Receiving Compensation from Potentially Adverse Party
Opinion rules that a lawyer may accept compensation from a potentially adverse insurance carrier for representing a minor in the court approval of a personal injury settlement provided the lawyer is able to represent the minor's interests without regard to who is actually paying for his services.
Attorney A frequently receives a case from an insurance adjustor who has negotiated a settlement of a minor's personal injury claim with the unrepresented family of the minor. Typically, the insurance adjustor will request that Attorney A obtain court approval of the settlement. Attorney A usually asks an attorney in private practice to represent the minor and his or her parents, if they also have a claim, in connection with a "friendly lawsuit" which is filed in the appropriate court for judicial approval of the minor's settlement. The attorney who is representing the minor is paid directly by the insurance company in order to avoid reducing the negotiated settlement amount. May the attorney who is representing the minor and the parents accept payment from the liability insurance company without violating any of the provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct?
Yes. Rule 5.6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct allows a lawyer to be paid from a source other than the client provided the following conditions are met:
(a) The client consents after full disclosure;
(b) There is no interference with the lawyer's independence of professional judgment or with the client-lawyer relationship; and
(c) Information relating to representation is protected as required by Rule 4.
When a lawyer undertakes to represent a minor and his or her parents under the circumstances described in Inquiry #1, he is bound by the duty of loyalty to represent the best interests of his clients "without regard to who is actually paying for [his] services or the interests of such other third party or entity." CPR 346. If the lawyer reasonably believes the payment arrangement will adversely affect his representation of the minor and the minor's family, the lawyer must decline the employment. See Rule 5.1(b)(l).
If it is unethical to accept a legal fee paid by the insurance company outside of the settlement, is it ethical for the attorney representing the minor and the parents to charge a flat rate to the family for his services in aiding the approval of the minor's settlement and then allow the insurance company to add the amount of that flat rate to the total settlement so that the amount received and retained by the minor and the parents is the same as the amount for which they originally negotiated?
See Opinion #1 above.