Groupon For Lawyers

If you are making a list of things that Oliver Wendell Holmes never thought about, add this one. A North Carolina law firm is seeking guidance from the North Carolina State Bar Association on whether it can participate in a Groupon promotion. And the preliminary response is no. As a little background, Groupon is an alternative to traditional advertising” that uses “collective buying power.”

According to its website, Groupon negotiates on a case-by-case basis with businesses that are interested in offering a deal. After an agreement is reached, Groupon writes the ad copy and sends out an “email blast” to registered customers who have signed up to receive the daily deal. Customers who want the deal pay for it on the Groupon website with a credit card. So the North Carolina firm wants to know, can it offer a “Groupon” rate for a specific service? And the North Carolina bar’s preliminary conclusion is that the plan violates the ethics rule that prohibits a law firm from splitting fees for legal services with a non-lawyer (we lawyers generally frown on splitting our fees with anyone). Since Groupon would technically get a percentage of the fee paid to the firm, this is a problem. On the flip side, however, there’s a pretty solid argument that the fee to Groupon is nothing more than an advertising fee. And as anyone who has seen an Elk & Elk commercial knows, lawyers can advertise. We’ll see. Of course, the marriage of Groupon and law firms may present some more practical problems. Like for instance, what happens if it turns out the Groupon customer presents a conflict of interest to the law firm? That’s not a problem for just about any other Groupon participant, and it’s not clear whether there’s any mechanism for a refund. How ironic would it be if that situation led to a lawsuit?