How NOT To Get Clients
When someone is injured in a car accident or on the job, just compensation for their injuries must often cover the cost of medical bills, pain & suffering and lost time from work, just to name a few. A personal injury suit for even a minor slip and fall can result in damages worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the handling attorney or firm standing to take 1/3rd plus fees and costs. With so much at stake, personal injury practice is highly competitive.
Recently, a bombshell lawsuit was filed, accusing a well-known personal injury firm of violating multiple ethics rules by stealing clients away from a competitor firm. The suspect firm is alleged to have contacted clients, unsolicited, and on occasion paid the clients to switch attorneys. Is this a case of sour grapes because a client dumped their former attorney, or did the newly retained law firm cross the line in soliciting clients?
Either way, this is a great opportunity to review some basics about what a lawyer can and can’t do in trying to sign up a client.
In 1978 the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Ohio Bar Association to discipline an attorney for improperly retaining clients when he personally approached two victims of an auto accident, unsolicited. See Ohralik v Ohio State Bar Ass’n, 436 US 447 (1978). “Ambulance chasing,” whereby an attorney tries to retain a client just after an accident, is generally prohibited for the benefit of the public, who are often vulnerable to high pressure tactics.
Rule 7.3 of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct governs what lawyers are allowed to do in soliciting employment. Pursuant to subsection (a) (1), a lawyer shall not engage in solicitation whether in-person or telephone, unless the person is a close friend, relative, former client or existing client. Additionally, when it comes to personal injury or wrongful death cases, no solicitations can be made until 30 days after the event, unless a necessary filing must be made within 30 days, in which case the buffer is only 15 days. See NY CLS Rues Prof Conduct R 7.3 (e).
Attorneys, whether directly or through agents, that violate this rule can face suspension or even disbarment. See In re Von Wiegen, 146 AD2d 901 (3rd Dept 1989) (attorney suspended for five years for professional misconduct in hiring employee to contact clients and recommend use of the attorney’s services).
While getting clients is the name of the game in legal practice, attorneys must always be mindful of ethics rules, no matter how big the potential pay day.