90 N.J.L.J. 681
Legal Service Financing Plan
In 1965, the Bar Association of Erie County, New York,
completed the preparation of a proposed plan for the financing of
legal fees. The details of the plan are set forth below. The
proposal was submitted to the Award of Merit Committee of the
Section of Bar Activities of the American Bar Association and
received an award on the basis of the entry's originality and
thoroughness. We are told that similar plans are in operation in
various parts of the country. In January 1965 the proposal was
brought to the attention of the Standing Committee on Professional
Ethics of the American Bar Association. It rendered its informal
decision No. 829 on January 28, 1965, simply indicating that in
order to pass upon the ethics of the proposal, it would be
necessary that the details of the plan be submitted to it in full.
Apparently this was never done.
A county bar association of this State is now considering the adoption of this or a similar plan and has asked the opinion of this Committee as to whether the proposal, as presented, contains
any features which would render it unethical.
Essentially the plan envisions the financing of legal fees upon an installment credit arrangement. Contingent fee arrangements are specifically occluded, nor is it intended for the indigent client, but rather for a client with insufficient means to pay an appropriate fee in cash but with a credit standing such as to enable him to pay the fee over a period of time. It is proposed that when such a prospective client visits the attorney of his selection, the latter will communicate with a bank (the bank having already agreed to participate in the plan), and will request the bank to decide whether, with respect to this particular client, it is or is not willing to finance the proposed credit arrangement. The attorney will submit to the bank such information as the latter requires in order to determine the qualifications of the proposed
credit risk. Within a very short time an answer will be received. If the answer is in the affirmative, the client will execute a document entitled "Retail Installment Obligations." This will set forth the original total amount of the fee less any payment made on account, plus the amount of the credit service charge. The arithmetical result is called the "unpaid time fee" and represents the actual amount of the obligation. The attorney will appear as the payee or obligee in this instrument and immediately following its execution will assign it to the bank, receiving an immediate payment of 96 percent of its face amount. The additional 4 percent will be held by the bank in a reserve account ultimately to be applied to any losses that may result from its general handing of claims of this sort. When the reserve fund amounts to more than 6 percent of the gross amount of the outstanding loans, the excess will be paid to the county bar association for its own purposes. The loan will be made without recourse to the attorney for nonpayment.
The bank agrees to employ its normal procedures to collect each obligation assigned to it. Before commencing any legal proceeding to collect the obligation, however, the bank will notify the assigning attorney and will give him the opportunity to repurchase the obligation for the then unpaid balance thereof. If the assigning attorney shall decline to repurchase the obligation and if the bank shall deem it appropriate to institute suit, it may, at its option, offer to permit the assigning attorney to act on the bank's behalf, in which case it will agree to pay the attorney for such services an amount equal to 20 percent of the sum recovered. In the agreement between the bank and the attorney there
is explicit recognition of the confidential nature of the relationship between an attorney and client, it being specifically noted that communications incident to such relationship are privileged. In deference to this the bank agrees that it will "to the extent consistent with its financial interests" honor all reasonable requests of the assigning attorney with respect to
his relationship with the client and avoid any disclosure of a confidential communication. The plan also makes available arbitration procedures to resolve any dispute between the attorney and his client, these arrangements being optional as far as the client is concerned. The bank further agrees that if any legal action is instituted against the client, it will not take the position that it is a holder in due course but will permit the client to introduce any and all defenses that might be available were the action instituted by the attorney rather than by the bank. The Committee has given careful consideration to the plan and has concluded that it should not be approved, not so much because it violates any particular Canon of Ethics, but because it connotes a commercialization of the practice of law.
Lawyers have long prided themselves on being members of an honorable profession. While performance may not be universal surely
relatively few clients can have been left without legal representation for want of funds to pay the entire fee at once. A lawyer is not a tradesman and therefore he should not be a retail seller of his services. The plan contemplates the injection of a third party - the bank - into the usual lawyer-client relationship. No amount of safeguards can effectively prevent a deterioration of this relationship if something goes wrong. The temptation of the third party to comment on the lawyer's performance or the size of his fee may be too great to withstand if payments begin to lag. In any event it tends to depict the lawyer as no longer practicing his profession, but selling his services in the marketplace. It is the
opinion of this Committee that this plan may result in a lowering of the standards of the legal profession tending to bring the profession into disrepute and accordingly the plan is disapproved.