Opinion rules that a retirement agreement may require a lawyer to accept inactive status as a condition of payment of retirement benefits.
Attorneys A, B, and C are partners in Law Firm ABC. Partner A desires to retire early at age 60. Partners B and C are willing for A to retire early and to pay A for his interest in the partnership. However, B and C desire to be assured that A will not continue to represent some of the firm's better clients, who are close friends of A. B and C have agreed to pay A for his interest in the partnership if he will voluntarily surrender his license to practice law in North Carolina, thereby preventing him from continuing to represent his friends who are also firm clients.
If A voluntarily surrenders his license, may the remaining partners continue to use the name Law Firm ABC?
Yes. A law firm may continue to include in the firm name that of a retired attorney who practiced with the firm up to the time of his retirement. Nothing about the continued use of the name Law Firm ABC, after A's retirement, violates Rule 2.3(a), Rule 2.1, or Rule 2.2.
If Law Firm ABC continues to use the same firm name after A's retirement, and if Law Firm ABC lists A's name individually on their letterhead where individual firm members and associates are listed, is the Firm required to indicate by A's name that he is retired?
Yes. To list A's name individually, where individual firm partners and associates are listed, without some indication that he is retired, could be misleading in violation of Rule 2.3(a) and Rule 2.1.
After A's retirement, may the remaining partners pay to A over a period of years an amount of money, or percentage, based either on the gross fees received by the firm from A's former clients or from all firm clients?
Yes. Rule 2.7(a) forbids a lawyer to be a party to or participate in an agreement with another lawyer restricting the right of a lawyer to practice law after termination of the relationship "except as a condition to payment of retirement benefits." Once Attorney A retires, a reasonable agreement, assuming there are no legal or constitutional questions about the validity of the agreement, may provide for restriction of Attorney A's right to practice as a condition to payment of retirement benefits. A percentage of fees paid to a retired attorney, either based on specific clients or on all clients, in view of his contribution to the development of the firm as an ongoing practice, is thus implicitly authorized by Rule 2.7(a). Attorney A, in giving up his right to practice law, would in fact be placed upon inactive status under G.S. §84-16, and Rule 3.2 is not in any way applicable since inactive attorneys are not considered nonlawyers.