Serving as Local Counsel
Keith A. Call and Robert T. Denny, J.
With few exceptions, most lawyers love it when they receive a call from an old classmate or colleague asking them to lend their expertise as local counsel on a case. Acting as local counsel has the benefit of keeping you connected to both your colleagues and new clients, and it is also an opportunity for you to build your reputation and referral network.
While your role as local counsel might range from acting as co-counsel at a major trial to occasional hearing attendance, oftentimes lead counsel expects local counsel to provide little more than a bar number and a mailing address. Lead counsel’s expectation may be that you only take a cursory glance at a motion to ensure compliance with local procedure and file it with little thought or effort, to keep client expenses low.
This relationship works great, until something goes wrong. If the client is dissatisfied with the representation, the client may sue both lead and local counsel for malpractice, regardless of local counsel’s involvement. Moreover, if lead counsel commits some sort of discovery abuse or ethical transgression, local counsel may be held responsible. In such situations, relying on the fact that you were “only local counsel,” may not be persuasive.
So how can you limit exposure when acting as local counsel? The first step is to recognize that you still have ethical obligations to the client, court, and third parties even though your role may be limited.
Rule 14-806 of the rules governing the Utah State Bar sets out the basic requirements for acting as local counsel. It requires that local counsel “consent to appear as associate counsel,” “sign the first pleading filed,” continue as counsel of record in the case, and be available to communicate with opposing counsel and the court. Sup. Ct. R. Prof’l Practice 14-806(f). Moreover, you may be required to appear at all hearings, and local counsel must have the responsibility to act for the client if non-Utah counsel is unavailable.