Saturday, June 9, 2018

NJ Supreme Court rejects request to review opinion on Avvo legal services

About year ago, 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 issued an opinion holding, among other things, that it would be unethical for New Jersey lawyers to participate in Avvo Legal Services.

In response, Consumers for a Responsive Legal System, an organization that represents Avvo and other online companies providing lawyer referrals, petitioned the NJ Supreme Court to review the order.  But earlier this month, the court denied the petition.

Responsive Law executive director Tom Gordon said in a statement that, “by summarily declining to review the decision … [the court] has abrogated its responsibility to engage in active supervision of the bar’s anti-competitive conduct.”

This statement is, of course, a reference to the holding of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commision, in which the Court found regulation of a profession is subject to antitrust regulation if it is exercised by market participants unless there is active supervision by a government agency.  In other words, the organization (and Avvo) are gearing up to argue that the system of self regulation used by the legal profession violates antitrust principles.

On the other hand, the NJ State Bar Association issued a statement stating, in part, that “The court’s decision to let stand the joint opinion is an important . . . provides clarity for New Jersey lawyers and protects consumers" and that “[t]he association has increasingly grown concerned about the number of organizations that have sought to open the door to fee sharing, which could interfere with a lawyer’s independent professional judgement, and with the concept of organizations providing legal services when they are not bound by the same ethics rules that guide attorneys.”

I am not sure that both statements are entirely accurate.  The fact that the court denied the petition does not mean it did not exercise supervision.  If it reviewed the petition, it exercised supervision.  Avvo just doesn't like the result.  That does not make the review insufficient; it just makes it unfavorable to its position.

On the other hand, the statement by the Bar Association, is not entirely convincing either.  It suggests that Avvo is "providing legal services," which it does not do.

For more on the court's denial of the petition, go here.

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