1. LegalMatch.com is a legitimate, constructive solution to a legal need faced by the public that the legal profession seeks to shut down on “ethical” grounds”.
2. Legal “ethics” should be a shield to protect clients from fraud or abuse, not a sword for the legal profession to attack unwanted competitors.
Let’s say that you find yourself in need of a lawyer. And that you don’t know of any attorneys in your geographic area who are experts in the field you’re concerned with.
According to the California appellate court, whose ruling against LegalMatch.com the California Supreme Court summarily upheld (i.e., without an opinion) on March 11, 2020, this was how LegalMatch.com worked:
- “LegalMatch sends information to lawyers based solely on the client’s selection of geographic location and area of expertise.”
- “After the lawyers receive this information, each lawyer has the opportunity to affirmatively reach out to the individual [would-be client].
- “Depending on the client’s preferences, the potential client may choose to send contact information to the lawyers so that they may continue their discussion outside of the platform.”
- “Lawyers and clients negotiate between themselves to determine the parameters of their attorney-client relationship.”
- “Each lawyer who purchases a subscription is slotted into a geographical location and category of legal expertise.”
- “The number of lawyers in a geographic location and category of legal expertise is limited by an algorithm (allocation system) that maintains LegalMatch’s profitability by balancing the number of clients and lawyers available.”
- “Potential clients may use the site for free.”
- “LegalMatch receives no fee for the successful formation of an attorney-client relationship.”
This, in other words, was nothing more than a lawyer-client matching service. Nevertheless, this court held that LegalMatch.com amounted to an illegal lawyer “referral” service.
LegalMatch.com had been in business for 20 years, and its online matching method had been the subject of favorable, formal legal ethics opinions from the state bar authorities of North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Rhode Island, and Ohio, and public, positive written comments by the staffs of the Federal Trade Commission Office of Policy Planning, Bureau of Economics, and Bureau of Competition.
The Rhode Island Supreme Court Ethics Advisory Panel put it this way:
“The Panel concludes that … the arrangement is not a referral service … The Panel concludes that the proposed arrangement with LegalMatch.com is permissible under the Rules of Professional Conduct.”
The California appellate court reasoned that LegalMatch engages in lawyer “referral” even though LegalMatch offers no judgment about or evaluation of the lawyers on its matching site:
” … A referral occurs when an entity engages in the act of directing or sending a potential client to an attorney. The act of referring is complete when LegalMatch routes a potential client to attorneys who match the geographic location and area of practice — regardless of whether LegalMatch exercises legal judgment on an individual’s issue before communicating that information to lawyers on its panel.”
1. Here the judge expressly admits that LegalMatch.com did not “exercise[s] legal judgment on an individual’s issue before communicating”, the would-be client’s contact information and self-described legal need.
2. By the court’s own acknowledgement, LegalMatch.com makes no recommendation as to which lawyer is good for the would-be client. LegalMatch.com’s “referral” consists in nothing more than (1) making this online meeting place available to would-be client and lawyer, and then (2) notifying attorneys of information that the would-be client has posted at the site.
3. The would-be client pays zero to LegalMatch.com.
4. It’s the would-be client who chooses the lawyer.
5. LegalMatch receives no fee for the successful formation of an attorney-client relationship.
Like the entrepreneur behind TIKD, LegalMatch.com created a web platform that made the traditional legal profession process cheaper and faster for those who needed legal help — and who otherwise might not know where to start.
This matching site was no more in the business of “referring” lawyers to would-be clients than my local grocery store — with its bulletin board postings by people offering lawn care, tutoring, or house-sitting — is in the business of “referring” the providers who post those offerings on that bulletin board.
So, I keep on asking:
“Might some of these ‘ethics’ rules that regulate the market for legal services actually have more to do with protecting lawyers from unwanted competition than they do with protecting clients?”