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Fee proposal for lawyer referral work advances

vsb-150x150_mainThe proposal to charge lawyers a percentage fee for cases referred to them by the Virginia Lawyer Referral Service survived a “robust” debate before winning nearly unanimous approval by the Virginia State Bar Council.

A package of proposed VLRS rule changes – as modified by the Bar Council Oct. 26 – now heads to the Supreme Court of Virginia for consideration.

As in some other states, the Virginia lawyer referral program has seen a decline in participation and an increase in deficits. Under the current scheme, clients pay $35 for a half-hour consultation and lawyers pay $95 a year to participate. About 400 lawyers are signed up.

A study showed that other states were able to reinvigorate their programs by advertising the service to the public, but participating lawyers were required to share more of the cost to keep the operation solvent. VLRS committee leaders Jack L. Harris and Eugene M. Elliott Jr. said a 15-percent fee across-the-board charge was the key to keeping VLRS above water.

About a dozen participants raised objections when the fee proposal was floated this summer, and similar concerns surfaced at the Oct. 26 Bar Council meeting in Newport News. An amendment to reduce the percentage fee from 15 to 10 percent failed by a 16-41 vote.

Member C. Phillips Ferguson moved to eliminate charges on fees of less than $500, a modification that passed 42-15.

Earlier, the Bar Council unanimously approved two amendments to the original plan. One would require participating lawyers to indemnify the VSB for liability for gross negligence or intentional conduct. The other would modify disciplinary infractions affecting a lawyer’s eligibility for the program.

With those changes, the VLRS rule package was approved 54-2, according to bar officials.

Other Bar actions

Also approved Oct. 26 without dissent was a proposal to relax the standard for imputed disqualification in Rule 1.10. If the change is approved by the Supreme Court, a law firm would not have to step aside from a case just because one lawyer has a personal interest that does not pose a significant risk of materially limiting the representation of other firm lawyers.

The Bar Council unanimously approved a change to eliminate the client repayment obligation for costs and expenses in contingent cases. The amendments to Rule 1.8 would permit a lawyer to advance court costs and expenses with repayment contingent on the outcome of the case and would permit a lawyer to pay court costs and expenses on behalf of an indigent client. The proposal would bring Virginia’s rule in line with that of 47 other states that have adopted the ABA Model Rule on the topic, according to the VSB.