Tag Archives: Bar ethics rules

Proposed Florida Bar rule initiated by Florida lawyer would make court finding of frivolousness “conclusive determination” of rule violation

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the Petition initiated by a Florida lawyer to amend the Bar rules and provide that a court determination that an action violates F.S. §57.105, Florida appellate Rule 9.410, or Rule 11, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “constitutes a conclusive determination of guilt of misconduct by the lawyer(s) who prosecuted such frivolous claim or defense for violation of Rule 4-3.1.”  The Florida Bar published a Notice in the Florida Bar News that the petition will be filed on November 6, 2017 and members may comment on the Petition after it is filed.  The Bar Notice is here: 10-1-17 Bar News Notice of Filing Petition to Amend Rule.

The proposed rule revision would amend Florida Bar Rule 3-4.3 (misconduct or minor misconduct), by adding a section on frivolous actions which would provide if any Florida or federal appellate court has determined that a court action violated F.S. §57.105, Florida appellate Rule 9.410, or Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, that “constitutes a conclusive determination of guilt of misconduct by the lawyer(s) who prosecuted such frivolous claim or defense for violation of Rule 4-3.1.”  Upon being notified of the finding, The Florida Bar would open a file, which would be sent to the grievance committee for review.

The proposed rule also provides that, unless there are aggravating circumstances, the referee or grievance committee considering the complaint can resolve the matter with an admonishment or referral of the lawyer to the Bar’s diversion program (lawyers would be eligible for diversion once every five years under the proposed rule).

The proposed rule would also require a lawyer who has had an appellate ruling that the a lawyer has violated the rules or state law on frivolous actions to notify the Bar within 10 days with copies to opposing counsel. Bar counsel would then docket the case “and The Florida Bar shall prosecute the misconduct in accordance with the rules considering the conclusive determination of a violation of Rule 4-3.1.”

The proposal would also amend the comment to Rule 4-3.1 to refer to the amendment to Rule 3-4.3. The comment to Rule 3-4.3 also provides that, “A lawyer shall not use any funds held in his trust account for payment of any personal obligation imposed upon the lawyer or the lawyer’s law firm as to sanctions pursuant to Section 57.105, Fla. Stats., Rule 9.410 of the Florida Rules of Appellate Procedure, Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or any other similar statute or rule.”

The Florida Bar Rules allow members to directly propose amendments to Bar rules if the there is a petition filed with the Supreme Court signed by 50 Bar members.  This petition was signed by 55 Bar members.  The Board of Governors’ Disciplinary Procedure Committee (DPC) will review the proposed petition and rule amendments and will have a special meeting to discuss it.  A report by the DPC on the petition is expected at the Dec. 8, 2017 BOG meeting.

Bottom line:  This is rare member initiated petition to amend the Florida Bar Rules.  The amendment certainly appears to be well intended; however, since an order finding that a claim or defense is frivolous does not involve a criminal conviction, I am very concerned that the proposed rule that would make an order finding a frivolous filing by an appellate court on a civil matter “a conclusive determination of guilt of misconduct by the lawyer(s) who prosecuted such frivolous claim or defense for violation of Rule 4-3.1.”  I believe (and continue to believe) that a lawyer should be able to challenge such a court order since, among other things, the action and parties are different and the evidentiary requirements underlying such an order are not necessarily the same as those required for the Bar to prove a violation of the Bar rules.  In addition, the courts have inherent authority to sanction lawyers for frivolous filings as well as under the relevant statutes and court rules.

According to the Bar’s October 1, 2017 Notice in the Florida Bar News:

“Members who desire to comment on this proposed amendment may do so within 30 days of the filing of the above-referenced petition. Comments must be filed directly with the clerk of the Supreme Court of Florida, and a copy must be served on the executive director of The Florida Bar and Thomas O. Wells, Esq. Rule 1-12.1 and Rule 3-7.15 of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar govern these proceedings.”

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

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Louisiana lawyer suspended for submitting false billable hours because he believed his partnership status required them

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Louisiana Supreme Court Opinion suspending a lawyer for 30 months with all but one (1) year deferred for false billable hours that he believed were necessary to maintain his partnership position and “in an effort to make himself look better on paper each month.”   The disciplinary case is:  In re: Kenneth Todd Wallace, Case No. 2017-B-0525.  The disciplinary opinion is dated September 22, 2017 and is here:  http://www.lasc.org/opinions/2017/17B0525.OPN.pdf

According to the opinion, the lawyer “joined the law firm of Liskow & Lewis as an associate attorney in 1998. After his promotion to shareholder in 2005, he served as the firm’s hiring partner and head of recruiting. He also chaired the firm’s diversity committee as the firm’s first minority recruiting and retention partner. In 2012, respondent was elected to the firm’s board of directors and served as the board’s junior director through April 2015.”

The lawyer stated that he made the false billing entries because he was concerned that his correct billable hours (along with an insufficient number of clients) were not adequate for a partner with his status.  “When his practice began to decline, (the lawyer) gave in to his own internal pressures and began to submit false time on a dismissed contingency fee matter, and eventually other matters, in an effort to make himself look better on paper each month.”

After the law firm became aware of his false billing in some client matters, the lawyer assisted the firm in conducting a full investigation.  The firm’s investigation showed that, between 2012 through 2015, the lawyer submitted 428 billing entries that the firm believed were “certainly false” and another 220 entries that the firm believed could be false or inflated; however, the law firm concluded that none of the false billing entries adversely affected any of the firm’s clients.

The lawyer had received $85,000.00 in merit bonuses between 2012 through 2015 and the firm concluded he would have received some or all of the bonuses even if he had not inflated his billable hours. The lawyer had also spent significant time with his firm management and committee responsibilities and had also met or exceeded billable targets during the years in question.  The lawyer resigned from the firm in 2015 and gave up his available bonus.

The disciplinary opinion imposed a 30 month suspension with all but one-year deferred.  The suspension was also made retroactive to January 2016, when the lawyer had been suspended on an interim basis pending the outcome of the matter.

Bottom line:  This is a very clear and unfortunate example of a lawyer who most likely destroyed his legal career after succumbing to the stress and pressure of a law partner’s need for large billable hours and a large number of clients (book of business).  I would imagine that, if asked, this lawyer would tell you that it was not worth it.

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 discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney misrepresentation, fraud, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer discipline false client billings, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer false statements, Lawyer sanctions, Lawyers false billings discipline

Four south Florida lawyers arrested for involvement for illegal personal injury solicitation and provider kickbacks

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent arrests of four south Florida lawyers who are  alleged to have improperly and illegally obtained personal injury victims as clients and referred them to health care facilities which then paid them cash for the referrals.

According to media articles and criminal charging documents, four south Florida lawyers have been charged with crimes  ranging from money laundering to organized fraud and patient brokering.  The lawyers are Steven Slootsky, whose record Bar address is in Boca Raton, and Adam Hurtig, Mark Spatz, and Vincent Pravato, whose record Bar addresses are in Fort Lauderdale.  The lawyers were arrested on or about September 6, 2017.

The lawyers are alleged to have improperly and illegally obtained personal injury victims as clients and referred them to health care facilities which paid cash to the lawyers for the referrals.  According to arrest records, the lawyers allegedly paid runners from towing companies and body shops to improperly solicit victims of motor vehicle accidents.  Those individuals were allegedly then referred to clinics for medical treatment and the clinics would illegally pay for the referrals.

The arrest report states that the lawyers “were actively involved in illegal patient brokering and the unlawful solicitation of motor-vehicle accident victims throughout South Florida…after the patient was brokered to the health care facility, the facility was then able to begin treatment and bill the auto insurance companies for claims covered by the PIP benefits, which resulted in fraud on the insurance companies.”

It is illegal under federal law for a doctor, clinic, or other health care provider to pay for patient referrals and for a “patient broker” to receive kickbacks for sending patients to a health care provider.  It is also a violation of the Florida Bar Rules for an agent of a lawyer to improperly solicit a client, for a lawyer to pay non-lawyers and clinics for referrals, and for the lawyer to receive payment or a fee based upon an improper solicitation.  Of course, it is certainly a violation of the Florida Bar Rules to commit a crime.

Bottom line: I have heard anecdotally that these activities have been occurring in south Florida for many years (and potentially throughout our entire state, particularly in urban areas).  These lawyers are certainly presumed innocent unless and until they are proven guilty; however, if the allegations are shown to be true, this is an extremely unfortunate blight on the legal profession.  On the other hand, this could potentially discourage others from doing (or continuing to do) this in the future.

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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Virginia lawyer previously suspended after disrupting CLE seminar suspended for 5 years on new candor violations

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent 5 year suspension of a Virginia lawyer who was previously suspended for 6 months in 2015 for disrupting a CLE seminar and suspended for 3 years in 2016 when he failed to undergo treatment required pursuant to the 2015 suspension.  The 6 month suspension Order dated March 27, 2015 is here: http://www.vsb.org/docs/Hartke-050615.pdf and the 3 year suspension Order dated October 27, 2016 is here: http://www.vsb.org/docs/Hartke-110416.pdf.

According to the Virginia State Bar website, “on August 25, 2017, the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board suspended Wayne Richard Hartke’s license to practice law for five years effective October 27, 2019, for violating professional rules that govern candor toward the tribunal.  The suspension will be consecutive to a three-year suspension issued on October 27, 2016.”

According to the March 27, 2015 Disciplinary Board Order, the lawyer was intoxicated and disruptive at a Continuing Legal Education program.  Witnesses at the CLE seminar said that the lawyer was sleeping and loudly snoring during the morning session and then yelling at the video screen during the afternoon session.  A witness also said he smelled of alcohol and had a bottle of liquor with him at the seminar.  The lawyer was led from the seminar room by another person attending the seminar.

The lawyer was suspended for six months for that CLE disruption and for “failing to correct misrepresentations that he made to the Virginia State Bar during the disciplinary proceedings”.  The Order also required him to enroll in a two-year treatment and monitoring program stated that any notice of noncompliance would result in an order to show why his license should not be suspended for an additional three years.  According to the October 27, 2016 disciplinary Order, the lawyer failed to comply with the terms of the 2015 Order.  He also failed to show up for the disciplinary hearing.  The Disciplinary Board found that the violation was proven and suspended the lawyer for three (3) years, effective October 27, 2016.

The lawyer had previously been reprimanded in 2010 after settling a legal malpractice lawsuit which alleged that he failed to protect the interests of the members of the board of directors of a corporate client.  He was reprimanded again in 2011 when he was held in contempt and served 10-day jail sentence after his blood alcohol content was found to be .127 during a court appearance.

Bottom line:  According to the facts set forth in the disciplinary Orders, this lawyer has some serious and ongoing issues with both alcohol and candor.  The ultimate result was a 5 year suspension effective October 27, 2019 after he completes his current 3 year suspension and, unless that suspension is modified, it will continue until October 27, 2024.

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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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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