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Rule 5.4 Professional Independence of a Lawyer

(a) A lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a nonlawyer, except that:

(1) an agreement by a lawyer with the lawyer's firm, principal, or associate may provide for the payment of money, over a reasonable period of time after the lawyer's death, to the lawyer's estate or to one or more specified persons;

(2) a lawyer who purchases the practice of a deceased, disabled, or disappeared lawyer may, pursuant to the provisions of Rule 1.17, pay to the estate or other representative of that lawyer the agreed-upon purchase price;

(3) a lawyer who undertakes to complete unfinished legal business of a deceased lawyer or a disbarred lawyer may pay to the estate of the deceased lawyer or to the disbarred lawyer that portion of the total compensation that fairly represents the services rendered by the deceased lawyer or the disbarred lawyer;

(4) a lawyer or law firm may include nonlawyer employees in a compensation or retirement plan even though the plan is based in whole or in part on a profit-sharing arrangement; and

(5) a lawyer may share court-awarded legal fees with a nonprofit organization that employed, retained or recommended employment of the lawyer in the matter; and

(6) a lawyer or law firm may pay a portion of a legal fee to a credit card processor, group advertising provider, or online marketing platform if the amount paid is for payment processing or for administrative or marketing services, and there is no interference with the lawyer’s independent professional judgment or with the client-lawyer relationship.

(b) A lawyer shall not form a partnership with a nonlawyer if any of the activities of the partnership consist of the practice of law.

(c) A lawyer shall not permit a person who recommends, engages, or pays the lawyer to render legal services for another to direct or regulate the lawyer's professional judgment in rendering such legal services.

(d) A lawyer shall not practice with or in the form of a professional corporation or association authorized to practice law for a profit, if:

(1) a nonlawyer owns any interest therein, except that a fiduciary representative of the estate of a lawyer may hold the stock or interest of the lawyer for a reasonable time during administration; or

(2) a nonlawyer has the right to direct or control the professional judgment of a lawyer.


[1] The provisions of this Rule express traditional limitations on sharing fees. These limitations are to protect the lawyer's professional independence of judgment. Where someone other than the client pays the lawyer's fee or salary, or recommends employment of the lawyer, that arrangement does not modify the lawyer's obligation to the client. As stated in paragraph (c), such arrangements should not interfere with the lawyer's professional judgment.

[2] A determination under paragraph (a)(6) of this rule as to whether an advertising provider or online marketing platform (jointly “platform”) will interfere with the independent professional judgment of a lawyer requires consideration of a number of factors. These factors include, but are not limited to, the following: (a) the percentage of the fee or the amount the platform charges the lawyer; (b) the percentage of the fee or the amount that the lawyer receives from clients obtained through the platform; (c) representations made to prospective clients and to clients by the platform; (d) whether the platform communicates directly with clients and to what degree; and (e) the nature of the relationship between the lawyer and the platform. A relationship wherein the platform, rather than the lawyer, is in charge of communications with a client indicates interference with the lawyer’s professional judgment. The lawyer should have unfettered discretion as to whether to accept clients from the platform, the nature and extent of the legal services the lawyer provides to clients obtained through the platform, and whether to participate or continue participating in the platform. The lawyer may not permit the platform to direct or control the lawyer’s legal services and may not assist the platform to engage in the practice of law, in violation of Rule 5.5(a).

[3] This Rule also expresses traditional limitations on permitting a third party to direct or regulate the lawyer's professional judgment in rendering legal services to another. See also Rule 1.8(f) (lawyer may accept compensation from a third party as long as there is no interference with the lawyer's independent professional judgment and the client gives informed consent).

[4] Although a nonlawyer may serve as a director or officer of a professional corporation organized to practice law if permitted by law, such a nonlawyer director or officer may not have the authority to direct or control the conduct of the lawyers who practice with the firm.

History Note: Statutory Authority G.S. 84-23

Adopted by the Supreme Court: July 24, 1997

Amendments Approved by the Supreme Court: March 1, 2003; September 22, 2016; March 17, 2019

Ethics Opinion Notes

CPR 239. A law firm may set up a profit-sharing plan for firm members and lay employees.

CPR 289. It is improper for an attorney to agree to share a legal fee with a paralegal.

CPR 343. A succeeding attorney may share fees with a disbarred lawyer for services rendered prior to disbarment.

RPC 38. Opinion rules that attorneys in North Carolina may use attorney placement services which place independent contracting attorneys with other attorneys or firms needing assistance on a temporary basis for a placement fee.

RPC 104. Opinion rules that associate attorneys may be leased back to their firms.

RPC 147. Opinion holds that an attorney may not pay a percentage of fees to a paralegal as a bonus.

98 Formal Ethics Opinion 17. Opinion rules that a lawyer may not comply with an insurance carrier's billing requirements and guidelines if they interfere with the lawyer's ability to exercise his or her independent professional judgment in the representation of the insured.

2000 Formal Ethics Opinion 9. Opinion explores the situations in which a lawyer who is also a CPA may provide legal services and accounting services from the same office.

2001 Formal Ethics Opinion 2. Opinion rules that there is no prohibition on a law firm entering into a contract with a management firm to administer the firm provided the lawyers in the firm can fulfill their ethical duties including the duty to exercise independent professional judgment, the duty to protect and safe keep client property, and the duty to maintain client confidences.

2003 Formal Ethics Opinion 6. Opinion rules that a law firm may contract with a professional employer organization (PEO) to perform human resources, payroll, and other non-operational employment functions, including the employment of the lawyers of the firm, provided the PEO does not control or influence the lawyers' exercise of independent professional judgment.

2003 Formal Ethics Opinion 7. Opinion rules that a lawyer may not prepare a power of attorney for the benefit of the principal at the request of another individual or third-party payer without consulting with, exercising independent professional judgment on behalf of, and obtaining consent from the principal.

2003 Formal Ethics Opinion 10. Opinion rules that a Social Security lawyer may agree to compensate a nonlawyer/ claimant's representative for the prior representation of a claimant.

2004 Formal Ethics Opinion 13. Opinion rules that a lawyer may form a professional corporation for the practice of law and the professional corporation may enter into a law partnership with another such professional corporation.

2005 Formal Ethics Opinion 6. Opinion rules that the compensation of a nonlawyer law firm employee who represents Social Security disability claimants before the Social Security Administration may be based upon the income generated by such representation.

2006 Formal Ethics Opinion 4. Opinion rules that a lawyer may not participate in a prepaid legal services plan unless all the conditions for participation are met and participation does not otherwise result in a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

2006 Formal Ethics Opinion 11. Opinion rules that, outside of the commercial or business context, a lawyer may not, at the request of a third party, prepare documents, such as a will or trust instrument, that purport to speak solely for principal without consulting with, exercising independent professional judgment on behalf of, and obtaining consent from the principal.

2010 Formal Ethics Opinion 4. Opinion provides guidelines for participation in a barter exchange.

2011 Formal Ethics Opinion 4. Opinion rules that a lawyer may not agree to procure title insurance exclusively from a particular title insurance agency on every transaction referred to the lawyer by a person associated with the agency.

2011 Formal Ethics Opinion 10. Opinion rules that a lawyer may advertise on a website that offers daily discounts to consumers where the website company’s compensation is a percentage of the amount paid to the lawyer if certain disclosures are made and certain conditions are satisfied.

2012 Formal Ethics Opinion 10. Opinion rules a lawyer may not participate as a network lawyer for a company providing litigation or administrative support services for clients with a particular legal/business problem unless certain conditions are satisfied.

2013 Formal Ethics Opinion 7 . Opinion rules that a law firm may not share a fee from a tax appeal with a nonlawyer tax representative unless such nonlawyer representatives are legally permitted by the tax authorities to represent claimants and to be awarded fees for such representation.

2013 Formal Ethics Opinion 9. Opinion provides guidance to lawyers who work for a public interest law organization that provides legal and non-legal services to its clientele and that has an executive director who is not a lawyer.

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