Tag Archives: improper fee splitting and referral fees Avvo

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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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