Category Archives: Lawyer improper referral fees and fee splitting

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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Potential Florida Bar ethics advisory opinion 17-2 will address lawyer referral fees and private client matching services

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss recent decision by the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors (BOG) to consider a potential ethics advisory opinion to address the ethics issues surrounding lawyer referral fees and private client matching services.  The advisory opinion has not been drafted; however, the draft opinion will be identified as Proposed Advisory Opinion 17-2.

The Bar review began after a lawyer sent an ethics inquiry to The Florida Bar asking whether lawyers could participate with a private lawyer referral service which planned to charge a different set fee depending upon the type of case referred.  The lawyer referred to the system “as a ‘pay-per-lead’ structure.”

The lawyer’s inquiry was referred to the BOG and, at its July 21, 2017 meeting in Miami, the BOG unanimously approved the recommendation of the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics (BRCPE) that it be directed to prepare an advisory opinion on the inquiry, specifically whether lawyer referral services can charge a fee per referral and impose different fees for different types of cases.  The BRCPE has authority to decline drafting an opinion and the BOG could also decide not to issue the opinion if it is drafted.

If an ethics advisory opinion is drafted, it will address the ethics issues created when online entities (such as AVVO) rolled out programs which attempt to match potential clients with lawyers and which make different payments depending on the type of case.  The opinion would also address the Bar rules related to advertising and referral services.  Lawyers and others will be able to comment on the issues before any opinion is drafted and/or approved.

The Florida Bar Rules have long prohibited lawyers from sharing fees with private referral services.  The Bar’s Standing Committee on Advertising (SCA) also rejected “pay-per-lead” plans on previous appeals and the BOG rejected an appeal from a referral service that proposed a payment of $300.00 to participating lawyers for each referred and accepted case in 2012.

Other jurisdictions have published ethics opinions addressing these issues or are in the process of reviewing them.  As I reported in a recent Ethics Alert blog, New York Ethics Opinion 1132 (published August 8, 2017) found that New York lawyers are prohibited from participating in AVVO’s client referral services.  The opinion found that lawyers who participate in AVVO’s client referral services (and any similar services) would violate the New York Bar rules since they involve AVVO’s improper “vouching” for (recommendation of) the lawyer, improper lawyer referral fees, and improper fee sharing with a non-lawyer.

As background, The Florida Bar filed a petition with proposed Bar rule amendments with the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 addressing, inter alia, referral services that offer both legal and medical or other non-legal services. Those proposed rules would have allowed lawyers to participate in those services, as long as clients were informed about potential conflicts, there was no quid pro quo requiring the lawyer to send a referred client for medical or other services offered by the referral agency, and the lawyer’s independent judgment was not affected.

The Florida Supreme Court published an opinion on September 24, 2015 which declined to implement the rule revisions and instructed the Bar to draft rules that “preclude Florida lawyers from accepting referrals from any lawyer referral service that is not owned or operated by a member of the Bar.”    That opinion is here: 9/24/15 SC Opinion

The Florida Bar then filed revised rule amendments designating private entities which match lawyers with potential clients as “qualified providers” and requiring those entities to comply with the Bar rules, including a required review of the advertisements. Participating lawyers would not have been required to carry malpractice insurance.

The Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument in April 2017 and then published an order dismissing the petition on May 3, 2017. That order is here: 5/3/17 SC Order.  The order stated: “In this case, the Bar proposes amendments to rule 4-7.22 that do not comply with the Court’s direction concerning lawyer referral services that are not owned or operated by a member of the Bar and that seek to expand the scope of the rule to include “matching services” and other similar services not currently regulated by the Bar.

The May 3, 2017 Order also stated that the dismissal was without prejudice “to allow the members of this Court to engage in informed discussions with the Bar and those who are in favor or against the proposed regulation of matching and other similar services. The Court lacks sufficient background information on such services and their regulation at this time.”  A meeting was held at the June 2017 Bar Annual Convention in Boca Raton to discuss the issues and was attended by Justices, Bar officials, and representatives of private referral services.

The Bar’s Notice of the proposed ethics advisory opinion was published in the August 15, 2017 issue of the Florida Bar News.  The Bar’s Notice is here: 8/15/17 Notice of Proposed advisory opinion 17-2.

According to the Notice:  “The Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics will consider adopting a proposed advisory opinion at the direction of The Florida Bar Board of Governors based on an inquiry by a member of The Florida Bar, at a meeting to be held on Thursday, December 7, 2017, from 1-3 p.m. at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island.” and “comments from Florida Bar members are solicited on the issues presented. Comments must contain Proposed Advisory Opinion number 17-2, must clearly state the issues for the committee to consider, may offer suggestions for additional fee arrangements to be addressed by the proposed advisory opinion, and may include a proposed conclusion. Comments should be submitted to Elizabeth Clark Tarbert, Ethics Counsel, The Florida Bar, 651 E. Jefferson Street, Tallahassee 32399-2300, and must be postmarked no later than 30 days from the date of this publication.”

Bottom line:  If the ethics opinion is drafted and approved, Florida will join the growing list of jurisdictions addressing “marketing fees” taken from fees paid by private online entities to lawyers participating in client generation services.  This ethics opinion (like all ethics opinions) would be advisory and for guidance only.

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 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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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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