Any hope that the economy will recover soon appears to be waning. From the debt ceiling clusterfuck to the Dow Jones dive, many of us are once again dealing with financial uncertainty. These financial woes create a precarious position for attorneys who are contending with whopper student loans, less than consistent legal work, malpractice insurance costs, health insurance costs, contingency cases, etc. … while trying to create a steady income, or at least pay rent or a mortgage.
A dismal economy also means that potential clients lack money to pay for legal services. Not surprisingly, non-traditional legal models have emerged, namely unbundling of legal services and “ask an attorney” question and answer sites. Unbundling of legal services has been discussed ad nauseum, so I direct your attention to the burgeoning field of lawyer Q&A sites.
Avvo has been around a few years, offering a lawyer rating and directory service. Little did you know that you are already listed on Avvo, which adds lawyer profiles from publicly available information. As part of its service, Avvo encourages lawyers to answer legal questions and provide legal resources to the public. Avvo does not charge people for participating, and plenty of lawyers are providing answers to legal questions, for free. Avvo now has its own section called “Free Legal Advice,” complete with legal guides and lists of answers to legal questions. One self-proclaimed law practice guru claims lawyers can “attract clients with a crappier Avvo rating,” in part by being stupid and answering questions with nonsense (e.g., “It really depends on your horoscope and whether you own an heirloom collection of Smurfs. Please fax me a copy of your Netflix queue and I’ll look into it.”). But attorneys who participate on Avvo are serious. And, from the looks of it, are seriously trying to attract business, with some listed attorneys having answered more than 5,800 questions and written nearly 750 legal “guides.”
JustAnswer.com, boasts a plethora of questions and answers on topic areas ranging from car problems to legal issues. I tested out the site by asking a question about bankruptcy. I received a response within 24 hours by a bankruptcy attorney. The caveat: to retrieve the answer I had to pay $53.00. A portion of the money goes to the attorney answering the question and a percentage goes to JustAnswer.com as a fee (though it’s unclear how the “fee” is characterized). This model could support a symbiotic relationship between underemployed/unemployed attorneys and the public. The attorneys “moonlighting” to make extra money while serving people who cannot ordinarily afford to pay for high-priced legal services. But, at what price to the attorney?
Ethics and Liability
Participating in lawyer Q &A sites raises ethical and professional liability issues, namely:
- Whether you establish an attorney-client relationship through the exchange of money for legal advice;
- Answering questions from users in other states, otherwise known as potential multi-jurisdictional unauthorized practice of law;
- Whether malpractice insurance plans cover this type of “practice;” and
- Whether the Q&A site’s disclaimer and terms of service provide protection to an attorney or make any difference at all.
What are your thoughts? Are you moonlighting and dishing out legal advice on lawyer Q&A sites? Do you really make any money? Let us know.