Ethics Advisory Opinion advises lawyers: stay away from Expertise.com

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Ethics Advisory Opinion 22-02 fielded two marketing questions from a lawyer concerning a website, Expertise.com. This website finds and reviews service professionals and states that it researches businesses by using customer referrals, public records, accreditations and licenses and mystery shoppers.

Some law firms are listed on the site without the knowledge of the lawyers through the site’s unilateral research and screening. The site states that it lists businesses alphabetically, but it allows law firms to submit to be reviewed and included at no cost. The site indicates this process takes approximately one year to complete.  A law firm can also purchase a “featured placement” to take advantage of being seen first on the website page and to include links to the law firm’s social media.

The lawyer’s questions were:

  1. If an attorney or law firm pays for a featured placement on Expertise.com, does that attorney violate Rule 7.4(b) by holding the law firm and its attorneys out as experts by virtue of the website’s name?

2. Does paying for a featured placement on Expertise.com violate Rule 7.2(c)?

The Ethics Advisory Committee responded definitely: “Lawyer may not participate in any way in marketing via Expertise.com.” Actively participating in an online business listing at a website whose stock language violates the advertising rules is itself a violation of the advertising rules, according to the Committee.

The Committee referred to an earlier EAO: 09-10 which opined that a lawyer who adopts, endorses, or claims an online directory listing takes responsibility under the Rules for all content of the listing and general content of the directory itself, regardless of who created the material. While the prior opinion focused on comparative language contained in client testimonials and endorsements submitted to the website, the reasoning applies to content created by the host that violates some other rule, like 7.4(b), according to the current EAO.

Regardless of the creator of the offending content and regardless of which rule it violates, the Committee’s view is that a lawyer may not adopt, endorse, claim, or contribute to any online listing that contains language or other material that would violate the Rules if created and disseminated directly by the lawyer.

Paying for a featured placement within a business directory website is not itself a violation of Rule 7.2(c) if the payment obligation or amount is not tied to the referral of business as a quid pro quo, according to the EAO. In the Committee’s view, if a featured placement is the only benefit received in exchange, the payment would be a “reasonable cost of advertisement” under the 7.2(c)(1) exception.

However, the Committee believes a lawyer may not pay Expertise.com for a featured placement because that step would be prohibited by Rule 7.4(b).

Be careful out there, lawyers!

Wire fraud continues to be a significant problem

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My preacher has suffered several email hacking schemes that prey on church members with kind hearts.

He has sent out a written notification and has announced from the pulpit more than once that church members have reported to him that they sent money because of his very touching email requests about persons in need…email requests that he never made. He assured his congregation that if he needs specific funds for specific needs, he will make phone calls. He shared that preacher friends of his have reported similar schemes. The fake emails always report that he is unavailable to take phone calls but that the need is urgent and immediate.

Phone calls may be the key to fraud prevention!

A lawyer friend of mine called me this week to ask an opinion on a potential client’s case. Help me answer the question: Does a closing attorney have a duty to make a telephone call to clients who may need to wire funds in connection with a closing to warn about the dangers of wire fraud and how to prevent the loss of closing funds?

I don’t know the answer to that question. My gut reaction is that the standard in our communities in South Carolina is that lawyers should provide very specific instructions on wiring instructions and engagement letters to prevent this type of fraud. I’ve seen several excellent examples of red-letter, bolded warnings.

Chicago Title in South Carolina continues to see a rise in the amount of fraud and attempted fraud in connection with real estate closings. The most recent memorandum was sent out to agents on February 2. Most of these incidents involve hacked emails where a party to the transaction fails to maintain strong computer or email security.

Unfortunately, law firms with significant security measures in place have also been victims of these schemes. The hackers typically submit altered payoff letters or wiring instructions to divert the funds. Like the emails that have plagued my preacher, the forged emails, wiring instructions and payoff letters look very similar to legitimate documents.

Here is the current advice on preventing these disasters in your law firms:

  1. Obtain payoff information and wiring instructions early in the transaction so that there is ample time to review them and confirm their authenticity.
  2. Review every payoff and wiring instruction to determine whether it appears authentic on its face. Many fraudsters are excellent at spoofing letterheads and logos, but sometimes, you may see tell-tale signs.
  3. Compare each payoff letter and wiring instruction to prior instructions to determine whether account numbers have been changed.
  4. If the wire is going to an entity to which you have previously sent wires, compare the new information with the prior transaction. If you save wiring instructions in your systems, make sure that repository is secure and cannot be easily shared.
  5. Verify every wiring instruction verbally using a known and trusted telephone number. Do not use telephone numbers provided in the instructions themselves unless you can verify its validity.
  6. If you cannot verify the instructions verbally or have doubts about the transaction, consider mailing, overnighting or even hand delivering a check to a confirmed address instead of using a wire.

Chicago Title has developed an excellent APP for your cell phone that contains the information you will need in the event your law firm or your clients become victims of fraud. As always, I highly recommend Chicago Title!

Advice for purchaser clients: obtain a survey!

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Advice for lawyers: paper your file when clients refuse!

On this cold, wet Monday morning, I was wondering what I could write to help my real estate lawyer friends through a February week in South Carolina. Then I remembered this news article from the U.S. Sun an excellent dirt lawyer friend from the coast sent to me. His quote was: “I wish I could get all buyers to read it when they turn down a survey.” Perhaps you can use this article to convince a client or two.

Any of us who are old enough to have practiced in the 1990s will remember a time when lenders and title insurance companies required current surveys for every closing. A current survey is a great tool for a real estate lawyer to review along with the title work. Comparing the boundary lines with the title work and checking for easements, encroachments and such horrible mishaps as sewer lines running under improvements gave the lawyer and client a great deal of comfort.

Our backdoor neighbors were once Steve and Wendy Spitz. Many real estate lawyers in South Carolina attribute our knowledge and enthusiasm for the practice to Steve’s property classes in law school. We both built in a new subdivision, and a corner of the Spitz home, as revealed by a survey, sat squarely on a City of Columbia water easement. That builder’s mistake was corrected prior to closing by negotiating with the City to move the easement. Thankfully, the water line itself was not a problem.

To hold down closing costs, at some point in the 1990s lenders began to eliminate the requirement for a survey in most residential closings if the lender could obtain title insurance survey coverage. One of the title insurance companies agreed to provide survey coverage to lenders without a new survey. There were some requirements back then, like having a survey of record showing the improvements or having an affidavit from the owner that nothing had changed since the prior survey.

Then, for competitive reasons, all the title insurance companies caved. Current surveys were no longer required. Over the years, the requirements were even softened.

My thought was that the title companies had unceremoniously hung the lawyers out to dry. Previously, the closing attorney simply told the client that a survey was required to close. With the change, the closing attorney had to convince the client of the need for a survey despite the added cost. I believe one of the biggest traps for the unwary closing attorney is failing to advise purchaser clients to obtain surveys and failing to paper files when surveys are rejected.

And don’t even mention the surveyors! They were collectively and understandably furious that they had lost a large portion of their business. I remember being the sacrificial lamb who was sent to speak to a statewide group of surveyors on behalf of the title insurance industry. It wasn’t pretty.

Here’s another story from my neighborhood. A kindly preacher friend bought a house several doors down from us. The free-standing garage had been added prior to my friend’s purchase and well after the original construction. My friend did not obtain a current survey. When he sold the house, a new survey revealed that the garage violated the side setback line by more than ten feet, and the purchaser refused to close. Keep in mind that contracts typically require sellers to give marketable title. A setback violation of this magnitude may be insured over by a title insurance company, but the title may not be marketable. This purchaser was within his rights to reject this title.

By that time, the developer, a Greenville based insurance company, had sold all the lots, and took the position that it could no longer waive violations of the restrictions even though the restrictions clearly allowed for developer waivers. The solution was that my friend went door to door to obtain the signatures of the required majority of the owners. Thankfully, my friend was a very nice guy, and the neighbors were willing to accommodate his request by signing the waiver.

Today, title insurance policies have evolved to the point that survey coverage is often given to owners without current surveys. But the example above demonstrates that title insurance coverage may not cure the underlying problem. Title insurance can never create marketable title. And title insurance claims may take time and cause aggravation that clients will not appreciate.

So let your clients read the linked article and advise them to obtain surveys. And, if they refuse, obtain  informed consent confirmed in writing for your file!

Lawyers, as we begin 2022, let’s take care of our mental health!

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I was impressed once again during the holidays with the fact that some people, and especially some lawyers, don’t enjoy “the most wonderful time of the year”, and I wanted to encourage everyone especially every lawyer who needs help to get help now.

You may have heard about a fellow lawyer in Lexington who committed suicide a few weeks ago, leaving three daughters to grieve his loss. We have all heard news stories of a low country lawyer who has fallen from grace in spectacular fashion with mental health playing a major part in his saga.

My church held a “Blue Christmas” service in early December. This service brought home to me the sorrowful point that many people are unusually sad during the holidays.

Many among us are suffering from the uncertainty and isolation caused by the COVID pandemic. Just when we were beginning to think things were getting much better on that front, we are now being warned about the dangers of the Omicron variant that has created a new surge.

I don’t often recommend books in this blog and especially not works of fiction, but I recently read a novel that handled the impact of COVID so well that I highly recommend it to you. Wish You Were Here, a 2021 novel by Jodi Picoult, gives voice to medical professionals through a New York doctor who works in an emergency department. As the author said in her afterword, we will never be able to thank these professionals for what they have done for us, for what they have seen and for what they have been through.

The book also gives voice to a COVID survivor who spent time on a ventilator. Through this character, we see the importance of some lessons COVID has taught us.

These lessons are particularly important to lawyers. Specifically, the things that are significant in life are not monetary, they are not about the next case or closing. They are not about work at all. COVID has taught us to appreciate the present moment, to appreciate the beauty of nature, and to hold our loved ones close. We must understand that at the end of our lives, our work will not be important at all, but our loved ones will.

We, as lawyers, are supposed to be problem solvers. We are supposed to be strong. We are not supposed to have problems. But lawyers do have mental health problems. I read one statistic that indicated lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.

In order to pass our “character and fitness” check to become lawyers and in order to keep our licenses for the long haul, we tend to hide our mental health problems. Having problems and hiding the problems can create perfect storms in our lives.

I encourage any lawyer who is particularly unhappy as the year begins to get help! Therapy is a good thing! You might begin by calling South Carolina Bar’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers toll free helpline at (866) 545-9590 or contact any Lawyers Helping Lawyers member directly. But begin somewhere! The resources are available, and they are helpful.  Please, please seek help if you need it. 

And, in the meantime, I wish for all of you a wonderful 2022!

Happy New Year!

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Watch out for those recurring dreams…

And don’t forget the mortgage subordinations!

As the last blog of the year, I thought I’d tell you the story of one of my recurring dreams, or more accurately, one of my recurring nightmares, for your entertainment.

Do you have recurring dreams? I grew up in Georgetown where everyone makes routine pilgrimages to Charleston for shopping, dining, and medical appointments. My first recurring nightmare as a child involved the fright of crossing that rickety, two-lane bridge between Mt. Pleasant and Charleston. Thank goodness that monstrosity was replaced by the beautiful suspension bridge we cross today!

Later came the dreams involving college at Carolina. I dreamed I couldn’t get into the mailbox in my dorm. I have no idea why I had that dream because nothing very important was ever there. I dreamed my meal card wouldn’t work but that was also a useless dream because missing those dorm meals would have been no great loss.

Then came law school. In those dreams, it was always time for the exam for a class I had forgotten I signed up for. A more accurate dream would have involved a class I knew I signed up for but failed to attend class because I didn’t understand a word the professor said (think international law). Thank goodness my boyfriend had a great “skinny” on that topic and I somehow made it through that class. And I later married that boy.

But my most vivid recurring dreams involve my professional life, and the stories are always based in fact. I’ll tell you the factual, not the fantasy version of this dream. And I’ll avoid the names for attorney-client and other confidentiality reasons. This is the biggest professional mistake I made or, more accurately, the biggest professional mistake I made that I know about. As dirt lawyers, we plant time bombs every day, right?

I represented real estate developers. They developed malls, shopping centers, residential subdivisions, residential condominiums, outlots for McDonalds and other fast-food restaurants and other properties. The story involves a very large tract that was developed into an upscale residential subdivision, a Walmart, a movie theater, a church, and a shopping center.

The development was complicated. It involved environmental issues that could have derailed the entire project. Multiple individuals formed various entities for buying, holding and selling the real estate. The underlying property was purchased from the Federal government, which created its own set of complications. The acquisition, for example, involved a bid process that was foreign to me at the time.

It all finally fell into place, and the residences and businesses are still in place in 2021.

The problem that I thought might derail my career came to light when one of the individual developers declared bankruptcy. When that happened, every legal step I had taken for that person in the prior three years was scrutinized. The main lawyer scrutinizing my work, along with a team of associates, was a law school classmate, and, thankfully, a very kind and smart lawyer. But I spent lots of time worrying that I had missed something important.

I can remember the phone call from my friend all these years later down to the clothes I was wearing and the coffee cup in my hand.

The commercial properties required easements because of the private roads the properties shared. They also had easements for maintenance, pedestrian access, shared utilities, etc. Here’s the pitfall. When properties with these legal connections are owned and mortgaged separately, the lenders almost always must subordinate their mortgages to the easements to ensure the easements remain in place in the event of foreclosure, or in this case, bankruptcy.

I knew that!

I routinely obtained mortgage subordinations at every step of the development, except for one commercial tract. To this day, I have no idea how I missed one set of subordinations. And I think I lost several years off my life between the phone call from my kind classmate until I was able to obtain the subordinations very much after the fact. I was very lucky because the lender I had to approach (hat in hand) was a local lender. I even knew the person I had to persuade to cure my problem. And the good Lord must have smiled on me that day because it all worked out. I kept my license and my clients.

So, as I wish you a very happy, healthy, and prosperous 2022, I remind you to avoid the mistake I made. Always obtain the necessary mortgage subordinations!

Should law firms use mascots in advertising?

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Should limitations be imposed on the use of mascots?

One South Carolina law firm claims to have been unfairly targeted

Left Shark Law?

Several news sources (The Post and Courier, The State, AP News) have recently published stories involving a South Carolina law firm with a mascot problem.

According to the news reports, South Carolina attorney John Hawkins said he has been unfairly targeted by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel because of his law firm’s mascot, a hawk. You have probably seen the television ads showing the hawk and actors flapping their arms like hawks to promote the firm’s personal injury practice.

Hawkins has purportedly sued the ODC in Federal Court complaining that the ODC has reached a settlement with another legal entity that uses a tiger as a mascot for a national network of motorcycle accident attorneys styled “Law Tigers.”

Mr. Hawkins has complained in court filings that his mascot is a three-pound bird that eats mice, squirrels, and other small animals, while Law Tiger’s mascot is a 400-plus pound animal that mauls, attacks and eats people. Which mascot, he questions, unfairly represents the ability to “obtain results” in the personal injury arena?

The news reports indicate that two rival law firms and a former employee all filed complaints with the ODC about the hawk mascot in 2017. This year, the ODC filed formal disciplinary charges.

Hawkins’ lawsuit purportedly makes constitutional arguments against the ODC’s enforcement action. I’m not a litigator, but it seems to me that the place to make this argument is in the disciplinary action itself. It never occurred to me that the ODC could be sued in Federal Court.

What do you think, dirt lawyers? Will that suit be dismissed? Can advertising using mascots unfairly tout a law firm’s strength and ability? Are potential clients confused or unduly influenced by the use of mascots? It will be interesting to see how this story plays out.

EAO 21-01 says it’s ethical to pay $249 to be on lender’s closing attorney list

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The first Ethics Advisory Opinion of the year is noteworthy for South Carolina real estate practitioners.

Here is a brief summary of the facts:  In a residential refinance, the lender’s loan estimate package provided the name of a specific South Carolina licensed attorney that the bank “identified” as one who could close the loan. The package expressly said the borrower could “shop for (the borrower’s) own providers” for legal and other services.

The borrower informed the bank that a different lawyer had been selected, but the bank’s second set of loan estimate documents again identified a different lawyer and again said the borrower could chose its own provider.

When the borrower asked why another lawyer’s name was identified, the bank responded that the borrower’s chosen lawyer could sign with a third-party company that the bank had contracted with to produce loan forms for an annual fee of $249 to be included on the list.

The borrower’s lawyer did not enroll in the program but did close the loan.

The question to the Ethics Advisory Committee was whether a lawyer may participate in a service provider network for an annual fee of $249 to be listed as an “identified” service provider without violating S.C. Rule of Professional Conduct 7.2(c)?

Rule 7.2 (c) generally provides that a lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services. One exception to the rule is that a lawyer may pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by the Rule.

The Committee pointed to Comment 7 which states that a communication contains a recommendation if it endorses or vouches for a lawyer’s credentials, abilities, competence, character, or other professional qualities. The bank’s form in this case only provides contact information for participating lawyers and indicates the lawyers on the list have been identified. And the borrower is told in each instance that he or she can choose a different lawyer.

The Committee said these limited statements hardly match up the verbs and nouns used to describe a “recommendation” in the comment because the language in the forms says nothing substantive about the credentials, abilities, competence, character, or professional quality of the listed lawyers.

The Opinion further stated that participation in the network appears to be open to any real estate attorney and that the fee appears to be reasonable considering the enrollment, onboarding, and maintenance charges for including attorneys in the network.

The short answer to the question was “yes”, a lawyer may pay the fee and participate in the network of legal service providers and be “identified” as a possible service provider.

It is interesting that the facts included this statement: “The package and disclosures are assumed to be compliant with federal and state requirements for loan applications and attorney-preference notices.” The Committee answered the very specific question put to it and clearly has no authority to address federal law.

Is “title theft” a thing?

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Can and should a consumer buy protection against title theft?

Several years ago, a real estate lawyer asked whether title insurance companies should offer protection against “title theft”…the protection touted by the companies who routinely advertise their services on the radio. This question prompted us to research the services of those companies and analyze whether title insurance companies should offer the same service.

The advertisers who bombard the airwaves with warnings about title theft say thieves can steal homes by forging the names of homeowners on deeds, then reselling or mortgaging the property to hijack the equity. The thieves would purportedly pocket the proceeds, leaving the homeowner without title or with new mortgage payments. The companies promise to monitor title to protect against such devastating losses.

My understanding of the product being offered at that time was that the company would regularly check the land records to see whether the homeowner’s name appeared on any deed or mortgage. The homeowner would be notified of any “hits”. If the homeowner responded to the notification that the instrument in question was, in fact, a forgery, then the company would prepare and file in the land records a document to alert future buyers and lenders of the forgery. I was told that the product did not include attorneys’ fees for clearing titles.

But is “title theft” a thing? Does a forged deed convey real estate? No! Does a forged mortgage require the true owner of the real estate to make payments? No! But can a forger wreak havoc for a property owner? Yes, indeed!

I’ll never forget the name, Matthew Cox or the telephone call that tipped us off that we had a serious mortgage fraud situation here in Columbia. Long before the housing bubble popped beginning in late 2007, an attorney called to let us know what was going on that day in the Richland County ROD office. Representatives of several closing offices were recording mortgages describing the same two residential properties in Blythewood, as if the properties had been refinanced multiple times in the same day by different closing offices.

At first, we thought our company and our attorney agent were in the clear because our mortgage got to record first. South Carolina is a race notice state and getting to record first matters. Later, we learned that deeds to the so-called borrower were forged, so there was no safety for anyone involved in this seedy scenario. Thousands of dollars were lost.

Next, we learned about the two fraudsters who had moved to Columbia from Florida through Atlanta to work their mischief here. The two names were Matthew Cox and Rebecca Hauck. We heard that Cox had been in the mortgage lending business in Florida, where he got into trouble for faking loan documents. He had the guts to write a novel about his antics when he lost his brokerage license and needed funds, but the novel was never published. With funds running low, Cox and his girlfriend, Hauck, moved to Atlanta and then Columbia to continue their mortgage fraud efforts.

We didn’t hear more from the pair until several years later, when we heard they had thankfully been arrested and sent to federal prison.

The crimes perpetuated by Cox and Hauck were made easier by the housing bubble itself. Housing values were inflated and appraisals were hard to nail down. And closings were occurring at a lightening pace. The title companies who had issued commitments and closing protection letters for the lenders were definitely “on the hook”. And the important thing about title insurance is that coverage includes attorneys’ fees for defending titles. I don’t believe the property owners in this case had any coverage but clearing the mortgage issues eventually cleared their title problems.

Would the title theft products have been valuable to the homeowners in this situation? The companies may have notified the owners of the forged deeds and may have filed some kind of notice of the forgery in the land records, but that is all they would have done. Nothing would have prevented the forged mortgages. I am now informed that, under some circumstances, attorneys’ fees to clear title may be included with the title theft products, so perhaps today, the owners would have some protection with a title theft product. These products require “subscriptions” and periodic payments.

A far better alternative is the coverage provided by the ALTA Homeowners Policy of Title Insurance which requires a one-time payment at closing. This is the policy we commonly call “enhanced” coverage. The cost of this policy is twenty percent higher than the traditional owner’s policy, but it includes protection for several events that may occur post-closing. Forgery is one of those events. And, again, title insurance coverage includes attorneys’ fees.

Dirt lawyers who are asked about the title theft products should advise their clients that they can check the land records, most of which are online, to discover whether anyone has “stolen” their titles. And, better yet, they can buy title insurance coverage for peace of mind.

Wire fraud advice from industry insiders

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Dirt Lawyers: educate your clients!

Please take a look at this article by Bill Svoboda of CloseSimple entitled “Wire Fraud in the Wake of COVID-19”. The article quotes some industry insiders, including Rick Diamond of our company. Rick was one of our speakers for our recent seminar and often advises real estate lawyers on issues including how to protect client funds.

The article also quotes Tom Conkright of CertifID, one of our office’s solution partners. CertifID has a proven success rate on protecting client funds, including returning client funds that go missing. We highly recommend that you take a look at what CertifID has to offer. Reach out to your agency representative to ask for a demonstration.

But the main purpose of this blog is to remind you to continually educate your clients about wire fraud. Like the victim in this article, many of your clients are pulling up roots and moving to sunny South Carolina. Many of your clients are retirees. The earlier you can give new clients advice about protecting themselves against fraud, the better. Give them advice in bright red, bold print in your engagement letters. Add bright red, bold print warnings under your email signature lines. If you protect one aging consumer by these methods, the effort will be worth it!

Speaking of aging consumers, many of you have heard that I’m retiring in February. One thing that concerns me about retirement is not being able to keep current on industry advice about fraud. If you hear something next year that I should know, give me a call!

Succession planning and the real estate practitioner

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Like me, many of my real estate practitioner friends are retirement age. Before COVID-19 prevented travel, I often visited our law firms across South Carolina and at some point became acutely aware of our aging population. Real estate must not be as fascinating to young folks as it is to me and many other lawyers my age. I announced last week that I will retire next February. For corporate employees like me, the retirement process is easy. Let me restate that. Once the extremely difficult mental threshold is crossed, the paperwork is easy.

Retirement from a law firm is much more difficult both in the decision-making process and the paperwork! The old not-so-funny joke is that lawyers don’t retire; they die at their desks. Don’t do that!

My office encourages our real estate lawyers to seriously consider succession planning at least five years before they plan to step away from their offices. For sole practitioners, no succession planning means the value built over a lifetime of work vanishes the moment of death or disability. Lawyers who practice in firms can also lose their sweat equity if they don’t have the foresight to plan.

We encourage sole practitioners to consider hiring younger lawyers to train up to take over their practices. We also encourage lawyers to identify other lawyers who may be interested in purchasing their practices or merging practices. Conversely, we encourage younger lawyers who seek to grow their practices to reach out to lawyers nearing retirement age to explore purchasing or merging practices.

Several years ago, I contacted my friend Bill Higgins, a practitioner here in Columbia who has worked extensively with ethics and business entity issues, and asked him to develop a practice area that includes succession planning for lawyers. Bill has done that, and if you need legal advice in this regard, I highly recommend Bill as an excellent source.

If you want information about the firms who practice real estate and who might be open to discussing the issues of merging or purchasing practices, reach out to your title insurance company. We are singularly positioned to know what’s going on in the market place and we might be able to point you in the direction of a lawyer or firm that may want to discuss these issues.

The reason this topic came to my mind now is that the Ethics Advisory Committee issued new EAO 20-03 that touches on the issue of succession planning. The question in this opinion is a little complicated. “A, B, C & D, P.A.” is the name of an existing law firm.  Lawyer A is already retired. Lawyer B is the 100% equity owner of the firm, and now seeks to retire. Lawyers C and D are non-equity members who have each practiced with the firm more than ten years. Lawyer C plans to practice with another firm.

Lawyer D seeks to purchase most of the assets of the firm and to operate a new firm called “A, B & D, P.A.” in the same location, using the same phone number and website and retaining two or more of the employees. Lawyer D seeks to continue to represent Lawyer B’s current clients in ongoing and future matters if the clients elect to retain the new firm’s services via formal substitution of counsel agreements. The question became whether Lawyer D may ethically utilize the names of retired lawyers A and B in the name of the new law firm.

Analyzing Rules of Professional Responsibility 7.1 and 7.5 and prior Ethics Advisory Opinions 79-06 and 75-01, the Committee opined that Lawyer D may use the names Lawyers A and B in the new firm name.  The Rules have changed since the prior opinions, and the Committee sought to provide us with this updated analysis. The Committee assumed Lawyer D had the legal right to use the names of the two retired partners.

In Opinion 02-19, the Committee opined that a law firm may continue to use the name of a deceased or retired partner if the new law firm is a “bona fide successor” to the prior firm.  The question for the current opinion became what constitutes a bona fide successor, and the Committee stated that Lawyer D will be a part of the continuing line of succession of the firm and may use the names.

The Committee encouraged Lawyer D to review the comments to Rule 7.5 and EAO 05-19. The Committee also suggested that Attorney B remain at the firm for a time after the purchase to increase the “bona fides” of the firm name since both lawyers will work under the new name and therefore provide a continuing succession in the firm’s identity. Additionally, Lawyer D was encouraged to take care to avoid misleading the public by using asterisks or some other means to show that Lawyers A and B are retired.

This brief discussion is an example of how complicated succession planning can become. I encourage you to start early!