New Lunar Year, New Lunar Rule?

Okay, the title is something of a stretch to acknowledge that today marks the beginning of a new lunar year, the Year of the Pig. Nothing about what I have to say relates to the moon or anything Lunar.

But I did want to continue one part of the discussion begun in Las Vegas last month, and truly follow through on my insistence about how what happens in Vegas shouldn’t just stay in Vegas this time, by sharing the text of a proposed new Model Rule that I drafted and that we kicked around during a panel discussion at the APRL Mid-Year Meeting.

The general topic is what to do with the rules, if anything, to address the reality of online lawyer matching services and other similar platforms that are benefiting consumers by helping connect consumers who are willing to pay a certain price point for legal services and lawyers who are willing and able to deliver those services at that price point but that are always in tension with the current ethics rules because of restrictions on lawyers providing compensation for referrals or recommendations and related restrictions on fee sharing.

We have a rule here in Tennessee which I believe to be substantively bad, but the architecture of the rule is pretty good if you change its goals. Sort of like an old house with really good bones but simply god-awful interior decorations. That rule is RPC 7.6 and imposes certain registration requirements and limitations on things denominated as “intermediary organizations.” Long time readers of this blog, might remember this post about how I believed RPC 7.6 applied to Avvo Legal Services back when that was still in operation.

The rule I have drafted as a conversation starter uses the architecture of the Tennessee rule but is designed to provide a more permissive and more flexible approach to the topic.

Implementation of such a rule would likely also require changes to Model Rules 5.4 and 7.2 to make clear that payments to intermediary organizations are not prohibited as fee sharing or prohibited by the restrictions on payment for referrals, and the accompanying Comment would likely need a paragraph to make clear certain things that are not intended to be swept up as an intermediary organization, but carts and horses and all of that.

The draft is posted below, all feedback is most welcome.


Proposed Model Rule 7.7:  Intermediary Organizations
(a)  An intermediary organization is a lawyer referral service, lawyer matching service, or other similar organization which engages in referring consumers of legal services to lawyers or facilitating the creation of attorney-client relationships between consumers of legal services and lawyers willing to provide assistance.


(b)  A lawyer may make a payment to an intermediary organization, including a payment that would be considered sharing of an attorney fee with an intermediary organization, in connection with any referral or facilitation of a relationship with a client as long as:


                (1)  The relationship between the lawyer and intermediary organization is fully disclosed to the client including, if requested by the client, the amount of any payment made by lawyer to the intermediary organization;
                (2)  The cost to the lawyer of any payment to the intermediary organization is not passed on to the client; and
                (3)  The lawyer does not permit the intermediary organization to direct or regulate the lawyer’s professional judgment in rendering legal services to the client.

What’s happening in Vegas this week?

So glad you asked. Let me tell you, and tell you why, despite the tried and true adage, it needs to not stay in Vegas.

Later this week the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers is having its mid-year meeting in Las Vegas, and we are dedicating our entire programming to a theme: The Future of Lawyering. Under the leadership of former APRL President, Art Lachman, and as I have mentioned in the past, we have launched a Future of Lawyering Committee that is taking a look at potential ways to overhaul certain aspects of the ethics rules.

We will have a day and a half of programming dedicated to that topic. There will be panels discussing each of the following topics:

  • The potential for reform in the 21st Century on issues of cross-border practice
  • How to address “nonlawyer” practice in this modern era.
  • What the practice of law might be like if there was no Model Rule 5.4.
  • The pros and cons of the notion of making having professional liability insurance mandatory for lawyers.
  • What ought to be done, if anything, about changing how law firms are regulated (or not) under the ethics rules
  • Exploring the impact of A.I. on ethical law practice

Oh, and there’s one I left out of that list.

I’m fortunate enough to be involved in one of the panel discussions: “Ethical ‘Evils’ of Referral Fees and For-Profit Referral Services: Time for a Change?” Our panel will be teeing up two possible ideas for things to consider in terms of the restrictions that exist on the ability of lawyers to compensate people and entities who, in one form or fashion or another, refer business to them.

One possibility will be the “radical” notion of what would the rules simply look like if there was no restriction at all in Model Rule 7.2 on providing such compensation? The other possibility will be to look at a proposed new Model Rule 7.7 that yours truly has drafted in the first instance that would seek to permit the wide variety of currently-existing (and recently shut down) on-line matching platforms, and dropping away any concerns about whether such arrangements involve unlawful payments for referrals, as long as the lawyers involved maintain their independent professional judgment, costs of the arrangement aren’t passed on to clients by the lawyer, and the arrangement is transparent to the client.

This combination of programs should make for a very invigorating and enlightening debate on a wide variety of important issues. And, for once, hopefully we will all manage to agree that what happens in Vegas does not just stay in Vegas this time.

Friday follow up: Yesterday’s post

Well, this may be the most rapid Friday follow up in this blog’s history.

A wise and well-connected reader has been in touch to let me know why my analysis yesterday of NYSBA Op. 1160 was all wet. He was, of course, right as I somehow managed to blow past a very important piece of the puzzle regarding the situation NYSBA Op. 1160 was addressing. The inquiring lawyer was actually willing to put together an arrangement that would have made the out-of-state lawyer a part of his “firm.”

I wrote that was not the case prior to discussing the part of the opinion that sought to distinguish prior guidance from about 8 years earlier. Specifically, where I went awry was here:


New York’s 1.5(g) only lets lawyers not in the same law firm (and to be clear the inquirer’s desire to affiliate did not apparently involve actually forming a law firm together) share legal fees if, among other bells and whistles regarding consent and the existence of a writing, the amount of the division of the fee is either proportional to the service performed or (if it is going to be disproportionate in that respect) if both lawyers assume joint responsibility for the work.

The “facts” section of the opinion, however, makes clear that I got that wrong.

The inquirer, an attorney recently admitted to practice in New York, is acquainted with another lawyer. The other lawyer, like the inquirer, resides in New York, but the other attorney is admitted only in another state, not New York, though the latter is admitted to practice in federal courts located in New York. According to the inquirer, the other lawyer is capable of generating business, and the inquirer would like to affiliate with this other lawyer, listing the other lawyer as a partner, associate, counsel, or otherwise, on letterhead showing that the other lawyer is admitted solely in the other state and not New York. The inquirer anticipates that the other lawyer would attend initial meetings with the clients being produced by the other lawyer, but then would not deal with any of the legal work being performed.

I certainly regret my error.

I particularly regret my error because it was part of my thinking when I said at the outset of yesterday’s post that NYSBA Op. 1160 still got the answer right. Now that I actually am paying better attention to the facts, I realize that the opinion absolutely did not get to the correct answer. Instead it was flat wrong.

Rule 1.5(g) wouldn’t be in the mix since that is sharing of fees among lawyers not in the same firm. Likewise, the stated concerns in the opinion about Rule 7.2(a) are irrelevant because that rule surely is not intended to apply to arrangements among lawyers within the same law firm.

There are multi-state law firms all over this nation that have partners who do absolutely nothing on a particular client matter beyond what is described as the role the out-of-state lawyer would have had under the inquiry. Those lawyers most definitely share in the fees of the client when they make rain through something often called “origination credit” by law firms.

Some of those firms most certainly have offices in New York and I just about guarantee that no one would think twice about such internal compensation arrangements in terms of questioning whether they are ethical because all of those lawyers are in the same firm and the decisions they make about how to divide fees are treated as pure business questions of compensation.

The rules in that regard shouldn’t be any different for a firm of two lawyers than for a firm of 2,000.

In a New York (out-of) state of mind…

It has been a minute or two since I’ve stumbled upon an ethics opinion that provides a quick and easy example of how to take an issue, makes it overly complex and in so doing highlight several ongoing problem areas in the regulation of the profession, but ultimately still get to the correct result as to the “yes” or “no” answer to the question addressed.

But along comes New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics Opinion No. 1160. This one seems to me to be just such an opinion so let’s chat about it briefly.

Op. 1160 exists to answer the following question:

May a lawyer admitted in New York affiliate and share legal fees with another lawyer, who, while a resident of this State, is not admitted here, with the affiliation intended solely for the purpose of obtaining clients referred by the non-admitted lawyer?

Now, because the question included the desire to share legal fees with the rainmaking lawyer who was living in but not licensed in New York, the opinion could have chosen to cut to the chase based on a relatively straightforward application of New York’s Rule 1.5(g) which largely tracks ABA Model Rule 1.5(e).

New York’s 1.5(g) only lets lawyers not in the same law firm (and to be clear the inquirer’s desire to affiliate did not apparently involve actually forming a law firm together) share legal fees if, among other bells and whistles regarding consent and the existence of a writing, the amount of the division of the fee is either proportional to the service performed or (if it is going to be disproportionate in that respect) if both lawyers assume joint responsibility for the work.

Given that the inquiry transparently admitted that the rainmaker would not be doing anything beyond landing the client and passing the client on to the New York lawyer for handling, it seems pretty clear that Rule 1.5(g) could only be satisfied if the lawyers would be assuming joint responsibility. Given the lack of a New York license for the rainmaker, that would seem an impossible state of affairs because while landing a client might not cross the line into the unauthorized practice of law in New York, agreeing to have joint responsibility for legal work performed in New York for a New York client would be harder to argue involves staying on the right side of the line. Thus, it feels like the NYSBA committee could have wrapped this one up with a bow in a 1 or 2 pages tops.

In fairness, they almost managed to do something like that when they attempted to explain the difference between this situation and an earlier opinion they issued in 2011:

We examined Rule 1.5(g) in N.Y. State 864 (2011), in which the inquirer wished to accept a referral from an out-of-state lawyer in a personal injury matter. The injury occurred in New York and the referring lawyer proposed that, in the particular matter at issue, the in-state lawyer would “handle” the matter and pay the referring lawyer a portion of any recovery. We endorsed the proposal subject to compliance with Rule 1.5(g)…. Although we have declined to delineate the precise contours of “joint responsibility” under this Rule …, we have made clear that the mere cultivation of client relationships does not qualify as “services performed” by the referring lawyer… Thus, the inquirer’s contemplated action would violate Rule 7.2(a) unless it could be said that the inquirer is ethically permitted to be affiliated with the out-of-state lawyer in the circumstances presented.

Where the committee goes awry is that last sentence which is pretty viciously circular.

It seems like it should have said: Thus, the inquirer’s contemplated action would violate Rule 7.2(a) unless it could be said that the out-of-state lawyer was willing to undertake “joint responsibility” for the matter and if doing so would not constitute the unauthorized practice of law.

They did not write it that way, however. And, as a result, the rest of the pieces of the opinion exist all of which for rhetorical purposes treat the rainmaker, despite being a lawyer licensed in at least one jurisdiction, as a “non lawyer.” And much of which bears the hallmarks of heavy-handedness that often arise in ethics opinions construing restrictions on (1) the ability of lawyers to offer compensation to those who refer them work, (2) the ability of lawyers to ask for work from clients; and (3) the ability of lawyers to practice law remotely.

You can read the full opinion here.

The end of Avvo Legal Services should not be the end of the discussion.

A lot of the time, saying something seemed “inevitable,” only makes sense to say when you’ve had the benefit of hindsight.  At some level, every outcome can be justified as having been inevitable when you are doing the justifying after the event has already happened.

I say that to make clear that I understand the problem with making the following assertion:  As soon as the news came out that the same company that owned Martindale Hubbell was buying Avvo, it seemed inevitable that Avvo Legal Services was on the road to being scrapped/shut down.

Further, if the mere news that a much larger, much more “conservative” company was taking over didn’t signal for you how things would shake out ( a company that also owned other significant legal marketing products that might “compete” with or be intended to compete with Avvo), the news that quickly followed — all the key people at Avvo (the founder and CEO, the General Counsel, the marketing person who was to some extent the “face” of Avvo) were cashing out and moving on — should have left no doubt that large change was coming.

This week Internet Brands, that new owner of Avvo, let the cat out of the bag in perhaps the weirdest way possible that Avvo Legal Services would be shut down.  As this ABA Journal article reports, an unauthorized practice of law committee of the North Carolina Bar had sent an inquiry letter, apparently, to continue or begin an evaluation of whether Avvo Legal Services somehow involved the unauthorized practice of law.

In response, the General Counsel of Internet Brands sent the North Carolina committee a letter advising that Avvo Legal Services was going to be shut down imminently.  That’s a weird way for the news to come out because, of all the problems that Avvo Legal Services’s business model had, unauthorized practice of law simply wasn’t one.

If you follow this space, then you are likely well-versed on what those problems were: the business-model required participating lawyers to take on all of the risk that participation would involve them in one or more violations of their state’s ethics rules, including rules against sharing fees with people who aren’t lawyers or paying someone something of a value for a referral of legal work.

The end of Avvo Legal Services, however, should not mean that the legal profession should stop efforts to determine how the ethics rules need to be revised in order to facilitate the existence of things similar to Avvo Legal Services.  Consumers who have grown accustomed to using that kind of platform to get assistance with their legal needs are just going to look around the Internet for a new option.

One of the folks behind Avvo has been promoting the existence of one such new option pretty vigorously of late.  But there are all kinds of others out there and likely new ones waiting in the wings.  Very few, if any, of them can truly be described as providing any sort of service that is likely to hurt consumers seeking legal services.  Real-world transactions have demonstrated that the kind of approach to pairing consumers in need of help with lawyers with time on their hands and a willingness to assist at a desirable price point can take place without hurting the consumers of legal services.  The fact that those business models are currently prohibited by the ethics rules simply means that slavish devotion to those prohibitions based on theoretical concerns rather than how things truly are is an untenable position for the profession to try to maintain.

I still think a big choice has to be made in our profession, and I continue to think that choice is clear.

Time to choose: are you Illinois or New Jersey?

Blackhawks or Devils?

Bulls or Nets?

Barack Obama or Chris Christie?

Northwestern or Rutgers?

Kanye or Wu-Tang Clan?

Wilco or Bruce Springsteen?

Some of those are easy calls; some are harder decisions to make.  What they all have in common though is that one comes out of Illinois and the other comes out of New Jersey.

As to the future of legal ethics, we now face a similar decision that has to be made.  Are you down with what is coming out of Illinois or will you choose what New Jersey has to offer?

I’ll explain further.  Avid readers of this space will be well aware that I have devoted quite a few bits and bytes to discussions of the evolving market for legal services and the push/pull in place between companies that push the envelope of what lawyers can do under existing ethics rules and various ethics opinions that have been released explaining how lawyers can or cannot do business with such companies.  In order to avoid spamming this post with about 10-15 links to previous posts of mine, I’ll just say that if you are just getting here for the first time (welcome!), then look through the older posts for ones with the tag “Future of Legal Ethics” and you are sure to find one pretty quickly that discusses these topics.

Within the last couple of weeks, these have been the two developments that pretty nicely identify the choice that lawyers (and the legal profession) face.

First there is the Illinois development.  The Illinois ARDC — which is Illinois’s regulatory and disciplinary agency [Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee] — issued a more than 100-page report making the case for why the ethics rules need to be overhauled to permit lawyers to ethically participate in “lawyer-matching services” such as Avvo and other platforms but that, along with such changes, there need to be regulations adopted to impose certain requirements on such companies and platforms for lawyers to be able to participate.

In large part, much of what Illinois describes sounds a bit like a subtle variation on RPC 7.6 in Tennessee that I have written about in the past.  But it still also requires fundamental changes to other pieces of the ethics rules addressing financial arrangements between lawyers and those not licensed to practice law.

By way of juxtaposition, the New Jersey Supreme Court, asked to review a joint opinion issued by its legal ethics regulatory body, its advertising regulatory body, and its body focused on UPL aligned with other jurisdictions that have issued ethics opinions prohibiting lawyers from participating in programs like Avvo Legal Services, declined to review the opinion or otherwise disagree with its conclusions.

For my part, I think the choice is an easy one to make.

But, the most important thing for today (IMO) is for people to understand that there really is not a middle ground position here — you are going to have to make a choice and you are going to have to decide that you are either on board with the Illinois approach or the New Jersey approach to this topic.

Choose wisely.

TIKD off my list.

Some day I’m going to get tired of having pun with TIKD titles, and you’ve probably already gotten tired of me doing it, but today is not that day for me.  I was looking to find something to be able to easily write about today before scrambling out of town for some speaking engagements and meetings and Roy Simon has come through for me again.  Roy kindly pointed me this morning to the latest development in the saga down in Florida over the traffic ticket app, TIKD, and its fight with the Florida Bar.

If you are not a Law360 subscriber, you can only read part of the story at this link.  Roy was kind enough to send me the full article, so I’ll summarize the key points of the development for you and then leave you with the only potentially relevant thought I can manage today.

The story explains that the Florida Supreme Court has issued a show cause order to TIKD to require it to respond to the Florida Bar’s petition over UPL allegations and to show cause why the Florida Supreme Court should not enter an order barring its services.

The article contains a very confident sounding quote from the owner of TIKD, likely more confident than he should be under the circumstances that reads as follows:

“What a stunning waste of time and resources,” Riley said. “For nearly a year we have been asking the bar to tell us what aspects of our business they find objectionable, so we could work to address
their concerns. Rather than having a conversation, they chose this route and now have filed a vague complaint, lacking any basis in case law.”

“Nonetheless, we’re glad the issue is out of the bar’s hands, and into a realm where actual facts matter. We remain confident Tikd and its affiliated lawyers are fully in compliance with Florida law,
and are hopeful we can finally resolve this and move on,” he added.

I remain skeptical that TIKD itself is truly engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, though I suspect the Florida Supreme Court may find otherwise.  I’m as confident as Mr. Riley sounds above that what they are is a referral service that violates the current version of the Florida Bar’s ethics rules and that lawyers doing business with TIKD simply cannot do so and comply with the current Florida rules.

I’ve written in the past about my thoughts in general about being open to taking hard looks at revising existing ethics rules that touch on these issues, but for now the rules say what they say.

What I’m puzzling over is this:  is there a way of describing what this traffic ticket app company does that is sufficiently analogous enough to what insurance companies do to justify its existence even under current ethics rules?

At some level, isn’t what this company is offering in the equivalent of ticket insurance without a deductible?  They select the lawyer to represent you, they pay the lawyer to represent you, and if a “judgment” goes down against you for which you are liable – a fine for violation of the traffic laws — they pay it.

If we let insurance companies do something very much like that, then what’s the difference here?

Change is hard. Even where it appears to be wanted.

I have been meaning to do this and am long overdue in getting to it, but you might recall back in the summer of 2017 when I wrote pretty extensively about the contents of the Oregon Futures Task Force Report, and its positive proposed changes to the ethics rules.  If you don’t, you can read those posts here and here.

In November 2017, the chair of the Legal Ethics Committee in Oregon who also was a member of the Futures Task Force was kind enough to drop me a line and update on how those proposed rules revisions were progressing.

Initially the Board of Governors of the Oregon State Bar approved the proposed revisions to RPC 5.4, 7.2, and 7.3 for discussion and voting by its House of Delegates.

After the process in the House of Delegates, in which there was quite a significant amount of debate and discussion as I am told, the proposed revisions to RPC 5.4 and 7.2 were referred back to the Board of Governors to a study committee, but the proposed revision to RPC 7.3 was passed and has been submitted to the Oregon Supreme Court so it can decide whether to adopt it or not.

While in my prior postings I discussed the RPC 5.4 proposed revision at some length, I did not provide any real detail of the RPC 7.3 change Oregon was considering beyond the fact that it would involve allowing in-person or real-time electronic solicitation, with limited exceptions.  For the record, this is what the Oregon Supreme Court now has in front of it for consideration:

RULE 7.3 SOLICITATION OF CLIENTS
A lawyer shall not solicit professional employment by any means if:

(a) the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the physical, emotional or mental state of the person who is the target of the solicitation is such that the person could not exercise reasonable judgment in employing a lawyer;
(b) the [person who is the] target of the solicitation has made known to the lawyer a desire not to be solicited by the lawyer; or
(c) the solicitation involves coercion, duress or harassment.

Now, you know what I know on this topic.

 

So what does 2018 hold in store for us?

It’s a new year and, of course, for many that means a time of reflection and goal-setting and much talk of how the new year will be different from the prior year.

I will spare you much of that because you can find that all over the Internet.  I am prompted to post today (in addition to just wanting to get back on the horse after the holiday break) because there has been some news today of note that tends to demonstrate that 2018 is likely going to be a lot like 2017 in terms of what matters and must be discussed.

Today, The Florida Bar and a marketplace technology company, Legal.io, announced a partnership in order to modernize The Florida Bar’s Florida Lawyer Referral Service.  You can read the announcement here.

There are a multitude of reasons why this step in Florida could matter greatly — particularly if it is successful — because other bar associations might follow suit (if such endeavors are not already in the works).  The key seems to be whether any action like this is too late to gain traction with consumers who are already turning to other, similar for-profit endeavors.  I have little doubt that lawyers will be more comfortable with such arrangements because of the safety involved with not having to worry about ethics issues of fee sharing or improper payments for referrals if they can work through bar referral programs.  Florida is an interesting place for this to happen at this moment in time as well because one might expect this development could be raised in the TIKD antitrust litigation, for example, as more fodder for arguments of claimed collusive behavior in the marketplace for legal services by the bar.

And, along those lines (but sort of flipped 180 degrees), there was another development late last year that I haven’t mentioned but that will likely be significant for lawyers in 2018.  It is this lawsuit filed on the other coast against LegalZoom and a number of state bar associations (as well as the USPTO) that seeks $60 million in antitrust damages.  You can read a nice story about this suit filed in California federal court – and what the Plaintiff in it is really trying to accomplish — here.

In short, although the suit alleges that LegalZoom is engaged in unauthorized practice and competes in a way that is unfair to lawyers, and alleges that the USPTO, the California bar, the Texas bar, and the Arizona bar are somehow turning a blind-eye to the conduct to allow it to continue, the Plaintiff, an IP lawyer and entrepreneur named Raj V. Abhyanker, admits that what he’s really looking for is a court ruling that tells him that he, and other lawyers, can use the same business model as LegalZoom without fear of ethical ramifications.

So, you know, stay tuned.

A very good start.

My last post was filled with criticisms related to the roll out of a new ABA Ethics Opinion.  Today I’m offering a different tone and message for the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility – a positive message offering kudos for the working draft that has now been circulated to revise the ABA Model Rules on advertising issues.

I’ve written a number of times in this space in the past about the push by APRL on this front and, although the working draft that has now been put out by ABA SCEPR does not entirely match APRL’s proposal, it adopts a significant amount of what that proposal sought to accomplish.

The working draft deletes Model Rules 7.5 and consolidates much of the regulation involved in that rules into Comments added to Model Rule 7.1.

It trims a little bit of fat from the Comment to Model Rule 7.2 and explicitly acknowledges the ability of lawyers to offer things akin to a “token of appreciation” to people who provide them with referrals and the like without violating the ethics rules.

It also removes a number of restrictions on solicitation by narrowing what is prohibited to interactions that can be described with the term “live person to person contact,” adding a new class of purchasers of legal services who can even be asked for their business live and in person, and leaving the overarching prohibitions against coercion, duress, or harassment as the line that cannot be crossed in any effort to develop business.

What constitutes “live person to person contact,” would be defined in the first two sentences of Comment [2] to the rule:

“Live person to person contact” means in person, face to face, telephone and real-time person to person communications such as Skype or Facetime, and other visual/auditory communications where the prospective client may feel obligated to speak with the lawyer.  Such person to person contact does not include chat rooms, text messages, or other written communications that recipients may easily disregard.

The new category of purchasers of legal services who would be fair game for even live person to person contact would be people “known by the lawyer to be an experienced user of the type of legal services involved for business matters.”

Model Rule 7.4 would be honed down to two provisions — one that permits lawyers to truthfully tell people what fields of law they practice in and one that prohibits lawyers from claiming to be certified as a specialist in any area of law unless the lawyer actually is so certified by an appropriate entity and the name of the entity is clear in the communication.

The APRL proposal would be an even more streamlined regulatory approach than what is being offered in the ABA SCEPR working draft in large part because the APRL proposal also would have deleted Model Rule 7.2 and 7.4 altogether and retained bits from the Comment to each of those rules that were worth retaining by relocating them to Rule 7.1.

Nevertheless, decrying this progress from the ABA SCEPR would be an exercise in letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.  And, at least one time in 2017, I am going to refrain from doing that.