Pay-per-Action, Legal Edition

Lawyers can advertise, and they can pay to do so. We’ve known that since Bates v. Arizona, in 1977; this principle is basically the driving force behind this blog. And this right exists notwithstanding the weaselly way it finds expression in the Rules of Professional Conduct:

Rule 7.2

(b): A lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services except that a lawyer may:

(1) pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by this Rule.

But here’s the thing: advertising has come a long way from the good old days of insertion orders, where advertisers paid based on the size of the anticipated audience, hoping that some small percentage of that audience would buy what they were selling.  Nowadays, you can buy advertising based on intent. Rather than buying the whole basket of impressions seeing your ad, you can pay only for the audience that has actually expressed some interest. Two obvious examples are pay-per-click (most notably used by Google) and pay-per-lead (think online web forms).

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway (as many lawyers are bad at math): advertisers will pay more – orders of magnitude more – for each “click” or “lead” than they would have for each “impression” in the old-school model. Some pay-per-click searches can involve payments in excess of $100 per click. But the reason for the popularity of those techniques is simple: by moving the payment-triggering-event closer to an actual purchase, the advertising expense becomes much more efficient; there’s less risk of waste.

So what about moving the marketing payment all the way over to where someone actually buys? Not just an indication of interest in purchasing – via a click, or a phone call, or filling out a web form – but an honest-to-god, signing-on-the-line-that-is-dotted purchase?

Many businesses pay a healthy percentage of revenue annually, year over year, on marketing alone. Think they’d like to have that payout only triggered by actual purchases? Of course they would. While such certainly would obviate the possibility of improving on those margins via better advertising efficiency (or, more likely, luck) it would also foreclose marketing disasters. Marketing spend would suddenly become predictable, and fully paid for by the resulting transactions.

Traditionally, connecting marketing spend to actual purchases was hard. Usually impossible. And it still is for many types of marketing. However, the internet has made it possible to track this connection, and the online advertising world even has a term for it: “pay-per-action.” Simply put, the advertiser’s cost is based directly on the action of a customer buying the advertiser’s product or service.

Pay-per-action forms the basis for all sorts of online marketing, including online  affiliate marketing. Take, for example, Amazon: the world’s largest online retailer has a robust affiliate program. Online publishers can link to Amazon products, and if someone buys via one of those links, the publisher is paid a small percentage of the transaction. That’s Amazon paying to market its products, one transaction at a time.

What About Attorneys?

When it comes to advertising, attorneys suffer from the hangover of regulations that existed long before Bates v. Arizona and the recognition that attorneys have a first amendment right to advertise. The profession is also hampered by a rigid prohibition on splitting legal fees with non-lawyers.

So, within the rules of most state bars, you have something like the following:

Rule 7.2(b): A lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services except that a lawyer may (1) pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by this Rule;

along with:

Rule 5.4(a): A lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a nonlawyer.

Graft these together and pay-per-action advertising looks like a rules violation. Having the advertising fee dependent on the earning of a fee feels like “fee sharing,” as well as the giving of something for recommending the lawyer’s services.

But is that right? I don’t think so.

Let’s take the “recommending” bit first. The concept of paying-for-recommending-a-lawyer has a sordid history. It goes back to the “runners” and “cappers” who would hang out in hospitals and courthouses, channeling unsuspecting clients to the grubby attorneys who would pay per sucker delivered. There’s a strong consumer protection element in regulating such person-to-person recommendations.

But general advertising online isn’t “recommending,” and it certainly isn’t person-to-person.  It’s just the giving of value for advertising. The fact that the value itself is determined based on a sale rather than an impression matters not.

Or, at least, it doesn’t matter to consumers. There’s no harm to consumers based on how the marketing fee is determined. And without evidence of consumer harm, competition law and the first amendment dictate that the state not regulate.

As for the “fee splitting” bit, that’s just elevating form over substance. No one would argue that attorneys can’t pay for advertising (or salaries, or rent, or letterhead, etc.) based on the fact that such payments are being “split” out of legal fees earned. So what difference does it make if the payment for marketing is closer – i.e., determined by the earning of a legal fee – or even deducted from the fee earned?

The answer is is that it doesn’t make any difference. From the perspective of consumer harm – again, the only lens through which the RPCs can be lawfully interpreted – having a marketing fee triggered by signing a client is no different than the fact that we allow lawyers to use earned legal fees to buy reams of stationary or new iPhones. It’s just that somehow it feels different because it is conditioned on the actual transaction.

A caveat: this feeling isn’t completely groundless. The reason for having a fee-splitting prohibition in the first place is that some such arrangements have the potential to cause interference with the lawyer’s independent professional judgment.

But we need to separate the mechanics of a fee split from the substance of fee splitting practices that might cause such interference. For example:

  • We permit fee splits with other lawyers, assuming (perhaps naively?) that our fellow lawyers would be above bring such pressures to bear.
  • We permit fee splits in circumstances such as credit card processing fees, where the split is incidental to the transaction, and we know that the credit card processor has no reason whatsoever to interfere with the lawyer’s handling of the case.
  • And, of course, we permit fee splits in the world writ large, where lawyers “split” their fees, in the aggregate, with every person and entity they buy goods and services from.

As mentioned above, it’s critically important, when dealing with these concepts, to always view these rules from the perspective of consumer protection. These rules aren’t supposed to be applied mechanically, but rather in a narrow and thoughtful way that maximizes public access to information.

Or as the Federal Trade Commission recently put it, when commenting on yet another overreaching attorney advertising proposal:

“FTC staff believes consumers receive the greatest benefit when reasonable restrictions on advertising are specifically and narrowly tailored to prevent unfair or deceptive claims while
preserving competition and ensuring consumer access to truthful and non-misleading information. Rules that unnecessarily restrict the dissemination of truthful and non-misleading information are likely to limit competition and harm consumers of legal services.”

Exactly. So enough with the reflexive and overbroad interpretations: let’s free legal services up for pay-per-client advertising.

 

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