Ohio lawyer suspended for engaging in “extreme, obnoxious, and humiliating attacks” on firm paralegal for over 2 years

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Ohio Supreme Court opinion suspending a lawyer for 1 year with the final 6 months deferred for “extreme, obnoxious, and humiliating attacks” on a paralegal for over 2 years. The case is Disciplinary Counsel v. Skolnick, No. 2018-OHIO-2990 (Aug 1, 2018).  The opinion is here: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2018/2018-Ohio-2990.pdf.

The opinion described the lawyer’s conduct as follows: “During (the paralegal’s) two-and a-half year tenure, Skolnick berated her for her physical appearance, dress, education, and parenting skills. He called her a bitch, a ‘hoe’, a dirtbag, and a piece of shit, and he told her that he hoped she would die. And because (the paralegal) recorded her interactions with Skolnick on more than 30 occasions, we have had the opportunity to hear Skolnick’s outbursts for ourselves.”

“In addition, the lawyer ‘called (the paralegal)  stupid, dumb, fat, ‘whorey,’ and bitch.’ Further, he remarked that she should give him ‘road head’ during a drive and falsely told an African American client that the paralegal “did not like black people.”

“The only explanation that Skolnick offered for his extreme, obnoxious, and humiliating attacks on L.D. was that he had learned the lingo from rappers and hip-hop artists while practicing entertainment law and that he believed he was using the phrases in more of a humorous than a harmful way.”  In addition, “(a)lthough (the lawyer) presented some evidence that he had been diagnosed with and was being treated for cyclothymic disorder and exhibited traits of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, the board declined to afford mitigating effect to those conditions because Skolnick did not present any evidence that they were causally related to his misconduct.”

The opinion found that the lawyer violated Ohio Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(h), prohibiting a lawyer from “engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law” and suspended the lawyer for one (1) year with the final 6 months deferred.

Bottom line: this lawyer engaged in extreme, obnoxious, and humiliating attacks” on his paralegal.  The lawyer tried to minimize and justify his conduct by claiming that he learned the “lingo” from “rappers and hip-hop artists” and was being treated for psychiatric disorders.  The court imposed a 1 year suspension with the final 6 months deferred.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

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Posted in Lawyer abuse of nonlawyer paralegal and attacks, Lawyer conduct adversely affecting fitness to practice, Rule 8.4(h) conduct adversely affecting fitness to practice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Florida Bar Professional Ethics Committee approves staff opinion addressing lawyer responses to negative online reviews

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the Florida Bar’s Professional Ethics Committee’s recent approval of Florida Bar Staff Opinion 38049, which addresses lawyer responses to negative online reviews.

On June 15, 2018, the Florida Bar’s Professional Ethics Committee unanimously approved Florida Bar Staff Opinion 38049 which states that a lawyer may post a limited response to a negative online review that the lawyer says falsely accuses her of theft; however, the lawyer may not reveal attorney/client confidences.  The Staff Opinion is here:  file:///C:/Users/jcorsmeier/Downloads/PRR_Corsmeier_-_38049_KNS_responding_to_negative_online_review_PEC_approved.pdf.  The Professional Ethics Committee will not issue a separate opinion.

The lawyer stated in her inquiry that she received a negative online review and would like to respond to the former client’s negative review that the lawyer “took her money and ran” by using the language suggested in Texas Ethics Opinion 662 and adding an “objectively verifiable truthful statement” that the Court entered an order authorizing the lawyer to withdraw as counsel for the former client.

The lawyer stated that she believed the added language was “proportional and restrained, consistent with the Texas Ethics Opinion, directly addressed the allegations of the former client, and should be permissible under the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar and the First Amendment.”  The staff opinion found that the post would reveal confidential information without obtaining the former client’s consent and cited the comment to Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6.

According to the staff opinion, “(a) fundamental principle in the client-lawyer relationship is that, in the absence of the client’s informed consent, the lawyer must not reveal information relating to the representation…. The confidentiality rule applies not merely to matters communicated in confidence by the client but also to all information relating to the representation, whatever its source.”

“The inquirer refers to Texas Ethics Opinion 622. That opinion explains that a lawyer may not respond to client’s negative internet review if the response discloses confidential information.  The opinion gives an example of a proportional and restrained response that does not reveal any confidential information:  A lawyer’s duty to keep client confidences has few exceptions and in an abundance of caution I do not feel at liberty to respond in a point by point fashion in this forum. Suffice it to say that I do not believe that the post presents a fair and accurate picture of the events.  The suggested language found in Texas Ethics Opinion 622 would be an acceptable response for the inquirer.”

“An attorney is not ethically barred from responding to an online review by a former client where the former client’s matter has concluded…(h)owever, the duty of confidentiality prevents the attorney from disclosing confidential information about the prior representation absent the client’s informed consent or waiver of confidentiality.”

In 2016, a Colorado lawyer was suspended for six months after he responded to a negative online review and revealed, among other things, that the client had bounced a check and committed unrelated felonies.  There have been other disciplinary cases where a lawyer has been sanctioned for revealing confidences in responding to a negative online review, including: In the Matter of Margrett A. Skinner, Case No. S14Y0661 (Ga. Supreme Court 5/19/14), where a Georgia lawyer received a reprimand for revealing confidences in responding to a negative online review, and In re John P. Mahoney, Bar Docket No. 2015-D141 (2015), where a lawyer received in formal admonishment in 2015.

Bottom line:  As I have blogged and advised in the past, lawyers are prohibited from revealing client confidences unless an exception to the Bar rules applies either requiring or permitting the disclosure.  Permissive exceptions include responding to a Bar complaint, defending a lawsuit filed against the lawyer, and defending against criminal charges involving the representation of a client.  A negative online review is not currently one of those exceptions.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

Posted in Attorney ethics, Attorney/client confidentiality, Confidential Information, Confidentiality, corsmeier, Florida Bar ethics, Florida Bar ethics opinion lawyer response to negative online review complaint and confidentiality, Florida Bar Rules, joe corsmeier, joseph corsmeier, Lawyer revealing confidential information on internet in response to complaint, Lawyer violation of confidentiality on internet, Lawyer/client confidentiality, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Florida Supreme Court hears oral argument in case where judge found that Facebook “friendship” with lawyer was not disqualifying

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert update which will discuss the recent oral argument which was held by the Florida Supreme Court in a matter wherein a Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge denied a motion to disqualify a lawyer who was a “friend” on the judge on Facebook and the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s order.  The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. d/b/a Herssein Law Group and Reuven T. Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Supreme Court Case No. SC17-1848).

The law firm filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court to stay the proceedings and invoke the Court’s discretionary jurisdiction.  The Court accepted jurisdiction and ordered a stay and oral argument was held on June 7, 2018   The video of the oral argument is here:  https://wfsu.org/gavel2gavel/viewcase.php?eid=2490

As I previously blogged, the Circuit Judge held that she was not required to recuse herself from a case in which she was a Facebook “friend” of the lawyer for one of the witnesses/potential parties.  That lawyer was also a former judge with whom the judge worked before he resigned as a circuit judge.  The decision appeared to depart from a previous 4th DCA opinion and an opinion of the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (JEAC).

The Herssein law firm appealed to the Third DCA, which denied the appeal and stated:

“…we hold that the mere fact that a judge is a Facebook “friend” with a lawyer for a potential party or witness, without more, does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook “friend.” On this point we respectfully acknowledge we are in conflict with the opinion of our sister court in Domville.”

The Herssein law firm then requested that the Florida Supreme Court invoke its discretionary jurisdiction to review the decision under Article V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const., and Rule 9.030(a)(2)(A)(iii) and (iv) and, in support of the request, stated:  “The decision expressly and directly affects a class of constitutional or state officers; all V judges in Florida, and the decision expressly and directly conflicts with the decision of another district court of appeal on the same question of law.”

During the oral argument on June 7, 2018, the justices expressed divergent views regarding whether a “Facebook” friendship should trigger the disqualification of judges and also noted there was no record of the extent of the trial judge’s Facebook presence in this matter, including the number of friends, how often and what type of information was posted, and any communications between the lawyer and the judge.  Many of the justices also said they do not use Facebook, and some stated that this was to avoid the questions that are being raised in this case.

According to an article in the July 1, 2018 Florida Bar News, Justice Allan Lawson stated that Facebook friendship is “a spectrum that runs from close friendship, but runs further to someone you don’t recognize on the street or might not know…I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around the argument that…I have no connection with this person, (and that) would somehow result in recusal or disqualification.”  Justice Peggy Quince noted that the problem is “where would you draw the line” regarding the type of friendship that would require a recusal.

Bottom line:  As I have said in my previous blogs, the circuit judge’s order and the 3rd DCA opinion appear to be contrary to the 2009 JEAC opinion and the 2012 4th  DCA opinion and the opinion acknowledges that it is in conflict; however, it does provide the rationale that each case should be decided by examining the facts and the relationship.  This would seem to create potential confusion and disqualification motions which would then have to be decided on a case by case basis.  The Florida Supreme Court may now decide whether to there will be a case by case analysis or a bright line rule.

I would again point out that it would be prudent for judges and lawyers who may appear before judges to consider not being “friends” or otherwise have a connection on social media or, if they are already connected in a case, to immediately remove the connection, disclose it to all parties, and the judge could possibly provide an option to recuse if a party believes that there may be potential prejudice.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Posted in Judge disqualification, Judge disqualification Facebook friends with lawyer, judge disqualification Facebook friends with lawyer Florida Supreme Court, Judicial Ethics Facebook and LinkedIn, Lawyer ethics Facebook, Motion to Disqualify Facebook friends, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Florida Bar Board of Governors scheduled to review proposed revisions to Bar Rules related to referral services and lawyer “expert” advertising

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the scheduled review by the Florida Bar Board of Governors (BOG) of proposed amendments to the Florida Bar Rules related to private lawyer referral services/qualifying providers and lawyer advertising as expert/specialist when the lawyer is not certified at its July 27, 2018 meeting.  According to the Florida Bar:

“The Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics has on their agenda a question regarding how lawyers can be paid by lawyer referral services — or qualifying providers — including considering several arrangements that are currently banned by Bar rules. Here is an overview and a Q&A on the changes that went into effect on April 30. Overview and Q&A

“The committee may report on the requests of three lawyer referral companies on whether they are qualifying providers under revised Bar Rule 4-7.22. 411-Pain and 1-800-Ask-Gary said they primarily want to refer callers who need medical assistance to their affiliated clinics and will send those who request legal assistance to participating lawyers at no cost. LegalRFQ wants to create an online system where potential clients could post their legal problems online and participating lawyers could submit bids for handling those issues.”

“In addition, the agenda includes a discussion on an amendment to Bar Rule 4-7.14, which allows attorneys and law firms that are not certified to advertise they are experts or specialists. Experts and Specialists  This amendment is being presented to the board on first reading. Almost three years ago, a federal judge struck down the Bar’s rule prohibiting non-certified lawyers from saying they or their firms are experts or specialists. The Bar’s first attempt to redraft the rule — which said lawyers and law firms that substantially met certification standards could say they were experts or specialists — was rejected by the Florida Supreme Court. The court said the amendment ‘could lead to differing and inconsistent applications.’ The board has a December 17 deadline to refile the amendment with the court.”

Bottom line: The BOG will be considering proposed revisions to the lawyer referral/qualifying provider rules, including fee arrangements that are currently prohibited by the rules, and also an amendment to the certification rule which would address the federal court opinion which found that this rule was unconstitutional as applied and issued an injunction prohibiting its enforcement, which the Bar did not appeal.

Be careful out there.         

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

Posted in 2018 Florida lawyer referral rule revisions matching services, 2018 Florida lawyer referral rules qualifying providers, Florida Bar ethics opinion qualifying provider - lawyer fees, Florida Lawyer Referral Services, joe corsmeier, joseph corsmeier, lawyer advertising expert and specialist, Lawyer advertising specialization and expertise, lawyer referral fees, Lawyer Referral Services, Lawyer use of expert and specialist, Legal malpractice expert witness, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Avvo’s new parent company, Internet Brands, states it is discontinuing AVVO Legal Services effective July 2018

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the communication sent by Internet Brands, which recently acquired AVVO, sent a letter to the Deputy Counsel for the North Carolina Bar Authorized Practice Committee, advising that it is discontinuing AVVO Legal Services “to align more comprehensively with our business and focus” and the discontinuation would be complete by July 2018.  The letter from B. Lynn Walsh, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Internet Brands to the North Carolina Bar is here: https://www.responsivelaw.org/uploads/1/0/8/6/108638213/avvo_legal_services_discontinuation_letter.pdf

The North Carolina Bar had previously drafted a proposed opinion approving lawyer participation in Avvo Legal Services; however, the draft was sent back for further study.  According to the Internet Brands letter, the North Carolina Bar Authorized Practice Committee sent correspondence to AVVO dated March 16, 2018 posing questions to about AVVO Legal Services as it relates to the unauthorized practice of law.

According to the June 6, 2018 response letter, Internet Brands, which acquired Avvo in January 2018, the company has decided that AVVO Legal Services does not “align” with its “business and focus”.  The letter states:

“At Internet Brands, we are focused on our users, and making sure we provide them with accurate, and consumer-friendly information to help them navigate the difficult tasks of identifying and hiring lawyers. As part of our acquisition of Avvo, we have evaluated Avvo product offerings, and adjusted the Avvo product roadmap to align more comprehensively with our business and focus. Accordingly, we have decided to discontinue Avvo Legal Services. The discontinuation began this month, with completion expected by the end of July.”

As I previously blogged, AVVO Legal Services has generated much controversy with the Avvo Legal Services model, and multiple states have found that the service is unethical.  Recent Indiana Ethics Opinion 1-18 (April 2018) found that AVVO’s client referral services may violate Indiana Bar rules related to fee sharing with a non-lawyer, improper referral fees to a non-lawyer entity, potentially misleading communications, and the lawyer’s obligations related to professional independence and disclosure of limited representation.  That opinion is here: https://www.in.gov/judiciary/discipline/files/dc-opn-1-18.pdf.

Bottom line:  This letter and the decision by Internet Brands to shut down AVVO Legal Services is a bit surprising considering that AVVO has been vigorously defending the service in multiple states.  Apparently, Internet Brands concluded that AVVO Legal Services did not align with their “corporate vision”, or they saw that the various state Bars were not backing down, or possibly both.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

Posted in 2017 New Jersey Joint Ethics Opinion AVVO referral service violates Bar Rules, 2018 New Jersey Supreme Court order denying review of 2017 AVVO joint ethics opinion, Attorney ethics, Attorney Ethics sharing fees, AVVO - BOG opinion that AVVO Advisors is a lawyer referral service, AVVO Legal Advisor- termination of program/service, corsmeier, Ethics Opinion AVVO Advisor, Florida Lawyer Referral Services, Indiana ethics opinion 18-1- AVVO Advisor violation of fee, referral and other Bar rules, Joint New Jersey ethics opinion- AVVO legal services are improper fee sharing and referral fees, joseph corsmeier, Lawyer advertising, Lawyer Ethics, Lawyer ethics AVVO and matching services- fee splitting and sharing, Lawyer ethics opinions Avvo - improper fee splitting and referral fees, Lawyer ethics- AVVO lawyer independent professional judgment, lawyer referral fees, Lawyer Referral Services, New York ethics opinion- AVVO legal services improper fee sharing, referral fees, and recommendations, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Florida 4th DCA finds fee agreement arbitration clause unenforceable since the clause failed to comply with Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(i)

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Florida 4th District Court of Appeal opinion which held that an arbitration clause in a fee agreement was unenforceable since it violated Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(i) by failing to advise the client to consider consulting independent counsel.  The case style is Lindsay Owens v. Katherine L. Corrigan & KLC Law P.A., No. 4D17-2740, 2018 Fla. App. LEXIS 9174 (Fourth DCA June 27, 2018) and the opinion is here: https://www.4dca.org/content/download/244172/2149993/file/172740_1709_06272018_09290264_i.pdf

According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed a three-count legal malpractice action against the defendants alleging negligent representation in a dependency case, which caused her to lose custody of her children. The defendants moved to dismiss the litigation since the plaintiff had signed a fee agreement requiring her to submit the dispute to binding arbitration. The fee agreement included the following arbitration clause:

Any controversy, dispute or claim arising out of or relating to our fees, charges, performance of legal services, obligations reflected in this letter, or other aspects of our representation shall be resolved through binding arbitration in Broward County, Florida, in accordance with the Fee Arbitration Rule (Chapter 14) of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar, and judgment on the award may be entered in any court having jurisdiction thereof. [YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THAT BY AGREEING TO ARBITRATION YOU ARE RELINQUISHING YOUR RIGHT TO BRING AN ACTION IN COURT AND TO A JURY TRIAL.]

The trial court dismissed the litigation, finding that the parties had “entered into an agreement to arbitrate that was not waived.”  On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court’s order violated her right to due process by denying her a proper forum; the arbitration clause in the fee agreement was unenforceable because it violated Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(i) by failing to include the independent counsel notice required under the rule; and the arbitration provision was ambiguous as to whether it required arbitration of a legal malpractice claim.

The opinion addressed plaintiff’s Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(i) argument, finding it to be dispositive. The opinion stated that there are three elements for a court to analyze in deciding whether the arbitration of a dispute will be required: whether there is a valid written agreement to arbitrate; whether an arbitrable issue exists; and whether the right to arbitration was waived.

Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(i) prohibits lawyers from making an agreement with a client for mandatory arbitration of fee disputes without providing the written Notice required by the rule, which includes advising the client that he or she should consider consulting with another lawyer and obtaining independent legal advice. Rule 4-1.5(i) provides:

(i) Arbitration Clauses. A lawyer shall not make an agreement with a potential client prospectively providing for mandatory arbitration of fee disputes without first advising that person in writing that the potential client should consider obtaining independent legal advice as to the advisability of entering into an agreement containing such mandatory arbitration provisions. A lawyer shall not make an agreement containing such mandatory arbitration provisions unless the agreement contains the following language in bold print: 

NOTICE: This agreement contains provisions requiring arbitration of fee disputes. Before you sign this agreement you should consider consulting with another lawyer about the advisability of making an agreement with mandatory arbitration requirements. Arbitration proceedings are ways to resolve disputes without use of the court system. By entering into agreements that require arbitration as the way to resolve fee disputes, you give up (waive) your right to go to court to resolve those disputes by a judge or jury. These are important rights that should not be given up without careful consideration. 

The defendants argued that Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(i) did not apply since there was no fee dispute; however, the opinion rejected that argument and found that, although the arbitration clause might require arbitration of matters other than fee disputes, the clause clearly violated the Florida Bar rule by failing to provide the required notice.

The opinion held that the fee agreement violated Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(i) and was unenforceable on its face since it required mandatory arbitration of future fee disputes without giving plaintiff the required written notice that the client “should consider obtaining independent legal advice as to the advisability of entering into an agreement containing such mandatory arbitration provisions.”

Bottom line:  This Florida appellate opinion held that mandatory arbitration clauses in fee agreements must comply with Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(i) and, as a part of that notice, the client must also be advised in writing to consider consulting with independent counsel.  If the clause fails to comply with these requirements, it is rendered unenforceable.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

Posted in Mandatory arbitration Bar Rule 4-1.5(i), Mandatory arbitration clause in fee agreement unenforceable as violation of Rule 4-1.5(i), Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

New Jersey Supreme Court declines to review ethics opinion finding that AVVO’s referral program violates Bar Rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court Order denying a petition requesting review of the New Jersey Ethics Opinion which found that AVVO’s referral program violated that state’s Bar rules.  The case is In the Matter of the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics Joint Opinion 732, The Committee on Attorney Advertising Joint Opinion 44, and the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law Joint opinion 45, September Term 2017, Case No. 079852.  The Order is here is here: https://images.law.com/contrib/content/uploads/documents/399/11771/Avvo-Cert-Order.pdf

The June 1, 2018 Order denied a petition for certification by Consumers for a Responsive Legal System, an organization that represents Avvo and other online companies providing lawyer referrals.  The petition requested that the Court review a June 21, 2017 joint ethics opinion which found that Avvo facilitates improper fee-splitting and may not be utilized by New Jersey lawyers.

The joint opinion was issued by the New Jersey Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, the NJ Committee on Attorney Advertising and the NJ Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law.  The Attorney General’s Office, representing the committees, and the New Jersey State Bar Association opposed the petition.  I blogged about the joint opinion in my Ethics Alerts here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/new-jersey-joint-ethics-opinion-finds-that-fees-paid-to-avvo-for-client-referrals-violate-new-jersey-bar-rules/ and the joint opinion is here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5plgfqgi26zuym1/ACPE%20732%20Avvo%2C%20LegalZoom%2C%20Rocket%20Lawyer%206.21.17.pdf?dl=0

The joint opinion was issued in response to a bar association inquiry requesting an opinion on “whether it is ethical for lawyers to participate in certain online, non-lawyer, corporately owned services to the public” specifically naming Avvo, LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer and their referral programs.  The opinion found that the LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer programs would be ethical if the programs were registered with the state; however, the opinion found ethics issues with the structure of Avvo’s “pay-for-service” programs and stated that lawyers are prohibited from participating in those programs.

According to the joint opinion, Avvo offers “Avvo Advisor”, which permits customers to buy a 15-minute telephone conversation with a lawyer for a $40.00 flat rate with Avvo keeping a $10.00 “marketing fee”, and “Avvo Legal Services,” where customers would pay flat fees to Avvo for legal services that would be provided by AVVO affiliated lawyers.  Avvo would then pay the lawyer and keep a “marketing” fee.  “The participating lawyer receives the set price for the legal service provided, then pays a portion of that amount to Avvo”. “The label Avvo assigns to this payment (“marketing fee”) does not determine the purpose of the fee. … lawyers pay a portion of the legal fee earned to a nonlawyer; this is impermissible fee sharing.”

The joint opinion also found that marketing fees that lawyers would be required to pay Avvo are not for advertising but are an impermissible “referral fee” under the definitions in New Jersey Bar Rules 7.2(c) and 7.3(d).  In addition, holding the lawyer’s fee until the service is provided violates the requirement that a lawyer maintain funds in a trust account under the rules.

The joint opinion concluded: “New Jersey lawyers may not participate in the Avvo legal service programs because the programs improperly require the lawyer to share a legal fee with a nonlawyer in violation of Rule of Professional Conduct 5.4(a), and pay an impermissible referral fee in violation of Rule of Professional Conduct 7.2(c) and 7.3(d).”

Bottom line:  The New Jersey Supreme Court’s denial of the petition to review the joint opinion leaves New Jersey as one state which has determined that a lawyer’s participation in the “AVVO Advisor” and “AVVO Legal Services” lawyer referral plans is a violation of that state’s lawyer ethics rules.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

Posted in 2017 New Jersey Joint Ethics Opinion AVVO referral service violates Bar Rules, 2018 New Jersey Supreme Court order denying review of 2017 AVVO joint ethics opinion, corsmeier, Ethics Opinion AVVO Advisor, joe corsmeier, Joint New Jersey ethics opinion- AVVO legal services are improper fee sharing and referral fees, joseph corsmeier, Lawyer Ethics, Lawyer ethics AVVO and matching services- fee splitting and sharing, Lawyer ethics opinions, Lawyer ethics opinions Avvo - improper fee splitting and referral fees, Lawyer ethics- AVVO lawyer independent professional judgment, lawyer referral fees, Lawyer Referral Services, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment