Category Archives: Avvo legal services

Proposed Virginia Bar ethics opinion finds that AVVO and similar lawyer matching services are unethical

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent approval of a Virginia ethics opinion which finds that AVVO and similar matching services unethical.  Proposed Legal Ethics Opinion 1885 is here: http://www.vsb.org/site/regulation/leo_1885

On October 27, 2017, the Virginia State Bar voted to approve a draft ethics opinion regarding online attorney-client “matching services”, such as AVVO, which are called “attorney-client matching services” (ACMS),. The opinion finds that a lawyer’s participation in the matching services would violate the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct.

The opinion does not name any specific services; however, the description of the is similar to the business model of Avvo Legal Services, which allows consumers to purchase legal services for a flat fee.  The opinion describes a business model that it calls an “attorney-client matching service” (ACMS), which it describes as a for-profit entity that provides an online platform for matching attorneys and clients.  An ACMS gives a client a limited scope fee agreement, and the client pays the full fee to the ACMS.

The lawyer does not negotiate the scope of services or the fee or receive any of the client’s money until the services have been performed. Under ACMS’s terms, the lawyer agrees to provide flat fee legal services.  When the matter is completed, the attorney receives the full amount of the legal fee paid by the client.  ACMS then debits the attorney’s account for a “marketing fee” which varies depending upon the amount of the legal fee received.

The opinion identifies five problems with the ACMS business model:

  1. The lawyer is not properly handling the client’s advanced fee because it is allowing a third party to hold the funds. Thus, the funds are not being held in an IOLTA account as required.
  2. Since the lawyer has no access to the client’s money until he is paid in full by the platform, he is unable to fulfill his obligation to refund any unearned fees at the conclusion of the matter.
  3. Without being in control of the definition of the scope of legal services or negotiation of the fee, the lawyer may well be undertaking representation which violates any number of ethics rules. The services may not be appropriate to the client. The fee may not be commensurate with the value of the services provided. The services may be inadequate for the client’s needs. And so on.
  4. The payment of the marketing fee to ACMS constitutes the sharing of legal fees with a non-lawyer.
  5. The payment of the marketing fee constitutes payment for recommending the lawyer’s services.

The opinion criticizes the fact that Avvo holds the fee between the time that the prospective client pays for the services until the lawyer completes the services and states that “the ACMS collects advanced legal fees from a prospective client before the prospective client has had any contact with the lawyer whom she might engage” and that this is a violation of the Bar rules which require that advance fees be held in an the lawyer’s trust account until services are completed.

Under lawyer trust account rules, unearned fees are to remain in trust. As an ACMS is not a law firm, it cannot have an IOTA trust account or hold client fees in trust. Since the fees are not paid to the lawyer, the lawyer is unable hold the funds in trust if same is required under the Bar rules. In addition, under the Bar rules, a lawyer has an to refund any unearned fees at the end of the representation.

The opinion also discusses some potential solutions to the problems with the current model.  Regarding the issue of the lawyer not having control over the fee and the scope of the representation, the opinion did not flatly state that lawyers are prohibited from participating in the ACMS model. It concluded that a lawyer could participate if the lawyer consults with the client and is satisfied that the services can be performed competently and in compliance with the ethical rules before accepting a matter.  The lawyer would also have to exercise independent professional judgment to insure that the fee is not unreasonable or excessive.

The opinion held that the arrangement results in unethical fee sharing with the matching service and “(t)he fact that the ACMS executes a separate electronic debit from the lawyer’s bank account for its ‘marketing fee’ following the firm’s electronic deposit of the full legal fee to the lawyer’s bank account does not change the ethically impermissible fee-sharing character of the transaction.”  The opinion left the possibility that fee splitting might be avoided if the lawyer’s fee was based upon the number of clients received through the platform or the number of inquiries or clicks on their profile.

Bottom line: If this opinion is approved by the Virginia Supreme Court, Virginia will join five other states, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, in disapproving or criticizing the AVVO business model. The New York and New Jersey opinions, which were issued this year, determined that the “marketing fee” taken from the lawyer’s account involves improper fee splitting.

Be careful out there…and stay tuned.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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New York ethics opinion finds that fees paid to Avvo for legal services violate referral, fee splitting, and advertising Bar Rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss recent (August 8, 2017) New York Ethics Opinion 1132 which found that lawyers in New York are prohibited from participating in AVVO’s client referral services.  This opinion found that the referral services violate the Bar rules since they involve improper “vouching for” (and recommendation of) the lawyer, improper lawyer referral fees, and fee sharing with a non-lawyer.

The companion New York Ethics Opinion 1131 (August 8, 2017) sets forth the structures of various web-based services and attempts to explain how those services could comply with the New York Bar Rules.  Both New York State Bar Ethics Opinions are here: http://www.nysba.org/EthicsOpinion1132/ and here: http://www.nysba.org/EthicsOpinion1131/ .

NYSBA Ethics Opinion 1132 states that, since Avvo Legal Services provides ratings of lawyers using the service based on various qualifiers such as years in practice, information provided by the lawyers, volunteer bar work and other publicly available information, and offers to find a client “the right” lawyer with a money-back guarantee, there is an implied recommendation as to the lawyer’s “credentials, abilities, competence, character, or other professional qualities”; therefore, the marketing fee is “an improper payment for a recommendation in violation the New York  Bar Rules.

The opinion also states that since “the Avvo website also extols the benefits of being able to work with highly rated lawyers,” it creates a reasonable impression that it is recommending its top-rated lawyers. and the satisfaction guarantee “also contributes to this impression.”

“Avvo is giving potential clients the impression that a lawyer with a rating of ‘10’ is ‘superb,’ and is thus a better lawyer for the client’s matter than a lawyer with a lower rating. Avvo is also giving potential clients the impression that Avvo’s eligibility requirements for lawyers who participate in Avvo Legal Services assure that participating lawyers are ‘highly qualified.’” The opinion states that Avvo Legal Services’ “satisfaction guarantee” also contributes to the impression that Avvo is recommending its lawyers’ services “because it stands behind them to the extent of refunding payment if the client is not satisfied.”

According to the opinion, Comment 1 of New York Rule 7.2 prohibits a lead generator not only from stating that it is recommending a lawyer, but also from implying or creating a reasonable impression that it is making such a recommendation.

NYSBA Ethics Opinion 1132 concludes:

“This opinion does not preclude a lawyer from advertising bona fide professional ratings generated by third parties in advertisements, and we recognize that a lawyer may pay another party (such as a magazine or website) to include those bona fide ratings in the lawyer’s advertisements. But Avvo Legal Services is different.  It is not a third party, but rather the very party that will benefit financially if potential clients hire the lawyers rated by Avvo.  Avvo markets the lawyers participating in the service offered under the Avvo brand, generates Avvo ratings that it uses in the advertising for the lawyers who participate in Avvo Legal Services, and effectively ‘vouches for’ each participating lawyer’s credentials, abilities, and competence by offering a full refund if the client is not satisfied. As noted earlier, Avvo says: ‘We stand behind our services and expect our clients to be 100% satisfied with their experience’” Accordingly, we conclude that lawyers who pay Avvo’s marketing fee are paying for a recommendation, and are thus violating Rule 7.2(a).”

NYSBA Ethics Opinion 1131 sets forth the structures of various web-based services and attempts to explain how those services could potentially comply with the New York Bar Rules.  That opinion concludes:

“A lawyer may pay a for-profit service for leads to potential clients obtained via a website on which potential clients provide contact information and agree to be contacted by a participating lawyer, as long as (i) the lawyer who contacts the potential client has been selected by transparent and mechanical methods that do not purport to be based on an analysis of the potential client’s legal problem or the qualifications of the selected lawyer to handle that problem; (ii) the service does not explicitly or implicitly recommend any lawyer, and (iii) the website of the service complies with the requirements of Rule 7.1.  A lawyer who purchases such a lead to a potential client may ethically telephone that potential client if the potential client has invited the lawyer selected by the service to make contact by telephone.”

The opinions also briefly discuss the potential confidentiality issues related to AVVO’s “money back guarantee”.

Bottom line:  New York has now joined the list of jurisdictions finding that Avvo’s “marketing fee” taken from fees paid to lawyers using its client generation services violate ethics rules and are impermissible referral fees.  This New York ethics opinion (like all ethics opinions) is advisory only; however, it is the most recent finding that the fee charges in AVVO’s plan constitute improper referral fees and fee sharing.  Other jurisdictions (such as a pending North Carolina opinion) may also publish ethics opinions in the future.  Stay tuned…

…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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New Jersey joint ethics opinion finds that fees paid to Avvo for client referrals violate New Jersey Bar rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New Jersey joint ethics opinion which found that lawyers in New Jersey are prohibited from participating in client referral services provided by AVVO because the services involve improper lawyer referral fees and fee sharing with a non-lawyer.  The joint ethics opinion is here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5plgfqgi26zuym1/ACPE%20732%20Avvo%2C%20LegalZoom%2C%20Rocket%20Lawyer%206.21.17.pdf?dl=017  and the New Jersey Supreme Court Notice to The Bar of the joint ethics opinion is here: https://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/notices/2017/n170621i.pdf

The joint ethics opinion found that none of the legal service plans interfered with the independent professional judgment of participating lawyers, and Avvo’s procedure of holding fees until the legal services are performed does not violate lawyer trust account rules.

The joint opinion also describes the services offered by three companies’ websites.  Avvo offers two legal services products through its website: “Avvo Advisor” and “Avvo Legal Services”.  Individuals who use “Avvo Advisor” pay a flat fee for a 15-minute phone conversation with a lawyer, while consumers who use “Avvo Legal Services” purchase specific services, such as an uncontested divorce, for a flat fee.  Avvo then deposits the flat fee into the lawyer’s bank account and withdraws a “marketing fee.”

The ethics opinion found the “marketing fee” is an impermissible referral fee, and not a permitted fee for the cost of advertising, as well as an impermissible shared fee between a lawyer and the non-lawyer.  The ethics opinion referred to ethics opinions in Ohio, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania that found marketing fees charged by “Avvo-type companies” were improper referral fees or constituted impermissible fee sharing.

The opinion found that services provided by LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer appear to comply with the ethics rules if they were registered with the courts’ administrative office, as required by New Jersey’s rules.  LegalZoom’s “Business Advantage Pro” and “Legal Advantage Plus” charge a flat monthly fee for legal advice and consumers can purchase additional services from participating lawyers at a discounted rate.  LegalZoom keeps the monthly subscription fees.  Rocket Lawyer’s legal services plan charges a flat fee for limited legal advice on document-related matters and a free 30-minute lawyer consultation.  Rocket Lawyer keeps the subscription fees and participating lawyers can offer legal services at discounted rates.

Bottom line:  This ethics opinion is the most recent which has reviewed the recent legal services plans of AVVO (and other entities) and found that the fee charges in AVVO’s plan constitute improper referral fees and fee sharing.  Other jurisdictions may weigh in with their own ethics opinions in the future (or the rules may be changed).  Stay tuned…

…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

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South Carolina ethics advisory opinion states that matching legal services such as those offered by Avvo are prohibited

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent South Carolina ethics advisory opinion which states that marketing fees to non-lawyer companies collected as part of legal fees are prohibited.  The advisory opinion is here: http://www.scbar.org/Bar-Members/Ethics-Advisory-Opinions/Opinion-View/ArticleId/2455/Ethics-Advisory-Opinion-16-06

The July 14, 2016 ethics advisory opinion discusses a marketing program and fee arrangement similar to the one used by Avvo Legal Services.  Avvo states that the service matches lawyers willing to provide specific legal services to clients who pay a fee to Avvo, which includes a marketing fee.  Lawyers who participate then receive earned fees from Avvo once a month and Avvo takes its marketing fee from the lawyers in a separate transaction.

The South Carolina advisory opinion states that this type of fee arrangement/program constitutes improper fee sharing with non-lawyers, and, in the alternative, constitutes improper payment of a referral fee to a non-lawyer, which is also prohibited.

According to the opinion, “In the situation described above, the service collects the entire fee and transmits it to the attorney at the conclusion of the case. In a separate transaction, the service receives a fee for its efforts, which is apparently directly related to the amount of the fee earned in the case. The fact that there is a separate transaction in which the service is paid does not mean that the arrangement is not fee splitting as described in the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

“A lawyer cannot do indirectly what would be prohibited if done directly. Allowing the service to indirectly take a portion of the attorney’s fee by disguising it in two separate transactions does not negate the fact that the service is claiming a certain portion of the fee earned by the lawyer as its ‘per service marketing fee.’”

The opinion also states that marketing fees must represent the reasonable cost of the service, and these fees do not meet that criteria.  “Presumably, it does not cost the service any more to advertise online for a family law matter than for the preparation of corporate documents. There does not seem to be any rational basis for charging the attorney more for the advertising services of one type of case versus another.”

“The service, however, purports to charge the lawyer a fee based on the type of service the lawyer has performed rather than a fixed fee for the advertisement, or a fee per inquiry or “click.” In essence, the service’ s charges amount to a contingency advertising fee arrangement rather than a cost that can be assessed for reasonableness by looking at market rate or comparable services.”

Avvo representatives have previously stated that their “matching services” fee arrangement does not violate lawyer disciplinary rules.  I discussed Avvo’s program in my January 15, 2015 Ethics Alert, which is here:  https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2016/01/25/lawyer-directory-website-avvo-is-offering-fixed-fee-legal-services-on-a-limited-basis-and-plans-to-expand-the-services/

An online FAQ about the legal services program on Avvo’s website states that “(l)ocal clients purchase legal services, choose the attorney they want to work with, and pay the full price of the service up front. The chosen attorney then completes the service for the client and is paid the full legal fee. As a separate transaction, the chosen attorney pays a per-service marketing fee for the completed, paid service.”

Avvo General Counsel Josh King also stated in the FAQ that Avvo is not acting as a lawyer referral service and that lawyers should not be concerned about fee splitting since “(f)ee splits are not inherently unethical.  They only become a problem if the split creates a situation that may compromise a lawyer’s professional independence of judgment.  We believe that Avvo Legal Services fees, like credit card fees, would involve the sort of technical fee split that would not create such a potential for compromise.  Nonetheless, we have tried to keep things simple and clear by making the per-service marketing fee a separate charge.”

Bottom line:  The South Carolina ethics advisory opinion makes it clear that Avvo’s (and other similar) “matching service” arrangements constitute improper fee splitting and improper referral fees.  Lawyers who are interested in participating should carefully review their jurisdiction’s Bar rules and/or consult with and consult their Bar or consult with a lawyer familiar with their jurisdictions Bar rules before considering participation in the service.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Please note:  Effective June 27, 2016, my new office address is:

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150, Clearwater, Florida 33761

E-mail addresses and telephone numbers below will remain the same. 

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150,

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Lawyer directory website Avvo is offering fixed fee legal services on a limited basis and plans to expand the services

 

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent decision by the lawyer directory website Avvo to offer legal services to individuals through selected lawyers for a fixed fee and charge the lawyers a marketing fee to participate.  An ABA article dated January 12, 2015 discussing Avvo’s plans is here: ABA 1-12-16 Avvo legal services article

According to the ABA article, Avvo recently began testing the new service and it plans to offer the services more broadly over the next few months.  The service is called Avvo Legal Services offers a variety of limited-scope legal services at a fixed fee. The legal services include review of legal documents such as business contracts and nondisclosure agreements as well as more complicated matters such as uncontested divorces and citizenship applications.

According to the article, Laura Moriarty, Avvo’s vice president of communications, stated that Avvo is testing the service in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix and will begin offering the services in additional markets in February 2016. “Moriarty declined to identify the markets where it will initially be offered except to confirm that one will be Massachusetts.”

The ABA article states that “Avvo first got into the business of offering legal advice last year when it launched Avvo Advisor, a service that provides on-demand legal advice by phone for a fixed fee of $39 for 15 minutes. With this new service, Avvo will determine the types of services to be provided and the prices. Attorneys who sign up will be able to select which services they want to offer. When a client buys a service, Avvo sends the client’s information to the attorney. The attorney then contacts the client directly and completes the service.”

“Clients will be able to choose the attorney they want from a list of those within their geographic area who have registered to participate. Clients pay the full price for the service up front.  After the service is completed, Avvo sends the attorney the full legal fee, paid once a month for fees earned the prior month. As a separate transaction, the attorney pays Avvo a per-service marketing fee. This is done as a separate transaction to avoid fee-splitting, according to Avvo. Attorneys pay nothing to participate except for the per-case marketing fee.”

“Among the services to be offered will be document review for $199, for which the attorney will pay a $50 marketing fee; formation of a single-member LLC for $595, with a $125 marketing fee; uncontested divorce for $995, with a $200 marketing fee; and green card application for $2,995, with a $400 marketing fee.  The terms of the service require attorneys to contact a new client within one business day for a 30-minute introductory call. If the attorney determines the client is not the right fit, the attorney can decline the representation.”

An online FAQ about the legal services on Avvo’s website states that “(l)ocal clients purchase legal services, choose the attorney they want to work with, and pay the full price of the service up front. The chosen attorney then completes the service for the client and is paid the full legal fee. As a separate transaction, the chosen attorney pays a per-service marketing fee for the completed, paid service.

Avvo General Counsel Josh King also states in the FAQ that Avvo is not acting as a lawyer referral service and that lawyers should not be concerned about fee splitting since “(f)ee splits are not inherently unethical. They only become a problem if the split creates a situation that may compromise a lawyer’s professional independence of judgment. We believe that Avvo Legal Services fees, like credit card fees, would involve the sort of technical fee split that would not create such a potential for compromise. Nonetheless, we have tried to keep things simple and clear by making the per-service marketing fee a separate charge.”  The FAQ is here:  Avvo legal services FAQ

Bottom line:  Although it is clear that AVVO (a third party non-lawyer website) is attempting to structure this legal services arrangement in a way to avoid ethics issues, whether this arrangement is ethical or unethical is subject to further analysis and interpretation by each jurisdiction regarding fee splitting and potential lawyer referral issues.  Lawyers who are interested in participating should carefully review their jurisdiction’s Bar rules and/or consult with and consult their Bar or consult with a lawyer familiar with the Bar rules before agreeing to participate.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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