Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent decision by the lawyer directory website Avvo to offer legal services to individuals through selected lawyers for a fixed fee and charge the lawyers a marketing fee to participate. An ABA article dated January 12, 2015 discussing Avvo’s plans is here: ABA 1-12-16 Avvo legal services article
According to the ABA article, Avvo recently began testing the new service and it plans to offer the services more broadly over the next few months. The service is called Avvo Legal Services offers a variety of limited-scope legal services at a fixed fee. The legal services include review of legal documents such as business contracts and nondisclosure agreements as well as more complicated matters such as uncontested divorces and citizenship applications.
According to the article, Laura Moriarty, Avvo’s vice president of communications, stated that Avvo is testing the service in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix and will begin offering the services in additional markets in February 2016. “Moriarty declined to identify the markets where it will initially be offered except to confirm that one will be Massachusetts.”
The ABA article states that “Avvo first got into the business of offering legal advice last year when it launched Avvo Advisor, a service that provides on-demand legal advice by phone for a fixed fee of $39 for 15 minutes. With this new service, Avvo will determine the types of services to be provided and the prices. Attorneys who sign up will be able to select which services they want to offer. When a client buys a service, Avvo sends the client’s information to the attorney. The attorney then contacts the client directly and completes the service.”
“Clients will be able to choose the attorney they want from a list of those within their geographic area who have registered to participate. Clients pay the full price for the service up front. After the service is completed, Avvo sends the attorney the full legal fee, paid once a month for fees earned the prior month. As a separate transaction, the attorney pays Avvo a per-service marketing fee. This is done as a separate transaction to avoid fee-splitting, according to Avvo. Attorneys pay nothing to participate except for the per-case marketing fee.”
“Among the services to be offered will be document review for $199, for which the attorney will pay a $50 marketing fee; formation of a single-member LLC for $595, with a $125 marketing fee; uncontested divorce for $995, with a $200 marketing fee; and green card application for $2,995, with a $400 marketing fee. The terms of the service require attorneys to contact a new client within one business day for a 30-minute introductory call. If the attorney determines the client is not the right fit, the attorney can decline the representation.”
An online FAQ about the legal services on Avvo’s website states that “(l)ocal clients purchase legal services, choose the attorney they want to work with, and pay the full price of the service up front. The chosen attorney then completes the service for the client and is paid the full legal fee. As a separate transaction, the chosen attorney pays a per-service marketing fee for the completed, paid service.
Avvo General Counsel Josh King also states in the FAQ that Avvo is not acting as a lawyer referral service and that lawyers should not be concerned about fee splitting since “(f)ee splits are not inherently unethical. They only become a problem if the split creates a situation that may compromise a lawyer’s professional independence of judgment. We believe that Avvo Legal Services fees, like credit card fees, would involve the sort of technical fee split that would not create such a potential for compromise. Nonetheless, we have tried to keep things simple and clear by making the per-service marketing fee a separate charge.” The FAQ is here: Avvo legal services FAQ
Bottom line: Although it is clear that AVVO (a third party non-lawyer website) is attempting to structure this legal services arrangement in a way to avoid ethics issues, whether this arrangement is ethical or unethical is subject to further analysis and interpretation by each jurisdiction regarding fee splitting and potential lawyer referral issues. Lawyers who are interested in participating should carefully review their jurisdiction’s Bar rules and/or consult with and consult their Bar or consult with a lawyer familiar with the Bar rules before agreeing to participate.
Be careful out there!
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Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
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