For A Nickel I Will

There is a critical mass of proponents to do away with state bar admission for lawyers and even the requirement that one be trained and validated in law at all. They come at it from two different directions. One side does so to open greater opportunity for young and solo practitioners to get clients from any source possible, anywhere possible.

The other because of the A2J problem, access to justice as it’s called, in order to fulfill the needs of people who either can’t afford a lawyer, or are too cheap to pay for a lawyer because they would rather spend their money to buy the newest iToy.

The former group is also a strong proponent of lawyers marketing themselves on the internet, puffing their mad skillz and experience even if they’ve only been admitted for 12 minutes.  The ethical proscriptions against deception are just old lawyers’ way of keeping them down.

What these different groups have in common is that they claim there is no serious downside to their proposals.  Who has ever been harmed, they demand to know?  What could possibly go wrong?

But when you put this all together, you get Fiverr.  And as Keith Lee explains, it’s a toilet.

“Need legal consulting, contracts drafted, or advice? I have experience in almost all areas of law and can answer almost any legal question! Only $5. (Educational purposes only, not actual legal advice)”

As Keith found, not only is there no shortage of purported lawyers offering to go “’round the world” for five bucks, but they aren’t even lawyers.

illegal fiverr profile 1

So here is someone offering to draft contracts and do legal writing for $5.

The profile claims to be Jason M. Dick, a member of “the state of New York bar.” The funny thing about state bars though, most of them have public directories. And there is no “Jason M. Dick” listed as an attorney in New York. I also took a moment to run the profile image through Tineye, the reverse image search system. It turns out that the image was scrapped from the portfolio of a photographer. The person in the picture is actually an attorney, but his name is Howard Michael, and he is a shareholder at Brinks, Gilson, & Lione. Not exactly the type of guy slumming for work on Fiverr. So here we have an example of a blatantly false and deceptive profile offering explicit legal services on Fiverr.

Does that mean the contract you get from your $5 “gig” isn’t legal, isn’t appropriate, won’t serve your purpose?  Not necessarily. Maybe it’s a guy who bought a form off LegalZoom and is now reselling it at $5 a pop. Maybe it’s a lawyer from Bangalore. Maybe it’s a former jailhouse lawyer trying to make a living?  Who knows what it is.

Except we do know that it’s a lie.  And as Keith learned, Fiverr is filled up to its eyeballs in such lies, advertisements for gigs by non-existent lawyers claiming to be lawyers. What are the chances that clients will vet their potential $5 lawyer to figure out whom they’re entrusting their lives and fortunes to?

That this constitutes the crime of Unlawful Practice of Law isn’t exactly controversial.  People are not allowed to pretend to be lawyers and sell legal services to anyone willing to pay. Not even on the internet, the ethics-free zone.

One of the earliest observations about the internet was made in 1993 by Peter Steiner for the New Yorker.


And 22 years later, it’s still a truism.  It’s not that people use whatever tool they can to run the scam, but that we enable it, encourage it, by closing our eyes as tightly as possible and screaming “lalalala” whenever anyone raises the fact that anyone can pretend to be a lawyer on the internet, and any lawyer can be a liar on the internet, and yet they pretend it doesn’t really happen.

Fiverr is an Israeli company, but it has a United States presence, and it has in-house lawyers. And it has a section for legal services. There is no excuse for their not knowing that they’re facilitating a crime. If they had a section for cheap cocaine, would that be cool too? Okay, don’t answer that.

If someone who thinks they’ve stumbled onto a magic way to get cheap legal services, and who doesn’t consider the likelihood that real lawyers aren’t usually inclined to sell their services at $5 per gig, gets hurt, where will they turn?  Sure, they will blame lawyers. After all, if we didn’t charge for our time and advice, they could go down to the corner brick and mortar law office and pick up a couple of wills and a house closing, as needed.

But when they find out that the faux Fiverr lawyer gave them a form that doesn’t meet the requirements of a jurisdiction, isn’t really a competent legal document, and it results in a devastating loss, where will they turn?  While Fiverr may not be able to take comfort in Section 230 safe harbor, given that they’re making money by splitting the fee with their “lawyer,” will the harmed client be able to hold them liable for enabling a scam?  After all, it’s not like the client did his due diligence before shelling out his $5, and Fiverr didn’t vouch for its gigster even if it enjoys its piece of the deal.

Years ago, we quarreled over how long it would take for lawyers to gain some degree of internet savvy.  Back then, few lawyers had any serious involvement with, or knowledge of, how things worked online. I would have expected that lawyers would have a clue by now. They don’t.

Maybe they know some of the names of the better known websites and an app or two (though Flashlight remains the most beloved app for smartphones), but the vast majority of lawyers don’t really use the internet, don’t get it, don’t have the savvy to distinguish the ignorance of the arguments being used to undermine the integrity of the profession. They’re like children on the internet. Dumb, naïve, clueless children.

If they weren’t, they would be marching on Fiverr’s office demanding they end their complicity in the scam.  Instead, they’re asking each other on listservs whether Fiverr is for real, and they will never read Keith Lee’s post because they have yet to discover blawgs. And even if they did, they wouldn’t have a clue which blawgs were credible and which were written by a dog.

16 thoughts on “For A Nickel I Will

  1. Noxx

    Unqualified persons undercutting a devaluing a trade. Been a problem for thousands of years, gives rise to the guild tradition of course.

    If it’s not fiver, it’s something else. Traditionally the biggest hurdle is getting those in any craft or trade to put money and time into maintaining integrity. Someone has to be out there filing suits, breaking kneecaps, maybe the occasional arson, whatever it takes.

    Unfortunately, people only understand consequences. Get caught pretending to be a doctor and the results are pretty serious, pretending to be a pipe fitter, you go missing. Pretending to be a lawyer = ?

    Lessons that don’t hurt aren’t lessons at all.

    1. SHG Post author

      Or, I could use a specific instance in a post to make a point, and someone can then try to reduce my point to the lowest common denominator in a comment by recharacterizing it in its most banal terms.

  2. Keith Lee

    I fear that your point, lawyers don’t have a clue about the internet, is going to prove true. This is exactly the type of situation in which we should stand up and demand that bar associations/AG offices go after people.

    It’s not like Fiverr is some measly little “startup” in someone’s basement. They are a large, multi-national. And they’re ripping people off providing “legal services” while taking a cut.

    It’s bullshit and should be stopped. But, sad to say, I don’t have much faith in bars/AG offices actually doing something about it.

    1. SHG Post author

      They’ve grown complacent and complicit in the schemes of the internet lawyers and marketeers, who scream the loudest and confuse them with all their new-fangled ways. It all serves to obscure the bottom line, and both bar associations and prosecutors have allowed ULP, schemes, scams and deceit to go ignored.

      No, I don’t have much faith that they will do anything about it either. Worse still, I foresee them watering down the duties further, just to accommodate the loudest voices.

  3. David Sugerman

    Thanks, as always, for a good take. The lack of response is sad but unsurprising.

    Those of us who dwell in the trenches of consumer protection spend a fair amount of timing gauging judges’ and juries’ reactions to fraud schemes. It’s interesting to watch the processes that lead people to conclude that a particular fraud is or is not a major problem. Mostly it seems to come down to whether the listener perceives it as a threat or danger to the listener. There are labels for the various cognitive processes, including defensive attribution.

    I suspect there is a lot of that comes into play for both real lawyers and consumers. I imagine that the yawn-fest on the lawyer side frames it as something like, “Well yeah, but I am a real lawyer with a special and important practice, so this isn’t a real problem because people will always pay ME.” For consumers, it might frame as, “Lawyers getting screwed on fees? That’s a good thing.” Or “Yeah, but I would never be fooled by a bad form or bad advice, so I am safe.”

    None of these framing processes are rational. All are very powerful. All are very hard to overcome. From jury work, it seems like the key to activating a response is a perception of danger. While there is no way of knowing without testing, I suspect that the best sequence of this for consumers starts with the need. “When you go to buy a house, when a loved one is making tough choices about the end of life, or when a friend is mistakenly identified as a criminal suspect, you swallow hard and hire a lawyer….”

    If that story unfolds with a horrible tale of an actual person who comes to ruin, there might be a way to activate a response. Or if the fiverr’s are, for example, ripping off taxpayers by avoiding paying fees, maybe that gets some traction. Until those stories are concrete and widespread or deep, reaction will not come, and these dirtbags will prosper.

    1. SHG Post author

      Those stories rarely, if ever, make the news. And even when they do, they rarely get traction. And even if they did, there will be cries about how it’s not a systemic problem, but one bad apple. And life goes on.

  4. MJS

    I am just a lowly Canadian 3L. I have enjoyed this blog immensely.

    Even though I need money (ostensibly to buy coke off of fiverr), even I am not desperate enough to compromise my desire to practice law by practicing without a license.

    The A2J crisis is real. And there certainly are lower stakes areas of law that non-lawyers ought to be able to do competently, such as tenancy law. But even then, that requires a working knowledge of the law in your jurisdiction. The answer is not to deregulate the legal profession in any case.

    I don’t know what the self-rep rate is in US criminal law, but in Canada it is around 90%. That’s a crisis any way you cut it, as you know people are pleading guilty to crimes they may not be guilty of just to get it over with.

    1. SHG Post author

      Sigh. You seem like a lovely, well-intended person, even if you’re from Canada, so I’ll respond with kindness rather than the bitch-slap you so richly deserve. A2J is a very complex problem, and your reductio ad absurdum pontification is, ahem, ill-advised. I’ve discussed components of it here many times, but you should consider never mentioning it again until you have a monumentally better understanding of its many complexities.

      1. MJS

        I appreciate the kindness.

        I will take your chiding with grace and learn more. Keeping/catching up with every one of your posts is not possible, and I am sure there is a good perspective to be gained from reading your A2J posts. I will seek them out.

        1. SHG Post author

          You’re welcome. Try this and this, for a start. But remember the flip side of A2J is that if lawyers can’t earn a decent living, then there won’t be any lawyers as there will no point in going to law school, three years of tuition, three years of opportunity costs, all to achieve a life of relative poverty.

          As much as we want to help others, kids still need to eat. Every day. We take an oath to zealously represent, not an oath of poverty.

          1. MJS

            I did an A2J search on your blog immediately. Being called ignorant by someone who has an opinion I respect is motivating. Read 3 separate articles, 2 discussing your disdain for Avvo. Good stuff, thanks again.

            1. JB

              But Avvo is great! Where else can I get both incorrect legal advice, fluff answers directing you to their site, and be chastised for even needing legal advice in the first place?

              Oh yeah, the entire internet. I used to think that site must be a goldmine of good advice, until I started my own legal career and the law studies that entailed.

  5. markm

    IANAL, but the economics here looks impossible – not just for legal services, but for almost anything delivered over the internet from a location in the USA. Suppose the Fiverr provider wants to make $30 an hour. Now there’s a problem with that – in the USA it takes nearly $30/hour just for the overhead to put an employee at a desk in a temperature-controlled building, with a computer and internet connection, and with the cheapest health insurance the law allows. Presumably this provider is self-employed, but the economics still apply; either she’s leaving something big out of her calculations of expenses, or she is paying herself below minimum wage. With poor control of expenses, her net could be negative.

    But at $30 an hour, $5 just pays for 12 minutes. For a “lawyer” that’s enough time to get a name, address, etc., from the client and type it into a simple, routine form. It is NOT enough time to interview the client and determine if the form is appropriate to his case. And I can’t think of anything else that can be delivered over the internet for 12 minutes of labor, except for things where a search engine would probably give better service than a human. Heck, think of the brick and mortar world – what kind of service can you get for $5? There are places where it costs that much to pour a cup of coffee. Possibly a shoe-shine? Certainly not a haircut – except possibly for the boot camp haircut where they don’t ask how you want it cut but just give everyone the same style in 3 minutes each.

    Now, Fiverr might work economically for American customers and service providers in a much lower cost country. $5 or $10/hour might look good in India, even when you have to cover overhead and Fiverr’s cut out of it. The provider might even have a law degree and license in India – but not in the USA. She might be able to fill out a bill of sale, but she won’t know the difference between the laws of Michigan and Indiana as they apply to the transaction. You’d get better legal advice from Cliff Clavin at the Cheers bar.

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