Attorneys sometimes call the WSBA Ethics Line – 800-945-9722 ext. 8284 – wondering if they can offer legal services at a charity auction. Often, they have concerns that it might violate ethics rules, but they aren’t sure which ones. While there are reasons to be careful about auctioning your services, a properly set up donation with a clear disclaimer can be compliant with the ethics rules. We’ll do a quick review of this scenario, but be sure to read the rules and their comments in their entirety.
Donating Legal Services Can Work
Donating legal services can be a great way to offer something of value to an auction, as well as get your name out in a community. Successful bidders can end up with a good legal service at a reasonable rate, so everyone’s happy. Several state bar ethics opinions give qualified approval to legal services donations as long as they are set up appropriately. See, e.g. Nebraska State Bar Opinion 06-11 (2007) and New York State Bar Opinion 971 (2013).
However, a well-intentioned donation can easily run amok. The offer to do “a simple will” could be claimed by a client with more complex estate planning issues than they ever realized. Now a service that you contemplated taking a few hours turns into much, much more. Who’s left holding the bag? Other concerns are that it can lead to conflicts of interest, improperly limit the exercise of the attorney’s independent judgment, be misleading, or lead an attorney to provide services in areas in which they may not be competent. See RPC 1.1, 1.2, 1.7, and 7.1.
How to do it Right
To avoid any of the above complications, you need to set up your donation carefully. Your donation should:
- Offer services only in your areas of competence
- Clearly set out your identity and the specific service, or hours of service, offered
- Make clear that no attorney-client relationship is established at purchase and retain the right to decline for conflicts of interest or other reasons
- Make no false or misleading statements
Make sure the auctioneer or organization makes no false or misleading statements when promoting your services. In addition, have an exit plan. Figure out ahead of time how you’ll handle bidders you can’t accept. Will the charity refund the bidder’s donation or will you pay him or her back yourself? Once you’ve reached agreement with a bidder, remember that you’ve established an attorney-client relationship and that all the rules of professional conduct apply, including maintaining client confidentiality. RPC 1.6. See also Advisory Opinion 1882 which discusses an attorney offering free estate planning legal services to an organization’s members.
A Practice Tip:
Put an expiration date on the offer or you may find yourself being contacted by successful bidders years after the event. Although not obligated by ethics rules, it’s smart to limit outstanding certificates.
If you have concerns, contact the WSBA Ethics Line at 800-945-9722, ext. 8284.