If Two Lawyers Jointly Represent a Client the Relationship Between Them Is That of Joint Venturers

In In re Johnson, 133 Ill. 2d 516, 552 N.E.2d 703, 142 Ill. Dec. 112 (1989), the supreme court addressed whether a joint venture relationship arises between an attorney and a law firm whom the client retained to jointly represent his case. There, attorney Johnson agreed to represent the plaintiff in connection with a claim on a disability insurance policy. Johnson, 133 Ill. 2d at 521, 552 N.E.2d at 705. Johnson asked Moore, another attorney, to join him in representing the plaintiff. The plaintiff entered into a written contingent fee retainer agreement whereby he jointly retained Johnson and Moore's law firm, Kelly & Moore, on a one-third contingency basis. Johnson and the law firm orally agreed to a one-half division of the attorney fee. The case subsequently settled, with Johnson receiving a settlement check in the names of Johnson, the plaintiff and Kelly & Moore. Johnson later negotiated the check in his own name and in the name of Kelly & Moore. Johnson, 133 Ill. 2d at 524, 552 N.E.2d at 707. On review, the court addressed the issue of whether Johnson's relationship with Kelly & Moore vested him with implicit authority to negotiate the settlement check in their name despite lacking express authority to so act. Johnson, 133 Ill. 2d at 524-28, 552 N.E.2d at 707-08. The court stated: "Although the precise issue has not been previously addressed by this court, it appears well accepted in other jurisdictions that where lawyers between whom no general partnership relation exists jointly undertake to represent a client in a case, they may be regarded as joint venturers for the particular transaction. 'Thus, where an attorney retained on a contingent fee to prosecute a claim engages another lawyer to assist in the litigation, upon an agreement to share the fee in case of success, otherwise to receive nothing, they become joint venturers.' We accept this characterization of the relationship between two attorneys, like Johnson and the firm of Kelly & Moore in the present case, jointly representing a client on a contingent fee basis. This court has defined a joint venture as an association of two or more persons to carry out a single enterprise for profit. This definition aptly characterizes the relationship between the respondent and the firm of Kelly & Moore with regard to the representation of the plaintiff." In re Johnson, 133 Ill. 2d at 525-26, 552 N.E.2d at 707. After concluding that the relationship between Johnson and the law firm of Kelly & Moore was that of joint venturers, the court applied partnership principles and held that the parties' relationship vested Johnson with implicit authority to endorse the settlement check in the name of Kelly & Moore. Johnson, 133 Ill. 2d at 526-27, 552 N.E.2d at 707-08. Although in a different context, Johnson unequivocally holds that where two attorneys jointly represent a client on a contingent-fee basis, the relationship between the two attorneys is that of joint venturers. Johnson, 133 Ill. 2d at 525-26, 552 N.E.2d at 707-08.