Legal Advice, At $2 Per Minute

Victor Medina sent me an email from his Apple iToy questioning whether anyone would have the nerve to solicit a sex worker at the wage being offered for a lawyer “position” on Craig’s list:

Seeking Attorneys for online legal services (pay – $2 per minute)

So I pulled out my handy-dandy calculator and ran the numbers. That would be $120 per hour, which would bring a smile to many an indigent defenders face.  Is this a problem?  Well, perhaps the problem is that, aside from the 5 minute minimum (again, with the calculator, that would be $10), there is no assurance that anyone gets any more.

The business offering this windfall is called LawModo, which explains its purpose in this video:

Edit 4/16: After seeing this post, they decided to take the video private, and offered me another to post.  I pass.

A little too LIchtenstein for your taste?  So what?  Everyone’s an art critic. That fact is that lawyers get people who call all the time and say, “I just have a simple question.”  These calls always last at least 15 minutes, and often can take an hour.  Simple questions usually aren’t.  And the need that LawModo sees, that there is no place for a regular person to ask a question at limited cost, is kinda real, as they otherwise just call me and ask anyway.

If you tell them that answering simple questions is what people pay you to do, they get angry. Sometimes very angry.  After all, it’s just a simple question, you money-grubbing blood-sucking lawyer-scum.

On the client’s side, they can spend as much time on the phone as they want. If they are unwilling to put more than, say, $20 into the call, then they can hang up midword.  Nobody forces them to stay on the phone a minute longer than they want to, though it likely proves highly ineffective to spend $20 and not get an answer.

While there are tons of other places for people to ask questions for free, like the dreaded Avvo Answers, they suck and are almost invariably wrong.  What’s missing is the lawyer’s ability to ask questions, obtain the salient details necessary to provide a meaningful answer.  With a phone call, this can be accomplished.

Will the lawyers who sign up for this gig be competent to provide worthwhile answers?  That’s up to the lawyers. They may be, or not. If they’re not, do they give the money back?  Hell no, since nobody forced the client to call them in the first place, and the time was still used even if they called the wrong lawyer.  LawModo has no responsibility to turn people on to lawyers who are competent.  This is a problem.

In its FAQ’s, however, LawModo (which says it’s “a technology company comprised mostly of attorneys) offers this:

Will the attorney I talk to be my attorney moving forward?   

No. No attorney/client relationship is formed from any call. However, if after  speaking with an attorney, you desire to hire one to represent you in your legal  matter you may. This can be done by contacting an attorney directly.

Herein lies a bit of a problem.  While it may be true that the attorney who answers questions has not assumed the responsibility for the future, though that’s not necessarily clear, the “answer” that “no attorney/client relationship is formed from any call” is dead wrong.  That is exactly the relationship formed, and no ridiculous FAQ changes that fact.

This makes me wonder whether LawModo is really “comprised mostly of attorneys,” or whether the ones who have chosen to start-up a tech company are doing so because they suck as attorneys.

LawModo appears to be trying to market itself to lawyers not just on its $2 a minute windfall, but on the idea that the lawyer could score some business from the caller.  By doing so, it seems to compromise the value of the Q&A concept, and turn itself from a legitimate place where a person can get a relatively inexpensive answer to a question into a scam for desperate lawyers to upsell people into retaining counsel.  That’s not good.

The lawyer has no obligation to make himself available to answer calls. They can turn on their “I’m available now” button at will, or never turn it on and just create the appearance that there are more lawyers available on Law Modo than there really are as a means of lawyer advertising.  The service runs 24/7, because lots of lawyers want to be woken up in the middle of the night to explain the meaning of “fee simple.”  My guess is that overnight availability will be limited.

But could LawModo work to the benefit of clients and lawyers?  Well, yeah. It could. There is a need to be filled, and its a lot better to get paid, even if it’s only $2 a minute, to answer “simple questions” than do it for free.  Yet, all the other aspects of this concept seem to militate against its legitimacy, and provide incentives to turn it from what might be a viable concept into just another scam.

Would you answer questions for $2 a minute, with a minimum of $10, accurately, honestly and without trying to “persuade” the person that what he really needs to is retain you at full price?  It would be nice to think that lawyers are better than this.   But who are we kidding?

Via Judge Kopf and my favorite feminist, Vickie Pynchon

33 comments on “Legal Advice, At $2 Per Minute

  1. Brian Tannebaum

    if the internet tech company is saying that no attorney-client relationship is formed shouldn’t we just trust that that’s the way it is? I mean, it seems like you are once again using ethics to scare young lawyers.

  2. Peter Orlowicz

    I think the flat statement that “no attorney-client relationship is formed” is a mistake on their part; perhaps it would be better to say no *continuing* attorney-client relationship is formed? I worked for a legal aid organization that gave legal advice over the phone for cases they didn’t have the permanent staffing to take on for representation (lots of guardianship cases and landlord/tenant disputes that didn’t involve public housing), but we would still have been disqualified from representing another party in the same dispute, suggesting at least some element of an attorney-client relationship. That relationship can be of limited scope, though, extending just to essentially the initial consultation without any expectation of continuing representation.

    With LawModo, I agree there’s financial incentive for the lawyer that doesn’t exist in the legal aid world, but LawModo lawyers also don’t have to spend twenty minutes of the phone call with screening questions to ensure the caller qualifies for Legal Services Corporation-funded services. Bar associations also sometimes host “Ask a Lawyer” days where lawyers volunteer and people can come to ask “simple questions” for free, with a similar structure of no continuing representation. My guess is you’d get the same mix of lawyers through LawModo as you might through the bar association Ask a Lawyer, some good, some bad. Does that equation fundamentally change just because the system shifts from “volunteer/no pay” to “some pay”?

    1. SHG Post author

      I think the flat statement that “no attorney-client relationship is formed” is a mistake on their part; perhaps it would be better to say no *continuing* attorney-client relationship is formed?

      You think? Was this in any way unclear from the post, such that you needed to waste all those words to restate the obvious? Was tannebaum’s satirical comment too obtuse to reinforce the point? What part did not come across?

      Does that equation fundamentally change just because the system shifts from “volunteer/no pay” to “some pay”?

      Yes. Fundamentally. Should you ever find yourself not getting a paycheck on Fridays, you’ll learn.

      1. Peter Orlowicz

        On the contrary, I thought I was adding something regarding limited representation, and the fact many non-lawyers might not understand that “getting legal advice” does not automatically equate to “this person is my lawyer now”. Despite explaining this concept at length for legal aid clients, some of them still don’t understand it.

        As for your last comment in reply, I was volunteering as a telephone counselor for legal aid while I was looking for a paying legal job and thanking my lucky stars I had a gainfully-employed wife willing and able to support the household during that time. Speaking of ethics, I don’t think the Rules of Professional Responsibility in my state differentiate between the ethical responsibilities of lawyers working as volunteers or working for pay, so why do you think struggling (or bad) lawyers trying to drum up business (or scam clients) will use LawModo but not show up at Ask-a-Lawyer day?

        1. SHG Post author

          If you want to add something regarding limited representation to inform non-lawyers. do it at your own blog.

          And no, the ethical responsibilities have nothing to do with whether a lawyer is paid or volunteer, but the incentive system is completely different.

          1. Peter Orlowicz

            I wasn’t writing here to attempt to inform non-lawyers. I was suggesting the misleading wording at LawModo might have been a misguided attempt to be clear to the non-lawyers they’re aiming their service at, and suggesting an alternative improvement in the language, which I thought was appropriately on-topic for the criticism of the service.

            1. SHG Post author

              Ah. Fair enough. Go back to your original comment, read it fresh, and ask yourself if that’s what your comment was about.

              Mind you, there isn’t any question that limited representation is allowed, even if rife with problems that I’ve discussed in other posts at length and which go far beyond the scope of this post. The only question in this post related to the claim that no attorney/client relationship was created, which was wrong. That’s why it was discussed. That’s why limited representation was not discussed. That was the call I made writing my post on my blog. Carry on.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      You’ve got clients who manage to get into trouble just lying around the house and answering the phone?

      Wow — I should warn my sister to supervise my nephew more closely.

  3. Patrick Maupin

    In theory, something like this could be a reasonable gig for someone like my little brother, who is a real lawyer (and professional engineer, the overachiever) working for not enough money for the state highway department.

    He wouldn’t have the particular ethical issues you mentioned — since he has a day job, he wouldn’t be looking for long-term clients. He would, of course, have to only work at night, and scrupulously avoid giving advice to people who might want to sue the state.

    In practice, though, looking at the lawmodo website, it apears he might have to hang out a virtual shingle to work there, something he may not be willing to do.

    It could be a positive development. Which is worse — offering a free initial consultation, and going into sign-or-dump mode after 5 minutes, or not feeling quite so pressured because at least a little cash is flowing?

    1. SHG Post author

      It sounds perfect for your little brother, plus it would be good for people who need a real estate question answered. This would be a great example of how it could work to everyone’s benefit, with the limited proviso that it doesn’t present a conflict of interest (it doesn’t seem likely, but anything is possible).

      1. Patrick Maupin

        Heh. When I said “real lawyer”, I meant like you and Marc and the other commenters you are hoping to have, not “real estate lawyer.”

        I think he does contracts, mostly for construction, these days, and gives a lot of classes — since he’s an engineer as well as a lawyer, he explains to the other engineers how to negotiate contracts that his department will actually approve.

  4. KronWeld

    I’m sure you are aware that I’m not an attorney, so feel free to rain your wrath on me if these are really stupid questions (I guess I could mail you the $20), but since “no attorney-client relationship is formed” then could a DA or plaintiff attorney subpoena the lawyer answering the question to the determent of the person asking the question? Was privilege lost, since the person talked about it to someone other than their attorney?

    1. SHG Post author

      No. The point is that there is an attorney/client relationship formed. There always is when a person asks a lawyer for legal advice, no matter what the FAQs say. That’s the problem, not that there is confidential disclosure without benefit of the privilege. Whoever wrote the answer in the FAQs is clueless.

  5. Nigel Declan

    Can I assume that this woman has some sort of legal font-related question, given that she specifically asks “what type attorneys do you specialize in?” Or does the target audience of LawModo simply not care that the site offering them discount legal advice for their “law emergencies” couldn’t be bothered to actually have someone proofread their web ad?

  6. John Barleycorn

    I am moderately concerned you calculations need a calculator.

    Consise is relevant but cogent needs medicated proof.

    You do know how to drop the zeros when the numbers don’t fit on the calculator screen correct?

    Nice to see you embracing mathematics though esteemed host.

    Start dividing by the populious and then the nunber of households in the nation, throw in some basic statistics and you got yourself a reasonable probability of employment function.

    Granted if basic state and federal law were provided in community college and the high school trade classes new and imaginative blossoms of potential and the engines of creativity (including new adjectives) would bless the world.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Neil Diamond is a myth. Lifting the variables of guild trades (legally defined or not) is a prime number that might yet still yield.

        I don’t feel good about it. But then again I nearly, but not almost, feel bad.

        You are about as impatient as a banana slug or house spider catching nearly extinguished molten metal myth hitting the dirt esteemed host.

        You are in the alpine though. Keep camp rotated and with eyes on the passes.

        They all come out of the tree line reasonably exhausted and usually loud.

        Watch out for the silent ones.

        1. SHG Post author

          I don’t know how impatient a banana slug or house spider cathing a nearly extinguished motlen metal myth (which I assume is supposed to be moth) hitting the dirt is, but I am, indeed, impatient. Except with my family, but then, I love my family.

          1. John Brleycorn

            Life is good, but then, I love solvable quandaries.

            Balance is wicked. Way more wicked than billing.

  7. Erik Hammarlund

    Wow, that takes ridiculousness to a new level.

    The real irony is that folks will talk about it helping folks who “can’t afford a lawyer.” But that won’t be what happens. When a poor tenant calls about stopping the eviction for their family, I might answer their questions for free: in fact, most of the lawyers I know will try to spend a few minutes to help someone who really needs help and has no money. But then there are the people who call with questions about a $600,000 piece of real estate and “offer to pay me for fifteen minutes.” They don’t understand why I decline to take on $600,000 worth of liability as a trade for my time.

    I suspect that this service will functionally end up selecting for richer people who are trying to save a buck. Who else is going to have the credit card and Internet connection? Frankly I’d rather volunteer or do pro bono.

    Not to mention that it’ll be a whole lot LESS than $2/minute in practice. You also have to generate work, collect fees, check for conflicts, maintain a client file, and do all of those normal things. In the context of a $5000 job, losing twenty minutes on those tasks is nothing. In the context of a $20 job, losing even ten minutes can cut your net earnings in half (I’m assuming that most attorneys who are large enough to maintain office help won’t also be working at this place.)

    1. Patrick Maupin

      > You also have to generate work, collect fees, check for conflicts, maintain a client file, and do all of those normal things.

      If LawModo doesn’t provide significant help with a lot of those things (automated billing, a pop-up screen where notes for the client come up when the call comes in, etc.), they probably won’t go anywhere.

      1. Erik Hammarlund

        “Generate Work” = signing up for Lawmodo, maintaining your account, dealing with the back end, etc. That takes time and energy. And who knows–perhaps, like Avvo, you won’t be able to leave.

        “Collect fees” will surely be done by Lawmodo on the front end via credit card (I’m sure you get a monthly check) but you will need to assign it to client matters, if you care.

        “Check for conflicts” can’t be done on Lawmodo unless you only work for Lawmodo. I’m sure nobody here will fail to check, but I’m also sure that plenty of people on Lawmodo will fail to check.

        “Maintain a client file” also can’t easily be done on Lawmodo unless you only work for Lawmodo–it’s a horrible practice to have files in more than one format and location. It’s possible that Lawmodo will have a good data collection application which can generate a digital file for you, but there’s still time required to process it and add the information to your own system.

        [Ed. Note: surplusage deleted.]

        A ten minute legal question is like a simple will: everyone THINKS they have it, and almost nobody actually does.

      1. Erik Hammarlund

        Only if you agree that we are forming an A/C relationship. Ha!

        I will buy you lunch if you’re ever in my area, though, just to say thanks for the immensely entertaining blog.

  8. JLL

    Lawmoto charges the attorney back $0.36 of that $2 for every minute. So the attorney really only makes $1.64 per minute for “use of their communication system.”

    1. SHG Post author

      Well that sucks. Now neither can afford a mocha Frappuccino from the call. And of course, this wouldn’t be fee splitting, because that would be wrong.

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