Regulating For-Profit Lawyer Referral Services

Discussions of for-profit lawyer referral services have become more and more prevalent in recent months.  These conversations mostly stem from concerns related to misleading advertising and the regulation or lack of regulation of the advertising presented by these types of agencies.  Currently, The Florida Bar does not directly regulate private referral services operated by non-lawyers.  It can, however, monitor and prohibit Bar members from working with agencies who do not follow Bar regulations.  This includes The Florida Bar advertising rules.

Other concerns that have arisen related to non-lawyer referral services:

  • In order for The Florida Bar to take any action against an attorney who is using a service that has violated the Bar advertising guidelines, the service would have to give the names of the Bar members using the service.
  • For the Bar to take any disciplinary action on a member who uses a service that has violated Bar rules, the lawyer would also have to know about the advertising.

During a meeting on May 27, 2011, The Florida Bar Board of Governors voted to approve an extensive revision of the rules governing lawyer advertising.  The proposed rules will be submitted to the Florida Supreme Court for review in the beginning of July.  As the concerns surrounding lawyer referral services increase, Proposed Rule 4-7.12 addressing some of the concerns with Lawyer Referral Services will be on the table for discussion and possible approval.

This is the full text of the proposed rule regarding Lawyer Referral Services:

RULE 4-7.12 LAWYER REFERRAL SERVICES [current rule 4-7.10 with new subdivision (a)(12)]

(a) A lawyer may not accept referrals from a lawyer referral service, and it is a violation of these Rules Regulating The Florida Bar to do so, unless the service:

(1) engages in no communication with the public and in no direct contact with prospective clients in a manner that would violate the Rules of Professional Conduct if the communication or contact were made by the lawyer;

(2) receives no fee or charge that constitutes a division or sharing of fees, unless the service is a not-for-profit service approved by The Florida Bar pursuant to chapter 8 of these rules;

(3) refers clients only to persons lawfully permitted to practice law in Florida when the services to be rendered constitute the practice of law in Florida;

(4) carries or requires each lawyer participating in the service to carry professional liability insurance in an amount not less than $100,000 per claim or occurrence;

(5) furnishes The Florida Bar, on a quarterly basis, the names and Florida bar membership numbers of all lawyers participating in the service;

(6) furnishes The Florida Bar, on a quarterly basis, the names of all persons authorized to act on behalf of the service;

(7) responds in writing, within 15 days, to any official inquiry by bar counsel when bar counsel is seeking information described in this subdivision or conducting an investigation into the conduct of the service or a lawyer who accepts referrals from the service;

(8) neither represents nor implies to the public that the service is endorsed or approved by The Florida Bar, unless the service is subject to chapter 8 of these rules;

(9) uses its actual legal name or a registered fictitious name in all communications with the public;

(10) affirmatively states in all advertisements that it is a lawyer referral service; and

(11) affirmatively states in all advertisements that lawyers who accept referrals from it pay to participate in the lawyer referral service.

(b) A lawyer who accepts referrals from a lawyer referral service is responsible for ensuring that any advertisements or written communications used by the service comply with the requirements of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, including the provisions of this subchapter.

(c) A “lawyer referral service” is:

(1) any person, group of persons, association, organization, or entity that receives a fee or charge for referring or causing the direct or indirect referral of a potential client to a lawyer drawn from a specific group or panel of lawyers; or

(2) any group or pooled advertising program operated by any person, group of persons, association, organization, or entity wherein the legal services advertisements utilize a common telephone number or website and potential clients are then referred only to lawyers or law firms participating in the group or pooled advertising program.  A pro bono referral program, in which the participating lawyers do not pay a fee or charge of any kind to receive referrals or to belong to the referral panel, and are undertaking the referred matters without expectation of remuneration, is not a lawyer referral service within the definition of this rule.

For the full report on the proposed rules from May 27, 2011, click here.

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