Ethics Opinion 080NEW YORK STATE BAR ASSOCIATION Professional Ethics Committee Opinion
Opinion #80 – 06/06/1968 (25-67a)
existing clients, duty of lawyer, employment, intermediary, labor, lawyer referral service, legal services, solicitation
Modified by 416
Topic: Group legal service programs
Digest: Validity of group legal service program to handle grievance claims of dissident union members
Canons: Former Canons 27, 35, 47
Dissident members of a union propose to organize a legal service program for the sole purpose of providing for the efficient handling of grievance claims on behalf of participating members. Grievance claims would include both complaints against employers where the member was dissatisfied with his union’s handling of the matter, and complaints against the union. Claims against employers would relate to such matters as wages, working conditions, benefits, and lay-offs. Claims against the union would relate to alleged failures by the union to handle adequately grievance claims on behalf of members, or refusals by the union to permit members to vote or run for office.The Committee is asked whether a lawyer may ethically participate in either of two alternative plans for the handling of such grievances. The first plan would involve the establishment of a referral service which would maintain a list of recommended lawyers, and would charge members a fee for each referral. The fees of the participating lawyers would be paid directly by the member whose case he handles. Under the alternative plan, all participating members would pay dues to the legal service organization, which would employ a single lawyer on a salary basis to handle all grievance matters covered by the plan.
The general principles governing approval of lawyer participation in group legal service programs are set forth in our Opinion #76. Both of the proposed plans appear to be consonent with the decisions of the United States Supreme Court in United Mine Workers v. Illinois State Bar Association, 389 U.S. 217 (1967); Railroad Trainmen v. Virginia State Bar Association, 377 U.S. 1 (1964); and NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415 (1963). Plans organized by dissident union members limited to the handling of grievance claims of such members do not appear to be distinguishable under these cases from plans organized by a union to prosecute workmen’s compensation claims or other personal injury claims arising out of employment.Of course, lawyers accepting referrals and employment under any such group service program must comply with all professional standards and canons which do not interfere with constitutionally guaranteed rights. Thus a lawyer would not be justified in financing such a program, either directly or indirectly. He could not solicit union members either to join the plan or to refer grievance matters to him. The program must be organized and operated so as to avoid problems of conflict of interest. There must also be adequate assurance that the plan will impair neither the lawyer’s independence of professional judgment nor his obligation of undivided fidelity to each individual client.