New York State Bar v Avvo: Will the Uberization of Immigration Law Practice? Overcome Outdated Advertising Rules Governing Lawyers

Companies like Avvo are using their marketing platform to provide more opportunities for younger and solo lawyers to gain clients and thus level the playing field.  Avvo Legal Services seeks to disrupt the traditional legal model where a client seeks out a lawyer based on his or her reputation rather than on a web-based network, and the lawyer sets the fee. One of the immigration services Avvo offers is a “family based green card” for $2995 that involves preparing and filing the requisite forms, but no representation at an adjustment of status interview or to respond to a Request for Evidence.  The consumer pays $2995 to Avvo directly, but may choose the attorney in the Avvo network that they want to work with. That attorney has 24 hours to directly contact the consumer/client, and do the work as they would any other client. When the work is completed, Avvo releases the funds to the attorney, and in a separate transaction withdraws from the attorney’s account a $400 marketing fee.

Under this unique business model, which I have termed as the Uberization of immigration practice in a prior blog,  the immigration attorney is contracting with Avvo as a vendor to gain clients and business through its superior marketing reach. Avvo views this new service as benefitting both lawyers and clients. The lawyer will rely on Avvo to get business and also get paid easily, without keeping track of billable hours or worrying about trust accounts. It would also help lawyers build their practices as it would lead to further work by the same client, according to Avvo.  The client is also benefitted as s/he will get access to a legal service that is both affordable and fixed, and will also understand exactly what legal service is being purchased. Avvo Legal Service should be distinguished from the “Avvo rating” a lawyer may receive, which is ethically permissible.

The question is whether paying the marketing fee to Avvo is ethically impermissible when an attorney receives a matter through the Avvo legal services platform.  The New York State Bar issued Ethics Opinion 1132 holding that a lawyer may not pay the current marketing fee to participate in Avvo Legal Services because the fee includes an improper payment for a recommendation in violation of New York Rule 7.2(a). Under 7.2(a), “a lawyer shall not compensate or give anything of value to a person or organization to recommend or obtain employment by a client, or as a reward for having made a recommendation resulting in employment by a client…” At issue for the NYSBA Committee on Professional Ethics was whether the lawyer is paying the fee to obtain marketing and advertising services from Avvo or whether it was giving Avvo something of value to recommend the lawyer to clients. The former scenario would not be a violation of Rule 7.2(a) while the latter would be. The NYSBA, in concluding that paying a marketing fee violated Rule 7.2(a),  analyzed Avvo’s business model in great detail. Avvo gives each lawyer a rating from a scale of 1 to 10. While Avvo never describes a rating as a recommendation, the NYSBA opined that the Avvo website extols the benefits of being able to work with highly-rated lawyers.  While a lawyer is not precluded from advertising bona fide professional ratings generated by third parties in advertisements, Avvo is not a third party, according to the NYSBA,  as it benefits financially if potential clients hire the lawyers rated by Avvo. The NYSBA’s conclusion was bolstered by Avvo’s satisfaction guarantee by which the client is guaranteed a refund of the full amount, even Avvo’s marketing fee, if the client is not satisfied. “This guarantee contributes to the impression that Avvo is ‘recommending’ the lawyers on its service because it stands behind them to the extent of refunding payment if the client is not satisfied,” according to the NYSBA.

While the NYSBA dwelt a lot on what constitutes a recommendation under Rule 7.2(a), it skirted discussing whether the Avvo service would in reality compromise the attorney’s ability to competently represent the client. That analysis is more relevant than whether there was a violation of an archaic advertising rule.  There is a growing recognition that the advertising rules governing lawyers are outdated and need an update in light of the use of social media by attorneys to both market and communicate with clients. Many immigration lawyers, firms, and non-profits providing legal services to indigent clients rely on social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. They use social media not just for advertising but also as part of advocacy efforts to raise awareness on immigration issues. If any message disseminated on social media constitutes an attorney advertisement, it triggers additional requirements that may be impossible to comply with in a social media post. Reform of the advertising rules should focus on should focus primarily on lawyer communications that are false or misleading. All other requirements in an advertisement such as requiring the words “Attorney Advertising” and requiring the name, principal law office address and telephone number of the law firm are outdated in an era dominated by tweets.

Rather than focus on the advertising rules that are outdated, including splitting hairs on what constituted a recommendation under Rule 7.2(a), the NYSBA could have opined on other aspects of the Avvo service that limits both the competence and independence of the attorney.

The NYSBA highlighted three salient issues, which it said it was not deciding on:

  • The fact that Avvo sets the amount of the legal fee for each service raises questions about whether a participating lawyer can deliver competent legal services for Avvo’s chosen price and whether a lawyer is allowing Avvo to interfere in the lawyer’s independent professional judgment regarding how much time to spend on a matter.
  • The marketing fee raises questions about whether lawyers who participate in Avvo Legal Services are improperly sharing legal fees with a nonlawyer.2
  • Avvo’s satisfaction guarantee raises questions about confidentiality. If clients call Avvo to complain, does the “documentation” that Avvo asks for or receives include “confidential information” within the meaning of Rule 1.6(a)?  How does Avvo avoid receiving confidential information when evaluating whether to refund the legal fee a client has paid through Avvo?

Even if we leave alone the concerns of fee splitting with a non-lawyer, a “family -based green card” is not like ordering a ride through Uber, where you know that any driver in a functioning vehicle and GPS, will take you to your destination.  But unlike an Uber car ride, there are many traps and pitfalls in family -based immigration practice, even when it appears relatively straight forward. One’s eligibility for adjustment of status based on a marriage to a US citizen spouse is also subject to variables. If the client’s arrival in the US was not through a straight forward inspection at a port of entry, then the case immediately becomes more complex. If the client is potentially inadmissible for a host of reasons, including claiming to be a US citizen when seeking employment many years ago, that too would throw the Avvo $2,995 family based green card package out of the window. The client will disappointingly realize that the Avvo family green card package and price is virtually meaningless, and would rather seek out an attorney who has the reputation and expertise to handle difficult family -based immigration cases. There are other variations even if the client appears prima facie eligible to adjust status. For example, the marriage may have been bona fide at its inception, but the spouses are quarreling and living separately, and still desire to cooperate on the green card for the sake of the children. This too requires the agile immigration attorney to appropriately advocate for the client by educating and allaying the suspicion of malevolent intent by a USCIS examiner that the marriage presently under consideration not be viable so long as it was bona fide at its inception. See Matter of Boromand, 17 I&N Dec. 450 (BIA 1980); Matter of McKee, 17 I&N Dec. 332 (BIA 1980).

There are other problematic aspects of immigration legal services provided by Avvo.  It offers a 15-minute immigration advice session for $39. After 15 minutes, the telephone line gets cut off. It is difficult to provide a comprehensive consultation on an immigration law issue in 15 minutes. While the client may have the option of following up with the attorney, the very fact that Avvo suggests that a 15-minute consultation can satisfy the client’s need in a complex area of the law may be misleading. Avvo also provides a service where an attorney will review immigration applications that the client has prepared pro se, but that is fraught with dangers and pitfalls as referenced in the marriage example preceding. 8 CFR 1003.102(t) provides for sanction of an immigration practitioner who fails to submit a Notice of Entry of Appearance as Attorney or Representative who has engaged in practice or preparation. Under the terms of the Avvo arrangement, since the client will be filing pro se after the attorney reviews it, the attorney will not be able to submit a Notice of Appearance if the attorney’s review of the form is considered to be “practice or preparation.” Presumably Avvo, as an intermediary in connecting a potential client to a lawyer and as a non -legal entity, would not be entering a Notice of Appearance.

The NYSBA opinion has been issued by a voluntary organization and is non-binding. To the best of this author’s knowledge, no New York lawyers have been disciplined because they paid a marketing fee to Avvo. Other state bars have also issued opinions,  here, here and here,  that raise concerns about fee splitting. Fee splitting is a concern if it undermines the independence of the lawyer. Avvo says it does not as it is made totally transparent to the consumer of legal services and could be a violation of the First Amendment. The key issue is that a client who uses Avvo Legal Services should be made completely aware of the scope of the services and its variation, which at least in the immigration context, may not be the case. Perhaps, one way to alleviate the concern of a bar association’s professional ethics committee is to make sure that the lawyer and prospective client have a phone call first to discuss the scope of the matter before the client purchases the service on the Avvo platform. If the issues presented by the prospective client are more complex than advertised, then Avvo should provide the ability for the lawyer to modify the fees based on the new scope of representation. As Avvo has pointed out, the NYSBA opinion “actively discourages lawyers from using technology to reach out to clients who see an increasing gap between them and meaningful access to the legal system.”     This may be true, but the consumer must also be made aware whether his or her case fits the service that Avvo markets on behalf of the law. A lawyer may undertake limited representation and unbundle legal services, which Avvo facilitates, but the limitation must be reasonable under the circumstances pursuant to New York Rule 1.2(c). Thus, the 15-minute consultation should probably be extended to at least 30 minutes or even longer. Perhaps, the service promoted by Avvo of reviewing a pro se client’s naturalization or I-130 petition should be halted unless some understanding is reached by the disciplinary counsel in the Department of Homeland Security and the Executive Office for Immigration Review regarding the scope of 8 CFR 1003.102(t).

NYSBA Formal Opinion 1132 against Avvo will not be the last word. The professional ethics committee of the NYSBA too acknowledges that the “lawyers and clients who are using Avvo Legal Services suggest that the company fills a need that more traditional methods of marketing and providing legal services are not meeting” and “[f]uture changes to Avvo’s mode of operations – or future changes to the Rules of Professional Conduct – could lead us to alter our conclusion.” For now, at least, lawyers who choose to pay a marketing fee to Avvo after they connect with a client through its platform do so at their own peril. Avvo, though, has promised to defend these lawyers if disciplinary action is taken against them.

 

Making Sense of the Acquittal in Kate Steinle’s Case: Why Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Equating Immigrants with Criminals Must Stop

Kate Steinle’s death was a senseless tragedy. On July 1, 2015, as she was walking along San Francisco’s Pier 14, a gun goes off and cuts her life short. She died in her father’s arms.

The accused, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, is an undocumented Mexican immigrant who had been deported five times before, and each time, has illegally come back into the United States. He was charged with murder and manslaughter, but the jury recently acquitted him of the charges. His acquittal has inflamed President Trump who calls the verdict a travesty of justice. He uses the acquittal as another reason to build the wall. If Mr. Garcia Zarate did not cross the border illegally, Kate would still be alive today, Trump and his supporters argue.

But Mr. Garcia Zarate’s immigration status was not relevant. In the criminal justice system, the twelve jurors were asked to look at the facts and deliberated hard for six days. The key issue was whether the defendant intentionally killed the victim? Immigration status was not part of the jury’s deliberations and should not have been, however much Trump and his supporters may insist. Evidence was presented in the trial that the bullet had ricocheted before killing Ms. Steinle. The jury determined that  Mr. Garcia Zarate did not intentionally kill her.  Mr. Garcia Zarate was nevertheless convicted for felony possession of a weapon and will face prison time. After he completes his sentence, Mr. Garcia Zarate will presumably be deported to Mexico for the sixth time.

In order to have a fair criminal trial, which the United States ensures for all defendants, immigration status should never be relevant and thus not admissible evidence. The only question in court was whether the defendant intentionally fired the gun. As the facts were presented, Mr. Garcia Zarate, a homeless immigrant living in the country illegally, unwrapped a cloth object under a bench on a San Francisco pier. Inside the cloth was a gun that had been stolen days before.  During the presidential campaign, Trump exploited Kate’s unfortunate death to conflate immigrants with criminals, foment hate, inspire a mass deportation program and to catapult him into the presidency. Trump continues to rage and exploit Ms. Steinle’s unfortunate death to further his anti-immigration policies. He says this in a recent tweet:

The Kate Steinle killer came back and back over the weakly protected Obama border, always committing crimes and being violent, and yet this info was not used in court. His exoneration is a complete travesty of justice. BUILD THE WALL!

Mr. Garcia Zarate may have been an undocumented person who illegally crossed the border many times. But that fact would not have changed the outcome as Mr. Garcia Zarate’s border crossings in violation of law were not the proximate cause of Ms. Steinle’s death. If Mr. Garcia Zarate had not picked up the gun at that fateful moment, and if another homeless person born in the United States picked up the same gun, Ms. Steinle may have still been killed. The fact that a person may have crossed the border illegally does not make them a criminal with a tendency to commit even more crimes in the United States. The criminal justice system can fairly deal with people accused of crimes, whether they may be immigrants or US citizens.

To be clear, Mr. Garcia Zarate is no model immigrant. He is not a Dreamer or a STEM graduate. Still, he got a fair trial in our criminal justice system even though he was unable to afford fancy lawyers. Most immigrants, however, are hardworking and honest, trying to make better lives for themselves, while also benefiting the United States. They are also valiantly trying to legalize their status in an immigration system that urgently needs an upgrade. Indeed, a Cato Institute report establishes that immigrants, even undocumented immigrants, commit lesser crimes than native Americans. It is irresponsible to use this tragic incident to scapegoat all immigrants or to drum up support for mass deportations of millions of people. It would also not be in keeping with Ms. Steinle’s memory if her death results in hate and misery fomented by white nationalist groups.

Ms. Steinle’s death was also used as a basis for the Trump administration to oppose sanctuary jurisdictions. Mr. Garcia Zarate had completed a nearly four-year federal prison sentence for illegally reentering the country. He was turned over to San Francisco law enforcement officials because of an outstanding warrant for a marijuana-related charge that was immediately dismissed. Local officials released him, despite a request from federal authorities to keep him in custody because of his immigration status, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Steinle’s family. The Trump administration issued an executive order in January 2017 to articulate its broadened enforcement policy against undocumented immigrants, which among other things sought to  block federal funds from “sanctuary jurisdictions.”

The January executive order stated, “Sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States. These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.” The executive order said, among other things, that the policy of the executive branch is to “[e]nsure that jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable Federal law do not receive Federal funds, except as mandated by law.” The order further said that the Secretary of Homeland Security has the authority to designate a jurisdiction as a sanctuary jurisdiction, and that the Attorney General can take “appropriate enforcement action” against any entity that “has in effect a statute, policy, or practice that prevents or hinders the enforcement of Federal law.”

Following lawsuits by the counties of San Francisco and Santa Clara, California, federal district Judge William H. Orrick ruled against a provision of the Trump administration’s executive order issued in January 2017 to block federal funds from “sanctuary jurisdictions.”  The counties challenging the executive order argued that the relevant provision of the Trump executive order violated the separation of powers doctrine in the Constitution because it improperly sought to wield congressional spending powers. The counties said it was so overbroad and coercive that even if the President had spending powers, the executive order would clearly exceed them and violate the Tenth Amendment’s prohibition against commandeering local jurisdictions. Further, the counties argued that the provision was so vague that it violated the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and was void for vagueness. And because it sought to deprive local jurisdictions of congressionally allocated funds without any notice or opportunity to be heard, it violated the procedural due process requirements of the Fifth Amendment.

The federal government responded that the counties could not demonstrate that the executive order’s sanctuary provision was invalid under all circumstances. It also claimed, among other things, that the provision was consistent with the Constitution’s separation of powers and did not apply to funding in which the county might have a constitutionally protectable interest.

The court noted that the provision in question, by its plain language, attempted to reach all federal grants. The rest of the executive order was broader still, the court noted, addressing all federal funding. And if there was any doubt about the scope of the executive order, the court observed, the President and Attorney General “erased it with their public comments.” The court noted that the President has called the order “a weapon” to use against jurisdictions that disagree with his preferred policies of immigration enforcement, and his press secretary reiterated that the President intends to ensure that “counties and other institutions that remain sanctuary cites don’t get federal government funding in compliance with the executive order.” The Attorney General has warned that jurisdictions that do not comply would suffer “withholding grants, termination of grants, and disbarment or ineligibility for future grants,” and the “claw back” of any funds previously awarded, the court noted.

The court said that the Constitution vests spending powers in Congress, not the President, so the executive order “cannot constitutionally place new conditions on federal funds.” Further, the court noted, the Tenth Amendment “requires that conditions on federal funds be unambiguous and timely made; that they bear some relation to the funds at issue; and that they not be unduly coercive.” Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement “cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration enforcement strategy of which the President disapproves,” the court said. Because the executive order violates the separation of powers doctrine and deprives the counties of their Tenth and Fifth Amendment rights, the court granted the counties’ motions for summary judgment and permanently enjoined the defunding and enforcement provisions of the executive order.

Despite the injunction, and following the acquittal verdict in the Stienle case, anti-immigrant rhetoric equating immigrants with criminals continues to intensify as the Administration ramps up its deportation force, doubles down on cruel deportation tactics, and attacks policies put in place by local police and sheriffs to keep their communities safe. The hateful rhetoric must stop. Entangling local law enforcement with deportations undermines trust and safety.  Local law enforcement has repeatedly come out in favor of so-called “sanctuary” policies, not the least because honoring detainers issued by ICE has led to counties being liable when courts have found that a person’s constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment were abridged when someone was detained without a judicial warrant or court order. When immigrants come to view their local police and sheriffs with distrust because they fear deportation, it encourages criminals to prey upon victims and witnesses alike. Victims of domestic and other violence choose to suffer in silence rather than seek assistance; key witnesses of crime refuse to come forward out of fear that they themselves will be treated as a criminal; and a climate of fear grips entire neighborhoods. Regardless of the passions generated in the Steinle case, cities and localities need to make pragmatic, rational choices about how to best make and keep their city/locality safe. The decision to disentangle local policing from immigration enforcement promotes community trust and the federal government should not interfere with this local policy making. Indeed, such a disentanglement will be more effective in preventing crime.

America has been a nation of immigrants since its inception over 240 years ago, while it has been just over a year since ugly anti-immigration sentiment has been unleashed through Trump’s rise. Over these two centuries, there has also been a recognition that those who are accused of crimes face a fair trial in the United States regardless of where they come from or their immigration status. It is hoped that these bedrock principles grounded in the nation’s history and character will withstand the xenophobic stirrings of the moment.