @ 11:07 pm

  3. i-6c367ea9071029384f3d60f691da65f6-i Very good work, nice webpage.

    Comment by Charlotte Inches — July 12, 2005 @ 4:45 am

  4. i-6c367ea9071029384f3d60f691da65f6-i Very good work, nice webpage.

    Comment by Charlotte Inches — July 12, 2005 @ 4:45 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress