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NY Ethics Committee on lawyers accepting credit card payments

Stacked3Here is this week's Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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NY Ethics Committee on lawyers accepting credit card payments

The Internet and cloud computing have drastically altered the legal landscape, including the expectations of legal consumers. Because of rapid advancements in technology and 24/7 access to information, the needs of legal clients are necessarily changing with the times. They expect immediate access to information, responsive client service, and flexibility in paying their legal bills, including the ability to make credit card payments online to pay for legal services rendered.

Fortunately for New York lawyers, the ability to accept credit card payments for legal fees was deemed ethical years ago. Of course, even so, questions sometimes arise when lawyers seek to collect credit card payments in unusual way. Such was the case in New York State Bar Association Ethics Opinion 1112.

At issue in this case was whether a firm could include in its retainer agreement language establishing a particular type of credit card payment arrangement. Specifically, the inquiring attorney asked whether a law firm may impose “through its retainer agreement a 20-day time limit for payment upon clients, after which the law firm may automatically bill the client’s credit card for the full amount of the unpaid balance of the moneys outstanding?”

At the outset, the Committee on Professional Ethics acknowledged that when lawyers accept credit card payments from clients, it does not usually present an ethical issue: “It is well-established that, in certain circumstances, New York lawyers may allow their clients to pay their attorneys’ fees by credit card.”

Of course, there are exceptions to that general rule that New York lawyers should be aware of. The Committee explained that there were a number of caveats to the rule: “A lawyer may accept credit card payments of legal fees so long as: (i) the amount of the fee is reasonable; (ii) the lawyer complies with the duty to protect the confidentiality of client information; (iii) the lawyer does not allow the credit card company to compromise the lawyer’s independent professional judgment on behalf of the client; (iv) the lawyer notifies the client before the charges are billed to the credit card and offers the client the opportunity to question any billing errors; and (v) in the event of any dispute regarding the lawyer’s fee, the lawyer attempts to resolve all disputes amicably and promptly and, if applicable, complies with the fee dispute resolution program set forth in 22 N.Y.C.R.R. Part 137.”

Next the Committee turned to the issue at hand, concluding that the retainer agreement could include a clause that allowed a firm to automatically bill the client’s credit card for any outstanding fees, as long as certain other requirements were met: “(T)he proposed 20-day provision would be consistent with the Rules only if the retainer agreement also expressly informed the client of the right to dispute any invoice (and to request fee arbitration in accord with applicable court rules, prior to the imposition of any disputed credit card charges).”

So, not only are lawyers permitted to accept credit cards to pay legal fees, they can also automatically bill a client’s credit card for unpaid fees as long as the retainer agreement includes the necessary language required to provide clients with notice of their legal rights.

That’s good news because today’s legal clients expect to have multiple payment methods available to them; the more methods you offer, the more likely you are to get paid. When you accept online credit card payments from clients, whether through a stand-alone payments platform or through your firm’s law practice management system, it makes it easy for your clients to pay their legal fees, thus ensuring that you get paid quickly. So now that you know it’s ethical for New York lawyers to accept credit card payments from clients, what are you waiting for?

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for the modern law firm. She is also the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can be reached at niki@mycase.com.