Ethics Opinion

Opinion No. 77-5

May 1977

Summary: An attorney may not properly allow a client to use the attorney's letterhead in communicating with the client's debtors, unless he personally supervises and controls the correspondence.

Facts: A Massachusetts attorney appears to have permitted a client in Ohio to produce collection letters to the client's alleged debtors on the attorney's letterhead, and to mail them from Ohio to the debtors in a third state. The lawyer's signature was affixed to these letters requesting the alleged debtor to contact the creditor directly about the account. It appears from an examination of the documents that the letters were produced by machine. We assume that the mailings were not reviewed by the attorney.

Discussion: A similar procedure was held questionable in ABA Informal Opinion 1368 of July 15, 1976. There a series of letters was to be produced on automatic typewriters by the lawyer's staff, signed and mailed to the debtors directly, but inquiries were to go to the client. The lawyer did not review the account to determine its validity, but relied on the client's written certification.

In a series of opinions beginning in 1932, ethics committees of the ABA have held it unethical for a lawyer to dispatch letters to purported debtors on a mass production basis. Under EC 3-6 a lawyer may delegate tasks to clerks, secretaries and other lay persons, but such delegation is proper only when the lawyer maintains "a direct relationship with his client, supervises the delegated work, and has complete professional responsibility for the work product."

From the facts here presented, the letters were mailed by the client and appear to have been mass produced. While the specific letter brought to our attention was not a demand for payment, it nevertheless alleged a debt to be in existence, which, in fact, was not true. A series of such errors could be an indication that the lawyer was failing to act competently in handling legal matters without adequate preparation, DR 6-101(A)(2).

Permission to publish granted by the Board of Delegates, 1977. As stated in the Rules of the Committee on Professional Ethics, this advice is that of a committee without official governmental status.