Valuing Effect of Lawyer’s Departure in Firm Agreement
Opinion rules that a partnership, shareholders, or other similar agreement may include a repurchase or buy-out provision that takes into account the loss in firm value generated by the lawyer's departure provided the provision is fair and is not based solely upon loss in value due to the loss of client billings.
Law Firm requires all its shareholders to sign an agreement providing for the purchase of shares by incoming shareholders and the repurchase of those shares by the firm upon each shareholder's departure. Attorney A, a shareholder at Law Firm, is leaving to join another firm. A number of clients have elected to have Attorney A continue their representation after he leaves the firm.
Pursuant to the agreement, in the event a departing shareholder takes clients with him, the repurchase obligation of Law Firm is reduced according to the following formula:
The purchase price shall be reduced...by an amount equal to one hundred twenty-five Percent (125%) of the work in process generated by employees of the corporation during the twelve (12) months preceding the event requiring or permitting the stock purchase on behalf of clients of the corporation for whom the shareholder or law firm with whom the shareholder is or becomes associated, performs legal services during the twelve (12) month period following the event requiring or permitting the stock purchase...
In no event does the stock purchase price become reduced below zero.
Assume that the value of Attorney A's stock is $20,000. After leaving Law Firm, Attorney A will continue to represent clients who have traditionally generated more firm revenue than the value of Attorney A's stock. Therefore, Law Firm's repurchase obligation to Attorney A under the circumstances is zero.
Does the above provision violate the Rules of Professional Conduct?
Yes. Rule 5.6(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct reads as follows:
A lawyer shall not participate in offering or making:
(a) a partnership, shareholders, operating, employment, or other similar type of agreement that restricts the right of a lawyer to practice after termination of the relationship, except an agreement concerning benefits upon retirement;
Rule 5.6 protects two important ethical principles: the right of clients to legal counsel of their choice and lawyer mobility. Although this provision is not like a typical covenant not to compete in that it does not have geographical or temporal restrictions, it does tie the decrease in share value to the fact that the departed lawyer represents former clients of the firm. By so doing, the provision provides a disincentive for the departing lawyer to represent clients with whom the lawyer has a prior relationship, penalizes the departing lawyer for representing former clients of the firm, and restricts the lawyer's right to practice. Moreover, the provision does not appear to measure the devaluation of the lawyer's shares in the firm due to the lawyer's departure. If a provision in a firm agreement penalizes a lawyer for taking clients, will dissuade a lawyer from continuing to represent firm clients after his departure, or does not otherwise fairly represent the devaluation of ownership interest in the firm engendered by the lawyer's departure, it violates Rule 5.6(a). See e.g., 2001 FEO 10 (purpose of employment agreement was to discourage competitive activity and was, therefore, unethical).
Nevertheless, Rule 5.6(a) does not prohibit a repurchase provision in a firm agreement that takes into account the financial effect of a lawyer's departure from a firm. However, the provision must include a more refined approach for evaluating the loss of value due to the lawyer's departure. For example, a provision that takes into account various economic factors that affect the value of the firm's shares, such as long-term financial commitments to staff and for space and equipment leases originally made by the firm in reliance upon the departing lawyer's continued contribution to the firm, may be acceptable under the rule. To the extent that a contractual provision represents a fair assessment of the forecasted devaluation in the ownership interest in the firm engendered by a lawyer's departure and does not penalize the lawyer for taking clients with him, the provision might not violate Rule 5.6(a).