Attorney conduct bill nears passage Sponsor says lawyers need to repair image

March 14, 1996|By Sandy Banisky and Mark Hyman | Sandy Banisky and Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

A bill that would prohibit lawyers from writing letters to potential clients for 30 days after an accident or arrest appears near passage in Annapolis, as legislators attempt to control lawyers' conduct and protect the public from aggressive attorneys.

In a related matter, Melvin Hirshman, bar counsel for the state Attorney Grievance Commission, declined to comment directly on an article in The Sun yesterday that described contacts lawyers reportedly made to victims of last month's fatal train crash in Silver Spring.

Those contacts could be violations of the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyers.

Mr. Hirshman did say: "If what appears to be improper conduct comes to my attention, my obligation under the rule is to investigate. That's what we're here for."

The bill limiting contact is sponsored by Sen. Vernon Boozer, a Baltimore County Republican and an attorney for 30 years. "We have to clean our act up," he said. "The public has had it."

Mr. Boozer said the bill is meant to reinforce rules of conduct for lawyers, which do not allow attorneys to meet with or telephone people to so- licit business.

Several lawyers said they were dismayed by the reports in The Sun of aggressive attorneys using unsolicited telephone calls and in-person meetings to gain clients from the crash. Victims told of meeting lawyers in hospital intensive care units and of being phoned repeatedly in the days after the crash.

'Undue pressure'

"It doesn't help the image of the profession in any way," said Robert T. Gonzales, president of the state bar association. "It puts undue pressure on victims and their families at a difficult time."

Baltimore lawyer Mindi Antalek, former head of the state bar's ethics committee, said the reports "certainly aren't the kind of publicity I as a lawyer like to see on the front page of the newspaper."

"I would find it very offensive to be approached by an attorney in a hospital with a critically ill family member," Ms. Antalek said.

Robert Sharkey, another former ethics committee chairman, agreed: "I find those practices abhorrent. It's a matter of greed."

The state bar sponsors education programs for lawyers to acquaint them with the rules of conduct.

Mr. Gonzales said educating nonlawyers is particularly important. That includes informing people that they should report their complaints, he said. "People have a right to say no to lawyers who contact them," Mr. Gonzales said.

Current state rules

Mr. Boozer's bill follows a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld Florida's 30-day ban on lawyers' written solicitations of clients. The present Maryland rules do not restrict when lawyers may write to prospective clients.

Under the Boozer measure, lawyers who violate the 30-day ban could face up to $1,000 in fines and up to a year in prison.

Mr. Boozer said he's heard from people who were charged with driving offenses and received a dozen unsolicited letters from lawyers offering their services. Some people, he said, were confused and thought the courts had assigned them an attorney.

"People should be given a period of time in which they sit down calmly and rationally and decide on an attorney," he said.

Del. Timothy D. Murphy, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill, said he was surprised by the scant opposition the measure received at a public hearing. "Laymen are concerned about lawyers intruding," said Mr. Murphy, also an attorney.

Standards less strict

Both sponsors believe professional standards are not as strict as they were a generation ago.

"We were taught in law school that virtually all forms of solicitation demeaned the profession, undermined confidence and were unethical on their face," Mr. Murphy said.

Maryland lawyers who break rules have to answer to the Attorney Grievance Commission. After an investigation, attorneys can receive private reprimands or, in the most serious cases, might lose their licenses.

A Maryland lawyer has been sanctioned for wooing clients at the courthouse. But commission officials have said they know of no case of a lawyer's being disciplined for telephone contacts.

Other states' laws

Lawyers who violate solicitation rules have been sanctioned in many states.

In 1991, an Alabama attorney was disciplined for sending flowers and a law firm brochure to a prospective client at a funeral home.

In 1988, Kansas lawyers were disciplined for setting up an "exam-mobile" for tire workers, some of whom had been exposed to asbestos.

The ones who tested positively were invited to come to meetings.

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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