Sponsorship of Legal Information
Opinion rules that a lawyer may sponsor truthful legal information which is provided by telephone to members of the public.
Audio Services, Inc. ("Audio Services") provides by telephone free information ranging from health to news and weather to the general public. It is a for-profit organization which does business in fifteen states and in Canada. The service includes certain free legal information, the content of which has been written and/or approved by attorneys in the state in which the information is made available. The legal information is provided through a recorded message which can be heard by dialing a free local number. Attorneys who want to participate in the Audio Services program pay a fee in exchange for recorded advertising announcements in the telephone portion of the service. These advertisements consist of a 10-second announcement prior to the recorded legal information and a 15-second announcement following the information. After the last recorded announcement, the caller has the option to dial a single number on the telephone in order to be directly connected with the law firm making the advertisement or to dial a different number to receive a free pamphlet on the subject of his inquiry. The printed portion of the service in the telephone directory does not include any advertisement by the participating attorneys.
Does participation by a North Carolina attorney in the Audio Services program violate the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct?
No, assuming that the advertising material in question is not false or misleading as defined in Rule 2.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Rule 2.2(a) allows a lawyer to advertise through public media. Public media includes media such as "telephone directories, legal directories, newspapers or other periodicals, outdoor advertising, radio or television or written communications not involving solicitation" as defined in Rule 2.4. Although recorded telephone announcements are not included in the listing of accepted advertising media, the use of the words "such as" indicates that other types of media not listed within the rule are acceptable. Since the listing of acceptable advertising media includes printed, audio and audio/visual forms, recorded telephone announcements should also be acceptable. The recorded announcements are subject to Rule 2.2(b) which requires that a recording of the advertisements must be kept for two years after their last dissemination along with a record of when and where they were used, and to Rule 2.2(e) which requires that the recorded announcements must include the name of at least one lawyer or law firm responsible for their content.
Rule 2.4(a) states that, "[a] lawyer shall not by in-person or live telephone contact solicit professional employment from a prospective client with whom the lawyer has no family or prior professional relationship when a significant motive for the lawyer's doing so is the lawyer's pecuniary gain." Since there is not in-person or live telephone contact between the person in need of legal services and the lawyer until such person elects to dial another number after the recorded messages, the recorded advertisements do not violate Rule 2.4(a).
Rule 2.4(c) requires that the words, "This is an advertisement for legal services" be included at the beginning and ending of any "recorded communication from a lawyer soliciting professional employment from a prospective client known to be in need of legal services in a particular matter and with whom the lawyer has no family or prior professional relationship." Since a caller must be presumed to be in need of legal services, the recorded messages must include the statement described in Rule 2.4(c).
Rule 3.1 prohibits an attorney from aiding "a person not licensed to practice law in North Carolina in the unauthorized practice of law." GS. §84-2.1 defines, in relevant part, the practice of law as: "performing any legal service for any other person, firm or corporation, with or without compensation." In addition, it is necessary that the person charged shall have customarily or habitually held himself out to the public as a lawyer, or that he has demanded compensation for his services as such. State v. Bryan, 98 N.C. 644, 4 S.E. 522 (1887). Since the recorded legal information contains legal information describing the law in general, it is not "a legal service for any person, firm or corporation." Neither does Audio Services hold itself out as an attorney or law firm. Therefore, the attorneys who participate in the Audio Services program would not be aiding the unauthorized practice of law.