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When it comes to attorneys rewarding their employees, there are delicate ethical pitfalls to beware. Crossing the line from profit-sharing into illegal fee-splitting probably happens far more frequently than the few grievance cases on the topic would suggest. “The problem is, we know it goes on more than it should,” Connecticut Chief Disciplinary Counsel Mark Dubois said. But only in a fraction of the instances where it occurs does anyone ever register a complaint, Dubois surmised. Unfortunately for New Haven, Conn., attorney Miguel A. Rodriguez, his paralegal brought their fee-splitting beef to light. The argument, according to Dubois, was over just a few hundred dollars. But for grievance purposes, the monetary amount doesn’t matter, and Rodriguez now has another reprimand from the Statewide Grievance Committee on his record. Though lawyers can pay referral fees to other lawyers, paying them to a nonlawyer is not only an ethical no-no but it can have criminal consequences. According to state law, any person who pays or rewards any other person to solicit an attorney and any person receiving or accepting payment or reward for referring a matter to an attorney can both be fined up to $1,000 and/or be imprisoned for up to three years. Some law firms, if they have a good year or good month, will share a portion of their overall profits with their employees — “That’s okay,” Dubois said. But when a nonlawyer employee brings in a case and then gets a cut of the contingency fee that case generates or a bonus for solely bringing the case in the door, it violates Rule 7.2(c) of the Connecticut Rules of Professional Conduct. The rule prohibits a lawyer giving anything of value to a person recommending his or her services. Rodriguez was able to settle his grievance matter with Dubois’ office through a conditional admission. In an affidavit to the grievance committee, Rodriguez acknowledged he had an “ill-defined” arrangement with the complainant, Christopher J. McNeil, “that might be perceived as fee splitting.” According to Dubois, McNeil worked for an attorney Rodriguez shared office space with and agreed to do freelance paralegal work for Rodriguez. Dubois said Rodriguez and McNeil had a disagreement over a few personal-injury cases and McNeil’s contention that he was owed a percentage of the resulting contingency fee. However, there were some “open questions” on how the clients came to the firm that grievance officials were unable to clarify, Dubois said. Rodriguez agreed to pay McNeil a negotiated sum.

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