Representing a subcontractor and a homeowner against the contractor. Is it ethical?

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Please take a look at South Carolina Bar Ethics Advisory Opinion 19-05 here. This blog rarely touches litigation, primarily because the litigation knowledge of this blogger would fit easily on the head of a pin. But this EAO does affect real estate, and I can envision dirt lawyers getting themselves into this ethical conundrum, so here goes.

The facts are simple:  The attorney represents a subcontractor against a contractor regarding payment for work performed on a new home. The time for filing a mechanics’ lien has run, and the contractor has been paid in full. The homeowners want to retain the attorney to represent them to sue the contractor for breach of contract and negligently performed construction work. The homeowners’ claims do not appear to involve the work of the subcontractor.

The attorney is concerned that the contractor may not have sufficient assets to satisfy judgments of both parties.

So, the question becomes whether the attorney may ethically represent both parties.

The Ethics Advisory Committee provides the framework for consideration, but leaves the difficult analysis to the attorney.

The short answer is: The attorney may represent both parties provided the attorney analyses the prospective representation under Rule 1.7, SCRPC, and then considers whether the “material limitation” conflicts section in section (a)(2) may apply.

The attorney must also evaluate the risk of future availability of assets and should engage in a course of ongoing assessment for conflicts, particularly those that may arise if the claims are reduced to judgments and the clients dispute their recovery amounts relative to each other.

Rule 1.7 provides:

  • Except as provided in paragraph (b), a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a current conflict of interest. A current conflict of interest exists if:
  • The representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client; or (2) there is significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third party or by a personal interest of the lawyer.
  • Notwithstanding the existence of a concurrent conflict of interest under paragraph (a), a lawyer may represent a client if:
  • the lawyer reasonably believes that the lawyer will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client;
  • the representation is not prohibited by law;
  • the representation does not involve the assertion of a claim by one client against another client represented by the lawyer in the same litigation or other proceeding before a tribunal; and
  • each affected client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.

 

 

(I added the emphasis.)

The material limitation of (a)(2) is the primary concern. Given the attorney’s concern about the sufficiency of the assets of the contractor to satisfy judgments, the attorney must evaluate whether that potential risk may materially limit his ability to represent either party.

The Committee eliminated (b)(2) and (b)(3) from consideration based on comments to the rule.

The analysis boils down to (b)(1) and (b)(4): the attorney’s assessment of whether he can provide competent and diligent representation to both parties and whether they consent to the representation after being informed of the benefits and risks of joint representation, particularly of the possibility of inadequate assets and the possibility of needing new counsel should they dispute recovery between themselves.

What do you think? Would you do it?

Donut Fridays

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Ethics Opinion gives them a thumbs up!


donutsSavvy residential dirt lawyers continue to explore innovative marketing methods. A recent Ethics Advisory Opinion (15-02) issued by the Ethics Advisory Committee of the South Carolina Bar blessed the following scenario, with a few caveats:

“Law Firm would like to pursue a practice referred to as “Donut Friday,” where an employee of Law Firm visits the Firm’s existing vendors (e.g., banks, real estate agencies, etc.) and delivers a box of donuts to these vendors. Included with the box of donuts are a dozen koozies bearing the name of Law Firm, as well as a fee sheet, a pamphlet containing information about Law Firm and its staff, and a coupon for $50.00 off Law Firm’s fee for a consultation or real estate closing. None of the marketing materials is addressed or directed to any one person, nor does the material request that existing vendors refer business to Law Firm, although the intent is to receive referrals.”

The Committee stated as a preliminary matter that the mere delivery of gifts or other marketing materials to a business generally without delivery to specific individuals does not constitute solicitation. For that reason, Rule 7.3 of the Rules of Professional Responsibility does not apply. Enclosing law firm materials in a donut box does constitute lawyer advertising, making the remainder of the advertising and communication rules (7.1, 7.2, 7.4 and 7.5) apply.

Because the donut box recipients are existing law firm vendors who refer closing business to the firm, the specific rule at play, according to the Committee, is Rule 7.2(c), which prohibits giving “anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services.”  The Committee specified that as long as the weekly donut boxes are delivered regardless of whether the lender or real estate agency had referred clients to the law firm that week, and regardless of how many, then the requisite quid pro quo for a Rule 7.2 (c) violation does not exist. The rule would be violated, however, if the delivery of donuts was contingent on the referral of business.

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The Committee said that only the donuts, koozies and coupons (not the fee sheets or pamphlets) would be considered things “of value” under Rule 7.2 because the rule contemplates value to the recipient and not cost to the sender. Finally, the Committee stated that although the Rules of Professional Conduct are “rules of reason”, the prohibition on giving “anything” of value contains no explicit de minimis exception.

Kudos to the law firm that devised this marketing ploy and received the blessing of the Ethics Advisory Committee!