Friday Flashback – Folks still forgetting The Streisand Effect

In my early days (If a blog that has only been around for just a smidge over 2 years can be characterized as having early days.), I wrote a post with a reference to “The Streisand Effect” and the need for lawyers and law firms who are thinking about trying to take actions to shut down unfair criticism online to give real thought to whether they are just amplifying the negative publicity.  If you are interested in reading that post, you can get there from this link.

My guess is that reminding people about the concept of The Streisand Effect will never get old.  This time though, to save people a step, I’ll simply share the quote from the Wikipedia entry itself rather than making you click a link to see what we mean when we refer to The Streisand Effect:

The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet. It is an example of psychological reactance, wherein once people are aware something is being kept from them, their motivation to access and spread the information is increased.

It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose 2003 attempt to suppress photographs of her residence in Malibu, California, inadvertently drew further public attention to it. Similar attempts have been made, for example, in cease-and-desist letters to suppress numbers, files, and websites. Instead of being suppressed, the information receives extensive publicity and media extensions such as videos and spoof songs, often being widely mirrored across the Internet or distributed on file-sharing networks.

In this story at The American Lawyer (which it seems almost entirely unnecessary to state has a significantly larger readership than this here little blog), a reader will probably learn a few things.

First, the existence of a four lawyer construction firm in Houston, Texas named The Cromeens Law Firm.

Second, the existence of a negative review of the firm on Yelp as well as some others on Google.  Which armed with that first piece of new information and the second piece of new information becomes really easy to find and read.

Third, that the four-lawyer firm is worried enough about these reviews that it is willing to spend some part of its time not focused on matters for its clients but rather in pursuing a lawsuit against unknown defendants to try to make the reviews go away.

Your mileage may vary, but my view on such matters continue to be that: (a) more people will read the reviews now than they ever would have before; (b) the lawsuit is very unlikely to succeed in making the reviews disappear; and (c) contractors and subcontractors who might be making decisions in and around Houston about whether to retain these construction lawyers probably weren’t likely to be all that influenced but unless the goal of this suit is to make stories about it end up being pretty high on the list of things that turn up in an online search about your law firm, this probably doesn’t end up being a net positive.

Now, in fairness, if the negative reviews you are trying to get to go away are at the very top of what people see if they search for you online, then a suit like this might accomplish the rare “reverse Streisand” by replacing those with higher results referencing the lawsuit at least, but when I checked today several of the first hits for this law firm’s name were good ones, so . . .

 

Dear ABA – Embrace reform of the lawyer advertising rules. Please.

I have written in the past about the APRL white papers providing the rationale for, and data supporting the need to, reform the way lawyer advertising is regulated in the United States by state bar entities.  You can read those prior posts here and here if you are so inclined.

Jayne Reardon, the Executive Director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, over at the 2Civility blog has posted a very thorough report on events that transpired in Miami earlier this month and that reminds folks that the deadline put together by the ABA working group looking at whether to back APRL’s proposals is March 1, 2017.

I am a proud member of APRL – actually presently I’m even fortunate enough to serve as a member of its Board of Directors – but was not able to make it down to Miami for our meeting and the ABA meetings this year.  If you are a reader of this blog, you know that my view is that the only advertising rule that ought to be necessary is a version of RPC 7.1 that states, as does the ABA Model:

A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.  A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.

Period.  Full stop.

Now Jayne’s report from the ground mentions that some folks criticized or complained about APRL’s proposal because it would not apply only to advertisements by lawyers.  To me that is a feature, not a bug.  As I’ve also written and spoken about, RPC 7.1 is violated when a lawyer sends a fraudulent bill to a client saying they spent more time on something than they really did and that’s a good thing.  It also, for example, applies to lawyers who lie on their resumes as we saw with this recent instance of lawyer misconduct.

The concern expressed by someone that it could result in discipline against a lawyer politician (presumably one who would have to have lied about some aspect of their personal history I guess) does not give me much pause because if it were so applied it would likely fail First Amendment scrutiny because of the higher standards afforded to protect political speech rather than constitutional speech.

While I think RPC 7.1 ideally is the only rule that ought to exist, I recognize that people are going to insist there be some restriction on in-person solicitation so I also support APRL’s proposed approach to having an additional rule, over and above RPC 7.1, to address that.  As I’ve said before, my only quibble with APRL’s proposal on that front is as to how it defines a sophisticated user of legal services:

If I had one criticism of the APRL proposal, it is with the way it defines a sophisticated user of legal services.  The second part about regular retention of legal services for business purposes is likely where it should have stopped, as the first portion of the definition is pretty amorphous and subject to manipulation.  For example, would a recidivist offender who has gone through repeated jury trials and spent many years in prison someone who would qualify as having had significant dealings with the legal profession?  Seems like a pretty clear argument could be made that the answer would be yes.

I’m going to send this post in to the ABA working committee as my own personal comment.  If you have a viewpoint on these issues (whether it jibes with mine or not), I’d encourage you to send your thoughts as well to them at this email address: modelruleamend@americanbar.org.  (Unless you don’t think lawyer advertising rules are strict enough already.  Then I’d encourage you to stay busy doing other things.  Kidding, just kidding.  But more like Al Franken’s kidding on the square actually.)

Bad ethics opinion or the worst ethics opinion? New York State Bar Ethics Opinion 1110 edition

Again, not fair actually.  This NY ethics opinion isn’t in the running for being the worst ethics opinion and isn’t even truly bad and actually, I guess, not even wrong.  But it does point out a really bad flaw with respect to the language of the particular NY rule it applies.

What seems like an exceedingly long time ago now, I was first inspired to title a post with this “Bad or Worst” title.  I did so when I wrote about what I thought truly was a woeful ethics opinion — and one that I cannot believe anyone even asked about in the first place — in which the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct imposed some ridiculous limitations on the ability of a lawyer to communicate with attendees at a seminar or continuing legal education presentation.

The subject matter of NY State Bar Ethics Opinion 1110 is similar – whether New York’s ethics rules on advertising, and derivatively solicitation, apply to a situation in which an attorney wishes to invite people to come to a seminar that he would put on regarding intellectual property issues.  As the opinion explains:

The inquirer, an intellectual property lawyer practicing in New York, plans to conduct online webinars and live seminars on topics within his principal fields of practice for persons who may have a business interest in those topics and a need for legal services.  Inquirer contemplates identifying persons fitting that description by use of commercially available business listings, including such listings on government agency web sites, such as business entity lists.  Admission to the webinars and seminars may be free or may be for a fee.

The opinion then lists a litany of questions it has to resolve to determine whether this can be done, but the core question is whether the seminars would be advertisements and, if so, whether they would be solicitations.  Now the opinion goes on at some length about ways that the lawyer could limit what is said or done at any such presentation so that it would not even qualify as an advertisement, but, eventually, it does the practical thing and assumes that the lawyer would likely during the seminar say things that would amount to talking about his “skills or reputation” sufficient to make the seminar an advertisement.

Assuming it is an advertisement, the opinion then also quickly gets to the conclusion that the seminar would be a solicitation — and that it would be an in-person solicitation, and, thus, the attendees would have to be limited to “close friends, relatives, former client(s), or existing client(s).”

This is the moment where, inside my head, there is the sound of screaming.

It is one thing to have an ethics rule that imposes strict prohibitions on in-person solicitations.  That’s fine.  It is also fine to have an ethics rule that requires, as to written solicitations, certain requirements about those.  I often disagree with the details of what states require as to disclaimers or font sizes, but I can be swayed not to get up in arms about the requirements.  It is another thing to have a rule that creates such a strict definition of solicitation to justify writing an ethics opinion that would say that someone who accepts an invitation to attend a seminar is being subjected to a solicitation at the seminar they could have just chosen not to attend.

The closest that New York’s RPC 7.3(b) gets to carving out communications that are initiated by a person who isn’t a lawyer from being a solicitation is the language that states that solicitation . . . “does not include a proposal or other writing prepared and delivered in response to a specific request of a prospective client.”

But the inanity of the outcome articulated by this ethics opinion is pretty epically demonstrated by analogy to an actual written solicitation letter to a targeted potential client.  Assume that a lawyer sends one of those, and complies with all the bells and whistles in such a written communication as to what the envelope cannot say, the font size, the disclaimers at the beginning, and mandatory language, but the recipient then decides — “hey, I’m interested in hearing what a lawyer could do for me” and proceeds to go to the lawyer’s office to ask for a meeting.  Everything that happens then is.not.a.solicitation.

The rules regarding in-person solicitation seek to protect potential consumers of legal services from overreaching by lawyers.  That is the espoused rationale.  I often, with tongue-in-cheek, will explain at seminars that such rules exist because when we graduate law school we have been imbued with superpowers as to persuasion that allow us to convince mere mortals to do things that they otherwise would never do but for our incredible superpowers.  (I can often then use the exception to the rules against solicitation for lawyer-on-lawyer solicitation to explain that since both sides have equal superpowers there is no need for the protection.)

But, in the conceptual situation evaluated by this formal ethics opinion, if the recipient of the invitation to the seminar doesn’t want to be in a room where a lawyer is speaking about the area of law in which they practice, they.can.just.not.go.to.where.the.seminar.is.happening.

What is missing from the text of New York’s rule to prevent this sort of result is the language that we have here in Tennessee in RPC 7.3(a)(3) indicating that an in-person or real-time solicitation of professional employment from a potential client is not prohibited if “the person contacted . . . has initiated a contact with the lawyer.”

The “Now You Know” ad – quite savvy or absolutely horrible?

I had been hoping I could wait a bit to write about this topic but it’s making news via the ABA Journal online today, so I’ll just plow in with this rush job of a post because I’ve already heard discussions in Tennessee about this same ad and before someone more articulate than me blogs about it before I do.

Here’s a link to the article about the Georgia dust up:.

Here, if I’ve done this correctly should be able to watch the advertisement itself at this link — “Now You Know”

For those who can’t get the video to play or who didn’t read the Georgia story above, the gist is that the advertisement explains that the fact that someone has insurance to cover liability in say an auto accident case is something that gets withheld from the jury.  (For what it is worth to those outside Tennessee, in our state insurance coverage is not even discoverable in state court although it is, of course, in federal court.)

Now, based on someone asking me about it, I thought it was already running in Tennessee, but it may only be up in Georgia at the moment.

I’m not at all prepared to weigh in on whether it presents a problem under Georgia’s advertising rules, but I feel pretty comfortable saying that it would be difficult in Tennessee to make the case that the advertisement violates any of our ethics rules.  On the first front, it is hard to point directly at any aspect of the content that would be untruthful so challenges under RPC 7.1 or similar provisions would go nowhere.  Someone might argue that the ad puts a lawyer in the position of doing something “prejudicial to the administration of justice,” in violation of RPC 8.4(d) but the natural retort to that would be, well… is it … really?  And, I suspect that the firm running the advertisement would very much like to spend time debating whether the dissemination of the information is really prejudicial to the administration of justice or not.

If there is a provision that could be fruitfully pursued, I tend to think it would be RPC 3.6(a) which prohibits lawyers from making “an extrajudicial statement that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know will be disseminated by means of public communication and will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter.”  That rule is usually thought of as being designed to protect against publicity that would impact a particular matter, but a statement like this that would apply to all matters to some extent might just be capable of being argued to have sufficient deleterious impact to any one matter to trigger the rule.

I tend to believe that the best response to speech though is more speech, so what I’d really like to see is a defense-oriented firm cut an ad to educate the public about something like the collateral source rule.  Someone could even try to argue that RPC 3.6(c) which permits some responsive statements in order to “protect a client from the substantial undue prejudicial effect of recent publicity not initiated by the lawyer or the lawyer’s client.”

It’d be interesting to see that play out and whether  the firm strenuously defending this current advertisement would see any problems with a defense-oriented counterpoint.

 

 

 

Yet another lawyer marketing network joins the fray.

It is often jokingly said that “you learn something new every day.”  I kind of like to think that I learn more than one new thing every day, but results fluctuate.  Last week, in connection with reading about the launch of a new legal marketing network that combines Martindale-Hubbell (which is also behind www.lawyers.com) and Nolo, I learned that Martindale and Nolo are owned by the same company, Internet Brands.  This same company also owns something with which I was entirely unfamiliar, Ngage Live Chat –  a live chat service for lawyers.

Nolo Press is well-known as one of the pioneers for consumers in the “do-it-yourself” approach to law.  The purchase of a pretty well-known commodity in the lawyer rating community by a company called Internet Brands and the fact of common ownership with Nolo seems like something I should have been aware of sooner, but c’est la vie, I guess.

This new marketing network, which will be called the Martindale-Nolo Legal Marketing Network, offers yet another indication of just how significant a push is being made by extremely well-funded companies further into the legal marketing and lead generation space.  Now, of course, like other networks when they have launched, this one claims that it is now that world’s largest legal marketing network.  I don’t have a good sense of whether that is true or not.

A deeper dive into the press release put out about this leaves me learning even more new things (which hopefully drives my per day average up for a while).  The same company that owns Martindale-Hubbell also owns TotalAttorneys.com and a few other services including something called DisabilitySecrets.com, something called DivorceNet.com and another something called DrivingLaws.org.  Total Attorneys is well known among legal ethics nerds such as myself, but if you haven’t paid a visit to its website in a while you might be surprised to see how much more expansive its offerings seem to be, in fact, it really seems like something that looks much more like a direct competitor with something like Martindale-Nolo but for the common ownership.  Interestingly, while the press release references it, I have a good bit of trouble finding it anywhere on the actual Martindale-Nolo website.

The same Martindale-Nolo press release also explains what is contemplated by this particular marketing network in terms of the three “core services” it will deliver, and these clearly include things that are quite likely to be scrutinized under ethics rules referencing payments for referrals versus advertising expenses and lead generation services… which likely means that participating lawyers, at least under current ethics rules like Model Rule 7.2, will need to make sure to pay close attention to terms and conditions.  (And in Tennessee it will be interesting to see if this arrangement finds its way into the basket covered by our special RPC 7.6.)

  • Highlytargeted lead generation, delivered through Martindale-Nolo’s business unit in Pleasanton, Calif., connecting more than 100,000 consumers to attorneys each month from its network of websites. These sites include the high-trafficked domains of Nolo.com, Attorneys.com, AllLaw.com, TotalAttorneys.com, DisabilitySecrets.com, DivorceNet.com, DrivingLaws.org, and a variety of other practice-specific sites. Nolo.com is also highly recognized by consumers for its extensive library of legal resources.
  • Professional websites and online profiles, delivered through Martindale-Hubbell’s flagship websites Martindale.com and Lawyers.com. These established websites display more than 1 million Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Ratings and Client Review Ratings, as well as educational content to inform visitors about legal issues and processes. The New Providence, N.J.-based business unit has also built and hosted professional websites for more than 40,000 attorneys.
  • Ngage Live Chat, providing 24/7 live chat service for law firm websites. Based in Austin, Texas, Ngage Live Chat uses advanced conversion techniques to deliver twice as many leads to lawyers versus standard website forms or competing chat providers.

You can go take a look yourself at this new offering here, or if you really just want to marvel at how far and fast things have changed in terms of what you think about when you think about Martindale-Hubbell, just read the lead generation portion of the site – here.

Friday follow-up – more proof that it’s risky for lawyers to work with Avvo Legal Services

I’ve written about this topic several times (some might say probably too many times) now, but here is the first example of people who — unlike me — actually matter reaching a very familiar sounding set of conclusions about something that quite obviously is the Avvo Legal Services program.

South Carolina put out an advisory ethics opinion back in the middle of July.  I don’t exactly know how I missed it before yesterday, but thanks to an ABA Journal online story about it, I’ve now learned about it.  It hits exactly the two issues that, outside of jurisdiction like Tennessee that have a separate barrier like RPC 7.6, I tried not-too-subtly to emphasize in one of my earlier posts present a real problem for any lawyer thinking about signing up with Avvo Legal Services.  The two issues that, amount to something of a Schylla and Charybdis scenario, are the rule against fee sharing with non lawyers – RPC 5.4(a) — and the rule against paying people for giving people something of value in exchange for recommending your services – RPC 7.2(c).

The South Carolina opinion, quite succinctly, walks through why the arrangement about which it was asked manages to sound like both a fee sharing problem and alternatively a payment for referral problem.  As to fee sharing:

[T]he 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.”

As to the lawyer giving Avvo Legal Services money in exchange for a recommendation or referral of the lawyer’s services and whether the “marketing fee” can be considered the “reasonable costs of an advertisement”:

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 a market rate or comparable services.

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 of one type of case versus another.  For example, a newspaper or radio ad would cost the same whether a lawyer was advertising his services as a criminal defense lawyer or a family law attorney.  The cost of the ad may vary from publication to publication, but the ad cost would not be dependent on the type of legal service offered.

As the ABA Journal story indicates, Avvo continues to argue against this kind of result on the basis of things that maybe “ought” to be true but just aren’t “actually” true at the moment with respect to pretty much any state’s ethics rules.   Avvo also has in a variety of online spots advanced the argument that it is not even making referrals but just offering a marketplace.  All of this is extremely intellectually interesting from a distance of course because there are models for providing a “marketplace” that actually do work within the existing ethics rules, even ones where the company charges the attorneys for the privilege of getting to be in the marketplace.  But the approach in that regard doesn’t involve charging a fee that is only tied to successful outcomes – i.e., transactions where legal services are provided and fees paid.  (Although even that kind of approach can be made to work if the consumer is the one that pays the freight to the entity hosting the marketplace.)  A much less controversial approach along those lines would be like the eBay model of providing a marketplace, where the participants are paying a fee associated with being involved and they pay it whether they end up getting to a successful transaction or not.

Importantly, Avvo’s response to developments like this SC opinion also makes clear that it plans to carry on full speed ahead, as you’d expect it would given its size, its capital, and its investment in its approach.  That kind of reaction to regulatory barriers is very similar to other market disruptors in other industries who sort of take a “we’re so big and we’re so influential, we dare you to try to stop us” approach.  Uber would be a fine example, but as to Uber there is very little risk to the users or the drivers in being affiliated with the entity when regulators come calling.

As to Avvo Legal Services there are real, and potentially really serious consequences for participating lawyers.  Individual lawyers will make their own decisions, but South Carolina lawyers will have to be extremely reticent about doing business with Avvo Legal Services in light of this opinion.  And I don’t think the SC opinion will be the last to come out and to reach similar conclusions.  My guess is that this will be the first of several jurisdictions that will put out similar opinions.

Thus, if you are a lawyer that is thinking about participating in this kind of arrangement, or continuing to participate if you are already doing so, you know, of course, that no matter what Avvo won’t be the one getting reprimanded and they can’t serve your suspension for you, but it would be a pretty reasonable conversation to pursue to see if Avvo is willing to pay for the costs of your defense if you end up facing disciplinary proceedings over your participation.

 

“En” to the . . . ah . . . to the no, no, no!

So, blame my children for the Meghan Trainor reference, but it is a catchy tune and, actually, not the worst of messages of female empowerment.  Nevertheless, it fits my ramblings today too well for me to resist.

A blurb about a trademark infringement suit involving an Atlanta law firm that operates under a trade name caught my eye this week.  You can read a Law360 story about it here, but know on the front end that the headline is incorrect and that the reason it is incorrect is the core of my not-fully-formed point.

The short form of the story is there is this Atlanta law firm that operates under a trade name of Trusted Counsel, technically Trusted Counsel Ashley LLC.  Law firm use of trade names is not universally accepted in terms of advertising regulations, of course, as there are some states that simply do not permit their use.  In Georgia, trade names can ethically be used as long as they include the name of at least one attorney in the firm (hence the “Ashley” reference) and “does not imply a connection with a government entity, with a public or charitable legal services organization or any other organization, association or institution or entity, unless there is, in fact, a connection.”   Tennessee’s version of RPC 7.5(a) is simultaneously more, and less, permissive as there is no requirement that a name of a lawyer be included but a clearer provision that no trade name can be used if it would violate RPC 7.1 (i.e. be false or misleading).

The law firm, Trusted Counsel (which interestingly is the only part of the firm name apparently that has been trademarked by Trusted Counsel Ashley) has been operating since 2003.  That firm has sued a much newer arrival to the Atlanta marketplace, Entrusted Counsel LLC, claiming trademark infringement, Lanham Act violations, and even cybersquatting.

Now the headline in the Law360 story was that a Georgia law firm had been sued, but even the actual lawsuit doesn’t go so far as to make that allegation (though clearly the plaintiff hopes you will draw that inference), instead the lawsuit (which you can read but not print off at this site on Scribd) asserts that the source of the infringement and the reason for confusion is that both Trusted Counsel and Entrusted Counsel provide “legal services.”

It took me fewer than 5 minutes of clicking around on the web to see that Entrusted Counsel is a consulting outfit owned/operated by someone who is not a lawyer.  Now, I’m admittedly not an expert in trademark law so the fact that Entrusted Counsel isn’t a law firm and can’t practice law may not mean squat with respect to the merits of the trademark suit, but it certainly is an interesting little fact given all the recent hew and cry over the ABA resurfacing — albeit briefly and to no avail — the discussion about whether the ethics rules should be revised to permit outside, nonlawyer investment in law firms.

I can’t help wondering, if the roles were reversed, what would lawyers say if a consulting shop, owned by a nonlawyer, sued a law firm that had a similar name for trademark infringement.

Speaking of advertising regulations, the other tidbit making waves and news in legal circles this week is that New Jersey has decided to weigh in, yet again, on “accolade advertising.”  Quite a few years ago, New Jersey attempted to put its arms out and hold back the tide of “superlative” or “accolade” advertising among lawyers.  The effort, as it should have been, was ultimately futile.

Last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Attorney Advertising issued a “Notice to the Bar,” to clarify just when, and how, lawyers in New Jersey are permitted to publicly discuss the fact that a third party has conferred upon them a rating or accolade of some sort.  What drives the regulatory impulses to seek to impose barriers on references to such ratings or accolades is, of course, the unfortunate belief that all entities that provide ratings somehow have an underhanded, “pay to play” component.  To whatever little extent anecdotal evidence can rebut such preconceived notions, I have been fortunate enough to be listed in Best Lawyers in America since 2009, to be listed as a “Super Lawyer” beginning in 2011 by MidSouth Super Lawyers, and was awarded an AV rating by Martindale Hubbell back in 2006 or so and have never paid a dime  to any of those entities to run an advertisement or even to receive a plaque acknowledging my inclusion.

Are there entities that do little by way of separating wheat from chaff other than to see if a lawyer will pay for an accolade?  Absolutely.  But, as indicated above in what it took to figure out that Entrusted Counsel doesn’t practice law, it takes about 5 minutes at most these days to go online and figure out what the score is.

You can read the entirety of the NJ guidance here if you really want to but prepare to be frustrated and to sense the begrudging nature of the whole discussion.  If you want just the short version, here is what they say a hypothetical lawyer could say in compliance with their requirements:

Jane Doe was selected to the 2016 Super Lawyers list. The Super Lawyers list is issued by Thomson Reuters. A description of the selection methodology can be found at www.superlawyers.com/about/selection_process_detail.html.  No aspect of this advertisement has been approved by the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

Or, here is how it would read if that hypothetical lawyer wanted to tweet about it:

Jane Doe was selected to the 2016 Super Lawyers list. The Super Lawyers list is issued by Thomson Reuters. A description of the selection met

The “Notice to the Bar,” explains that it was issued because the committee “has received numerous grievances regarding attorney advertising of awards, honors, accolades that compare a lawyer’s services to other lawyer’s services.”

I wish the NJ committee would have just hired Ms. Trainor to answer the phones, she could have told the complaining lawyers:

You need to let it go, you need to let it go.  Need to let it go.  Nah to the ahh to the no, no, no.

 

APRL’s supplemental advertising overhaul proposal

Back in June 2015, I dedicated a post here to praising APRL’s proposal to streamline ethics rules imposing outdated restrictions on lawyer advertising.  A proposal that recognizes that lots of states currently have advertising restrictions on the books that could not survive a constitutional challenge and that aren’t really even being sought to be enforced and that seeks to have the ABA revise Model Rules 7.1, 7.4, and 7.5 and replace them instead with a revised Model Rule 7.1.

At that time, the APRL proposal was limited to a focus on trying to overhaul the provisions that address general advertising in public media.  APRL has now issued a supplemental report that turns its attention to the over regulation of restrictions on solicitation, including targeted written communications directed at potential clients.

The entire proposal is worth reading, and you can download it from here, but these are the highlights:

Much like the prior proposal, the APRL supplemental report proposes to collapse a number of provisions in the ABA Model Rule down to one revised rule, Model Rule 7.2 which would replace the provisions in current Model Rule 7.2 and Model Rule 7.3.  The two most significant aspects of the proposal are: (1) a revised focus on what kind of communications should be treated as prohibited solicitations; and (2) two new exceptions to even those prohibited solicitations.

Rather than continue with a framework that treats “real-time electronic contacts” as an equivalent of an in-person solicitation and, therefore, prohibited generally, APRL suggests that the prohibition should really only apply in-person, live-telephone, and things that are the digital equivalent of face-to-face encounters and not things that are the digital equivalent of targeted mailings.

The two new exceptions are if the person being solicited is a sophisticated user of legal services or if the communication is one authorized by a court order requiring notification in a class action.  The second exception was already written into a portion of the comment to RPC 7.3 in the Model Rule and is just being proposed to be moved up to the black letter of the rule and fleshed out further.  The first exception is brand new but consistent with an understanding of the motivation behind the prohibitions on solicitation in the first place — a concern that the imbalance between a person trained in persuading others and a regular person facing a pending legal need could lead to overreaching on the part of the lawyer and decision stemming from coercion on the part of the regular person.  For someone who qualifies as a “sophisticated user of legal services,” which the proposal defines in a comment to be “an individual who has had significant dealings with the legal profession or who regularly retains legal services for business purposes.”  And, yet, acknowledging that as the “evil” to be prohibited, the fact that the Model Rules already, and the APRL revised proposal as well, still actually prohibits any and all solicitations that actually involve coercion, duress, or harassment  even if the targets would other be excepted.

One other aspect of the proposal worth noting is its more realistic and detailed approach to explicitly permitting online group advertising.

If I had one criticism of the APRL proposal, it is with the way it defines a sophisticated user of legal services.  The second part about regular retention of legal services for business purposes is likely where it should have stopped, as the first portion of the definition is pretty amorphous and subject to manipulation.  For example, would a recidivist offender who has gone through repeated jury trials and spent many years in prison someone who would qualify as having had significant dealings with the legal profession?  Seems like a pretty clear argument could be made that the answer would be yes.

As with the first APRL proposal, I have no real sense of how likely it will be that the ABA will take it up and accomplish the implementation of these common sense proposals.  And, even if that happens, then the actual impact on the profession will only come about if states undertake to adopt this kind of streamlined, common sense approach to these issues.

Unfortunately, after years of appearing to move in the right direction on the issues of lawyer advertising, the path my state has taken recently has been in the opposite direction.  Our court actually, most recently, took action to expand the 30-day off limits provision that the APRL report indicates has not been widely adopted to go beyond personal injury matters into divorce filings.

Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, and Seeing If I Can Put a Dent In Figuring Out What Is Next for Law.

When you allow yourself to ponder just how quickly technological advances have changed the daily life of a lawyer, it becomes pretty easy to speculate about just how foreign the daily life of a lawyer 10 years from now will be when compared to what it is today.  When I stop to think about the fact that some of the biggest law firms in not just the United States, but the world, are directly involved in various efforts that will help reshape the landscape, it makes me wonder whether that actually makes it more likely, or less likely, to happen quicker than it might otherwise.  I’m almost positive I don’t know the answer to that question at all, but I think it is worth asking and whatever the actual answer turns out to be should be interesting.

I’ve written about Dentons in the past but, at the time, focused only on their at-least-arguably-controversial-stance on conflicts of interest flowing (or not) from their organization as a Swiss verein.  Despite its massive size as the globe’s largest law firm (or perhaps because of it), Dentons seems to be pretty heavily invested in a number of innovative efforts that have the potential to impact what the practice of law looks like in a few years.

There was an event in Nashville last month — a symposium at Vanderbilt Law School called Watson Esq. – Will Your Next Lawyer Be A Machine? focused on the current and potential role of artificial intelligence in the practice of law.  I’ve also mentioned at least once before that I happen to be serving on a special committee of the Tennessee Bar Association focusing on the Evolving Legal Market.  Several members of the special committee were able to attend, I was not among them.  One of the topics that was discussed at length was Ross – Aaron Arruda with Ross Intelligence was a speaker, a particular artificial intelligence research product, that itself uses aspects of IBM’s Watson technology to try to be, for lack of a more sophisticated description, a robot attorney..  A subsidiary of Dentons, NextLaw Labs, has been reported as having been very involved in assisting with the training and development of Ross.

This week it was announced that an entirely different law firm, Baker Hostetler (an extremely large law firm compared to many but not when compared to Dentons — the Ross Intelligence press release includes the information that Baker Hostetler has 940 attorneys in 14 offices) announced that it had agreed to license the Ross AI product from Ross Intelligence for use in connection with segments of its bankruptcy practice.  As the ABA Journal online piece explains, Ross really does sound like a scrappy young associate – one that is not at all concerned about work-life balance by the way:

Ross responds to lawyers’ questions in natural language by reading through the law, gathering evidence and drawing inferences.  The program learns from the lawyers who use it to refine its search results.  It also monitors the law and notifies users of new, relevant court decisions.

The other interesting piece of news involving (much more directly) the world’s largest law firm was its announcement that another of Dentons’ subsidiaries is jumping into the realm of lawyer referral services/referral networks.  This story offers some explanation for what is intended.   At some level, the NextLaw Global Referral Network could really be nothing more than just a variation on the affiliated law firm network concepts like Meritas or State Capital or ALFA —  arrangements which have tried, with varying degrees of success, to leverage mutual interests of firms to encourage reciprocal referrals of work.  The new Dentons-backed network attempts to distinguish its arrangement from other arrangements as being both free to join and not limited to one firm in a particular market.

The hook beyond just the sheer size of Dentons (it touts itself as having more than 7400 lawyers in more than 125 offices in 50+ countries and that Dentons already has 1000 firms it has referred matters to and 500 firms that have referred matters to it), although not elaborated upon in incredible detail in the ABA Journal story, seems to be the notion that something about its network will use “new technology that promotes reciprocal repeat referrals.”

I have no idea how that would actually work — or what that technology would have to encompass — the Dentons’ press release describes it as being a combination of transparency and an “algorithm,” but realistically it sounds like it would be the transparency and accompanying pressure — what the FAQs acknowledge as a “tracking system” — against “free riding,” that would do the trick.

Given the existence of rules like Tennessee’s RPC 7.2(c)  prohibiting the giving of anything of value to someone in exchange for recommending or publicizing a lawyer’s services, actual outright agreements to engage in reciprocal referrals are viewed as prohibited conduct because the quid acts as something of value for the quo and vice versa.

Time will tell whether Dentons will, as the headline of its press release touts, actually “disrupt any pay to play legal referral industry.”  The NextLaw network will have its own separate CEO and a dive into the Terms of Use of the network indicates that NextLaw Global Referral Network is itself organized as an LLC.  (Presumably NextLaw Global Referral Network LLC is, like NextLaw Labs, a subsidiary of Dentons.)

From the press release, it also appears clear that while Dentons and firms like Baker Hostetler may find themselves licensing the same AI software from Ross Intelligence some day, Dentons is much less interested in firms of that size and scope being a part of this global referral network.  The firms its looking for are:

primarily … small to mid-sized law firms, and firms of any size that are in one location, country or region, or that specialize in one practice area or industry sector.

A question I’d love to figure out the answer to is whether NextLaw Labs assistance in training and developing Ross also played a role in the development of whatever algorithm NextLaw Global Referral Network plans to use to encourage and increase repeated reciprocal referrals?

And, finally, although it is a round-about way to get there, the other topic a conversation like this brings me back around to is — when you are talking about giant law firms that already have subsidiaries that are pushing the notions of law-related services arrangements under RPC 5.7 to its very boundaries, how much actual difference would allowing outside investment in law firms really have on where the legal marketplace is headed?

Avvo Legal Services won’t work in Tennessee without RPC 7.6 compliance, but should it be so?

The evolution of Avvo from its origins as a lawyer-rating service to something with a much, much more extensive impact in the legal marketplace continued this week with the news of the launch of Avvo Legal Services.  Robert Ambrogi was, as often is the case, the first to break the news online about the development, briefly describing the nature of the service and helpfully linking to the FAQ Avvo offers attorneys about it.

The nutshell version of what exactly this is can be found in the Attorney FAQ under “What are Avvo Legal Services?

Avvo Legal Services are fixed-fee, limited scope legal services determined by Avvo and fulfilled by local attorneys.  Avvo defines the services and prices.  Attorneys choose which services they would like to offer in their geographical area.  Local 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.

Now a writer at the Solo Practice University blog has already teed up a thoughtful piece asking some questions about fee-splitting concerns, which do seem significant when, despite the separate transactions involved there is no question that the “marketing fee” rises as the attorney fees charged rises, and whether it would be highly inadvisable for lawyers to run these transactions through their trust accounts.  I will, for the most, part omit further discussion of those two issues for now.

However, Avvo can say what it wants in its FAQ about why this service is not a lawyer referral service (just as it can attempt to analogize its marketing fee to a credit card processing fee if it thinks that might fly), but I don’t think there is any doubt that, under current ethics rules in a number of states, lawyers who participate with Avvo Legal Services will be taking on significant risk.

Should a lawyer in Tennessee, for example, want to participate in this arrangement (assuming a future roll out here), the likely outcome of any scrutiny would be that the lawyer would violate RPC 7.2(c) unless and until Avvo Legal Services can manage to obtain approval as a registered intermediary organization under our RPC 7.6.

This becomes clear when you look at each of those two Tennessee rules.

Our RPC 7.2(c) generally prohibits a lawyer from “giv[ing] anything of value to a person for recommending or publicizing the lawyer’s services” but provides 4 specific exceptions.  Two of those exceptions are unquestionably unavailable with respect to Avvo Legal Services (publicity in exchange for charitable sponsorships/contributions or purchase of a law practice).  One of the exceptions involves the usual charges of a registered intermediary organization permitted by RPC 7.6.  The other allows payment for “the reasonable costs of advertisements permitted by [RPC 7.2].”

Now, perhaps a lawyer handling cases through Avvo Legal Services could muster an argument that the “marketing fee” being paid is just the reasonable cost of an advertisement.  But nothing about the way Avvo Legal Services describes the program lends itself to such a view as everything about the explanatory materials point to the idea that the lawyer is paying for a result — a paying client — and not just an advertisement.  It’s also paying more for a more lucrative client engagement.  From paying $40 to earn $149 in attorney fees, up to paying $400 to earn $2,995 in attorney fees.

Nevertheless, paying the “marketing fee” could be justifiable under RPC 7.2(c) if it is the “usual charge” of a registered intermediary organization.

Given how broadly Tennessee RPC 7.6(a) defines the term “intermediary organization,” it seems difficult to figure a way that the Avvo Legal Services program would not meet the definition:

An intermediary organization is a lawyer-advertising cooperative, lawyer referral service, prepaid legal insurance provider, or a similar organization the business or activities of which include the referral of its customers, members, or beneficiaries to lawyers for the provision of legal services to the organization’s customers, members, or beneficiaries in matters for which the organization does not bear ultimate responsibility.

Whether or not Avvo Legal Services becomes properly registered will matter to Tennessee lawyers not only because then they could ethically pay a “usual charge,” but also because a Tennessee lawyer would be ethically prohibited by RPC 7.6(b) from “seek[ing] or accept[ing] a referral of a client, or compensation for representing a client, from” Avvo Legal Services unless several specific things were true.  For today’s purposes, the most significant would be that Avvo Legal Services would have to have “registered with the Board of Professional Responsibility and complied with all requirements imposed [on it] by the Board.”  RPC 7.6(b)(iv).

Tennessee lawyers can check, at any time, the list of entities that are properly registered with the Board in this respect at this link.  You’ll see that Avvo Legal Services is not on that list; of course, their current roll out explains that they are only launching in a few cities to start.  Presumably, Avvo Legal Services might pursue registration under our RPC 7.6/Supreme Court Rule 44 before opening the program up to lawyers in any Tennessee cities.

But should it have to?  What really is the rationale that would be used to justify why this sort of service should be off-limits to lawyers?

In jurisdictions that do not have Tennessee’s approach under RPC 7.2(c) and  RPC 7.6, this service may be more viable, albeit still burdened by a few thorny issues regarding arguments that this is fee sharing or what role Avvo Legal Services has (an agent/fiduciary for the client or an agent for the attorney or what exactly?) while it holds money paid by the client for the rendering of legal services.

Unlike Tennessee’s RPC 7.2(c), the ABA Model Rule does not include the words “or publicizing” and only imposes restrictions on the ability to pay someone for “recommending the lawyer’s services.”  Further, language in the Comment  to ABA Model Rule 7.2 further distinguishes between “recommendations” and “channeling” of work to the lawyer, as [5] indicates that while payments for recommendations are off limits altogether but that paying others for “channeling work” is only a problem if the channeling is “in a manner that violates RPC 7.3.”  Further, that same Comment elaborates that

a lawyer may pay others for generating client leads, such as Internet-based client leads, as long as the lead generator does not recommend the lawyer, any payment to the lead generator is consistent with Rule 1.5(e) (division of fees) and 5.4 (professional independence of the lawyer), and the lead generator’s communications are consistent with Rule 7.1 (communications concerning a lawyer’s services).

Yet, even with that seeming additional flexibility in jurisdictions that track the ABA Model Rules approach, issues would remain that will depend significantly on how the program actually works — particularly the consumer side of the interactions.  The very next sentence of that Comment exhorts that a lawyer “must not pay a lead generator that states, implies, or creates a reasonable impression that it is recommending the lawyer, is making the referral without payment from the lawyer, or has analyzed a person’s legal problems when determining which lawyer should receive the referral.”

A review of what appears to be the consumer-side FAQ for Avvo Legal Services does not contain any explicit disclosure of the fact that the attorney providing the service will be paying Avvo Legal Services for getting to work for the client.  In addition to what it doesn’t say, it has some language that could be construed as at least “implying” a recommendation of the particular lawyer doing the work:

You will work with the lawyer you selected during checkout. For phone call advice sessions, you can also choose to speak to the next available lawyer. In that case, Avvo will connect you with a highly reviewed attorney who is experienced in your topic area and licensed to practice in your state.

But, again, a question worth asking is:  should this be something the ethics rules work to prohibit?  Avvo Legal Services certainly seems to think that this endeavor can be sufficiently profitable, which strongly implies that there are a large number of consumers of legal services who would be willing to make use of such an arrangement and, ultimately, a significant number of lawyers who would be willing to provide services to such consumers in this manner and on these financial terms.  So, the larger question ought to be — if the rules governing our profession will not abide this kind of arrangement, then what is the rationale for nixing it?

Just who exactly are we seeking to protect, and why?