Probate Stars is a form of joint legal advertising. The Texas Bar regulates attorney advertising, pursuant to a set of rules in the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. Texas regulates lawyer referral services in terms of who may operate a referral site, and in terms of what activities are permitted and prohibited. If Probate Stars is considered to be a lawyer referral service pursuant to the Texas Lawyer Referral Services Quality Assurance Act, the site would need to be registered with the State of Texas and comply with its rules. If Probate Stars is not a lawyer referral service, it is not subject to oversight from the State of Texas, although each individual lawyer would still need to follow the rules on lawyer advertising, such as not publishing false or misleading information.
The Texas Bar has issued an opinion on whether a web site constitutes a lawyer referral service subject to regulation by the State of Texas. Opinion 561, issued August, 2005, holds that a website where consumers send in to the website their information and the website then responds with one or more qualified lawyers to contact is a lawyer referral service. Language in the opinion, however, draws a strong contrast between the web site that was the subject of the opinion, and Probate Stars, which leads to the conclusion that Probate Stars is not itself subject to regulation.
A consumer who desires to utilize the service typically fills out a form on the web page for the Internet Service. The form asks for basic information such as name, address, telephone number, date of incident, and a description of the problem for which the person is seeking legal assistance. The Internet Service then emails the consumer’s information to one or more lawyers who have registered with or subscribed to the service so that the lawyer or lawyers can contact the consumer. The Internet Service is not involved in any way in a participating lawyer’s providing legal services to a consumer.
The Internet Service collects information on the internet from a consumer and that person’s information and legal issues are then conveyed by the Internet Service to one or more of the lawyers who have registered with or subscribed to the Internet Service by paying a fee. The services provided by the Internet Service are not advertising or public relations services as allowed by Rule 7.03(b). The Internet Service is instead a service to solicit or refer prospective clients to subscribing lawyers who have paid a fee, and it is thus an arrangement prohibited by Rule 7.03(b).
A defining characteristic of soliciting or referring prospective clients is to ascertain information about a person’s legal needs and then match or connect such person with a lawyer who has experience in the area of law appropriate to the legal problem. In general, if an internet site merely provides information about participating lawyers from which a consumer chooses a lawyer or group of lawyers based on the consumer’s consideration or evaluation of that information, the site does not solicit or refer prospective clients but rather advertises for the lawyers listed. On the other hand, if an internet site is using information about participating lawyers for the purpose of identifying or selecting a lawyer or group of lawyers whose names are then suggested, offered or recommended to a consumer for consideration, the site is not advertising or providing public relations services but is rather soliciting or referring prospective clients.
Because Probate Stars provides information about lawyers from which a potential client can then choose to contact, it does not constitute a lawyer referral service, and is therefore not subject to regulation with the State of Texas.