Sunday, June 19, 2016

Attention Ohio Lawyers: PR Board finds participating in programs like Avvo Legal Services is likely unethical

Just a few weeks ago the Professional Responsibility Board of the Supreme Court of Ohio issued an advisory opinion on whether it is ethical to participate in certain internet programs that "match" prospective clients with available lawyers.  The opinion does not mention any such services specifically by name but given the description of the services, it is clear (at least to me) that one of the programs at issue is Avvo Legal Services.  The opinion concludes that the business model of these types of services present many ethical concerns and that because of at least some of them, participating in them might be unethical.

The opinion starts by explaining the question presented as follows:
A lawyer seeks guidance regarding whether a particular business model involving online lawyer referrals is permissible under the Rules of Professional Conduct and the Rules for the Government of the Bar of Ohio. The proposed business model is an online referral service that matches a prospective client with a lawyer for a particular legal service. Although the client chooses the lawyer, the company defines the types of legal services offered, the scope of the representation, the fees charged, and other parameters of the legal representation. Additionally, the model requires a lawyer to pay a “marketing fee,” for each completed client matter. The “marketing fee” is based on the fee generated from the completed individual legal matter.
Based on this description, the opinion concludes that the business model at issue constitutes a “referral service” regardless of how the company running it describes itself.  I am not sure I agree with this conclusion.

I don’t think that the hypothetical business model described in the Ohio Board’s opinion is a referral service because the consensus on whether online matching services constitute “lawyer referral services” turns on whether such services utilize someone exercising discretion, such as an intake worker answering a telephone, when determining which attorneys to recommend to which clients based upon some stated criteria. See ABA Standing Committee on Lawyer Referral and Information Service, The Regulation of Lawyer Referral Services: A Preliminary State by State Review, page 5.

Thus, if the program at issue simply creates and provides a list of potential lawyers from which potential clients can choose who they want to hire, the argument that the program is a referral service is weaker.  In such a case, the program is more akin to a “lead generator,” a type of business model that is mentioned specifically in the Comment to Model Rule of Professional Conduct 7.2 which bans giving anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services.

In Ohio, however, the key is not a ban on paying a fee, even if that fee is calculated as a percentage of the legal fee earned on the referred matter.  The key is whether the referral service is registered with the Supreme Court of Ohio.  If the service is not registered with the Court or if it does not follow all the requirements imposed by the Court’s regulations, participating in the service is unethical.

The Board then goes on to discuss other concerns including the duty of a lawyer to supervise non lawyers, the possibility of lawyers facilitating the practice of law by non lawyers, the possible interference with a lawyer's independent professional judgment, the sharing of fees with non lawyers and possible violations of the duty to keep client money in a trust account.  This is not surprising to me since these are some of the issues I have argued create problems for lawyers participating in Avvo's Legal Services.

You can read the Ohio Board's Opinion here.

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