Ownership of Stock in Title Insurance Agency
Opinion rules that a lawyer who owns any stock in a title insurance agency may not give title opinions to the title insurance company for which the title insurance agency issues policies.
Attorney A has been invited to purchase shares of stock in a new North Carolina corporation to be called "Title Agency." Pursuant to a written contract, Title Agency will be an agent of Title Insurer for the purpose of issuing title policies and title commitments. Title Agency will do business in conformity with G.S. §58-27-5 and will comply with the prohibition on the unauthorized practice of law set forth in Chapter 84 of the General Statutes. Attorney A will give Title Insurer title opinions regarding transactions for which Attorney A acts as the closing lawyer. Attorney A is not an agent of Title Insurer and will not be an employee of Title Agency or a person holding a license pursuant to Chapter 58 of the General Statutes. Attorney A would like to acquire stock in Title Agency without violating the requirements of CPR 101 or engaging in any other unethical conduct. What percentage of the shares of stock of Title Agency may Attorney A acquire without violating the Rules of Professional Conduct?
CPR 101 held that it is unethical for a lawyer who owns a substantial interest, directly or indirectly, in a title insurance company, agency, or agent, who acts as a lawyer in a real estate transaction insured by such title insurance company or through such agency or agent, to receive any commission, fee, salary, dividend, or other compensation or benefit from the title insurance company, agency, or agent, regardless of whether the ownership interest is disclosed to the client for whom the services are performed.
CPR 101 was based on the Code of Professional Responsibility which has been supplanted by the Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 5.1(b) now governs potential conflicts of interest between a lawyer's own interests and the representation of a client. The rule disqualifies a lawyer from representing a client if the representation of the client may be materially limited by the lawyer's own interests unless: 1) the lawyer reasonably believes that the representation will not be adversely affected; and 2) the client consents after full disclosure.
CPR 101 authorized a lawyer who owns an insubstantial interest in a title insurance agency to render title opinions to the title insurer and to receive compensation from the title insurance agency in the form of dividends or otherwise. Even an insubstantial interest in a title insurance agency, however, could materially impair the judgment of a closing lawyer. RPC 49 addresses a closing lawyer's duty to his or her client when the lawyer owns shares in a realty firm that will realize a commission upon the closing of the transaction. RPC 49 states that the conflict of interest is too great to be allowed even if the client wishes to consent. This conflict is also present when a title agency, and, therefore, indirectly the closing lawyer who owns an interest in the title agency, will receive compensation from the client as a result of the closing of the transaction. The lawyer's personal interest in having the title insurance agency receive its compensation could conflict with the lawyer's duty to close the transaction only if it is in the client's best interest.
This opinion does not prohibit a lawyer from owning stock in a publicly traded title insurance company.