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2001 Formal Ethics Opinion 10

January 18, 2002

Restrictions on Right to Practice

Opinion prohibits a lawyer from entering into an employment agreement with a law firm that includes a provision reducing the amount of deferred compensation the lawyer will receive if the lawyer leaves the firm and engages in the private practice of law within a 50-mile radius of the firm's offices.


Inquiry:  
Law Firm would like to enter into employment agreements with the principals of the firm.  It is proposed that the employment agreement contain a provision dealing with deferred compensation.  The provision reduces the amount of deferred compensation payable to a shareholder if the shareholder decides to leave the firm.  Deferred compensation is reduced by 75% if the departing shareholder engages in "competitive activity" within a 50-mile radius of Law Firm's offices. Stated in its entirety, the provision provides as follows:

If Employee's employment is terminated by Employee under Section 2.2(e) hereof, and Employee, following such termination of employment, engages in a competitive activity as hereinafter defined, the Deferred Credit, as above determined, shall be reduced by 75%.  This reduction of the Deferred Credit is necessitated because of the loss of goodwill and earnings capacity of the Corporation caused by the employee's action. As used herein "competitive activity" means the employee's engaging in the private practice of law other than in employment of the Corporation within a 50-mile radius of the principal offices of Corporation within a two-year period following termination of employment."
    
Does this provision comply with the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct?

Opinion:  

No.  Rule 5.6(a) of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits a lawyer from participating in a partnership or employment agreement with another lawyer or law firm that restricts the right of a lawyer to practice after the termination of the relationship created by the agreement except as a condition to payment of retirement benefits. The purpose of the rule, as explained in Comment [1], is to encourage professional autonomy of lawyers and to facilitate the freedom of clients to choose a lawyer. In Ethics Decision 2000-6, the Ethics Committee held that a provision of a law firm employment agreement that made the payment of a client's account with a law firm a condition precedent to a departing lawyer's receipt of compensation from the client after leaving the firm is a violation of Rule 5.6(a). In the same ethics decision, the Ethics Committee held that an employment agreement with a law firm "must not create a financial disincentive that discourages or prevents a departing lawyer from representing a client from the former firm if the client chooses to follow the lawyer."  The Ethics Committee also found that a provision of the same employment agreement that limited the departing lawyer's financial compensation for representation in contingency cases to a specified hourly rate for work done for a client after the lawyer left the firm was a violation of Rule 5.6.  

The proposed provision set forth in the inquiry above clearly creates a specific financial disincentive for a lawyer to engage in the private practice of law in the same community in which there are likely to be clients who will want to continue to be represented by the lawyer after departing Law Firm.  This will inhibit the right of clients to be represented by their chosen lawyer. This disincentive is a violation of Rule 5.6(a) and is prohibited.

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