Ethics Opinion Follies

Earlier this year, Avvo rolled out Avvo Legal Services, our fixed-price packages for consumers and small businesses, fulfilled by local attorneys. We put a lot of thought into this product, how it would meet consumer needs, and how it could comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct to which lawyers are bound.

Our guiding principle in building Avvo Legal Services? Making them as consumer-friendly as possible. Our thought was that by so doing, the RPC issues should take care of themselves. As the RPCs are all about consumer and client protection, they shouldn’t be implicated by practices that don’t harm those people – right?

Right.

But one obstacle to this approach is a pervasive mindset of “rigid” or “mechanical” compliance that persists with the RPCs. Many attorneys want “safe harbor” guidance from the Bars on what complies with the rules. To respond to this need, many state Bars provide ethics opinions upon request. Such opinions are typically non-binding, but can carry some weight in a subsequent disciplinary proceeding.

Little surprise, then, that such opinions typically take the most conservative viewpoint possible. In most cases, the bars will broadly apply the rules, with no regard whatsoever for the first amendment implications or whether their interpretation is materially advancing the interests of consumers.

Indeed, in some cases the regulators explicitly state that their opinion does not take into account any first amendment factors. See, e.g., the last line of South Carolina Ethics Opinion 09-10. 1

If the Bars are serious about expanding access to legal services and information, one change they could make right away is to get out of the ethics opinion business – at least with respect to lawyer advertising. By discouraging new legal service offerings and disseminating information about legal services, the Bars are gravely mistreating the public they are ostensibly charged with serving and protecting.

And it’s not just me railing about this. The Supreme Court addressed a very similar system – that used by the Federal Election Commission – in the landmark 2010 Citizens United case. 2  Remarkably, the words chosen by the Court in Citizens United to describe the FEC’s advisory opinion process could just as easily apply to the process used by many state attorney regulators:

“Because the FEC’s “business is to censor, there inheres the danger that [it] may well be less responsive than a court—part of an independent branch of government—to the constitutionally protected interests in free expression.” Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51, 57-58, 85 S.Ct. 734, 13 L.Ed.2d 649 (1965). When the FEC issues advisory opinions that prohibit speech, “[m]any persons, rather than undertake the considerable burden (and sometimes risk) of vindicating their rights through case-by-case litigation, will choose simply to abstain from protected speech—harming not only themselves but society as a whole, which is deprived of an uninhibited marketplace of ideas.” [citations omitted]. Consequently, “the censor’s determination may in practice be final.” Freedman, supra, at 5885 S.Ct. 734.

Despite the approach of some Bars, there’s simply no way to interpret the rules regarding attorney speech without considering the first amendment.  Those bars that explicitly fail to do so are exacerbating the censor’s veto, hurting consumers, lawyers and the interests of free expression. There’s no question that such opinions cause many attorneys to simply abstain from providing information about the services they offer, preventing the consumers the Bar is supposed to serve from receiving information that may be vitally important to them.

Until and unless the Bars start doing away with the advisory opinion practice, attorneys who wish to really honor their commitment to serving the public should disregard these opinions. By understanding how the commercial speech doctrine works, such attorneys can confidently determine for themselves, independent of Bar input, where the rules apply and where they don’t.

Notes:

  1. And let’s keep picking on South Carolina, since they just issued an ethics opinion that seems to take aim at Avvo Legal Services: sometimes these opinions directly contradict one another. Compare the treatment of Rule 5.4 fee-sharing in South Carolina ethics opinion 11-05 vs. the new opinion 16-06
  2. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 588 U.S. 310 (2010).

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