Opinion rules that a lawyer may advertise on a website that offers daily discounts to consumers where the website company’s compensation is a percentage of the amount paid to the lawyer if certain disclosures are made and certain conditions are satisfied.
Lawyer would like to advertise on a “deal of the day” or “group coupon” website. To utilize such a website, a consumer registers his email address and city of residence on the website. The website company then emails local "daily deals" or coupons for discounts on services to registered consumers. The daily deals are usually for services such as spa treatments, tourist attractions, restaurants, photography, house cleaning, etc. The daily deals can represent a significant reduction off the regular price of the offered service. Consumers who wish to participate in the “deal of the day” purchase the deal online using a credit card that is billed.
The website company negotiates the discounts with businesses on a case-by-case basis; however, the company’s fee is always a percentage of each “daily deal” or coupon sold. Therefore, the revenue received by the business offering the daily deal is reduced by the percentage of the revenue paid to the website company.
May a lawyer advertise on a group coupon website and offer a “daily deal” to users of the website subject to the website company’s fees without violating the Rules of Professional Conduct?
Yes. Although the website company’s fee is deducted from the amount paid by a purchaser for the anticipated legal service, it is paid regardless of whether the purchaser actually claims the discounted service and the lawyer earns the fee by providing the legal services to the purchaser. Therefore, the fee retained by the website company is the cost of advertising on the website and does not violate Rule 5.4(a) which prohibits, with a few exceptions, the sharing of legal fees with nonlawyers. The purpose for the fee-splitting prohibition is not confounded by this arrangement. As noted in Comment  to the rule, the traditional limitations on sharing fees prevent interference in the independent professional judgment of a lawyer by a nonlawyer. There is no interaction between the website company and the lawyer relative to the legal representation of purchasers at any time after the fee is paid on-line other than the transfer of the proceeds of the “daily deal” to the lawyer. Rule 7.2(b)(1) allows a lawyer to pay the reasonable cost of advertisements. As long as the percentage charged against the revenues generated is reasonable compensation for the advertising service, a lawyer may participate. Cf. 2010 FEO 4 (permitting participation in a barter exchange program in which members pay a cash transaction fee of ten percent on the gross value of each purchase of goods or services). There are, however, professional responsibilities that are impacted by this type of advertising.
First, a lawyer may not engage in misleading advertising. Rule 7.1. Therefore, the advertised discount may not be illusory: the lawyer must have an established, standard fee for the service that is being offered at a discount. Moreover, the lawyer’s advertisement on the website must include certain disclosures. Clients should not make decisions about legal representation in a hasty manner. The advertisement must explain that the decision to hire a lawyer is an important one that should be considered carefully and made only after investigation into the lawyer’s credentials. In addition, the advertisement must state that a conflict of interest or a determination by the lawyer that the legal service being offered is not appropriate for a particular purchaser may prevent the lawyer from providing the service and, if so, the purchaser’s money will be refunded (see below for explanation of the duty to refund).
Second, a lawyer must deposit entrusted funds in a trust account. Rule 1.15-2(b). The payments received by the lawyer from the website company are advance payments1 of legal fees that must be deposited in the lawyer’s trust account and may not be paid to the lawyer or transferred to the law firm operating account until earned by the provision of legal services.
Third, a professional relationship with a purchaser of the discounted legal service is established once the payment is made and this relationship must be honored. The lawyer has offered his services on condition that there is no conflict of interest and the service is appropriate for the purchaser, and the purchaser has accepted the offer. At a minimum, the purchaser must be considered a prospective client entitled to the protections afforded to prospective clients under Rule 1.18.
Fourth, a lawyer may not retain a clearly excessive fee. Rule 1.5(a). If a prospective client fails to claim the discounted legal service within the designated time (before the “expiration date”), one might consider the advance payment forfeited. Even if it is assumed that this is a risk that is generally known to consumers, however, it does not justify the receipt of a windfall by the lawyer. As a fiduciary, a lawyer places the interests of his clients above his own and may not accept a legal fee for doing nothing. Such a fee is inherently excessive. Therefore, if a prospective client does not claim the discounted service within the designated time, the lawyer must refund the advance payment on deposit in the trust account for the prospective client or, if the prospective client still desires the legal service, the lawyer may charge his actual rate at the time the service is provided but must give the prospective client credit for the advance payment on deposit in the trust account.
Last, a lawyer has a duty of competent representation pursuant to Rule 1.1. The lawyer must consult with each prospective client to determine what service the prospective client actually requires. If competent representation requires the lawyer to expend more time than anticipated to satisfy the advertised service, the lawyer must do so without additional charge. Similarly, if upon consulting with a prospective client the lawyer determines that the prospective client does not need the legal service or that a conflict of interest prohibits the representation, the lawyer must refund the prospective client’s entire advance payment, including the amount retained by the website company, to make the prospective client whole.
1. In light of the many uncertainties of a legal representation arranged in the manner proposed, a lawyer may not condition the offer of discounted services upon the purchaser’s agreement that the money paid will be a flat fee or a minimum fee that is earned by the lawyer upon payment. See 2008 FEO 10.