Maybe I’m naive, but I’ve always thought the legal profession as a whole, some lawyers more than others, stood up for the little guy, the consumers if you will.

In that bar associatons are run by lawyers and talk about pro bono work and access to legal services, it would seem to be a natural that they would champion consumer causes — such as access to legal services.

But amongst the good work of bar associations stands the effort of many bar associations to snuff out the use of technology and innovation to bring consumers access to legal services.

The latest comes from the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) in their advisory opinion of a couple weeks ago finding that Avvo’s Legal Services program violates ethics rules.

As reported by the ABA Journal, consumers using Avvo’s Legal Services purchase specific services, such as an uncontested divorce, for a flat fee. For example, when a client receives services from a lawyer through Avvo for $149, Avvo collets a $40 marketing fee.

All of this done on a website, and most probably on Avvo’s mobile site. Makes sense in that consumers purchasing legal services on Avvo would want to do so just the way they purchase everything today. A whopping 70% of Amazon consumers purchase on mobile.

What does the NYSBA offer for access to legal services?

A dated website with limited legal information, much taking consumers to pdf’s on government sites, resulting in a disjointed and confusing experience.

The bar association does have an 800 number call-in lawyer referral service and $35 service for talking to a lawyer. I question how the NYSBA numbers compare to New York consumer traffic on Avvo.

Avvo is a technology company with financial partners whom backed the likes of Zillow, a household name. With a fleet of developers, Avvo brings regular upgrades and feature enhancements. A non-profit voluntary bar association, understandably, could never bring the consumer experience and service Avvo does.

What does the NYSBA find so wrong with Avvo’s access to legal services program?

Avvo benefits finacially from the service. Seriously.

From the ABA Journal, quoting the NYSBA opinion:

Because Avvo lawyers are assigned a rating on a scale of 1 to 10, and “the Avvo website also extols the benefits of being able to work with highly rated lawyers,” While this opinion doesn’t forbid lawyers from using ratings generated by third parties in its advertising, “Avvo Legal Services is different. It is not a third party, but rather the very party that will benefit financially if potential clients hire the lawyers rated by Avvo.”

Rather than looking to leverage technology to improve service, like every other industry, the NYSBA heads in the opposite direction.

I agree with Avvo’s Chief Legal Officer, Josh King in his response to the opinion.

[The NYSBA Opinion] …actively discourages lawyers from using technology to reach out to clients who see an increasing gap between them and meaningful access to the legal system. And if there is one opinion, one voice, in this discussion that should be amplified, it is not that of the New York State Bar Association or of Avvo, but that of the consumer.

Rather than jumping on the NYSBA for limiting access to legal services, all I saw from lawyers and law firms was joy that Avvo took in it the shorts.

There’s plenty I don’t agree with about Avvo, but I’m not going to say good for limiting consumers access to legal services because I don’t like that Avvo salespeople called the lawyers in my firm or that Avvo rates lawyers, the same as Martindale-Hubbell did for 100 years.

I also wouldn’t cheerlead the prevention of lawyers willing to do so from offering fast, simple and cost effective flat fee legal services. It didn’t work for cities looking to prevent drivers from Uber lifts and it shouldn’t work for a trade association looking to prevent lawyers from helping consumers.

Of course we can split hairs as to “If only Avvo just did this or that, the NYSBA would have said all’s good.” I don’t buy it. I see bars, with some exceptions, jumping on Avvo, LegalZoom and RocketLawyer as if it were sport.

Lawyers, if they truly care about access to legal services, are going to need to come to grips that the solutions to do so are likely to come through the private sector. It’s the private sector which has driven change and consumer services across the Internet.

The delivery of legal services will look different than in the past. Companies, and their investors, will make money in the process.

But that’ll be okay for those of us standing up for the little guy — consumers.

  • shg

    If Avvo didn’t take a cut of the legal fee (no matter how hard Josh tries to spin it) and didn’t falsely promote lawyers are being “superb” when they have no clue if they are or are complete scum, it would all be good. But then, Avvo wouldn’t be able to make money from its cut or from scummy lawyers who want to scam the public into believing their superb.

    If you want to reduce this to “tech is good for consumers,” then you gloss over the whole fee-splitting and scamming consumer with lies to get their money part. Is that good for consumer? Not really.

    I like Josh and Mark too, Great guys. And I appreciate that Avvo is a business and needs to make money. The devil is in the details. Scams may work, but they’re still scams, and scams really aren’t any more pro-consumer if they’re on the internet than anywhere else.

    • Taking a cut of the fee I get as fee splitting, but I remember bars discussing lawyer’s buying adwords as raising the same problem because lawyers only paid when someone clicked on the ad versus a yellow page where the lawyers paid no matter what.

      I am not saying tech is good for consumers and the hell with the rest. But this access to legal services issue for consumers and lawyers is not going to be solved without technology. Technology developed by organizations far more advanced that lawyers and bar associations.

      Most people don’t think of using a lawyer when they have a legal need – they are as apt to go to their uncle, even when they have the money and there are lawyers willing to help at a pretty low price. Lawyers need to get used to using the net in ways they have not before and lawyers (bar associations too) are going to have to get used to delivering legal services in new ways. Such as a small business person pushing a button on their iPhone on a Friday night to have a business lease reviewed by a lawyer that night or by Saturday AM for $250. Not what you or I may do, but a good solution for many.

      I am no fan of the ratings game and adds of other lawyers on a lawyer’s Avvo bio and ratings page. They are issues – so was Martindale’s rating system. I am sure there were lawyers and law firms you wouldn’t send your dog to that had an AV rating — and that promoted that AV rating. When and came along, links lawyers paid MH for took lawyers took you to those ratings.

      • shg

        The internet remains a fiasco as a “delivery system” of lawyers to legal consumers. It’s just a different way of confusing, scamming and misleading people. One lawyer I wrote about years ago claimed he was the “#1 rated” criminal defense lawyer in NYC according to Avvo.

        I emailed Josh about it, thinking he might be pissed to see Avvo’s name used so falsely to perpetuate a scam. He didn’t blink. He made excuses. He did nothing. here was the evidence:

        So how’s tech doing? And notice how many legal tech and legal ed conference they invite me to speak at? I won’t rub their tummy and tell them they’ve gonna be RICH!!! Tech will matter, but it will never work until it can withstand scrutiny by real lawyers and not be immediately reduced to yet another way to scam people out of money.

        • Thanks for the discussion.

          Not buying fiasco. I answered a ton of legal of questions on AOL message boards years ago. Many lawyers since have done a lot to help folks by engaging them and other lawyers. As a jury can usually see BS from non BS, I saw it as an opportunity to for folks to see who had the experience, passion and skill. After all, I shared info on how I would select a good trial lawyer – it certainly would not be looking at who’s ranked #1 or some referral or matching service, I’d tell them to stay away from that stuff.

          No one’s looking for their tummy to be rubbed, but in ’03 while out of a job on a non-compete I found a lot of good stuff being done with tech by those in legal services. Heck they were more innovative than LexIsNexis who had way more money and manpower. Tech was helping them deliver more to more people who qualified for legal services.

          It does trouble me that some people will get sucked in by the claims of number one “earned” by a lot of things other than being a good lawyer. I remember lawyers playing the Avvo rating scheme by “endorsing” each when they had no first hand knowledge of the lawyer’s skill.

          I’d hope most consumers are smart enough to queston ratings like they would super lawyer or best doctor. But knowing some will not, what’s the answer? No tech and innovation in connecting the 85% of people who don’t use a lawyer or think of doing so when they have a need. No ratings? No payment of marketing fees based on what you get paid?

          • shg

            I don’t know the answer, but I know it won’t be found by ignoring ethics, scams, meaningless information (and misinformation) and tech gurus who are full of shit and will do anything to avoid scrutiny by practicing lawyers.

            This may be bad now, but they can always get worse.