Text A Lawyer: Uber for Lawyers?

Like getting a ride via an app? How about getting a lawyer that way? Text A Lawyer hopes to be the Uber of legal service providers. Here’s how it works:

Text A Lawyer works with two mobile apps, one for lawyers and another for customers. Customers are able to hire lawyers 24/7 from their smartphones for only $20. After creating an account, the Customer selects a state, legal category, and then is instantly connected to a real live lawyer who answers the customer’s question. The Customer has their first legal question answered for $20 and has the option to continue asking the lawyer questions on a discounted pay-per-question basis. At the end of the interaction customers rate their lawyer from 1-5 and can have a transcript of the interaction emailed to themselves if desired.

This is real legal advice people can depend on in a courtroom or any legal situation. Before they are allowed to answer questions all lawyers are verified by our team for both positive identification and a current license to practice law. Customers can have confidence they are interacting with a licensed attorney who can answer their legal question.

Text A Lawyer pays the lawyer $15.00 of the $20.00 paid by the client and keeps $5.00 as an administrative fee. So, is this unethical fee sharing with a nonlawyer?

Probably so. Several ethics opinions have condemned a similar payment structure used by Avvo.

For example, in April 2018, the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission issued an advisory opinion finding that Avvo Advisor’s lawyer-referral service and its “marketing fee” for that service violates “several Indiana ethics rules.” See Ind. Sup. Ct. Discipl’y Comm’n, Op. 1-18 (Apr. 2018).  In so doing, it joined a growing list of opinions condemning Avvo’s service. 1

How does Avvo Advisor work? A prospective client visits the website https://www.avvo.com/advisor, selects the legal services needed, pays Avvo a fixed fee, and Avvo arranges for an “experienced lawyer” to return the prospective client’s call within minutes.

From the lawyer’s standpoint, participating is easy. The lawyer simply clicks the “Join Today” button and agrees to provide certain legal services for a fixed fee. For example, the flat fee for a “15-minute Family advice session” is $39.00; filing for an “uncontested divorce” is $995.00; and creating a “last will and testament” is $295.00. Avvo boasts:

With more than 8 million visits to Avvo each month, we can connect you with clients who have already paid for limited-scope legal services. There’s no chasing leads.

You choose from dozens of legal services and control your availability. Clients only buy what you want to sell, when you want to sell it.

Avvo handles the billing up front, so you can focus on getting the client the help they need. No sending invoices.

After the lawyer provides the services, Avvo sends the lawyer “100% of the client’s payment.” The lawyer then “[a]s a completely separate transaction,” pays a “per-service marketing fee.” The amount of that marketing fee “depends on the service, and ranges from a $10 marketing fee for a $39 service, to $40 marketing fee for a $149 service, up to a $400 marketing fee for a $2995 service. See Attorney FAQ for Avvo Legal Services. Avvo contends that this is not sharing legal fees: “Fee 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, if deducted like credit card fees, would involve the sort of technical fee split that would not create such a potential for compromise.” See id.

The problem is that Avvo is wrong. As the recent Indiana opinion correctly concludes: “Unlike advertising fees which are typically a one time or recurring charge for the actual advertising and communications permitted by the rules, the typical fee to an online company for “marketing” is only paid after the attorney renders a service to a client. Accordingly, these transactions are more akin to fee splitting or a referral fee, not payment for advertising.”

Louisiana?

Considering these unfavorable ethics opinions, Louisiana lawyers should avoid participating in Text A Lawyer (and Avvo Advisor). Louisiana Rule 5.4(a) provides that a “lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a nonlawyer,” except under unusual circumstances. Similarly, Louisiana Rule 7.2(c)(13) provides that a “lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services, except that a lawyer may pay the reasonable cost of advertising or written or recorded communication permitted by these Rules, and may pay the usual charges of a lawyer referral service . . . .” Both rules are squarely implicated by Text A Lawyer’s business model.

  1.  See Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee, Op. No. 17-05 (Sep. 27, 2017); South Carolina Ethics Op. 16-06 (2016); Pennsylvania Ethics Op. 2016-200 (2016); Ohio Ethics Op. 2016-3 (2016); New York State Ethics Op. 1132 (2017); New Jersey Ethics Op. 732, (2017).

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