Proprietary Interest in Domestic Client's Support Payments
Opinion rules that a lawyer may not acquire a proprietary interest in the subject matter of domestic litigation by obtaining a client's authorization to instruct the clerk of superior court to forward the client's support payments to the lawyer to satisfy the client's legal fees.
Attorney has a fee agreement that he would like to use with his clients. In the agreement, the client promises to pay Attorney a "nonrefundable retainer fee" which "shall become the sole property of Attorney." Pursuant to the agreement, the services of Attorney are to be charged at $125 per hour. The retainer will be applied against accrued legal fees until the retainer is exhausted. The excess amount will then be billed on a monthly basis. The agreement further provides that in the event the legal matter is settled or there is a reconciliation in a domestic action, Attorney shall keep the "retainer fee" unless Attorney withdraws from the representation of the client. In the event Attorney withdraws, the agreement provides that Attorney will be compensated for the actual time spent on the legal matter at Attorney's regular hourly rate and any portion of the "nonrefundable retainer fee" in excess of this amount shall be refunded to the client. The agreement also contains the following provision:
In matters pertaining to alimony and/or child support, in the event of nonpayment of fees as provided in paragraph 5 herein, I hereby authorize Attorney to direct the clerk of superior court to forward all alimony and/or child support payments for my benefit to the offices of Attorney until such time as my bill is paid in full. I further authorize Attorney, or his agent, to endorse any alimony and/or child support checks so forwarded in my name such that said check(s) may be deposited in the bank trust account of Attorney. Attorney and I agree that he may withdraw and apply up to 50 percent of any such payments deposited in his trust account for application to any past due account balance, with the balance paid to me.
Are the provisions of the agreement in compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct?
No. The provision of the agreement authorizing the clerk of court to pay the client's alimony and/or child support payments directly to Attorney in the event that the client's legal fees are unpaid violates Rule 5.3(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct. This provision essentially gives Attorney a security interest in the client's child support and/or alimony payments which Attorney has been hired to pursue. Rule 5.3(a) prohibits a lawyer from acquiring a proprietary interest in the subject matter of the litigation he is conducting for a client except that he may (1) acquire a lien granted by law to secure his fee, or (2) contract with a client for a reasonable contingent fee in civil cases. The exception allowing a lawyer to secure a fee by asserting a lien granted by law does not apply in this situation because statutory liens do not arise by contractual agreement between a lawyer and a client. See Chapter 44A. The purpose of the prohibition on acquiring an interest in the subject matter of litigation is to prevent a lawyer from having a personal financial stake in the outcome of the case which may adversely affect the lawyer's professional judgment. In the instant case, Attorney's security interest in the future child support and/or alimony payments of his client may cloud his professional judgment with regard to the negotiation and resolution of the domestic dispute including the issue of the client's right to and the amount of child support and alimony.
With regard to the other provisions of the fee contract, lawyer may charge a client an advance fee against which future services will be billed and may pay the money to himself immediately if the client agrees the fee is earned immediately. See RPC 158. The agreement in the present inquiry should fully disclose to the client and the client should explicitly agree that the advance fee (which the agreement incorrectly describes as a "nonrefundable retainer," see RPC 50) will be paid to Attorney immediately and not held in Attorney's trust account for the possible refund of any excess balance at a later date. It should be noted that despite the provision of the agreement stating that the excess balance will be refunded only if Attorney withdraws, if a lawyer's services are terminated, any portion of the fee that is clearly excessive may be refundable to a client whether the fee is deposited in the trust account or the operating account. See RPC 158.