5.04 Professional Independence of a Lawyer
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(a) A lawyer or law firm shall not share or promise to share legal fees with a non-lawyer, except that:
(1) an agreement by a lawyer with the lawyer's firm, partner, or associate, or a lawful court order, may provide for the payment of money, over a reasonable period of time, to the lawyer's estate to or for the benefit of the lawyer's heirs or personal representatives, beneficiaries, or former spouse, after the lawyer's death or as otherwise provided by law or court order.
(2) a lawyer who undertakes to complete unfinished legal business of a deceased lawyer may pay to the estate of the deceased lawyer that proportion of the total compensation which fairly represents the services rendered by the deceased lawyer; and
(3) a lawyer or law firm may include non-lawyer employees in a retirement plan, even though the plan is based in whole or in part on a profit-sharing arrangement.
(b) A lawyer shall not form a partnership with a non-lawyer if any of the activities of the partnership consist of the practice of law.
(c) A lawyer shall not permit a person who recommends, employs, or pays the lawyer to render legal services for another to direct or regulate the lawyer's professional judgment in rendering such legal services.
(d) A lawyer shall not practice with or in the form of a professional corporation or association authorized to practice law for a profit, if:
(1) a nonlawyer owns any interest therein, except that a fiduciary representative of the estate of a lawyer may hold the stock or interest of the lawyer for a reasonable time during administration;
(2) a nonlawyer is a corporate director or officer thereof; or
(3) a nonlawyer has the right to direct or control the professional judgment of a lawyer.
1. The provisions of Rule 5.04(a) express traditional limitations on sharing legal fees with nonlawyers. The principal reasons for these limitations are to prevent solicitation by lay persons of clients for lawyers and to avoid encouraging or assisting nonlawyers in the practice of law. See Rules 5.04(d), 5.05 and 7.03. The same reasons support Rule 5.04(b).
2. The exceptions stated in Rule 5.04(a) involve situations where the sharing of legal fees with a nonlawyer is not likely to encourage improper solicitation or unauthorized practice of law. For example, it is appropriate for a law firm agreement to provide for the payment of money after the death of a lawyer, or after the establishment of a guardianship for an incapacitated lawyer, to the estate of or to a trust created by the lawyer. A court order, such as a divorce decree, may provide, when appropriate, for the division of legal fees with a nonlawyer. Likewise, the inclusion of a secretary or nonlawyer office administrator in a retirement plan to which the law firm contributes a portion of its profits or legal fees is proper because this division of legal fees is unlikely to encourage improper solicitation or unauthorized practice of law.
3. Rule 5.04(a) forbids only the sharing of legal fees with a nonlawyer and does not necessarily mandate that employees be paid only on the basis of a fixed salary. Thus, the payment of an annual or other bonus does not constitute the sharing of legal fees if the bonus is neither based on a percentage of the law firms profits or on a percentage of particular legal fees nor is given as a reward for conduct forbidden to lawyers. Similarly, the division between lawyer and client of the proceeds of a settlement judgment or other award in which both damages and attorney fees have been included does not constitute an improper sharing of legal fees with a nonlawyer. Reimbursement by a lawyer made to a bona fide or pro bono legal services entity for its reasonable expenses in connection with the matter referred to or being handled by the lawyer does not constitute a division of legal fees within the meaning of Rule 5.04.
4. Because the lawyer-client relationship is a personal relationship in which the client generally must trust the lawyer to exercise appropriate professional judgment on the client's behalf, Rule 5.04(c) provides that a lawyer shall not permit improper interference with the exercise of the lawyer's professional judgment solely on behalf of the client. The lawyer's professional judgment should be exercised only for the benefit of the client free of compromising influences and loyalties. Therefore, under Rule 5.04(c) a person who recommends, employs, or pays the lawyer to render legal services for another cannot be permitted to interfere with the lawyer's professional relationship with that client. Similarly, neither the lawyer's personal interests, the interests of other clients, nor the desires of third persons should be permitted to dilute the lawyer's loyalty to the client.
5. Because a lawyer must always be free to exercise professional judgment without regard to the interests or motives of a third person, the lawyer who is employed or paid by one to represent another should guard constantly against erosion of the lawyer's professional judgment. The lawyer should recognize that a person or organization that pays or furnishes lawyers to represent others possesses a potential power to exert strong pressures against the independent judgment of the lawyer. The lawyer should be watchful that such persons or organizations are not seeking to further their own economic, political, or social goals without regard to the lawyer's responsibility to the client. Moreover, a lawyer employed by an organization is required by Rule 5.04(c) to decline to accept direction of the lawyer's professional judgment from any nonlawyer in the organization.
6. Rule 5.04(d) forbids a lawyer to practice with or in the form of a professional corporation or association in certain specific situations where erosion of the lawyer's professional independence may be threatened. The danger of erosion of the lawyer's professional independence sometimes may exist when a lawyer practices with associations or organizations not covered by Rule 5.04(d). For example, various types of legal aid offices are administered by boards of directors composed of lawyers and nonlawyers, and a lawyer should not accept or continue employment with such an organization unless the board sets only broad policies and does not interfere in the relationship of the lawyer and the individual client that the lawyer serves. See Rule 1.13. Whenever a lawyer is employed by an organization, a written agreement that defines the relationship between the lawyer and the organization and that provides for the lawyer's professional independence is desirable since it may serve to prevent misunderstanding as to their respective roles.