Opinion 2007-3
(March 2007)

The inquirer asks to what extent can an attorney, who has been suspended from practice, work in his former law firm doing exclusively computer related technology work and/or accounting/billing? The attorney would have absolutely no contact with clients, would be performing no legal or paralegal work, and would be doing exclusively administrative operations for the firm.

Rule 217j of the Pennsylvania Rules of Disciplinary (the "Rule") enforcement provides, in pertinent part that:

"a formerly admitted attorney may not engage in any form of law-related activities in this Commonwealth accept in accordance with the following requirements: . . .

(4) without limiting the other restrictions in this subdivision (j), a formerly admitted attorney is specifically prohibited from engaging in any of the following activities: (i) performing any law-related activity for a law firm, organization or lawyer if the formerly admitted attorney was associated with that law firm, organization or lawyer on or after the date on which the acts which resulted in the disbarment or suspension occurred, through and including the effective date of disbarment or suspension . . . (emphasis added) … (5) the supervising attorney and the formerly admitted attorney shall file with the Disciplinary Board a Notice of Engagement, identifying the supervising attorney, and certifying that the formerly admitted attorney’s activities will be monitored for compliance with this subdivision (j). The supervising attorney and the formerly admitted attorney shall file a Notice with the Disciplinary Board immediately upon the termination of the engagement between the formerly admitted attorney and the supervising attorney.

(6) The supervising attorney shall be subject to disciplinary action for any failure by either the formerly admitted attorney or the supervising attorney to comply with the provisions of this subdivision (j).

The official note to subdivision (j) states in pertinent part:

"…Subdivision (j) is not intended to prohibit a formerly admitted attorney from performing services that are not unique to law offices, such as physical plant or equipment maintenance, courier or delivery services, catering, typing or transcription or other similar general office support activities.”

The Committee notes that Pa. R.D.E. 217j makes a clear distinction between a formerly admitted attorney performing services for a law firm, organization or lawyer with whom the formerly admitted attorney was not associated during the time when the conduct leading to suspension occurred and the situation posed in this inquiry, where the attorney will continue at the firm where he had been a licensed attorney.

As supported by the official note to the Rule, the activities described in the inquiry do not, in the Committee’s view, constitute law related activities. The Committee feels that, given the nature of services to be provided and the proscription against law related activities, it would be inappropriate to give the person the title of "legal assistant" or any other title that might suggest or imply a responsibility for law related matters.

The Committee is of the opinion that it is important that licensed attorneys with the office take care to ensure that the scope of work being performed falls strictly within the administrative realm described. Any deviation from this practice could result in further disciplinary action against the suspended attorney and in disciplinary action against the supervising attorneys pursuant to applicable provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct (including but not limited to the requirement that non-lawyers be properly supervised see Pa.R.P.C. 5.3) and the Rules of Disciplinary Enforcement.

Finally, in light of the fact that the provision in question is a Rule of Disciplinary Enforcement rather than a Rule of Professional Conduct, the Committee suggests that the inquirer consider securing the advice of independent counsel with respect to the specific terms of engagement of the formerly admitted attorney and also consider making an inquiry to the Disciplinary Board to ensure that the Board shares the Committee’s opinion before proceeding with the engagement.

In summary, it is the Committee's opinion that so long as the suspended attorney performs no legal or paralegal work or law related activities, he or she is not precluded from doing exclusively administrative operations of the type described in the inquiry. Licensed attorneys within the firm would be responsible to ensure that the suspended attorney's activities did not expand to include any legal, paralegal or law related work.

CAVEAT: The foregoing opinion is advisory only and is based upon the facts set forth above. The opinion is not binding upon the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania or any other Court. It carries only such weight as an appropriate reviewing authority may choose to give it.