A short update on Avvo ratings

You may recall, a while back, that I kvetched a bit here about my belief that Avvo’s rating system was less than a bona fide system.  The primary focus of my argument centered on Avvo’s decision to assign numerical ratings to some lawyers even though those lawyers have never claimed their profiles.  I then spent a little bit of digital space picking some examples of lawyers that I considered to be exceedingly better than their ranking and that the such ratings would actually do a disservice not only to those lawyers – seeming to “punish” them for not claiming their profile – but also to consumers trying to use Avvo to make decisions about lawyers.  While admittedly not scientifically exhaustive, my research seemed to indicate that it was a rare lawyer who could get a rating at 7 or above without at least claiming their profile.

Well, I am pleased to report that Avvo has recently changed its approach and has now returned to offering only a non-numerical rating for most lawyers who have not claimed their Avvo profile.  Earlier this month, Avvo has changed its approach and, according to Avvo’s General Counsel, “most unclaimed lawyer profiles are now rated either ‘No Concern’ or ‘Attention’ (the latter for those with underlying Avvo Ratings below a 5).”

If you go back to look at that prior post, you will see that Avvo’s General Counsel, Josh King, was kind enough to share that information in a new Comment on that post last week, but knowing that not everyone goes back and reads old posts to find new comments I wanted to make sure to prominently note the change here.

Also, in light of this change, I can follow through with what I said in a comment to that earlier post in an exchange with Josh where I wrote:  “If Avvo only assigned numerical ratings to those who claim and participate, and limited itself to the “no concern” or “concern” approach to others, I would readily agree that it was a bona fide system in the way the rules contemplate.”

Now that they are back to that sort of approach, and consumers now can’t use numerical ratings to compare apples and oranges, I think I am left where I said I would be – readily agreeing that Avvo’s rating system is bona fide in the way the rules contemplate.

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.

More fuel for the advertising rule reform fire.

So, I’m getting a very wonderful opportunity to participate in a debate about lawyer advertising in November in Nashville at The Advocates’ Society annual meeting.  A throng of lovely Canadian attorneys will be traveling to our state capital for a two-day meeting.

I say all of this for two reasons:

Reason the first – today I had the chance to meet the other folks involved (albeit by telephone) to generally lay out what we might talk about.  It was a fascinating experience leaving me with the impression that just as our neighbors to the north were about 15 years behind us in allowing lawyers to advertise, they are still about 15 years behind us on the “what to do about the scourge of lawyer advertising timeline?”

In Canada, particularly Ontario, rules revisions have been recently adopted to impose more regulations on lawyer advertising with worries aimed at things like advertising second opinion services, and undignified locations or contents of advertisements including awards received, and whether lawyers can advertise for cases where they plan to then refer the matter out because they aren’t licensed in the jurisdiction or not capable of handling the matter.

Here in the United States though, the trend is hopefully now moving toward relaxing the marginalia of the restrictions and to streamlining regulations to simply, but strongly, prohibit actually false and misleading advertisements.

Reason the second — not everywhere in the United States is that necessarily the trend.  I was reminded of that fact when reading about this lawsuit filed in Utah over an application of Utah’s approach to prohibiting celebrity endorsements of a lawyer or law firm.  You can read the lawsuit filed by the firm, coincidentally doing business as “The Advocates,” here.

The short version of the story, laid out with a level of incredible politeness that would make even a Canadian law firm proud, is set out in the “Nature of the Action” paragraph of the lawsuit:

Plaintiffs advertise their legal services by way of live and sometimes pre-recorded interviews including statements of lawyers of the firm, radio personalities and others occurring and read during the course of regular programming of certain radio broadcasts, and during regular programming breaks (collectively, “Live Ads”).  Based on obiter dicta contained in an opinion issued November 12, 2014 by the Utah Bar’s Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee, the Utah Bar Office of Professional Conduct (“OPC”) has interpreted and applied Rule 7.2 of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct to proscribe Plaintiffs’ Live Ads.  With respect and gratitude for the Utah Bar and its Commissioners’ service to the members of the Bar, and with deference to their discretion, Plaintiffs courteously bring this Complaint seeking this Court’s interpretation and declaration of the parties’ rights and obligations under the First Amendment’s protection of commercial speech and other implicated constitutional protections.  Plaintiffs fully intend to abide by the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct as well as the high ethical standards they have set for themselves.  While they believe that their Live Ads at issue in this Complaint are protected speech and fall within the Rules, Plaintiffs will yield to the courts’ final decision, regardless of the outcome.

Setting aside the general silliness of being worried that modern consumers will somehow be tricked by a celebrity endorsement in a lawyer advertisement, and setting aside the additional general silliness that such a concept would extend to radio hosts/DJs reading live advertisements of lawyers and law firms, the whole genesis of Utah’s position that a celebrity endorsement is prohibited by the ethics rules is a pretty interesting example of writers of an ethics opinion losing the plot.

The lawsuit doesn’t explicitly say it, but Utah RPC 7.2 does not contain any direct prohibition on a celebrity endorsement.  The closest that rule would get to such a result is either to misread and expand subsection (b) of its rule which declares:

(b) If the advertisement uses any actors to portray a lawyer, members of the law firm, or clients or utilizes depictions of fictionalized events or scenes, the same must be disclosed.

or to conclude that subsection (f) of the rule doesn’t permit paying a celebrity as being a reasonable expense of an advertisement.

What the lawsuit does explain is that the notion that Utah Rule 7.2 prohibits a celebrity endorsement in an advertisement only comes about because a total non-sequitur was thrown into a Utah ethics opinion that was issued to address the question: “What are the ethical limits to participating in attorney rating systems, especially those that identify ‘the Best Lawyer’ or ‘Super Lawyer’?”

You can go read Utah Bar Ethics Advisory Committee Opinion 14-04 for yourself here, but it truly does bizarrely just add a last sentence in an otherwise unrelated paragraph that says “a lawyer who pays a celebrity or public figure to recommend the lawyer violates Rule 7.2.”  That foray down a rabbit trail actually drew a dissent from a member of that committee to the ethics opinion which is itself not something you see every day.

Efforts to restrict lawyer ads really do cloud the minds of otherwise reasonable and intelligent folks.

Does Avvo provide a bona fide lawyer rating?

A number of folks have already written about how New York has dealt another setback for Avvo Legal Services in the form of NY State Bar Ethics Op. 1132 which found that New York lawyers could not participate in Avvo Legal Services because payment of Avvo’s marketing fee amounts to payment for recommendation of services in violation of New York’s Rule 7.2(a).

You can read the full opinion here.  You can read some other pieces elaborating on the opinion here, here, and here.

The opinion is notable not just for its potential influence and the number of lawyers it impacts but because it is the first opinion weighing in on Avvo Legal Services that explicitly ties together the rating service that Avvo provides and has long provided with the Avvo Legal Services platform that has more recently come to pass.

In doing so, the New York opinion went ahead and analyzed the Rule 7.2(a) question assuming that Avvo’s lawyer ratings were bona fide ratings.  It made the point that, if they were not, then other issues would arise regarding lawyer participation with Avvo and lawyer touting of ratings issued by Avvo but went ahead and assumed they were bona fide.

I want to spend just a moment to tackle that assumption and offer my own opinion on the subject.  Are Avvo’s lawyer ratings bona fide?  No.  Of course they are not bona fide.  They are not bona fide because your only hope of having a high rating is to work with them and cooperate with them.

My basis for having this opinion is not solely about on my own experience.  But, an examination of my own rating with Avvo is an admittedly good place to start explaining my opinion.

I have never “claimed” my Avvo profile nor contributed any information to Avvo to assist in building the profile they have put together on their own for me.  (Interestingly, a few times after I have written posts here about problems with Avvo Legal Services I have gotten multiple, repeated calls from Avvo trying to assist me in improving/completing my profile and offering how to claim my profile.)  When you go search me up on Avvo you will see that they have afforded me a 6.7 rating out of 10.

Now, admittedly all lawyers are egotistical and none of us are truly capable of objectively evaluating are own worth, but …  You can probably say many negative things about me but I don’t think you can say I’m a 6.7 out of 10 when it comes to being a lawyer.

I’ve been listed in Best Lawyers in America every year since 2009.  In 2017, Best Lawyers listed me as its Appellate Lawyer of the Year in Memphis.  I’ve been listed as a “Super Lawyer” by Mid South Super Lawyers since 2011 and for two out of three years before that (2008 & 2010) I was listed by that publication as a “Rising Star.”  I have been AV rated by Martindale Hubbell since at least as early as 2010.  (It’s rating of me is 4.7 on a scale of 5).

All of that information is readily, publicly available and could be gathered and evaluated by Avvo without any input from me and without any need for me to confirm or claim my profile.  But I haven’t claimed my profile and, they’ve pegged me as a 6.7 out of 10.

Just to make clear that my opinion on this isn’t solely based on my own personal experience/situation.  Let me offer a few more examples that are impossible to reconcile with the concept of Avvo offering a bona fide rating system.

Christine P. Richards, the General Counsel of FedEx – she gets an even lower rating than I do, at 6.5.

Also getting a 6.5, Bill Freivogel the conflicts-guru in the ethics world behind Freivogel on Conflicts.  Barbara Gillers a fantastic lawyer with a prominent law firm in New York and who is the incoming Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility also gets the same 6.7 rating I do.

Or, how about Abbe Lowell the prominent D.C. lawyer who is now representing Jared Kushner.  He gets a 6.6.  Or, here’s a fun one, the lawyer heading up the special counsel investigation into the President, Robert Mueller?  He too is just a 6.5.

But Avvo’s own general counsel, Josh King?  Well, Avvo gives him a 10 rating.

Dan Lear, an attorney who also works for Avvo, he gets a 9.2 rating.

Oh, I can tell you one that they have gotten correct though, Roy D. Simon, who happens to be a member of the NYSBA committee that issued this most recent ethics opinion also gets a 10 rating from Avvo.

(N.B. While I have no misgivings about my level of readership or influence, on the off chance any of these ratings gets changed subsequent to this post, the ratings indicated above have been confirmed as of today’s date and print outs of the pages are on-file with yours truly.)

Virginia’s revised lawyer advertising rules – big win for APRL’s effort to streamline the advertising rules

[In the interest of full disclosure for those who might be new here, I am presently a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL).]

For those who aren’t new here, you know full well my personal opinion on lawyer advertising and what the ethics rules should and should not try to do in terms of regulation.

Unsurprisingly then, I was pleased to learn of Virginia’s decision to adopt new lawyer advertising rules effective July 1, 2017 and to learn that they largely do the kinds of things that APRL has been advocating should be the approach to these issues through proposed revisions to the ABA Model Rules.

You can go read the order entered by the Supreme Court of Virginia earlier this week that lays out the full text of what will now be its only rules in the 7.1 through 7.5 series, Rules 7.1 and 7.3 and accompanying Comments that will become effective July 1, 2017, but here are a few highlights:

  • Rule 7.1 will read in its entirety: “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.”
  • Rule 7.2 has been deleted and instead any issues that it used to address are now addressed, if at all, in paragraphs of the Comment to Rule 7.1.
  • One such Comment to Rule 7.1, [2], explicitly acknowledges that the right kind of disclaimer can cure something that might otherwise be argued to be “a statement that is likely to create unjustified expectations or otherwise mislead the public.”
  • Another such Comment to Rule 7.1,, [4], explicitly acknowledges that someone could be a “specialist in a particular field of law by experience,” and that such a person can communicate that specialty as long it is not done in a way that is “false or misleading.”
  • Rule 7.3 addresses all aspects of targeted solicitations and also addresses the prohibitions on providing payment or things of value to someone for a recommendation or referral.
  • As to solicitation, Rule 7.3 makes clear that it applies only to communications that are “initiated” on the lawyer’s end.  And, appears to not attempt to prohibit in-person or real-time solicitation of clients.
  • Instead, it limits its outright prohibition on solicitation to situations where the solicitation is directed to someone who has made known to the lawyer they don’t want to be solicited or when the solicitation “involves harassment, undue influence, coercion, duress, compulsion, intimidation, threats or unwarranted promises of benefits.”
  • It does contain a provision requiring an “ADVERTISING MATERIAL” disclaimer on “written, recorded or electronic solicitation[s]” but not if they are addressed to the universe of folks ABA Model Rule 7.3 has traditionally excluded from the in-person/real-time ban (other lawyers, family members, prior professional relationships, etc.)
  • Rules 7.4 and 7.5 are deleted altogether.

Kudos to the Virginia State Bar, the Supreme Court of Virginia.  One state down, 49 more (plus D.C.) to go.

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.)

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.

 

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.

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.