Friday, August 18, 2017

Florida Bar to consider whether it is ethical to participate in Avvo Legal Services

A few days ago, I reported that the NY state bar association issued an opinion holding it would be unethical to participate in Avvo Legal Services. See here.  Now comes news that the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors has decided to prepare an advisory opinion on whether lawyers could participate with a private lawyer referral service which charges a different set fee depending upon the type of case referred.  Without mentioning it, of course, this description refers to the Avvo Legal Services scheme which has now been rejected in every ethics opinion that has considered the question. 

The Florida Bar has in the past attempted to change the state rules to allow lawyers to participate in private referral services, but the Florida Supreme Court rejected the idea.  In fact, it published an opinion on September 24, 2015 which instructed the Bar to draft rules that “preclude Florida lawyers from accepting referrals from any lawyer referral service that is not owned or operated by a member of the Bar.”  Given this background it will be interesting to see if the Board of Governors attempts to revise its position or follows the lead of the Court.  For more on the news from Florida go here.

For some of my previous posts on Avvo go here and scroll down.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

NY State Bar Association issues opinion holding participating in Avvo Legal Services is unethical

The New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics has issued a new opinion holding that participating in Avvo Legal Services violates the state’s rules of professional conduct.  In particular, the opinion holds that a lawyer paying Avvo’s current marketing fee for Avvo Legal Services is the equivalent of making an improper payment for a recommendation in violation of Rule 7.2(a). 

As long time readers of this blog know, the opinion is similar to opinions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New Jersey.  And, as I have argued many times, no one should be surprised by the conclusions reached in these opinions because the analysis is consistent with the text of the rules.  You can read my article on the subject here, which was published just after the first couple of those opinions were issued. 

In that article, I pointed out that because the comment to rule 7.2 states that lawyers are banned from paying a lead generator “if the lead generator states, implies, or creates a reasonable impression that it is recommending the lawyer,”  lawyers paying Avvo should be concerned with the possibility that their state disciplinary authority might argue that by providing Avvo’s own “ratings,” as opposed to client ratings, Avvo creates the impression that Avvo is recommending some lawyers more than others. 

That question had not been approached back when I wrote that.  Now it has.  While the other opinions have mostly emphasized the issue of whether paying Avvo’s fees constitutes sharing fees with a non-lawyer, the NYSBA opinion focuses on that precise point.  You can read the full opinion of the New York State Bar Association’s Committee (Opinion 1132 (8/8/17))  here

As the Committee explains “[i]f the lawyer is paying [Avvo’s] fee solely to obtain advertising and marketing services from Avvo, then the lawyer is not giving Avvo something “of value” to recommend the lawyer, but is instead paying Avvo for marketing services, which does not violate Rule 7.2(a).  If, however, the marketing fee also includes a payment to Avvo for recommending the lawyer, then the payment constitutes giving something “of value” for a recommendation, which does violate Rule 7.2(a).”

After discussing Avvo’s business model, the Committee concluded that Avvo does seem be recommending lawyers and, thus, lawyers who pay Avvo’s fee would be in violation of the rule.  This is so, according to the opinion, because Avvo does more than merely list lawyers, their profiles, and their contact information. Avvo also gives each lawyer an Avvo rating, on a scale from 1 to 10 in a way that suggests mathematical precision.  Also, some of Avvo’s ads expressly state that the Avvo Rating enables a potential client to find “the right” lawyer or “the right lawyer for their needs.”

Based on this, the committee found that “[t]hrough these statements and through Avvo’s description of its rating system, Avvo is giving potential clients the impression that a lawyer with a rating of “10” is “superb,” and is thus a better lawyer for the client’s matter than a lawyer with a lower rating.”  Thus, the opinion concludes that “the way Avvo describes in its advertising material the ratings of participating lawyers either expressly states or at least implies or creates the reasonable impression that Avvo is “recommending” those lawyers.”

In addition, the opinion pointed out (but did not resolve) more issues raised by participation in Avvo Legal Services, including:

(1) the fact that Avvo sets the amount of the legal fee for each service raises questions about whether a participating lawyer can deliver competent legal services for Avvo’s chosen price and whether a lawyer is allowing Avvo to interfere in the lawyer’s independent professional judgment regarding how much time to spend on a matter.

(2) the marketing fee raises questions about whether lawyers who participate in Avvo Legal Services are improperly sharing legal fees with a nonlawyer.

(3) Avvo’s satisfaction guarantee raises questions about confidentiality. If clients call Avvo to complain, does the “documentation” that Avvo asks for or receives include “confidential information” within the meaning of Rule 1.6(a)?

As in the past, Avvo’s chief legal officer, has posted a short response to the opinion, but, also as in the past, it is weak and again bases part of the argument on the wrong the constitutional standard.

Yet, Avvo can count one small "victory" in the NYSBA opinion.  Avvo always refers to its fee as "marketing fee" -- not as just "fee" -- perhaps thinking that if you repeat something enough times people will begin to believe it.  And it works.  While other opinions have held that merely because Avvo says the fee is for "marketing" (by which they really mean "advertising"), it does not make it so, the NYSBA opinion states explicitly that Avvo’s website is an “advertisement.”  According to the opinion, "[t]he Avvo website is a public communication on behalf of each participating lawyer, about that lawyer, for the primary purpose of helping the participating lawyers obtain employment by potential clients who use the Avvo website."

Monday, July 31, 2017

Florida seeks comments on proposed opinion on whether to allow sharing of fees with firms that allow sharing of fees with non-lawyers

The Florida bar is likely to adopt an ethics opinion that would make it easier for Florida lawyers to enter into co-counsel relationships with law firms in which non-lawyers have ownership stake -- or, in other words, to share fees with firms that share fees with non-lawyers.  Only two jurisdictions in the US allow sharing fees with non-lawyers, but a number of foreign countries do. 

This is a big change in approach since only two jurisdictions in the US currently allow sharing of fees with non-lawyers and it may open the door for even more changes including allowing lawyers to share fees with non-lawyers directly in Florida - which would be good news for Avvo, as discussed in previous posts below. 

But let's not get ahead of ourselves, yet.  The draft opinion emphasizes that it does not address a Florida Bar member becoming a partner, shareholder, associate, or other formal arrangement in a law firm that is permitted to have non-lawyer ownership in its home jurisdiction.

The committee will accept comments on the proposed opinion until Aug. 15. If no comments are received, the opinion will become final five days later. If comments are received, the matter will be taken up at The Florida Bar's Fall Meeting on October 13.

You can read the proposed opinion here.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Avvo responds to NJ Opinion

Last month I reported (here) that three committees of the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a joint opinion concluding that it would be unethical to participate in Avvo Legal Services.  A few days ago, Avvo's Chief Legal Officer posted a reply to the opinion in the blog Socially Awkward.  The reply is short and, in my opinion, weak.  All it does is repeat some of the arguments the opinion rejected.  It also gets the constitutional standard that applies to the commercial speech doctrine wrong (as I have pointed out in the past).

For some of my previous posts on Avvo go here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Three committees of the New Jersey Supreme Court issue opinion holding that it is unethical to participate in Avvo Legal Services; also affects Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer but for different reasons

The Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, the Committee on Attorney Advertising, and the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law of the Supreme Court of New Jersey recently issued an opinion holding, among other things, that it would be unethical to participate in Avvo Legal Services.  You can read the opinion here.

This comes as no surprise to me since I have argued both here and in a law review article (available here), that under the current regulatory system, Avvo Legal Services puts lawyers in positions to violate a number of rules and that Avvo's arguments to the contrary are not convincing.  All the opinions addressing the question so far have reached the same conclusion.  See here.

The opinion from the New Jersey committees is short and well written and addresses most, if not all, the arguments I have been discussing regarding Avvo's claims.  And it reaches pretty much the same conclusions I reached in my article, concluding that New Jersey lawyers may not participate in Avvo legal service programs because the programs improperly require the lawyer to share a legal fee with a non-lawyer in violation of Rule of Professional Conduct 5.4(a), and to pay an impermissible referral fee in violation of Rule of Professional Conduct 7.2(c) and 7.3(d).

Interestingly, Avvo was able to respond to the inquiry addressed by the committees before the opinion was issued and it seems it made the same arguments it has been making elsewhere and that I have discussed before.  The opinion rejects them all for pretty much the same reasons I described in my article.

For example, Avvo argued that its fee scheme does not constitute sharing fees with a non-lawyer because it is a "marketing fee."  About this, the opinion concludes that the fact that Avvo refers to its fee as a “marketing fee” does not determine the purpose of the fee or negate the fact that paying it constitutes sharing a fee with a non-lawyer.

Similarly, I have argued that the fact that Avvo’s fee varies depending on the value of the legal fee creates the impression that  the  lawyer  is  paying  Avvo  a  percentage  of  the  legal  fee,  which  is precisely what the ban on sharing fees with a non lawyer prohibits.

On this, the New Jersey opinion concludes that the fee lawyers pay to Avvo is not for marketing because "it is a fee that varies with the cost of the legal service provided by the lawyer, and is paid only after the lawyer has completed rendering legal services to a client who was referred to the lawyer by Avvo."   Further, it states:
Avvo claimed that the “marketing fee” is not a referral fee but an advertising cost, and because the “marketing fee” is a separate transaction, there is no improper fee sharing. The label and timing of the fee does not transform it into an advertising cost. This fee varies depending on the cost of the legal service provided, which is inconsistent with the essential elements of an advertising cost. Avvo defended the varying amounts of its “marketing fees” by stating that in the online market, bigger-ticket services should have bigger-ticket fees. It stated that it spends more to advertise the range of services and takes a bigger payment processing risk for more expensive services. The Committees are not convinced that the sliding scale of fees for legal services rendered bear any relation to marketing.
Moreover, as I pointed out in my article, according to the drafters of the Comment to Model Rule 7.2, a fee paid to a non lawyer for a client lead should not be contingent on a person’s use of the lawyer’s service because “[s]uch a fee would constitute an  impermissible  sharing  of  fees  with  non lawyers  under  Model  Rule 5.4(a).”  Since a lawyer does not have to pay a fee to Avvo unless a client chooses the lawyer, the fee seems to be “contingent on a person’s use of the lawyer’s  service.”  Thus,  paying  the  fee  to  Avvo arguably constitutes  a violation of the ban on fee sharing and, as a consequence, of Model Rule 7.2.

Once again, the New Jersey opinion agrees with my analysis when it concludes that "[w]hen the lawyers pay a fee to the company based on the retention of the lawyer by the client or the establishment of an attorney-client relationship, the answer to the inquiry is simple: the company operates an impermissible referral service."

Finally, the opinion addressed Avvo's contention that fee sharing with non-lawyers is not inherently unethical.  According to this argument it is unethical only if it results in an interference with the lawyer's independent professional judgment.

In my article I explained that Avvo's argument is wrong because, at least as far as the text of the Model Rule is concerned, unless allowed by one of the specific exceptions, splitting fees with a non lawyer is inherently unethical. The rule does not say that sharing a fee with a non lawyer is unethical only if it interferes with the attorney’s independent professional judgment; it says sharing a fee is unethical because it is a threat to an attorney’s independent professional  judgment. Clearly,  part  of  the  policy  behind  the  rule  is  to protect the attorney’s independent professional judgment, but that does not mean that the interference needs to be shown in order for the rule to apply.

And, again, the New Jersey opinion agrees:
Avvo further asserted that fee sharing is only unethical if it compromises the lawyer’s professional judgment. The Committees acknowledge that concerns about independent professional judgment undergird the prohibition on sharing legal fees with nonlawyers. But the precedent in New Jersey, in case law, opinions, and the language of the Rule of Professional Conduct itself, do not restrict the prohibition to situations where there is a clear connection between the fee sharing and the lawyer’s professional judgment. . . .  Sharing fees with a nonlawyer is prohibited, without qualification.
The opinion also addressed certain services offered by LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer.  It found they also violate the rules, but for other, easy to address, reasons.  The opinion held that these programs are different than Avvo's because they operate as legal service plans and that, therefore, New Jersey lawyers may not participate in the plans until they are registered with the Administrative Office of the Courts.  This is a setback for LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, but one that should be easy to solve by registering the programs accordingly.

Simple Justice has a comment on the New Jersey opinion here.  (He agrees with me.)
My Shingle has a comment here.  (She does not.)
Above the Law comments here.
The Law for Lawyers today comments here.

Now back to the issues related to Avvo Legal Services, I want to reiterate something else I have stated in the past.  Saying that participating in Avvo Legal Services would violate the rules is not the end of the debate.  The more interesting question is whether the rules should be changed to accommodate what Avvo wants to do.  That is not addressed by the New Jersey opinion.  As I reported recently, though, it is under review in North Carolina and, perhaps in Oregon.

In other words, I think Avvo is going at this all wrong.  It should not be arguing that participating in its services does not constitute a violation of the rules.  Given the current rules, that argument is weak.  What it should be doing is arguing that the rules should be changed to allow it to do what it wants to do and to allow lawyers to participate.  That is a better approach, which may yield better results for Avvo.  What happens in North Carolina will tell.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Professional Responsibility Committee of the California Bar issues opinion on whether a blog should be subject to advertising rules

The Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility of the State Bar of California recently issued an advisory opinion on whether “blogging” by an attorney is, or should be, subject to the requirements and restrictions of the Rules of Professional Conduct and related provisions of the State Bar Act regulating attorney advertising.  The answer, summarized below, is pretty straight forward and are pretty much what I suggested would be the logical answer to the question when I first blogged about it a few years ago (here).

The opinion is available here and the summary is as follows:

1. Blogging by an attorney is subject to the requirements and restrictions of the Rules of Professional Conduct and the State Bar Act relating to lawyer advertising if the blog expresses the attorney’s availability for professional employment directly through words of invitation or offer to provide legal services , or implicitly through its description of the type and character of legal services offered by the attorney, detailed descriptions of case results, or both.

2. A blog that is a part of an attorney’s or law firm’s professional website will be subject to the rules regulating attorney advertising to the same extent as the website of which it is a part.

3. A stand-alone blog by an attorney that does not relate to the practice of law or [that] otherwise express[es] the attorney’s availability for professional employment will not become subject to the rules regulating attorney advertising simply [even if] the blog contains a link to the attorney or law firm’s professional website.

Nevada may become the first jurisdiction to adopt controversial ABA Model Rule 8.4(g)

Back in January I wrote a long post on a proposal to amend Model Rule 8.4 to make it a sanctionable offense to engage in harassment or discrimination.  I thought that the original proposal was problematic for a number of reasons.  Some of the problems I thought of originally were addressed (and fixed) in subsequent versions of the proposal, but I still have some concerns. Go here for some of my comments

The ABA eventually adopted the amendment and enacted a Model Rule 8.4(g).  Despite strong support for it within the ABA, not everyone agreed it was a good idea.  See here for example.  The Texas Attorney General issued an opinion concluding it is unconstitutional.  So did the Montana legislature in a resolution.  Pennsylvania rejected it and instead adopted the approach used in Illinois, which is different from the one suggested by the ABA.  Illinois rejected adopting the new rule too.  So did the Professional Responsibility Committee of the South Carolina Bar.

So far, no jurisdiction has adopted the Model Rule.  It is still too early to say that it has been a failure but at least some within the ABA are frustrated the reaction has not been more positive.

Now comes news that Nevada may become the first state to adopt the new rule, although according to this commentator, the state is being misled by the rules proponents.

Virginia Supreme Court makes revisions to lawyer advertising rules which streamline the rules and reduce their number

Back in May I reported that the Virginia Supreme Court announced it was going to adopt new lawyer advertising rules.  See here.  The new rules are now in place.  You can find a copy of the new rules here.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Illinois decision provides good test for discussion of Constitutionality of new ABA Rule 8.4(g) -- UPDATED

As I am sure you know by now, the ABA recently approved an amendment to Model Rule 8.4 to make it misconduct to use discriminatory or biased speech.  The amendment is now Model Rule 8.4(g) which you can find here.  Back in January I wrote a long comment on the original proposal, which was changed before it was approved last month.  The approved version improved some of the issues I had originally objected to, but I still have reservations about the approved language. My main concern is that the language seems to punish protected, even if offensive speech.  You can read my most recent comments on it here and here

In one of my comments I posed asked rhetorically whether the new rule could survive a Constitutional attack.  So to pursue the question with some real facts, here is a good example.

The Legal Profession blog is reporting that a recent Illinois Hearing Board report recommended sanctions on an attorney who, among other things, “used demeaning and insulting language” toward the father of a client.  The father, by the way, was supposed to pay for the client’s representation which courts in Illinois have found makes him a client too.  The report lists some of the statements in question as follows: 
You are a piece of garbage. All black people are alike. You're slovenly, ignorant. [...]

I'm sick of you, you piece of shit.

I don't know who's the biggest bitch. You or [___]. I'm going to lock you up.

Low class n#!*s. I'm going to have you all locked up. [...]

You are such a pussy. ...

You're ugly, low class, ignorant. I'll finish with you when he gets off. You're demeaning your son.

Help your son. Pay. Stop delaying case.
Given those statements, the attorney was charged with a violation of Illinois Rule 4.4, which states that “[i]n representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person, or use methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of such a person.”

Personally, I don’t think that Rule 4.4 was meant to address this type of conduct; it is not meant to address the use of offensive speech directed at client.  It seems to me a better rule to use in a case like this would be the section of Illinois Rule 8.4(d) that talks about engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice. 

However, since 8.4 is also not squarely on point, it can be argued that the fact that the lawyer was charged under 4.4 rather than under another rule that may be more “on point” shows the need to adopt a new rule that would address this type of conduct. 

But what if that rule is adopted?  What if Illinois had adopted the new Model Rule 8.4(g)?  It seems to me this would be a good case to have a court decide the issue I have been writing about all along.  The conduct is deplorable and the speech is offensive; but the First Amendment protects against the state imposing sanctions on speech merely because some might find it offensive.

In the end, I think the issue comes down to deciding whether the state can support the argument that regulating offensive speech by lawyers outweighs the lawyer’s constitutional right to utter offensive statements.  If the answer is yes, the facts of this case are a good example to use in support of the adopting the new rule.  If the answer is no, then the facts of the case can be used as an example of the consequences of the Constitutional protection of what some might believe to be offensive speech. 

UPDATE 6/10/17: The Illinois Review Board has recommended a 60 day suspension. The Legal Profession blog has an update here

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Magistrate imposes sanctions on lawyer for making too many improper objections during deposition -- UPDATED

I have often complained that judges don't do enough to discourage misconduct by lawyers during discovery in civil trials, which I think is very important because most civil trials settle on the basis of what happens during discovery. 

For this reason, I was glad to read a story in the ABA Journal about a recent case in which a federal magistrate imposed sanctions on New York City because of the conduct of one of its lawyers during a deposition.  The lawyer reportedly made more than 600 improper objections which lengthened the deposition, may have influenced the answers of the witness and prevented the witness from answering questions even though there was no basis to do so.  The lawyer's conduct was so improper that the lawyer taking the deposition had to interrupt the deposition in order to call the judge’s chambers to seek guidance.

The conduct was clearly improper, and I am glad the magistrate imposed sanctions.  I wish, however, that the sanctions could have been harsher.   Unfortunately, given the recent US Supreme Court decision in Goodyear v Haeger, the power to impose sanctions for discovery misconduct is now more limited.  I did not like the result in that case, which I think eliminates one of the few ways in which courts can try control discovery abuse, but that is a different and longer topic.

UPDATE 6/4/17:  The Law for Lawyers Today has a comment here.