Opinion 576

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QUESTION PRESENTED
May a lawyer who represents a client in a contingent fee personal injury case enter into an agreement with a lending company owned by non-lawyers under the terms of which the lending company would agree to reimburse the lawyer for litigation expenses in the case as incurred and the lawyer would agree to repay, in the event of a recovery in the lawsuit, the amounts advanced plus a funding fee equal to a fixed percentage of any amount recovered in the case but subject to an agreed maximum?

STATEMENT OF FACTS
A lawyer represents a client on a contingent fee basis in a personal injury case. Because the client cannot afford to fund the litigation expenses necessary to prosecute the lawsuit, the lawyer must advance all such expenses. A lending company owned by non-lawyers has offered to fund the litigation expenses in the case for the promise of a funding fee contingent on the client’s recovery in the lawsuit. The agreement between the lending company and the lawyer would call for the lending company to reimburse the lawyer for litigation expenses actually incurred and for the lawyer to repay the amounts advanced for expenses plus a funding fee equal to a fixed percentage of any amount recovered (net of litigation expenses but not legal fees) when and if the client recovered in the lawsuit. The maximum amount of the funding fee would be limited by a cap equal to a specified multiple of the litigation expenses incurred in the case. For example, under an agreement where the funding fee percentage was 1% and the cap amount was equal to two times the litigation expenses, if the client’s recovery net of expenses was $1,000,000 and the litigation expenses were $50,000, then the funding fee that the lawyer would be obligated to pay to the lending company would be $10,000 (1% of $1,000,000) and the agreed cap would not limit the amount of the funding fee.

The agreement would be solely between the lawyer and the lending company. The client would not be a party to the contract and would not owe money or have any other obligations to the lending company. The agreement would provide that the lending company would have no special rights to any of the proceeds of the lawsuit, such as a lien or security interest in the client’s portion of the recovery or in the lawyer’s contingent fee. Instead, the agreement would provide that the obligation to pay the lending company would be merely the general unsecured obligation of the lawyer. The agreement would provide further that the funding fee would not be charged to the client as an expense. In the example above, the litigation expenses advanced would be repaid from the proceeds of the recovery, but the $10,000 funding fee would be paid by the lawyer (presumably, but not necessarily, from his portion of the contingent fee). Additionally, the agreement between the lawyer and the lending company would require full disclosure to the client of the agreement and consent from the client for the lawyer to enter into the agreement. The agreement would also require the lawyer to maintain independence of judgment as to all aspects of the lawsuit and control of the litigation. The lending company would not be permitted to have any control of the lawsuit or contact with the client and would not be permitted access to any confidential information except as was necessary to determine the expenses to be reimbursed and the amount of the client’s ultimate recovery.

DISCUSSION
Whether the proposed arrangement constitutes a fee-sharing agreement with a non-lawyer is the primary concern here. Rule 5.04(a) of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct clearly prohibits lawyers from sharing legal fees with non-lawyers. Rule 5.04(a) provides that, with exceptions not here relevant, “A lawyer or law firm shall not share or promise to share legal fees with a non-lawyer . . . .” The principal reasons for this prohibition are to prevent solicitation by lay persons of clients for lawyers and to avoid encouraging or assisting non-lawyers in the practice of law. See Comment 1 to Rule 5.04(a).

Recently, in a context similar to the one presented here, this Committee, citing Rule 5.04(a), determined that the Texas Disciplinary Rules would be violated by a lawyer who agreed, as a term of a loan agreement with a finance company that was loaning the lawyer money for litigation expenses in a contingent fee case, to pay to the finance company a percentage of his contingency fee in addition to the principal and interest on the loan. Professional Ethics Committee Opinion 558 (May 2005). There, the lawyer’s agreement with the non-lawyer finance company plainly called for paying to a non-lawyer a specific portion of the lawyer’s fee, unquestionably the very practice forbidden by Rule 5.04(a).

In a different context, this Committee approved in Opinion 481 (January 1994) an arrangement under which a client paid for legal services by borrowing monies equal to the legal fee from a for-profit finance company, which paid the lawyer directly 90% of the funds borrowed by the client. The finance company retained the remaining 10% and additionally charged lawyers a fee to participate in the program. Recognizing the principal reasons for the prohibition on fee splitting as set forth in Comment 1 to Rule 5.04(a) and noting that the finance company did not solicit clients for any participating lawyer and that it did not perform any legal services, the Committee expressed its belief that under these circumstances “. . . the retention by the finance corporation of a reasonable portion of the amount borrowed by the client is properly viewed as [a] finance arrangement rather than a fee-splitting arrangement subject to the prohibition.”

The proposed arrangement here is similar to the fee-splitting arrangement rejected in Opinion 558 rather than the finance arrangement approved in Opinion 481. The funding fee in the circumstances here addressed would be tied directly to the amount of the recovery in the underlying litigation just as was the payment to the finance company in Opinion 558. The amount of the recovery in a lawsuit is largely determined by the lawyer’s knowledge, skill, experience and time expended. See American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility Formal Opinion 94-389 (December 5, 1994). By tying the proposed funding fee to a percentage of the recovery, the lending company would be directly benefiting from the lawyer’s knowledge, skill, experience and time expended to the detriment of the lawyer, who would be solely responsible for paying the funding fee. This would be tantamount to fee splitting.

Finally, this result is consistent with the policy considerations underlying Rule 5.04(a). In Opinion 467 (November 1990), this Committee ruled that a law firm’s office lease with a non- lawyer landlord that provided for rent that could be a percentage of the law firm’s gross receipts constituted an agreement to share legal fees with a non-lawyer in violation of Rule 5.04(a). The Committee reasoned that a percentage rental agreement is prohibited for lawyers because an arrangement under which a non-lawyer landlord could receive a percentage of legal fees earned by a law firm would create an incentive for the landlord to refer legal business to the law firm, a result that Rule 5.04(a) is intended to prevent. Similarly, the proposed arrangement here would create an incentive for the lending company to refer cases to lawyers using its services.

CONCLUSION
Under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer who represents a client in a contingent fee personal injury case may not enter into an agreement with a lending company owned by non-lawyers under the terms of which the lending company would agree to reimburse the lawyer for litigation expenses in the case as incurred and the lawyer would agree, in the event of a recovery in the case, to repay the lending company the amount advanced by the lending company and to pay a funding fee equal to a specified percentage of the amount recovered in the case net of expenses but subject to an agreed maximum.

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