Lawyer-referral services can help consumers find a lawyer, but legal experts urge you to do your homework
By Christine Show, Orlando Sentinel
January 10, 2011
The radio and television advertisements are hard to miss: if you've been in accident, call a hotline and they'll get you the legal help you need.
There are a number of lawyer-referral service hotlines that operate in the Orlando area, including 1-800-411-PAIN, 800-828-HURT and 1-800-NEED-HELP. Commercials for the companies have a similar message: if you're suffering from injuries related to an auto accident or a slip-and-fall mishap, these companies can help you find a lawyer, get you the benefits you deserve and help you move on with your life.
But consumers should take precaution before making that first call to a lawyer referral service, legal experts say. Callers are typically referred to a lawyer in these companies' directories, but the attorneys need to follow the proper ethical and legal guidelines.
"As lawyers, it's our job to help people solve legal problems and get access to justice for those who are wronged," Miami lawyer Stephen N. Zack, president of the American Bar Association, wrote in an e-mail. "There are a lot of excellent advocates out there. But do your homework before hiring a lawyer."
Florida lawyers are only able to take potential clients from a referral service if the company's advertisements comply with The Florida Bar's standards. Lawyers are not allowed to approach an accident victim at the scene or solicit their services, said Lili Quintiliani, assistant ethics counsel for The Florida Bar. Direct-mail advertising is about the only way lawyers can make contact with accident victims. "You can't just approach somebody," she said.
Representatives for 1-800-411-PAIN, 800-828-HURT, 1-800-NEED-HELP did not return calls for comment.
After phoning a service, accident victims are interviewed by company representatives who decide whether a lawyer referral is warranted.
But it's up to an accident victim to decide whether to hire an attorney, who may handle the case or simply give advice.
After you've been given a referral, you should look into the lawyer's background and decide whether the attorney is suitable and qualified for the case, Zack said.
He suggests accident victims "ask a lot of questions to find out if this attorney has the skills and experience that match your needs."
It's also a good idea to ask for references from clients with similar cases, he said, to get a better understanding of whether the referred lawyer is right for you.
If you're unsure about the lawyer, check with a local Bar association to see if the attorney is licensed and in good standing.
"Finally, it is very important that you are clear on costs," Zack said. "Before signing an agreement, get all the details in writing how fees are calculated, additional expenses and an estimate of the total costs."
An assessment of estimated costs — such as potential fees involved with the referral service, lawyers and any medical appointments — in a written agreement will help avoid confusion and problems later on, he said. There are also alternative routes to seeking legal advice after an accident. The Florida Bar offers a number of ways to search for a lawyer, including asking friends and family for recommendations or contacting Bar associations for referrals.
Most importantly, accident victims who seek legal help need to be clear on every step of the process and be aware of what's involved before moving forward with pursuing a lawyer. "With a good understanding between both parties of what it will take to address the problem," Zack said, "we can do a great job for you."