Got $39? You can talk to a lawyer -- for 15 minutes

Avvo, the legal forum and lawyer directory website, has launched a new platform for lawyers to dispense legal advice - all distilled into a 15-minute consultation.

Called Avvo Advisor, the service will tap into a network of attorneys in nine practice areas and across 15 states, including Maryland, and charge users $39 to talk with a lawyer over the phone for a quarter of an hour.

The service seems like a win for both parties - users of the website or iOS app are guaranteed a call from an attorney within 15 minutes of submitting payment and contact information, as well as a full refund if they aren't satisfied with their experience, and Avvo passes along the full $39 to the lawyer after the phone consultation is complete.

However, several attorneys have said the time constraints of the service would render it almost impossible for them to gather the necessary facts from a client and provide useful guidance.

"On the one hand, I'm all for anything that gives people access to legal advice and gets them one step closer to being able to find a result to whatever problem they have," said Hayley Tamburello, who opened a solo firm practicing immigration law in Baltimore. "For immigration law, at least, it's really hard to tell anything in 15 minutes. A lot of times, my clients don't even realize what type of relief they're eligible for."

Immigration is one of the nine areas of law that Avvo Advisor is advertising now; the others are small business, divorce, family, real estate, landlord-tenant, criminal defense, employment and bankruptcy/debt.

"Looking at how attorneys bill their time and what the service provides, it's another way for them to connect with clients who need that legal advice and fill unbillable time periods," said Avvo spokeswoman Meghan Lockhart.

But for Tamburello's clients, the intake process often takes an hour or more, she said: many of them have to explain "basically, their life story" for her to get a clear picture of their situation.

Immigration law isn't the only practice area lawyers said is too complex to dissect in a 15-minute consultation. Attorney Kathleen Cahill said it's also not enough time to consider the nuances involved in most job-related disputes.

"Advice is very individualized, and it's given in the context of all kinds of factors in someone's life, with regard to culture and workplace and the area of employment at issue," she said. "There are a huge number of moving variables, and I find it hard to believe that people can give comprehensive legal advice of the quality I think is the standard in 15 minutes or for $39."

Her firm, The Law Offices of Kathleen Cahill LLC, provides initial consultations for free, Cahill added, and they aren't limited to a quarter of an hour.

But Evan Koslow, a family law attorney who signed up to join the Avvo Advisor network of lawyers, said part of the appeal is the ability to use the service at any time.

"If you want to speak to an attorney and it's 7:30 at night, they might not be at their office," he said. "It gives you a little more flexibility as a client looking for an answer."

Avvo's Lockhart said the company tested various time limits and prices to come up with the 15-minute, $39 plan, and found that many consumers' needs, such as understanding the fine print on a legal document or determining if they need a lawyer, can be served in that time frame. It's up to the attorney to ensure each call stays within the limit, she said.

Lawyers who participate in Avvo Advisor are also responsible for checking for conflicts and explaining the attorney-client relationship at the start of each call, she said.

As for Koslow, he said he hasn't actually given advice through Avvo Advisor yet - he's received one text from the service seeking an attorney, but was beaten to the call by another lawyer even after responding to the request in "less than a minute."

Cahill said the service might succeed as a gateway for bringing more lawyers to Avvo and as a source of business development for those attorneys who participate. Avvo does plan to charge participating attorneys a marketing fee, but the company won't disclose the amount yet, Lockhart said.

But in the immigration law world, Tamburello said, Avvo Advisor might not even see many users.

"Most of the clients I have right now, I'm not getting them through social media, and I'm not getting them through the Internet," she said. "I think that just comes down to who my client base is. I don't know if the types of clients I have now would ever find me on Avvo, just like I don't think they would ever find me on Twitter."

Avvo Advisor isn't the only fixed-fee legal service that has cropped up or expanded recently. But there's a distinction between companies that offer forms or documents - like LegalZoom, which recently teamed up with Sam's Club - and those that provide access to legal advice, like Avvo Advisor, Cahill said.

"A simple will, an uncontested divorce, that's one thing," she said. "But advising employees about the other extreme - there's nothing formulaic about it."

Published: Fri, Jan 02, 2015