Discount Law on Groupon: Consumer Book or Ripoff?

Does it cheapen the profession, or just legal fees?

Hila Raz
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Hila Raz

Here's a Groupon offer for you: NIS 555 to have a lawyer draft your will, NIS 399 for a family law consultation, and NIS 1,199 for a pre-nup. Apparently the Israel Bar Association is not amused.

This was the first time the discount website was offering cut-rate legal services, alongside its more standard offers such as comforters, discounts on restaurants and perfume.

"How often have you wanted to ask a legal question? Get some direction? Consult someone professional? To know what you're entitled to? Everyone knows that knowledge is power. For the first time on Groupon  an exclusive and unique service a two-hour legal consultation for you to ask questions," states the ad, noting that the regular price for the consultation is NIS 900, the will goes for NIS 1,500 and the pre-nup is worth NIS 3,000.

The services are being offered by Vilman and Partners, a firm that shares office space with the Ramat Gan courthouse. However, offering discounts as a means of advertising legal services goes against the bar association's ethics code, said Dr. Limor Zer-Gutman, head of the legal ethics center at the College of Management Academic Studies. That ruling, by the bar's advertising consultation committee, was published in a professional journal in January. "The decision by the committee is binding, and violators may be brought in for a disciplinary hearing before the bar's ethics committee. The decision is very clear, and it forbids advertising via discount websites."

The committee made its ruling after it was contacted by a firm that said it had been broached by one of the discount sites. The committee determined that it could not participate, and published the decision on the bar's website as well as in the journal, which was sent to all registered attorneys.

In the United States a fierce debate is being held over whether lawyers should be allowed to advertise via discount sites, said Zer-Gutman. While regulations governing how lawyers can advertise their services are relatively lax there, only one state, New York, has permitted them to do so, and even in this case it's limited, she said.

In the United States the authorities are limiting this form of advertising due to concerns about misleading consumers. In Israel an added consideration is the profession's honor, said Zer-Gutman. "Discounts cheapen lawyers and turn them into service providers like restaurants or bowling alleys, instead of being members of an honorable profession. This hurts their image, so even if the advertising options available to lawyers are expanded, we can presume that discount sites will still be off-limits," she said.

However, Zer-Gutman said her main concern was that consumers could be misled.

"This has potential to hurt the simpler people. The concern is that the discounts could pull them into the firm's office, and once there, they could wind up paying more because their legal situation is more complicated andrequires more work. People will agree to pay because they're already there, and thus will have been misled by the advertising," she said.

The bar stated in response: "The bar's national ethics committee stated in the past that advertising via discount sites is forbidden, as it violates the ban on lobbying and the restrictions on advertising. After the bar was notified of the above case today, it contacted the website as well as the firm whose services were being advertised and asked that the campaign be taken down, since it violates ethics rules."

Attorney Hadar Vilman, whose firm was advertising its services, stated: "Ourfirm is motivated by its social and public mission. We believe that everyone should be able to receive top-notch legal services. Given the social protest and the burden facing the middle class, we choose to work pro bono as part of a bar project, offering our services for free to people of lesser means via the website [for giveaways] Agora and do all we can to give back part of the prosperity we gain from the public.

"Advertising on Groupon does not violate the bar's rules," said Vilman. "Rather, it goes hand in hand with the bar's agenda of enabling appropriate representation for all."