March 30, 2009
Credit Or Debit?
The Legal Ethics Committee of the District of Columbia Bar opines as follows:
A lawyer may accept credit cards from a client for payment of fees, including unearned fees (commonly referred to as a retainer or advance fees), so long as the lawyer ensures that she complies with applicable District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct, including ensuring that she does not enter into a merchant agreement with the credit card company that violates the Rules.
The committee notes the issues presented where the fees are paid in advance:
Before accepting credit cards for an advance fee, the lawyer must have a complete and detailed understanding of the agreement imposed on her by credit card companies. In many cases it may prove impossible for the lawyer to deposit advance fees paid by credit card into trust accounts and adhere to the terms of the agreement. Funds in trust accounts belong to the clients, not to the lawyer. As such, they cannot be attached by the lawyer’s creditors. But because many credit card agreements permit the credit card company to invade the merchant’s bank account and charge back monies already paid the merchant if the customer disputes a bill, there is a danger that funds deposited in a lawyer’s trust account might be “clawed back.” Under some circumstances this could result in a situation where there are insufficient funds in the account.
For example, suppose a lawyer deposits an advance fee of $50,000 into her trust account and, as the fee is earned, transfers $40,000 to her operating account. If the client lodges a protest with the credit card company challenging the lawyer’s right to payment, the credit card company, under its standard merchant agreement, might invade the lawyer’s trust account, and claw back the entire $50,000, pending resolution of the dispute. This would mean that the lawyer had insufficient funds in her account to cover her obligations to other clients whose funds she is holding. In some circumstances, it could even result in the account being overdrawn.
Because the Committee does not and cannot know the details of all contractual arrangements between lawyers and credit card companies, we cannot conclude that credit cards can never be used to pay advance fees into trust accounts. But if a credit card is used in this fashion, the lawyers must ensure that under no circumstances can the credit card company invade her trust account. If that possibility exists, a credit card may not be used. Moreover, the lawyer must understand all the provisions of her agreement with the credit card company to ensure that entrusted client funds are safe and secure. Absent that assurance, a credit card may not be used to advance entrusted funds.
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