April 30, 1993
A lawyer may communicate, either in a print advertisement or while speaking to an assembled group, that a portion of the lawyer's fee will be donated to a religious or charitable organization.
References: MRPC 5.4(a), 7.1, 7.2(c); R-6; RI-36, RI-104, RI-147.
A lawyer asks whether it is ethical for the lawyer to state either in an advertisement in a publication, or while speaking to a group associated with a church or other charitable organization, that a portion of the lawyer's fee will be donated to the church or charity.
Lawyers may advertise their services in the print media and by speaking to groups, MRPC 7.1, and may also pay for the reasonable cost of advertising, MRPC 7.2(c)(i). A lawyer is prohibited from sharing legal fees with a nonlawyer, MRPC 5.4(a), or giving anything of value to a nonlawyer in return for recommending the lawyer's services, MRPC 7.2(c). The principal rationale behind the prohibition in 5.4(a) against sharing fees with nonlawyers is to preserve the lawyer's independent professional judgment. RI-104.
The Committee opined in R-6, that a lawyer could pay the reasonable advertising costs associated with the lawyer's participation in a not-for-profit Lawyer Referral Service (LRS) operated by nonlawyers, but would be prohibited by MRPC 5.4(a) from turning over a portion of the legal fees earned as a result of referrals to the Lawyer Referral Service.
A similar proposal was disapproved in RI-36. In that opinion a lawyer proposed an arrangement whereby a chamber of commerce would sponsor a hotline for advice with respect to labor issues. Calls placed to the Hotline would be answered at the lawyer's office. It was proposed that the Chamber would receive a percentage of any legal fees collected from hotline callers. Although the Chamber did not expressly recommend the lawyer's services, the Committee concluded that the chamber's endorsement of the lawyer was implied in the hotline arrangement. The proposed fee sharing arrangement with the Chamber was found to violate the prohibition against giving anything of value in return for recommending a lawyer's services contained in MRPC 7.2(c), and the rule against sharing fees with a nonlawyer in MRPC 5.4(a).
In RI-147 a chamber of commerce was allowed to advertise and recommend a lawyer's services to its members, as long as, among other things nothing of value beyond the reasonable cost of the advertising is given to the organization by the lawyer. The lawyer was allowed to discount fees to members of the chamber of commerce, as long as the chamber of commerce did not advertise, as an incentive for membership in the chamber, that the lawyer offers discounts to the chamber's members.
In the fact situation before us, there is no information that the religious or charitable organization is involved in the lawyer's advertising or the lawyer's offer to donate fees. Since the charitable organization is not involved in the communication of the pledge by the lawyer, the organization is not using the lawyer's offer as an incentive, is not endorsing the lawyer's qualifications, and is in no way encouraging the use of the lawyer's services. As long as the lawyer in fact donates the portion of fees to the charitable organization as advertised, the proposed advertisement does not violate MRPC 7.1, nor does the communication constitute "giving of value" for a referral from the organization in violation of MRPC 7.2(c).