You’re probably familiar with Groupon. It’s a daily deal website where businesses offer discounted gift certificates to customers. If enough customers opt in, the day’s featured deal becomes available to everyone; if a predetermined quota is not sold, no one gets the gift certificate that day. Groupon makes money by taking its cut from the sales price of the certificates.
It’s common to see gift certificates for businesses like restaurants and spas offered on Groupon. But not too long ago, an attorney in Missouri ran a Groupon deal for simple estate planning services. Before taking this innovative step, he made sure he was in compliance with Missouri’s ethics rules.
Since then, state disciplinary bodies have begun to weigh in on the issue of Groupon for lawyers. In 2011, the North Carolina State Bar Council issued Formal Ethics Opinion 10, permitting a lawyer to advertise on a daily discount website, provided certain disclosures are made and certain conditions are met. The South Carolina Bar issued a similar opinion, Ethics Advisory Opinion 11-05.
And most recently, the New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics has issued an opinion setting forth guidelines for lawyers to follow when marketing services on “deal of the day” or “group coupon” websites.
The North Carolina, South Carolina, and New York opinions seem to agree that daily deal website ads do not violate rules prohibiting fee splitting because the arrangement does not give the website the opportunity to influence an attorney’s professional independence of judgment. However, they point out that this type of advertising raises other potential ethics concerns that need to be addressed before an ad would be permissible, such as uncertainty concerning the scope of an attorney’s representation and the handling of unearned fees.
Is Groupon an effective marketing move for your law firm? That’s a business question only you can answer.
The real lesson here is twofold… first, don’t be afraid to be innovative when it comes to marketing your firm’s services. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
But second, remember that ethics rules — particularly those regarding advertising — vary significantly from state to state. What is allowed in Manhattan might not be allowed in Manhattan, KS. Don’t be afraid to be innovative… but be sure to comply with your state’s rules or run your idea by your state’s attorney ethics enforcement officials.
Speaking of keeping up with ethics rules… check with your bar association, there may be an app for that!
Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M.
Associate Director of Education
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (800) 846-1555