Legal Ethics

Judge Voids Law Firm Contract Provisions That Discourage Clients from Following Exiting Attorney

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A New York judge has voided portions of a law firm employment contract that discourage clients from following an attorney to another legal shop.

Agreeing with former Cellino & Barnes attorney Paul B. Becker that a provision forbidding a departing lawyer from informing clients of his impending exit is unenforceable, New York Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek said it violated ethics rules for attorneys, the Buffalo News reports.

The judge also voided a contract provision that said Cellino & Barnes could put a 43.56 percent lien on future work done for a former client by a lawyer who had left the firm, calling the provision a penalty, the newspaper reports. He said there was no proof that the lien provision accords with actual costs for the firm, which is known for spending millions on advertising.

Both sides declined to comment when contacted by the Buffalo News. However, Becker said in filings that the firm waited until 24 days after he gave required 15-day notice to alert his clients that he had left. Since no one informed clients that he was forbidden by law firm contract to contact them, this put him in a bad light, he wrote:

“These provisions are designed for one purpose only, which is to keep the client from making a timely and informed choice of counsel. … The provisions are designed to keep the client from making an informed decision by making it appear as if the departing attorney abandoned his clients.”

According to the article, the Cellino firm sued Becker seeking a finding that he had violated the employment agreement and an award of legal fees. The 44-attorney personal injury law firm has six offices in Buffalo, Rochester and the New York City area.

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