Legal Ethics

Out-of-State Lawyer Admonished for Unauthorized Practice Over Email

out-of-state lawyer email consultationEmail has become a standard means of communication in the world. It’s one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways we communicate with family, friends, colleagues, and clients across the globe.

In fact, in Illinois, all lawyers are required to have an email address.

However, for one out-of-state lawyer, email communication resulted in admonition by the Minnesota Supreme Court for unauthorized practice of law.

Back in 2014, a Colorado lawyer was contacted by his in-laws who live in Minnesota asking for some assistance negotiating with a lawyer regarding payment of an outstanding judgment against them in a conciliation court. With no hesitation, the out-of-state lawyer reached out to the opposing counsel on behalf of his family.

Upon contact, the Minnesota lawyer asked the Colorado lawyer if he was authorized to practice law in Minnesota via email. He admitted that he was not, but if he needed to file suit in the state he would hire counsel.

So, for the next several months the two lawyers exchanged emails discussing the in-laws’ ability to pay and client assets. However, things came to a halt once the Colorado lawyer attached a financial disclosure form and a settlement offer over email. Upon receiving this email, the Minnesota lawyer filed an ethics complaint against the out-of-state lawyer.

Unbeknownst to the Colorado lawyer, he was breaking the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct.

Fast forward to August 31st, 2016 – the date of the ruling on the Colorado lawyer’s ethical violation case. The Minnesota Supreme Court found “an admonition [to be] the appropriate disposition for the out-of-state attorney who engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Minnesota”.

According to the opinion, the out-of-state lawyer was in violation of Minn. R. Prof. Conduct 5.5(a) and 5.5(c).

Regulation Counsel James C. Coyle, head of the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel for the Colorado Supreme Court, expressed his understanding for the Colorado attorney’s confusion of how he thought he could negotiate a settlement in Minnesota without being licensed there.

In Colorado, we have a much simpler ‘Multijurisdictional Practice of Law’ Rule [5.5] than the ABA Model Rule 5.5. For example, we allow lawyers licensed in other competent jurisdictions to conduct transactional work in Colorado so long as they are not domiciled here or have an office here.

As for what the Colorado attorney was admonished for by the Minnesota Supreme Court?

If a Minnesota lawyer engaged in that type of conduct in Colorado, that would have been okay by us, Coyle said. Having such a simple rule in Colorado makes it easy to explain and easy to follow, unlike the ABA Model Rule which was developed after ours.

In Illinois, our Rules of Professional Conduct have language that closely resembles Minnesota regarding unauthorized law practice and multijurisdictional practice of law. Nevertheless, attorneys extending their practice of law beyond their own licensed state must recognize that whether a violation of the unauthorized practice of law has occurred is governed by the laws of jurisdiction they are entering, whether in-person, via electronic communications, or otherwise.

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