A lot of the time, saying something seemed “inevitable,” only makes sense to say when you’ve had the benefit of hindsight. At some level, every outcome can be justified as having been inevitable when you are doing the justifying after the event has already happened.
I say that to make clear that I understand the problem with making the following assertion: As soon as the news came out that the same company that owned Martindale Hubbell was buying Avvo, it seemed inevitable that Avvo Legal Services was on the road to being scrapped/shut down.
Further, if the mere news that a much larger, much more “conservative” company was taking over didn’t signal for you how things would shake out ( a company that also owned other significant legal marketing products that might “compete” with or be intended to compete with Avvo), the news that quickly followed — all the key people at Avvo (the founder and CEO, the General Counsel, the marketing person who was to some extent the “face” of Avvo) were cashing out and moving on — should have left no doubt that large change was coming.
This week Internet Brands, that new owner of Avvo, let the cat out of the bag in perhaps the weirdest way possible that Avvo Legal Services would be shut down. As this ABA Journal article reports, an unauthorized practice of law committee of the North Carolina Bar had sent an inquiry letter, apparently, to continue or begin an evaluation of whether Avvo Legal Services somehow involved the unauthorized practice of law.
In response, the General Counsel of Internet Brands sent the North Carolina committee a letter advising that Avvo Legal Services was going to be shut down imminently. That’s a weird way for the news to come out because, of all the problems that Avvo Legal Services’s business model had, unauthorized practice of law simply wasn’t one.
If you follow this space, then you are likely well-versed on what those problems were: the business-model required participating lawyers to take on all of the risk that participation would involve them in one or more violations of their state’s ethics rules, including rules against sharing fees with people who aren’t lawyers or paying someone something of a value for a referral of legal work.
The end of Avvo Legal Services, however, should not mean that the legal profession should stop efforts to determine how the ethics rules need to be revised in order to facilitate the existence of things similar to Avvo Legal Services. Consumers who have grown accustomed to using that kind of platform to get assistance with their legal needs are just going to look around the Internet for a new option.
One of the folks behind Avvo has been promoting the existence of one such new option pretty vigorously of late. But there are all kinds of others out there and likely new ones waiting in the wings. Very few, if any, of them can truly be described as providing any sort of service that is likely to hurt consumers seeking legal services. Real-world transactions have demonstrated that the kind of approach to pairing consumers in need of help with lawyers with time on their hands and a willingness to assist at a desirable price point can take place without hurting the consumers of legal services. The fact that those business models are currently prohibited by the ethics rules simply means that slavish devotion to those prohibitions based on theoretical concerns rather than how things truly are is an untenable position for the profession to try to maintain.
I still think a big choice has to be made in our profession, and I continue to think that choice is clear.