Written by Bethany Hou
Responsive Law recently submitted comments to the North Carolina Bar regarding the Bar's recent proposed opinion on legal participation in an online platform for finding and employing a lawyer. The proposed opinion states that lawyers should be allowed to participate in these online platforms, subject to certain conditions. Online platforms have the potential to become the most easily accessible source of information for consumers, combatting the access to justice crisis in America.
The proposed opinion centers around the online platform, Avvo Legal Services, which operates using a directory of U.S. lawyers to connect consumers with lawyers. Avvo Legal Services offers "fixed-fee," or unbundled services, that charge a separate price for each legal service used. Current restrictions on such online platforms have prevented consumers from seeking out appropriately priced legal services, as well as seeking out lawyers to individual consumer specifications. These restrictions not only reduce consumers' access to legal services, but also reduce consumers' likeliness of finding affordable legal representation. With average legal prices in the range of 200-300 dollars per hour, fixed fee and unbundled services solve this issue and further promote the accessibility of legal services.
The NC Bar's proposed opinion supports opening up access to online platforms such as Avvo Legal Services, noting that these online platforms are subject to certain conditions that support the best interests of the consumer while wisely leaving the practice of law to lawyers' professional judgment. These conditions include separating the practice of law from the matching of lawyers with consumers on online platforms, prohibiting lawyer referral services for profit, leaving independent judgment to lawyers separate of the matching platform, determination of legal fees, and prohibiting misleading communications.
Responsive Law supports the proposed opinion (our full comments can be found here.) We support the committee's prioritization of consumer rights, as well as the proposal of reasonable guidelines and conditions. We noted in our testimony to the committee that online platforms have been used to great success for other fields such as the medical field. In addition, the committee's condition of leaving professional judgment to lawyers will ensure authorized practices of law, and its condition of leaving fee setting to lawyers will allow lawyers to exercise their own judgment. We sought greater clarification from the committee's stance on lawyer referral, noting the need to search and filter through the lists of lawyer as a useful feature for consumers that should be allowable.
Overall, the North Carolina Bar's proposed opinion is a move in the right direction—by interpreting ethics rules to allow these online platforms to best serve consumers, the NC Bar has shown to be forward-thinking and innovative in preserving consumer rights and promoting innovation in the legal industry.
You can find Responsive Law's comments here.
Bethany Hou is a Responsive Law Intern.