It’s suitable to be a Lincoln Lawyer in SC

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…at least when it comes to using a PO Box address in lawyer advertising

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Ethics Advisory Opinion 17-07 fielded a question from a solo practitioner with a virtual law office. He practices wherever his smart phone and laptop are, which, at any given moment, may be his home, a coffee shop, a park, his car or his vacation spot. His practice generates very little paper, and he keeps that paper at his home. He meets with clients at their places of business or at third-party meeting spaces. He uses a post office box address for all business mail.

He does not actively advertise his practice beyond a single online directory listing, but he is considering increasing his web presence for advertising purposes, and he doesn’t want to disclose his home address. His question was whether the use of a post office box address in advertising materials satisfies the requirement in Rule 7.2 that advertising communications must include the office address of at least one lawyer responsible for its content.

The Ethics Advisory Committee looked North for authority and cited an opinion from North Carolina* which stated: “…(R)equiring a street address in all legal advertising has proved problematic, particularly as the number of lawyers working from home offices or operation in virtual law practices has increased. The requirement is no longer practical or necessary to avoid misleading the public or to insure that a lawyer responsible for the advertisement can be located by the State Bar.”

The Committee also noted that the Bar accepts post office addresses as lawyers’ addresses and the Supreme Court accepts post office addresses in its Attorney Information System (AIS) as a part of the “official contact information”.

The Committee stated that use of a post office address qualifies as an “office address” for the purposes of Rule 7.2(d) provided the post office address is on file at the lawyer’s current mailing address in the lawyer’s listing in the AIS.

Interestingly, though, the Committee noted that Rule 7.2(h) also imposes a geographic location disclosure requirement, which was not addressed by this opinion.  Here is the text of that portion of the Rule:

“(h) All advertisements shall disclose the geographic location, by city or town, of the office in which the lawyer or lawyers who will actually perform the services advertised principally practice law. If the office location is outside a city or town, the county in which the office is located must be disclosed. A lawyer referral service shall disclose the geographic area in which the lawyer practices when a referral is made.”

This Lincoln Lawyer may have to come back to obtain an answer to that issue!

*2012 N.C. Formal Eth. Adv. Op. 6 at 2.

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A Certain Path to Disbarment:

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Fake a title insurance agency and ignore a real estate practice!

In the Matter of Samaha* is a South Carolina Supreme Court attorney disciplinary case that resulted in disbarment.

This lawyer was creative; you have to give him that!

For starters, he witnessed and notarized the signature of his client’s late wife, who had died seven years earlier. He typed, witnessed and notarized a revocation of a durable power of attorney for an 83 year old retired paralegal with cognitive and physical limitations.

Perhaps the most interesting violations, however, had to do with the title insurance. (What? It’s tough to make title insurance interesting. Trust me. I try and fail on a daily basis. This stuff is only interesting to title nerds like me!)

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A relationship with a title insurance company is essential to a real estate practice in South Carolina. The closing attorney must either be in a position to issue his own title insurance commitments and policies as an agent, or to certify to a title insurance company as an approved attorney to obtain those documents.

Consider the activities of  Mr. Breckenridge, the lawyer who was publicly reprimanded this spring for allowing non-attorney entities to control his real estate practice.** During oral arguments, he stated that he preferred to handle closings in the customary manner in South Carolina, where the attorney acts as agent for a title insurance company as well as closing attorney. But he had been suspended by the Supreme Court for a short time and, as a result, had been canceled as an agent by his title insurance company. He said he was then forced to work for an entity that hires lawyers to attend closings only.  When a problem arose with the disbursement of one of those closings, he found himself in front of the Supreme Court again.

Mr. Samaha had also been canceled by his title insurance companies. That did not stop him and his staff from proceeding full steam ahead with closings in the customary manner.  Although he originally denied any knowledge that documents had been forged in his office, he ultimately admitted that closing protection letters had been forged and issued to lenders.

A mortgage lender later uncovered not only forged closing protection letters, but also forged title insurance commitments and policies. It was not possible for Mr. Samaha to obtain any of these documents legitimately during this timeframe, because his status had been canceled as an approved attorney as well as an agent. The Court commented that, absent the forgeries of these documents, the lawyer’s real estate practice could not have functioned.

(This is not the first disbarred lawyer in South Carolina to have included the forgery of title insurance documents in his repertoire of misdeeds.***)

The Court stated that Mr. Samaha allowed his staff to, in effect, run his office. He failed to supervise them and failed to supervise and review closing documents.  He, in effect, completely ignored his real estate practice.


He also committed professional violations of a more mundane but equally scary nature. For example, he made false and misleading statements on the application for his professional liability insurance.

red card - suitHe failed to pay off four mortgages. By his own calculations, the loss was more than $200,000, but the Office of Disciplinary Counsel stated that his financial records and computers had been destroyed, making it impossible to prove the true extent of the financial mismanagement and misappropriation.  Apparently, the money from new closings was used to fund prior closings, up until the date of Mr. Samaha’s suspension from the practice of law.

 

*In the Matter of Samaha, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27660 (August 24, 2016)

** In the Matter of Breckenridge, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27625 (April 20, 2016)

*** In the Matter of Davis, 411 S.C. 209, 768 S.E.2d 206 (2015)

Don’t Share Fees with Non-Lawyers!

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New Ethics Advisory Opinion warns against web-based referral service

South Carolina Ethics Advisory Opinion 16-06 fields questions about an attorney directory website fixed-fee legal referral service. The service works like this:

  • Attorney signs up for the service by agreeing to offer certain flat fee services.
  • The fee for the service is set by the internet advertising directory website (service).
  • The service makes the referral to the attorney, who then contacts the client to arrange a meeting and begin the representation.
  • The service handles payment processing from the client and holds the funds until the legal work is completed.
  • Upon completion of the work, the service transfers the full amount of the fee to attorney’s account.
  • Upon completion of the work, the service charges the attorney a “per service marketing fee” which seems to be based upon the legal work provided and is only incurred when the lawyer provides the legal work. For example, the legal fee for an uncontested divorce may be $995, and the marketing fee is $200, while the legal fee to start a single member LLC is $595, and the marketing fee is $125.

Rule 5.4 of the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits a lawyer from sharing legal fees with a non-lawyer. There are some exceptions set out in the rule, but those exceptions generally fall into two categories, payments to a deceased lawyer’s estate and payments to non-lawyer employees in a profit sharing compensation or retirement plan. The exceptions, of course, don’t apply to this attorney directory situation.

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The Ethics Advisory Committee stated that the situation described above where the service collects the legal fee and transmits it to the attorney and in a separate transaction, the service receives a fee for its efforts, is an indirect method to share attorney’s fees. Attempting to disguise the fee-sharing arrangement in two transactions doesn’t cure the problem.  Calling the fee received by the service a “per service marketing fee” also doesn’t cure the problem.

Rule 7.2 (c) prohibits a lawyer from giving anything of value for recommending the lawyer’s services, with three exceptions. One of the exceptions allows a lawyer to pay for the “reasonable costs of advertisements”. The Ethics Advisory Committee pointed to Comment 7 to the rule which lists reasonable advertising costs such as newspaper, radio and television advertisements and on-line directory listings.  The Committee stated that the permitted advertising is typically for a fixed cost per add or per run of air time, and that reasonableness of the costs can be assessed by the market rate.

The Opinion says that the internet service purports to charge the lawyer fees based on the type of legal service rather than the cost of advertising. Since it doesn’t cost the service any more to advertise online for a family law matter than for preparing corporate documents, the fees are not rational and do not fall under the exception for “reasonable costs of advertisements”.

Dirt lawyers, be careful when assessing any type of referral arrangement, and, when in doubt, ask questions of the Ethics Advisory Committee.