Contracting with Professional Employer Organization to Handle Human Resources, Payroll and Other Functions for Law Firm
Opinion rules that a law firm may contract with a professional employer organization (PEO) to perform human resources, payroll, and other non-operational employment functions, including the employment of the lawyers of the firm, provided the PEO does not control or influence the lawyers' exercise of independent professional judgment.
A professional employer organization (PEO), as described in N.C. Gen. Stat. §58-89-5(6) and (8), provides a small business with an alternative to the traditional employment relationship between a company and its workers. An employer that enters into a service agreement with a PEO agrees that human resource, payroll, and other non-operational employment functions will be "outsourced" to the PEO. The PEO becomes the employing unit of the client company's workers. The service agreement typically obligates the PEO to pay the employees, pay and withhold payroll taxes, maintain workers' compensation coverage, provide employee benefit programs, establish protocols for consistent administration of human resource complaints, and provide worksite safety guidance. However, the worksite employees continue to be employees of the client company for all operational purposes. The client company continues to supervise and direct its core business operations and the employees who are operating the company. The PEO does not assume responsibility for the client company's business, does not direct or supervise the work, and does not participate in the profit and losses of the client company. The PEO's compensation is calculated as a percentage of payroll cost. The compensation is not related to the client company's operational income or the outcome of a client company's business transactions.
Formal Ethics Opinion 2001-2 ruled that there is no prohibition on a law firm entering into a contract with a management company to employ the nonlawyers in the firm, in the same manner as a PEO, provided the lawyers in the law firm can continue to fulfill their ethical duties, including the duty to exercise independent professional judgment, the duty to protect client property, and the duty to maintain client confidences. The opinion did not consider whether such an arrangement would be permissible if the employment of the firm's lawyers, as well as its nonlawyers, is outsourced.
To maximize efficiency and the economic benefit to a law firm, the entire employment function, including the employment of lawyers and nonlawyers, should be outsourced to the PEO. The PEO would not supervise or interfere with the law practice of the lawyers. The lawyers would be employees of the PEO only for payroll, tax reporting, benefit plans, workers' compensation, and other human resource-related functions. The compensation paid to the lawyers in the firm would be determined by the agreement between the lawyers who own or manage the firm. Is this arrangement prohibited by the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct (2003)?
Rule 5.4(a) of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct (2003) prohibits sharing legal fees with a nonlawyer and Rule 5.4(d) prohibits a lawyer from practicing in a professional corporation or association if a nonlawyer has the right to direct or control the professional judgment of a lawyer. As noted in comment , Rule 5.4 expresses the "traditional limitations on permitting a third party to direct or regulate the lawyer's professional judgment in rendering legal services to another."
There is no specific prohibition in the Rules on the arrangement described in this inquiry. Provided the PEO does not control, seek to influence, or interfere with the lawyers' exercise of professional judgment and the compensation paid to the PEO is a percentage of the payroll costs and not a percentage of the legal fees earned by the firm, the employment outsourcing arrangement described in this inquiry does not violate Rule 5.4. Moreover, if the law firm retains complete control of the legal practice, there should be no problems with conflicts of interest, protecting client property that is entrusted to the firm, or maintaining client confidentiality. See, e.g. , 2001 FEO 2.