LegalMatch.com is an online service company that connects individuals seeking legal assistance to lawyers who have purchased a LegalMatch subscription. LegalMatch sued Dorian Jackson, a lawyer, when he failed to pay for the subscription. Jackson cross-claimed on the basis that LegalMatch is operating an uncertified lawyer referral service in violation of the California Business and Professions Code, rendering the subscription contract illegal and unenforceable. After a bench trial, the trial court found that LegalMatch does not engage in referral activity within the meaning of the California Business and Professions Code. But the Court of Appeal reversed.
“The introduction to the ABA Model Rules states that lawyer referral programs ‘help the client determine if the problem is truly of a legal nature by screening inquiries’ and ‘provide the client with an unbiased referral to an attorney’ capable of handling the client’s needs. Relying on the ABA Model Rules, LegalMatch argues that a lawyer referral program must screen a client’s issues prior to directing a client to an attorney. According to LegalMatch, this characterization of lawyer referral programs by the ABA should control our interpretation of California Business and Professions Code Section 6155. We disagree.
“First, when this court engages in statutory interpretation, the statutory text and purpose control. The ABA’s characterization of lawyer referral services, while perhaps illuminating, cannot supersede the plain meaning of the statutory text and the Legislature’s intent. LegalMatch directs our attention to an Alabama Supreme Court case where the ABA Model Rules were determinative in evaluating whether an advertising agency engaged in referral activity. However, the Alabama court relied on the ABA Model Rules to resolve a question of ethics, not a question of statutory interpretation like the one we face here.
“Second, the statutory language at issue precedes the ABA Model Rules’ existence. Specifically, the ABA Model Rules were published in 1993, while the relevant statutory language – including the terms ‘lawyer referral service’, ‘referring’, and ‘referral’ – was enacted in 1987 and amended in 1992.
“We thus decline to read into section 6155 an ABA-derived requirement that an entity must ‘screen’ client inquiries before it will be found to have engaged in referral activity….
“Based on the undisputed facts found by the trial court and under our interpretation of the statute, LegalMatch does engage in referral activity. As we have held, a referral occurs when an entity engages in the act of directing or sending a potential client to an attorney. The act of referring is complete when LegalMatch routes a potential client to attorneys who match the geographic location and area of practice – regardless of whether LegalMatch exercises legal judgment on an individual’s issue before communicating that information to lawyers on its panel….
“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. 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. Similarly, the act of referring is not negated by the fact that LegalMatch communicates to its subscribing lawyers the information provided by potential clients without communicating the client’s identities.
“Accordingly, when LegalMatch gathers potential clients’ geographic and case-type information and sends those potential clients to attorneys who (a) match the location and (b) have been permitted to join LegalMatch within a relevant practice area, the act of referral is complete.”
Jackson v. LegalMatch.com, 42 Cal.App.5th 760 (Cal. App. 4th Div. 2019).