Aurora Donnelly is a solo practitioner always looking forward to the next exciting transition.
As the new year is upon us, some of us are considering changing our career paths and veering in a new direction. Maybe we are ready to implement plans we have been working on for a while or maybe something new comes up that we become interested in doing.
Often, new ventures are presented to us by non-lawyers or involve working with non-lawyers in some capacity. Given the current economic situation, we may decide to try out business arrangements we might not have considered had we been on a traditional legal track.
Occasionally, people I know or who are referred to me approach me with an alternative business idea that seems worth pursuing. My first reaction, of course, as you can see by my description at the head of this posting, is to jump on novel, interesting ideas. I am always excited about doing new things, especially those that will help other people and make money, while offering me a new learning experience.
Being a member of a partnership can be beneficial to the lawyer, the non-lawyer and the general public. Some partnerships may seem to hold out great promise as a rich melding of professional and nonprofessional skills and experience.
But as lawyers we have to keep front of mind the rules of professional responsibility. Especially pertinent to the situations I am describing is, in Illinois, Rule 5.4, Professional Independence of a Lawyer, in part: (b) a lawyer shall not form a partnership with a non-lawyer if any of the activities of the partnership consist of the practice of law.
This particular Rule sounds fairly straight forward, but can be difficult to interpret in specific practical situations. For example, you are offered a free office and administrative help in exchange for providing legal advice to the general public on a specific range of legal matters. Does that fall under the provisions of Rule 5.4? Is there a way to structure the business arrangement so as to obey both the letter and the intent of the Rule?
You have probably also been approached by friends or colleagues about participating in interesting partnerships that simply cannot pass the “good lawyer” test where it comes to professional ethical responsibility. Keep the ethics rules handy and refer to them carefully before you agree to any type of working arrangement involving non lawyers.
I find it somewhat difficult to explain, sometimes, why I cannot lend my expertise and knowledge of the law to certain endeavors. Sometimes I simply have to say, “I cannot do that” and leave my potential, but never-to-be, partner wondering why I am so vigilant of rules that do not make sense to him or her.
That is, however, how it is. No matter how tempting or harmless an idea may seem, keeping a tight and cautious hold on our hard-earned law licenses is always the winning proposition.