Yet Another Ethics Opinion Dings Avvo Advisor Lawyer Referrals

avvo louisianaIn 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.

“Is it ethical?,” you ask. According to Avvo, “yes, it is.” Avvo says that it is not getting paid for lawyer referrals: “Avvo is not referring people to a particular lawyer. Potential client choose which attorney they would like to work with from all available, participating attorneys.” Furthermore, Avvo says that it is not sharing in 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 new 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?

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Considering these unfavorable ethics opinions, Louisiana lawyers should avoid participating in 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 Avvo’s questionable 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).