Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent article in The Florida Bar News which provides information about the recent decisions of the Florida Bar’s Standing Committee on Advertising (SCA) which overturned Bar Advertising staff opinions and opined that lawyers may join an organization that promotes networking between professionals as long as the lawyer does not personally solicit cases or make referrals to another professional as a quid pro quo for getting referrals and that lawyers may refer to themselves as “we” in advertisements.
The SCA met on June 27, 2013 in conjunction with The Florida Bar Convention in Boca Raton, Florida. One of the issues on the SCA’s agenda was whether lawyer participation in the networking organization, Business Network International (BNI). Staff Counsel drafted an informal opinion finding that participation in the networking organization would violate the Bar Rules, although a majority of the Bar staff believed that membership in BNI would not violate the Bar rules.
The Bar Ethics and Advertising Counsel stated that the staff’s concerns were that there is a potential for solicitation and a potential for conflicts of interest if a lawyer is referring to another person whom they met through BNI which might not in the client’s best interest, but would in the lawyer’s personal interest because the lawyer may receive more referrals. Another Bar concern was whether BNI operated as a de facto referral service, which would require it to comply with Bar lawyer referral service rules before lawyers could join a BNI chapter.
The author of this Ethics Alert appeared at the SCA meeting representing the lawyer who appealed the staff opinion and argued that BNI was not a referral service but akin to a civic group such as the Rotary Club, where lawyers might receive referrals by becoming members and that it is not unethical to belong to those groups. In addition, the BNI rules specifically permit its members to follow the requirements of the ethics rules which govern their professions, including lawyers. The Chair of the SCA voiced his concerns about the local chapter in his area; however, after discussion, the SCA voted unanimously to reverse staff and issue an opinion that joining a BNI chapter does not violate Florida Bar rules as long as the lawyer does not solicit cases or make referrals to another professional as a quid pro quo for obtaining referrals from that individual.
With regard to the issue of whether a sole practitioner may use the word “we” in advertisements, Bar Advertising Counsel reminded the SCA that the Bar’s Board of Governors had previously set a policy that sole practitioners cannot refer to themselves as “we” in an advertisement since it implies more than one lawyer works at the firm; however, notwithstanding the BOG policy, the SCA voted unanimously to overturn Bar staff’s opinion that the attorney’s advertisement violated the Bar Rules and issue an opinion stating that this does not violate the Bar Rules; however, the decision will now be reported to The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors which could take steps to reverse it.
Bottom line: If you belong to BNI or another professional networking organization, the good news is that you can stay a member, as long as you comply with the Bar Rules. If you are not a member, you can certainly now join. Also, according the SCA’s decision, a lawyer who is a sole practitioner may use the word “we’ in advertisements.
Be careful out there!
Disclaimer: this e-mail does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.
Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670