Category Archives: Lawyer Referral Services

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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Florida Bar’s Board of Governors finds that AVVO Advisor is a for-profit lawyer referral service and must comply with Bar Rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent decision by the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors to approve a BOG committee’s conclusion that AVVO Advisor is a for-profit lawyer referral service and must comply with the Florida Bar Rules related to those referral services.

According to a recent Bar Board of Governors informational release and the January 1, 2018 issue of the Florida Bar News, the BOG Review Committee on Professional Ethics responded to a lawyer inquiry regarding the status of AVVO Advisor and unanimously recommended that the lawyer be advised that Avvo Advisor, which is described as “a private for-profit company’s online system for connecting potential clients to lawyers for 15-minute consultations for $39”, is a lawyer referral service under Florida’s rules.  The Board of Governors voted unanimously at its December 8, 2018 meeting to approve the committee’s recommendation and opinion. The January 1, 2018 Florida Bar News article is here: https://www.floridabar.org/news/tfb-news/?durl=%2Fdivcom%2Fjn%2Fjnnews01.nsf%2F8c9f13012b96736985256aa900624829%2F3a1cd1f9be52b1f1852581fe004ede22.

As a for-profit lawyer referral service, AVVO Advisor will now be required to comply with Florida Bar Rule 4-7.22 or Florida lawyers will not be permitted to participate in the service.  Florida Bar Rule 4-7.22 requires that the services receive no payment that constitutes a division of fees, it must furnish or require lawyers to have professional liability insurance, it must affirmatively state in advertisements that the system is a lawyer referral service, and comply with the other requirements in the rule.   According to the BOG release, there are twenty-eight lawyer referral services which are current in their quarterly reports to The Florida Bar.

Florida Bar President-elect Designate John Stewart is quoted as stating: “This is a difficult question for this board, it’s going to set a lot of precedent for issues we are going to have to deal with that are related…The decision could affect a large number of our constituents. There are at least, anecdotally, a fair number of our constituents who participate in this program.”

The Florida Bar will provide a 90-day grace period on discipline under Rule 4-7.22 for lawyers who may be currently associated with Avvo Advisor. This would allow Avvo Advisor to file its first quarterly report and comply with Rule 4-7.22 or for the Florida lawyers to exercise other options if Avvo Advisor chooses not to follow Rule 4-7.22, Rules Regulating The Florida Bar.

The January 1, 2018 Florida Bar News, which went online on December 26, provides more information for Bar members about participating in Avvo Advisor.  The webpage “What you need to know about the Bar and AVVO Advisor” is here: https://www.floridabar.org/news/tfb-news/?durl=%2Fdivcom%2Fjn%2Fjnnews01.nsf%2F8c9f13012b96736985256aa900624829%2Fb5f5fefbce7ee680852581fe004f7f92.

Bottom line:  This decision by the BOG addresses only the Avvo Advisor service and it triggers the requirement that AVVO Advisor comply with Florida Bar Rule 4-7.22.  Those requirements include, inter alia, that there is no division of fees, that AVVO either have, or ensure that lawyers have, professional liability insurance, and that AVVO affirmatively state in any advertisements that it is a lawyer referral service.  If a lawyer is currently participating in this service, or is considering participating, he or she should act accordingly.

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 Attorney Ethics, AVVO Advisor- BOG opinion re lawyer referral service, AVVO fee sharing and referral fee plans, Avvo legal services, fee sharing, Florida Bar, Florida Bar lawyer referral rule revisions, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer referral fees, Lawyer Referral Services, Lawyer responsibilities AVVO and Linkedin

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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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Avvo legal services, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer ethics opinions, Lawyer improper referral fees and fee splitting, Lawyer matching services Avvo, Lawyer referral fees, Lawyer Referral Services, Lawyer sharing fees with non-lawyers

Florida Bar’s Board of Governors will vote on substantial revisions to Bar rules related to lawyer referral services

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the proposed revisions to the lawyer referral Bar rules which would change the names to “matching services” and “qualifying providers” and substantially revise the existing referral rules.  The proposed rule revisions are here:  http://www.floridabar.org/TFB/TFBResources.nsf/Attachments/D8FFF4171E28E5C085257FA300648D6B/$FILE/4-7.22%20et%20al%20legislative.pdf?OpenElement

The proposed rules address for-profit companies that link lawyers with consumers needing legal work and are designed to prevent fee splitting between those companies and lawyers and protect the public from deceptive, misleading, or false advertising by those companies.  Under the proposed amendments, any private entities that connect consumers looking for legal services with lawyers are called “qualifying providers” regardless of whether they are a “traditional” referral service (ASK-GARY, 411 PAIN) or a technology-based provider (AVVO, LegalZoom).

The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors (BOG) received an updated report on May 20, 2016 from Carl Schwait, chair of the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics.  That BOG committee was working on the rules with the BOG’s Technology Committee, chaired by board member John Stewart, since last year when the Florida Supreme Court rejected the Bar’s proposed rule amendments on for profit lawyer referral services.

The BOG is scheduled to vote on the proposed amendments at its July 29, 2016 meeting.  If approved, the amendments must be filed with the Supreme Court by August 15, 2016 and the Court must also approve and issue an Order implementing them.

The Florida Bar’s website has a page summarizing the proposed revisions to the rules and also has a frequently asked questions section and comparison chart.  The link to the page is here:  http://www.floridabar.org/proposedlrsamend#Overview and the summary of the proposed rule changes is below:

OVERALL CHANGES TO RULE

Terminology

“Qualifying Provider” instead of “lawyer referral service”

Some states prohibit for-profit lawyer referral services

States that prohibit for-profit lawyer referral services define them differently than Florida – some on-line matching services are not considered referral services in some states

Broader definition of “qualifying provider” including:

Directories

On-line matching services

Group or pooled advertising programs

Tips or leads programs

REQUIREMENTS RETAINED

Ads for qualifying providers must comply with lawyer advertising rules

Lawyers may not divide fees with qualifying providers (except non-profit Florida Bar and voluntary bar lawyer referral services)

Qualifying providers must match consumers only to those authorized to provide the services in Florida

Qualifying providers must respond to official bar inquiries within 15 days

Qualifying providers may not state or imply bar endorsement (except non-profit Florida Bar and voluntary bar lawyer referral services)

Qualifying providers must use their actual names or a registered fictitious name

DELETED REQUIREMENTS

Malpractice insurance

Lawyer referral services and other qualifying providers find it difficult if not impossible to obtain malpractice insurance that covers lawyers who are in different firms

Most lawyers are not required by bar rules to carry malpractice insurance (currently only lawyers participating in either for-profit or Florida Bar or voluntary bar lawyer referral services or Florida bar-approved group or pre-paid legal insurance plans are required to carry malpractice insurance)

Disclaimer in all ads that it is a lawyer referral service

Some states prohibit for-profit lawyer referral services

States that prohibit for-profit lawyer referral services define them differently than Florida – some on-line matching services are not considered referral services in some states

Requiring the disclaimer creates problems in states where lawyer referral services are prohibited

Fewer requirements allow Florida Bar members to participate with more qualifying providers without having to be concerned that they cannot meet bar requirements

Disclaimer in all ads that lawyers pay to participate

It is obvious to most consumers that they are for-profit

Some qualifying providers do not charge lawyers to participate, but make money by selling advertising space or by charging consumers to participate

Requirement that all services provide The Florida Bar quarterly with names of all those authorized to act on behalf of the service

Fewer requirements allow Florida Bar members to participate with more qualifying providers without having to be concerned that they cannot meet bar requirements

Qualifying providers are required to respond to official bar inquiries, so if the bar needs the information, the bar can request it at that time

CHANGED REQUIREMENT

Report to the bar of the names of all participating lawyers changed from quarterly to annual

Fewer requirements allow Florida Bar members to participate with more qualifying providers without having to be concerned that they cannot meet bar requirements

Qualifying providers are required to respond to official bar inquiries, so if the bar needs the information, the bar can request it at that time

NEW REQUIREMENTS

Qualifying providers:

may not require or pressure the lawyer to provide cross referrals

must give participating lawyers documentation of compliance with bar rules

must disclose participating lawyers’ location by city, town or county when the referral is made

may not use a name or otherwise imply to the public that the qualifying provider is a law firm, can practice law or directly provide legal services

REQUIREMENTS CONSIDERED BUT NOT RECOMMENDED 

Florida Supreme Court requested amendment that requires that lawyer referral services be owned or operated by a Florida Bar member

The BRC and Technology Committees discussed extensively and voted not to include the proposal

The Court already has regulatory authority over participating lawyers

Lawyers will become scapegoats for unscrupulous services

Services who are in compliance should not be penalized

Rules should be no more restrictive than is necessary to protect the public and ensure lawyer’s adherence to professional requirements

Defining ownership and operation is difficult and no parameters have been provided by the Court

FILING

Amendments will be considered for final action by The Florida Bar Board of Governors at its July 29, 2016 meeting in Miami Beach Comments may be sent to eto@floridabar.org – if filed with the bar by June 30, they will be provided to the board for its meeting

Petition to amend the rule will be filed with the Florida Supreme Court August 15, 2016

Comments may be filed directly with the Florida Supreme Court between August 15, 2016 and September 15, 2016

Bottom line:  If these rules are approved by the BOG (and the Florida Supreme Court), they will substantially change the landscape for lawyer referrals and the requirements for providers and lawyers to participate in “matching services”; however, although the Florida Supreme Court strongly suggested that only lawyers own the services, the rules do not limit ownership nor do they limit the referrals only to lawyers.

Be careful out there!

 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. 

My main office number, (727) 799-1688, is temporarily unavailable due to a telephone company issue.  Please call (727) 286-6625 (my rollover number) if you need to contact me immediately.   Thank you. 

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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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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Filed under Attorney Ethics, Avvo legal services, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, lawyer fee splitting, Lawyer Referral Services