More Ethics Opinions on Avvo Legal Services

I recently returned from lovely Asheville, North Carolina, where the North Carolina State Bar moved to adopt an ethics opinion favorable to Avvo Legal Services. The Bar also proposed changes to the fee-sharing and trust account rules to specify that mechanical-but-not-client-impacting payments to intermediaries (the bugaboo of too many regulators) are not prohibited under the Rules of Professional Conduct.

The North Carolina EO and Rule Changes – which are moving forward for final comments and, one hopes, adoption – are the culmination of what has been a model process. The Bar appointed a subcommittee to address the issue, and that group took its time. It held numerous meetings, and got input from all corners to understand the issues. The subcommittee also brought to bear a deep understanding of both the public-protection purpose of the Rules, and the constitutional constraints which govern them.

And then there’s the New York State Bar Association.

The NYSBA announced today that it has issued an ethics opinion finding that Avvo Legal Services violates New York’s rules of professional conduct – specifically, the prohibition against lawyers paying third parties to recommend them.

Unlike the North Carolina State Bar, the NYSBA is a voluntary, non-regulatory legal trade association. It opinions are purely advisory. But New York is a big and influential state, and lawyers are sure to have questions about this opinion. And while the NYSBA didn’t run a transparent and public process like North Carolina’s, it did – to its credit – actually take the time to understand how Avvo Legal Services works.

But they still came to the wrong conclusion.

As in most states, the New York Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits lawyers from paying for “recommendations.” The NYSBA opinion finds that attorneys participating in Avvo Legal Services are making “improper payment for a recommendation in violation of Rule 7.2(a).” Yet in reaching this conclusion, the NYSBA stretches the term “recommendation” far beyond its permissible bounds.

As I am constantly going on about, there are First Amendment limitations on the Rules of Professional Conduct. Attorneys have a right to express themselves, and the public has a right to access information about legal services. What this means in practice is that the Rules can’t mean whatever the regulators want them to mean. It means that the Rules can’t be interpreted to broadly gather in anything that might arguably sound like it could “fit” under the rules.

More specifically, attorney advertising restrictions must:

  • Materially advance important state interests, and
  • Do so in a narrow fashion.

That’s not my opinion; it’s the law.

The NYSBA opinion doesn’t grapple with these obvious Constitutional guardrails. Instead, it basically says:

“Hey, if you squint hard enough, and add together Avvo’s objective system of lawyer ratings plus some marketing statements Avvo uses to refer to lawyers in general, that looks kinda like a “recommendation” of every participating lawyer.”

That’s far, far too broad. To survive First Amendment scrutiny, a prohibition on recommendations must be narrowly limited to those recommendations that actually mislead the public. And the NYSBA opinion acknowledges this in passing, noting its earlier Opinion 799, which found that the “recommendation” line is crossed when the referrer “purports to recommend a particular lawyer or lawyers based on an analysis of the potential client’s problem.”

This is getting at the issue, because such a recommendation – particularly in the absence of transparency and consumer choice – can lead the consumer to believe they are being sent to the best possible attorney for their legal problem, when in fact they are being sent to the one paying the most money.

But instead, the opinion treats “recommendation” as a broad-ranging term into which anything bearing a passing resemblance can fit. That’s not a stand that will survive its first encounter with judicial review.

And this is yet more evidence of a far too common pattern: applying the prophylactic, overly-cautious ethics opinion approach to rules where the Constitution dictates a much lighter hand. It’s a continuation of a decades-long habit of chilling lawyer speech, to the detriment of consumers and lawyers alike.

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