The Ethics of Crowdfunding, Revisited

When we last visited the subject of crowdfunding in January, I pointed out some of the ethical barriers to this method of fund raising.  While much depends on the lawyer, crowdfunding could implicate:

  • Improper communications concerning a lawyer’s services – Oregon RPC 7.1
  • Dishonesty, fraud, deceit – Oregon RPC 8.4
  • Fee sharing with a nonlawyer – Oregon RPC 5.4

I also noted that money raised via crowdfunding may well be taxable, even if the lawyer did not meet the minimum threshold to trigger a 1099.

This month I join forces with the venerable Amber Hollister, Assistant General Counsel of the Oregon State Bar.  We have co-authored an article for the OSB Bulletin entitled “Crowdfunding Your Law Practice.”  The article is scheduled for publication in the May issue.

In addition to the above, we identified other troublesome ethics concerns:

  • Potential third payment and trust accounting issues – If you are rewarding donors with a legal consultation in exchange for a donation and receive funds in advance or a donor is construed as “buying” a legal consultation for a third party, be sure to comply with all trust accounting rules.
  • Conflicts of interest are also a concern.  If a consultation is offered as a “perk or reward” in exchange for a donation, will the lawyer be able to perform?  Lawyers would be well-advised to forewarn donors of the necessity of conflict screening.
  • Running afoul of the rule prohibiting the lawyer from giving something of value in exchange for recommending the lawyer’s services – lawyers can’t give enthusiastic donors anything of value for promoting the lawyer’s crowdfunding campaign via social media.

None of this is shared to discourage Oregon lawyers from crowdfunding.  Rather, you need to go in with your eyes open and be sure you are tuned in to the ethics issues.  For a thorough analysis of this subject, refer to the article.

[All Rights Reserved 2015 Beverly Michaelis]

 

Evaluating Online Lawyer Referral Services

Online referral services can be a good source of business for lawyers entering private practice.  And the pitch is often tempting:  “Sign up with us and you’ll get all the clients you want in [your practice area].  You will be the only lawyer in [your state] to receive referrals from us.”  Scads of clients.  Exclusivity.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Bar-operated programs aside, you should take the time to scrutinize offers from for-profit online referral services.  Potential traps abound:

Fees

Paying a fixed annual or other set periodic fee not related to any particular work derived from a directory listing violates neither RPC 5.4(a) nor RPC 7.2(a). A charge to Lawyer based on the number of hits or clicks on Lawyer’s advertising, and that is not based on actual referrals or retained clients, would also be permissible.  Helen Hierschbiel, Internet Marketing: Rules of the Road

The key here is that the fee and the work are not connected.  The typical referral service gets this right, but make sure you understand how fees are paid and what conditions apply.  To learn how you might run afoul of the fee sharing prohibition, see Amber Hollister, What Hath the Web Wrought? Advertising in the Internet Age.

Confidentiality

Odds are you’ll be required to report back some kind of tracking data to the online referral service.  Assuming this includes only benign information, such as a client identification number, there is no breach of confidentiality.  Services vary, however, so learn exactly what must be reported and why.

Advertising

…Internet-based advertising is governed by the same rules as other advertising. The basic ground rule is that advertising cannot be false or misleading. See RPC 7.1(a). Because Web pages may be viewed by persons outside of Oregon, lawyers must take care to ensure the advertisement identifies the jurisdictional limits of their practices. Furthermore, while lawyers may include their names in directories or other advertising Web pages, they must not allow a directory to promote them using means that involve false or misleading communications. RPC 7.2(b). Lawyers are responsible for content that they did not create to the extent they know about that content.  Helen Hierschbiel, Internet Marketing: Rules of the Road.

Some online referrers advertise that the lawyers in their network are “Verified.”  They give lawyer-members “Verified” logos or other graphics to place on their websites.  This begs the question: what does “Verified” mean?  By whom?  How?  When?  Unless this statement is adequately explained, it could be considered false or misleading.

Puffery in numbers

If the online referral service is suggesting you should sign up now because they have a gazillion clients waiting in the wings for a lawyer in your practice area, probe that representation.  Ask for numbers, demographics, and details.  If the clients really exist, they should have the information to back up the statement.  How many clients do they anticipate referring to you each month?  What is the basis for that expectation?  How will they ensure the flow of future clients?

Puffery in other ways

Some online referral services tell lawyers they’ve been approved or vetted by a bar association.  Designed to give peace of mind, this statement is more than a little suspicious.

While a referral service may have done its homework to investigate the rules in Oregon, and may have contacted the bar to learn more about the rules, this does not constitute “approval” of the program.  To my knowledge, the bar does not engage in such a process.

If you are approached by a referral service that implies it has been approved by the Oregon State Bar, contact the Oregon State Bar to verify this representation.

Exclusivity

Some services promise exclusivity:  sign with us and you will be the only Oregon lawyer to receive referrals in your area(s) of law.  You should be especially skeptical of this representation.  Get it in writing and carefully investigate any potential exceptions or loopholes.

General reputation, references, and complaints

Minimally, run a Google search.  Look beyond the first page of results.  Read any articles, reviews, or posts about complaints that mention the name of the service.  The BBB or like organizations can be a good source of information.

Also take the time to check references.  Ask for the names of other Oregon lawyers who have been using the service for at least six months.

Cancellation

Make sure you understand the cancellation terms. You don’t need a nasty surprise if you decide to get out.  Initial set-up fees are likely to be nonrefundable, but check.

Better Marketing

The PLF has an excellent set of marketing practice aids which include a business development goal checklist, sample marketing plan, and marketing worksheets.  Download these resources at Practice Management > Forms > Marketing on the PLF website.

Ask

Many of the issues related to online lawyer referral services are ethical in nature.  Don’t hesitate to contact the OSB General Counsel’s Office when in doubt.

All Rights Reserved [2015] Beverly Michaelis

Crowdfunding Your Law Practice

crowdCrowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.

The crowdfunding model is fueled by three types of actors: the project initiator who proposes the idea and/or project to be funded; individuals or groups who support the idea; and a moderating organization (the “platform”) that brings the parties together to launch the idea.

In 2013, the crowdfunding industry grew to be over $5.1 billion worldwide.
Source: Wikipedia.

Crowdfunding for Lawyers

Potentially, lawyers could use crowdfunding at any time – to jumpstart a law practice, expand a law practice, or bridge the gap during a downturn in business.

As you might expect, crowdfunding is most successful when used to promote a cause or new product idea rather than a service.  But it could work for lawyers if donors find the practice area and marketing pitch appealing.

The Ethics of it All

Before we get too excited about this idea, we need to do a gut check.  Simply put: is crowdfunding ethical?

A quick Internet search produces a list of posts and articles on the subject.  Here are a few:

The first result is by far the most interesting for Oregon lawyers.  In Crowdfunding: The Future Of Public-Interest Funding? author Sam Wright reports a conversation with Oregon lawyer Kellie Ann Furr who is crowdfunding a “private-public interest environmental law firm” on Indiegogo.  Furr is halfway to her fundraising goal of $7,500.  Take the time to look at her campaign and you’ll understand the appeal and her success.

But back to the ethics of it all…

In his Above the Law post about Furr, Wright tells us:

First, she sought and received an informal opinion from the Oregon State Bar on “the ethics of donation-based crowdfunding” to make sure she was on sound ethical footing. She was also careful to select “perks” for donors that would not affect her “professional independence” — in her case, the perks mostly involve volunteer time or pro bono assistance to environmental organizations. And she includes appropriate disclaimers on her campaign page.

So does this mean Oregon lawyers are off and running – free to set up crowdfunding campaigns without a second thought?  Not quite….

Crowdfunding is a “Communication Concerning a Lawyer’s Services” for Purposes of Oregon RPC 7.1

By necessity, crowdfunding involves representations about your potential or ongoing law practice. Therefore, Oregon RPC 7.1 – Communication Concerning a Lawyer’s Services – would apply to the content contained in your crowdfunding appeal:

“A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.”

Simply put: lawyers are responsible for ensuring that representations made about their practice are accurate.  For an excellent discussion of this topic, see OSB Formal Opinion No. 2007-180 Internet Advertising: Payment of Referral Fees and the following articles:

“Dishonesty, Fraud, Deceit, or Misrepresentation” – the Companion of RPC 7.1

A violation of Oregon RPC 7.1 (communication that is false or misleading) could also implicate Oregon RPC 8.4:

“It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to … “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law.”

But lawyers can run afoul of RPC 8.4 in other ways.  As discussed below, crowdfunding campaigns often promise “rewards” or “perks” for donors.  Assuming that offering something in return for a donation is ethical, failing to deliver the “reward” or “perk” if all conditions are met would likely be construed as a violation of 8.4.

The Granddaddy of them all: Is Crowdfunding Fee Sharing with a Nonlawyer?

Lawyers and law firms are prohibited from sharing legal fees under Oregon RPC 5.4, except in limited circumstances.  This begs the question: if a donor gives a lawyer money to fund his or her law practice, does this constitute impermissible fee sharing?

Maybe yes.  Maybe no.  Where is the “fee” and how is it “shared?”  Compare the following scenarios:

  1. Lawyer and nonlawyer wish to form an LLC offering business advice.  They intend to charge potential clients a flat fee of $1,000 for their services and split the fee 50/50.  Lawyer will provide the legal advice; nonlawyer will coach clients on business strategies, financing, marketing, and the like.
    While this arrangement raises a number of issues, the question here is: does the proposed fee split violate Oregon RPC 5.4?  The answer is a straightforward: yes!
  2. A donor gives money to a lawyer to start her law practice, no strings attached – the funds are a gift, not a loan; the donor is seeking nothing in return; the lawyer is providing nothing in exchange for the donation.  There is no “fee.”  There is no “sharing.”  The donor could be Mom, Dad, a friend, or a stranger responding to a crowdfunding appeal.  It is hard to understand how this could be a violation of RPC 5.4 – but as always, I encourage readers: take your questions to the experts – OSB General Counsel’s Office.

So crowdfunding looks like a “go,” right?  Not so fast … here’s the thing about crowdfunding.  Donations aren’t generally a “gift” with no strings attached:

The Crowdfunding Centre’s May 2014 report identified the existence of two primary types of crowdfunding:

Rewards crowdfunding: entrepreneurs pre-sell a product or service to launch a business concept without incurring debt or sacrificing equity/shares.
Equity crowdfunding: the backer receives shares of a company, usually in its early stages, in exchange for the money pledged. The company’s success is determined by how successfully it can demonstrate its viability.

Source: Wikipedia.

Permitting donors to take an equity interest in your law firm is clearly impermissible under RPC 5.4.  A rewards approach could quickly go awry if the lawyer violated RPC 7.1, 8.4, or other applicable rules.  Remember Kellie Ann Furr?  Her Indiegogo campaign offers four different “perks” or rewards for donors:  volunteer time, pro bono work, or a one-hour consultation.  She carefully limits the one-hour consultation to Oregon residents only and includes a disclaimer that donating to her campaign does not create an attorney-client relationship. Is this sufficient?  At the risk of repeating myself: take this question to the experts – OSB General Counsel’s Office.

Funding a Law Practice Is Only Part of the Picture: Student Loans, Litigation, and Securities Regulation

Crowdfunding raises issues in other areas as well.  Check out these posts:

Learn More

If you want to learn more about crowdfunding, read the following:

Next, get ethics advice – from independent ethics counsel with whom you form an attorney-client relationship or OSB General Counsel’s Office.  The General Counsel’s Office can help you identify applicable rules, point out relevant formal ethics opinions and other resource material, and give you a reaction to your ethics question – they are always a good place to start.

All Rights Reserved [2015] Beverly Michaelis

Postscript:

In addition to the above, practitioners should also consult with a tax lawyer or CPA. Money raised via crowdfunding will likely be considered taxable income. Check out these guidelines, available from PayPal. A word of caution: as noted here, failure to meet PayPal’s threshold for purposes of generating a 1099 doesn’t mean you aren’t obligated to report the income.

Proposed Changes to Advertising and Solicitation Rules Give Your 2 Cents

untitledThe Oregon State Bar is currently soliciting comments regarding proposed amendments to Oregon RPCs 7.1-7.5 governing advertising and solicitation.  Comments should be submitted in writing to the Legal Ethics Committee in care of
OSB General Counsel Helen Hierschbiel at hhierschbiel@osbar.org by August 9.

A summary of the proposed changes can be found here, along with background information. For a side-by-side comparison of the old rules vs. new rules, see this chart.

Can I Practice “On the Side?”

Lawyers sometimes ask if they can start a law practice “on the side” while maintaining their current position.  This question raises several red flags.

Conflicts of Interest

Assuming your employer agrees to let you “moonlight” (and that’s a big assumption), you must address potential conflicts.  At first blush, you might think this concern applies only to lawyers who currently work in a law firm and wish to “work on the side” in a solo practice.  Not true!  If your other job is working as a real estate broker, mortgage broker, financial planner, psychologist, mediator, arbitrator, etc., you must also screen for conflicts.

In her article, Multidisciplinary practice: When Wearing Two Hats May Get You Burned  OSB General Counsel Helen Hierschbiel points out:

Recognizing and avoiding conflicts of interest is one of the more common concerns for lawyers who have side businesses, particularly when their clients do business with those other companies. Oregon RPC 1.7(a)(2) provides that a current conflict of interest exists if “there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer…” Thus, when there is a significant risk that a lawyer’s personal or other financial interests in a non-legal business will materially limit the lawyer’s responsibilities to a client, that lawyer has a conflict under RPC 1.7(a)(2).

In addition, when a lawyer’s side business is doing business with the lawyer’s client, consideration must be given to the limitations set forth in RPC 1.8(a), which provides more stringent requirements for obtaining client consent than those under RPC 1.7(b). RPC 1.8(a) provides:

A lawyer shall not enter into a business transaction with a client or knowingly acquire an ownership, possessory, security or other pecuniary interest adverse to a client unless:

1. The transaction and terms on which the lawyer acquires the interest are fair and reasonable to the client and are fully disclosed and transmitted in writing in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client;

2. The client is advised in writing of the desirability of seeking and is given a reasonable opportunity to seek the advice of independent legal counsel on the transaction; and

3. The client gives informed consent, in a writing signed by the client, to the essential terms of the transaction and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction.

Other Ethical Concerns

A “side practice” coupled with another job also raises potential concerns about advertising, solicitation, and fee sharing.  Here are Helen’s comments:

Advertising
“Oregon RPC 7.1 generally provides that any communication about a lawyer may not be false or misleading. Determining whether a statement is false may be simple, but assessing whether it is misleading can be more difficult. The cautious approach in making that assessment requires considering how the statement is likely to be interpreted by an unsophisticated consumer. Thus, OSB Formal Op 2005-108 concludes that a lawyer who has an active mediation practice may advertise the practice under “counselors — marriage, family, child and individual” sections of the yellow pages as long as the advertisement reflects the lawyer’s status as a lawyer offering mediation services.”

Solicitation
“Lawyers should also take care to observe the ban on in-person solicitation of legal business when providing non-legal services. The non-legal business may not be used to solicit clients with legal needs in a manner that violates RPC 7.3… (L)awyers would be wise to exercise extra caution when confronted in their non-legal business with an individual who has legal needs as well.”

Fee Sharing
“… (L)awyers should be mindful when setting up an ancillary business, not to allow non-lawyers any control or influence over their law practice.”

Employment Law and Liability Implications

Before you set up a side practice, check your employer’s policy and personnel manuals.  Some employers prohibit moonlighting altogether, others require preapproval of “outside employment activities.”  If you are a contract lawyer and a true independent contractor you should be completely free to have your own solo practice and perform contract work for other lawyers.  Be sure the principal lawyers who hire you agree.  Review the Practical Contract Lawyering CLE on the PLF Web site > Programs on CD/DVD for more information on setting up a contract practice.  Query:  If a lawyer commits malpractice in the course and scope of his or her “side practice,” could the lawyer’s primary law firm employer be held vicariously liable?  (Food for thought…. as clients have attempted to hold firms responsible for the negligence of “sole practitioners” who were leasing space in the firm’s office suite.)

Professional Liability Coverage

Lawyers engaged in the private practice of law in the State of Oregon are required to carry professional liability coverage through the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund.  This requirement applies equally to full-time and part-time practitioners.  In other words, if you are a lawyer in private practice in Oregon (as defined in the PLF plan), it does not matter whether you provide legal services 50 hours per week or 10 hours per week – coverage is required in either case – and the cost of coverage does not vary based on the hours worked.  With that said, liability coverage in Oregon is complex.  Your best bet is to contact our coverage experts Jeff Crawford or Emilee Preble for more information.

Is it Worth it?

It may not be.  If you are not an active member of the Oregon State Bar, it will be necessary to pay bar dues.  If you intend to engage in the private practice of law and require professional liability coverage, the cost is $3500 per year (assuming coverage is not prorated and no discounts apply).  To assess whether a “side practice” makes sense, go through all the steps you would normally follow to set up a full-time law practice.  This includes forming an entity (or not), naming your business, choosing a space option, developing a business plan and budget, opening appropriate bank accounts, consulting with a CPA, creating (and implementing) a marketing plan, and establishing office systems.  If it sounds like your proposed “side practice” is getting more complicated by the minute, it is.  Don’t assume setting up a “side practice” is any less work than committing to the full-time private practice of law.

Now What?

Oregon lawyers are welcome to contact the practice management advisors at the PLF any time with questions about “side practice” or related issues.  If you are outside Oregon, follow this link to find a practice management advisor in your state.

Copyright 2012 Beverly Michaelis