Of Counsel - Florida Law
High-profile ads are earning for-profit lawyer referral services unwanted attention.
Gary Kompothecras is paying a reported $375,000 a year to put his company's name on an amphitheater in Tampa. [Photo: Skip O'Rourke/St. Petersburg Times]
For-profit lawyer referral services have operated in Florida since the mid-1980s, but the businesses didn't get much notice until a few years ago when some of the larger ones, such as 1-800-ASK-GARY and 1-800-411-PAIN, began aggressively advertising. In radio and television commercials, the companies urge motorists to call a referral service as soon as possible after a crash and get linked to a lawyer and doctor. In some of the ads, actors portraying police officers or emergency workers advise accident victims to call for a referral just after calling 911.
The advertising has attracted attention from more than potential clients. The Florida Bar created a special committee this year to investigate the services and determine if it needs to regulate them. The committee met in June and is scheduled to meet again this month.
"We're hearing more and more complaints from consumers, and we're hearing anecdotal complaints from members of the Bar who feel that some of the tactics of some of the lawyer referral services are questionable," says Grier Wells, the committee's chairman and an attorney at GrayRobinson in Jacksonville.
State Rep. Rick Kriseman, a St. Petersburg Democrat and personal injury attorney, has proposed a bill that would regulate the services and force even those not owned by attorneys to abide by Florida Bar advertising rules. Kriseman's bill would also require the firms to disclose any financial links between the referral service and the medical clinics and law offices where it sends clients. 1-800-ASK-GARY, for example, is owned by Gary Kompothecras, a Sarasota chiropractor who also owns the medical clinics where many of 1-800-ASK-GARY clients get treatment. Kriseman also wants potential clients to know if the attorneys have to pay a fee for getting on the referral list.
"If people understand how the fingers are entwined, they may not be as anxious to use these services," Kriseman says.
An actor portraying a police officer steers accident victims
toward a referral service.
Howard Pohl, a Department of Financial Services attorney, says he has heard "numerous examples of situations where clinics stop treatment after the PIP is maxed out."
Smith also thinks the most sensational of the commercials contribute to insurance fraud. "If you're not hurt, you shouldn't be going to a doctor or lawyer," he says. "But the ads have permeated the society and the culture that everybody knows if I'm in an accident, whether I'm hurt or not, I can make some money. If the Bar doesn't clamp down on it or the legislation doesn't pass and clamp down on it, it will only get worse."
Wells says his committee will continue soliciting input from all sides of the issue. 1-800-ASK-GARY attorney Greg Zitani, who could not be reached for comment by Florida Trend, told committee members that the service follows all Bar rules and that lawyers who work for the service are under no pressure to refer patients to 1-800-ASK-GARY clinics.
"If people understand how the fingers are entwined, they may not be as anxious to use these services."
— State Rep. Rick Kriseman
"It is no secret that some lawyers and law firms would like to drive private lawyer referral services out of business because the services attract clients that used to go to those lawyers," Chinaris wrote. "The committee should not permit itself to be used as a cover for blatantly anti-competitive regulation action."
The committee's report is due next year, and Wells doesn't expect it will suggest that the for-profit lawyer referral industry shouldn't exist.
"That train left the station some time ago, and I don't know that we can turn it back," he says. "It well may be that we will be looking at additional rules that govern not only advertising but professional behavior or looking at strengthening existing rules and enforcement mechanisms."