Yet another e-entrepreneur with a cool idea for rendering legal services differently than via the traditional model has run into the “unauthorized practice” buzzsaw.
TIKD is a Florida startup which markets an app that allows anyone with a traffic ticket to contest the matter without ever appearing in court. It seems that the way it works (when it’s allowed to work) is that you pay the assessed fine to TIKD and upload a photo of the ticket, all using the app—no muss, no fuss.
TIKD hires a lawyer to challenge the citation and makes a profit based on the likelihood that the fine will be reduced or the ticket forgiven. If the challenge is not successful and you end up with points on your license, the fee is refunded. If you end up being required to pay more than the original fine, TIKD pays the difference.
I’m not sure what the attraction is, since you can always just mail in the fine yourself with the ticket. Maybe it’s the points angle. In any event, you don’t have to be a legal maven to see the unauthorized practice and other ethics issues raised by this plan. Having a third party hire a lawyer and then split the fee is pretty much an Ethics 101 no-no. Ditto for a lawyer helping a nonlawyer practice law. Repping someone on a ticket problem is pretty much black-letter practice of law. You kind of wonder if they ever had a lawyer look at this before they went to market.
As expected, TIKD pretty quickly ran into an unauthorized practice prosecution by the Florida bar, as did the lawyers who agreed to offer their services. It appears the genesis of some complaints was competitor Ticket Clinic, which offered low-cost legal services related to tickets using a more traditional model.Tied up in what has been described as an “endless” bar investigation and unable to find any lawyers willing to risk their licenses and livelihoods to continue providing services, TIKD recently sued the Ticket Clinic and the Florida bar in federal court, alleging anti-trust violations. Other innovators, such as an Ohio company offering online court filing, have run into similar problems. Even AVVO, which came up with a clever program in which it subcontracted online fixed-fee legal services to lawyers who actually did the legal work, has recently run afoul of state lawyer regulators.
It’s no secret that, in both the advertising and unauthorized practice arenas, most legal ethics complaints come from other lawyers who perceive their targets as illegally fishing in their private ponds. A lot of what was traditionally done by lawyers can be done quickly, cheaply and often pretty well online, sometimes with the assistance of a local lawyer working the “gig” economy for nickels and dimes.
For many young and unemployed lawyers, including those who cannot devote sufficient time for traditional employment, including single moms, working by the piece may be a viable practice model, better than driving for Uber. There’s little overhead and no need for an office, letterhead, website, staff or other headaches. You don’t need to chase clients for fees, and when you work, you get paid.
The traditional rationale for limiting legal services to licensed lawyers is to guarantee a minimum standard of quality of work; maintain a standard of character and fitness of the provider; and provide for a mechanism for complaints and regulation. Some find it enticing to contract out lead generation and client development to those better able to manage an online presence, limiting the attorney’s duties to doing simple legal piece work for fixed fees. But sharing legal fees with nonlawyers is one of the ancient sins that continue to be shunned in our practice rules.
There’s no money in doing this work for most lawyers—even the smallest players—without the economies of scale that an online regime offers. The complexity of creating a statewide or national platform to offer cheap fixed-fee services to an unsophisticated clientele is such that few solos are going to be able to create a viable business out of it. Startup entrepreneurs can do it, but while it’s OK for a lawyer to subcontract her back-office to a nonlawyer it’s not OK for a back-office operator to sub out the legal portion of the work to a lawyer and share the fee.
Some of my colleagues in practice regulation are wondering if we shouldn’t cut back on all the turf protection stuff and embrace and encourage new models for areas in which consumers aren’t buying the traditional fee-for-service model anymore. Maybe half a loaf is better than none.
Mark Dubois, a former Connecticut chief disciplinary counsel, is with Geraghty & Bonnano in New London.