Part of my practice is devoted to consulting with lawyers regarding ethics questions that come up in their cases, their plans to leave a law firm (or how the firm should handle a lawyer’s departure), new marketing strategies and business ventures, and otherwise avoiding trouble. Lawyers sometimes fall into a trap of thinking that because they have a law degree, they should be able to handle any legal issue themselves, even if they do not have any experience in tax law or estate planning or some other area of the law. In contrast, successful law firms identify their niche or expertise, focus on that area, and rely on other professionals to handle their accounting, technology, or risk management. Different types of law firms have different needs, as discussed below.
Pricing for telephone consultations: The first 15 minutes of a new client consultation is free. After the first 15 minutes, I charge at my hourly rate with a minimum charge of $175. I have found that this arrangement allows lawyers to feel comfortable calling me up to ask a brief question but still permits me to charge for my legal advice for more complex matters.
Pricing for Law-Firm Departure Consultations. For associates, non-equity “partners,” and contract lawyers with six years or less experience, the typical cost (assuming no special circumstances apply) for advising you regarding your plans to leave your law firm is a flat fee of $700, which includes an in-person meeting with you, review of your employment contract or other employment documents, and follow-up calls and e-mails from the time of our in-person meeting until you leave the firm or for two months, whichever comes first. The fee does not include drafting of conflicts waivers or demand letters, negotiation with the firm you are leaving, or negotiations with your new firm. Those tasks are typically billed at my hourly rate in addition to the flat fee.
For lawyers with an ownership interest in their law firm or who have more than six years experience, the flat fee is typically $1,100 for the same services described above.
Solo and Small Firms: (up to around 10 lawyers) have two types of concerns. The first area of concern is the red flag. You or one of your colleagues is cruising along in a case and all of sudden you have a sickening feeling that you may have improperly contacted a represented party, missed a conflict of interest, or gotten an overdraft notice for your trust account. Or maybe opposing counsel has accused you of filing a frivolous claim or submitting false evidence in discovery. Whatever the situation, you need a fresh perspective and assistance in working through the facts of the problem to figure out whether you made a mistake and, if so, what steps you should take to fix it. If you were in a large firm you could go to the in-house ethics or risk management partner for guidance but that’s not the structure of your practice.
Rather than struggle through the problem yourself, contact me for an ethics consultation. After a conflicts check, I’ll assess whether your issue can be answered briefly, often without charge, or whether a more in-depth discussion is necessary. Unlike the advisory opinion service provided by the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, I can review relevant documents and assist you in drafting appropriate letters, retainer language, or consents to conflicts of interest.
The second concern that solo and small law firms have relate to the day-to-day practice of law. Often lawyers use retainer agreements and other forms that were handed down to them from other lawyers, or were used at a former law firm, or were discovered in a forms book. Solo and small firms may operate for years without being sure whether their retainer agreements comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct, whether they are properly maintaining their trust accounts, or how they can ethically collect their fees from their clients (fee collection, in fact, is an issue for all sizes of law firms).
Just like performing preventive maintenance on a house and have your car tuned up regularly, you should make sure your practice is running smoothly as well. For either an hourly or flat fee, I’ll review your retainer agreements, conflicts waivers, trust account records, and any other parts of your practice you’re concerned about.
Mid Sized Firms: Firms with between 10 and 50 lawyers often have growing pains. As the firm has become more successful, the conflicts-checking systems that worked for a smaller firm are overburdened. Lateral hiring has become more difficult. Uniform procedures are needed for file opening and closing but the managing partners never seem to have time to review the firm’s systems and recommend the necessary changes. Some partners fear that inconsistent decisions are being made about which matters the firm can safely accept without risking a future malpractice claim.
As outside ethics counsel, I can work with your firm to implement necessary systems and help you make consistent decisions about accepting close cases. Where screening procedures are appropriate, I can oversee the screen and make sure it gets implemented promptly. I can also resolve your day-to-day ethics questions quickly, so that your attorneys can work on their cases rather than spin their wheels researching ethics questions.
Large Firms: Most large firms have their own in-house risk management partner or ethics counsel who handles day-to-day ethics issues. Occasionally, the actions of one of the firm’s attorneys will create both potential malpractice liability for the firm and generate a parallel ethics complaint. Securing outside counsel for the attorney prevents possible conflicts of interest for the firm in trying to handle the ethics complaint in-house and shows the attorney that will support them by hiring independent counsel.
Even the threshold question of whether the firm has committed malpractice in handling a client’s case may place the firm in a conflict of interest, because the firm must look out for both its client’s interests and for the firm’s interest. Outside ethics counsel can help the firm work through the malpractice analysis and structure the discussions to provide the maximum attorney-client privilege protections for communications about the potential malpractice.