Lawyer Referral Services Targeted

By MICHAEL SASSO | The Tampa Tribune
Published: May 26, 2012

Now operating in Florida, Kentucky and Minnesota, the 1-800-Ask-Gary hotline may find its business model banned in its home state. A Florida Bar committee proposes banning lawyers from joining services that also refer callers to nonlawyers, such as medical clinics. Under the rule, 1-800-Ask-Gary, 411 Pain and similar hotlines would have to choose whether to serve lawyers or medical providers, but not both.

That paints a bull’s-eye on 1-800-Ask-Gary. For years, the company has referred clients to lawyers across Florida or to its affiliated chain of accident clinics, Physicians Group of Sarasota.
The question is whether the Bar’s new rule would cripple 1-800-Ask-Gary and Physicians Group or whether they could find a way around it. One critic of the hotline said he thinks they’ll find a way.

“I’m sure they’re not just going to go away,” said Charles Scott, a St. Petersburg lawyer who battled 1-800-Ask-Gary in a lawsuit for the past two years. “I’m sure they’ll find a way to deal with whatever the Bar throws at them.”

A Florida Bar committee has been investigating legal referral services for months.

The committee didn’t target any service specifically, but the growth of 1-800-Ask-Gary and 411 Pain has spooked some lawyers. Among their biggest concerns is the financial relationship among the lawyers, chiropractors and doctors who belong to them.

One concern is potential conflict of interest. Lawyers have shown up at medical clinics unsolicited to meet accident victims — apparently tipped off by a referral service, said Grier Wells, a Jacksonville lawyer chairing the Bar’s committee. Other lawyers might face a legal quandary: Do they have an allegiance to the client or to a medical provider that’s part of the accident hotline network?

“I don’t mean to suggest that all lawyers or all referral services are guilty,” Wells said. “But there’s certainly enough of it to create a big problem.”

The proposed new rule should eliminate some of those conflicts, he said.

The Bar cannot regulate referral services directly because it only has authority over the actions of lawyers. But it can prevent lawyers from participating in referral hotlines that serve lawyers and non-lawyers alike, Wells said. That could force hotlines to choose.

The Florida Bar’s full board of governors could vote on the rule in July. If the proposal passes, it would move on to the Florida Supreme Court.

The rule could hit Physicians Group hard because the clinic chain has relied on its deep contacts with lawyers to attract patients — relationships forged through 1-800-Ask-Gary.

Sarasota chiropractor Gary Kompothecras founded Physicians Group’s predecessor company around a decade ago and now operates more than 40 clinics in Florida and others in Kentucky and Minnesota.

Kompothecras treated the 1-800-Ask-Gary hotline as his marketing arm and steered callers to Physicians Group for accident treatment and to dozens of lawyers for legal representation. Today, 1-800-Ask-Gary is separate from Physicians Group and owned by someone else, said Physicians Group’s lawyer, Greg Zitani. 1-800-Ask-Gary still sends some accident victims to Physicians Group for treatment, he said.

Zitani said he doesn’t see a conflict of interest because Physicians Group and 1-800-Ask-Gary are under different ownership. He plans to attend the Bar committee’s next meeting in June but said he doesn’t know how the new rule would affect the Ask Gary hotline or the clinic chain.

Scott, the St. Petersburg lawyer, was sued by 1-800-Ask-Gary when he posted blog items critical of the company in 2010.

Scott said the hotline might simply break itself into two pieces to get around the new rule. 1-800-Ask-Gary, for example, might refer callers to lawyers and a new 800-number might refer callers to doctors.
Gary Jodat, a local lawyer who gets referrals from 1-800-Ask-Gary, said the organizations provide an important service by encouraging accident victims to seek medical treatment for injuries.

While the Bar focuses on hotlines, Jodat said, he has a beef with insurance companies that try to get accident victims to sign settlements without seeing a lawyer.

“There’s no restrictions at all on what insurance companies can do in that regard,” Jodat said.

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