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Legal Ethics: Can Law Firms Pay for Their Clients To Uber?

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shutterstock_342682037With so many  articles about whether a new platform is the next Uber for lawyers  or whether legal services can be Uberized at all, lawyers are missing out on something even more obvious: how we can use the real Uber or other similar ride-sharing platforms to better serve our clients.  For example, if a client doesn’t own a car, or the car was damaged in an accident and needs to get to medical appointments or a hearing, you could dispatch an Uber to ferry your client around. Similarly, you could offer Uber as part of an initial consultation package.   After all, visiting a lawyer can be a stressful for most clients, what with gathering together necessary paperwork,  navigating to a new destination, locating the lawyer’s office building, finding a parking space – often in the confines of a short lunch break to avoid missing work time.  So imagine how much more seamless the experience would be for clients if an Uber driver simply materialized and dropped them off in front of your office.

Even pre-Uber, lawyers have been able to transport clients – whether by hailing them a cab or giving them a ride to court. But Uber makes the process far more seamless and convenient than a cab, avoiding either the awkwardness of reimbursing a client for the ride from the petty cash fund, or meeting the client at the curb to pay the cab driver if the client doesn’t even have enough money to advance for the fare. Moreover, if you summon Uber to take clients to court and he’s running late, you can keep tabs, through the Uber app, on how much longer it will take for them to arrive.

Of course, like every other tech innovation, using Uber to transport clients raises two ethics questions – though in my view, both may be favorably resolved.  First, ABA Model Rule 1.8  prohibits lawyers from providing financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or potential litigation, except where costs advanced are repaid contingent on the outcome of the matter, or where the payments cover court costs and litigation expenses for indigent clients.

Many state bars have been sticklers in applying Rule 1.8. Arizona Ethics Opinion 95-01 prohibits a lawyer from advancing rental car or paying a collision insurance deductible so that the client can have the car repaired, finding that these costs are more akin to “living expenses” which cannot be advanced rather than litigation costs.  North Carolina 2001 Formal Ethics Op. 7  found that while a lawyer could cover occasional transportation costs (bus fare or train tickets) provided that the client remained liable for the costs, it did not permit the lawyer to advance the cost of a rental car that the client would use not only for doctors visits but also  on a day to day basis. Meanwhile, in Maryland, one unfortunate attorney was suspended for three months for advancing a few hundred dollars to a client to repair his car during the course of litigation. See also, Rubenstein v. Statewide Grievance Comm., 2003 WL 21499265 (Conn. Super. Ct. 2003)(reprimand for providing clients with bus tokens to medical appointments).

In my view, Uber’s structure avoids many of the ethics concerns raised in these cases. For starters, lawyers can control use of Uber to ensure that it’s only used for trips to court, doctors and other litigation-related activities, thus avoiding the issues raised by subsidizing a rental car that a client might use on a day to day basis.

More importantly, because of how Uber is structured, picking up the cost of Uber for a client isn’t a reimbursable expense that would be subject to ABA Rule 1.8, but instead, is more appropriately categorized as law firm overhead, just as legal research fees, cell phone bills and courier service. After all, if a law firm has its own car service (and some do) that it dispatched to transport clients to medical appointments and court hearings, the cost of the service would not run afoul of Rule 1.8 because the car services would be encompassed in law firm overhead and would not be charged to the client to begin with.  In this regard, Uber- which touts itself as everyone’s private driver — is really nothing more than an outsourced law firm car service.  And just as other ethics opinions conclude that outsourcing tasks routinely treated as overhead (e.g., general administrative work) does not transform them into expenses that can be billed to clients, so too, a law firm’s use of Uber should not be classified as an advanced expense either.

Using Uber to deliver clients to an initial consultation raises a second ethics consideration in that it might be viewed as giving something of value to persuade the client to use your services. This objection is a bit of a red-herring; most of the prohibitions on “giving something of value” apply when given as a gift to reward past referrals and encourage future business. See, e.g., ABA Model Rule 7.2 ).  However, so long as accepting the Uber ride doesn’t commit the client to retain your services, it would likely pass muster under most ethics rules. In addition, in this context, offering Uber service to prospective is not all that different from providing free parking and other gratis amenities that make for a more enjoyable client experience .

So, even as the profession continues to debate when or whether legal services can be Uberized, in the meantime, there are still plenty of ways that we can use the real Uber to serve our clients.

 

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