Don’t Share Fees with Non-Lawyers!

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New Ethics Advisory Opinion warns against web-based referral service

South Carolina Ethics Advisory Opinion 16-06 fields questions about an attorney directory website fixed-fee legal referral service. The service works like this:

  • Attorney signs up for the service by agreeing to offer certain flat fee services.
  • The fee for the service is set by the internet advertising directory website (service).
  • The service makes the referral to the attorney, who then contacts the client to arrange a meeting and begin the representation.
  • The service handles payment processing from the client and holds the funds until the legal work is completed.
  • Upon completion of the work, the service transfers the full amount of the fee to attorney’s account.
  • Upon completion of the work, the service charges the attorney a “per service marketing fee” which seems to be based upon the legal work provided and is only incurred when the lawyer provides the legal work. For example, the legal fee for an uncontested divorce may be $995, and the marketing fee is $200, while the legal fee to start a single member LLC is $595, and the marketing fee is $125.

Rule 5.4 of the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits a lawyer from sharing legal fees with a non-lawyer. There are some exceptions set out in the rule, but those exceptions generally fall into two categories, payments to a deceased lawyer’s estate and payments to non-lawyer employees in a profit sharing compensation or retirement plan. The exceptions, of course, don’t apply to this attorney directory situation.

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The Ethics Advisory Committee stated that the situation described above where the service collects the legal fee and transmits it to the attorney and in a separate transaction, the service receives a fee for its efforts, is an indirect method to share attorney’s fees. Attempting to disguise the fee-sharing arrangement in two transactions doesn’t cure the problem.  Calling the fee received by the service a “per service marketing fee” also doesn’t cure the problem.

Rule 7.2 (c) prohibits a lawyer from giving anything of value for recommending the lawyer’s services, with three exceptions. One of the exceptions allows a lawyer to pay for the “reasonable costs of advertisements”. The Ethics Advisory Committee pointed to Comment 7 to the rule which lists reasonable advertising costs such as newspaper, radio and television advertisements and on-line directory listings.  The Committee stated that the permitted advertising is typically for a fixed cost per add or per run of air time, and that reasonableness of the costs can be assessed by the market rate.

The Opinion says that the internet service purports to charge the lawyer fees based on the type of legal service rather than the cost of advertising. Since it doesn’t cost the service any more to advertise online for a family law matter than for preparing corporate documents, the fees are not rational and do not fall under the exception for “reasonable costs of advertisements”.

Dirt lawyers, be careful when assessing any type of referral arrangement, and, when in doubt, ask questions of the Ethics Advisory Committee.

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