Proposed Florida Opinion would allow mobile payment of legal fees as long as lawyers protect client confidences and safeguard funds.

I know a guy who runs an NCAA tournament pool.  He told me that most participants paid via Venmo or PayPal.  A few, however, sent checks in the mail.  Hearing this made me realize that there are people who do not know how mobile payment apps work.

Last week, the Florida Bar’s Professional Ethics Committee approved Proposed Advisory Opinion 21-2.  The proposed opinion concludes that Florida’s ethics rules do not prohibit a lawyer from accepting payment via apps like Venmo & PayPal if the lawyer:

  1. protects client confidentiality; and,
  2. takes reasonable steps to safeguard funds held in connection with a representation.

This press release summarizes the proposed opinion. It now goes out for comment and will considered for final adoption in June.

Next week, I’ll blog about the opinion’s consideration of the trust account rules.  Today, I’m more interested in the first part of the opinion.  In my view, it provides helpful reminders and guidance on tech competence and client confidentiality.

Some of you might be wondering: what does a mobile payment app have to do with client confidentiality?  Well, there you have it: tech competence.  You need to know what you don’t know.

Like the Florida opinion, let’s use Venmo as an example.

Venmo is more than just a payment processor.  In a way, it’s a social media platform.  Here’s language from the Florida opinion:

  • “For example, Venmo users, when making payment, are permitted to input a description of the transaction (e.g., ‘$200 for cleaning service’). Transactions are then published to the feed of each Venmo user who is party to the transaction. Depending on the privacy settings of each party to the transaction, other users of the application may view that transaction and even comment on it.”

To illustrate the point, if you download the Venmo app, here’s what you’ll see before you log-in or sign-up:

IMG_5777

From the third transaction in the feed, we know that Skye F and John G had a virtual coffee date.  Let’s hope that their privacy settings are such that one or the other’s significant other didn’t find out.

As an aside, did the date not go well? Is that why Skye charged John??  Anyhow, I digress.

Now, apply this to real life.  Yes, accepting mobile payments might make it easier to run your law office.  However, things might become more difficult if your privacy settings are such that the entire world, including John G’s unsuspecting spouse, learns from Venmo that your firm charged John G. for “divorce consultation.”

Here’s the answer, courtesy of me logging into Venmo and opening my privacy settings:

IMG_5778

Finally, here’s a great paragraph from Florida’s proposed opinion.  The first sentence aside, it applies to every single circumstance that involves information relating to the representation of a client:

  • “For lawyers, accepting payment through a payment-processing service risks disclosure of information pertaining to the representation of a client in violation of Rule 4- 50 1.6(a) of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. Rule 4-1.6(a) prohibits a lawyer from revealing information relating to representation of a client absent the client’s informed consent. This prohibition is broader than the evidentiary attorney-client privilege invoked in judicial and other proceedings in which the lawyer may be called as a witness or otherwise required to produce evidence concerning a client. The ethical obligation of confidentiality applies in situations other than those in which information is sought from the lawyer by compulsion of law and extends not only to information communicated between the client and the lawyer in confidence but also to all information relating to the representation, whatever its source. Likewise, a lawyer must make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation. The obligation of confidentiality also arises from a lawyer’s ethical duty to provide the client with competent representation. This includes safeguarding information contained in electronic transmissions and communications.”

From there, the opinion makes several suggestions.  To me, they boil down to this one:

  • “The lawyer must make reasonable efforts to understand the manner and extent of any publication of transactions conducted on the platform and how to manage applicable settings to preempt and control unwanted disclosures.”

That’s all for now.  Next week I’ll discuss the section of the opinion that deals with the trust account rules.

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