April 09, 2018 Articles

Online Legal Referral Services: What’s Allowed and What’s Not

Ethics opinions have clarified best practices for OLRSs.

By Ronald C. Minkoff

About 20 years ago, online dating was invented as a way of harnessing modern technology to enable people to meet prospective mates. The same thing is happening with lawyers and clients: for-profit online legal referral services (OLRSs) provide a means to help clients find lawyers they need and vice versa. At least theoretically, this is good for everyone: clients find affordable legal help, and lawyers find paying clients.

Still, ethical questions linger. While Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 7.2(b)(2) and its state equivalents permit lawyers to participate in “a legal services plan or a not-for-profit or qualified legal referral service”—generally speaking, legal referral services operated on a not-for-profit basis by local bar associations or labor unions—the rules are less clear about for-profit legal referral services. Indeed, for-profit legal referrals are generally prohibited by Rule 7.2(b), which states that “[a] lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services.”

As OLRSs proliferate, featuring a variety of business models, the problem has only heightened. Practitioners looking to participate in an OLRS need to ask themselves these questions: Is this service ethically appropriate? Can I get in trouble by signing up?

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