Your recent inquiry regarding the placement of an attorney who is not a member of your firm as a signatory on your general account, was presented to the Professional Guidance Committee meeting on April 18, 1988. The following constitutes the opinion of the Committee:
You indicate this additional signatory on your account is part of an agreement between your current firm and your future new firm (of which you are the principal) regarding the division of the personal injury clients you currently represent. You have agreed to pay to the principals of your current firm, (which is being disbanded) a percentage of the fee earned on your pending personal injury cases. The clients whose fees are to be shared have been notified of this arrangement and have consented to it in writing. It is agreed that from this payment you will deduct the pro-rata share of your office expenses for those cases. The agreement includes having Attorney A, who is not a member of your new firm, as a signatory on your general account.
Rule 1.6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct ("Rules") provides that:
(a) A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to representation of a client unless the client consents after consultation, except for disclosures that are impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation, and except as stated in paragraphs (b) & (c).
The Rule proceeds to list several exceptions to confidentiality, none of which have bearing on your present situation.
There is nothing in the Rules which specifically prohibits having an attorney who is not a member of your firm as a signatory on your general account. However, the Committee felt that this arrangement would violate client confidentiality as outlined in Rule 1.6.
The clients whose fees are being shared are not the ones who raise the ethical barrier in this situation. Clearly, since they have agreed in writing to the fee split and participation of the former firm, confidential information regarding their cases and the expenses attributed to their cases, can be shared. Your other clients, however, to whom you owe the same duty of confidentiality, have not consented to having any information concerning their cases released to any member of your former firm. As such, to have one general account, with Attorney A as a signatory could include disbursements on behalf of your other clients. This information would be deemed "information relating to the representation of a client", as set forth in Rule 1.6, and should not be revealed without the client's consent.
As a practical solution, the Committee suggests that you open two accounts, one to pay expenses relating to the shared clients, with Attorney A as a signatory, the other to handle the expenses relating to your other clients with only you and/or another member or employee of your new firm as signatory. Office expenses not related to your clients, i.e., employees' salaries, rent, etc., obviously do not enter into the ambit of client confidentiality, and could thus be paid out of the account which has Attorney A as a signatory.
The key issue in this situation is the preservation of the confidentiality of your own clients. As such, it should be carefully considered in all your decisions regarding this matter.