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

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.