My last two posts have focused on the pretty wide-ranging and very thought-provoking work (and work product) of the Oregon State Bar Futures Task Force. I do plan to return to the topics because there is more in that report worth discussion, but we are taking a break from that with this post.
Let’s move from the West Coast to the East Coast and talk today about a joint opinion issued in New Jersey last week because it offers something of a juxtaposition for discussion of the future of legal ethics.
On June 21, 2017, three committees of the Supreme Court of New Jersey – the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, the Committee on Attorney Advertising, and the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law — issued a Joint Opinion announcing that lawyers in New Jersey can’t get involved with Avvo Legal Services, Rocket Lawyer, or LegalZoom. In fact, you don’t actually have to read much further than the title of the Joint Opinion to get the gist of it as it is entitled:
Lawyers Participating in Impermissible Lawyer Referral Services and Providing Legal Services for Unregistered Legal Service Plans — Avvo, LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, and Similar Companies
As indicated, the opinion explains that there are two problems: one that plagues Avvo Legal Services under their analysis, and another that plagues LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer. The message New Jersey is sending reads as one that as starkly different from Oregon’s message.
But, and here’s what makes all of this both complicated, fascinating to discuss, and extremely important: the analysis New Jersey offers is not wrong.
As to lawyer participation in services like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, which offer something that New Jersey refers to as a legal services plan — and the choice to see them that way and call them that is an important one — the problem for New Jersey lawyers is described in a way that appears much less pervasive than as to other companies operating in the space – that these companies simply are not properly registered in New Jersey. I’ve written in the past about the barrier that Tennessee’s special RPC 7.6 can create for attorney participation in programs if they can be considered an intermediary organization. New Jersey has a particular registration requirement for companies that provide “legal service plans.” That rule is RPC 7.3(e)(4).
The opinion walks through each of the requirements ending with the registration requirement that appears in RPC 7.3(e)(4)(vii). The opinion indicates that, regardless of anything else, neither of those companies have registered their plans and, thus, lawyers cannot participate. The implication is that the only obstacle standing between New Jersey lawyers and signing up for plans offered by Rocket Lawyer or LegalZoom is proper registration. The opinion doesn’t pull back the curtain to make plain for the reader whether there is any institutional barrier that makes it impossible for Rocket Lawyer or LegalZoom to choose to register. But, the joint opinion certainly appears to strongly imply that lack of registration is the only problem.
As to participation with Avvo Legal Services, the New Jersey joint opinion has serious problems to point out – problems that would require a change in business model altogether to be solved. The problems voiced by the New Jersey joint opinion are ones that have been expressed before in a number of other states and, in fact, the New Jersey opinion unsurprisingly explicitly cites to those other ethics opinions from Ohio, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Avvo’s marketing fee requires a lawyer to improperly share fees with a nonlawyer in violation of New Jersey Rule 5.4. The opinion, in a way that when truly contemplated seems like piling on, also goes after the same payment as being the payment of impermissible referral fees in violation of New Jersey’s Rules 7.2(c) and 7.3(d).
Back in February 2016, I wrote a lengthy post that was a barely-veiled critique of the arguments Avvo kept making in terms of their efforts to defend their business model over how they were trying to blur the distinction between what is, and what ought to be, when it comes to whether participating lawyers were complying with the ethics rules.
The difference between the message being sent in New Jersey and developments in Oregon may be just as simply summed up though.
Perhaps, the gap between the two approaches is only as big as the difference between what is and what ought to be.