John J Hanley* Litigation financing is on the rise in the United States and provides some claimants a valuable means for paying the costs of pursuing a legal claim. Lawyer involvement in litigation financing transactions raises many ethical issues for a lawyer such as competence, duty of loyalty, the potential waiver of privilege and interference by a third party, to name a few.
The first rule for lawyers under the New York Rules of Professional Conduct (the “NY RPC”) is competence. Lawyers and law firms should tread carefully when considering undertaking client engagements in a subject area in which they do not have the requisite knowledge and skill to provide competent representation of their clients. Official Comment 1 to Rule 1.1 provides in part that factors relevant to determining whether a lawyer has the requisite knowledge and skill in a matter include the relative complexity and specialized nature of the matter, the lawyer’s general experience, the lawyer’s training and experience in the filed in question, and the preparation the lawyer is able to give the matter.
This does not mean that lawyers cannot deal with matters in which they are initially unfamiliar. Indeed, the American Bar Association points out in comments to Rule 1.1 that “[a] lawyer need not necessarily have special training or prior experience to handle legal problems of a type with which the lawyer is unfamiliar.
The analysis of precedent . . . and legal drafting are required in all legal problems. Perhaps the most fundamental legal skill consists of determining what kind of legal problems a situation may involve, a skill that necessarily transcends any particular specialized knowledge. A lawyer can provide adequate representation in a wholly novel field through necessary study.”
According to the New York City Bar Report to the President by the New York City Bar Association Working Group on Litigation Funding: “[a] lawyer whose client seeks third party funding should determine at the outset whether he or she has the transactional experience and sophistication required to negotiate a beneficial agreement with the funder or whether a specialist in the field should be involved.”
Competence in litigation finance includes familiarity with various litigation financing structures and privileges against disclosure, among others. For example, the structure may involve different types of collateral, different means of financing legal fees and expenses, the manner in which funding is disbursed and the return structure of the financing. A lawyer concentrating her or his practice on litigation funding may also be better able to determine “market” terms of the financing.
Duty of Loyalty and the Lawyer’s Financial Interests with Litigation Funding
Of course, the lawyer is the client’s fiduciary and agent who owes his or her client undivided loyalty and is forbidden from putting her interest above that of the client. The New York State Bar Association, Committee on Professional Ethics reminds lawyers that their financial interests must not interfere with the representation of the client.
Ordinarily, there is nothing adverse to a client about a lawyer getting paid for legal services but in a litigation funding transaction the lawyer could have a personal interest in respect of the transaction. For example, the litigation funding agreement may facilitate payment of a portion of the lawyer’s fees or ensure certain expenses borne by the lawyer will be repaid. The American Bar Association posits that if a lawyer has a relationship with a litigation funder that creates a financial interest for the lawyer . . . it may interfere with the lawyer’s obligation to provide impartial, unbiased advice to the client (the “ABA Report”).
The ABA Report goes on to say that a lawyer with a long-term history of working with a particular funder may have an interest in keeping the funder content which would create a conflict even in the absence of an explicit agreement.
The NY RPC, specifically Rule 1.7(a)(2), like the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, prohibits a lawyer from representing a client if “there is significant risk that the lawyer’s professional judgment on behalf of a client will be adversely affected by the lawyer’s own financial, property or other interest.” Additionally, Rule 5.4 of the NY RPC, and its analogous provisions in other jurisdictions, requires that a lawyer maintain independence. Consequently, such lawyer, representing a client in a matter for which litigation funding is sought, in general may be able to represent the client with respect to the litigation funding agreement but should disclose the lawyer’s relationship with the funder and receive the client’s informed written consent.
Communication and Confidentiality
Rule 1.4 of the NYRP Conduct requires a lawyer to communicate promptly, and provide complete information, to the client regarding the matter, and to reasonably consult with the client about the means to achieve the client’s objectives.
Reputable litigation funders are usually careful to provide in the litigation finance documents that the funder will not be involved in discussions between the lawyer and client regarding the matter, and that the funder will not direct or control the litigation. In certain circumstances an inexperienced lawyer may consider involving the funder in discussions about case strategy, but caution is in order.
If a party other than client and the attorney is involved in communications involving legal issues or the case, the attorney-client privilege and confidentiality of communications is likely breached and the attorney may be guilty of legal malpractice. Indeed, Rule 1.6 of the NYRPC requires that a lawyer not knowingly reveal confidential information, or use that information to the disadvantage of the client or advantage of the lawyer or a third person, subject to certain exceptions.
An attorney who represents a client in a matter that is to be funded pursuant to a litigation funding agreement should consider the ethical implications discussed in this Insight, among others, before representing the client in the funding agreement. Counsel would avoid all of the ethical considerations that may arise by referring the client to an outside attorney experienced in litigation finance.