Coupons for Lawyers

Gianna Scatchell Columns, Lawyer

Practicing law does not guarantee a stable career with plenty of income. Lack of capital, soaring unemployment statistics, and the reckless number of law students being enrolled in law school creates a perfect storm for lots of unemployed attorneys. Never mind the student loans, miscellaneous bar membership dues, liability insurance, etc. Say your oath and then, congrats, you are on the paycheck-to-paycheck revolving door.

I’m sure you’ve heard horror stories of licensed attorneys working as strippers and in the service industry. Allegedly, those are the lucky ones! The majority of the people I graduated with have recently started seeing positive cash flow.

My diatribe/rant leads me into contemplating alternative advertising for attorneys—namely, daily deal sites that offer legal services. Would you ever consider offering steeply discounted legal services on a deal site geared toward saving lawyers money while generating local business?

Daily deal sites work by offering one deal a day for its users. These deals offer steep discounts on a variety of goods and services. The users then purchase and print the deal vouchers and redeem them before the expiration date. Here, transactional work would be the most logical.

While several have flirted with the idea, one St. Louis attorney actually ran a Groupon for powers of attorney and simple wills. He sold about 50 deals—a good portion of the clientele even upgraded from their initial Groupon.

South Carolina issued a formal ethics opinion allowing for lawyers to take advantage of this marketing campaign. Likewise, North Carolina issued a draft opinion addressing the same issue but found that a lawyer’s “fee-sharing” arrangement with Groupon, the most popular daily deal website in the country, is unethical.

With more lawyers willing to give daily legal deals a go, I expect a good chunk of other jurisdictions may not be far away in addressing the issue, which generally involves questions over permissible or impermissible fee-sharing. The basic consensus of both the North Carolina and South Carolina opinions is that, if a transaction fee is charged up front, it should be treated as an ordinary advertising charge. The South Carolina opinion noted that, just because the fee was not paid out of the lawyer’s operating account, the transaction was not unethical.

The opinion also laid out some legal land mines to look out for. Specifically, lawyers must take care in their communications with the prospective clients. The same advertising rules for clients must be followed: no false or misleading communications, etc. Moreover, the attorney must be aware of how to handle the issue of “unused vouchers.” These vouchers will be placed in the client trust account as unearned fees, but what if they are never redeemed? Another trap for the unwary is to make sure the attorney clearly sets the client’s expectation and scope of representation.

Daily deal sites for legal services are likely to sprout up as clients demand cheaper legal services and jurisdictions are beginning to accept or allow daily deal sites within specific ethical parameters. What are your thoughts?


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