Tuesday, October 1, 2013
A former colleague at the Office of Bar Counsel brought a 2010 decision of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals to my attention.
The case - Bergman v. District of Columbia, et al. , - raises some interesting questions concerning the ethical obligations of attorneys who solicit clients in the District of Columbia.
Historically, enforcement of solicitation restrictions has been the lowest of priorities in D.C. The Court of Appeals did not adopt ABA Model Rules 7.2 through 7.4 and seeded in its Rule 7.1 a provision that permits in-person solicitations that do not involve false statements or undue influence.
As a result, prosecutions for improper client solicitation rarely, if ever, take place.
In one reciprocal case I handled, the court declined to impose any discipline on an attorney sanctioned in Maryland for approaching a potential client as he was leaving a courthouse. The case is In re Roger Gregory.
The Bergman case involved a suit by a D.C. Bar member challenging the validity of a City Council act that, among other thing, makes it unlawful for an attorney to solicit business from a potential motor vehicle accident client within 21 days of an accident.
In an opinion authored by Senior Judge Frank Schwelb, the court upheld the provision and rejected the contention that the act contravened the court's exclusive authority to regulate the legal profession. The court relied on United States Supreme Court jurisprudence in the area of attorney solicitation, primarily Ohralik v. Ohio and Florida Bar v. Went For It.
Rather, the power is inherent but not exclusive: "we believe that it would be an inappropriate exercise of judicial power to restrict the legislative authority of our elected representatives in the manner that Bergman suggests...we are dealing here with uninvited attempts to secure employment for renumeration - a classic example of a business transaction."
The court gave short shrift to the attorney's First Amendment claims: "this case...is not about the benign democratic ideal of opposing views competing for public acceptance. Rather, it is about practitioners aggressively seeking to secure potentially profitable employment."
So, as a result, in the District of Columbia, attorneys are forbidden by legislative act from a form of solicitation that is not in any manner in violation of the court's own ethical rules.
Are D.C. lawyers now subject to bar proceedings if they violate the statute but not the ethics rules?
Should the ethics rules be amended to harmonize with the now-governing law?
Will the City initiate criminal prosecutions of soliciting attorneys?
I will confess myself a bit surprised to see the court's embrace of Ohralik and Went For It given the state of its own disciplinary rules.
The opinion is linked here. (Mike Frisch)