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With the possible exception of dentist, you would be hard pressed to find a professional field, which is, at the same time, more revered and reviled as being an attorney. If this wasn’t the case, there would not be anywhere near as many lawyer jokes in the world as there are. Too often, the general public falls trap to the media driven image that all lawyers are little more than shysters, who make their living off of the misery of the rest of society.

The truth is, there are unscrupulous attorneys in the world, just as there are bad apples in every profession, but the vast majority of attorneys entered the field because they felt an intense personal need to serve their fellow man. This latter group works very hard to protect legal consumers from the former and the good name of their profession in general.

For evidence of this, we need to look no further than the upcoming vote that the Florida BAR Association has planned on new and far-reaching amendments to its charter.

Legal Referral Services = “Qualifying Providers”

The gist of this amendment is to set one standard set of rules, for member participation that will apply to all legal referral services, whether they are private, for-profit organizations or public sources.

Previously, there were three separate classifications with varying standards that with the advent of modern technology and a rush of new for-profit websites left room for, shall we say, less than completely ethical behavior.

In the words of Carl Schwait, chair of the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics “We have done away with the words ‘lawyer referral service.’ We’ve done away with the word [legal] ‘directory’. . . . Anybody — and I mean person or entity — that matches a lawyer to a person who needs a lawyer becomes what’s called a qualifying provider. It gives people choices, and that’s important because in protecting the public we have to give the public choices while still ensuring that they are not misled or lied to and that everything is on the up and up,”

As you may have guessed from the above quote, when this amendment passes, as it is expected to, it will cover all legal referral services or directories under one common title, “Qualifying Providers” and have them governed by one standard set of participation rules.

Fee Splitting No Longer Allowed

One of the primary concerns addressed by the new amendment is what is termed “Fee Splitting”. This is the practice of a qualifying provider being paid on the basis of:

  • The perceived value of a case
  • The lawyer’s success rate
  • A percentage of the lawyer’s fee

All of these practices are perceived to open the door for abuse of the system, with no benefit to an attorney’s client and are therefore no longer allowed.

As a personal injury attorney, I am more than a little sensitive to how the world perceives my profession. More than once in my career, I have been accused of being an ambulance chaser and called names, by defendants in cases, that don’t bear being put into print. All of this is just part of the cross that I gladly bear, in order to serve my clients.

Although the intent of these changes are good, a few significant concerns remain.  In an already hyper-competitive market, are these proposed rules allowing these “qualified providers” to mislead the average consumer into thinking they are actually a law firm? Who is going to enforce advertising rules regarding these providers? It remains to be seen.

No profession is perfect, but it is my hope that these new amendments will show the public just how dedicated the majority of us are to protecting their best interest.