Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will update my previous Alert which discussed the decision of The Florida Bar’s Standing Committee on Advertising (SCA) to overturn a Bar Advertising staff opinion and opine that lawyers may join an organization which promotes networking between professionals such as Business Networking International (BNI) as long as the lawyer does not personally solicit clients or cases and does not make referrals to another professional either for a payment or as a quid pro quo for obtaining future referrals. The Bar’s Ethics and Advertising Department has now issued Staff Opinion 31937 (Revised), which incorporates the decision of the Standing Committee.
As I previously indicated, in response to a request from a member of The Florida Bar, a Bar Ethics and Advertising Staff Counsel drafted an advisory opinion finding that participation in the networking organization would violate the Florida Bar Rules. At the June 27, 2013 meeting of the SCA, 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 argued to the SCA 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 either for payment or as a quid pro quo for obtaining referrals from that individual.
Bottom line: Again, 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.
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