Law firm’s employment agreements prompt D.C. bar ethics case

Lawyers walk with their briefcases towards the federal court house in San Diego, California June 22, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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  • Bar disciplinary office‘s ethics claims against Tully Rinckey tied to restrictions on lawyers
  • Tully Rinckey said it will contest the bar’s allegations

(Reuters) – The two founding partners of law firm Tully Rinckey were accused in a newly filed ethics case in Washington, D.C., of imposing anticompetitive provisions in employment agreements and placing unfair restrictions on departing lawyers.

The Washington, D.C., bar’s office of disciplinary counsel alleged in its ethics case, disclosed on Wednesday, that Matthew Tully and Gregory Rinckey violated several provisions of the rules that govern attorney conduct in the nation’s capital.

The disciplinary office’s “specification of charges” said Tully and Rinckey curbed “the rights of lawyers to practice after termination of their relationship with the firm.” The office also alleged policies and practices at the firm “prevented or impeded clients from choosing to continue to work with lawyers who were familiar with their cases.”

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The 70-lawyer firm said in a statement that the complaint “focused largely on HR practices that the firm has long-since changed and for which nobody has ever before been prosecuted” in D.C.

“None of the charges against Messrs. Tully or Rinckey are questioning the quality of work performed by the firm’s lawyers nor do the charges allege any acts of dishonesty or criminal misconduct,” the statement said. “The firm looks forward to having these charges aired in a fair and public hearing.”

Law firms regularly compete for talent, and lawyer mobility can raise questions about whether existing clients follow a lawyer to the new firm. It’s not uncommon for a lawyer to break off from a firm to start a law office.

Hamilton “Phil” Fox III, head of the D.C. office of disciplinary counsel, told Reuters that law firms “cannot restrict or penalize lawyers who leave their firm to compete against them.”

He added: “Even conduct that might be acceptable in other businesses, such as noncompete provisions, are improper in the legal profession.”

Tully Rinckey is a general legal services firm based in Albany, New York. The firm has 11 offices, including in D.C., Manhattan and Austin.

The complaint described “considerable turnover” in the firm’s D.C. office, which opened in 2008. The firm said the ethics claims stem from the 2017 departure of a group of former employees who started a rival firm.

The bar’s complaint said the firm “filed lawsuits against lawyers who left the firm if the lawyers took clients to their new employment, regardless of the clients’ choice.”

The cases are In the Matter of Matthew Tully, District of Columbia Board on Professional Responsibility, No. 2017-D030; and In the Matter of Gregory Rinckey, Nos. 2016-D371 and 2018-D052.

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