Tag Archives: Lawyer ethics AVVO

Avvo’s new parent company, Internet Brands, states it is discontinuing AVVO Legal Services effective July 2018

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the communication sent by Internet Brands, which recently acquired AVVO, sent a letter to the Deputy Counsel for the North Carolina Bar Authorized Practice Committee, advising that it is discontinuing AVVO Legal Services “to align more comprehensively with our business and focus” and the discontinuation would be complete by July 2018.  The letter from B. Lynn Walsh, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Internet Brands to the North Carolina Bar is here: https://www.responsivelaw.org/uploads/1/0/8/6/108638213/avvo_legal_services_discontinuation_letter.pdf

The North Carolina Bar had previously drafted a proposed opinion approving lawyer participation in Avvo Legal Services; however, the draft was sent back for further study.  According to the Internet Brands letter, the North Carolina Bar Authorized Practice Committee sent correspondence to AVVO dated March 16, 2018 posing questions to about AVVO Legal Services as it relates to the unauthorized practice of law.

According to the June 6, 2018 response letter, Internet Brands, which acquired Avvo in January 2018, the company has decided that AVVO Legal Services does not “align” with its “business and focus”.  The letter states:

“At Internet Brands, we are focused on our users, and making sure we provide them with accurate, and consumer-friendly information to help them navigate the difficult tasks of identifying and hiring lawyers. As part of our acquisition of Avvo, we have evaluated Avvo product offerings, and adjusted the Avvo product roadmap to align more comprehensively with our business and focus. Accordingly, we have decided to discontinue Avvo Legal Services. The discontinuation began this month, with completion expected by the end of July.”

As I previously blogged, AVVO Legal Services has generated much controversy with the Avvo Legal Services model, and multiple states have found that the service is unethical.  Recent Indiana Ethics Opinion 1-18 (April 2018) 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.  That opinion is here: https://www.in.gov/judiciary/discipline/files/dc-opn-1-18.pdf.

Bottom line:  This letter and the decision by Internet Brands to shut down AVVO Legal Services is a bit surprising considering that AVVO has been vigorously defending the service in multiple states.  Apparently, Internet Brands concluded that AVVO Legal Services did not align with their “corporate vision”, or they saw that the various state Bars were not backing down, or possibly both.

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

Proposed Virginia Bar ethics opinion finds that AVVO and similar lawyer matching services are unethical

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent approval of a Virginia ethics opinion which finds that AVVO and similar matching services unethical.  Proposed Legal Ethics Opinion 1885 is here: http://www.vsb.org/site/regulation/leo_1885

On October 27, 2017, the Virginia State Bar voted to approve a draft ethics opinion regarding online attorney-client “matching services”, such as AVVO, which are called “attorney-client matching services” (ACMS),. The opinion finds that a lawyer’s participation in the matching services would violate the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct.

The opinion does not name any specific services; however, the description of the is similar to the business model of Avvo Legal Services, which allows consumers to purchase legal services for a flat fee.  The opinion describes a business model that it calls an “attorney-client matching service” (ACMS), which it describes as a for-profit entity that provides an online platform for matching attorneys and clients.  An ACMS gives a client a limited scope fee agreement, and the client pays the full fee to the ACMS.

The lawyer does not negotiate the scope of services or the fee or receive any of the client’s money until the services have been performed. Under ACMS’s terms, the lawyer agrees to provide flat fee legal services.  When the matter is completed, the attorney receives the full amount of the legal fee paid by the client.  ACMS then debits the attorney’s account for a “marketing fee” which varies depending upon the amount of the legal fee received.

The opinion identifies five problems with the ACMS business model:

  1. The lawyer is not properly handling the client’s advanced fee because it is allowing a third party to hold the funds. Thus, the funds are not being held in an IOLTA account as required.
  2. Since the lawyer has no access to the client’s money until he is paid in full by the platform, he is unable to fulfill his obligation to refund any unearned fees at the conclusion of the matter.
  3. Without being in control of the definition of the scope of legal services or negotiation of the fee, the lawyer may well be undertaking representation which violates any number of ethics rules. The services may not be appropriate to the client. The fee may not be commensurate with the value of the services provided. The services may be inadequate for the client’s needs. And so on.
  4. The payment of the marketing fee to ACMS constitutes the sharing of legal fees with a non-lawyer.
  5. The payment of the marketing fee constitutes payment for recommending the lawyer’s services.

The opinion criticizes the fact that Avvo holds the fee between the time that the prospective client pays for the services until the lawyer completes the services and states that “the ACMS collects advanced legal fees from a prospective client before the prospective client has had any contact with the lawyer whom she might engage” and that this is a violation of the Bar rules which require that advance fees be held in an the lawyer’s trust account until services are completed.

Under lawyer trust account rules, unearned fees are to remain in trust. As an ACMS is not a law firm, it cannot have an IOTA trust account or hold client fees in trust. Since the fees are not paid to the lawyer, the lawyer is unable hold the funds in trust if same is required under the Bar rules. In addition, under the Bar rules, a lawyer has an to refund any unearned fees at the end of the representation.

The opinion also discusses some potential solutions to the problems with the current model.  Regarding the issue of the lawyer not having control over the fee and the scope of the representation, the opinion did not flatly state that lawyers are prohibited from participating in the ACMS model. It concluded that a lawyer could participate if the lawyer consults with the client and is satisfied that the services can be performed competently and in compliance with the ethical rules before accepting a matter.  The lawyer would also have to exercise independent professional judgment to insure that the fee is not unreasonable or excessive.

The opinion held that the arrangement results in unethical fee sharing with the matching service and “(t)he fact that the ACMS executes a separate electronic debit from the lawyer’s bank account for its ‘marketing fee’ following the firm’s electronic deposit of the full legal fee to the lawyer’s bank account does not change the ethically impermissible fee-sharing character of the transaction.”  The opinion left the possibility that fee splitting might be avoided if the lawyer’s fee was based upon the number of clients received through the platform or the number of inquiries or clicks on their profile.

Bottom line: If this opinion is approved by the Virginia Supreme Court, Virginia will join five other states, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, in disapproving or criticizing the AVVO business model. The New York and New Jersey opinions, which were issued this year, determined that the “marketing fee” taken from the lawyer’s account involves improper fee splitting.

Be careful out there…and stay tuned.

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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Filed under Attorney Ethics, AVVO fee sharing and referral fee plans, Avvo legal services, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer improper referral fees and fee splitting, Lawyer improper sharing of fees - Avvo and matching services, Lawyer independent professional judgment- AVVO and matching services, Lawyer unreasonable fee, New York joint ethics opinion improper referral fees, Non lawyer compensation, Virginia ethics opinion AVVO and lawyer matching services improper