A couple of weeks ago I participated in a panel on the debate over for-profit services that help “match” potential clients with lawyers who are looking for clients such as Avvo Legal Services. As long time readers of this blog know, this is a topic I have been writing about for some time. (To see my previous posts on the subject, go here and scroll down.) To see an article I wrote on the subject go here. (An update to this article with more recent developments since its publication is forthcoming.)
As I have chronicled here and elsewhere, all of the published opinions, and one proposed opinion have concluded that participating in for profit matching services such as Avvo Legal Services would violate, or likely violate, rules of professional conduct. Only one proposed opinion has suggested the opposite. Having said that, it should be noted that the vast majority of jurisdictions have not published any opinions on the subject which may mean that the regulators don’t see the question as a problem that needs to be addressed. Also, California allows for profit referral services, while others may not allow them, but seem to tolerate them.
Given the state of affairs, in some of my writings about this topic I have suggested that Avvo would be better served by seeking to get jurisdictions to change the rules so it would be allowed to do what it wants to do (rather than argue that what it is doing was not against the rules - a battle it seems to be losing.)
Which brings me to today’s news: the day before I spoke at the conference, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) published the most comprehensive report on this issue in which it suggests amendments to the Illinois rules of professional conduct in order to allow attorneys’ participation in for-profit referral services such as Avvo Legal Services.
In doing so, it is the first jurisdiction to publish such a recommendation. (North Carolina has been considering one, but it has not been officially published yet.)
The report, which you can find here, is very comprehensive (124 pages long) and I have not had a chance to read it all, but I looked at some sections and here is a quick review.
First of all, it should be noted that the report is just that; a report. It is not a final recommendation or a decision of any sort. And it is subject to changes since the ARDC is now seeking comments on it. But it does have suggestions on how to approach the issues.
Second, given those suggestions, it is clear that the report sides with what I have called the “Justice gap” theme in the debate. [See, "Justice Gap vs. Core Values: The Common Themes in the Innovation Debate" 41 Journal of the Legal Profession 1 (2016)] This refers to the position that we should do what we can to help provide more access to legal services, even if doing so involves taking innovative approaches that seem to go against tradition. As the report states, “[p]rohibiting lawyers from participating in or sharing fees with for-profit services that refer clients to or match clients with participating lawyers is not a viable approach, because the prohibition would perpetuate the lack of access to the legal marketplace.”
What is new, and may be controversial, in the report is that it does not only suggest changing the rules that apply to lawyers, it suggests creating a regulatory system to apply to the non-lawyers who want to provide for-profit referral services that would require them to meet certain standards and to register with, and be regulated by, the ARDC. According to the report, this approach would be better to protect clients and the integrity of the legal profession.
The ARDC will accept comments through at least Aug. 31, 2018. Comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. More here.
As expected, the report has generated some debate already. Here are some links to comments about it.
Carolyn Elefant writes that the proposal is a very bad idea, but not for the reasons that the jurisdictions that have published opinions have argued.
Law Sites describes the report here.
Legal Profession blog comments here.
Robert Ambrogi comments on the report at Above the Law.
Finally, here is a podcast discussing the report with its author. (if you can't see the podcast play button below, you can go here to access it.)