A joint opinion by three New Jersey Supreme Court committees has blacklisted three web-based services that match litigants with attorneys because of concerns over illicit fee-sharing and referral fees.
Avvo facilitates improper fee-splitting, while LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer operate legal service plans that aren’t registered with the judiciary according to the June 21 opinion issued by the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, the Committee on Attorney Advertising and the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law. According to the opinion, Avvo offers “Avvo Advisor”—through which customers buy 15-minute phone conversations with a lawyer for a $40 flat rate, of which Avvo keeps a $10 marketing fee—and “Avvo Legal Services,” which allows customers to pay flat fees to Avvo for legal services provided by affiliated lawyers, after which Avvo pays the lawyer but keeps a marketing fee.
Avvo promises to guide consumers to the “right lawyer” like Consumer Reports guides consumers to the right shampoo. It is an interesting idea: that lawyers can be rated like electronics or home appliances. Only 10 days after it was launched, noted Washington class action lawyer, Steve Berman, filed a lawsuit against the online lawyer rating site noting:
Justice Ginsburg and Justice Alito received the same rating as Lynne Stewart, the government lawyer currently serving a prison term relating to her conduct in a recent terrorism trial.
“The bottom line is the Avvo rating isn’t a true representation of one’s ability to practice law and deliver positive results to their client – it dupes consumers into thinking the site is an accurate reflection of an attorney’s ability,” said Berman in a press release.
Avvo suggests by its very nature that lawyers are some kind of fungible goods – as if they’re not providing a service based on skill, but rather like they’re engaging in underwater basket weaving. That’s not only misleading to the public, it’s offensive to any reputable practicing attorney.