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ABA Ethics 20/20 Discussion Draft on Outsourcing is Good News for Freelance Attorneys

ABA Model Rules outsourcingYesterday, the ABA’s Commission on Ethics 20/20 issued a discussion draft of proposed changes to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (or, more accurately, the comments to the Model Rules) as they relate to domestic and international outsourcing. The proposed changes don’t introduce anything new or surprising; rather, they merely elevate many of the points made in ABA Formal Op. 08-451 to the level of Model Rule comments.

The Draft Report Proposes Amendments to the Comments to Rules 1.1, 5.3 and 5.5

Rule 1.1 Competence states that “[a] lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” The Discussion Draft proposes the following additional comment to this rule:

Retention of Other Lawyers

[7] A lawyer may retain other lawyers outside the lawyer’s own firm to provide or assist in the provision of legal services to a client provided the lawyer reasonably concludes that the other lawyers’ services will contribute to the competent and ethical representation of the client. The reasonableness of the conclusion will depend upon the circumstances, including: the education, experience and reputation of the nonfirm lawyers; the nature of the services assigned to the nonfirm lawyers; and the legal and ethical environment in which the services will be performed. When retaining lawyers and others outside the lawyer’s own firm, the requirements of Rule 5.5(a) must be observed. When using the work of nonfirm lawyers in providing legal services to a client, a lawyer must also reasonably conclude that such work meets the standard of competence under this Rule. If information protected by Rule 1.6 will be disclosed to the nonfirm lawyers, informed client consent to such disclosure may be required. For example, if the rules, laws or practices of a foreign jurisdiction provide substantially less protection for confidential client information than that provided in this jurisdiction, the lawyer should obtain the client’s informed consent to such disclosure

Many of these factors are identical to those already noted in Comment 1 to Rule 1.1 (“[1] In determining whether a lawyer employs the requisite knowledge and skill in a particular matter, relevant factors include the relative complexity and specialized nature of the matter, the lawyer’s general experience, the lawyer’s training and experience in the field in question . . . .”). Additionally, Op 08-451 contained similar warnings, and recommended similar disclosures, for firms outsourcing abroad; those warnings and disclosure requirements are discussed in my August 2008 analysis of Op 08-451.

Rule 5.3 Responsibilities Regarding Nonlawyer Assistants provides:

With respect to a nonlawyer employed or retained by or associated with a lawyer:

(a) a partner, and a lawyer who individually or together with other lawyers possesses comparable managerial authority in a law firm shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer;

(b) a lawyer having direct supervisory authority over the nonlawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer; and

(c) a lawyer shall be responsible for conduct of such a person that would be a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if engaged in by a lawyer if:

(1) the lawyer orders or, with the knowledge of the specific conduct, ratifies the conduct involved; or

(2) the lawyer is a partner or has comparable managerial authority in the law firm in which the person is employed, or has direct supervisory authority over the person, and knows of the conduct at a time when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fails to take reasonable remedial action.

The Discussion Draft proposes the following additional comment to this rule:

[3] The responsibilities stated in this Rule also apply when a lawyer or law firm utilizes nonlawyer service providers outside the lawyer’s or law firm’s office to assist in rendering legal services to clients. The lawyer or law firm must make reasonable efforts to ensure that the activities of any nonlawyer service providers are compatible with the lawyer’s professional obligations. The extent of this obligation will depend upon the circumstances, including: the education, experience and reputation of the nonlawyer service providers; the nature of the services involved; the requirement to protect client information; and the legal and ethical environment in which the services will be performed. Where the client has chosen or suggested a particular nonlawyer service provider, the lawyer or law firm ordinarily should consult with the client concerning the allocation of responsibility for monitoring as between the client and the lawyer or law firm. If information protected by Rule 1.6 will be disclosed to nonlawyer service providers outside the lawyer’s or law firm’s office, informed client consent to such disclosure may be required. For example, if the rules, laws or practices of a foreign jurisdiction provide substantially less protection for confidential client information than that provided in this jurisdiction, the lawyer should obtain the client’s informed consent to such disclosure.

As noted in the Draft Report, the factors listed in this proposed new comment essentially parallel the factors recited in the proposed new comment to Rule 1.1. The factors are consistent with the discussion in Op. 08-451 concerning a lawyer’s supervisory responsibilities when outsourcing.

Finally, Rule 5.5 Unauthorized Practice Of Law; Multijurisdictional Practice Of Law provides, in relevant part, that

(a) A lawyer shall not practice law in a jurisdiction in violation of the regulation of the legal profession in that jurisdiction, or assist another in doing so.

(b) A lawyer who is not admitted to practice in this jurisdiction shall not:

(1) except as authorized by these Rules or other law, establish an office or other systematic and continuous presence in this jurisdiction for the practice of law; or

(2) hold out to the public or otherwise represent that the lawyer is admitted to practice law in this jurisdiction.

* * *
(d) A lawyer admitted in another United States jurisdiction, and not disbarred or suspended from practice in any jurisdiction, may provide legal services in this jurisdiction that:

(1) are provided to the lawyer’s employer or its organizational affiliates and are not services for which the forum requires pro hac vice admission; or

(2) are services that the lawyer is authorized to provide by federal law or other law of this jurisdiction.

The Draft Report recommends this brief addition to Comment 1 (new text is underlined):

[1] A lawyer may practice law only in a jurisdiction in which the lawyer is authorized to practice. A lawyer may be admitted to practice law in a jurisdiction on a regular basis or may be authorized by court rule or order or by law to practice for a limited purpose or on a restricted basis. Paragraph (a) applies to unauthorized practice of law by a lawyer, whether through the lawyer’s direct action or by the lawyer assisting another person. For example, a lawyer may not assist a person in practicing law in violation of the rules governing professional conduct in that person’s jurisdiction.

Significantly, the Draft Report does not recommend any changes to either the Model Rules or their comments with respect to the issue of billing for outsourced services. Indeed, the Draft Report explicitly states that the “extensive commentary” accompanying “Model Rule 1.5 (“Fees”) and the wealth of ethics opinions available treating myriad specific questions relating to the reasonableness of fees for both legal and non-legal services” “reveals that no special language needs to be added to [Model Rule 1.5] to remind lawyers . . . that [the Rule is] applicable to outsourcing practices. Thus, the discussion of fees in Op. 08-451 (among others) remains applicable:

. . . the fees charged by the outsourcing lawyer must be reasonable and otherwise comply with the requirements of Rule 1.5. In Formal Opinion No. 00-420, we concluded that a law firm that engaged a contract lawyer could add a surcharge to the cost paid by the billing lawyer provided the total charge represented a reasonable fee for the services provided to the client. This is not substantively different from the manner in which a conventional firm bills for the services of its lawyers. The firm pays a lawyer a salary, provides him with employment benefits, incurs office space and other overhead costs to support him, and also earns a profit from his services; the client generally is not informed of the details of the financial relationship between the law firm and the lawyer. Likewise, the lawyer is not obligated to inform the client how much the firm is paying a contract lawyer; the restraint is the overarching requirement that the fee charged for the services not be unreasonable.

In other words, under Op. 08-451 (which is consistent on this issue with all other ethics opinions that have addressed the question, save Texas), it remains perfectly ethical for outsourcing attorneys to earn a profit on services provided by freelance lawyers.

The Draft Report and Proposed Amendments Support Domestic Outsourcing

Although, in the introduction to the Draft Report, the Commission disclaims any intent to either endorse or reject the practice of outsourcing by solos and small firms the Draft Report, like Op. 08-451, discusses the benefits of outsourcing:

For several reasons, outsourcing may appeal to the clients of U.S. lawyers and law firms as well as to the lawyers and law firms themselves. The work may be better done outside the firm because of efficiencies developed and utilized by providers of outsourced services. There are potential and possibly substantial cost-savings, whether the work is outsourced to providers in the U.S. or elsewhere. This cost differential may be of particular benefit to solo practitioners and small and medium-sized U.S. law firms, allowing them to compete more aggressively for large matters without fear that if they secure employment by the client they may lack adequate resources to perform the legal work.

The Commission notes that domestic outsourcing remains more common than international outsourcing. Since the Commission has not undertaken to conduct a survey of outsourcing by firms of any size, it’s not surprising that this observation isn’t supported by statistics. However, it’s consistent with my own observations (and those of the National Association of Freelance Legal Professionals) about outsourcing patterns among solos and small firms. The preference for domestic outsourcing among solos and small firms is, of course, beneficial for freelance lawyers.

Finally, in addition to the discussion draft, the Commission also released a number of related documents, including a bibliography; a compilation of the the comments it received (including the comment I submitted in conjunction with the National Association of Freelance Legal Professionals); a transcript of the public hearing; and written submissions from the public hearing. In my next post, I’ll summarize the comments, submissions and transcript as they relate to outsourcing by solos and small firms.

The Commission is seeking comments on the discussion draft by January 31, 2011. You can email comments to Senior Research Paralegal, Natalia Vera, at veran@staff.abanet.org.

Comments (3)

  1. […] Last November, I reported that the ABA’s Ethics 20/20 Commission had issued issued a discussion draft of proposed changes to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (or, more accurately, the comments to the Model Rules) as they relate to domestic and international outsourcing. I explained that the proposed changes to the comments to Model Rules 1.1 (Competence), 5.3 (Responsibilities Regarding Nonlawyer Assistants) and 5.5 (Unauthorized Practice of Law; Multijurisdictional Practice of Law) didn’t introduce anything new or surprising; rather, they merely elevated many of the points made in ABA Formal Op. 08-451 to the level of Model Rule comments. […]

  2. […] to the Model Rules) as they relate to domestic and international outsourcing. As I explained in my analysis of the discussion draft, the proposed changes didn’t introduce anything new or surprising; rather, they primarily […]

  3. […] revising the ABA Model Rules comments concerning outsourcing was a two-year process that involved involved multiple drafts and garnered hundreds of pages of comments, because the proposed changes to the […]

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