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    Dolores Dorsainvil
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Coupons for Lawyers

With the advent of new technology, including, the internet, business owners are capitalizing on the latest and greatest ways to market their businesses. One such tool, is the latest trend where merchants advertise their products and/or services through the use of daily deal websites, i.e. Groupon or Living Social. On these websites, consumers can sign up to receive an email detailing the online daily deal coupon. These coupons provide drastic discounts upwards of 50 to 70 percent off of a product or service and if enough users commit to purchasing the discounted deal, then the deal goes through and the website company and the participating business split the proceeds of each deal.

There was a time, years ago, when lawyers were prohibited from advertising their services in any medium. Today, times have changed and lawyers that once advertised in the Yellow Pages are now using the internet as a way to attract more business. Because technology continuously evolves and the law remains static, the legal community is now looking more closely at the use of these daily deal websites as a viable option for advertising legal services.  Because website companies like Groupon collect the advanced payment upfront from the consumer and retains a portion for themselves and then turn over the remainder of the fee to the merchant, the real question is, can a lawyer ethically use these websites to advertise their legal services or is it a violation of MRRC 5.4, which prohibits an attorney from splitting a fee with a non-lawyer? MRPC 5.4(a) (Professional Independence of a Lawyer) states, “[a] lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a nonlawyer.” Although Maryland has not yet opined on this issue, other jurisdictions (Missouri, North Carolina, and South Carolina) have, and decided in favor of the lawyer advertising with special considerations and warnings for lawyers who choose to use these websites services. A lawyer in Missouri advertised his legal services and offered a $99 deal for the drafting of a will and a power of attorney and 50 prospective clients purchased his deal. While this may seem like a lucrative way to attract new clients, an attorney must consider whether it is feasible to use such a website for their practice area. For instance, if a lawyer handles primarily contingency fee cases, the daily deal advertising just won’t work because it is not a fixed fee, but rather, can change depending on the individual case. Additionally, there are many ethical implications that must be taken into consideration. For example:

  • Lawyers must still comply with the advertising Rules. [1]
  • Lawyers must, in acting as fiduciaries, treat, unearned fees as property belonging to the client pursuant to MRPC 1.15, and maintain such fees in an attorney trust account until earned.
  • Lawyers must return any unearned fee to the client pursuant to MRPC 1.16(d) Termination of Representation.
  • Lawyers must ensure that the fee charged is reasonable pursuant to Rule 1.5 Fees.
  • Lawyers must not engage in conflicts of interests as outlined in Rule 1.7 Conflicts of Interests.

Because there are countless varied scenarios and the potential for ethical pitfalls, lawyers should cautiously wait to see if this approach to lawyer advertising comports with a lawyer’s ethical requirements under the Rules of Professional Conduct.

If you are interested in an easy way to set up an online presence for your firm, check out MSBA Endorsed Vendor ESQSites. If you are a member of the MSBA you qualify for special offers. Just log-in to find out the reference code behind the link at the bottom of the page.

Also check out the new MSBA App for iPhone, Android and Blackberry, which keeps the Maryland Professional Code of Conduct right at your fingertips!

[1] MRPC 7.1 Communications Concerning a Lawyer’s Services states, in part, “[a] lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. . . ”  MRPC 7.2 Advertising governs a lawyer’s use of a website for marketing and authorize such use for advertisement purposes. Specifically, MRPC 7.2 (a) states, “[s]ubject to the requirements of Rules 7.1 and 7.3(b), a lawyer may advertise services through public media, such as a telephone directory, legal directory, newspaper or other periodical, outdoor, radio or television advertising, or through communications not involving in person contact.”

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