Lawyers are often pitched to participate in for-profit online lawyer internet-based referral services as a way to increase their number of client leads. Such arrangements may sound enticing, but attorneys must be careful not to run afoul of their local ethics rules by participation in those referral services.
Many states have issued ethics opinions discussing various models of for-profit online lawyer internet-based referral services. Some of these models are ethically permissible, while others are not.
Various ethical principles are at play, the primary three being (1) the prohibition of sharing fees with non-lawyers; (2) the prohibition on false or misleading communications about the legal services; and (3) the prohibition on paying for referrals.
Services found permissible
Several jurisdictions have issued opinions finding that certain types of internet-referral services pass ethical muster.
In Formal Ethics Op. 2004-1, North Carolina takes the position that a lawyer may participate in an on-line referral service, so long as there is no fee sharing with the service and all communications about the lawyer and the service are truthful and not misleading.
In Formal Op. No. 2007-180, Oregon likewise allows an attorney to participate in such a service where there is no fee sharing and statements about the attorney’s services are not false or misleading. Opinion 342 further explains that the attorney has an obligation to ensure the service does not promote the attorney through false or misleading means.
And the Opinion states that fixed annual or periodic fees paid to the service are ok, if not related to any particular work derived from the service. Fees based on the number of clicks, but not based on actual referrals or retained clients, is also fine.
District of Columbia
The District of Columbia follows North Carolina and Oregon, adding that the referral service cannot initiate unsolicited in-person communications with prospective clients. In addition, the service should simply provide a list of available attorneys and not recommend any particular lawyer. (Ethics Op. 342)
Services found impermissible
A couple of ethics opinions from last summer found improper referral services that set the legal fee to be charged for the matter and require the payment of a “marketing fee” to the internet referral service for each completed individual legal matter. (Ohio Ethics Op. 2016-03; South Carolina Ethics Advisory Op. 16-06).
For more on these opinions and a discussion on a recent Pennsylvania opinion, check out this article by Samson Habte at Bloomberg BNA.
If you are thinking about participating in an internet referral service, take a look at your jurisdiction’s ethics opinions. If there aren’t any discussing this issue, then you may consider asking for an opinion.