The Internet blog TechCrunch.com has an interesting profile on a new website called SueEasy.com, which supposedly allows prospective litigants to file grievances on a variety of legal issues and then allows attorney users to sign up to advertise to those users and perhaps even bid for their work. See the TechCrunch article here. One has to wonder whether the whole thing isn’t a hoax, since the supposed founding date was April 1, 2007, (See my breaking April 1, 2008 news here), the site provides no information about its creators, and many of the functions don’t seem to work. However, the site was the subject of articles posted last October on both TechCrunch and the Wall Street Journal law blog last October, so if it is joke, it’s a pretty elaborate one.
If the site is real, it stirs up an image of a fisherman trying to catch a shark by covering himself in bait and jumping into shark-infested waters. How long, I wonder, before we see press releases from plaintiffs’ class action firms advertising a new class action filing against SueEasy.com?
Even if it isn’t legitimate, the idea of an Internet website created by nonlawyers or even lawyers licensed to practice in a given state for the purpose of matching up potential litigants all over the country with potential counsel is an intriguing one. Imagine a clearinghouse where plaintiffs’ class action lawyers could just drag and click their way to their next big case.
The idea is rife with ethical issues. Although not clear from the website itself, the WSJ blog entry suggests that interested lawyers would bid for the work. Most if not all states have ethical rules prohibiting fee sharing with nonlawyers, which includes lawyers not licensed to practice law in a given jurisdiction. Even if prospective attorneys don’t pay the website directly, the use of an anonymous website run by a third party to link prospective clients up with lawyers raises issues about compliance with ethical advertising rules, which can vary significantly from state to state. The Q & A on the website says that if you are a potential client, you post some basic information about your grievance and lawyers will contact you, raising issues about the rules prohibing certain acts of client solicitation. Moreover, any lawyer using the site would be at the mercy of the creators in terms of compliance with rules against false or misleading statements or statements of expertise or quality in lawyer advertising. The site makes statements like “you could be part of a huge settlement” and describes how the process may allow one to find “expert legal help.” The fact that the site purports to offer access to numerous different attorneys raises questions about the rules regarding how lawyers may associate.
Assuming that the site could be set up in a way that would overcome the many potential ethical issues, it is unclear whether, in the class action context at least, the site would actually result in a litigant with legitimate claim being hooked up with an attorney or firm willing to take on that client’s cause. Lawyers could simply monitor the grievances described on the website and then find their own class representatives to pursue litigation on the same theory, leaving the website and its users out of the equation entirely. Trying to capitalize on creative new class action ideas sounds like a way to make a quick buck, but if they don’t realize it already, the site’s creators will soon learn that class action lawsuits are not a place where good ideas receive much intellectual property protection. Just ask any ambitious young idealist whose big class action case has been supplanted or hijacked by a competitor’s filing.
Of course, if instead the site’s creators are just trying to generate Internet traffic, it might just work if they can keep from getting sued themselves. Hoax or not, it might be worthwhile for both plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers to keep tabs on SueEasy.com in the coming months.