Social media and various legal services websites have provided lawyers with new and numerous ways to connect with clients and potential clients.
Services like Avvo have sought to address the ethical concerns about Groupon (see Post #2 in the series) by creating a structure where the client pays the fee to the lawyer, who in turn pays Avvo a service fee. Under Avvo’s model, an attorney agrees to provide fixed fee services to clients. Clients then go to Avvo Advisor seeking those services, and get connected with a lawyer who agrees to help the client in exchange for the fixed fee. The lawyer collects the fee and remits a portion of it to Avvo, ostensibly as a payment of the reasonable costs of advertising.
The Ohio Board of Professional Conduct has condemned services like Avvo in the harshest possible terms. In Board Opinion 2016-3, the Board said that services such as Avvo are “antithetical to the core components of the client-lawyer relationship,” and that in such arrangements, “the lawyer’s exercise of independent professional judgment on behalf of the client is eviscerated.” The Board stated that attorney referral services of this type violate the Rule 5.4 prohibition on sharing fees with non-lawyers, because the lawyer pays Avvo its fee based on the dollar amount of the engagement, not a standard fee schedule. Even though the Board’s opinion is advisory only, Ohio lawyers would do well to stay away from services such as Avvo.
Finally, a number of lawyers and law firms now have one or more blogs, on which they discuss and analyze legal trends, cases, and topics. In most instances, blogs are a good way for lawyers to demonstrate knowledge and competence, and for clients to learn more about lawyers and legal topics. But bloggers talking about their own cases and clients must be careful about the following:
- Avoid disclosing client information or results on the blog without consent, and at all times avoid disclosing attorney-client privileged information.
- Include a disclaimer stating that the lawyer does not and cannot make any promises about success rate or ability to win a given matter.
- Do not create an unjustified or misleading expectation among clients or potential clients about your skills or abilities by curating the content to make it seem as you can’t lose. (Again, an appropriate disclaimer can cure this issue).
An Illinois public defender lawyer was harshly reprimanded by that state’s Bar after she posted information about her clients on a blog (including their jail ID numbers and the statement that one of her clients lied to a judge in court).
The problem with lawyers online is not that lawyers online are inherently less ethical. It’s that online channels give lawyers so many more public opportunities to slip up. But, by recognizing the ethical perils of social media, and taking some basic precautions, lawyers can use social media to the benefit of their practices and their clients.