Third Ethics Panel Dings Avvo’s Matching for Legal Services

Avvo Legal Services is offering a matching program to connect potential clients with lawyers. The program provides lawyers with the opportunity to offer legal services directly to consumers after a fixed price consultation. Moreover, at the Avvo Legal Services “law store” consumers may purchase fixed-fee legal services such as review of a will for $99 or a family green card application for $2,995. (To read Avvo’s Advisor web page, click here.) Ultimately, the lawyer pays Avvo, which is described by Avvo as follows:

For each paid service you complete, Avvo will charge you a marketing fee as a separate transaction.

For example, a lawyer who successfully completes 3 $149 document review services in the month of February will see 2 separate transactions on their bank statement in March: a deposit of $447 ($149/service x 3 services) and a withdrawal of $120 ($40 marketing fee/service x 3 services).

Since its launch in February 2016, three ethics advisory opinions—South Carolina, Ohio, and now Pennsylvania—have disapproved (without specifically identifying Avvo) Avvo’s type of matching program.  The most recent opinion was issued by Pennsylvania and notes that under Pennsylvania Rule of Professional Conduct 5.4(a) on “Professional Independence of a Lawyer,” a “lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a nonlawyer.” The Pennsylvania opinion concluded that  the “marketing fee” may be a disguised fee sharing arrangement with a nonlawyer and, thus, would violate RPC 5.4(a). See Pa. Bar Ass’n Comm. on Legal Ethics & Prof’l Responsibility, Formal Op. 2016-200, (September 2016).

The Pennsylvania opinion also rejected the idea that the “marketing fee” could be authorized under RPC 7.2(c)(1), which provides a lawyer may pay “the reasonable cost of advertisements,” on grounds that the arrangement “do[es] not correspond to any traditional model of compensation for advertising.”.

Furthermore, the committee concluded that such a program would improperly delegate “to a non-lawyer several critical decisions and functions that fall within the exclusive domain of the practice of law,” such as “the decision whether the professional services the client requested of the lawyer have been satisfactorily completed.” It also noted issues regarding limited scope representation under Rule 1.2 (c), breach of confidentiality under Rule 1.6(a), and assisted unauthorized practice of law under Rule 5.5(a).

To read the full opinion, click here.

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