Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, December 3, 2019


Page 1


Court of Appeal:

Online Outfit Is ‘Lawyer Referral Service’ Although It Does Not Analyze Claims


By a MetNews Staff Writer




An online enterprise that provides subscribing lawyers with contact information for prospective clients is a “lawyer referral service” which operates unlawfully unless certified by the State Bar, the First District Court of Appeal has declared.

Justice Tracie L. Brown of Div. Four wrote the opinion, filed Wednesday. It comes in a case in which a lawyer who signed up for the service of failed to pay his $3,000 subscription fee, was sued by the provider, and cross-complained, alleging that the website operates in contravention of Business and Professions Code §6155—which requires registration of lawyer referral services—and that his contract with it is therefore unenforceable.

The cross-complainant, Torrance estate planning and probate attorney Dorian L. Jackson, also sought to maintain a class action against alleging the illegality of its operations—and shoddiness of them—and seeking restitution under the Unfair Competition Law to lawyers who used the service.

Would-be clients fill out an online form setting forth the area of law the controversy involves and the geographical area in which legal services are desired; lawyers who are signed up for referrals in those vicinages and in connection with the type of dispute in issue are notified, and may choose to contact the potential client.

                      Trial Court Decision

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow, in a July 17, 2017 statement of decision following a separate-issue trial on the cross complaint, held that the website “does not operate a lawyer referral service,” explaining:

“… does not in fact exercise any judgment on any legal issue, that is, it does not evaluate the consumer’s input in order to generate a conclusion that a legal issue is presented, or, if so, what sort of legal skills might be appropriate, and a fortiori it does not select, i.e., offer to consumers, lawyers premised on any of those judgments.”

Disagreeing, Brown said:

“Under section 6155, it does not matter whether LegalMatch exercises judgment on an individual’s legal issues before communicating that information to a lawyer. Rather, a referral occurs when an entity directs or sends a potential client to an attorney.”

Brown’s Explanation

She elaborated:

“The fact that the subscribing lawyer evaluates the case and must affirmatively decide whether to reach out to the client does not make LegalMatch’s referral incomplete. While a subscribing lawyer may choose to decline to take a case or reach out to a client, the lawyer still receives the potential client’s information and may review the potential matter; the referral has thus already occurred even if the lawyer never speaks to the client.”

Brown continued:

“Although this communication occurs online, the situation presented by this case is thus not appreciably different than the more common, traditional scenario in which a potential client asks one attorney for assistance, the attorney instead directs the client to an attorney with expertise in that practice area, and the second attorney declines to respond. Clients in both scenarios would still have received a referral.”

Karnow said that in light of his determination that does not operate a lawyer referral service, its contention that Jackson has “unclean hands must fail.” Brown declared that “the parties and court should resolve this issue on remand.”

The case is Jackson v., A152442.


Copyright 2019, Metropolitan News Company