Connecticut Set to Hear 'Total Attorneys' Case
Connecticut's attorney grievance committee will begin hearings Nov. 12 on whether five attorneys violated state ethics rules by participating in the Web site TotalBankruptcy.com. The state's chief disciplinary counsel, Mark Dubois, charges that the lawyers payments to the site violate the ethical prohibition against providing anything of value in exchange for a client referral.
As we discussed in a post here in September (Is Total Attorneys Complaint a Total Joke?) the Connecticut charges follow from the complaint filed by Connecticut lawyer Zenas Zelotes against Chicago-based Total Attorneys and its lawyer-founder Kevin Chern. Zelotes has filed versions of his 303-page complaint against more than 500 lawyers in 47 states. He alleges that these lawyers are acting unlawfully by obtaining referrals through and sharing fees with Total Attorneys.
In a comment he posted to our earlier report, Zelotes defended his filing of these complaints:
If Chern prevails and referral fees are permitted, the floodgates will open and all hell will break loose. This is not just about me. This is not just about bankruptcy. This is about upholding the intergity our profession and (perhaps) even our right to self-regulate. No attorney will be immune from its effects. Opening the door to referral fees would have a profound negative impact on ALL practitioners.
Others strongly disagree with that point of view. Vocal among them is our former Legal Blog Watch colleague Carolyn Elefant, who wonders at her blog MyShingle why so many in the legal community are letting the five Connecticut lawyers be "hung out to dry." She recalls how legal bloggers leapt to the defense of lawyer Ben Cowgill several years ago when the Kentucky bar labeled his blog advertising and required him to pay $50 every time he posted.
It's rare to see bloggers take up a cause anymore and always welcome and refreshing when they do. With TotalBankruptcy.com, I suspect that too many solo bloggers have too much invested in their own business models or practices to do anything that might help a third party that hasn't helped them. But for me, this isn't about TotalBankruptcy; it's about five lawyers - five well intentioned solo and small firm lawyers - with their licenses and reputations on the line.
One attorney who is taking up the cause is Josh King, general counsel at Avvo.com. At the Avvo Blog, he argues that Connecticut is on questionable constitutional footing in this case.
Ultimately, in the absence of consumer harm – and, indeed, a crystal-clear fit within the law’s prohibitions – states should never find that lawyer marketing practices violate their rules. Any other result is constitutionally infirm. While the bar owes it to the public and its members to carefully evaluate marketing practices that may mislead consumers, it must do so carefully and avoid rushing to judgment or overreaching. Let’s hope that when Connecticut’s Statewide Grievance Committee holds its hearing on this matter next week it does just that.
What do you think about this issue? Is Connecticut stuck in the dark ages of lawyer marketing or has Total Attorneys crossed an unacceptable line? While we await the outcome of the Connecticut case, share your thoughts below.
Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on November 6, 2009 at 02:47 PM | Permalink
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