In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Florida Bar is warning the public to watch out for unethical lawyers and non-lawyers offering legal representation.
The bar also reminds its members about the rules regarding solicitations.
"In the event of a disaster, such as the current oil spill, the Florida Bar is on high alert for violations of its rules, especially with regard to solicitation," said John Berry, director of the bar's Legal Division. "The Florida Bar will be vigilant in investigating all complaints filed against individual lawyers who may be in violation of the solicitation rules."
Solicitation, whether by a lawyer personally or by someone else on his or her behalf, is prohibited according to State Bar Rules. Solicitation includes any direct, face-to-face contact by telephone, fax, or telegraph. It includes passing out business cards or other law firm information, according to bar ethics counsel Elizabeth Tarbert.
"Lawyers cannot mail solicitations within 30 days of a disaster causing personal injury, property, or economic damage directly related to the disaster, such as medical bills or lost wages for a person injured or killed by the oil rig explosion or spill, or for physical damage to property directly caused by the explosion or spill. However, the 30-day rule does not apply if the potential claim is indirectly related to the disaster, such as when tourism or commercial fishing is affected, or when the only damage is to property value because of proximity to the spill," Tarbert said. "Direct mail solicitations must comply with the bar's lawyer advertising rules and be filed with the Florida Bar for review. Fees from solicitation are subject to forfeiture in cases involving violations of the advertising rules."
Tarbert said volunteer lawyers who are offering their services to victims at no charge do not violate the anti-solicitation rule. "Although there are limited circumstances when lawyers who are not licensed to practice in Florida may be authorized to appear in court, out-of-state lawyers may not be able to represent Florida citizens," said Lori Holcomb, the bar's UPL counsel. "Consumers must also be cautious about non-lawyers or organizations that offer to provide legal representation."