My Experience with LawPivot: An Online Legal Advice Service

LawPIvotLawPivot, is a Silicon Valley legal industry start-up,  a new breed of online legal advice Web site that provides legal answers through a network of attorneys. Sometimes the legal advice or legal information is free like AVVO and LAWQA,  and sometimes you pay a fee, which LawPivot and JustAnswer require. See more:  American Bar Association Journal article on LawPivot.

I had a technical, corporate legal question that I needed a quick answer to, so I decided to try LawPivot's Confidential Question and Answer Service, pay their fee, and see how well it worked. I knew that LawPivot has a pretty extensive panel of corporate lawyers, so I thought this would be a good starting place. Because my question involved a technical question, I think  if I had asked our regular outside counsel I probably would have generated a $450.00 legal fee and a long memo -- which I really didn't need at this point.

Instead for  $49.00, I received within 24 hours 8 answers from as many lawyers.  Of the 8 answers I received, I marked 5 as not helpful for my purposes. But 3 were very much on target, and one answer was exactly what I was looking for.

This service is "Confidential", but no attorney/client relationship is created, and the answers are supposed to be "legal information" rather than "legal advice",  The reality is that what I received was pretty good legal advice that applied to the particular facts of my situation.

Overall the site was very easy to use and I was very satisfied with the result. I think that even if I were not an attorney with experience in corporate law, I would have been able to recognize which answer to my question was the correct one. I am not sure that this would always be the case, so my conclusion is that this kind of online service for the average user is a starting point for more research, not an end point. The service helps you make a decision whether you need to retain an attorney for additional assistance. This is a good example of the use of the Internet to deliver "unbundled" legal services at an affordable fee.

The Ethical Issues

LawPivot makes clear that they do not share any fees with an attorney. The site also makes clear that it is not a legal referral service and that it does not promote any particular attorney. LawPivot properly avoids making claims about the lawyers in their network such as they are "the best", highly specialized in their fields", or the most experienced lawyers in their specialty.

Apparently, lawyers are ranked by an algorithm  on how well and promptly they answer questions. Whether this technology violates traditional legal referral rules, which prohibits profit-making organizations to be in the legal referral business, is the subject of a future blog post. 

Is LawPivot, as a non-law firm, permitted to charge a fee for legal advice? Is this the unauthorized practice if law? Not if the fee is paid by the user for the use of the Web site, and not for the legal answer or legal advice itself. There is a bar association opinion that holds that a Web site may charge a user for the user of the Website, when purchasing a legal service, and that this fee is not a fee for the legal service itself. See for example, Nassau County OK's Tie with Americounsel.

In the AmeriCounsel scheme, which dates back to 2000, the Nassau County Bar concluded that:

"[S[ince AmeriCounsel does not charge attorneys any fee and since AmeriCounsel does not "recommend" or "promote" the use  of any particular lawyer's services, it does not fall within the purview of DR 2-103(B) or (D). Rather, AmeriCounsel is a form of group advertising permitted by the Cod of Professional Responsibility, and by ethics opinions interpreting the Code."

I think this opinion is still good law.

However, LawPivot has been forced to create a business model, based on a work-around of a Rule of Professional Conduct that no longer serves any useful purpose.

In my opinion,  a regulatory scheme that enables private companies to take a share of the legal fee for referring client work to law firms would have a positive benefit.  It would result in providing more resources to the Web provider so that it could develop more nuanced quality control systems, more extensive marketing programs,and invest in innovative client referral systems. The prohibition on splitting fees between non-law firms and law firms doesn't serve the purpose for which the rule was originally designed -- to discourage "ambulance-chasing."

In fact, the ABA's Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services most recently sent a letter to the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission recommending that Rule 7 (2) (b) be eliminated. 

Model Professional Rule (7) (2) (b) states:

(b) A lawyer shall not give anything of value for the recommendation of the lawyer’s
services except that the lawyer may:
 (my emphasis).
(1) pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by this Rule;
(2) pay the usual charges of a legal service plan or a not-for-profit or qualified lawyer
referral service. A qualified lawyer referral service is a lawyer referral service that has been
approved by an appropriate regulatory authority;
(3) pay for a law practice in accordance with Rule 1.17;

 

Comment [5] to the Rule merely states, “Lawyers are not permitted to pay others for channeling professional work."

The Standing Committee's letter to the Ethics 20/20 Commission states: 

"The comment provides no rationale for this conclusion, which frankly is a position swallowed by the Rule’s exceptions. Law directories have channeled legal services for well over a hundred years. Lawyer referral services have channeled work to lawyers since the mid-twentieth century. Prepaid legal services have channeled work to lawyers for nearly 50 years. Public relations and marketing have joined lawyer advertising as vehicles that channel work since the Supreme Court ruled that states could not prohibit lawyer advertisements in 1977. Law firms providing services to corporations and institutions have in-house marketing staff, some of whom are paid well into six-figures, for the purpose of channeling professional work to their firms. And most recently, we have seen a proliferation of online third-party intermediaries that in some instances defy categorization as advertisements or referral services. Intermediaries are discussed in detail below, but suffice it to say here that the channeling of professional services in the marketplace in and of itself is not inherently inappropriate. Collectively, these mechanisms create access to legal services for potential clients of all economic strata. They are, however, most important for those of moderate or middle class individuals who infrequently use of the services of a lawyer and need the information provided by these resources to help them make the decisions about the legal services most appropriate for them. "

The Ethics 20/20 Commission gave no serious consideration to the Standing Committee's proposal so this reform is dead for the foreseeable future -- unfortunately. 

The problem with Rule (7)(2)(b) is that it has been made irrelevant by the Internet and arguably is a deterrent to innovation in devising new ways of enabling consumers to access legal services. This is a Professional Rule that chills innovation, rather than preventing consumer harm.

AmeriCounsel failed as a company because it could not generate sufficient cash flow as it was limited to charging a relatively small administrative fees for use of the Web site, as distinguished from earning larger fees that could result from channeling work to lawyer's in their network.

I hope that LawPivot does not suffer the same fate as AmeriCounsel.
 

LawPivot: Another Legal Advice Web Site

Another interesting start-up has emerged out of Silicon Valley to provide crowdsourced legal advice to other start-ups for free.

Vertical Q&A web sites seems to be the next new thing among venture capital investors. Even Facebook  rolled out this year a crowd-sourced Q&A service.

LawPivot, a legal Q&A web site founded in 2009,  hopes to fill a niche by providing legal advice to the founders of start-up and early stage high-tech companies based in California at a legal fee they can afford -- FREE.   Legal advice is provided by an experienced network of high-priced business law attorneys, recruited from the top 200 hundred or so law firms, who hope to pick up new clients by entering into discussions by providing free legal advice services to start-up companies.

Free legal advice or the “free consult” has been employed by lawyers for years, pre-Internet, as a tried and true marketing strategy for acquiring new clients. Now many lawyers are beginning to offer free legal advice online from their web sites directly. See for example,  VirtualEsq.Com . By next year there will be hundreds of these free legal advice services offered directly by lawyers from their web sites as the virtual law firm movement begins to scale.

However, free legal advice from an individual law firm's web site, is not the same thing as a vertical web site that aggregates answers from many lawyers, giving consumers a wider variety of responses to their particular situation.

Free legal advice online is not a completely new idea. FreeAdvice has been doing it for years, and consumers can get answers to their basic legal questions from sites such as AVVO, RocketLawyer, and JustAnswer. What is new, is that LawPivot provides through its network of lawyers “real” legal advice that applies to the client’s particular situation, as distinguished from merely legal information. And this advice is reputedly to be "high quality" given the stature of the lawyers recruited to the LawPivot network.

However, genuine legal advice, [as distinguished from “legal advice” that is characterized as “legal information” ],  like any legal service, has to be delivered in an ethically compliant way requiring that the client’s information be kept confidential, that an attorney/client relationship be established, and that the attorney providing the legal advice be a member of the bar within the jurisdiction  where the client is located. Presumably LawPivot is addressing these issues. The LawPivot service is presently limited to California, but the company, according to its representations, plans to expand nationwide.

Although the company recently raised $600,000 from Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Google, after a $400,0000 round from from a group of angel investors, it will be interesting to see how or whether it survives. At this point, neither the clients are charged for legal advice, nor are the participating attorneys charged an advertising fee. So there is no revenue, and apparently no business model. However, I doubt that the investors thought they were making  charitable contributions, so there must be a business model lurking in the background somewhere?

Unfortunately, the only business model that is ethically compliant in the US, is one where the participating lawyers pay an advertising fee to play (get listed) and get exposure. Splitting legal advice fees between a law firm and a non-law firm , is a big “No, No” and an ethical prohibition that exposes the participating attorneys to bar sanctions which could lead to disbarment.   Perhaps because Google is now involved as a major backer of  LawPivot , and the company is planning to move to the GooglePlex campus start-up incubator,  "they can do no wrong.!"

Many other Western common law jurisdictions, like the United Kingdom, have abolished the division of fees, but the rules against splitting fees with non-lawyers remains sacrosanct  in the US, on the theory that splitting fees would compromise the independent judgment of the attorney. However, in the UK, lawyers are permitted to work for a profit-making company and provide legal advice directly to consumers, and no one seems to be complaining about compromised judgment. [ See: FirstAssist in the UK  for an example ].

Charging clients an administrative fee to “use” the web site, as an alternative revenue source, has been tried before in an earlier Internet era, and it failed then. [ e.g. AmeriCounsel ]. I doubt that this model will work today when consumers are expecting everything on the web to be for free.

I think it is a good sign that innovation is happening in the legal industry, and that private capital is finally looking for a way to get a return by investing in the delivery of legal services. [See: Total Attorneys Receives Multi-Million Dollar Investment ].

I would like to see companies like LawPivot thrive, but at this point I don’t see the juice.  Are advertising revenues sufficient to make this venture sustainable, or has LawPivot  figured out another legitimate source of revenue that doesn't violate US ethical prohibitions? Only time will tell.