Lawyer Owned Adoption Agency
Opinion rules that a lawyer who handles adoptions as part of her or his law practice and also owns a financial interest in a for-profit adoption agency may, with informed consent, represent an adopting couple utilizing the services of the adoption agency but may not represent the biological parents.
Attorneys A and B, who handle independent adoptions as part of their law practice, also manage a for-profit adoption agency called “Adopt a Child.” Adopt a Child is a limited liability company. Attorneys A and B receive compensation from Adopt a Child. The agency’s office is located in separate office space within Attorneys A and B’s firm. It has a separate telephone number, signage, fax machine, and copy machine. Adopt a Child is staffed by one employee. Adopt a Child contracts with independent social workers to screen and counsel birthmothers. Without assistance or influence from Attorneys A and B, a social worker conducts a home study on the adopting couple. The social worker then prepares a report which is reviewed by a supervisor and a review committee. A director of Adopt a Child may or may not be a member of the review committee. If the review committee approves the home study, the adoption proceeds. The adopting couple then engages a lawyer to represent their interests. If the home study report is unfavorable, the report is sent to the Department of Social Services. The adopting couple thereafter cannot become a client of Adopt a Child.
Typically, adopting couples learn about Adopt a Child through the agency’s website and advertisements. An initial consultation with Attorney A or Attorney B is arranged. Attorney A or Attorney B meets with the adopting couple to discuss the adoption process. If the adopting couple has identified a child to adopt, then Attorneys A and B proceed with the legal work necessary to complete an independent adoption. If the adopting couple is interested in adoption, but needs assistance in finding a child, a list of licensed adoption agencies is provided to the adopting couple. The adopting couple is informed that Attorneys A and B manage and own Adopt a Child. The adopting couple is encouraged to investigate other available agencies. If the adopting couple decides to use Adopt a Child, the adopting couple is given an application form and asked to pay a $200 application fee. Once approved, the adopting couple becomes a client of Adopt a Child.
Adopting couples pay a $4,500 fee to Adopt a Child, which gives adopting couples the following services: a completed home study, a family profile by a local artist, a two-page website, and access to birthmothers. Once there is a match between a birthmother and an adopting couple, the adopting couple signs a fee contract with the law firm and pays a legal fee to the law firm for legal services. Additional fees may occur in the form of pass-through costs for the birthmother’s living and medical expenses, and legal fees as necessary for termination of parental rights, interstate legal representation, etc. The adopting couple is informed that if there is a conflict of interest, such as a dispute between the birthmother and the adopting couple or between the adopting couple and Adopt a Child, the adopting couple must hire another lawyer to represent them.
May Attorneys A and B co-manage and accept compensation as managers of Adopt a Child and provide legal services to the adopting couple and Adopt a Child?
Yes. The primary concern in this inquiry is the ability of Attorneys A and B to identify and manage conflicts of interest. Actual or potential conflicts of interest exist based on (1) the lawyers’ ownership of Adopt a Child, and (2) the referral of an adopting couple represented by Attorney A or Attorney B to Adopt a Child, or the referral of a client of Adopt a Child to Attorney A or Attorney B for legal representation in the adoption.
Rule 1.7 prohibits concurrent conflicts of interest. One type of concurrent conflict of interest exists if the representation of one or more clients may be materially limited by a personal interest of the lawyer. Comment  to Rule 1.7 provides, “[t]he lawyer's own interests should not be permitted to have an adverse effect on representation of a client. In addition, a lawyer may not allow related business interests to affect representation, for example, by referring clients to an enterprise in which the lawyer has an undisclosed financial interest.”
Before Adopt a Child may refer an adopting couple to Attorney A and Attorney B for legal services, the agency, acting through the two lawyers, must reasonably conclude that the lawyers can adequately protect the interests of the adopting couple and that their professional judgment on behalf of the adopting couple will not be adversely affected by their financial interest in Adopt a Child. The adopting couple must give informed consent to the representation, confirmed in writing. As part of the disclosure necessary for informed consent, the adopting couple must be informed that in the event of a conflict between the adopting couple and Adopt a Child, Attorneys A and B must withdraw from the representation and the adopting couple will need to obtain new counsel. See Rule 1.7(b).
If a couple that wants to adopt are already clients of either Attorney A or Attorney B, the lawyers may refer the couple to Adopt a Child for adoption services only in compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct.
The referral of the adopting parents to Adopt a Child implicates Rule 5.7 as well as Rule 1.8. Adopt a Child provides “law-related services.” Rule 5.7 sets out the ethical responsibilities for a lawyer who provides such services. Comment  to Rule 5.7 provides that when a client-lawyer relationship exists with a person who is referred by a lawyer to an ancillary business controlled by the lawyer, the lawyer must comply with Rule 1.8(a) pertaining to business transactions with clients. See also Rule 1.8, cmt. . Pursuant to Rule 1.8(a) a lawyer may only enter into a business transaction with a client if: (1) the transaction and terms are fair and reasonable to the client and are fully disclosed and transmitted in writing in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client; (2) the client is advised in writing of the desirability of seeking, and is given a reasonable opportunity to seek, the advice of independent legal counsel on the transaction; and (3) the client gives informed consent, in writing signed by the client, to the essential terms of the transaction and the lawyer's role in the transaction. Accordingly, a lawyer must make these disclosures and secure the requisite consent before providing law related services to a client.
In 2000 FEO 9, the Ethics Committee held that a lawyer who was also a certified public accountant could provide legal services and accounting services from the same office. The opinion cites Rule 1.7 and provides that the lawyer may offer accounting services to his legal clients, provided the lawyer fully discloses his self-interest in making a referral to himself, and the lawyer determines that the referral is in the best interest of the client.
Before referring legal clients to Adopt a Child, Attorneys A and B must make an independent professional determination that the services offered by Adopt a Child will best serve the interests of the adopting couple. In addition, the adopting couple must be informed that, if they become clients of Adopt a Child, they are not obligated to employ Attorneys A and B to handle the legal work related to an adoption, and that they have the right to legal counsel of their choice. Likewise, if a couple comes in for a legal consultation concerning adoption, Attorneys A and B must explain the relationship between Adopt a Child and their firm and their financial interest in the agency before referring the adopting couple to their agency. The adopting couple must be given access to other agencies and the freedom to choose another adoption agency even if they decide to retain Attorneys A and B to perform their legal work.
If Attorneys A and B comply with the requirements set out in Rule 1.7(b), Rule 1.8(a), and Rule 5.7, they may refer their legal clients to Adopt a Child. Similarly, if Attorneys A and B comply with the requirements of Rule 1.7(b) and Rule 1.8(a), they may accept referrals from Adopt a Child.
May Attorneys A and B simultaneously represent the adopting couple, Adopt a Child, and the birth parent(s)?
No. Rule 1.7(a) provides that a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest. A concurrent conflict of interest exists if (1) the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client; or (2) the representation of one or more clients may be materially limited by the lawyer's responsibilities to another client.
In an informal opinion, the ABA opined as follows,
An adoptionis a highly emotional undertaking for both the adoptive and the biological parent. In such situations, the lawyer must take particular care that the client fully understands the significance of the legal actions being taken. The lawyer has the obligation not only to advise the client of the legal rights and responsibilities, but also to counsel regarding the advisability of the action contemplated. See Rule 1.4. The biological parent is entitled to a full disclosure of all rights and obligations involved in the consent to the adoption, revocation of consent, post-adoptive rights, and post-adoptive restrictions, as well as the rights and obligations assumed by the adoptive parent. Where represented by counsel, the biological parent has the right to expect the lawyer to anticipate the consequences of the surrender and advise accordingly.
The rights surrendered by the biological parent and those assumed by the adoptive parent are in potential conflict. The biological parent's right to revoke the consent is in direct conflict with the interests of the adoptive parent. The biological parent has the right to independent advice regarding the revocation of the consent.
The lawyer representing the adoptive parent owes the duty to counsel the adoptive parent and to assist the adoptive parent in securing the consent and avoiding revocation. The rights of the adoptive parent after the adoption decree is final may be antagonistic to perceived rights of the biological parent.
The inherent conflicts cannot be reconciled. Thus, the lawyer seeking to represent both the adoptive and biological parents in a private adoption proceeding cannot have a reasonable belief that the representation of one client would not adversely affect the relationship with or representation of the other client. See Rule 1.7
ABA Comm. on Ethics and Prof'l Responsibility, Informal Op. 87-1523 (1987).
We agree with the reasoning of the ABA opinion and conclude that it is a nonconsentable conflict for Attorneys A and B to represent the birth parents and simultaneously represent the adopting couple and/or Adopt a Child.
What, if any, communication may Attorneys A and B have with a birth parent?
Rule 4.3 provides,
[i]n dealing on behalf of a client with a person who is not represented by counsel, a lawyer shall not: (a) give legal advice to the person, other than the advice to secure counsel, if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the interests of such person are or have a reasonable possibility of being in conflict with the interests of the client; and (b) state or imply that the lawyer is disinterested. When the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the unrepresented person misunderstands the lawyer's role in the matter, the lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to correct the misunderstanding.
Any communication between a birth parent and the law firm must be limited to providing or collecting information to be used to complete the forms required by Adopt a Child.
Attorneys A and B must ensure that the birth parent(s) are provided with a written disclosure statement that explains that Adopt a Child is not a law firm; Attorneys A and B do not represent the birth parent(s) and cannot provide the birth parent(s) with legal advice; any communication with the law firm does not create a client-lawyer relationship; and the birth parent(s) are entitled to retain separate legal representation; and that the adopting couple will pay the legal fees.