To address the often contentious scene where lawyers jump ship from a law firm to set sail on their own, the Virginia State Bar Standing Committee on Legal Ethics has proposed a new addition to the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct.
“Because of the significance of this issue, and the acrimony that often accompanies a firm departure or dissolution, the Committee believes that it will be helpful to have a Rule of Professional Conduct that explicitly dictates how and under what circumstances clients must be notified, rather than relying exclusively on advisory opinions,” the ethics panel said.
The proposed rule is not derived from any model rule of the American Bar Association, but is based on a Florida legal ethics rule. While the rule adopts suggestions from Legal Ethics Opinions on the duties of departing lawyers, it would make those suggestions into obligations, according to the ethics committee.
The publication of the proposed rule for comment follows a recent exchange of court accusations between a Virginia law firm and two lawyers who bailed out to start their own firm. Among the disputes in the battle involving the Boleman Law Firm PC is the manner in which clients were notified of the lawyers’ departure.
Under the proposed rule, neither the departing lawyer nor the law firm can unilaterally contact clients about the split unless — “after bona fide negotiations” — the lawyer and the firm have been unable to agree on a joint client letter.
If there is no agreement, any communication to clients must provide options for the client to remain with the firm, to go with the departing lawyer or to pick another lawyer. If the client stays silent, the client stays with the firm.
Notice to the clients under any circumstances must provide information on fee obligations.
Comments in support of or in opposition to the proposed amendments can be submitted through Feb. 14 via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to Karen A. Gould, Executive Director of the Virginia State Bar, 707 East Main Street, Suite 1500, Richmond, Virginia 23219-2800.
UPDATE, Jan. 7: The VSB has extended the deadline for comments to March 6.