Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert Update which will discuss the recent (March 8, 2018) Florida Supreme Court opinion approving amendments to Florida Bar Rule 4-7.22 related to private and for profit lawyer referrals. The amendments substantially revise the current rule, including the broadening definitions, changing the name of the referral companies to “matching services” and “qualifying providers”, prohibiting fee splitting, and removing the previously required disclaimer that the entity is a lawyer referral service. The Court’s opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2018/sc16-1470.pdf The rule amendments are effective April 30, 2018, at 12:01 a.m.
Amended Rule 4-7.22 specifically prohibits fee splitting between the referral entities and lawyers and prohibits deceptive, misleading, or false advertising by those entities. Also, any private entities that connect consumers looking for legal services with lawyers will be called “qualifying providers” regardless of whether they are a “traditional” referral service (ASK-GARY, 411 PAIN) or a technology-based provider (AVVO, LegalZoom).
The Court rejected the Bar’s proposed referral rule amendments in 2015 stating that private referral service entities should only be owned by lawyers. The Bar filed revised rules in 2016 and the Court issued an Order on May 3, 2017 rejecting the proposed rule revisions and dismissing the Bar’s Rules Petition without prejudice. That Order stated that the revised rules failed to comply with the Court’s directive that lawyer referral services should be owned or operated only by a member of the Bar and sought to expand the scope of the rule to include “matching services” and other similar services not currently regulated by the Bar.
In its March 8, 2018 opinion, the Court implemented the Bar’s proposed rule amendments but stated that “(the amendments do not) resolve our concern with how some lawyer referral services operate in Florida, especially those that refer clients to other professionals and occupational disciplines for services arising from the same incident. The findings of the Special Committee (on Lawyer Referral Services) on this matter are troubling and we continue to believe additional measures are needed to ensure the public is not exposed to harm. We therefore direct the Bar to submit a petition within ninety days proposing amendments to rule 4-7.22, and any other rule necessary, to implement the Special Committee’s first recommendation.”
Bottom line: The Florida Supreme Court has adopted the Bar’s revised referral rule, which will substantially change the current rule; however, the Court has indicated that it continues to believe that services which are owned by non-lawyers and make referrals of both lawyers and other professionals should be prohibited and directed the Bar “to submit a petition within ninety days proposing amendments to rule 4-7.22, and any other rule necessary, to implement the Special Committee (on Lawyer Referral Service)’s first recommendation.”
Lawyers who participates in referrals from a private entity (or is considering doing so), should carefully review the new rules, since the rule requires a lawyer who participates to insure that the private entity is in full compliance with the Bar rule.
Be careful out there.
Disclaimer: this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship 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.
29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150
Clearwater, Florida 33761
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670