To my knowledge, the ethics opinion is the first from a state bar that is specifically related to this topic. The question posed in the opinion is:
Does a lawyer violate the Rules of Professional Conduct by contracting with a website to offer vouchers that can be purchased from the website and then subsequently redeemed for discounted legal services such as the preparation of wills?
The opinion says a lawyer does not violate the Rules as long as the method used complies with attorney ethics rules for advertising (7.1 – 7.2) and the rule on sharing of legal fees (Rule 5.4(a)). There are other potential risks to avoid that include clearly defining the scope of representation that is covered in the “deal”, making sure payments are routed to the trust account if required, and the duty to prospective clients. The opinion concludes that whether this online client development strategy violates the Rules or not depends on the way that the attorney has set up the procedure within the online service and manages it in accordance with the other Rules.
The question posed the SC Ethics Committee specifically mentions using the service for estate planning. In fact, it’s difficult to think of what other practice areas it might be possible to do this in. It would work best with an unbundled or limited scope representation service. More often when people are seeking legal services online it’s because there is a pressing legal need. The motivating factor to retain an attorney is not the discount on services. But you never know these days. I’ve heard tales from family law attorneys claiming that the recession has prospective clients delaying major legal needs, including divorce, until they can afford it. So maybe if your firm was the one offering a “daily deal” on that service, you might be selected above another firm.
A virtual lawyer providing unbundled services online could connect the daily deal service to their virtual law office to potentially send prospective online clients straight from the deal into the registration process to purchase the requested unbundled legal service online.
Are any other state bars addressing the use this service in online client development by lawyers? Anyone know of a law firm using Groupon or another service for this purpose?