Model Rule 5.4(a) prohibits lawyers from sharing fees with non-lawyers. Rule 1.5(e), on the other hand, permits a lawyer to share fees with a lawyer in another firm - as long as they fulfill certain criteria. Ethics opinions have long held that fee-sharing is permitted between lawyers in different jurisdictions. So, what if Lawyer 1 (who is in a jurisdiction that prohibits fee-sharing with non-lawyers) wants to share a fee with Lawyer 2 (who is in a jurisdiction that permits fee-sharing with non-lawyers)? Can Lawyer 1 share the fee with Lawyer 2?
ABA Formal Opinion 464, issued on August 19, 2013, says yes. The fact that lawyer 2 may eventually share a portion of the fee with a non-lawyer should not expose lawyer 1 to discipline, according to the opinion.
Not suprisingly, the example used in the opinion is the District of Columbia. D.C. is - for now - the only U.S. jurisdiction that permits non-lawyer ownership of law firms. According to the opinion, lawyers are free to share fees with D.C. lawyers and law firms, even if they know those fees may eventually be shared with non-lawyers. The opinion explains that any other result would not just disadvantage lawyers, but would burden clients as well. As noted in the opinion, a lawyer could always get around the fee-sharing issue by requiring the D.C. firm to send a separate bill directly to the client, but "this tactic would likely annoy clients and add unnecessary complexity to a common arrangement with no constructive purpose."
The Opinion cautions that, despite this conclusion, Lawyers "must continue to comply with the requirement of Model Rule 5.4(c) to maintain professional independence." Thus, they cannot permit non-lawyers to interfere with the lawyer's independent professional judgment.
Interestingly, the opinion does not mention other jurisdictions outside the United States, such as the U.K. and Australia, which permit non-lawyer ownership of law firms. Although the opinion does not expressly address those situations, I can't see any reason why the analysis would not extend to fee-sharing with foreign law firms as well.