Category Archives: LegalZoom

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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Washington State Bar suspends some ethics opinions because of antitrust concerns arising from 2015 U.S. Supreme Court opinion

Hello and welcome to this New Year’s Eve 2015 Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent decision of the Washington State Bar to suspend some ethics opinions because of antitrust concerns arising out of the U.S. Supreme Court’s February 2015 opinion in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission.  I previously blogged about the Supreme Court’s decision here: USSC NC dental licensing opinion, the LegalZoom antitrust lawsuit in North Carolina based upon the USSC opinion here: LegalZoom filed antitrust lawsuit against NC Bar and the settlement of that lawsuit here:  LegalZoom settles antitrust lawsuit against NC Bar.

According to a recent ABA Journal article, the Washington State Bar Association has advised its ethics committee to stop issuing ethics opinions which could be interpreted as having the effect of restraining trade in the legal services market.  The bar stated that it suspended the opinions so it could “proceed very deliberately” in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s February 2015 opinion in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission. 

That U.S. Supreme Court decision permitted an antitrust action against the North Carolina state dentistry board for its decision prohibiting non-dentists from whitening teeth to proceed. The opinion stated that when a state board is controlled by active market participants in the market it regulates, state-action antitrust immunity cannot be applied unless the restraint of trade is affirmatively expressed by state policy and the policy is actively supervised by the state.

Bottom line:  This is more fallout from the 2015 USSC Dental Board decision.  As I have stated in my previous blogs, there have been lawsuits against state Bars in the past attacking the entity’s state action immunity.  The Supreme Court opinion refers to three specific cases and appears to suggest that these cases should be interpreted to mean that only the actions of a state entity which is actively supervised by the state (i.e. the Supreme Court in the case of a state Bar) have antitrust immunity and the rest of the entity’s actions may not have such immunity.

I wish you and yours a very happy and healthy 2016!

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

NOTICE OF CONFIDENTIALITY:  This electronic communication and the information contained herein is legally privileged and confidential proprietary information intended only for the individual and/or entity to whom it is addressed pursuant to the American Bar Association Formal Opinion No. 99-413, dated March 10, 1999 and all other applicable laws and rules.  If you receive this transmission in error, you are advised that any disclosure, copying, distribution, or the taking of any action in reliance upon the communication is strictly prohibited.  Any unauthorized use, distribution, or disclosure of this communication is strictly prohibited.  If you have received this in error, please notify us immediately by return e-mail at the above telephone number and then delete message entirely from your system.  Thank you for your cooperation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under .S. Supreme Court, Attorney Ethics, Bar antitrust, BAR UPL antitrust, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer antitrust, Lawyer ethics, LegalZoom, LegalZoom antitrust, North Carolina Dental Board, Uncategorized

LegalZoom files federal antitrust lawsuit against the North Carolina State Bar citing 2015 USSC dental board case

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent antitrust lawsuit filed on June 3, 2015 by LegalZoom against the North Carolina State Bar alleging antitrust violations.  The case is LegalZoom.com, Inc. v. North Carolina State Bar, et al, (U.S. Middle District, North Carolina) Case No.: 1:15-CV-439.  The formal Complaint (WSJ link) is at http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/2015_0604_legalzoom.pdf.

The Complaint was filed on June 3, 2015 and seeks injunctive relief for antitrust violations as well as damages, claiming that the North Carolina State Bar is has “engaged in unauthorized and anticompetitive conduct illegally and unreasonably restraining trade in the Relevant Market” by prohibiting LegalZoom from offering prepaid legal services plans in that state.  As support for the claims, the Complaint cites a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on the prohibition of non-dentists from providing teeth whitening services in North Carolina.

According to the Complaint, in 1991, the North Carolina state legislature “removed from the State Bar any power over prior and continuing approval of prepaid legal services plans, leaving to the State Bar only the ministerial task of keeping a registration list of plans sold in North Carolina.  The State Bar, however, defied the Legislature. Over time, the State Bar unilaterally and ultra vires reassumed and exercised the power the Legislature had removed. The State Bar adopted – without legislative authority or active State supervision – a restrictive definition of what constitutes a prepaid legal services plan, and then began to refuse to ‘accept’ for registration plans that purportedly did not meet its own definition, excluding those plan providers from the Relevant Market.”  The Complaint states that the Bar rules require the prepaid plans to be paid in advance of any immediate need, and any legal services provided must be provided by lawyers licensed in the state.

In support of the allegations, the Complaint cites the February 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission, which is here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/13-534_19m2.pdf.  The North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners opinion held that a dental regulatory board made up mostly of dentists does not have state-action immunity in an antitrust action and authorized a Federal Trade Commission challenge to the dental board’s prohibition of the provision of teeth whitening services by non-dentists.  The opinion also found that when a state board is controlled by market participants in the occupation that it regulates, state-action antitrust immunity does not accrue unless the restraint of trade that is being challenged is affirmatively expressed as state policy and the policy is actively supervised by the state.

Bottom line: It should be very interesting to watch this case unfold.  When the USSC opinion in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission was rendered on February 25, 2015, there was much analysis/commentary in the media regarding the potential vulnerability of state Bars to an antitrust challenge if it could be shown that they were controlled by market participants (lawyers) in the occupation being regulated (the law).  This appears to be the first shot across the bow.  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.

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 Bar antitrust, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer antitrust, LegalZoom, LegalZoom antitrust