Board to examine proposed amendments to the qualifying provider rules
Qualifying providers/lawyer referral services would have to include at least four attorneys from separate firms under a proposed rule amendment the Board of Governors will consider May 20.
Generally, qualifying providers are matching or referral programs, or group or pooled advertising programs, with a common name or telephone number.
Rule 4-7.22 (Referrals, Directories, Pooled Advertising) defines qualifying provider as “any person, group of persons, association, organization, or entity that receives any benefit or consideration, monetary or otherwise, for the direct or indirect referral of prospective clients to lawyers or law firms, including but not limited to…”
The definition continues here.
The rule exempts a pro bono referral program “in which the participating lawyers do not pay a fee or charge of any kind to receive referrals or to belong to the referral panel, and are undertaking the referred matters without expectation of remuneration.”
Also exempt is a local or voluntary bar association “solely for listing its members on its website or in its publications.”
A single lawyer assuming the guise of a qualifying provider would clearly violate Bar rules against false or misleading advertisements.
But the qualifying provider rule doesn’t specify a minimum number, and that has prompted frequent inquiries, according to Bar staff.
“While the rule was drafted with the clear expectation that a qualifying provider would not refer every prospective client to the same lawyer or law firm, the current rule does not state a minimum threshold of lawyers and law firms before a qualifying provider can operate,” Bar Ethics Counsel Jonathan Grabb said.
The Rules Committee proposal would add a new subdivision (d)(12) that would state, “has lawyers from at least 4 different law firms participating in the panel or group of lawyers to whom the clients are referred.”
“This rule amendment assists Bar members and qualifying providers by clearly setting that minimum threshold,” Grabb said. “Further, this clarification prevents someone from misleading prospective clients by creating a referral or matching service that siphons every caller to one or two separate law firms.”
Last year, in an unrelated matter, Bar investigators received several complaints about qualifying providers who failed to submit their initial and annual reports. That prompted a concern that some Bar members may not be familiar with all of the rule requirements.
Under the rule, attorneys who fail to perform due diligence when participating with a qualifying provider or who continue to participate with a provider after being warned by The Florida Bar could be held responsible for its false or misleading claims.
The Bar has no authority to discipline non-lawyers, so the rule, under certain circumstances, holds a participating lawyer responsible for the qualifying provider’s actions.
Rule 4-7.22 (e)(2) 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 providers’ compliance with this rule before beginning participation with the qualifying provider” or if the lawyer continues to participate with a provider after the Bar has notified that the lawyer that the provider is not in compliance with the advertising rules.
Florida lawyers are also responsible for reporting to the Bar every time they agree to participate on a lawyer referral service panel and every time they stop participating.