Avvo Advisor is designed to solve a simple yet vexing problem: how to make it easier for consumers and small businesses to get access to legal services.
With this consumer-centric focus in mind, we have extensively researched the issues involved with directly charging consumers for legal services through Avvo, and we believe there should be no issues with any states’ Rules of Professional Conduct. Here are some of the primary issues that attorney participants ask about:
Avvo Advisor is not a “lawyer referral service.” Consumers always have the option of choosing from any participating lawyer. And even for those consumers who choose speed and have Avvo connect them with a lawyer, that connection is made to the first available lawyer in the client’s practice area, not to a lawyer who has bought marketing exclusivity.
Ethics Tip: A “lawyer referral service” is a marketing program that purports to match a consumer with the right lawyer for their specific legal problem, while actually referring that consumer to whichever lawyer has bought the right to that “lead.” The touchstone is the consumer deception that such a program can create. Legal marketing programs that offer consumer choice or that do not purport to do such “matching” are not subject to RPC restrictions on lawyer referral services.
An attorney’s first interaction with a potential client is no different than the first interaction that attorney would have with a potential client who calls or visits the office. At the beginning of the call, the attorney must ensure that there are no conflicts and that the attorney is capable of competently providing the legal services requested. The fee paid by the consumer is not paid to the attorney until legal services have been rendered. Thus, if any issue prevents the attorney from being able to provide the services, the call can be concluded and the consumer can choose another attorney or obtain a full refund from Avvo.
The form that potential clients complete on Avvo indicates the fact that the legal services provided are limited in scope. We also encourage attorneys to clearly explain the parameters of the services being provided, and to provide any additional documentation or disclaimers that help clarify the scope of the attorney-client relationship. This is the statement users see prior to completing the Avvo Advisor sign-up form:
Ethics Tip: The key thing is consumer awareness - making sure the potential client knows that the representation is limited in scope. This can be done in a variety of ways - agreements, disclaimers, verbal notice - but the best way is to find whatever means is most effective at getting the message across.
Because Avvo does not transfer the fee paid by the consumer until after legal services have been provided, participating attorneys need not worry about trust account issues.
Avvo charges attorneys participating in the Advisor program a separate $10 marketing fee for each consultation. The entire fee for legal services is passed through to the attorney, thus obviating any concerns about fee-splitting.
Ethics Tip: 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 Advisor, 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 Avvo’s marketing fee a separate charge.
Avvo will refund the fee paid by a consumer if the services paid for are not delivered, or if the consumer is not satisfied for any reason. In the latter case, Avvo will make such a refund proactively, without waiting to collect the fee back from the attorney. This eliminates any ethical concerns that may arise relating to reasonableness of fees, etc. (note as well that Avvo will not charge a marketing fee for a consultation where fees are refunded).