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Beware of referral services not registered with the Bar

Senior Editor Top Stories

TFB Seal Sun YellowRecent complaints about unregistered lawyer referral services have Florida Bar investigators concerned that attorneys are unfamiliar with the Bar’s “qualifying provider” rule.

Under Florida Bar Rule 4-7.22, attorneys who fail to confirm a qualifying provider’s status with the Bar, or perform other due diligence, could be held responsible for its false or misleading claims, warns Deputy General Counsel Rick Courtemanche.

The concern was raised after a South Florida attorney filed complaints against several competitors who were participating with an unregistered referral service, Courtemanche said.

“We told the lawyers that they had 30 days to end their relationship with them, or face potential discipline,” he said. “They immediately complied because they wanted to follow the rules.”

Courtemanche recently sent a letter to a South Florida referral service that claims on its website to be “approved by [T]he Florida Bar as a qualified provider,” when it is not.

“Consequently, all the Florida lawyers receiving any client referrals through you will be in violation of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar and will be subject to discipline,” the letter states.

Requiring referral services to register with the Bar protects the public, Courtemanche said.

“By registering them, we can make sure that they are working with qualified lawyers, and it’s not a scam,” he said.

The Bar has no authority to discipline non-lawyers, so the rule, under certain circumstances, holds the participating lawyer responsible for the qualifying provider’s actions.

Rule 4-7.22 (2)(a) states that a lawyer is responsible for the qualifying provider’s compliance with this rule if: (A) “the lawyer does not engage in due diligence in determining the qualifying provider’s compliance with this rule before beginning participation with the qualifying provider….”

The rule also requires lawyers to notify the Bar within 15 days of agreeing to participate, or withdrawing, from a qualifying provider.

A comment to the rule states, “For example, the lawyer should ask The Florida Bar whether the qualifying provider has filed any annual reports of participating lawyers, whether the qualifying provider has filed any advertisements for evaluation, and whether The Florida Bar has ever made inquiry of the qualifying provider to which the qualifying provider has failed to respond.”

One of the referral services targeted in the complaints is a Seattle-based marketing company that offers to help clients fight traffic citations.

The complaint alleges that the firm’s advertising is misleading, including, “We Win or Your Money Back,” and “97% Success Rate.”

The cases were closed, Courtemanche said, after the lawyers notified the Bar that they terminated their participation with the qualifying provider.

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