Category Archives: Lawyer matching services Avvo

New Jersey Supreme Court declines to review ethics opinion finding that AVVO’s referral program violates Bar Rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court Order denying a petition requesting review of the New Jersey Ethics Opinion which found that AVVO’s referral program violated that state’s Bar rules.  The case is In the Matter of the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics Joint Opinion 732, The Committee on Attorney Advertising Joint Opinion 44, and the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law Joint opinion 45, September Term 2017, Case No. 079852.  The Order is here is here: https://images.law.com/contrib/content/uploads/documents/399/11771/Avvo-Cert-Order.pdf

The June 1, 2018 Order denied a petition for certification by Consumers for a Responsive Legal System, an organization that represents Avvo and other online companies providing lawyer referrals.  The petition requested that the Court review a June 21, 2017 joint ethics opinion which found that Avvo facilitates improper fee-splitting and may not be utilized by New Jersey lawyers.

The joint opinion was issued by the New Jersey Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, the NJ Committee on Attorney Advertising and the NJ Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law.  The Attorney General’s Office, representing the committees, and the New Jersey State Bar Association opposed the petition.  I blogged about the joint opinion in my Ethics Alerts here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/new-jersey-joint-ethics-opinion-finds-that-fees-paid-to-avvo-for-client-referrals-violate-new-jersey-bar-rules/ and the joint opinion is here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5plgfqgi26zuym1/ACPE%20732%20Avvo%2C%20LegalZoom%2C%20Rocket%20Lawyer%206.21.17.pdf?dl=0

The joint opinion was issued in response to a bar association inquiry requesting an opinion on “whether it is ethical for lawyers to participate in certain online, non-lawyer, corporately owned services to the public” specifically naming Avvo, LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer and their referral programs.  The opinion found that the LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer programs would be ethical if the programs were registered with the state; however, the opinion found ethics issues with the structure of Avvo’s “pay-for-service” programs and stated that lawyers are prohibited from participating in those programs.

According to the joint opinion, Avvo offers “Avvo Advisor”, which permits customers to buy a 15-minute telephone conversation with a lawyer for a $40.00 flat rate with Avvo keeping a $10.00 “marketing fee”, and “Avvo Legal Services,” where customers would pay flat fees to Avvo for legal services that would be provided by AVVO affiliated lawyers.  Avvo would then pay the lawyer and keep a “marketing” fee.  “The participating lawyer receives the set price for the legal service provided, then pays a portion of that amount to Avvo”. “The label Avvo assigns to this payment (“marketing fee”) does not determine the purpose of the fee. … lawyers pay a portion of the legal fee earned to a nonlawyer; this is impermissible fee sharing.”

The joint opinion also found that marketing fees that lawyers would be required to pay Avvo are not for advertising but are an impermissible “referral fee” under the definitions in New Jersey Bar Rules 7.2(c) and 7.3(d).  In addition, holding the lawyer’s fee until the service is provided violates the requirement that a lawyer maintain funds in a trust account under the rules.

The joint opinion concluded: “New Jersey lawyers may not participate in the Avvo legal service programs because the programs improperly require the lawyer to share a legal fee with a nonlawyer in violation of Rule of Professional Conduct 5.4(a), and pay an impermissible referral fee in violation of Rule of Professional Conduct 7.2(c) and 7.3(d).”

Bottom line:  The New Jersey Supreme Court’s denial of the petition to review the joint opinion leaves New Jersey as one state which has determined that a lawyer’s participation in the “AVVO Advisor” and “AVVO Legal Services” lawyer referral plans is a violation of that state’s lawyer ethics rules.

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

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

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Indiana ethics opinion finds that AVVO Advisor services may violate referral, fee splitting, and advertising rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss recent (April 2018) Indiana Ethics Opinion 1-18 which found that AVVO’s client referral services may violate Indiana Bar rules related to fee sharing with a non-lawyer, improper referral fees to a non-lawyer entity, potentially misleading communications, and the lawyer’s obligations related to professional independence and disclosure of limited representation. The Indiana ethics opinion is here:  https://www.in.gov/judiciary/discipline/files/dc-opn-1-18.pdf

The ethics opinion describes and summarizes the AVVO Advisor program (and any other similar online non-lawyer legal referral services) business model as follows:

Technology and increasing competition in the legal profession and business in general have driven the expansion of a variety of online legal services. Significant growth has been apparent among online service providers offering consumers fixed-fee, limited scope services provided by local attorneys. Typical business models set a fixed fee for various legal services with a local attorney performing the actual legal work. The company, not the attorney, defines the types of legal services offered, the scope of the representation, the fees charged, and other parameters of the legal representation.

Common features of these arrangements include: 1) prearranged fees established by the online company; 2) a “marketing fee” received by the online company; 3) addition of a local attorney to a database accessible to and used by the prospective client to select the attorney; and 4) a caution from the online company that an attorney may decline representation, but that repeated refusals could result in the removal of the attorney’s name from the database.

According to the AVVO webpage, “Avvo Legal Services is currently available in these US states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.” The listed practice areas include:  “Bankruptcy and debt, Business, Criminal defense, Divorce and separation, Family, Estate planning, Immigration, Landlord or tenant, Real estate” and states “If you need to update your practice area percentages, simply edit your Avvo profile.”

Under the AVVO Advisor business model, the potential client visits the AVVO website, selects the legal services needed, and pays Avvo a fixed fee.  Avvo then arranges for an “experienced lawyer” to return the prospective client’s call “within minutes.”  If a lawyer decides to participate, he or she agrees to provide certain legal services for a fixed fee.  Examples include a $39.00 flat fee for a “15-minute Family advice session”; a $995.00 flat fee for filing of an “uncontested divorce”; and a $295.00 flat fee for creating a “last will and testament”.

After the lawyer provides the legal services, Avvo sends the lawyer “100% of the client’s payment” and the lawyer sends to AVVO,  “(as) a completely separate transaction”, a “per-service marketing fee.”  According to AVVO’s “Attorney FAQ for Avvo Legal Services”, “Prices for these (legal) services vary from $295 for services like creating a last will and testament (individual), up to $2995 for preparing and filing a family green card application. Any applicable filing fees are not included in the price of the service; clients should pay those separately”.

“You (the lawyer) pay a marketing fee. As a separate transaction, we withdraw a per-service marketing fee from your withdrawals account. Fees are $40 – $400, depending on the service.”  The Attorney FAQs also state that “Attorneys in Florida who offer 15-minute advice sessions must carry at least $100,000 in legal malpractice insurance. This requirement does not currently apply to document review or start-to-finish services.”

Bottom line:  Indiana has now joined a lengthening list of jurisdictions which have published ethics opinions stating that the “AVVO Advisor” business model may violate lawyer ethics rules, including, in this opinion, the Indiana Bar rules related to fee sharing with a non-lawyer, payment of referral fees to a non-lawyer entity, potential misleading communications, and the lawyer’s obligations related to professional independence and disclosure of limited representation.  Other jurisdictions may publish ethics opinions in the future.  Stay tuned…

…and be very 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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Florida Bar’s Board of Governors will consider ethics opinion addressing fee arrangements of qualifying providers and participating lawyers

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the Florida Bar Board of Governor’s (BOG) direction to its ethics committee to prepare a draft advisory opinion addressing fee arrangements between qualifying providers and participating lawyers which comply with amended Florida Bar Rule 4-7.22, which substantially revises the requirements for qualifying providers.  The amended rule becomes effective on April 30, 2018.  The Supreme Court opinion implementing the amended rule (and others) is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2018/sc16-1470.pdf

The BOG directed its Review Committee on Professional Ethics to consider a proposed advisory opinion after receiving an inquiry by a Florida Bar member.  The BOG committee will consider the opinion at a meeting scheduled for May 18, 2018, from 1-3 p.m. at the Westin hotel in Key West and the draft opinion will be Proposed Advisory Opinion 17-2.

There is currently no draft opinion; however, the proposed advisory opinion will address different types of fee arrangements between for-profit qualifying providers and lawyer referral services who are otherwise in compliance with Rules Regulating The Florida Bar and participating lawyers. The Florida Bar rules prohibit lawyers from sharing fees with private for-profit qualifying providers.

The draft advisory opinion may address various fee arrangements, including:

  1. set fees paid to the qualifying provider on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis;
  2. set fees paid to the qualifying provider for each case referred to the participating lawyer;
  3. set fees paid to the qualifying provider for each case referred to a participating lawyer depending upon the type of matter (e.g., personal injury, family law);
  4. set fees paid to the qualifying provider for each case accepted by the participating lawyer;
  5. set fees paid to the qualifying provider for each case accepted by the participating lawyer depending on the type of matter (e.g., personal injury, family law);
  6. fees paid to the qualifying provider based upon the perceived value of the case referred to the participating lawyer;
  7. set fees paid to the qualifying provider depending upon the perceived value of a type of matter referred to participating lawyers; and
  8. fees paid to the qualifying provider which are a percentage of the recovery or percentage of the fee charged by the participating lawyer.

Pursuant to Florida Bar Procedures, Florida Bar members may comment on the proposed opinion.  Any 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 notice in the April 15, 2018 issue of The Florida Bar News.

Bottom line:  The amended rule substantially change the current rules related to lawyer referrals and the Board of Governors has now initiated the process of identifying various fee arrangements between lawyers and qualifying providers which may or may not comply with the new rules.  Any lawyers who participate in (or are considering participating in) referrals from a private entity should carefully review the new rules, since lawyers can be prosecuted if the referral service (qualifying provider) fails to comply with the amended Bar rule(s).

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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Florida Supreme Court adopts substantial revisions to Bar rules related to private lawyer referral services

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert Update which will discuss the recent (March 8, 2018) Florida Supreme Court opinion approving amendments to Florida Bar Rule 4-7.22 related to private and for profit lawyer referrals.  The amendments substantially revise the current rule, including the broadening definitions, changing the name of the referral companies to “matching services” and “qualifying providers”, prohibiting fee splitting, and removing the previously required disclaimer that the entity is a lawyer referral service.  The Court’s opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2018/sc16-1470.pdf  The rule amendments are effective April 30, 2018, at 12:01 a.m.

Amended Rule 4-7.22 specifically prohibits fee splitting between the referral entities and lawyers and prohibits deceptive, misleading, or false advertising by those entities.  Also, any private entities that connect consumers looking for legal services with lawyers will be called “qualifying providers” regardless of whether they are a “traditional” referral service (ASK-GARY, 411 PAIN) or a technology-based provider (AVVO, LegalZoom).

The Court rejected the Bar’s proposed referral rule amendments in 2015 stating that private referral service entities should only be owned by lawyers.  The Bar filed revised rules in 2016 and the Court issued an Order on May 3, 2017 rejecting the proposed rule revisions and dismissing the Bar’s Rules Petition without prejudice.  That Order stated that the revised rules failed to comply with the Court’s directive that lawyer referral services should be owned or operated only by a member of the Bar and sought to expand the scope of the rule to include “matching services” and other similar services not currently regulated by the Bar.

In its March 8, 2018 opinion, the Court implemented the Bar’s proposed rule amendments but stated that “(the amendments do not) resolve our concern with how some lawyer referral services operate in Florida, especially those that refer clients to other professionals and occupational disciplines for services arising from the same incident. The findings of the Special Committee (on Lawyer Referral Services) on this matter are troubling and we continue to believe additional measures are needed to ensure the public is not exposed to harm. We therefore direct the Bar to submit a petition within ninety days proposing amendments to rule 4-7.22, and any other rule necessary, to implement the Special Committee’s first recommendation.”

Bottom line:  The Florida Supreme Court has adopted the Bar’s revised referral rule, which will substantially change the current rule; however, the Court has indicated that it continues to believe that services which are owned by non-lawyers and make referrals of both lawyers and other professionals should be prohibited and directed the Bar “to submit a petition within ninety days proposing amendments to rule 4-7.22, and any other rule necessary, to implement the Special Committee (on Lawyer Referral Service)’s first recommendation.”

Lawyers who participates in referrals from a private entity (or is considering doing so), should carefully review the new rules, since the rule requires a lawyer who participates to insure that the private entity is in full compliance with the Bar rule.

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

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Filed under 2018 Florida lawyer referral qualifying provider rule revisions, 2018 Florida lawyer referral service matching service rule revisions, Attorney Ethics, Florida Bar, Florida Bar 2016 Lawyer referral rule revisions, Florida Bar lawyer referral rule revisions, Florida Bar matching services, Florida Lawyer advertising rules, Florida Lawyer Referral Services, Florida Supreme Court, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer advertising, Lawyer advertising rules, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer matching services Avvo, Lawyer Referral Services, Lawyer responsibilities AVVO and Linkedin, LegalZoom

Florida Supreme Court dismisses Florida Bar’s petition proposing substantial revisions to lawyer referral service rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert Update which will update my August 1, 2016 Ethics Alert and will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court Order (May 3, 2017) dismissing the Bar’s petition for approval of the proposed substantial revisions to the Bar Rules related to lawyer referral services.

The proposed rules would have substantially revised the current rules, changed the name of the referral companies to “matching services” and “qualifying providers”, specifically prohibited fee splitting and deleted the disclaimer that the entity is a lawyer referral service.  The proposed rules would not have limited ownership to lawyers only or referrals to lawyers only.

The case is: In Re: Amendments to the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar-Subchapter 4-7 (Lawyer Referral Services, Case No.: SC16-1470 and the Supreme Court’s Order May 3, 2017 is here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2016/1470/2016-1470_disposition_138549.pdf

Under the proposed amendments, which were approved by the Florida Bar Board of Governors in 2016, any private entities that connect consumers looking for legal services with lawyers would have been called “qualifying providers” regardless of whether they were “traditional” referral services (such as ASK-GARY or 411 PAIN) or a technology-based provider (such as AVVO or LegalZoom).

The Florida Bar’s website has a page summarizing the proposed rule revisions as well as a frequently asked questions section and comparison chart.  The link to that page is here:  http://www.floridabar.org/proposedlrsamend#Overview.

The May 3, 2017 Florida Supreme Court Order states:

Previously, in In re Amend. to Rule Reg. The Fla. Bar 4-7.22—Lawyer Referral Services, 175 So. 3d 779, 781 (Fla. 2015), the Court rejected amendments to Rule Regulating the Florida Bar 4-7.22 proposed by The Florida Bar and directed the Bar to propose amendments that “preclude Florida lawyers from accepting referrals from any lawyer referral service that is not owned or operated by a member of the Bar.” 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. (emphasis supplied).

The Court having considered the Bar’s prior petition, the amendments proposed in this case, the comments filed, the Bar’s response, and having had the benefit of oral argument, the Bar’s petition in this case is hereby dismissed 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.

No rehearing will be entertained by this Court.

Bottom line:  As I previously stated, if approved by the Florida Supreme Court, the proposed revisions would have substantially altered the rules for lawyer referral services; however, the proposed rules would not have limited ownership to lawyers nor referrals only to lawyers.  This Order makes it clear that the that the proposed rules “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 Florida Bar will now ponder the language of the Supreme Court’s Order in considering potential future proposed lawyer referral rule revisions.  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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