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Avvo's New Legal Services Program Deserves Answers to Ethical Questions

The form and substance of Avvo’s new program should cause the profession to pause and answer some fundamental ethical questions as we move into our future.

The ABA Journal reported last week that Avvo is about to implement its new fixed-fee, legal services arrangement called the Legal Services Program.

Avvo will establish the list of services and prices to be charged for the legal services provided. Clients accessing the service will choose a lawyer from a list of local lawyers and pay Avvo the full amount of the fee in advance. After the service is completed, Avvo pays the lawyer.

And, in a separate later transaction, the attorney pays Avvo a fixed marketing fee for each service purchased, determined by reference to the value of the service provided. As the Journal puts it, “This is done as a separate transaction to avoid fee-splitting, according to Avvo. Attorneys pay nothing to participate except for the per-case marketing fee.”

The Legal Services Program may well be a harbinger for the legal profession. It also raises ethical questions for attorneys who participate and those questions should be answered clearly and definitively at the outset for the benefit of attorneys, clients and Avvo.

At the outset, let me say that I do not believe anyone at Avvo to be unethical. Legal ethical rules apply only to attorneys. Non-attorneys have every right to explore, probe and expand the commercial marketplace in which legal services are performed. And, if attorneys seek to self-regulate, it is up to attorneys to act when new ideas raise questions about our ethical rules. My purpose here is not to impugn Avvo or throw water on the Legal Services Program but, rather, to raise questions about our rules that the profession should answer for itself and for Avvo.