These summaries were prepared by McGuireWoods LLP lawyer Thomas E. Spahn. They are based on the letter opinions issued by the Virginia State Bar. Any editorial comments reflect Mr. Spahn's current personal views, and not the opinions of the Virginia State Bar, McGuireWoods or its clients. 
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13-Marketing - Miscellaneous

38-Fee Splitting

40-Trust Accounts


Lawyers may engage in "daily deal" marketing, but must comply with all of their Model Rules obligations, "including avoiding false or misleading statements and conflicts of interest, providing competent and diligent representation, and appropriately handling all money received." Under a "coupon deal" arrangement, a lawyer sells a coupon entitling the purchaser to a certain number of hours of legal service at a discounted rate. The marketing organization handling the arrangement collects purchasers' payments and forwards them to the lawyer, retaining a contractually-agreed upon percentage of the payments. The purchaser later directly pays the lawyer at the discounted rate when the lawyer provides the services. Under a "prepaid deal" arrangement, the purchaser pays the marketing organization the entire legal fee, and then receives services that would normally have cost more than that payment. Despite some state bars conclusion that such daily deal marketing are per se unethical, the ABA Model Rules do not automatically prohibit such daily deals if lawyers follow the Rules. First, payments to the marketing organization do not constitute unethical fee splitting. Instead, they essential constitute "payment for advertising and processing services." However, "one caveat is that the percentage retained by the marketing organization must be reasonable." Second, lawyers may not advertise daily deals in a false or misleading fashion. For instance, lawyers must "define the scope of services offered," and "explain under what circumstances the purchase price of a deal may be refunded, to whom, and what amount." Third, lawyers must explain that until the lawyer and the daily deal purchaser engage in a "consultation," no client-lawyer relationship exists. Lawyers must further warn anyone trading for, or receiving as a gift, any daily deal rights must carefully review all the terms and conditions. Fourth, before entering into a client-lawyer relationship, lawyers must assure that they are competent to undertake the representation, and warn any prospective clients if their matters will require more of the lawyers' time than the prospective client purchased under the daily deal. Lawyers must also assure that they do not accept so many daily deal clients that they cannot competently and diligently represent them all. Fifth, lawyers must properly handle any payments they receive from the marketing organization. Under a coupon deal, payments collected by the marketing organization and sent to lawyers are not legal fees -- and must be deposited into lawyers' operating account. Under a prepaid deal, payments lawyers receive from the marketing organization constitute "advance legal fees," and must be deposited into the lawyers' trust account. Lawyers must explain to anyone purchasing a prepaid deal what amount of the payment "is not a legal fee and will be retained by the marketing organization." Although it may be difficult, lawyers must also coordinate with marketing organizations to obtain required information about the purchasers whose funds the lawyers deposit into their trust account. Sixth, lawyers must properly handle money they have received in connection with purchasers who never use the lawyer's services. If a coupon purchaser never uses the lawyer's services, the lawyer may retain such payments (despite some state bars' disagreement) -- if the lawyer has "explained as part of the offer that the cost of the coupon will not be refunded." If a prepaid deal purchaser never uses the lawyer's services, the lawyer "likely" must refund any unearned advanced fees -- unless the prepaid offer was "for a simple service at a modest charge," in which case "it is possible no refund would be required, provided proper and full disclosure of a no-refund policy had been made." Seventh, lawyers must properly handle money they receive from daily deal purchasers whom the lawyer cannot represent because of a conflict or other "ethical impediment." In such a situation, lawyers must provide a full refund to the purchaser under either a coupon or a prepaid deal -- and cannot avoid this duty by disclosing otherwise in marketing materials. Because the lawyer is unable to undertake the representation "through no fault of the purchaser," the lawyer must refund all the money the purchaser has paid -- even if the lawyer cannot recoup the money retained by the marketing organization.

Copyright 2000, Thomas E. Spahn