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2001 Formal Ethics Opinion 9

October 19, 2001

Sale of Financial Products to Legal Client

Opinion rules that, although a lawyer may recommend the purchase of a financial product to a legal client, the lawyer may not receive a commission for its sale.

Inquiry #1:   

Attorney owns a small financial planning firm that he started prior to entering law school. Through this firm, Attorney provides investment advice, invests in securities (including stock mutual funds, and bonds) and sells insurance. Attorney maintains Series 7, 63, and 65 licenses, a NC health and life insurance license, and a NC real estate license.

Attorney is starting a legal practice. As part of his legal practice, Attorney hopes to provide estate-planning services to his clients. He would like to incorporate his legal practice with his financial planning business and provide his clients with turnkey service. Attorney believes that a quality financial plan often requires estate and tax planning and that clients will benefit from working with an attorney/financial advisor because they will receive advice from someone with experience in both legal and financial matters who provides a comprehensive approach to the management of their financial assets.

For example, Attorney will use credit shelter trusts and irrevocable life insurance trusts, business planning, tax planning, and appropriate investment products to meet the needs of the client. Attorney believes that if a client desires a single person to manage his or her entire financial situation, then these integrated services should be made available. Although there may be an increased incentive to promote the use of insurance products or other investment products if the attorney also benefits from the sale of these products, Attorney believes there is minimal difference over a period of time between charging commissions and charging hourly fees for financial planning services.

2000 Formal Ethics Opinion 9 permits an attorney who is also a CPA to refer legal clients to himself as a CPA. Attorney believes that because many accounting firms are now offering securities as part of their services, this opinion impliedly permits attorney/CPA's, who have a Series 6 license, to offer financial products and charge a fee or commission from the sale of these products.

May Attorney, with appropriate disclosures to and consent from the client, provide his estate-planning clients with financial planning services, which may include the sale of financial products, if Attorney will receive a fee or commission from the sale of such products?

Opinion #1:

No. Rule 1.8(b) of the Rules of Professional Conduct provides as follows:

    During or subsequent to legal representation of a client, a lawyer shall not enter into a business transaction with a client for which a fee or commission will be charged in lieu of, or in addition to, a legal fee, if the business transaction is related to the subject matter of the legal representation, any financial proceeds from the representation, or any information, confidential or otherwise, acquired by the lawyer during the course of the representation.

This rule prevents an attorney from taking advantage of financial information received from a client during the legal relationship. If the attorney learns through confidential communications that the client has received money, the attorney may not profit from the sale of a financial product to the client. Comment [2] to Rule 1.8 specifically admonishes an attorney who is also a securities broker or insurance agent not to "endeavor to sell securities or insurance to a client when the lawyer knows by virtue of the representation that such client has received funds suitable for investment." But see RPC 238 (permitting a law firm to offer financial products to clients so long as no fee or commission is earned by the lawyer or law firm on the sale of such products).

Rule 1.8(b), however, does not prevent an attorney from providing law-related services to a legal client, so long as the attorney fully discloses his self-interest in the referral and the referral is in the best interest of the client. 2000 Formal Ethics Opinion 9 was not intended and does not create an exception to Rule 1.8(b). That opinion allows an attorney to provide accounting services to his legal clients. Nothing in the opinion specifically permits an attorney/CPA, who holds an appropriate license, to sell securities or other products to a client and profit from the sale. An attorney may, however, provide accounting, financial planning, or other law-related services to a client and charge a fee for rendering those services. An attorney may also provide financial products to the client, but may not profit from the sale of those products by charging either an additional fee or a commission.

Inquiry #2:

If a third party insurance salesman or financial advisor refers a client to Attorney after recommending that the client purchase a financial product from the third party, does Attorney have an ethical duty to tell the client that there are financial products available that can be purchased without paying a commission to the third party (e.g., "no load" insurance policies and mutual funds)?

Opinion #2:

Yes, if Attorney determines from all of the facts and circumstances known to him that it is in the client's best interest to consider the "no-load" options and the disclosure to the client is within the scope of Attorney's engagement.

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