Holiday gifts raise ethical concerns

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Sending seasonal gift baskets or holiday cookies could be considered an ethical violation for lawyers who might want to say thanks to a colleague in the legal profession for sending a client their way.

That’s the takeaway from a strict reading of Indiana’s attorney advertising rules, which were rewritten a year ago and are now in place for their inaugural holiday season. One revision broadens the scope of a rule on the “channeling of professional work,” leaving lawyers with little practical guidance on what the line is on sending holiday tokens of appreciation to those who’ve helped their practices in the past.

But those enforcing the disciplinary rules, along with attorney ethics experts and an array of small and large law firm practitioners, say they don’t think nominal holiday gifts rise to the level of an ethical rule violation. Instead, it’s the large-scale gifts and back-room referral patterns that are the focus of the lawyer conduct rules.

“I will be surprised if any sensible attorneys change their practice of sending cards that could not be compensation or anything of value within the meaning of the rule,” said Jerry Jenkins, a partner at Baker & Daniels in Indianapolis who leads the firm’s ethics committee. “The Supreme Court surely has more important things to do than pursue holiday baskets and such.”

Changes to the Indiana attorney advertising rules in 2010 shuffled existing provisions and revised some of the writing of the professional conduct rules. For the most part, it did not change the essence of the provision, but in some places, it did broaden the scope. The court changed two sections that deal with attorney referrals in the context of advertising. Previously, Rule 7.2(b) had focused on press, radio, television or other communication mediums, but those listed areas were removed from the 2011 version. Now, it just prohibits lawyers from giving “anything of value to a person for recommending or advertising the lawyer’s services.” That’s led some to question whether the provision prohibits any referral-related holiday giving between attorneys that might have even the slightest value.

Commentary added for the first time to this rule specifically says the rule in question is designed to prohibit a lawyer from paying others for “channeling professional work.” That phrase is new and remains open for interpretation, according to the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission executive secretary G. Michael Witte.

At the moment, Indiana doesn’t have any law on the books about that specific issue and the court hasn’t issued any guidance on what is and isn’t allowed, he said. But Witte doesn’t see the rule’s wording would lead to enforcement for those sending something that would otherwise be determined “reasonable” in most situations.

He looks to the state’s judicial code of conduct, which in Rule 3.13 allows for reasonable gifts that are “commensurate with the occasion.”

“That refers to birthdays and holidays, and while we don’t have anything that refines it more, that provision gives us a reasonable point of reference here,” Witte said. “We know there are certain things that occur during the calendar in the year when lawyers give and receive gifts, and the holidays are one of them where this would be termed appropriate.”

Witte hesitated to define what might cross the line of being “reasonable,” saying that he doesn’t want to define it and – if the case arose to test that line – the Supreme Court would have to offer that interpretation.

Law firms contacted by IL either declined to comment on this issue or offered statements that they comply with the rule as it’s written, without saying whether they specifically read the rule to preclude any small item such as holiday gift cards or baskets.

limontes Limontes

Alex Limontes, of counsel at Mitchell Hurst Dick & McNelis and incoming chair of the Indianapolis Bar Association’s Solo & Small Firm Committee, reads the rule to be more focused on the continued practice of funneling work to attorneys. The “for” part of the provision is the most important, he said.

“With regards to holiday gifts, I think that you begin to tow that line between ethical and unethical conduct if you give a large gift or significant monetary gift,” he said. “If you send the gift with a card that states something like, ‘Enjoy the gift. Thank you for sending me all of those clients,’ then that could potentially be construed as giving something of value for recommending or advertising.”

Limontes would advise attorneys to try and keep gifts simple and inexpensive such as cookies, candy or gift baskets. Multiple gifts could all be the same so that no one appears to be getting special treatment, and lawyers should avoid putting themselves in positions where someone could question the reason for the gift.

On the referral issue, he and others say that written non-exclusive fee agreements as outlined in Professional Conduct Rule 1.5 should be used between attorneys if any clients are being referred.

At Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis, law firm management relies on the counsel of the state’s former attorney ethics chief, Don Lundberg. While he doesn’t think an item like a gift basket falls within the Rule 7.2(b) prohibition, Lundberg does see how a literal reading of the rule can be taken to encompass those items and might cause some attorneys to wonder if this might be a practical concern.referral

“I suppose an after-the-fact, tangible expression of gratitude could be substantial enough and given in such a way that it would reasonably be viewed as a promise to make a similar gift for future referrals,” he said. “In that event, it could readily be interpreted as a quid pro quo rather than a pure gratuity.”

To avoid any potential issues, Lundberg said lawyers would be well-advised to be transparent about whether something is a gift of appreciation or something more. For example, a note could be written and attached to a box of chocolates or nuts to say, “I hope you’ll accept this as an expression of my appreciation for the business you have referred to me over the past year.”

He cautioned, “If, in reality, it is a disguised quid pro quo for referral of a case and the ‘gift’ is of substantial value and tied to the result in a particular case, no amount of window dressing will keep it from being what it really is.” 

Jenkins agreed, saying that although there’s little guidance about what the rule means and no disciplinary decisions interpreting this provision, lawyers should be conservative in how they handle any gift – even during the holiday season.

“As for Christmas baskets and other nominal gifts, the careful attorney will take pains to emphasize that it is a holiday gesture to a business acquaintance and not compensation for a referral of business,” he said.•


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  1. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  2. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

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  4. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.

  5. I had a hospital and dcs caseworker falsify reports that my child was born with drugs in her system. I filed a complaint with the Indiana department of health....and they found that the hospital falsified drug screens in their investigation. Then I filed a complaint with human health services in Washington DC...dcs drug Testing is unregulated and is indicating false positives...they are currently being investigated by human health services. Then I located an attorney and signed contracts one month ago to sue dcs and Anderson community hospital. Once the suit is filed I am taking out a loan against the suit and paying a law firm to file a writ of mandamus challenging the courts jurisdiction to invoke chins case against me. I also forwarded evidence to a u.s. senator who contacted hhs to push an investigation faster. Once the lawsuit is filed local news stations will be running coverage on the situation. Easy day....people will be losing their jobs soon...and judge pancol...who has attempted to cover up what has happened will also be in trouble. The drug testing is a kids for cash and federal funding situation.