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An Attorney Listing Site to Avoid If You Want To Avoid Ethics Problems

by Carolyn Elefant on September 22, 2011 · 14 comments

in Mistakes/What NOT To Do, Setting and Collecting Fees, Solo Practice Trends

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Sometimes, a new concept emerges that’s never been done before because no one ever thought of it. That’s called innovation. But other times, there’s reason that the new concept hasn’t been done before: because it’s a downright stupid idea. Unfortunately, many lawyers can’t tell the difference between innovation and idiocy, which is the only explanation for this week’s launch of the ill-conceived and misguided site, AttorneyFee.com.  Modeled after travel sites like Kayak, AttorneyFee.com allows consumers to comparison shop for lawyers based on price in the same way that they would for hotel rooms or airfare.  But prices for legal services don’t break down as neatly as airline tickets or hotel rates and consequently, AttorneyFee.com confuses consumers even more by failing to give them what they need to make an apples-to-apples cost comparison.   Worse, AttorneyFee.com creates traps for unwary lawyers (like offering prospective clients that opportunity for a free consult for their services without telling lawyers that they’ll be committing to give a free consult when they sign up) and opens up a Pandora’s box of ethics issues.

 

The premise behind AttorneyFee.com is simple: to provide pricing information on lawyers’ fees. According to this press release trumpeting AttorneyFee.com’s launch, founder BeiBei Que, a 2007 law school grad stumbled upon the idea for the site as an associate a small law firm, where she noticed that every client’s first question was about how much her firm charged. BeiBei Que then conducted additional due diligence consisting of a Google search showing that 300,000 Americans search the term “attorneys fees” on Google monthly (I came up with 74,000 using Google Keyword Search , but who’s counting?). From there, it was a simple leap of logic to buy up the URL, attorneyfee.com and lure SEO-seeking lawyers to register with the promise of increased site traffic by prospective clients. AttorneyFee.com’s sales pitch must have made inroads because the press release reports that 20,000 lawyers had signed up for the site as of the date of the launch.

Once at the AttorneyFee.com website, a consumer can request price information on a lawyer based on practice area and location. So for example, a search for criminal attorneys in New York yields the following:
And that’s where the trouble begins.

First, it’s not entirely clear how AttorneyFee.com harvests this information (which is one reason that I signed up to give the site a test run, but more on that later).  After searching for lawyers by practice area on AttorneyFee.com, I googled the lawyers that my search generated (AttorneyFee.com doesn’t offer a direct link) to see what their websites said about their rates.  Of the ten or so lawyers I selected (admittedly not a scientific sampling), two didn’t have websites at all (thereby undercutting AttorneyFee.com’s claim that it gets its information from lawyer sites), while none of those who had websites listed prices at all. So apparently, AttorneyFee.com’s proprietary search engine (described here) for gathering pricing information doesn’t work very well.  AttorneyFee.com itself hints that the site may suffer from accuracy problems because it includes an odd disclaimer saying that the prices listed should not be construed as an offer to provide service at the posted rates and are not necessarily endorsed by the attorney with whom they are associated.  Of course, the disclaimer swallows up the entire point of the site – because why would consumers want to get price information if they can’t obtain service at the listed prices?

Of course, it’s also possible that some of the information on fees is user-generated.  I registered for the site and submitted my fees.  But as you can see from my profile, AttorneyFee.com says that my fees are based on information available at attorney websites – and my site, Carolyn Elefant doesn’t list fees.

As a result, AttorneyFee.com causes unnecessary confusion for consumers.  Let’s say that a consumer found my profile at AttorneyFee.com and visited my site to confirm the fees listed at AttorneyFee.com.  The consumer is going to feel frustrated, because my site doesn’t list prices – and I’m going to look like a fool for not having the rates available at my site when AttorneyFee.com says that’s where they came from.

For a site that purports to promote transparency on lawyer fees, AttorneyFee.com doesn’t just muddy the water for consumers; it converts them into a veritable toxic waste site. That’s because listing hourly rates or flat fees for a transaction, in and of themselves, doesn’t tell a consumer anything about how much they’re going to pay for the services that they need. A consumer will pay more for a lawyer who charges $150 an hour but requires 40 hours to draft a motion to dismiss ($6000 total) than a lawyer, presumably more experienced, who bills at $400 an hour but can dispatch a motion in 10 hours ($4000 total). Likewise, knowing that a lawyer charges $500 to prepare an LLC isn’t of much use to a consumer who requires an incorporation. Because AttorneyFee.com does not explain the factors that account for different prices (a factor that Richard Granat suggests causes consumer distrust) or list any other information about listed lawyers, AttorneyFee.com drives consumers to make a decision based on price.

Not that there’s anything wrong with consumers choosing a lawyer based on price, either – which is the one point on which I part ways with Scott Greenfield about AttorneyFee.com. Personally, I take price into account when selecting vendors depending upon how much a particular service matters to me so I don’t begrudge consumers when they do the same when hiring a lawyer. But if consumers are going to rely on price to choose a lawyer, then at the very least, they need to understand all of factors that inform the total cost of the case. Without this context, consumers are lulled into believing that simply by choosing the lawyer with the lowest hourly rate or the lowest flat fee, they’re receiving the lowest cost legal service — when that may not be true at all.

AttorneyFee.com causes even more confusion for consumers with practice area descriptions that are, in some instances, egregiously inaccurate. For example, as Scott Greenfield points out, most criminal defense attorneys charge flat fees, contrary to the site’s claim that they bill by the hour. The Bankruptcy description are just plain laughable :

In terms of attorney fees, Chapter 7 is much more affordable than Chapter 13. For example, attorney fees for Chapter 7 bankruptcy are typically around $1,000, while attorney fees for Chapter 13 will run around $3,000. Why is there a two thousand dollar difference? The answer is simple: Chapter 13 involves a lot more work for the attorney. With Chapter 7, the attorney basically fills out one form, slaps a postage stamp on it, and sends it off to Uncle Sam.

Postage stamp? Bankruptcy courts have been mandating electronic filing for at least five years now. As for the $1000 price tag, not sure where those lawyers can be found. Even on Legal Zoom, starting price for a lawyer-assisted Chapter 7 filing is around $1299 and that doesn’t include the $299 filing fee.

Not only does AttorneyFee.com cause confusion for consumers, but it also limits their ability to learn about innovative billing practices that many lawyers are now offering. AttorneyFee.com gives lawyers two options – the ability to post hourly rates or flat fees for transactions. The site does not accommodate models like Minnesota lawyer Sam Glover’s service plans or Massachusetts lawyer Gabriel Cheong’s flat fee calculator or Valorem’s value adjustment or any of the other new approaches to billing. For a site that claims to be innovative, AttorneyFee.com is surprisingly behind the times on 21st century lawyer pricing trends.

As harmful as AttorneyFee.com is to consumers, it’s just as harmful for lawyers as well. AttorneyFee.com assures lawyers that the site is ethical, but the reasons provided make utterly no sense: AttorneyFee.com says that because the site is free, the Model Code’s advertising rules which govern only paid ads don’t apply. (Hopefully, there aren’t any lawyers stupid enough to fall for that explanation). In the meantime, AttorneyFee.com fails to mention the more significant ethics issue for lawyers – the requirement that some jurisdictions impose on lawyers to honor listed prices. New York Ethics Rule 7.1(d) is particularly stringent in this regard:

If a lawyer or law firm advertises a range of fees or an hourly rate for services, the lawyer or law firm shall not charge more than the fee advertised for such services. If a lawyer or law firm advertises a fixed fee for specified legal services, or performs services described in a fee schedule, the lawyer or law firm shall not charge more than the fixed fee for such stated legal service as set forth in the advertisement or fee schedule, unless the client agrees in writing that the services performed or to be performed were not legal services referred to or implied in the advertisement or in the fee schedule and, further, that a different fee arrangement shall apply to the transaction.

Unless otherwise specified in the advertisement, if a lawyer publishes any fee information authorized under this Rule in a publication that is published more frequently than once per month, the lawyer shall be bound by any representation made therein for a period of not less than 30 days after such publication.

Thus, an attorney might post lower rates on AttorneyFee.com to draw clients through the door – and then raise the price after signing up the client.  AttorneyFee.com’s disclaimer suggests that this practice is OK because the prices listed on the site aren’t necessarily binding.  But lawyers need to understand that while AttorneyFee.com’s disclaimer might help it avoid a bait-and-switch complaint at the FTC (maybe), it won’t protect them against  ethics charges arising out of deceptive pricing practices. As I posted with respect to the TotalAttorneys’ matter, a lawyer’s reliance on a vendor’s certification of ethics isn’t a defense to a grievance proceeding.

Also as a result of ethics rules, AttorneyFee.com effectively traps attorneys into providing a free consult without their knowledge. When I registered for the site, I didn’t see anything that committed me to offer a free consult, yet as the above screenshot shows, a green Free Consult button is prominently displayed on my profile. As with listed prices, many jurisdictions don’t allow lawyers to offer free consults without any intention of honoring them. Sure, lawyers can pre-screen prospects to determine which potential clients are best suited for a free consult.   But once a client has an appointment for a free consult, lawyers can’t  keep changing the appointment date or canceling.

On  AttorneyFee.com, a client who clicks on the Free Consult button believes he or she is making an appointment for a free consult. After the transaction is complete, another box pops up telling the client that he’ll receive confirmation of the free consult. From the client’s perspective, he has just been offered and accepted a free consult – and the lawyer must honor the request (subject to availability, etc…) Of course, some lawyers may not mind offering free consults – but at a minimum, they should be warned by that registering for the site, a Free Consult button will appear on their profile and potentially commit them to following through.

Richard Granat applauds AttorneyFee.com and predicts that opposition will come from those who view the site as commoditizing legal services. Broadly summarized, that’s Scott Greenfield’s point. But I see it a little differently.  As I said, I don’t begrudge consumers who shop for lawyers based on price because for some (but not all) services, I do the same thing.  But if a company is going to take up the gauntlet of empowering consumers to shop for lawyers based on price, it owes them far more than a hastily thrown together site long on inaccuracy and short on substance. Meanwhile, if you’re a lawyer, you may want to think twice (or at least consult with your jurisdiction’s ethics counsel) before signing up for AttorneyFee.com and risking your bar license  for a site where the founders themselves weren’t willing to risk the time or the resources to get it right.

  • http://www.consumerhelpcentral.com Jay S. Fleischman

    If all I did in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case was to “basically fills (sic) out one form, slaps (sic) a postage stamp on it, and sends (sic) it off to Uncle Sam” then I’d be sanctioned.  Just before losing my right to practice law.

  • Richard

    Hi Carolyn, thank you for giving such an even handed review.  You raise many excellent points and highlight serious shortcomings with the site.  We will make it our priority over the next several days to address these shortcomings, and hopefully, earn your approval.

  • http://twitter.com/bradleybclark bradleybclark

    Carolyn, 

    I also registered for the site to see what it was about and when I went to delete my profile I could not find a way to do it. Were you able to delete yours? If so, how? 

    Bradley

  • Anonymous

    No I wasn’t. Help! Are we stuck in Hotel California?

    Carolyn

  • http://twitter.com/bradleybclark bradleybclark

    I think we are! I emailed them through the contact tab and requested that they delete my profile (I included a link to the profile as well). 

  • Richard

    Hi Brad, your profile has already been deleted.   According to our records, you were sent an email notification at the address you provided when registering for the site.  If you try viewing your profile, you will notice it no longer works.

    If you have any further questions or complaints, please feel free to email us at info@attorneyfee.com.  We wouldn’t want to turn Ms. Elefant’s blog into an AttorneyFee support forum :)

  • Thomas Valkenet

    Well done, Carolyn!

  • Gerry Oginski

    Carolyn,
    A very nice analysis of this site. What makes this so ridiculous, as you point out, is that a consumer assumes that all lawyers do the same work and get the same results.  It does not take into account an attorneys experience in handling a specific legal matter.

    The most obvious shortcoming I see with  this type of website is that it assumes that all lawyers are the same. It turns each of us into a basic commodity. The goal when trying to market yourself online and off-line is to show how you are different from all the other attorneys who do the same type of work that you do.  Consumers who focus only on the lowest price, just as in bargain shopping, will either get lower quality legal work or more likely, tend to be put into a legal factory where most of the paperwork and processing is done by assistants and paralegals.

     Importantly, people who only focus on price fail to recognize value.

    If I were so bold as to sign-up for this website’s service, in spite of reading your thought-provoking article, I would most likely set my fee at $10,000 per hour. Why would I do that? As Dan Kennedy likes to say, you should never set your fees based upon what the rest of the industry does. That is simply the average of what is mediocre.

    Not only would my $10,000 per hour fee get noticed immediately, it might generate inquiries since people may actually believe that my time and experience is worth that amount of money. Heck, I know for a fact that my time is worth at least $10,000 per hour. (That’s coming from an attorney who handles only contingency fee plaintiff’s cases.)

    How many of you lawyers believe your time is worth more than that?
    How many of you would have the guts to quote a fee as outrageous as I have just noted?

    I’d like to hear your thoughts.

    Gerry

  • Guest

    There is no such thing as “a free attorney consultation”; it is just a sales pitch.  The legal advice the client will receive, after basic legal information, is “hire me at price X, or get out of my office”.

    Bait and switch tactics are not only unethical, they don’t work for lawyers.  

    A lawyer who I know used to advertise “starting at price X” teaser prices expecting to get the client in the door and then charge the real price (which is 10 times as much) because the case was “more complicated”.  It didn’t work. His time was wasted talking to cheapskates while real clients who wanted to spend real money for a real lawyer for good results would not even consider this lawyer. The potential clients felt that no real lawyer would be as cheap as that.  It also comes of as sleazy and desperate.

  • Guest

    “opposition will come from those who view the site as commoditizing legal services”

    True legal services can never be commoditized.  If there is a dispute involving X million dollars, each side will want the absolutely best litigators that it can find and will be prepared to pay a significant fraction of the amount of money at risk for legal fees.

    Dropping prices too low is a signal that you are not good and therefore a signal that you may lose the litigation.

    Legalzoom, offshoring, and the like will not affect good lawyers.

  • http://www.legalpracticepro.com Jay S. Fleischman

    No such thing as a free consult?  That’s strange because I’ve done thousands of them.  I listen to the scenario, give my point of view and advice on how to resolve the problem, and let the person make the decision to hire me or not.

    No bait and switch, not for me nor for the other lawyers I know who do this.  We actually give real, solid information.

    Maybe you just know the wrong lawyers …

  • Richard

    @Guest, I agree with the sentiments of your most recent comment, but I think it requires a slight tweak in phrasing.  It’s not that Legalzoom et al will have no effect on “good” lawyers.  Rather, they will have no effect on lawyers who work in certain practice areas.  

    @Guest:disqus
    A s you correctly point out, in a dispute over x million dollars, most rational people would not view price of counsel as a factor in the hiring process.  By contrast, in a smaller and more routine matter, such as incorporation, most people, do view price as an important factor.  But that doesn’t mean that small business lawyers aren’t “good” lawyers.  It just means that the issues they work on are more susceptible to standarization and comparison.

  • Richard

    Agreed, Jay!

  • Mike O’Horo

    It seems that a useful method of offering consumers pricing information for any category of goods or service should be based on the lifecycle “total cost of ownership” principle that you see in the auto industry.  It includes purchase price, normalized maintenance over X years, fuel based on normalized annual miles driven, insurance, resale value recovery, etc.

    Hourly rates are a useless economic metric, as Carolyn points out.  When evaluating the cost component of a quality/performance/cost/impact purchase decision, people want to understand what it will cost to accomplish a useful purpose.  Any measure that fails to communicate that in practical terms is pointless.

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