Increasing access to information about legal services – TN Edition

This will be a mostly short entry for this week because the most important item to put into your reading pile is what I’m writing about rather than the post itself. (Admittedly, I’m certain many of you are thinking … “well, that’s kind of always true Einstein.”)

I have written over the years here about a number of cutting-edge undertakings occurring in various states to try to address re-regulating the practice of law. I will not repeat that content here, but I will confess that I’ve fallen behind as there are some that have happened that have avoided my attention.

Many of those endeavors involve changes to the rules on legal advertising as a secondary-level improvement to other, bolder regulatory reforms. Here in Tennessee I don’t think we are very close to launching any sort of task force aimed at re-regulating the practice of law in the immediate future, but I am pleased to report that the wheels are beginning to turn on the topic of seeking reform of the rules on lawyer advertising.

Earlier this week, the Tennessee Bar Association filed a petition with the Tennessee Supreme Court asking it to adopt proposed revisions to the current ethics rules in Tennessee located at RPCs 7.1 through 7.6.

As the petition indicates, the rules revision proposal involves a blend of what APRL proposed back in 2015 and 2016 and what the ABA ultimately adopted as revisions to the Model Rules in 2018 regarding advertising matters. Like those reforms, the TBA petition would delete three rule provisions (RPC 7.2, 7.4., and 7.5) and move remaining comment guidance from those rules into the Comment to RPC 7.1. Tennessee would retain an RPC 7.3 addressing solicitation and some other issues.

The TBA also retains some existing Tennessee-specific approaches to issues, but, on the whole, the revisions would be significant progress toward two goals as explained in the petition itself:

(1) winnowing down restrictions imposed on lawyer advertising to the core requirement that lawyers not make false or misleading statements about themselves or their services, and (2) removing restrictions on communications by lawyers where the types of communications now barred are not likely to cause consumer harm.

As the petition was only filed this week, the Court has not taken any action on it such as putting it out for public comment.

Because I know a guy, if you’d like to read the petition and review its proposed changes, you can download those documents at the links below.

Friday follow up. Good news and bad news.

I seem to be trending toward this model of one new/fresh substantive post early in the week and one of these “FFU” posts at the end of the week, but I’m not sure if this is a rut or my script going forward.  A very intelligent and thoughtful lawyer asked me while I was in Vancouver what my publishing schedule was, and I had to embarrassingly admit that a fixed schedule was not something I had.  I told him what I’d tell you – if you asked — I try my best to at least post twice a week, but the days varies and some weeks I am better at this than I am other weeks.  Not the kind of consistent excellence that builds a readership, I readily admit.

So, oh year.  The follow ups.  Good news and bad news.

First, the good news.  The Oregon Supreme Court has approved the revision to RPC 7.3 in that state that I wrote a bit about recently.  You can read the Oregon court’s order . . . eventually (I can’t find it yet online) [updated 2/10/18 – Thanks to Amber Hollister, you can now see the order hereAmended SCO 18-005 Amending RPC 7-3 and 8-3 signed 2-7-18], but you can get your confirmation that I’m not lying to you here.

Second (also last), the bad news.  D.C. has now officially issued a 60-day suspension (with potential for it to be much longer) for the former G.E. in-house counsel that I wrote some about quite a few moons ago.  One of the panel presentations I had the chance to sit through in Vancouver touched on issues of lawyer whistleblowers.  You can reach your own conclusions about whether we currently live in a world in which lawyers should be encouraged to be whistleblowers (particularly, for example, in-house lawyers in Washington, D.C. these days), but the only conclusion that can be drawn from this D.C. outcome is that anyone who learns about the punishment that was sanctioned will be a whole lot less willing to do so than they would otherwise be.

I remain particularly skeptical of the treatment afforded Ms. Koeck by the D.C. bar given the fact – as discussed way back when (which was itself a FFU almost a year ago so…) – that they also decided to punish the lawyers who gave Ms. Koeck advice and guidance along the way.  Which is, as far as these things go, even a more chilling wrinkle.  You can read a National Law Journal piece on the news out of D.C. 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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

Avvo Legal Services are fixed-fee, limited scope legal services determined by Avvo and fulfilled by local attorneys.  Avvo defines the services and prices.  Attorneys choose which services they would like to offer in their geographical area.  Local clients purchase legal services, choose the attorney they want to work with, and pay the full price of the service up front.  The chosen attorney then completes the service for the client and is paid the full legal fee.  As a separate transaction, the chosen attorney pays a per-service marketing fee for the completed, paid service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New “Brick and Mortar” column out this week (+ 2 other things you should read)

Unfortunately, it does not appear to be up and online as of yet at The Memphis Bar‘s website, but the latest issue of The Memphis Lawyer is out, and I have a column in it.  The column — The Revised RPC 7.3(b)(3): The Road to Constitutional Infirmity is Paved With Good Intentions — talks about a revision to the Tennessee ethics rules that has been in effect since May 1, 2015 and should be of particular relevance to family lawyers.  (Regular readers of this blog may recall reading a bit about that development in this earlier post.)  My latest column also talks a bit about one of the last U.S. Supreme Court cases from last term — Reed v. Town of Gilbert — that may lay the groundwork for all content-based restrictions on commercial speech (including most restrictions on attorney advertising) having to survive “strict scrutiny” analysis to pass constitutional muster.

Once it is eventually up online, I’ll post an update of some fashion, but if you happen to be a lawyer in Memphis and your issue is sitting in your reading pile … well consider yourself warned.

In the meantime, let me suggest two other things deserving of a read and well worth your time.  (And I see in advance the humor of me suggesting that the two items be read as I am confident they both have more readers than I do.)

Karen Rubin has a smart take on something I had no idea existed — prepackaged blog content for lawyers.  She gets the ethics analysis quite correct (of course) and avoids explicitly making the kind of snarky statement I would have made:  If you are buying prepackaged blog content to pass off as your own to assist with proving yourself to be a “thought leader,” you’re not showing much “thought” and you certainly aren’t “leading.”  The one question I still have about the whole scheme is whether Checkpoint Marketing intends to sell the same canned content to multiple lawyers?  It’s a business model that works in t.v. ads for lawyers (though admittedly it worked better before YouTube because you were less likely to ever see the same ad concept in the other markets).  If multiple lazy bloggers lawyers can each buy the same stuff, it would seem likely to lead to even a greater level of embarrassment when a simple Google search for some particular phrasing in a post would pretty quickly reveal multiple astroturfish posts from different lazy bloggers “authors.”

The second is this New York Times piece on the revelation that the human being who is serving as General Counsel of Al Jazeera America, and who has a quite impressive resume of places of employment before that might not actually have ever been a lawyer at all during the last three decades or so.  It’s a fascinating read, and the story has now triggered Al Jazeera America to suspend the gentlemen and pursue an investigation.