From the Floirda Bar News June 1, 2012

Panel: Attorney referral services and medical providers should not mix

By Gary Blankenship, Senior Editor


Lawyers should not be able to join referral services that also refer callers for medical help or other non-legal professional services, according to the Special Committee on Lawyer Referral Services.

The committee voted unanimously to make that recommendation at its May 4 meeting, as it begins to put the finishing touches on a report that could go to the Bar Board of Governors in July. The committee is scheduled to meet again to possibly approve a final report during the Bar’s Annual Convention later this month.

The panel also voted to retain the requirement that lawyer referral services register with the Bar, but include restrictions that services should not claim such registration means they are "Bar approved."

The committee acted on the prohibition from joining a service that also does other professional referrals after getting an opinion from outside counsel Barry Richard that it would not violate the U.S. Constitution or restraint of trade laws.

If ultimately approved in rule form by the Bar Board of Governors and the Supreme Court, the committee’s action would mean, "A lawyer cannot accept a referral from any entity which also refers to other professionals for the same event," said committee Chair Grier Wells.

"If you take, for example, an automobile accident, a lawyer cannot accept a referral for that automobile accident if the referral source also refers [the caller] to other professional activities, such as a chiropractor or urologist or whatever," he added. "You can be involved in a referral service if the service is truly a lawyer referral service."

Committee members reiterated their earlier concerns about potential conflicts when a lawyer represents a client who has also been referred to medical treatment at a facility in which the referral service has a financial interest. That’s because when lawyers settle such a personal injury case, they are also expected to negotiate medical liens and bills incurred by their clients. In these cases, those charges would be owed to the entity that sent the lawyer the case and from which the lawyer would presumably hope to get more referrals.

During the committee discussion, member Alvin Alsobrook — a public member of the Board of Governors — asked attorney Tim Chinaris — who was present representing the medical/legal referral service 411-PAIN — what such a restriction would mean to his client.

"It’s hard to say," Chinaris replied. "I think what would happen is the service would make a decision whether to be medical or legal. Could the same owner own a medical and legal service at different phone numbers? You haven’t addressed that."

Committee members expressed two concerns about the requirement that lawyer referral services continue to register with the Bar, as required under current rules. (The Bar cannot directly require services that are not owned by lawyers to register, but it can prohibit lawyers from joining services that do not register with the Bar.)

One committee issue is that the group already is recommending that lawyers be required to report which referral services they belong to, so keeping the requirement for services to register would be redundant. The second committee concern is that some services use their registration with the Bar to claim in their advertisements that they are "Bar approved." But some committee members said it would be harder to keep track of services and their compliance with Bar rules — including having their ads reviewed by the Bar — without registration.

The committee’s final motion addressed whether referral services should continue to register with the Bar; pay a fee; keep disclosing the names of lawyers participating in the service; maintain their adherence to Bar rules; agree not to use that they are registered with the Bar in any advertising; and agree that they can be removed from the list of registered referral services if there is a successful complaint about their activities. The motion was approved by voice vote with two dissents.

The committee discussed, but did not take a vote on, other services such as LRS fees and proposing a joint legal-medical committee to look not only at referral services but at the relationships between doctors and lawyers as they refer clients and patients to each other.

Committee member Jay Cohen said he’s had complaints from lawyers who have had clients go to doctors for treatment and those doctors then urge the client to retain a different lawyer. Wells noted he’s heard stories of doctors and lawyers offering each other gift cards and trips in exchange for referrals.

"The concern we’re raising about this relationship . . . goes beyond the lawyer referral service," Cohen said.

The two recommendations approved at the May meeting will be added to the four made earlier this year by the special committee:

• Requiring a referral to a law firm be made to a specific attorney at that firm who would be responsible for seeing that the referral complies with Bar rules.

• Requiring attorneys who join referral services to register with the Bar. Currently, the Bar relies on referral services to turn over lists of their members, which in some cases has been problematic.

• Requiring that the initial contact to the lawyer be made by the client and not the referral service, medical clinic, or other third party. This was in response to testimony to the committee by some people who sought treatment from a medical clinic and were told they first had to hire an attorney and that clinic personnel or other nonlawyers had guided the patients in filling out the retainer forms.

• Improving public education about referral services and related issues.

For more information or a free consultation on your legal issue contact The Law Offices of Charles D. Scott PLLC, your injury law and family law attorneys, at 727-300-4878. http://www.yourstpetelawyers.com

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