LegalMatch operates an online website, www.legalmatch.com, that connects individuals to lawyers. Once individuals have completed the online intake process and accepted the terms and conditions, LegalMatch communicates the information collected during the intake process to lawyers who have subscribed to LegalMatch’s service. Only subscribing lawyers associated with the geographic location and legal category selected by the potential client receive the information. LegalMatch sends information to lawyers based solely on the client’s selection of geographic location and area of expertise. After the lawyers receive this information, each lawyer has the opportunity to affirmatively reach out to the individual. The lawyer must first utilize LegalMatch’s platform to initiate contact with the potential client. Depending on the client’s preferences, the potential client may choose to send contact information to the lawyer so that they may continue their discussion outside of the platform. Lawyers and clients negotiate between themselves to determine the parameters of their attorney-client relationship.
LegalMatch’s business model relies on yearly or multi-year subscriptions that lawyers may purchase to receive LegalMatch’s intake information. Each lawyer who purchases a subscription is slotted into a geographic location and category of legal expertise. The number of lawyers in a geographic location and category of legal expertise is limited by an algorithm (allocation system) that maintains LegalMatch’s profitability by balancing the number of clients and lawyers available.
Potential clients may use the site for free, and LegalMatch receives no fee for the successful formation of an attorney-client relationship.
In this particular case, Dorian Jackson purchased a subscription with LegalMatch, initially in the field of business litigation and then, after he was accepted, in the category of wills, trusts, and estates. When LegalMatch sued Jackson to recover unpaid subscription fees, Jackson cross-claimed, asserting that LegalMatch was an uncertified lawyer referral service that was operating in violation of California Business Code, Section 6155, which requires “lawyer referral services” to register with, and operate in conformity with minimum standards established by, the State Bar. The trial court found that LegalMatch was not a lawyer referral service, but the Court of Appeal reversed.
“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 act of sending the information to the selected lawyers constitutes and completes the referral…. 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.”
In its decision, the Court addresses LegalMatch’s argument that it does not screen a client’s issues prior to directing a client to an attorney. First, the Court held, “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…. 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.”
Jackson v. LegalMatch.com, 42 Cal.App.5th 760 (Cal. App. 4th Div. Nov. 26, 2019).