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.

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.

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.

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?