By Kevin O'Keefe

NY State Bar Association sides against consumers on access to legal services

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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.

Kevin O'Keefe
About the Author

Trial lawyer turned legal tech entrepreneur, I am the founder and CEO of LexBlog, a legal blog community of over 30,000 blog publishers, worldwide. LexBlog’s publishing platform is used on a subscription basis by over 18,000 legal professionals, including the largest law firm in each India, China and the United States.

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