ABC law firm, a firm which substantially limits its practice to representing children suffering from cerebral palsy as a result of medical malpractice, is engaged in the practice of law in various states, including the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
ABC's direct mail advertisements provide that the firm will loan new clients a computer and will pay the monthly service fee for the client's internet service provider. The advertisements provide that the purpose of the computer loan program is to assist new clients with communicating with counsel, help clients conduct research to assist their child with special needs and communicate with other similarly situated clients. The computers are provided to the clients for the term of the representation and must be returned to the firm at the conclusion of the representation. The terms of the computer loan program are set forth in a loan agreement to be executed by the firm and the client, which agreement specifically limits the use of the computer to the enumerated purposes.
In examining the ethical propriety of the proposed arrangement, Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct (the "Rules") 1.8a and 1.8e are both implicated.
Rule 1.8a, regarding business transactions with clients, is triggered by the firm's requirement that clients sign a loan agreement regarding the internet and computer use. Since such an agreement is separate and apart from the representation that the firm is providing to the client for their legal problem, it constitutes a business transaction with the client, and there must be compliance with the specific requirements of Rules1.8a1, 2 & 3.
Rule 1.8e provides that a lawyer shall not provide financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation except for advancement of court courts and expenses of litigation.
A two step analysis is involved in reviewing this Rule as it applies to the facts of the inquiry. First, the Committee believes that the provision of the computer and internet service does in fact constitute financial assistance to the client.
Nonetheless, based on the facts presented, the Committee concluded that the proposed conduct would not violate Rule 1.8(e). Three circumstances of the inquiry lead to this conclusion:
1) Every client gets the computer and internet access. Provision of these is not in connection with a client's pending or contemplated litigation.
2) The clients have no obligation to repay or reimburse counsel for the use of the equipment and the internet service.
3) Use of the internet and the computer is limited so that its value is related to the lawyer-client relationship and the subject matter thereto. If such a limitation were shown to be a sham, it might change the opinion of the Committee.
Consequently, the Committee believes that the inquirer's proposed conduct is permissible under the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, within the bounds of the inquiry as presented and provided there is compliance with Rule 1.8(a).