NC State Bar Proposed Ethics Opinion Allows Participation
This continues to be a time of disruption and transition in the legal field. Online platforms for accessing legal services provide lawyers with marketing and administrative assistance and clients with transparency. So, what are online platforms and is it ethical for North Carolina attorneys to participate?
Following the quarterly State Bar meeting in July, North Carolina lawyers are going to get the opportunity to voice their opinion about online platforms.
In late 2016, a few members of the bar asked whether it was ethical for a lawyer to participate in an online platform for accessing legal services, in this particular case, Avvo Legal Services. Even while other state bars were declaring an ethical war with Avvo, our State Bar established a subcommittee of the Ethics Committee to study the inquiry. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say almost everyone who agreed to serve on the subcommittee was certain of their position – an opinion allowing lawyers to participate was a bad idea.
Following eight months of serious study and discussion, the subcommittee was unanimous in their decision to publish a proposed opinion that allowed lawyers to participate in such a platform. At the July 27, 2017 quarterly Ethics Committee meeting, the Ethics Committee voted to publish the opinion and seek comments from members of the bar. Look for the opinion in the upcoming issue of the State Bar Journal, as well as online at the State Bar’s website, www.ncbar.gov.
What is an Online Platform?
I typically call these online marketplaces – a website that creates a place where buyers and sellers can connect. Examples are eBay, Paypal , Airbnb and Uber. You can sell products (eBay) or provide services (Uber).
Avvo Legal Services is an online legal platform – a marketplace where attorneys and clients can meet. Avvo provides the technology that allows the lawyer to market their services for fixed-fee, limited-scope legal services. The client choses from among attorneys within the platform who have agreed to offer the services at the fixed-fee amount. When the qualifications have been met, the client pays Avvo, Avvo pays the lawyer and the lawyer pays Avvo a marketing / administrative fee.
Avvo Legal Services is separate from Avvo’s directory of lawyer profiles. Avvo was founded in 2006 as an online directory of lawyers. Avvo expanded their directory business into Avvo Legal Services in 2016. Here are some Avvo statistics:
- Avvo receives 9 million visitors per month
- There are 9.9 million searchable Q & A’s on the site
- 97% of U.S. attorneys have a profile
- Avvo has received $130+ million in funding
There are many challenges facing lawyers today: increased cost, increased competition, business development and marketing, administrative burden, outdated delivery of services, outdated practices, information overload, generational differences, changing business model and alternative legal service providers.
I believe today’s clients will drive a revolution in the delivery of legal services. Clients are empowered with information, harder to engage, want to do-it-themselves, and are more connected and have more options than ever before. Clients will demand transparency (in pricing and process), innovative problem solving and client teams that can deliver timely results at appropriate pricing.
Clients also desire an “effortless experience”. Banks provides this via ATMs available to us 24 hours, 7 days a week. Amazon provides this via online shopping 24 hours a day from the comfort of our homes with free two –day delivery.
Law school debt is at an all-time high. Depending on whether you graduate from a public versus a private law school, you may be looking at $160k-$250k in debt. According to a recent US News & World Report, UNC-Chapel Hill Law School 2016 graduates had an average debt of $95k among the 75% of their students graduating with debt.
Lawyers are also unemployed and underemployed at extremely high rates. A few years ago, there was one job for every three lawyers. My law school colleagues tell me the numbers are better today. However, many lawyers are underemployed, working jobs that do not require a J.D., working contract positions and running solo practices that barely make the rent.
I talk with experienced lawyers who are struggling. Many practices have never recovered from the Great Recession, their client base is dwindling, their practice area has been hit by tort reform or new regulations. While many of these lawyers would benefit from modernizing their law practices, they don’t know how, they are afraid of ethical and malpractice risks or they are resistant to change.
Yet many young lawyers and young practices are thriving. These lawyers tend to have one thing in common, the use of technology to run very lean law practices. Many of these firms do not employ any employees, they use virtual staff, the lawyers are “do-it-yourself-ers” and they are heavy adapters of technology.
I am in front of lawyers almost daily. I talk to many lawyers who entered law school knowing the high likelihood that they would start their own firm. While they are not afraid of entrepreneurship, they do need modern ways to allow modern clients to find them. This is why in recent years the Ethics Committee has seen inquiries from lawyers asking permission to send text advertising or to offer iPads to potential clients. These are not only “new” advertising ideas to attract potential clients, but these also offer a common means of communication with clients.
Some lawyers question whether online platforms are presenting an opportunity for only the bad apples to participate. This argument assumes there is some vetting process in place when people hire a lawyer in person rather than online. I think the combined experience of Lawyers Mutual and the State Bar is that there will be lawyers who make mistakes and lawyers who will behave unethically. However, that happens whether the lawyer is hired online or whether the client goes to the local lawyer across from the courthouse. In some instances, it will be easier for the online bad apple to be exposed and the client protected because of online reviews and consumer friendly reimbursement policies.
My desire is not to see online legal platforms take over consumer-based or small business- serving law practices. However, I do believe we need to level the playing field for lawyers who are trying to build 21st century practices for 21st century clients.
I believe the clients who are attracted to online platforms are ordinary people in your community who would hire their local lawyer if the lawyer would do four simple things:
- educate potential clients about their legal needs
- show potential clients how you can provide solutions to those needs
- market yourself so that potential clients can find you
- present potential clients with pricing they can understand – not necessarily discount pricing but rather transparency in pricing
Most online platforms offer these benefits to their clients. My hope is that more lawyers will design their own 21st century offices. In the meantime, I am pleased with the proposed ethics opinion and I hope you will carefully study the issue and make your voice heard to the State Bar. And please, work towards building your own 21st century law firm.
Camille Stell is the Vice President of Client Services for Lawyers Mutual. Invite Lawyers Mutual to present “Building a 21st Century Law Firm” CLE for your local bar or law firm presentation. Continue this conversation by contacting Camille Stell at 800.662.8843 or email@example.com.