Something TIKD this way comes.

So, about a week ago, the Florida Bar and The Ticket Clinic (a Florida law firm that somehow can manage to keep the lights on by specializing in representing people regarding traffic tickets) were sued in federal district court by something called TIKD.  TIKD is, at heart, an app for your smart phone.

The lawsuit alleges that the bar and the law firm have combined to damage TIKD in its business endeavors in violation of antitrust law and other unfair competition law.  Others have already written a bit about this development, but I still cannot resist chiming in because, though the litigation will likely end up amounting to nothing truly impactful, the underlying substance (or lack thereof) of the area of law being battled over with potentially such high stakes for the profession could easily be made into the stuff of a dark fantasy novel.

While others have written about this new federal court lawsuit where TIKD is the plaintiff, and there is some decent media coverage of it at The Washington Post and in some Florida news outlets, I want to just flag for your attention the existence of another lawsuit in Florida involving TIKD, but that was brought against TIKD seven months earlier in state court by one of the defendants in the TIKD suit, The Ticket Clinic.

You can read that full lawsuit at this link.  The gist of it though is also one for unfair competition.  The law firm, Gold & Associates d/b/a as The Ticket Clinic sued TIKD and its two owners claiming TIKD engages in false and deceptive advertising and is itself engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.  You can judge for yourself, but those particular claims to me seem dubious at best.  TIKD seems to do exactly what it advertises it will do and hires lawyers rather than tries to practice law.  But in the midst of those questionable claims, the suit still finds the nub of a true problem: unfair competition for lawyers trying to compete with (rather than work with) TIKD.

While it is the suit TIKD has filed pursuing the Florida Bar and The Ticket Clinic for antitrust violations that is currently getting all the media attention — folks who want to be “disruptors” in the legal industry are certainly using it as an opportunity to attack the entire concept of the regulation of the practice of law — the lawsuit filed by The Ticket Clinic as plaintiff forces a reader to think about the flip side of that problem by pointing out that what TIKD is doing to market its service, and convince people to use it, is making guarantees and promises that lawyers are prohibited from making under the ethics rules.

Specifically, paragraph 12 of the complaint points out a number of aspects of the TIKD business model that allow for unfair competition, which includes TIKD:

b) making guarantees to pay financial penalties imposed by courts and/or the “full cost of their ticket”;

[snip]

g) promising to “cover the full cost of your ticket no matter the price – even if the cost is higher than what you paid us;”

Paragraph 28 of the complaint further drives the point home:

In promising to pay a fine if they lose at no additional cost, TIKD, RILEY and BERTHOLD make a promise that a lawyer or law firm cannot possibly make, and they essentially “rob Peter (those persons whose cases are dismissed with no fine or court cost after
paying TIKD 75-80% of the fine stated in the citation) to pay Paul (those persons who are directed to pay the fine in full or greater, with costs)” which is a “house of cards” that will eventually fall, leaving clients with no remedy.

The story in The Washington Post also helpfully reinforces that these are important aspects of what makes TIKD a desirable service for which to pay:

TIKD, which launched in February, works this way in Florida: A driver who gets a traffic ticket can contact the company on a cellphone and be offered a one-time charge below the amount of the ticket. TIKD connects the driver with an independent attorney for no additional costs or fees, and the attorney handles the case without the driver having to appear in court.

If the ticket is not dismissed, TIKD pays any fines, and if the driver gets points on his or her license, TIKD will fully refund the one-time charge.

It is undeniably correct that the ethics rules would never let a lawyer make the same arrangements with a client.  It also seems pretty clear that without the ability to make those financial guarantees the app would lose pretty much all of its luster.  Thus, regardless of what you may think about the merits of any claim that The Florida Bar and The Ticket Clinic are engaged in some coordinated effort to hurt TIKD, it appears undeniably correct that there is a fundamentally unfair competitive advantage to being able to make the kind of financial guarantees that the app is making and which any lawyer would have to risk their license to match.

A reckoning in the legal industry is going to have to take place at some point relatively soon, but part of that reckoning absolutely has to be a level playing field in the area of providing legal services.  Either the same rules and restrictions will have to apply to all those operating in the space or those rules ought to apply to no one operating in the space.

The notion that the reckoning could be ushered along more quickly because of a fight over an area of legal representation that most firms have first-year associates handle for free as a perk for clients (i.e. getting speeding tickets dismissed) and involves a firm run by a lawyer who has been embroiled in litigation over a nearly $20,000 tab at a strip club and whose firm is being investigated for taking money to falsify traffic school certificates is just absurd enough to fit in with the rest of the fundamental absurdity that plagues 2017.

An open letter to Avvo

Dear Mark or Josh or Dan (or others at Avvo):

I am a lawyer of little relative influence but I know you are likely familiar with me because I have, time and time again here on my small platform written about the travails your business model is enduring as state after state issues ethics opinions warning lawyers who do business with you that they are acting unethically.  (And Josh has been kind enough to post comments here from time to time as well.)

It, of course, has happened again with the latest Virginia ethics opinion that has just been put out.  I won’t belabor anyone reading this with the breakdown of that opinion other than to say that it hits on many of the same problems that have been hit on by other states over the last couple of years (and a couple that come up less frequently as well).  I also know that you were actively engaged in trying to convince the powers-that-be in Virginia to not issue that opinion.  I’ve even read Dan’s oral remarks published online.

I also won’t do as I normally do and break down the analysis offered in this latest ethics opinion other than to say that this one – yet again – is correct in its interpretation and application of Virginia’s rules.  (At least it is correct as to the big, universally applicable rules impacting your current business model related to fee-sharing, payments for referrals, and the like.)  Of course it is.  These opinions keep coming out because the existing rules are pretty clear about the problems and why lawyers are prohibited from participating.

I’m also writing this as an open letter to urge Avvo – if it really is interested at heart in doing the things for the profession and consumers that it says it is interested in doing – to change its focus from trying to fight the issuance of ethics opinions in states or to then engage in criticism of those opinions as somehow incorrect or “part of the problem.”  Instead, your time and money should be shifted — if those are your real goals — to pursuing efforts to have the rules that currently prohibit lawyers from being involved with your business model changed.

You are fighting a losing battle in trying to change the outcomes of ethics opinions.  You could, however, be fighting a winning battle if you made active efforts to file petitions with the appropriate bodies in various states to propose revisions to the ethics rules that would permit participation with your service and other companies doing similar things.

For example, just about anyone who wants to in my state could file a Petition with the Tennessee Supreme Court and propose changes to the ethics rules which here are housed in Supreme Court Rule 8.  There are pretty similar processes in many jurisdictions.  (I would have thought y’all might have worked this notion out by now given how differently you’ve watched things appear to go in North Carolina where you’ve been participating in efforts to change the rules rather than efforts to try to get someone to issue an opinion that would pretend the rules don’ say what they say.)

I can’t guarantee how successful you would be in obtaining satisfactory rule revisions in jurisdictions but I’d bet a shiny quarter or two that your batting average will be greatly improved upon how you are doing in terms of favorable ethics opinions versus unfavorable ethics opinions.

I reckon that this open letter will likely have the same effect of most open letters written by human beings, but . . . at least I’ll still feel better for having said it.

Perfect timing.

(Edited – Dec. 8, 2017 to fix very embarrassing mistakes as to the company name of Atrium.)

On the heels of my posting earlier this week about my failure to understand how the Atrium law firm backed by the Atrium tech company is something that complies with California’s ethics rules (much less ethics rules in other states besides D.C. that are based on the Model Rules should it attempt to expand as it plans), news comes now at the end of the week that one of the Big 4 accounting firms is launching its first law firm in the United States.

As this ABA Journal story explains, PwC is opening ILC Legal but, importantly for my discussion purposes, it is doing so in D.C.  As noted when I discussed the Atrium deal, D.C. is currently the only U.S. jurisdiction that permits the kind of non-lawyer ownership in a law firm that is prohibited everywhere else in the country.  Now, interestingly, the PwC spokesperson quoted in the story indicates that isn’t the reason D.C. was picked.  There may be many more details in the AmLaw story referenced by the ABA Journal but I am not a subscriber to that publication so I can’t get to it to read.  Not sure what details could be in there though that would change the fact that I’m skeptical that any structural separation PwC may have come up with for this law firm will comport with any ethics rules other than D.C.’s at this moment in time.

In my Atrium post, I asked readers to envision whether if a bank were doing what the tech company was doing, anyone would have any qualms at all about saying that it didn’t appear to comply in any way with the pertinent ethics rules.  I could just have easily used an accounting firm as an example instead of a bank.

So, bottom line for this Friday is, whatever your reaction might be to the PwC news (assuming it is one of concern), you ought to have the same – and even stronger — reaction to the Atrium situation.  Atrium isn’t even starting in D.C. where it could arguably be compliant.

(And, thanks to David Carr – a California ethics attorney – for the comment he posted to my earlier story with some further thoughts about the situation in California for Atrium.  Boiled down though, those thoughts seem to me to indicate that Atrium’s approach doesn’t comply with California’s rules as I suspected and that their only hope is that their own clients won’t complain about them and, apparently, that if anyone else does it won’t gain any traction with regulators.)

 

Things I don’t understand… Atrium LLP

You may, by now, have read an article or two about the launch of a “technology-focused law firm” by the name of Atrium LLP.  Its headquarters are in California.  Having now read several articles about it – and how it has come to be and how it will operate – I simply don’t understand it.

I get what a technology-focused law firm might be, of course.  What I don’t get is how in the world any of the lawyers involved with the venture can think that they can do this and comply with the ethics rules.

I kept reading more and more about it to figure out what I was missing that would not cause this arrangement to be a violation of the rules prohibiting sharing of fees with nonlawyers and prohibiting investment by non-lawyers in law firms.  I could still be missing the explanation, but I haven’t found it yet.

Here – through a series of snippets – is the situation as it has been reported.

Let’s start with information from an ABA Journal article as a base:

With $10.5 million, serial entrepreneur Justin Kan is about to take on Big Law….Atrium LLP will compliment, but is separate from, Atrium Legal Technology Services, also operated by Kan. Atrium LTS will develop the technologies and processes that automate repetitive tasks and manage the firm’s operations….While Kan is not an attorney, the firm’s founding partners are. Augie Rakow is a former partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, while Bebe Chueh is an attorney and founded AttorneyFee.com, which sold to LegalZoom in 2014. The other co-founder and Atrium LTS chief technology officer, Chris Smoak, is a serial entrepreneur and software engineer. Kan is the founder of live-streaming sites Justin.tv and Twitch.tv, selling the latter to Amazon for nearly $1 billion in 2014.

[snip]

While separate entities, the financial relationship between Atrium LTS and Atrium LLP is inextricable. Atrium LTS provided the firm a loan to cover all startup costs, and Atrium attorneys are being paid through options in Atrium LTS or a salary for advising the technology company.

[snip]

In June, Atrium LTS closed a Series A funding round worth $10.5 million, which was led by General Catalyst, a venture capital firm focused on early stage investments.

Let’s sprinkle in a few more salient details from Bob Ambrogi’s interview and post with affiliated folks at his Law Sites blog:

What is launching today is a law firm, Atrium LLP, that is separate and apart from Kan’s technology company Atrium LTS, but that is symbiotically connected to it. Atrium’s lawyers will focus exclusively on practicing law, while Atrium LTS (the LTS is for Legal Technology Services) will handle all operations for the firm, even including marketing, and develop and operate software to streamline the firm’s workflows.

[snip]

Atrium LTS is paying all the start-up costs for the law firm, structured as a loan. Atrium attorneys receive stock or options in Atrium LTS and some receive salaries from Atrium LTS for serving as advisors.

Now, a bit more from the Atrium website itself:

To solve this, Augie teamed up with successful lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Bebe Chueh to found Atrium, a technology-first law firm. They partnered with Justin and Chris Smoak to also create Legal Technology Services, a legal technology company with a world-class engineering team to build tools for that firm.

Strikingly absent from anything I have been able to find and read about the rollout of Atrium is how it isn’t just outright flouting California’s ethics rules that prohibit non-lawyer ownership in law firms and that prohibit people who aren’t lawyers from being partners in a law firms.  Although California does not yet have rules tracking the Model Rules in many areas (so they don’t for example have all of the provisions of ABA Model Rule 5.4), it does have Rule 1-310 that pretty much tracks Model Rule 5.4(b).

Rule 1-310 Forming a partnership With a Non-Lawyer

A member shall not form a partnership with a person who is not a lawyer if any of the activities of that partnership consist of the practice of law.

Discussion:

Rule 1-310 is not intended to govern members’ activities which cannot be considered to constitute the practice of law. It is intended solely to preclude a member from being involved in the practice of law with a person who is not a lawyer.

It also has a rule that imposes other restrictions on sharing fees with nonlawyers, Rule 1-320

Now, I noticed from one of the articles the idea that Atrium LTS (the tech company) is only “loaning” the start up costs to Atrium.  I mean there are lots of places where that concept seems vulnerable to analysis, but throw in the point that the way the attorneys for the Atrium law firm are getting paid is either stock or stock options in Atrium the tech company or salaries paid by Atrium the tech company for being advisors to the tech company and … just … come on. That really doesn’t pass any laugh test.  Does it?

So, really, what am I missing about this?  Assume the things being done by Atrium the tech company as part of launching Atrium the law firm were being done by an actual bank, wouldn’t everyone immediately recognize that the lawyers involved were violating the ethics rules?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge believer in the benefits of moving away from the billable hour and innovation in the delivery of legal services and embracing technology, but the Atrium model sounds very much like something that can only be done in California (or just about any other U.S. jurisdiction besides D.C.) if, first, the ethics rules are revised to permit it.

Is this just an effort by an entity with lots of resources to do it and dare someone to stop them?

On second thought, “this” is the least discussed ethics rule.

Many moons ago (look at me and my topical thinly-veiled 8/21/17 Eclipse reference), I wrote a post about Model Rule 2.1 being perhaps the least discussed ethics rule and why maybe it shouldn’t be.  But, a recent news item about a relatively humdrum topic, a relatively large multi-state law firm (Husch Blackwell) announcing that it has named a new CEO who is not lawyer, got me thinking about another ethics rule that much more likely is, hands-down, the least discussed ethics rule.  That rule is Model Rule 5.4(b)(2).  Unlike Rule 2.1 though, Rule 5.4(b)(2) is deservedly never made the subject of discussion because if it were paid attention to, then one of two things would be true.  Either it is an essentially meaningless rule or it’s a rule that tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of lawyers throughout the U.S. violated by showing up to work today.

You probably might have some trouble thinking what the rule in question says so I’ll help you out.  It’s this one:

(d)  A lawyer shall not practice with or in the form of a professional corporation or association authorized to practice law for a profit, if:

(2) a nonlawyer is a corporate director or officer thereof or occupies the position of similar responsibility in any form of association other than a corporation.

We have this same language in Tennessee in our RPC 5.4(d)(2) and, odds are, you do too in whatever state where you happen to be reading this.  Now, if your law firm is organized as a corporation, then no worries under any circumstances because the “other than a corporation” language at the end there makes it clear that a corporation can have a nonlawyer in an officer position.

If you practice law in a firm that is organized as a professional limited liability company, or a limited liability partnership (for the record, Husch Blackwell happens to be an LLP) or some such similar entity, and you have someone – not a lawyer – in a position like a Chief Marketing Officer, or a Chief Financial Officer, or a Chief Operating Officer, or a CEO, then … well the existence of this rule is unfortunate, unless it can be said that none of those entities qualifies as a “form of association.”

If they don’t qualify, then what exactly is the purpose of this rule?  Why should only lawyers practicing in an “association of attorneys,” but not organized in one of these other formal business entity forms be prohibited from having a nonlawyer be an officer?

If such limited liability entities do qualify as associations under the rule, then what exactly is the reason for still having this rule on the books anywhere?  Particularly given that 5.4(d)(3) already effectively prohibits the actual harm by prohibiting practicing even in a firm that is a corporation if “a nonlawyer has the right to direct or control the professional judgment of a lawyer.”

There are a significant number of firms these days that have someone who isn’t a lawyer serving in one of those roles managerial roles as an officer, and I’m certainly not aware of any instances of any bar regulator seeking discipline against lawyers practicing with those firms on that basis.  (For what it is worth the ABA’s Annotated Model Rules of Professional Conduct that I have handy [Sixth Edition] declares that “Rule 5.4(d) prohibits a lawyer from practicing in any for-profit entity in which a nonlawyer has an ownership interest, a position of responsibility, or a right to direct the lawyer’s professional judgment.”)

So, like I said, probably for the best that this is the least discussed rule.

New Jersey weighs in as well, reminding us the difference between “is” and “ought.”

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.

More of me weighing in on Oregon weighing in on the future

For those that missed my post earlier this week on the release of the Oregon State Bar Futures Task Force report, you can read that post here and get caught up.

Today, I want to offer some thoughts on one of the three Recommendations made by the Regulatory Committee of the Futures Task Force.  It is likely the most important of the Recommendations but certain to be the most controversial as well.

Recommendation 2: Revise Rules of Professional Conduct to Remove Barriers to Innovation.

This recommendation is comprised of four parts.  I’ll list them in the order they are presented, even though that is not the order in which I want to discuss them.

2.1  Amend current advertising rules to allow in-person or real-time electronic solicitation, with limited exceptions.

2.2  Amend current fee-sharing rules to allow fee sharing between lawyers and lawyer referral services, with appropriate disclosure to clients.

2.3  Amend current fee-sharing and partnership rules to allow participation by licensed paraprofessionals.

2.4  Clarify that providing access to web-based intelligent software that allows consumers to create custom legal documents is not the practice of law.

Now, that third sub-part creates a spoiler for another of the three Regulatory Committee recommendations – Implement Legal Paraprofessional Licensure.  Given the way those programs have played out to date in a number of other jurisdictions, I don’t think that is going to do much to turn any tides, so for now I’m going to pass on discussing it.  (If you want to delve into it, you can read all of thoughts of the Futures Task Force on that subject and the entirety of the 90+ page report behind the Executive Summary here.)

The fourth one – making clear that certain software programs that let someone through self-help generate customized legal documents — is a perfectly fine idea and, in this day and age, seems very difficult to argue against.  With each passing day, the notion that there are certain legal problems that states cannot allow be served through software programs that do for certain legal problems what tax return software programs do for income taxes seems harder and harder to justify.  But, I’m not sure that such a clarification is what is standing between better access to legal services for consumers and where things are today.  I tend to think that, in part, because those services already exist and are in pretty wide use because companies already make them available and consumers already use them.

The first one about changes to the advertising rules is most certainly a provision I would support (and have supported in past posts).  Virginia has just done something similar with its recent rule revisions.  But again, I don’t know that this change would be something that, as a response or solution to trying to improve public access to legal services, will make any real difference.  Why do I say that?  It is currently not at all very difficult to create an online platform in which it is the consumers that make the first communication effort so that lawyers can respond to it rather than initiate it.  As long as that is true, then lawyer advertising rules prohibiting solicitation do not present any barrier at all to getting consumers in need of legal services and lawyers with the time and ability to provide the services together.

That leaves the second subpart.  And that is the one where I suggest, respectfully, all the marbles are located for lawyers.

The notion of changing the ethics rules to allow lawyers to share fees in a particular matter with nonlawyers, as long as there is full, appropriate disclosure to the consumer of what is taking place.

The specific proposal Oregon’s Task Force has offered is for its current RPC 5.4(a)(5) that only references bar-sponsored or not-for-profit referral services to be revised to read instead as follows:

(a)  A lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a nonlawyer, except that

***

(5) a lawyer may pay the usual charges of a lawyer-referral service, including sharing legal fees with the service, only if:

(i) the lawyer communicates to the client in writing at the outset of the representation the amount of the charge and the manner of its calculation, and

(ii) the total fee for legal services rendered to the client combined with the amount of the charge would not be a clearly excessive fee pursuant to Rule 1.5 if it were solely a fee for legal services, including fees calculated as a percentage of legal fees received by the lawyer from a referral.

That is an action that would, overnight, make pretty much every technological innovation already available (or even conceivable) viable for lawyers to participate in as a way of delivering legal services to consumers and businesses.  It would also allow many existing operators in the legal space to spend less time on trying to come up with workarounds about not being engaged in making referrals in their business model to try to assuage concerns that lawyers who use their platforms will be the subject of disciplinary complaints.

In short, that recommendation appears to me to the one that must be discussed and debated and decided on before any evaluation can be made about what any of the other ones might mean or accomplish.

If Oregon follows through, it seems difficult to speculate that one or more other states won’t follow.  And, if the experience of those states shows that full disclosure of the sharing arrangement, plus compliance with the other ethics rules requiring exercise of independent professional judgment and not allowing interference with that judgment, then it will seem very difficult for any jurisdiction to argue against doing the same.

It is inherently a controversial topic because the prohibition against fee sharing with nonlawyers is viewed by many as a bedrock principle of our profession.  But — if the underlying premise of that bedrock principle is restated as preserving the independent professional judgment of lawyers from undue influence by others — then the Oregon proposal that would allow fee sharing, require fulsome disclosure to the consumer involved about that arrangement could still readily be expected to serve that bedrock principle and protect consumers while benefiting consumers because – though not highlighted in the Report, RPC 5.4(c) would still be in force as well.

(c) A lawyer shall not permit a person who
recommends, employs, or pays the lawyer to render
legal services for another to direct or regulate the
lawyer’s professional judgment in rendering such legal
services.

Existing models of the online approach to pairing lawyers and consumers in need of legal services could almost all be placed into this bucket and, thus, lawyers using these services would still have maintain their independent professional judgment and refuse and resist efforts to compromise it.

Coming to praise rather than bury – Colorado Formal Op. 129

It is almost three months old now, but I wanted to right a word or two about a really well-constructed ethics opinion issued in Colorado, not just because it is an opinion that deserves to be read, but also because it raises a not-quite-academic question about the phenomenon of captive law firms.

The opinion put out by the Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee, Colorado Bar Formal Op. 129, is titled “Ethical Duties of Lawyer Paid by One Other Than the Client.”

Because questions of insurance defense representation raising similar issues were previously addressed by the Committee in Formal Opinion 91, this new opinion focuses on “ethical questions that can arise in third-party payer situations that do not involve insurance as a source of payment.”  (My not-quite-academic question is importantly a variation on that theme and the different approach often allowed for the tripartite relationship….)

The opinion helpfully catalogs quite a few such scenarios, like

  • friend or family paying for someone’s defense against criminal charges
  • parents paying for representation of children
  • corporations paying for attorney fees of an employee or officer
  • contractual indemnitor paying legal fees of an indemnitee

Those last two are ones, I suspect, that lawyers don’t think about as often in terms of making sure they know what is necessary for compliance with all of the pertinent ethics rules in their jurisdictions, which if the jurisdiction tracks the approaches under the ABA Model Rules as Colorado mostly does are RPCs 1.0(e), RPC 1.6, 1.7, 1.8(f), and 5.4(c).

The opinion does a good job at addressing in detail the various ethical questions, particularly on the dynamics that can arise where, for example, the person that will be paying the freight for the representation also happens to be a client of the attorney in some other matter and how compliance with just RPC 1.8(f) and 5.4(c) alone may not be enough because of the conflict issues raised by RPC 1.7.

The opinion merits a full read, but, if you only have 1 or 2 minutes to spare, then the best part is — II.  Practical Considerations – Discussions with the Third-Party Payer — which provides insightful, detailed, and potentially uncomfortable guidance about what really ought to happen in terms of communicating to the person who will be holding the checkbook who the client actually is and to whom the lawyer’s professional duties are owed, the limitations on the rights of the person making the payments, and the consequences of non-payment.

All of this then leads to my promised question, if these same principles are the ones that would have to be adhered to by a lawyer who represents insurance policyholders for an insurance company through a model in which the lawyer’s firm is a “captive” firm of that company, would there be any realistic way to comply?  Wouldn’t the process of obtaining the informed consent of that client always require having to make crystal-clear the significant financial interest that the lawyer has in keeping his/her only source of business happy?

I say that my question along these lines is not-quite-academic, because it is actually answered in Colorado by that earlier opinion, Formal Opinion 91 which was issued in 1993 but was updated with an addendum in 2013.  For readers in Colorado, I’m pretty sure the answer is that a lot of disclosure would have to be made, but that acquiring informed consent is feasible.

But, for readers not in Colorado, there may or may not be guidance quite as clear on the question.

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.

 

Traps for the Unwary – Avvo Legal Services Comes to Tennessee

I’ve written previously about the maelstrom of issues presented by Avvo’s expansion from its original core business as a lawyer rating service into new things such as Avvo Legal Services — an arrangement where it makes clients, who will have already paid Avvo for the legal services they want, available directly to lawyers to perform certain limited duration, flat rate services.  This is not lead generation, which finds blessing in a Comment to ABA Model Rule 7.2.  Avvo’s own marketing materials make this perfectly clear:

Get paying clients, not leads.

With more than 8 million visits to Avvo each month, we can connect you with clients who have already paid for limited-scope legal services.  There’s no chasing leads.

Earlier this week, Avvo Legal Services launched in 4 more states, including Tennessee.  Right around the beginning of 2016, I wrote a post about why I don’t think anyone can do business with Avvo Legal Services in my state unless they can show compliance with RPC 7.6.  From the best I can tell, Avvo Legal Services hasn’t registered appropriately — they are not listed here — and that’s no surprise because back when its General Counsel was kind enough to interact on my site with a comment, he stated that it wouldn’t be registering as an intermediary organization.

Fundamentally, as I hinted at in the second post I wrote about the ALS rollout, the problem for any lawyer trying to decide whether to take on the risk of working with Avvo Legal Services is that ALS continues to largely ignore the gap between what perhaps “ought” to be and what actually “is” when it comes to various attorney ethics rules.

It is hard to blame Avvo for that approach, of course, as it, and the folks behind it, are in the business of making money and aren’t going to be the people who are going to get in trouble if their business model is ruled not to comply with the attorney ethics rules.  The people at risk of getting into trouble in those circumstances are the lawyers that decide to do business with Avvo Legal Services.

I can’t find anything that would involve any changes to the Avvo Legal Services business model that would change my initial conclusion that Avvo is likely to be treated as an intermediary organization under RPC 7.6 in Tennessee.

Of course, even if I’m wrong about that, the second layer of risk for Tennessee lawyers is that the most likely routes that might exist for trying to categorize what is going on as something not regulated by RPC 7.6 will only strengthen concern that the “marketing fee” that the lawyer pays Avvo is really fee-sharing with a nonlawyer.

And, Avvo Legal Services certainly does its case against the idea that it is sharing fees no favors when its General Counsel tackles the issue with a statement (appearing in the Frequently Asked Questions part of this link) such as:

Fee splits are not inherently unethical.  They only become a problem if the split creates a situation that may compromise a lawyer’s professional independence of judgment.

 

Now, I have no personal beef with Josh King.  He has been kind enough to post comments at my blog before and. like me, he’s an active member of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, and he’s advocating for his client’s position.  But the assertion that fee splitting is not inherently unethical and that a fee split is only a problem if might compromise professional independence of judgment is simply not a correct statement of the law.  It perhaps ought to be how the ethics rules are set up and perhaps ought to be how lawyers are regulated, but it isn’t how things currently are.

In Tennessee and many other states, the sharing of legal fees with a nonlawyer is inherently not okay and only ethical if it can be shown to fit one of the exceptions in RPC 5.4(a).  Maybe those rules should be changed, but any lawyer agreeing to participate in an arrangement that runs afoul of them until any such change occurs is running a real risk.

Is it a risk worth taking for any particular individual lawyer?  Not my call to make, of course, but you’d have to be extremely desperate to take on that kind of risk for say the $109 you would get, after Avvo takes its $40 marketing fee, for doing a document review.