Practice Watch

by Barbara Buchanan, Practice Advisor, Conduct & Ethics
Control over files

A matter has recently come to the attention of the Law Society that reinforces the importance of maintaining control over your files.

According to Chapter 12, Rule 1 of the Professional Conduct Handbook, a lawyer is completely responsible for all business entrusted to the lawyer, and that includes letters being sent out with your signature.

Beware of this scenario. A BC lawyer agreed to act as the agent of an American law firm doing debt collection work in Canada. Under the agreement, the US firm sent demand letters to people in BC on its letterhead with the BC lawyer’s signature at the bottom and a note stating he was “Canadian counsel” for the US firm. The signature was inserted electronically by the US firm. Although the BC lawyer approved the template for the form letters, he did not see or approve any of the letters before they were mailed nor did he have any other involvement with the file.

In addition, the letter contained no contact information for the BC lawyer. The only phone numbers were for the US firm along with its address and the address for its post office boxes in Vancouver and Toronto.

The Law Society advised the BC lawyer that the letter was potentially misleading because it suggested he was the lawyer with conduct of the file, when in fact he was not, and because it contained no contact information for him.

The society was also concerned that the lawyer was allowing the US firm to affix his signature to the letters even though he did not have control over the files.

While this arrangement may have been cost-effective for the US firm’s clients, economic concerns cannot override ethical obligations set out in the Professional Conduct Handbook. All lawyers must ensure that any arrangements they have with clients do not interfere with their control and management obligations over legal work. In this case, the lawyer no longer assists the US firm.

Signing bills

Recently some lawyers have inquired whether or not a legal assistant can sign a bill on behalf of the lawyer. Section 69(3) of the Legal Profession Act states that the bill “must be signed by or on behalf of the lawyer or accompanied by a letter, signed by or on behalf of the lawyer, that refers to the bill.” As such, a lawyer may, in appropriate circumstances, authorize a legal assistant to sign a bill on the lawyer’s behalf.

The lawyer should review the bill ahead of time and the legal assistant must indicate his or her status when signing the bill. See Chapter 12 of the Professional Conduct Handbook for further information on supervision of employees. Rules 6 and 9 set out matters that a lawyer must attend to personally and that legal assistants must not perform.

Correction — rules for handling cash

Due to an editing error, the October Practice Watch column incorrectly stated that Rule 3-51.1 prohibits lawyers from accepting “more than $7,500” in cash except in limited circumstances. The rule actually says that lawyers are prohibited from accepting “$7,500 or more.”