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The rise of Avvo may cause a rise in ethics issues in North Carolina

A new, popular, lawyer rating and legal services website may cause ethical issues with attorneys in North Carolina and issues similar to that of the North Carolina State Bar’s problem with LegalZoom.

Avvo.com is an online legal services website that has multiple functions.  Its functions include giving people access to less expensive legal services in multiple areas, permitting fellow attorneys to rate other attorneys, allowing clients to post comments about their experiences with the attorney, and providing a mechanism through which attorneys can access clients.

Avvo provides a venue for prospective clients to “browse legal topics” and conduct their own legal research

Avvo provides Business legal services, family law services, and immigration legal services.  It is not certain whether the services through the website itself are broken down by State, as both the family law and business legal services are very state specific, but if not, there could be similar issues as those had by LegalZoom earlier last year with the North Carolina State Bar.

Not only does it provide legal services, Avvo provides a venue for prospective clients to “browse legal topics” and conduct their own legal research.  The legal topic browsing is not broken down into state, and as such could give prospective clients improper information and as a result, unrealistic expectations of legal services from an attorney in their state.

While I have not gotten legal services from this website, it appears it is a step up from LegalZoom, or at least is attempting to be “safer” than LegalZoom in that it puts you in contact with attorneys in your area.  However, it does not seem to be having this effect because the site offers limited-scope legal services at fixed fees.  While it’s apparently testing its service in five larger cities, it plans to expand its services in the near future, and you can still use the site everywhere.  Still, like the issues had with LegalZoom, Avvo allows for consultations with attorneys that sign up to provide services through it, but it does not appear to be putting state restrictions or putting people who call or contact them in contact with an attorney who has agreed to provide services through Avvo in the prospective, inquiring client’s state.

Regarding the rating system, the website allows you to “maximize your Avvo Rating and exposure by adding information about your background, law practice, and achievements.”  In a way, it is similar to a LinkedIn profile, but you are able to get rankings from other attorneys and clients and you cannot control or edit these rankings or comments.

… Avvo is not responsible for changing things that may not be true or for adjusting things on their own website, because it’s strictly what has been written about you in your legal capacity.  

Additionally, you as an attorney have your information on a website that provides legal services that may or may not be the most accurate for your state.  In order to ensure your information is accurate, Avvo is not responsible for changing things that may not be true or for adjusting things on their own website, because it’s strictly what has been written about you in your legal capacity.  Rather, they require you to “claim your profile” if you want to make any changes to your profile, including to make it accurate.

Many issues arise, and North Carolina Bar Association President, Shelby D. Benton, addressed these issues in her article for “The President’s Perspective.”  She discovered the process by which you go about “capturing” your profile to ensure accuracy.  Avvo will not check your profile for accuracy, but instead, encourage you to claim your own profile.  However, the issue arises that once you “capture” or claim your profile, it’s yours.  This means it is under your control and is a representation of you – meaning it is advertising, under the discretion and monitoring by the North Carolina State Bar.

If a client posts a comment on an attorney’s profile saying the attorney is a specialist in a particular area, that likely would be considered marketing and advertising for the attorney’s legal services, and as such could lead to disciplinary issues if inaccurate.

So what?  As per the Rules of Ethics and Professional Conduct and the State Bar Association’s opinion, an attorney cannot display improper and inaccurate information on their websites, nor can they claim they are specialists or other such descriptions that are not necessarily true.  If a client posts a comment on an attorney’s profile saying the attorney is a specialist in a particular area, that likely would be considered marketing and advertising for the attorney’s legal services, and as such could lead to disciplinary issues if inaccurate.

How do you stop it?  Shouldn’t you just be able to contact Avvo to have the inaccurate post removed?  You would think that would be the case, but Avvo refuses to change information that may be inaccurate because the client posted it.  Instead, in order to not be held liable for disciplinary action, the North Carolina Bar Association told Bar Association President Benton that if you (1) contact the client and ask them to change the information, (2) contact Avvo and request them to remove the content (even thought they won’t), and (3) post something clarifying the statement, you will not be subject to discipline.

An attorney is “paid by the client” through the website, not from the client directly.

Another issue that may arise with this new site is how you are paid. An attorney is “paid by the client” through the website, not from the client directly.  The process is (1) clients choose your services and pay through Avvo’s website; (2) you have one business day to call your new client; and (3) after the representation/service is complete, Avvo will pay the full amount to you.

I can see a whole host of issues surrounding this process with the transfer of what should be client funds going through other hands, what happens when the representation gets more complicated than what Avvo provides and you need to do other services for this client – can you leave Avvo’s website and their control over your client representation, the fact that you are representing someone through a website and the website is controlling how you’re paid, when you’re paid, and determining itself when the scope of your representation is over, among other issues!

… Avvo itself does the cancelling of your legal representation for you. 

Additionally, Avvo itself does the cancelling of your legal representation for you.  In North Carolina, as part of the scope of your representation, you may run into issues with this.  When you initially contact the prospective client, an attorney-client relationship has been created.  It is your duty as the attorney to determine whether this client is a good fit for you, and if you decide it is not a good fit, you have an obligation to contact the client yourself and let them know that you will not be representing the client with their matter.

What is required with Avvo is that you simply tell Avvo that you aren’t representing the client because they are not a good fit, and then Avvo contacts the prospective client and they “cancel the service and take care of the rest.”  They do not go into detail about what “take care of the rest” means, and it seems dangerous for an attorney to rely on this promise, because it is the attorney’s duty to create and cancel representation of a client.

It will be interesting to see how and if the litigation between LegalZoom and the North Carolina Bar Association will affect the State Bar’s opinion and dealings with Avvo in the near future.

Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor
About Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor (42 Articles)
Regan Gatlin is a 2016 graduate and served as the Ethics Editor for the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. Regan graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Sociology. Regan has previously clerked for the Insurance Section of the North Carolina Department of Justice, The General Counsel of The Select Group, and Safran Law Offices. During her experiences clerking, she gained civil litigation and research experience in the areas of insurance, construction law, labor and employment, and compliance. She also competed on a Campbell Law Trial Team in the Buffalo-Niagara Mock Trial Competition and the American Association for Justice (AAJ) Mock Trial Competition. Regan is from Smithfield, North Carolina.
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