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RULE 1.17: SALE OF LAW PRACTICE

A lawyer or a law firm may sell or purchase a law practice, including good will, if the following conditions are satisfied:

(a) The seller ceases to engage in the private practice of law in the geographic area in which the practice has been conducted;

(b) The entire practice is sold to one or more lawyers or law firms;

(c) The seller gives written notice to each of the seller's active clients regarding:

(1) the proposed sale;

(2) the client's right to retain other counsel or to take possession of the file; and

(3) the fact that the client's consent to the transfer of the client's files will be presumed if the client does not take any action or does not otherwise object within ninety (90) days of receipt of the notice;

(d) A notice is published in a newspaper of general circulation in the geographic area in which the practice has been conducted regarding:

(1) the proposed sale;

(2) the client's right to retain other counsel or to take possession of the client's file;

(3) the fact that active clients will be or have been given written notice regarding the proposed sale and that their consent to the sale will be presumed if they do not take any action or object within ninety (90) days of the date of the mailing of the written notice;

(4) the fact that the selling lawyer will retain the files of inactive clients unless those clients give permission for the transfer of their files or, if the parties to the sale elect to give written notice to an inactive client in the same manner provided by paragraph (c) above, the inactive client's consent to the sale will be presumed if the client does not take any action or does not otherwise object within ninety (90) days of the date of the mailing of the notice; and

(e) The fees charged clients shall not be increased by reason of the sale.

The agreement for the sale of a law practice may include reasonable restrictions on the seller's right to practice without violating Rule 5.6.

Comment

[1] The practice of law is a profession, not merely a business. Clients are not commodities that can be purchased and sold at will. Pursuant to this Rule, when a lawyer or an entire firm ceases to practice and other lawyers or firms take over the representation, the selling lawyer or firm may obtain compensation for the reasonable value of the practice as may withdrawing partners of law firms. See Rules 5.4 and 5.6.

Termination of Practice by the Seller

[2] The requirement that all of the private practice be sold is satisfied if the seller in good faith makes the entire practice available for sale to the purchasers. The fact that a number of the seller's clients decide not to be represented by the purchasers but take their matters elsewhere, therefore, does not result in a violation. Return to private practice as a result of an unanticipated change in circumstances does not necessarily result in a violation. For example, a lawyer who has sold the practice to accept an appointment to judicial office does not violate the requirement that the sale be attendant to cessation of practice if the lawyer later resumes private practice upon being defeated in a contested or a retention election for the office or resigns from a judiciary position.

[3] The requirement that the seller cease to engage in the private practice of law in the geographic area does not prohibit employment as a lawyer on the staff of a public agency or a legal services entity that provides legal services to the poor, or as in-house counsel to a business.

[4] The Rule permits a sale of an entire practice attendant upon retirement from the private practice of law within the jurisdiction. Its provisions, therefore, accommodate the lawyer who sells the practice upon the occasion of moving to another state or geographic area within this state.

Sale of Entire Practice

[5] The Rule requires that the seller's entire practice be sold. The prohibition against sale of less than an entire practice protects those clients whose matters are less lucrative and who might find it difficult to secure other counsel if a sale could be limited to substantial fee-generating matters. The purchasers are required to undertake all client matters in the practice, subject to client consent. This requirement is satisfied, however, even if a purchaser is unable to undertake a particular client matter because of a conflict of interest.

Client Confidences, Consent and Notice

[6] Negotiations between seller and prospective purchaser prior to disclosure of information relating to a specific representation of an identifiable client no more violate the confidentiality provisions of Rule 1.6 than do preliminary discussions concerning the possible association of another lawyer or mergers between firms, with respect to which client consent is not required. See Rule 1.6(b)(8). Providing the purchaser access to detailed information relating to the representation, such as the client's file, however, requires client consent. The Rule provides that before such information can be disclosed by the seller to the purchaser regarding an active client, the client must be given actual written notice of the contemplated sale, including the identity of the purchaser, and must be told that the decision to consent or make other arrangements must be made within 90 days. If nothing is heard from the active client within that time, consent to the sale is presumed.

[7] It is not envisioned that files of inactive clients will be transferred to the purchaser as part of the sale of the practice, because of the continuing duties to inactive clients. Should the parties choose to transfer files of inactive clients of the seller as part of the sale of the law practice, notice must be given to each inactive client in the same manner as set forth in paragraph (c) or (d). For purposes of this Rule, an inactive client refers to a client whose file has been closed due to the completion or termination of the representation.

[8] All the elements of client autonomy, including the client's absolute right to discharge a lawyer and transfer the representation to another, survive the sale of the practice.

Fee Arrangements Between Client and Purchaser

[9] The sale may not be financed by increases in fees charged the clients of the practice. Existing agreements between the seller and the client as to fees and the scope of the work must be honored by the purchaser.

Other Applicable Ethical Standards

[10] Lawyers participating in the sale of a law practice are subject to the ethical standards applicable to involving another lawyer in the representation of a client. These include, for example, the seller's obligation to exercise competence in identifying a purchaser qualified to assume the practice and the purchaser's obligation to undertake the representation competently (see Rule 1.1); the obligation to avoid disqualifying conflicts, and to secure the client's informed consent for those conflicts that can be agreed to (see Rule 1.7 regarding conflicts and Rule 1.0(g) for the definition of informed consent); and the obligation to protect information relating to the representation (see Rules 1.6 and 1.9).

[11] If approval of the substitution of the purchasing lawyer for the selling lawyer is required by the rules of any tribunal in which a matter is pending, such approval must be obtained before the matter can be included in the sale (see Rule 1.16).

Applicability of the Rule

[12] This Rule applies to the sale of a law practice by representatives of a deceased, disabled or disappeared lawyer. Thus, the seller may be represented by a non-lawyer representative not subject to these Rules. Since, however, no lawyer may participate in a sale of a law practice which does not conform to the requirements of this Rule, the representatives of the seller as well as the purchasing lawyer can be expected to see to it that they are met.

[13] Admission to or retirement from a law partnership or professional association, retirement plans and similar arrangements, and a sale of tangible assets of a law practice, do not constitute a sale or purchase governed by this Rule. Nor does this Rule govern the transfer of ownership interests or clients between members of a law firm.

[14] This Rule does not apply to the transfers of legal representation between lawyers when such transfers are unrelated to the sale of a practice.

Last amended by Order dated September 17, 2014.