NY lawyers can give clients a rebate for an Avvo rating, but Tennessee lawyers shouldn’t get excited.

For an ethics nerd who also gets to focus on something they enjoy thinking about as part of their practice, I find the proliferation of lawyer rating services to be fascinating, less for the actual availability of ratings, but more for the ancillary questions they lead people to ask.

One that I’ve seen discussed recently is what tools lawyers have at their disposal to try to encourage clients to do things for them that could help their ratings.  Thanks to the ABA BNA Lawyers’ Manual publication, I learned today of a New York State Bar Association ethics opinion published this spring that, to my surprise, concluded that a New York lawyer could offer to give clients a $50 credit on their bill if they rated the lawyer on Avvo, a website that  (among other things) lets clients rate lawyers in several categories and also permits the client to indicate they would recommend the lawyer to others.

The NYSBA opinion turns pretty strongly upon the possibility that the clients could rate the lawyer poorly and, for example, even indicate that s/he would not recommend the lawyer to others, and still receive the $50 credit.  I won’t spend much time speculating on how practical it would be for that to ever happen, especially if the lawyer picks and choose to whom to offer the credit deal in the first place.

But, much more importantly from my perspective, the outcome turns on the details of the language of New York’s RPC 7.2(a).  New York’s version of that rule reads:  “A lawyer shall not compensate or give anything of value to a person or organization to recommend or obtain employment by a client, or as a reward for having made a recommendation resulting in employment by a client.”  If that is your guideline, then the NYSBA opinion’s conclusion is certainly plausible.

Tennessee’s pertinent rule,  RPC 7.2(c), has significantly different language and leaves me with little doubt that the offering of such an incentive to a client would be deemed to run afoul of our rules.  Our RPC 7.2(c) reads: “A lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending or publicizing the lawyer’s services” and then offers three exceptions that would not be relevant to something like this rebate offer.

There would seem to be no way around the notion that each client who goes ahead and rates the lawyer is publicizing the lawyer’s services.  Thus, on this topic (as with many things) what works in New York would not fly in Tennessee.

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