Summary of the Committee’s Conclusions
After two years of study, our committee, like the ABA Commission before it, has come to the unanimous conclusion that lawyers and non-lawyers should be permitted to work together and share fees in the delivery of professional services without violating professional conduct rules. We are satisfied that such collaboration can take place within the same organization without sacrificing the core values of the legal profession and that prevention of such collaboration among professions is an unwarranted impediment to delivery of multidisciplinary services to the public.
Many lawyers and other professionals are already engaged in multidisciplinary practice, either on an ad hoc basis or, increasingly, in long-term contractual arrangements that enable practitioners of different professions to practice and promote their services in a coordinated manner. Nevertheless, Rule 5.4 of the District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct continues to forbid a lawyer to share legal fees with a non-lawyer except in very limited circumstances. By generally forbidding non-lawyers to share in legal fees, D.C. Rule 5.4 presents an obstacle to lawyers and non-lawyers who wish to practice their respective professions together in the same firm. Lawyers and non-lawyers can practice in coordinated and affiliated organizations, but usually not in the same organization.
D.C. Rule 5.4 does permit non-lawyers to be “partners” or “managers” sharing in the fees of a law firm if (1) the firm is devoted “solely” to legal practice, (2) the non-lawyer partners and managers agree to comply with the professional conduct rules of the legal profession, and (3) the lawyers in the firm agree to be responsible for compliance with those rules by their non-lawyer partners. The District of Columbia also permits lawyers to be involved in businesses “ancillary” to their legal practice if specific disclosures are made to potential clients. See Rule 1.7, Comment 25. Although limited in their application, these provisions recognize in principle that shared ownership of a multidisciplinary professional practice is not unethical if lawyer independence is preserved and if clients are adequately informed and protected. It is also permissible for lawyers to work in organizations controlled by non-lawyers, such as business corporations, government agencies, and charitable and public service organizations, so long as no “legal fees” are charged and shared with non-lawyers.
Consistent with these existing rules and practices, this committee does not believe that it is contrary to public policy, nor should it be considered unethical, for lawyers to share legal fees with practitioners of other professions so long as: (1) clients and potential clients are fully informed of the fact of such collaboration and its possible consequences, (2) lawyers retain their independence, (3) lawyers and their legal practice remain subject to legal professional conduct rules, including, particularly, those related to conflicts of interest, protection of client confidences, and the provision of pro bono service, and (4) lawyers in multidisciplinary firms can effectively be held responsible for compliance with those rules. For these reasons, this committee unanimously recommends that the Board of Governors propose to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals that, subject to limitations necessary to assure preservation of the foregoing fundamental interests, the Court amend D.C. Rule of Professional Conduct 5.4 to permit lawyers to practice and share fees with non-lawyer professionals engaged with them in multidisciplinary practice.