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98 Formal Ethics Opinion 6

April 16, 1998

Sale of a Law Firm to Lawyers Employed by the Firm

 

Opinion rules that the requirements set forth in Rule 1.17 relative to the sale of a law practice to a lawyer who is a stranger to the firm do not apply to the sale of a law practice to lawyers who are current employees of the firm.

 

Inquiry #1:

 

Founding Lawyers have practiced law together for many years. Each Founding Lawyer is a shareholder in A, B, & C Law Firm, P.A., a professional association (the "firm"). The firm employs Younger Attorneys who have expressed an interest in taking over the practice from Founding Lawyers. Younger Attorneys are not currently shareholders in the firm. Founding Lawyers anticipate retiring from the practice of law at different times over the ensuing years. They are interested in transferring the practice to Younger Attorneys and continuing to practice law as employees of the firm.

 

Founding Lawyers are considering two different ways of transferring the firm to Younger Attorneys. By the first method, Younger Attorneys would make sizable capital contributions to the firm in exchange for shares in the firm and the firm would, in turn, redeem the shares of Founding Lawyers. Under Rule 1.17(a) of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer who sells a law practice is required to "[cease] to engage in the private practice of law in North Carolina." If the firm is transferred to Younger Attorneys by this method, will Founding Lawyers be required to cease to engage in the private practice of law in North Carolina?

 

Opinion #1:

 

No. Rule 1.17 applies to the sale of an entire law firm to a purchasing lawyer or law firm. The rule does not apply to the transfer of shares of a professional corporation to existing employees of the firm in exchange for capital contributions to the firm. As noted in Comment [15] to Rule 1.17, "[a]dmission to, or retirement from, a law partnership or professional association, retirement plans and similar arrangements…do not constitute a sale or purchase governed by the rule." The rule is intended to protect clients from breaches of confidentiality, conflicts of interests, and other abuses that may occur when a lawyer who is not a current member of a law firm purchases the good will of the law firm. Therefore, the sale of all of the shares of a professional association of lawyers to a lawyer who is not a member of the firm or a law firm that includes principals who are not members of the firm is subject to the requirements of the rule.

 

Inquiry #2:

 

In the second method of transferring the firm to Younger Attorneys under consideration, the Younger Attorneys will form a new professional association and own 100% of the stock of the new professional association. The new professional association will purchase substantially all of the assets of A,B &C Law Firm including the good will and the right to use the name of the firm. If the firm is transferred to Younger Attorneys by this method, will Founding Lawyers be required to cease to engage in the private practice of law in North Carolina?

 

Opinion #2:

 

No, see opinion #1 above. Although structured like a purchase of assets by a third party, the second method of transfer is essentially a retirement plan or "similar arrangement." As noted above, these are not governed by Rule 1.17. When the assets of a firm are purchased by a professional association of lawyers who are all current employees of the firm, there is no potential for harm to the interests of the clients of the firm due to conflicts of interests, breaches of confidentiality, or abuse of fee agreements.

 

Inquiry #3:

 

Is there any prohibition against the continued use of the firm's present name, regardless of the method of transfer used, as long as Founding Lawyers continue as employees of the professional association or, when they leave the firm, they retire from the practice of law in North Carolina?

 

Opinion #3:

 

Regardless of the method of transfer employed, there is no prohibition on the continued use of the firm's present name because "...there [is] a continuing succession in the firm's identity…." Rule 7.5, Comment [1]. See also "Regulations for Professional Corporations and Professional Limited Liability Companies Practicing Law," 7 NCAC 1E, Section .0100, Rule .0102(a)("The name of every professional corporation shall contain the surname of one or more of its shareholders or of one or more persons who were associated with its immediate corporate, individual, partnership, or professional limited liability company predecessor in the practice of law….") As noted in RPC 13, "[a] law firm may continue to include in the firm name that [sic] of a retired attorney who practiced with the firm up to the time of his retirement." However, the name of a retired principal in a firm "may be used in the name of a law firm only if the [principal] has ceased the practice of law."

 

Inquiry #4:

 

Founding Lawyers may finance the purchase of the firm by Younger Attorneys. Regardless of how the purchase is financed, after their retirement, Founding Lawyers want to provide advice and input to Younger Attorneys as to the conduct of the law practice. Will Founding Lawyers assistance to Younger Attorneys violate Rule 1.17(g)'s provision that "[t]he seller…shall have no say regarding the purchaser's conduct of the law practice"?

 

Opinion #4:

 

No. As noted in opinion #1 above, Rule 1.17 does not apply to the purchase of a law firm by lawyers who are currently members of the firm. Therefore, the prohibition in paragraph (g) of Rule 1.17 is also inapplicable.

 

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