Tag Archives: Lawyer Referral Services

Florida Supreme Court rejects any Bar rule prohibiting lawyers from belonging to private services which refer to both lawyers and doctors

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court Opinion which rejected any Bar rule prohibiting lawyers from belonging to private services which refer to lawyers and doctors. The case is In Re: Amendments to Rule Regulating The Florida Bar 4-7.22, Case No SC18-881.  The April 15, 2019 opinion is here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2018/881/2018-881_disposition_145774_d25.pdf

A majority of the Florida Supreme Court (with Justice LaBarga dissenting) rejected any Bar rule that would have prohibited lawyers from belonging to services that refer callers for legal and other services stemming from the same incident.  In 2018, the Court issued an opinion implementing the Bar’s proposed qualifying provider rules and directed the Bar to draft and submit an additional rule prohibiting lawyers from using qualifying providers offering legal and other services stemming from the same event.

The April 15, 2019 opinion stated that, when the Court recommended a revision of Florida Bar Rule 4-7.22 last March, a majority of those justices wanted to further expand the rule to prohibit attorneys from belonging to referral services (now called qualifying providers) which refer callers for both legal and nonlegal services needed from the same event.  Those legal services are typically related to accidents or injuries where the callers need both medical and legal help.

The opinion referred to Justice Lawson’s partial dissent in the 2018 opinion and dismissed the case.  In his partial dissent in that case, Justice Lawson wrote that he disagreed with the majority only on requiring the Bar to submit a new rule banning lawyers from belonging to entities that also referred callers to other professional services emanating from the same incident. He noted the Special Committee on Lawyer Referral Services initially made that proposal in 2012. The Board of Governors considered that recommendation but instead voted that making certain disclosures to the client was sufficient.

In his partial dissent from the April 15, 2019 opinion, Justice Labarga noted that, in the 2018 opinion, “(the Court) comprehensively amended rule 4-7.22 to establish a single regulatory scheme under which lawyer participation in services that connect prospective clients to lawyers, such as matching services, are subject to the same restrictions as lawyer referral services, legal directories, and other similar services regulated by The Florida Bar.”

“Nevertheless, we expressed continued concern with respect to how certain lawyer referral services operate in Florida, particularly those that refer prospective clients to other professionals and occupational disciplines for services arising out of the same incident or transaction. I concurred in the conclusion that additional measures were needed to safeguard against potential harm…in my view, the amendments the majority rejects today are critical to ensure all services that connect prospective clients to lawyers first and foremost operate in a manner that protects and furthers the public interest.”

The dismissal of the pending case ends a multiple year review of the Bar’s lawyer referral service rules, which began when the Special Committee on Lawyer Referral Services of the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors (BOG) submitted a report in 2012.  That report recommended stricter regulation of for-profit referral services and participating lawyers and among its recommendation was a prohibition of lawyers belonging to services that also referred callers to nonlegal services stemming from the same incident.

The BOG rejected the recommendation that lawyers be prohibited from lawyers belonging to services that also referred callers to nonlegal services stemming from the same incident stating that disclosures to the client were sufficient along with a requirement that the lawyer making such a referral must believe it is in the client’s best interest.

The Bar submitted those proposed revised rules to the Court in 2014.  The Court rejected those amendments and directed the Bar to submit a rule that required that all for-profit referral services be owned or managed by a Bar member and that lawyers could not belong to services that also referred callers for nonlegal work resulting from the same incident.

The BOG committee then redrafted the previously proposed rules and defined any company or service that links a lawyer and potential client as a “qualifying provider” when the participating lawyers are subject to Bar rules; however, the BOG rejected the proposed requirement that a Bar member own or manage a for-profit service or a prohibition on lawyers belonging to qualified providers that refer to others. Those revised proposed rule revisions were submitted to the court in 2016 and oral arguments were held in 2017.  Some justices closely questioned the Bar representative about the Bar’s failure to follow its earlier instructions.

Bottom line:  The issue of whether lawyers can participate with for profit services which refer to both lawyers and medical providers has been settled…for now.  Lawyers can continue to participate in such services and those services do not have to be owned solely by lawyers.

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 Board of Governors approves Ethics Opinion addressing lawyer fee arrangements with qualifying providers

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the Florida Bar Board of Governor’s (BOG) unanimous approval of Ethics Advisory Opinion 18-1 addressing fee arrangements between qualifying providers and participating lawyers to comply with amended Florida Bar Rule 4-7.22, which substantially revises the requirements for qualifying providers.  Ethics Opinion 18-1 is here: https://www-media.floridabar.org/uploads/2018/10/Proposed-Advisory-Op-18-1-website-10-12-18.pdf

At its December 14, 2018 meeting in Naples, the BOG approved Advisory Ethics Opinion 18-1, “Payments to Qualifying Providers/Lawyer Referral Services.” regarding for-profit qualifying providers, previously known as lawyer referral services, and related payment methods.  The BOG approved the Ethics Opinion unanimously without debate.

Under amended Bar Rule 4-7.22, which became effective in April 2018, a qualifying provider is, “any person, group, or persons, associations, organizations, or entities that receive any benefit or consideration, monetary or otherwise, for the direct or indirect referral of respective clients to the lawyers or law firm.”

The Comment to Rule 4-7.22 states:

“A lawyer may not participate with a qualifying provider that receives any legal fee that constitutes a division of legal fees with a non-lawyer unless the qualifying provider is The Florida Bar Lawyer Referral Service or a lawyer referral service approved by The Florida Bar pursuant to Chapter 8 of these rules,” the comment states. “A fee calculated as a percentage of the fee received by a lawyer, or based on the success or perceived value of the case, would be an improper division of legal fees…(a)dditionally, a fee that constitutes an improper division of fees occurs when the qualifying provider directs, regulates, or influences the lawyer’s professional judgement in rendering legal services to the client.”

Ethics Advisory Opinion 18-1 lists the following factors which “mitigate in favor of a conclusion that the charge is permissible”:

  1. The charge is reasonably based on the qualifying provider’s costs for marketing and administration plus a reasonable profit; and
  2. the charge is imposed regardless of whether the lawyer is hired by the prospective client.

The opinion lists the following factors which would “mitigate in favor of a conclusion that the charge is impermissible”:

  1. The charge is based on the perceived value of the individual matter.
  2. The qualifying provider collects the lawyers’ fees directly from the consumer, takes a portion of the fee as the charge for the referral or match, then remits the remainder to the lawyer.
  3. The qualifying provider interferes with the lawyer’s independent professional judgment in representing clients or directs the lawyer’s activities in representing clients.
  4. There is sufficient incentive for the qualifying provider to improperly solicit prospective clients or improperly market the service.

The opinion states that: “the board believes the following would be permissible:”

  1. A reasonable, pre-arranged fixed charge per time period such as weekly, monthly, or yearly;
  2. A reasonable, pre-arranged fixed charge for each time a consumer views information about a specific lawyer, commonly referred to as “pay-per-click.”
  3. A reasonable, pre-arranged fixed charge per matter referred to the lawyer that is not contingent on the outcome of the matter and does not vary based on the amount at issue in the matter.
  4. A reasonable, pre-arranged fixed charge per matter referred to the lawyer that varies based on the type of matter only if the varying charge is based on demonstrably different marketing and administrative costs rather than the perceived value of the case.

The opinion states that: “the board believes the following would generally be impermissible”:

  1. A charge calculated as a percentage of the fee received by a lawyer.
  2. A charge calculated as a percentage of the client’s recovery in the matter.
  3. A charge based on the perceived value of the case referred to or accepted by a participating lawyer.
  4. A flat charge that differs based on the perceived value of the case referred to or accepted by a participating lawyer.
  5. A flat charge per case accepted by a participating lawyer.
  6. A flat charge per case accepted by a participating lawyer that differs based on the type of matter (e.g., personal injury versus family law).

The opinion states that it is designed solely to address what constitutes impermissible fee splitting, and that lawyers should not “assume that a lawyer may participate with a particular qualifying provider solely because the qualifying provider’s method of charging for its services falls within one of the methods the board concludes generally would be found to be permissible.”

Bottom line:  The Ethics Opinion identifies various fee arrangements between lawyers and qualifying providers which may or may not comply with the new rule.  Any lawyers who participate in (or are considering participating in) referrals from a private entity should carefully review this ethics opinion and the amended rule, since lawyers can be disciplined if the referral service (qualifying provider) fails to comply with the Florida Bar rules.

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 Bar Board of Governors approves revised rule on qualifying provider fees and ethics opinion on “expert” and “specialist”

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss recent (October 12, 2018) vote of The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors to approve substantive revisions to Bar Rule 4-7.14 related to the use of “expert” and “specialist” and to approve proposed ethics advisory opinion 17-2, which addresses payment arrangements between lawyers and lawyer referral services (now called qualified providers).    The ethics opinion has been renumbered to 18-1 and the Bar’s notice of the approval of the opinion and requesting comments with a link to the opinion is here:  https://www.floridabar.org/ethics/etprop-advisory/

With regard to the proposed revised Bar Rule 4-7.14, the Board considered a new proposed amendment that is designed to remove the portions of the rule which were found unconstitutional by the federal court judge in 2015.  The proposed revised rule adds new subdivisions to comply to the federal court’s order and also to address the concerns of the Florida Supreme Court, which rejected the Bar’s previous proposed revised rule.

Revised Bar Rule 4-7.14 would allow non-certified attorneys to call themselves “expert” or “specialist” if they can objectively verify that claim based upon the lawyer’s education, training, experience, and “substantial involvement” in the area of practice. The amended rule would also allow law firms to call themselves “experts” or “specialists” if that claim can be objectively verified for at least one lawyer in the firm.  The law firm making the claim would be required to have a disclaimer stating that not all firm members meet the same standards, if there are lawyers who do not qualify.

With regard to Ethics Advisory Opinion 18-1,the Board considered an opinion drafted by the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics provides that whether a particular payment method between lawyers and qualifying providers f/k/a lawyer referral services is permissible must be determined on a case-by-case basis.  The opinion sets out criteria for determining whether a payment plan is proper and ethical and the ethics opinion is discussed and summarized in the Bar News article here: https://www.floridabar.org/news/tfb-news/?durl=%2Fdivcom%2Fjn%2Fjnnews01.nsf%2F8c9f13012b96736985256aa900624829%2F06fb4fe9ad6425748525830f004fc60b

The Board considered and approved the ethics opinion at its meeting on October 12, 2018 and will consider any comments at its December 14, 2018 meeting in Naples, Florida.

Bottom line:  The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors has taken further steps to address the issues related to the use of “expert” and “specialist” (and the federal court’s ruling that its application was unconstitutional and issuing an injunction) and also the payment arrangements between lawyers and lawyer referral services/qualifying providers.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert 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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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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New Jersey Supreme Court declines to review ethics opinion finding that AVVO’s referral program violates Bar Rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court Order denying a petition requesting review of the New Jersey Ethics Opinion which found that AVVO’s referral program violated that state’s Bar rules.  The case is In the Matter of the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics Joint Opinion 732, The Committee on Attorney Advertising Joint Opinion 44, and the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law Joint opinion 45, September Term 2017, Case No. 079852.  The Order is here is here: https://images.law.com/contrib/content/uploads/documents/399/11771/Avvo-Cert-Order.pdf

The June 1, 2018 Order denied a petition for certification by Consumers for a Responsive Legal System, an organization that represents Avvo and other online companies providing lawyer referrals.  The petition requested that the Court review a June 21, 2017 joint ethics opinion which found that Avvo facilitates improper fee-splitting and may not be utilized by New Jersey lawyers.

The joint opinion was issued by the New Jersey Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, the NJ Committee on Attorney Advertising and the NJ Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law.  The Attorney General’s Office, representing the committees, and the New Jersey State Bar Association opposed the petition.  I blogged about the joint opinion in my Ethics Alerts here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/new-jersey-joint-ethics-opinion-finds-that-fees-paid-to-avvo-for-client-referrals-violate-new-jersey-bar-rules/ and the joint opinion is here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5plgfqgi26zuym1/ACPE%20732%20Avvo%2C%20LegalZoom%2C%20Rocket%20Lawyer%206.21.17.pdf?dl=0

The joint opinion was issued in response to a bar association inquiry requesting an opinion on “whether it is ethical for lawyers to participate in certain online, non-lawyer, corporately owned services to the public” specifically naming Avvo, LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer and their referral programs.  The opinion found that the LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer programs would be ethical if the programs were registered with the state; however, the opinion found ethics issues with the structure of Avvo’s “pay-for-service” programs and stated that lawyers are prohibited from participating in those programs.

According to the joint opinion, Avvo offers “Avvo Advisor”, which permits customers to buy a 15-minute telephone conversation with a lawyer for a $40.00 flat rate with Avvo keeping a $10.00 “marketing fee”, and “Avvo Legal Services,” where customers would pay flat fees to Avvo for legal services that would be provided by AVVO affiliated lawyers.  Avvo would then pay the lawyer and keep a “marketing” fee.  “The participating lawyer receives the set price for the legal service provided, then pays a portion of that amount to Avvo”. “The label Avvo assigns to this payment (“marketing fee”) does not determine the purpose of the fee. … lawyers pay a portion of the legal fee earned to a nonlawyer; this is impermissible fee sharing.”

The joint opinion also found that marketing fees that lawyers would be required to pay Avvo are not for advertising but are an impermissible “referral fee” under the definitions in New Jersey Bar Rules 7.2(c) and 7.3(d).  In addition, holding the lawyer’s fee until the service is provided violates the requirement that a lawyer maintain funds in a trust account under the rules.

The joint opinion concluded: “New Jersey lawyers may not participate in the Avvo legal service programs because the programs improperly require the lawyer to share a legal fee with a nonlawyer in violation of Rule of Professional Conduct 5.4(a), and pay an impermissible referral fee in violation of Rule of Professional Conduct 7.2(c) and 7.3(d).”

Bottom line:  The New Jersey Supreme Court’s denial of the petition to review the joint opinion leaves New Jersey as one state which has determined that a lawyer’s participation in the “AVVO Advisor” and “AVVO Legal Services” lawyer referral plans is a violation of that state’s lawyer ethics rules.

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 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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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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