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Lawyers Helping Lawyers Avoid the Perils of Professional Discipline

Avoiding Trust

Q. If my clients agree to it in writing, can I avoid the need for a trust account and put their money elsewhere?

A. In theory, this is possible. In practice, if you wish to remain in practice, this may not be the safest approach — for you or for your clients.

In most cases, you must deposit legal fees and expenses that have been paid in advance into a client trust account and may only withdraw those funds as fees are earned or expenses incurred. Though the details vary in different states, you must carefully account for all trust transactions, reconcile them with your bank statement every month to ensure against loss, and maintain client ledgers identifying the balance of funds pertaining to each of your cases.

Those who fail to follow these regulations place more than their clients' funds at risk, and many have lost their licenses over trust violations.

To avoid this danger, it may be tempting to circumvent these regulations by exploiting an exception provided in the Rules of Professional Conduct themselves. If "the client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing, to a different arrangement," Rule 1.15 would let you deposit these funds directly into your operating account instead.

But this isn't as easy as it sounds. To get the client's "informed consent," you must provide "adequate information and explanation about the material risks of and reasonable alternatives to the proposed course of conduct."

At a minimum, your retainer agreement should review the details of this alternative, emphasizing that:

➤ Ordinarily, such funds are deposited into a trust account for safekeeping;
➤ The client may direct that these funds also be placed into a trust account;
➤ Placing these funds into an operating account does not affect a lawyer's duty to refund amounts which have not been earned;
➤ Funds held in an operating account or elsewhere are subject to greater risk, which may make it more difficult to get a refund if something goes wrong; and
➤ The client has the right to consult with other counsel before signing off on such an arrangement.

Unlike a trust account, which is held separately from the attorney's own funds, the liquidity of a regular account depends on the stability of the lawyer that owns it. If the lawyer or law firm were to declare bankruptcy, a bankruptcy trustee may freeze these assets and preclude the lawyer from distributing them. If the lawyer's assets were seized by law enforcement, other creditors or taxing authorities, this may jeopardize the balance of the account. If the lawyer dies before fees are earned, funds within an account bearing that attorney's name will become part of the estate and probate administration.

By contrast, since funds placed in a trust account are held separately from the lawyer's own money, getting them back will not require the approval of bankruptcy trustees, probate courts or others that may later control the lawyer's assets. Even if such calamities do not befall the lawyer, when funds are held in an account used for a lawyer's personal or business expenses, they are more likely to be misused.

If you were the client, would you sign an agreement to place your funds in greater jeopardy? In most cases, it's hard to see how clients would benefit from such arrangements.

Some situations may require alternatives. For example, in many federal circuits, attorneys preparing Chapter 7 bankruptcy petitions can't get paid after filing them. The Bankruptcy Code bars the collection of pre-petition debts during the pendency of cases designed to discharge them. Rather than violate this law by taking the debtor's funds from the trust account thereafter, bankruptcy lawyers often prefer to take them into their operating accounts before these cases are filed.

Where special circumstances are lacking, lawyers who rarely take retainers and have little use for a trust account may still wish to have their clients' consent to a similar arrangement. But a desire to avoid the duty of trust accounting won't justify a departure from practices designed to protect their funds.

In short, we may not reduce our professional risk by increasing our clients' financial risk. If you're the only person who would benefit from a proposal that places client funds at greater risk, you should expect disciplinary boards and courts to question the validity of your client's consent. Absent a special need for such arrangements, they often find the level of "informed consent" to be lacking. Under a judicial microscope, it's easy to find fault with the language of the agreement or the details disclosed. If the client was not sufficiently "informed" about the risks of such arrangements, lawyers seeking to circumvent trust account rules may be sanctioned for violating them.

For this reason, I wouldn't put too much stock in rules allowing for "informed consent." When lawyers place client funds at greater risk, they place their licenses at risk as well.

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Attorney Grievance defense attorney specializes in defending lawyers in disciplinary proceedings before the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission and the D.C. Bar's Board on Professional Responsibility involving professional misconduct, legal ethics, disbarment, suspensions of law licenses, petitions for disciplinary action, reprimands and sanctions for unethical conduct. If you receive a letter from Bar Counsel Lydia Lawless, Disciplinary Counsel Hamilton Fox, or from any attorney disciplinary board in Maryland or the District of Columbia, retain experienced attorneys with expertise in lawyer discipline and breach of ethics cases to avoid sanctions for professional misconduct. We help lawyers avoid disbarment, suspension, reprimands, censure and informal admonitions by drafting responses to client grievances and ethical complaints; representing lawyers in peer reviews, evidentiary hearings, and oral arguments before the BPR and the Court of Appeals; filing petitions to reinstate an attorney's license to practice law; conducting law firm ethical compliance audits; and drafting legal ethics opinions to protect lawyers from ethics charges. In many cases, disciplinary proceedings may be dismissed, dismissed with a warning, or result in a conditional diversion agreement with Bar Counsel to rectify misconduct. Lawyers may need help in managing their law firm attorney escrow IOLTA trust account and complying with attorney trust accounting rules to avoid charges of ethical misconduct. Do not represent yourself in responding to an attorney grievance, law firm client complaint, or other allegation of ethical impropriety. Attorney grievance defense counsel may help you comply with legal ethics rules, avoid sanctions like suspension or disbarment, and avoid future attorney grievances.


By The Lawyer's Lawyers | Kramer & Connolly and Irwin R. Kramer who are responsible for the content of this informational website.   This website is designed for lawyers faced with attorney grievances. As cases do differ, past performance does not guarantee future results.